“Vae victis!” - The Battle of the Allia and the Sack of Rome in 390 BCE

18 July 390 BCE, Gaulish warriors under the Senoni chieftain Brennus decisively defeated a Roman army twice their strength at the Battle of the Allia, followed up by the Sack of Rome.

“The Gauls for their part were almost dumb with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory. At first they did not dare to move from the spot, as though puzzled by what had happened, then they began to fear a surprise, at last they began to despoil the dead, and, as their custom is, to pile up the arms in heaps. Finally, as no hostile movement was anywhere visible, they commenced their march and reached Rome shortly before sunset.“ (Livy, “History of Rome”)

 The French academic painter Paul Jamin’s (1853 – 1903) rather racy imagination of
"Brennus and His Share of the Spoils", (1893)

It was the gaggling and skirling of Juno’s holy geese that alerted the garrison on the Capitol of the Gaulish assault detachment that climbed the hill in the night, while the dogs slept. Marcus Manlius’ men held the Capitoline Hill but that was that. Brennus, chieftain of the Senonii sacked Rome, but the vigilance of the geese was remembered for a long time. A goose of Juno Moneta, Juno the Warner, adorned with gold and purple and carried around in a litter oversaw the crucifixion of a dog during a procession held every year in the city on Juno’s feast day, the Supplicia Canum. And the Sack of Rome by Brennus and his Gauls marked a traumatic event in Roman collective consciousness, climaxing in Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and was well remembered 700 years later, when the Visigothic King Alaric sacked the city again. But by then, the end of the Roman Empire in the West had already begun.

A late 19th century imagination of Juno's Sacred Geese
warning the Roman defenders of the Capitol

A couple of weeks before, the infamous haughtiness of Roman ambassadors had asserted itself during the negotiations between a large Senoni raiding party threatening Rome’s client city of Clusium in Tuscany. One of the three brothers sent by Rome to come to terms with the Gauls had slain another negotiator and that meant open war. 24,000 men came to answer the threat of Brennus and deployed along the river Allia, a tributary of the Tiber. Back in the 4th century BCE, they still looked and fought like the already obsolete phalangists of the Greek city states. Nevertheless, Brennus was an experienced warlord and knew how costly it was to tackle a phalanx head on in its centre. Thus, his 12,000 Senonii outflanked the Roman battle line, overran the young and poorly equipped Roman warriors on the left wing, surrounded the hoplite core and slaughtered them. The day was lost for Rome, losses of life tremendous and who still could, flew back to the city and barricaded up, with the Senonii in hot pursuit.

Vae Victis - woe to the Vanquished - A 19th Century imagination of Brennus throwing his sword on the scales

Brennus and his Gauls were not equipped to maintain a long siege and decided to withdrew when malaria began to take its toll and they still couldn’t take the Capitol. A 1,000 pounds of gold were agreed as ransom for the city of Rome and when the Romans realised that the Gauls used fake weights and complained, Brennus threw his sword on the scales and cried: “Vae victis!” – woe to the vanquished. Allegedly, a Roman relief army arrived just then under the command of Marcus Furius Camillus and routed the Gauls. However legendary the events that Livy recorded are about the deeply-rooted Roman trauma, they played an important part in Roman politics, beginning with a reform of the army into the shape that fought and conquered Rome’s enemies over the next 300 years, from Samnites and Seleucids to the Carthaginians until Marius’ army reform of 107 BCE that brought Roman military organisation into the shape as we know it best today.

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