ALLIA, BATTLE OF THE
A great battle indeed, one the
Romans never forgot.
Polybius dates it to 387, or, as he says, the 19th year after the battle of
Aegospotami. But later Roman annalists culminating with Varro dated it in 390
BC or the year 364 of the founding of the City. So this date is given in many
references, including Mommsen who devotes several pages to this battle and the
subsequent sack of Rome in Book I.
While Polybius mentioned the battle by way of fixing the beginning of his
history, he did not describe it. For a description one has to read Titus Livy.
The battle and sack is also described in a convoluted way by Plutarch in his
Life of Camillus - see any edition of Plutarch's Lives of the Greeks and
Romans. This part of the
Rome is also contained in Diodorus Siculus' history.
Recent authors one can read more readily are :
Herm, Gerhard, "The Celts", St. Martin's Press, New York, 1975.
He gives a good account of the battle. Incidently the Romans called these
people Galli and the Greeks called them Galatai or Keltoi. Thus you have the
same people invading Greece and also settling into western Asia Minor
(Galatia), northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) and most of France and parts of
Ireland, Spain, etc. They were the Halstadt Culture people from the Danube
valley, tall and powerful warriors who disdained to wear armor, but stripped
for battle. They were formed into a large number of tribes. It was mainly the
Senones who captured Rome in 387. Powell, T. G. "The Celts", 1958.
and Hubert, H. "The Rise of ther Celts", 1934 are earlier standard
Two books that discuss the battle from the Roman historical perspective
Scullard, H. H. "A History of the Roman World 753 - 146 BC" New York,
Barnes and Noble, 1961. and
Dudley, Donald R. "The Romans 850 BC - 337 AD", New York, Alfred
Here is a brief background on the situation and events.
Rome was in midst of its early expansion with wars against its neighbors,
notably the Etruscans in the 5th century BC. At the end of the century it was
engaged in a bitter struggle with Veii, a strongly fortified Etruscan city. The
great Roman hero and dictator, Camillus, conducted a long siege that ended in
396 with Rome destroying Veii and annexing all its territory.
Thus it was, that the sudden arrival of the Gauli (Celts) was such a stunning
blow. The Celts had already crossed the Alps and pushed the Etruscans out of
most of the Po River valley. These Celts were a small part of the general
migration of tribes from their empire's base along the Danube. The Insubres
were among the first to defeat the Etruscans near Melpum (Milan). They were
followed by the Cenomani, Boii, and Lingones. Then, in 390 one of the late
arriving Celtic tribes, the Senones, crossed the Apennines and appeared before
Clusium. They were looking for plunder, rather than for land to settle. The
town apparently sought help from Rome. Roman envoys arrived to negociate, but
instead of acting as neutrals they joined the locals and one even may have
killed a Celtic chief. The Romans are said to have insulted the Celts, who
promptly marched on the city. (This part of the story may be a legend designed
to explain the subsequent disaster in terms of retribution or divine
punishment). In any event the Celts abandoned the siege of Clusium and decided
on seeking the greater potential of plunder at Rome itself. The Celtic army
numbered perhaps 30,000 savage warriors. The Roman army was hastily drawn up in
battle by the river Allia, a tributary of the Tiber. They had only two legions,
which would be about 10,000 counting cavalry detachments, still the largest
army Rome had fielded by that time..(Some ancient sources like Diodorus give
the strength as 70,000 Gauls versus 40,000 Romans, but they usually exagerate).
According to the legend they were abandoned by all their allies. They had never
faced such warriors before. The army was drawn up for battle about 11 miles
from the city, near Fidenae. The various authorities disagree on which bank of
the Tiber they stood. Mommsen says the right bank, but Scullard argues well for
the left bank. The Celts quickly turned the Roman flank and drove most of them
into the river. Others fled in panic to Veii, leaving the way to the city open.
Livy repeats the various legends that grew up about the subequent events.
This was one of, if not the most, traumatic event in the city's early history.
When the Celtic army, led by Brennus arrived they found the city gates open and
the streets apparently deserted. The Celts arrived 3 days after the battle, by
which time the priests and Vestal Virgins had managed to carry off much sacred
regalia to Caere. The legend says the Celts found only elderly Senators seated
on their official seats and were temporarily in awe. Soon, however, they
recovered their composure and killed the Senators and sacked the city. Only the
fortified Capitol held out. Here the sacred geese aroused M. Manlius
Capitolinus in time to ward off a Celtic surprise attack. Meanwhile, the
survivors of the Allia at Veii begged Camillus to return from exile and accept
the dictatorship. The Celts besieged the citadel for seven months. The starving
Romans finally bought them off with a tribute of a thousand pounds of gold.
According to one legend Camillus arrived with a relief army and drove the Celts
away. According to another famous story, during the counting out of the tribute
the Romans accused the Celts of using faulty weights. At this Brennus is said
to have thrown his sword onto the scale calling out "vae victis" (woe
to the vanquished), in other words you have to add that much more gold just for
complaining. This is the subject of famous paintings throughout history.. The
many legends are designed to save Rome's honor, but it is clear that the Celts
never intended to stay, but only to plunder, and left when they were good and
The results of the destruction are still found in the archelolgical
explorations of the Palatine hill. Rome had to spend the next century again
rebuilding not only the city, but with more difficulty its power and control
over central Italy. On the positive side, long-lasting fear of the Celts helped
bring the many Italian cities together and helped Rome on its path to unify the
region. Rome's resolve in rebuilding and unifying the Italian cities resulted
in the Celts being finally driven into France, otherwise much of Italy would
have become Celtic land. Among the measures promptly taken was the
fortification of the entire city.Camillus is credited with the heroic
leadership in this effort. The earlier earthen wall and wooden palisade was
replaced with a stone wall at least 12 feet thick and 24 feet high in front of
the earthen wall of the same dimensions. This Servian wall stretched 5.5 miles,
making Rome a mighty fortress. Most likely Greek engineers were hired for the
technical design and planning and the Roman army provided the labor.
Another result of the disastrous battle and sack was that the need for a larger
army was apparent and that meant extending service, and hence citizenship, to
more people. The next century was full of internal struggle over the rights of
the newly inducted lower classes.
On the foreign side, the Romans had to start over with warfare against their
neighbors on all sides. Not only Etruscans, but also Hernici, equi, Volsci and
Gauls (Celts). For this they had to give more rights to the other Latins.
During the first decades after they sacked the city the Celts were content to
remain in the Po River region, except for occasional raids.. But many served as
mercenaries in various armies throughout Italy. In 332-331 the Celtic campaign
from the Danube toward Greece was blocked temporarily by Alexander the Great.
One of the greatest of the Roman wars with the Celts came in 285 BC and in this
one the Romans were victorious. The Celts did the Romans an indirect favor when
Italy was invaded in 280 BC by Pyrrhus. As the king of Epirus was engaging in
indecisive engagements with the Romans, the Celts invaded Macedonia. They
returned to the attack against Rome with a vengence during the Punic Wars and
provided some of the best of Hannibal's troops. In fact the Romans feared them
more than they did the Carthaginians. In 225 the Celts launched yet another
offensive against Rome, only to be soundly defeated despite their incredible
valor in combat.
I have discussed these events at length in order to show that, although the
events on the Allia battlefield were over rather quickly and are not discussed
in detail in the ancient sources, the results of the battle were felt for
generations. And, thanks to the legends, repeated by
Livy and others, the
battle remained vivid even for Renaissance artists and authors.
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