Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Knowledge Tuesdays: Sack of Rome 390 BCE

Knowledge Tuesdays

The Sack of Rome 390 BCE

 Of all the things I learned in my ancient Roman and Greek classes, one story stuck in my memory, and this story was the sack of Rome in 390 BCE. I read it from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita, although I must admit reading Herodotus was more fun. This story though was fantastic, and it showed me how much you can learn of a people in the face of aversion. As writers, what we write could one day be viewed on how we are as a culture, who we are as a people. A story, whether fact or fiction, displays our beliefs, fears, and triumphs to the world.

I've always believed we can learn a lot by reading history and finding out where we came from.

Ab Urbe Condita means "from the founding of the city." Rome was founded in 753 BCE by Romulus, according to legend. Livy tells great stories of Rome from the period of the kings to the foundations of the Republic. Some great stories are in there, such as Horatius Cocles blocking the bridge of invaders and saving Rome.

The sack of Rome by the Gauls occurred before the Punic Wars and after the siege and capture of Veii, an Etruscan town and Rome's chief rival. From the way Livy explains the sack of Rome, you would be led to believe it could've been the end of this great empire before it even started.

Through faith, hope, and a little luck and divine intervention, the Romans recaptured their city.

The following excerpts are taken from Book Five of Livy's Ab Urbe Condita.

"Ambigatus was king at that time, a man eminent for his own personal courage and prosperity as much as for those of his dominions. During his sway the harvests were so abundant and the population increased so rapidly in Gaul that the government of such vast numbers seemed almost impossible. He was now an old man, and anxious to relieve his realm from the burden of over-population. With this view he signified his intention of sending his sister's sons Bellovesus and Segovesus, both enterprising young men, to settle in whatever locality the gods should by augury assign to them. They were to invite as many as wished to accompany them, sufficient to prevent any nation from repelling their approach. When the auspices were taken, the Hercynian forest was assigned to Segovesus; to Bellovesus the gods gave the far pleasanter way into Italy."

Oh, no! The Gauls are coming! The Gauls are coming!

"The three sons of M. Fabius Ambustus were sent as ambassadors to negotiate with the Gauls and warn them not to attack those from whom they had suffered no injury, who were allies and friends of Rome, and who, if circumstances compelled them, must be defended by the armed force of Rome. They preferred that actual war should be avoided, and that they should make acquaintance with the Gauls, who were strangers to them, in peace rather than in arms."

We come in peace.

"A peaceable enough mission, had it not contained envoys of a violent temper, more like Gauls than Romans. After they had delivered their instructions in the council of the Gauls, the following reply was given: "Although we are hearing the name of Romans for the first time, we believe nevertheless that you are brave men, since the Clusines are imploring your assistance in their time of danger. Since you prefer to protect your allies against us by negotiation rather than by armed force, we on our side do not reject the peace you offer, on condition that the Clusines cede to us Gauls, who are in need of land, a portion of that territory which they possess to a greater extent than they can cultivate."

We'll give you peace, if you hand over Clusines.

"The Romans asked them what right they had to demand, under threat of war, territory from those who were its owners, and what business the Gauls had in Etruria. The haughty answer was returned that they carried their right in their weapons, and that everything belonged to the brave. Passions were kindled on both sides; they flew to arms and joined battle. Thereupon, contrary to the law of nations, the envoys seized their weapons, for the Fates were already urging Rome to its ruin."

Oh, those pesky Fates. The fight between the envoys really incensed everyone on all sides.

"To such an extent does Fortune blind men's eyes when she will not have her threatened blows parried, that though such a weight of disaster was hanging over the State, no special steps were taken to avert it."

I just really love this line.

"Burning with rage-as a nation they cannot control their passions-they seized their standards and hurriedly set out on their march. At the sound of their tumult as they swept by, the affrighted cities flew to arms and the country folk took to flight. Horses and men, spread far and wide, covered an immense tract of country; wherever they went they made it understood by loud shouts that they were going to Rome. But though they were preceded by rumours and by messages from Clusium, and then from one town after another, it was the swiftness of their approach that created most alarm in Rome. An army hastily raised by a levy en masse marched out to meet them. The two forces met hardly eleven miles from Rome, at a spot where the Alia, flowing in a very deep channel from the Crustuminian mountains, joins the river Tiber a little below the road to Crustumerium. The whole country in front and around was now swarming with the enemy, who, being as a nation given to wild outbreaks, had by their hideous howls and discordant clamour filled everything with dreadful noise."

