Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter Sixty-Six

The First Sack of Rome

In Rome, between 495 and 390 BC, patricians and plebians quarrel, and Gauls burn the city

THE FIRST DICTATOR OF ROME, appointed to beat invaders away from the city walls, had succeeded in his task. His efforts had not brought a real peace, though. In the Roman countryside, Livy writes, there “was neither assured peace nor open war” rather, an ongoing standoff between a rising and aggressive power, and the surrounding towns, not quite sure whether to challenge Rome or leave it alone.1

But while the Etruscans were no longer a serious worry—they had rallied their fading force behind the Athenians during the attack on Sicily, and had suffered for it—Rome had troubles of its own. “So deeply was the country divided by its political differences,” says Livy, “that the people, unlike their oppressors in the governing class, hailed the prospect of invasion with delight.”2

ROME HAD THROWN its net across peoples on the outside, and as it began to mutate towards an empire it faced the same difficulty as the Persians or Spartans: how to combine people with great power (the original conquerors) and those with no power (the conquered, now absorbed) into a harmonious whole.

In Sparta, the conquerors were called citizens, while the conquered were helots. In Rome, the two groups had slightly different origins. The patricians (from the Latin word pater, “father”) were by tradition descendents of the Roman council of advisors that served the old kings. The plebians were everyone else: a term which is notoriously hard to define because it is a negation, the “not patricians.” This included conquered peoples now living in Rome, but also men who traced their ancestry back to lowly inhabitants of the original city.

The plebians outnumbered the patricians, but the patricians held a disproportionate amount of land and wealth. Even in the early days of the Republic, the plebians managed to elect one of their own to be consul on a fairly regular basis, but Rome’s magistrates and priests, landowners and generals, were all patricians.

As in Athens, the problem of debt had become acute. A plebian who had to borrow money in time of famine, or while away at war, to feed his family, had to pledge himself as security; if the money was not paid back, he and his dependents became slaves.3 The patricians in this way were gaining not only land and money, but also ownership over the citizens of Rome themselves, in increasing numbers. The plebians found it particularly galling that they often fell into debt and slavery as a result of having gone off to fight for Rome.

In 495, their unhappiness was brought to public riot when an old soldier, once famous for his exploits, hobbled into the Forum. “With his soiled and threadbare clothes,” Livy writes, “his dreadful pallor and emaciated body…his unkempt hair and beard…he was a pitiable sight.” He was recognized, and a murmur went through the crowd; more and more people gathered to hear him. He ripped his shirt apart and showed his chest scarred with sword-cuts suffered during his service to Rome, his back marked with weals from beatings given him by his wealthy master. “While I was on service,” the old man said, “during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken, including my cattle. Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and fell, consequently, into debt.”4

At this, debt slaves (some still in chains) from all over the city thronged into the streets, shouting for the Senate to decide at once how to give them relief from their slavery. The senators were mostly missing, because they were hiding from the mobs. However, the consuls were determined to avoid unnecessary violence, so they went around and hauled senators out of hiding, into the Senate, so that they could begin deliberations on the problem of debt slavery. As the debates began between senators, angry debt slaves thronged around the Senate, pushing into doors and hanging through windows to hear just how the Senate would resolve the situation.

This was not the best setting for a reasonable debate over the problem of debt, and in fact the Senate was getting nowhere when help of a sort arrived on the horizon: news came that the nearby tribe of the Volscii, who lived south of Rome, were marching on the city. The Senate passed a hasty resolution that no man could in the future be reduced to debt slavery as long as he was on active military duty. At this, practically everyone in the streets joined the army and went out to fight the Volscians. The attackers were thoroughly thrashed, since the army of debtors that came charging out to meet them was, as Livy puts it, “spoiling for a fight.”

But the larger problem of the imbalance of power hadn’t yet been addressed. Rome, Livy writes, needed to find “a solution for the conflicting interests of the two classes in the state: by fair means or foul the country must recover its internal harmony.”5 The “or foul” is not particularly encouraging; it suggests that, even in Livy’s day, a whiff of let’s-just-get-rid-of-the-problem survived from those ancient senatorial deliberations. And in fact, with the Volscian threat beaten off, the plebian soldiers who had returned to the city (they couldn’t stay on active military duty forever) soon saw that no permanent solution was on offer.

Their only strength in Rome was that of numbers, and they used it. In 494, they went on the world’s first recorded strike: “They took themselves off in a body to the Sacred Mount, three miles from the city…,” Livy says, “and there…they made themselves a camp.”6 This became known as the Plebian Secession, and within Rome it threw both the patricians (who had lost their slaves and most of their army) and the remaining plebians (who had lost most of their strength) into a panic. The city froze up, vulnerable to attack, its daily work undone.

