The Romans and the Celts: Part One. The Battle of Allia

Brennus and Camillus

Brennus and Camillus

The Celtic invasion of Rome

Celtic invasion of Rome 390 B.C.

The Celts, whom the Greeks called Keltoi or Galatae, and the Romans called Celti or Galli were widespread in Europe during the time of the rise of the Roman empire. The Romans called what is now France Gallia, but the Gaelic speaking people also inhabited  the British Isles, Northern Italy, parts of central and eastern Europe, and some even migrated to what is now Turkey. Large parts of Spain were inhabited by Celtiberians, Gaelic speakers who had mixed with the native Spanish population. There was a Galicia in Spain, a Galitzia in Poland and a Galatea in Turkey. My own great grandfather was born in Galitzia, and although Jewish, his red hair and blue eyes suggest a mixture, at some point in history, with the native Celtic population.

The Romans encountered the Celts in battle many times during their long rise and decline and, in the long run, probably played a large part in the Celt’s ultimate decline. By all accounts, the Romans found the Celtic warriors terrifying.  They were large in stature compared to the Romans, and they often went into battle naked and screaming war cries. Polybius says of them:

“The Insubres and Boii wore their breeches and light cloaks but the Gaesatae had discarded theirs owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked with nothing but their arms in front of the whole army.  The Romans were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were numerous trumpeters and horn blowers, and the whole army was shouting its war cries at the same time. There was such a confused sound that the noise seemed to come not only from the trumpeters and warriors but from the ground itself. No less terrifying were the appearance and gestures of the naked warriors in front, all of whom were finely built men in the prime of life, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torcs and amulets.”

The first time the Romans encountered the Celts they were soundly defeated and Rome was occupied for seven months. This occurred in 387 B.C. The Senones under their King Brennus had migrated into the Po Valley and laid siege to the city of Clusium. The leaders of Clusium sought help from the Romans and the Romans sent a delegation of three Fabii to attempt to negotiate with the Senones. The negotiations were unsuccessful and the Fabii joined with the Clusians in fighting the Senones, something that was considered a violation of their diplomatic status, and contrary to the “law of nations,” as it was conceived in those days. Brennius demanded that the ambassadors be turned over to him for punishment. The Roman priests and Senators agreed that the ambassadors were guilty, but the common people supported the Fabii and elected them military tribunes. Angered by this insult, Brennus decided to quit Clusium and march on Rome.

In an affair sadly characteristic of the Romans throughout their history, they had driven their best general, Marcus Furius Camillus into exile. Camillus had recently been the victor of a ten year siege of Veii, but he now in exile in Ardea. The Romans raised a force of 24,000 men under Quintus Sulpicius and met a force of 12,000 Senones at the River Allia about eighteen kilometers north of Rome. The Romans at this period had not yet developed the very effective military organization, strategy and tactics that would serve them so well in later times, and lacking skilled generalship they were routed by a force half their size. Some of the survivors fled to Veii and other fled back to Rome where they took up a defensive position on the Capitoline hill. The Vestal Virgins fled the city, bringing the sacred flame and their religious paraphernalia with them. Most of the inhabitants also fled, but the elderly Senators and priests stayed and, occupying their usual places, calmly awaited their fate at the hands of the Senones.

The exiled Romans tried to persuade Camillus to accept the office of dictator and come to the aid of Rome. Camillus agreed to do this only if he obtained the approval of the defenders of the Capitoline hill. A brave young man managed to get through to the defenders and obtained permission of the Senate to appoint Camillus dictator, but evidence of his passage alerted the Gauls to a means to access the Capitoline hill, and they attacked it at night. Fortunately, the noise from a flock of sacred geese alerted the Roman defenders under Marcus Manlius and they were able to repel the assault.

After seven months of occupying Rome, the Senones found their provisions getting short and many were dying of plague. The Romans started negotiating with them and offered to pay them a tribute of one thousand pounds of gold if the Senones would lift the siege and leave. As the gold was being measured out, the Senones began to tamper with the scales. When the Romans protested, Brennus’ famous response was “Vae Victis,” meaning “woe to the conquered,” and he tossed his sword onto the scale, adding to the amount of gold that was required.

At this point, at least according to Roman legend, the Dictator Marcus Furius Camillus arrived from exile and put a stop to the transaction saying, “Rome is accustomed to defending itself with iron, not with gold.” The next day the two armies met in battle once again, and this time the Celts were routed.

This may have been the first time that the Romans fought a major battle with an army of Celts, but it would certainly not be the last.



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