8

The Fall of Rome

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON OF THE FIFTEENTH OF JULY in the year 496 two tall, preternaturally handsome young men, just growing their first beards, were spotted in the Forum at Rome. They were washing their sweaty horses in the spring that rose just by the Temple of Vesta and formed a small but deep pool. They were dressed in armor, and it looked very much as if they had just come from a battlefield. People gathered around them and asked if there was any news, for Rome had dispatched an army against the city’s Latin neighbors.

The youths replied that, yes, there had been a great battle on this day at Lake Regillus and that Rome had been the winner. Then they left the Forum and, although a great search was made for them, they were never seen again.

On the following day, letters arrived from the army reporting on the victory. Old Tarquin Superbus had been present, fighting alongside the Latins, and was wounded in the side. The enemy camp was taken. Apparently, two young men on horseback had suddenly appeared at the head of the Roman cavalry, spearing down every Latin soldier they encountered and driving the enemy into headlong retreat. Clearly they were gods, and the same ones who had appeared a little later in the Forum. Everyone agreed that they must have been the Heavenly Twins, Castor and Pollux, also known as the Dioscuri, or “sons of Zeus.” Helen of Troy was their sister, and they were among Jason’s Argonauts in the search for the Golden Fleece. They acted as helpers of mankind, typically intervening at times of crisis. They had an important shrine near Lake Regillus, so the battle had been fought on their doorstep.

The Roman commander vowed to found a temple in thanksgiving to the brothers and, although the story of their apparition is of course mythical, archaeologists have confirmed that it was built around this time in the Forum, near where they had been seen with their horses. The Romans revered the Heavenly Twins and the temple was twice rebuilt, each time more grandly. The massive ruins of the final version, commissioned by the emperor Tiberius in the first century A.D., can still be seen in the Forum today. The building stood on a high podium; the Senate frequently met inside it and its front steps were topped by a platform, much used for rabble-rousing open-air speeches during the riotous politics of the late Republic.

Every year on the date of the battle, a splendid ritual was conducted in honor of Castor and Pollux. Rome’s official cavalry processed into the city as if coming fresh from a battle and marched past the temple. They were crowned with olive branches and dressed in purple robes with scarlet stripes, along with their military decorations. “It made a fine sight,” wrote a witness of the ceremony in the first century, “and worthy of Roman power.”

TWO HUNDRED YEARS of class struggle at home did not deter the Romans from fighting an almost continuous series of military campaigns abroad. Described in the ancient histories as if they were the wars of a great nation, these campaigns were in fact for the most part raids and counter-raids, state-sponsored brigandage. This was why, to Livy’s “great astonishment,” seemingly decisive victories apparently had no effect, and the Aequi and the Volsci returned fresh to the fray with every new campaigning season. However, in the long run the fighting was destructive and exhausting, for year after year harvests were trashed and buildings burned.

Under the kings, Rome had dominated Latium, but the arrival of the Republic coincided with a debilitating economic crisis. With their victory over Lars Porsenna, the Latins had removed Etruscan influence in the region and they were determined to cut the inexperienced regime at Rome down to size, too. However, the Republic’s new rulers gave notice that they intended to maintain Superbus’s expansionist foreign policy.

The first consuls negotiated a treaty with Carthage. It was a considerable achievement to obtain the recognition of such a great Mediterranean power. The text of the treaty sets out Carthage’s sphere of influence, including Sicily, while also revealing Rome’s (much more modest) pretensions in Latium:

The Carthaginians shall do no injury to the peoples of Ardea, Antium, the Laurentes and the peoples of Circeii, Tarracina or any other city of those Latins who are subject to the Romans. As for those Latin peoples who are not subject to the Romans, the Carthaginians shall not interfere with any of these cities, and if they take any one of them, they shall deliver it up undamaged. They shall build no fort in Latin territory. If they enter the region carrying arms, they shall not spend a night there.

The Romans were exaggerating the extent of their influence. Antium, Circeii, and Tarracina were outside the boundaries of Latium at this epoch and fell squarely inside Volscian territory. But the treaty illustrated Rome’s aggressive intentions, and by implication its desire to regain the ascendancy lost during the upheavals attendant on the fall of the monarchy. Adventures abroad would be a welcome diversion from poverty and indebtedness at home.