Finally the Senate and consuls proposed a solution. From now on, they would be joined in government by special magistrates called tribunes, who would always be appointed from the ranks of the plebians, and who would be “above the law” (which is to say, immune from pressures applied by Senate and consuls, since Rome had as yet no written law). Their job would be to protect the plebs from injustice. It was the first Roman office blocked off to patricians, as so many offices had been to the plebs.

The first two tribunes were appointed in 494, the same year as the Plebian Secession. The crisis had been, temporarily, averted.

Over the next half century, the jockeying for power between consuls, senators, priests, and tribunes threw into sharp relief Rome’s need for a written law which would act as even further protection for the plebians. Roman ambassadors who had visited Athens came back talking of the laws of Solon, which had been written out in an attempt to reduce tensions between Athenian aristocrats and democrats. They even brought back a copy of the laws with them. Rome was now too big, and too diverse, to rely on unwritten tradition. The city needed laws “which every individual citizen could feel that he had…consented to accept.”7

So in 451, a board of ten lawmakers—the decemvirs—was appointed in place of the regular Roman officers to serve during the year 450. Their task was not only to run the government but to draw up laws to govern Rome. Their appointment was not without controversy: “There was a certain amount of argument about whether men not of patrician birth should be allowed to serve,” Livy says,8 as some Romans were still unwilling to see plebians take any part in government. But with this issue resolved, the decemvirs spent their year working on the laws and then presented them to the people for public discussion. When the laws had been amended by the discussion, an assembly of all the people was held to approve them. There was a general feeling that a little more regulation was still in order, so decemvirs were appointed for the following year also to draw up two more tables.

The Twelve Tables that resulted were written out on wood and set in the Forum, where all could see them. Livy says that in his day they were still the foundation of Roman law. Unfortunately the Tables were lost; what we know of them is assembled from quotes in various Roman documents.

Reassembled, the incomplete Tables contain the expected provisions to keep peace between the two Roman classes. “Eris confessi rebusque iure iudicatis XXX dies iusti sunto,” reads Table III: “You who admit to or have been judged to owe money have thirty days to pay it.” After that, the debtor can be taken to court, and if he has no surety or income, he can be put in chains; but his accuser must pay for his food (which might end up being more costly than forgiving the debt). Anyone who makes a false claim, according to Table XII, can be brought in front of three judges; if they decide that he has lied, he has to pay a substantial penalty. And then there is Table IX, the bedrock of the whole arrangement: “Privilegia ne irroganato,” “No private laws can be proposed.” No longer could patricians simply impose their will on plebians without their agreement.

Along with these are regulations of injury and harm that recall the laws of Hammurabi: a man who breaks another’s bone must pay a fine, but the fine is halved if the bone broken belongs to a slave; if roads are not kept up by those who own the property through which they pass, the users are permitted to trespass and drive their cattle alongside the road instead; a son who is sold into slavery three different times can declare himself emancipated from his father.

And along with these are hints that although the Laws of the Twelve Tables were a step in the right direction, there was still plenty of injustice in Rome. Some of the injustices are standard ancient practice: “A deformed child shall be killed,” reads Table IV, baldly, and Table V explains, “Women, because of their light dispositions, shall always have guardians even when they are grown.” And others are particular to Rome itself. “No one may hold meetings in the city during the night,” reads Table VIII, a regulation meant to protect the patricians from another plebian plot; and, most infamously, Table XI decrees, “Marriage between a patrician and a plebian is forbidden.” This particular law was finally repealed in 445 after savage debate in the Senate; not everyone was convinced that Rome would prosper if the blood of noble and common Romans mingled.9


66.1 The Gaulish Invasion

The tribunes and Tables did not entirely soothe Rome’s internal aches, but these reforms served to hold the population together long enough for the city to fix its gaze outwards. In 437, Rome began a long war with its old enemy Fidenae, upstream on the Tiber. Fidenae had first attacked the Latin upstart city back in the days of Romulus; Romulus had fought both Fidenae and Veii, the Etruscan cities, but had not destroyed either. Now the war with Fidenae began and dragged on until 426.

The next two decades were filled with minor battles, until the year 405, when Rome mounted a siege against Veii. This proved to be another drawn-out campaign; the Romans were still camped around the walls five years later, when news of another threat trickled down from the north. The Celts, whom the Romans knew as “Gauls,” had been pushing south for a century now. They were drawing closer and closer to Rome.

But the Romans, busy claiming surrounding territory, do not appear to have paid much attention. Veii finally fell, in 396; it had been a bitter fight on both sides, as Veii was the richest and most resourceful of all the Etruscan cities.10 The city of Veii, Livy writes, had “inflicted worse losses than she suffered,” which means that the siege had significantly weakened the Roman army. And Veii had not been the only fish the army was frying; Roman soldiers had been all over the countryside, terrorizing farmers and seizing villages to add to the growing Roman territory.