Great imagery! Rome is fighting for their land while the Gauls attack for what they want.

"So not only Fortune but tactics also were on the side of the barbarians."

It doesn't look good for our Romans.

"None were slain while actually fighting; they were cut down from behind whilst hindering one another's flight in a confused, struggling mass. Along the bank of the Tiber, whither the whole of the left wing had fled, after throwing away their arms, there was great slaughter. Many who were unable to swim or were hampered by the weight of their cuirasses and other armour were sucked down by the current. The greater number, however, reached Veii in safety, yet not only were no troops sent from there to defend the City, but not even was a messenger dispatched to report the defeat to Rome. All the men on the right wing, which had been stationed some distance from the river, and nearer to the foot of the hill, made for Rome and took refuge in the Citadel without even closing the City gates."

Oh, Romans, I had so much faith in you. How could you run away and not even protect your city!

"The Gauls for their part were almost dumb with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory."

Oops! The Romans' mistakes dumbfounded the Gauls. Then again, you should smile. It confuses people. 

"But all through that night and the following day the citizens afforded an utter contrast to those who had fled in such terror at the Alia. Realizing the hopelessness of attempting any defense of the City with the small numbers that were left, they decided that the men of military age and the able-bodied amongst the senators should, with their wives and children, withdraw into the Citadel and the Capitol, and after getting in stores of arms and provisions, should from that fortified position defend their gods, themselves, and the great name of Rome. The Flamen and priestesses of Vesta were to carry the sacred things of the State far away from the bloodshed and the fire, and their sacred cult should not be abandoned as long as a single person survived to observe it. If only the Citadel and the Capitol, the abode of gods; if only the senate, the guiding mind of the national policy; if only the men of military age survived the impending ruin of the City, then the loss of the crowd of old men left behind in the City could be easily borne; in any case, they were certain to perish. To reconcile the aged plebeians to their fate, the men who had been consuls and enjoyed triumphs gave out that they would meet their fate side by side with them, and not burden the scanty force of fighting men with bodies too weak to carry arms or defend their country."

And, the siege begins.

"After all the arrangements that circumstances permitted had been made for the defence of the Capitol, the old men returned to their respective homes and, fully prepared to die, awaited the coming of the enemy."

Aww, is it all over?

"In whatever direction their attention was drawn by the shouts of the enemy, the shrieks of the women and boys, the roar of the flames, and the crash of houses falling in, thither they turned their eyes and minds as though set by Fortune to be spectators of their country's fall, powerless to protect anything left of all they possessed beyond their lives. Above all others who have ever stood a siege were they to be pitied, cut off as they were from the land of their birth and seeing all that had been theirs in the possession of the enemy. The day which had been spent in such misery was succeeded by a night not one whit more restful, this again by a day of anguish, there was not a single hour free from the sight of some ever fresh calamity. And yet, though, weighed down and overwhelmed with so many misfortunes, they had watched everything laid low in flame and ruin, they did not for a moment relax their determination to defend by their courage the one spot still left to freedom, the hill which they held, however small and poor it might be. At length, as this state of things went on day by day, they became as it were hardened to misery, and turned their thoughts from the circumstances round them to their arms and the sword in their right hand, which they gazed upon as the only things left to give them hope."

Only the sword can give them hope, or so they think. Fortune hasn't completely revealed her hand.

"The Fabian house had an annual sacrifice on the Quirinal, and C. Fabius Dorsuo, wearing his toga in the "Gabine cincture," and bearing in his hands the sacred vessels, came down from the Capitol, passed through the middle of the hostile pickets, unmoved by either challenge or threat, and reached the Quirinal. There he duly performed all the solemn rites and returned with the same composed expression and gait, feeling sure of the divine blessing, since not even the fear of death had made him neglect the worship of the gods; finally he re-entered the Capitol and rejoined his comrades."