The Latins shared a mutual solidarity. Every spring they held a “national” festival, the Feriae Latinae, at which they celebrated their kinship. The central feature was a banquet. Each community brought to the party lambs, cheese, milk, or something similar; a white bull was sacrificed, and its meat was shared among all those attending. The Latin states formed a league from which Rome was excluded, and war soon broke out between them.

Hostilities were not long-lasting. For all the efforts of the Heavenly Twins, the Battle of Lake Regillus was not necessarily the success the Romans claimed it to be. And the opposing forces came to realize that they shared an important interest. They both faced a ring of hostile tribes and communities. Clockwise from the north, there were the Etruscans, especially the rich and powerful city of Veii. Then came the Sabines, the Aequi, the Hernici, and the irrepressible Volsci. Swaths of territory were being lost. Latium was in grave danger of being overrun unless Rome and the Latins reconciled their differences.

In 493, that is what they did. The consul Spurius Cassius (who, as we have seen, was later to be executed for aiming at regnum) negotiated a peace treaty, the Foedus Cassianum, named after him. Its terms were inscribed on a bronze pillar in the Forum, which wasstill there in Cicero’s time. At its heart lay a commitment to mutual help:

Let there be peace between the Romans and all the Latin cities as long as the heavens and the earth stay where they are. Let them neither make war upon one another themselves, nor bring in foreign enemies, nor give safe passage to those who shall make war upon either of them. Let them assist one another, when warred upon, with all their forces.

A few years later, the Hernici were brought into the entente. They and the Latins fought in separate contingents under a unified, Roman command. At last, sufficient military force had been assembled to meet the omnipresent threats of invasion from every quarter of the compass.

The background of these small-scale quarrels was a vast movement of peoples from the beginning of the fifth century into Italy and down the peninsula’s Apennine spine. Facing overpopulation and, possibly, pressure from Celts who were beginning to cross the Alps into the Po Valley, Sabellians, mountain dwellers who spoke a language called Oscan, began to migrate southward from their habitat in the central Apennines in search of living space.

The migrations were governed, we are told, by a religious ritual called ver sacrum, the Sacred Spring. A year’s generation of animals and humans was dedicated, or made sacrati, to the god Mars. The animals were sacrificed and the young people, when they had reached the age of twenty or twenty-one, were sent away from their community to look for somewhere else to live. Under a leader they followed an animal, such as a bull, a wolf, or a woodpecker. Where it stopped to rest, there they founded a new settlement or colony.

These bands of young shepherd fighters set off a chain reaction, knocking onto the toe of Italy and threatening the Hellenic cities of Magna Graecia. Oscan-speaking Samnites (a group of Sabellian tribes) flooded down from the hills and invaded fertile Campania. They took over the main cities and set themselves up as a new nation, giving up stock-keeping for farming. The Etruscan ruling class of Capua unwisely let the newcomers in and made them members of the community, only to be butchered en masse after a drunken festival one black night in 423.

For many years Rome only just held its own, much assisted by the Latins, against the Aequi and the Volsci, but in the second half of the fifth century the tide slowly began to turn. A decisive battle against the Aequi was fought on 19 June 431: the fact that the precise date stuck in the Republic’s collective memory suggests how precious the victory was. Lost Latin cities were recovered, and Roman forces at last moved onto the offensive.

IT WAS DURING one of these scrappy campaigns, half skirmish, half full-dress battle, that the story of the staunchly anti-plebeian Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is set. This elderly and distinguished patrician and politician had fallen on hard times and farmed a smallholding of four acres. One day, a delegation arrived from the city and found him at work on his land, perhaps digging a ditch or plowing a field. “Is everything all right?” he asked. No, it was not, but the formalities had to be observed. After a prayer for the gods’ blessing on him and his country, he was invited to go and put on his toga, the uniform of the freeborn Roman.

It was no wonder that he was not wearing it, for it was among the most inconvenient garments ever devised by the mind of a tailor. A vast semicircle of heavy cloth, about ten by twenty feet in extent, it was draped over the body and worn without a fastening. Considerable skill was required to stop it from falling off, and it was drafty in winter and stifling in summer.

Cincinnatus returned duly garbed. Only then was he informed of a grave military crisis. A consular legion was besieged in its camp by an Aequian army. Cincinnatus was to serve as dictator and had been commissioned to march to its relief. He quickly accomplished the task. He made a lenient peace with the Aequi, but only after forcing a ritual humiliation on them; a yoke was set up, consisting of three spears under which the entire defeated enemy was obliged to pass, bowing down and so admitting defeat. Mission accomplished, Cincinnatus resigned the dictatorship a fortnight later and returned to his plow.