The overstretched army was just taking a breath when a plebian named Caedicius came to the tribunes with an eerie warning. He had heard, “in the silence of the night,” an inhuman voice saying, “Tell the magistrates that the Gauls are coming.” The warning was “laughed off, partly because Caedicius was a person of no consequence”11 Rome was still suffering from its patrician complex.

But hard on the heels of this vision came a message from the city Clusium to the north, the old home base of the fearsome Lars Porsena. Thousands of Celts had suddenly shown up at the city gates, waving weapons. “It was a terrible situation,” says Livy, “and in spite of the fact that the people of Clusium had no official ties with Rome or reason to expect her friendship…they sent a mission to ask help from the Senate.”12

The danger must have been extreme for Clusium to imagine that it would override the past hatred between the two cities. But the Gauls were an enemy that tended to unite the peninsula. If Rome had been able to send troops to fight them, it would have. But after the constant fighting of the last thirty years, the Senate had no real aid to give.

Instead, they sent ambassadors to convince the Gauls to settle peacefully in the area, rather than overthrowing Clusium by force. This might have been a fruitful discussion except that the Roman envoys lost their tempers when the Gauls defied them. The Romans drew their swords; the Gauls, who needed little encouragement, took this as a challenge. “They flamed into the uncontrollable anger which is characteristic of their race, and set forward, with terrible speed, on the path to Rome,” Livy writes. “…And from all the immense host, covering miles of ground with its straggling masses of horse and foot, the cry went up ‘To Rome!’”13

The Roman commanders hastily lined up their army at the Tiber, but the line was so thin that the Gauls at first held back, suspecting a trap since the Roman soldiers were so few. But when it became clear that these men were all that the overextended army could muster, the Gauls plunged into the front ranks of Romans. It was first a slaughter, and then a rout. Roman soldiers, fleeing, drowned in the Tiber, pulled down by the weight of their armor. Half of the survivors got to Veii and shut themselves in. The rest made it back to Rome, but their number was so obviously insufficient to defend the city that the whole population retreated into the Capitol, leaving the rest of the city unguarded.186

The Gauls flooded into it, killing anyone who had trailed behind in the flight to the Capitol and burning houses indiscriminately. The Romans, meanwhile, “could hardly believe their eyes or ears as they looked down on the barbaric foe roaming in hordes through the familiar streets…. nowhere, now there, the yells of triumph, women’s screams or the crying of children, the roar of flames or the long rumbling crash of falling masonry…. not shut with in their city but excluded from it, they saw all that they loved in the power of their enemies.”14

Trapped in the Capitol, they could not fight back. On the other hand, the Celtic warriors down below could not get to them. Presumably a long enough siege could have starved them out, but the Gauls had no way of knowing how much food and water were inside the Capitol. And although conditions inside the Capitol were wretched, conditions down in the city soon grew just as bad. Food was limited, and the Gauls had camped on low ground, in a spot with little ventilation. Clouds of ash and dust from the fires of burning Rome blew over them and settled, in a lowland miasma that produced hacking coughs and lung infections. Eventually the crowded conditions led to epidemics. They started to die in tens and then in hundreds, until there were too many bodies to bury; the living burned them in huge heaps instead.15

So they were ready to listen when the Romans made a proposition: they would pay the Gauls off with gold, if the besiegers would back away from Rome’s walls. In this, the Romans had been encouraged by an offer of help from an unexpected source. The Massalians, from the old Greek colony up on the southern coast of Europe, had had their own encounter with roving Celts, who had shown up and camped around Massalia’s walls. The Massalians had bought them off, and the Celts had gone away. According to the Roman historian Pompeius Trogous, the Massalians then sent envoys to the shrine at Delphi to thank Apollo for their deliverance; Massalia had kept distant ties with the pan-Hellenic shrines of the homeland.

The envoys were on their way back when they heard news of the siege of the Capitol.16 They took this news back to Massalia, where the city leadership decided that future good relations with Rome were worth cultivating. The Massalians raided their own treasury, convinced wealthy citizens to make private contributions, and added their gold to the ransom. The Gauls took the total and retreated back to the north, where the mountainous cool was a little more congenial than the hot south of the Italian peninsula.

The Romans emerged from the Capitol to rebuild, hastily, in case the enemy should return. “All work was hurried,” Livy concludes, “and nobody bothered to see that streets were straight…. and buildings went up wherever there was room for them. This explains why…the general lay-out of Rome is more like a squatters’ settlement than a properly planned city.”17 The first barbarian sack of Rome had not only smudged Rome’s imperial ambitions, but left a permanent mark on the city itself.


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