Despite little hope, there is still faith in some of the Romans, including the pious Fabian house.

 "While these proceedings were taking place at Veii, the Citadel and Capitol of Rome were in imminent danger. The Gauls had either noticed the footprints left by the messenger from Veii, or had themselves discovered a comparatively easy ascent up the cliff to the temple of Carmentis. Choosing a night when there was a faint glimmer of light, they sent an unarmed man in advance to try the road; then handing one another their arms where the path was difficult, and supporting each other or dragging each other up as the ground required, they finally reached the summit. So silent had their movements been that not only were they unnoticed by the sentinels, but they did not even wake the dogs, an animal peculiarly sensitive to nocturnal sounds. But they did not escape the notice of the geese, which were sacred to Juno and had been left untouched in spite of the extremely scanty supply of food. This proved the safety of the garrison, for their clamour and the noise of their wings aroused M. Manlius, the distinguished soldier, who had been consul three years before. He snatched up his weapons and ran to call the rest to arms, and while the rest hung back he struck with the boss of his shield a Gaul who had got a foothold on the summit and knocked him down. He fell on those behind and upset them, and Manlius slew others who had laid aside their weapons and were clinging to the rocks with their hands. By this time others had joined him, and they began to dislodge the enemy with volleys of stones and javelins till the whole body fell helplessly down to the bottom. When the uproar had died away, the remainder of the night was given to sleep, as far as was possible under such disturbing circumstances, whilst their peril, though past, still made them anxious."

Juno's sacred geese save the day! My favorite part of the story. 

"A meeting of the senate was now held, and the consular tribunes were empowered to make terms. A conference took place between Q. Sulpicius, the consular tribune, and Brennus, the Gaulish chieftain, and an agreement was arrived at by which 1000 lbs. of gold was fixed as the ransom of a people destined ere long to rule the world. This humiliation was great enough as it was, but it was aggravated by the despicable meanness of the Gauls, who produced unjust weights, and when the tribune protested, the insolent Gaul threw his sword into the scale, with an exclamation intolerable to Roman ears, "Woe to the vanquished!""

How much are lives worth? According to the Gauls, around 1,000 lbs. of gold.

"And so it was that, defeated, captured, ransomed, we received such punishment at the hands of gods and men that we were a lesson to the whole world. Then, in our adversity, we bethought us of our religious duties. We fled to the gods in the Capitol, to the seat of Jupiter Optimus Maximus; amidst the ruin of all that we possessed we concealed some of the sacred treasures in the earth, the rest we carried out of the enemies' sight to neighboring cities; abandoned as we were by gods and men, we still did not intermit the divine worship. It is because we acted thus that they have restored to us our native City, and victory and the renown in war which we had lost; but against the enemy, who, blinded by avarice, broke treaty and troth in the weighing of the gold, they have launched terror and rout and death."

It's all over.

"But gods and men alike prevented the Romans from living as a ransomed people."

Or is it?

"Was it possible for Gauls to overthrow Rome and shall it be deemed impossible for Romans to restore it?"

No, it wasn't. The Romans eventually defeated the Gauls and fought for their eternal city. 

The Romans overcame adversity and an almost certain lost of their city. This story was one of the ones that made me proud to be learning about the Romans in college. It was the one story that stuck in my mind the most. You hear of the great power that was Rome, but this story reminded me that it was almost over before it started. The sacking of Rome also stuck in the Romans' minds, and it started their vast quest for expansion out of the fear that someone bigger and better might take over. Never again were they going to allow it, and they fought for their safety for many more hundreds of years.


Nicole Zoltack said...

I love history. My forte is the Middle Ages, but I appreciate ancient history as well. I love doing research.

Cherie Reich said...

I love history too. My knowledge of it, though, dwindles after the fall of the Roman empire and picks back up in Colonial times. I blame that partly on school. For one, I majored in Classics with a minor in the Ancient Near East. For two, in high school, we always ran out of time to learn much from the end of the Roman empire to the Colonial times. I do find the Middle Ages fascinating, and I like the early 1000s for Norse history, too, but I don't know them as well as I wish I did.


Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.