Although he is not a fully historical figure, Cincinnatus represented a combination of qualities that the Romans greatly admired, even if they were seldom honored in the observance. These were a simple life, commitment to country values, unquestioning patriotism, even-handedness, and disdain for riches. As usual, this admiration found a topographical expression: the old man’s farm, which lay west of the Tiber and opposite the shipyards at the foot of the Palatine Hill, was preserved, at least in name, as the Quinctian Meadows.

As late as the eighteenth century A.D., Cincinnatus was still regarded as a moral model. The American city Cincinnati was so called as a compliment to George Washington, who was considered a latter-day Cincinnatus for his indifference to power. The example has been followed as frequently in recent times as it was in ancient Rome.

SOME TEN OR so miles north of Rome, at the confluence of two small rivers, a large grassy plateau stands on a tall rocky outcrop. Nearly five hundred acres in extent, it has been farming and grazing land for the past two millennia. Closer inspection points to a hidden, long-lost history. In the summertime, aerial or satellite photographs have revealed discolored markings on the fields, the ghostly patterns of lost edifices, and, here and there, ruined walls and the domes of tombs have broken through the earth.

Here once flourished the famous city of Veii, the southernmost outpost of the Etruscan federation (today bordering on the modern village of Isola Farnese). The plateau at the top of precipitous cliffs was probably covered with loosely scattered buildings. In the center, city blocks were arranged in a grid around a central square. Fine chamber-tombs have been excavated in the nearby hills. The city was easy to defend and amply supplied with water; it could sustain a lengthy siege.

Religion was important to the people of Veii. At its southern extremity a high citadel (today’s Piazza d’Armi) contained a sanctuary in honor of the Queen of Heaven, Juno. A temple complex was built in a cutting on the western side of the Veii hill, where a wonderful terra-cotta statue of Apollo, or Apulu, in Etruscan, was discovered in the early twentieth century. The god, a little more than life size, sports a tunic and a short cloak. His hair is tightly plaited on the head and ends in what look very much like dreadlocks. He smiles the mysterious formal smile, each end of his lips pointing upward, of an archaic Greek statue. He was almost certainly made by the most famous of Etruscan sculptors, Vulca, whom the Tarquins commissioned to decorate the Temple of Jupiter on Rome’s Capitol.

Evidently, Veii was a place of power and wealth, and Livy claimed that it was the “most opulent of all Etruria’s cities.” Well positioned strategically, it controlled wide and fertile lands, covering more than 340 square miles, most of which were kept under cultivation or used for grazing. A network of well-engineered roads linked the center to peripheral bases, facilitating the passage of trade, and a complex system of drainage tunnels (cuniculi, or “rabbit holes”) fertilized a well-populated countryside. The tunnels collected surface water from marshy land and diverted it into another valley: one remarkable cuniculus, the Fosso degli Olmetti, extends for about three and a half miles. Within the city itself, conduits gathered, channelled, and stored water in cisterns. Here was an orderly, productive, and well-managed society.

Sited on the right bank of the Tiber, Veii had been a rival to Rome since the days of Romulus, competing for control of the salt industry and the trading routes up and down the peninsula. If it could cut its commercial links, the city threatened to strangle the newborn Republic. There was no way of avoiding a life-and-death struggle and, as well as routine raiding, serious hostilities broke out from time to time. Veii often had the best of the fighting; on one occasion, its forces reached Rome and alarmingly set up a fortified post on the Janiculum Hill across the Tiber.

One of Rome’s leading clans, the Fabii, dominated the consulship. In the 480s, one Fabius or another was consul for eight successive years. They owned an estate on the border with Veii, and so had an interest in keeping the old enemy firmly in its place. A spokesman for the clan made the Senate a generous offer:

As you know, gentlemen, in our dealings with Veii what we need is a regular, permanent force, not necessarily a large one. Our suggestion therefore is that you put the task of confronting Veii into our hands, while you attend to wars elsewhere. We guarantee that the majesty of the Roman name will be safe in the keeping of our clan.

Senators, facing wars at the same time against the Aequi and the Volsci, felt unable to refuse. The clan marched proudly out of Rome and built a stronghold beside the river Cremera, near Veii. Their aim was to reduce Veian raids on Roman (and Fabian) territory. But two years later, in 479, the move misfired. Lured from the safety of their fortification by a tempting and cleverly placed herd of cattle, the tiny Fabian army was enticed into an ambush. The entire Fabii, one hundred and six of them (probably including dependants and hangers-on), were wiped out. Only one member of the clan, a youth, survived.

The story has about it a touch of the celebrated Battle of Thermopylae, in which three hundred Spartans fought to the death against the Persian king Xerxes. Nationalistic historians wanted to show the Greeks that Romans, too, could sacrifice themselves in a high but suicidal cause. Interestingly, though, the Fabii now vanish from the annual list of consuls for well over a decade, when the survivor of Cremera became old enough to hold the supreme office. So the disaster would appear to have some backing in circumstantial fact. Often enough, history throws up accidents that propagandists go on to exploit for their own purposes.

AS THE FIFTH century proceeded, Etruscan power began to wane. A fleet from the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse defeated the Etruscans in a sea battle and harried the Tyrrhenian coast. In the north Gauls crossed the Alps, settled in the Po Valley, and were pressing the once expansionist Etruscans back into their homeland. Veii’s fellow cities failed to help it in its hour of need (perhaps because they had replaced their kings with elected officials, whereas Veii had restored its monarchy), and for much of the long struggle it stood alone against the Romans.

Veii’s war plan was to establish itself on the left bank of the Tiber, threatening Rome and blocking the Via Salaria, the Salt Road. The small town of Fidenae commanded the road and changed hands more than once.

Battles were fiercely fought, and one remarkable act of valor still glitters across time. A consul, Aulus Cornelius Cossus, struck down the king of Veii and won the Republic’s highest award for courage in the field—the spolia opima, “splendid spoils,” awarded to an army commander who personally killed in hand-to-hand combat his opposite number in the field. Cossus struck and unhorsed the king, jumped on his body, and stabbed him repeatedly. Then he stripped the corpse of its armor, cut off its head, stuck it on a spear, and rushed at the enemy, who stepped backward in alarm and dismay.

Cossus carried the spoils in the triumphal procession that was later held in Rome. He then deposited them in the tiny Temple of Jupiter Feretrius, Subduer of Enemies, on the Capitol. The shrine had been dedicated by the legendary King Romulus, the only man previously to have won spolia opima (after Cossus, one final award was made in 222). There the Veian king’s outfit remained on display for hundreds of years, until the end of the first century.

By this time the temple had fallen into disrepair. The roof had collapsed and the interior was open to the elements. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, was a religious traditionalist. He visited the temple and inspected what was left of the spoils, including a linen corselet on which Cossus’s achievement was inscribed. He had the temple fully restored.

The year 426 saw the start of a twenty-year truce between Rome and Veii. In the last decades of the fifth century, military activity by the Aequi and the Volsci tailed off. It is not clear why. Maybe Roman endurance was at last winning through. Maybe the spread of malaria, plagues, and repeated food shortages took their toll. Maybe fierce tribesmen were dwindling into pacific cultivators. One way or another, there was a breathing space and Rome was able to recoup her energy.

Once the truce had expired, Rome looked for an excuse to deal with Veii once and for all. An insulting remark happened to be made in the Veientine Senate. The reply was a demand for reparations. To no one’s surprise, the ultimatum was refused and, on this slightest of pretexts, Rome declared war and proceeded to lay Veii under siege. To meet the demands of the coming struggle, the army was apparently expanded from four thousand to six thousand men.

At first, the campaign was a failure. The Veientines had stocked their city with military equipment, missiles, and plenty of grain; they had every reason to expect a fortunate outcome. The siege went on and on. The soldiers were accustomed to brief summer campaigns that ended before harvesttime. They were then able to go home and reap the produce of their fields. Stuck permanently in front of Veii’s invulnerable cliffs year in and year out, they simply could not afford the war. Hitherto, every man had served at his own expense. The Senate was now forced to pay them for their service (and levy taxes to cover the cost). A citizens’ militia was beginning the long journey to becoming a professional army.

AN EVENT TOOK place that caused great anxiety among the superstitious Romans. The water level of a lake, a small volcanic crater in the Alban wood, rose much above its normal height despite the fact that there had been no unusual rainfall. This was an alarming prodigy, and the Senate sent a delegation to ask the oracle at Delphi what the gods meant by it.

One day, Roman and Veientine soldiers were exchanging light-hearted insults from their respective guard posts when an old man from Veii unexpectedly appeared and burst into prophecy. Rome would never take Veii, he said, until the water of the Alban Lake had been drained. A Roman sentry said that he wanted to consult the old man on a private matter and persuaded him to come out and talk with him in confidence. Once they were together, the sentry picked up the aged soothsayer bodily and carried him to the guard post.

The old man was then taken to Rome, where he advised the Senate on how to drain the lake. Not surprisingly, he recommended the technology of his homeland—the exacavation of a cuniculus. This was confirmed by Delphi, where the Pythia was for once remarkably un-Delphic; the priestess straightforwardly suggested that the excess water from the lake be used to irrigate the fields. Once that was done, Veii would fall. The Romans swiftly complied and drained the lake down to its original level.

It is hard to know what to make of this tale. At first sight, it seems preposterous and obviously legendary; but, as so often with early Roman history, a substratum of fact can be detected. There is indeed an ancient outflow tunnel from the Alban Lake that can be seen to this day, although exactly when it was originally constructed is uncertain. (It is not far from Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence.) If there was a rationale for the drain, apart from the musings of an antique seer, it may have been designed to prevent seepage into a malaria-generating bog. In other words, it was a health and safety project that, for some unguessable reason, imaginative Roman authors translated into a prediction of Veii’s doom.

We have not heard the last of cuniculi. One of Rome’s most celebrated heroes was elected to the emergency post of dictator and entrusted with the task of bringing the siege to a successful conclusion. This was Marcus Furius Camillus, who, during a long career, was the holder of every senior office in the Republic and five times a dictator. He arranged for the digging of a tunnel underneath Veii’s central fortress, no easy task, as Livy describes it:

This work was now begun, and to keep it going without intermission the men engaged on it were divided into six parties, working six hours each in rotation—as continuous labor underground would have broken them up. The orders were that the digging should go on day and night until the tunnel was complete and a way opened into the enemy citadel.

The crisis of the campaign was approaching. Like most of his compatriots, Camillus was plagued by superstitious fears. For him, it was crucial that he win over to his cause the gods of Veii and, in particular, the city’s divine protectress (and his own favorite in the Olympian canon), Juno, known in Veii as the Etruscan Great Goddess, Uni Teran. Her shrine in the citadel housed an archaic wooden statue of her, a highly prized object of reverence. The Romans had a ceremony for every occasion, and at this crucial juncture Camillus conducted an evocatio—a calling out of the deity from her home at Veii. At an army parade, he called on Juno to “leave this town where you now dwell and follow our victorious arms into our city of Rome, your future home, which will receive you in a temple worthy of your greatness.”

The tunnel was a great success. It was said that the ruler of Veii was offering a sacrifice, and a priest declared that he who carved up the victim’s entrails would be victorious in the war. The diggers overheard the remark and immediately broke through the floor into the fortress, snatched the entrails, and took them at once to Camillus. Even Livy’s credulity was stretched. He wrote that this tale was “too much like a romantic stage play to be taken seriously. I feel it is hardly worth attention either for affirmation or denial.”

However, once again, archaeologists have found a pea of fact beneath a mattress of invention. Excavations at the spot on the Veian peninsula where the Romans must have encamped have shown that the rampart ran over some earlier drainage cuniculi. They had been filled in with tightly packed shards, stone, and earth, presumably with defense in mind. It is hard to resist the conjecture that the Romans discovered one or more of these tunnels, emptied them out, and went on to storm the city.

Whatever the case, Veii fell to a determined assault. There was much slaughter, but Camillus ordered his men to spare everyone not bearing arms. He was not sentimental, though, and Veii was emptied and destroyed. On the following day, all movable goods were taken from the city and the surviving townsfolk were offered for sale as slaves. (In fact, it would seem that the market could not absorb such a large number of people. Now that the Veientine state had been abolished, there was nothing else that could be done with the unsold remainder but to give them the only civic status available, Roman citizenship.)

Then it was time to transport Juno and the temple treasures to Rome. Young soldiers were detailed to lift the statue from its pedestal, an act that seemed to them like sacrilege. For a lark, one of the boys shouted, “Juno, do you want to go to Rome?” The statue nodded its head in awe-inspiring reply. Livy was having none of this, either:

We are told, too, that words were uttered, signifying assent. In any case—fables apart—she was moved from her place with only the slightest application of mechanical power, and was light and easy to move—almost as if she came of her own free will—and was taken undamaged to her eternal dwelling place on the Aventine, whither the dictator had called her in his prayer.

Juno was given a temporary base, probably the plebeian sanctuary of Diana, while Camillus lived up to his word and built a new temple nearby, which he dedicated to the Queen of Heaven a few years after the destruction of Veii. We can only presume that, for the time being, the goddess had set aside her long enmity of Rome, mollified by an attractive new home.

The city became completely uninhabited, as a first-century poet lamented: “How sad, ancient Veii! You were once a mighty kingdom and a throne of gold was set in your market place. Now inside your walls the shepherd loiters and sounds his horn. Men reap cornfields above your graves.”

The Romans were hugely proud of their victory. Claiming that the siege had lasted ten years, they presented the long campaign against Veii as their version of the Trojan War. And, strategically, it was indeed a great achievement. It signaled the weakening of Etruscan power and the emergence of Rome as the leading state in central Italy. There was also a large domestic benefit. Allotments of the ager Veientanus were distributed to Roman citizens, alleviating plebeian claims of poverty and perhaps helping, at least for now, to mitigate the problem of indebtedness.

But, as so often happens, pride was followed by a fall—in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, the fall of Rome itself. Even Livy, who loyally took the edge off every Roman misfortune, admitted, “Calamity of unprecedented magnitude was drawing near.”

IN 390, A rumor spread that a vast horde of barbarians was moving down Italy—with what purpose in mind nobody knew, but everyone agreed that they posed a terrible threat. For two centuries and more, Celtic tribes had overflowed from their heartlands in central Europe and Asia, crossed the Alps, and (as already noted) poured down into northern Italy, where they settled, and looked covetously at the lands of their southern neighbor, the Etruscan Empire.

The civilized world—that is to say, the Greeks and their admirers the Romans—did not know what to make of these rough, unpredictable tribesmen. The usually reliable Polybius, a Greek who spent much of his life in Rome, wrote:

[They] had no knowledge of the refinements of civilization. They lived in unwalled villages, without any unnecessary furniture. They slept on straw and leaves, ate meat and practised no other pursuits but war and agriculture, so their lives were very simple and they were completely unacquainted with any art or science. Their possessions consisted of cattle and gold, since these were the only objects which they could easily take with them whatever their circumstances and transport wherever they chose. They placed a high value on comradeship, and the man who was believed to have the greatest number of dependants and companions about him was the most feared and the most powerful member of the tribe.

The Celts, or (as the Romans liked to call them) the Gauls, were usually tall, well-built, and blond. They wore their hair long, whitening and stiffening it by frequent washing in limewater. They then pulled it back over the head so that the general effect was of a horse’s mane. They let their mustaches grow over their lips so that “when drinking the beverage passes, as it were, through a kind of strainer.” It is reported that male homosexuality was very common, and that men particularly liked to have two boys at a time in bed with them: “Young men offer themselves to strangers and are insulted if the offer is refused.” Women, too, enjoyed considerable sexual freedom, and were entitled to divorce husbands who failed to perform their marital duties. Unlike Greek or Roman women, they played a respected part in public life, acting as ambassadors and, on occasion, fighting in battles.

The Celts were undisciplined, gorged themselves on food and drink, and were always quarreling with one another. Politically they seemed to be fickle and inconsistent; they found it difficult to take a long-term view and stick to it.

It is hard to know how much weight to place on these accounts, for we have no counterbalancing records from the Celts themselves. Taken as a whole, the portrait of a race of noble savages is coherent, but we must not forget that it reflects the fears of the observer as much as it does the quality of life as experienced by a Celt. It is telling that the Greco-Roman authors pay no attention whatsoever to the extraordinary skill and beauty of Celtic metalwork and crafts.

What is certainly the case is that the Celts were fine warriors and knew how to frighten an enemy army out of its wits. Completely fearless, they rushed naked into battle, with their long hair streaming and strange war cries, accompanied by harsh trumpet blasts. Their cavalry rode with iron horseshoes, a military innovation, and the infantry carried finely tempered slashing broadswords. The Celts were able to muster very large forces and were hard to defeat. The news of their imminent arrival in central Italy was seen, rightly, as an emergency order.

Myriad warriors and even greater numbers of women and children arrived before Clusium, an important Etruscan city and once Lars Porsenna’s base. A foolish story is told that they were tempted there with a promise of Clusium’s large supplies of wine, and that, responding to an appeal from the city, the Romans sent some ambassadors, who met and remonstrated unsuccessfully with the Celtic king, Brennus. The ambassadors then fought alongside the army of Clusium in a vain attempt to repulse the Celts. This broke the principle of diplomatic neutrality, and infuriated Brennus, who ordered a retaliatory march on Rome, only eighty miles away.

What really seems to have happened is that Brennus led a band of marauders intent on plunder, not a people in search of Lebensraum. It is very possible that they were in the pay of the turannos of Syracuse, Dionysius, whose principal aim in these years was to undermine Rome’s ally, the Etruscan trading entrepôt of Caere, and the Greek cities of Magna Graecia. If that was so, the Celts were passing through on their way to southern Italy.

The Romans may have sent an advance force north to discover the truth behind the reports of a Celtic advance, but what is certain is that a hastily assembled Roman army confronted the invaders in a great battle at the little river Allia, a tributary of the Tiber. The numbers on each side are uncertain, but perhaps two legions, or about ten thousand Romans faced thirty thousand Celts. To avoid being outflanked, the Roman commander stretched his line out, but too thinly. Presumably, the well-to-do heavily armed legionaries were posted in the center, with the poorer citizens as light-armed troops on each wing. The center could not hold, fractured, and gave way.

It should have been a rout with high casualties, but Brennus had expected a larger enemy army. Suspecting an ambush, he held his men back. Many Romans were able to get away, and a good number escaped to nearby Veii, whose citadel was eminently defensible.

However, the way to Rome lay open.

LIVY DESCRIBES WHAT happened next in one of his great set pieces. It was a mark either of overconfidence or carelessness or both that Rome was not encircled by a protective wall. Earthen ramparts and hills were deemed a sufficient defense. Even worse, most of the army was either dead or cowering in the ruins of Veii. The city was undefended. There was nothing to stop Brennus from marching in and giving the Romans the treatment they had meted out to the people of Veii.

The Celts could hardly believe their eyes and, once again, feared a trap. They watched and waited until evening fell. Inside the beleaguered city, the most was made of a night’s reprieve. The handful of remaining troops took up position on the Capitol, where they should be able to hold out indefinitely. Civilians were allowed to take refuge there, too, but many others, especially of the poorer sort, poured out of the city gates across the wooden bridge, the Pons Sublicius, to the Janiculum Hill and vanished into the countryside. Vesta was goddess of the civic hearth and guarantor of Rome’s permanence. Her priestesses, who were vowed to chastity, the Vestal Virgins, debated what to do with the sacred emblems. It was decided to bury those that could not be moved and to travel with the remainder to the friendly Etruscan city of Caere. The Vestal Virgins’ main task was to tend the goddess’s eternal flame, and presumably they took it with them in the shape of a torch or a brazier. Abandoning their native land, they set off on foot but were given a lift by a patriotic carter. Rome was dead.

With morning came the Celts. The citadel was now safe, but, rather than hide away, senators decided to consecrate themselves to the underworld and death in a strange ritual called devotio (whence, in passing, our word devotion). The sacrifice of their lives would bring the same devotio onto the heads of their enemies—in other words, it would consecrate the Celts to their destruction, too. Only a current holder of state authority (a consul, say) could devote himself, but a former public official could regain hisimperium by the ritual gesture of clasping his chin. The senators went home and dressed themselves in their old robes of office. They sat quietly, awaiting their fate in the courtyards of their houses.

The porta Collina, the Colline Gate, at the northern tip of the city, had been left open, and it was here that the Celtic invaders made their entry. They proceeded coolly and calmly down the long, straight street that led from the gate to the foot of the Capitol and then the Forum. They wandered around the square, gazing at the temples and the citadel. After sightseeing, they fanned out through the city in search of booty. To their surprise, they found that while the dwellings of the poor were locked and barred, the mansions of the rich lay unprotected.

They were startled by the senators, sitting stock-still, and one Celt touched the beard of a certain Marcus Papirius, thus interrupting the ritual devotio gesture. The offended Papirius at once hit the man on the head with his ivory staff. The furious Celt butchered him on the spot, and the other senators soon met the same fate. The devotio was complete.

Looting now began in earnest. Houses were ransacked and set on fire. Many public and private records were consumed in the conflagration, greatly hindering the work of Roman historians like Livy. But the citadel held out. The Celts settled down for a siege.

CAMILLUS WAS NURSING mixed feelings. The victor of Veii had been sent into exile because of a disagreement over distribution of the booty. Sensing that he had become old and useless, he seethed with resentment at his lot. He lodged in a small town not far from Rome and watched events from an impotent distance.

Some lucky star brought Celtic raiders to his vicinity, for it aroused his patriotic wrath and he led the townsfolk in a successful sortie. News of this small victory spread quickly. At Veii, the site of his most famous exploit, the Roman soldiery were coming to regret Camillus’s absence, and after consultation with the Senate he was recalled to become dictator for the second time, the Republic’s fatalis dux (its predestined leader), and resume command of the army.

He was lucky not to have arrived too late, for the Capitol very nearly fell to the invaders. What happened was one of the most delightful stories of Roman history. The Celts noticed that the rocky ascent up the hill from where the Temple of Carmenta, the goddess of childbirth, stood could be easily climbed. One starlit night, an unarmed man was sent to reconnoiter the route and a scaling party followed after him. Although it was a scramble, they made it to the top of the cliff not far from the huge Temple of Jupiter Best and Greatest. The Roman guards heard nothing, and sleeping dogs lay undisturbed.

Livy continues the narrative:

It was the geese that saved them—Juno’s sacred geese, which in spite of the dearth of provisions had not been killed. The cackling of the birds and the clapping of their wings awoke Marcus Manlius—a distinguished officer who had been Consul three years before—and he, seizing his sword and giving the alarm, hurried, without waiting for the support of his bewildered colleagues, straight to the point of danger. One Celt was already up, but Manlius with a blow from the boss of his shield toppled him headlong down the cliff. The falling body carried others with it: many more who dropped their weapons to get a better grip of the rocks were killed by Manlius, and soon more Roman troops were on the scene, tumbling the climbers down with javelins and stones, until every man of them was dislodged and sent hurtling to the bottom of the cliff.

Time passed slowly in the heat of summer. Good hygiene was always difficult to maintain in an ancient army, and an infection spread through the Celtic camp. The invaders lost the energy to burn corpses separately at individual funerals and piled them up in heaps for mass cremation in the Forum Boarium, near the city end of the Pons Sublicius. As late as Livy’s day, the spot was still known as Busta Gallica, or the Celtic Pyres.

As for the defenders on the Capitol, time was no less an enemy. In their case, the challenge was hunger rather than disease. They disguised their shortage of supplies by flinging loaves of bread down into the Celtic outposts. But hope as well as food was beginning to fail. Men were hardly strong enough for guard duty. If only Camillus would arrive soon and relieve the city. But although he was believed to be near at hand, there was neither sight nor sound of him.

Brennus let it be known that he and his horde would abandon Rome for no very great sum of money. So the Senate met and authorized the military tribunes to arrange the terms. A price—a thousand pounds of gold—was agreed. Livy writes:

Insult was added to what was already sufficiently disgraceful, for the weights which the Celts brought for weighing the metal were heavier than standard, and when the Roman commander objected the insolent barbarian flung his sword onto the scale, uttering words intolerable to Roman ears: “Woe to the vanquished”—vae victis.

At the eleventh hour, Camillus turned up at the head of his army. He ordered the gold to be removed and the Celts to leave. As he was dictator, the military tribunes had lost their imperium and their entente with Brennus was null and void. A confused engagement followed, and the surprised Celts withdrew from Rome. A more regular battle was fought eight miles or so east of Rome, on the road to the town of Praeneste. The Celts had had time to reorganize themselves, but for all that the omnicompetent Camillus was again victorious. The Gallic camp was captured and the army annihilated. The greatest danger in which the Republic had ever found itself had passed.

THIS EXCITING NARRATIVE is a blend of fact and fiction. The basic theme, the sack of Rome by the Celts, is indisputable. The humiliation was never forgotten, and Brennus’s proud taunt, vae victis, was an indelible affront. Worse, the barbarians may have gone, but not forever.

For many generations, they remained just beyond the range of peripheral vision, their possible return an abiding nightmare. And, as we shall see, from time to time throughout the history of the Republic the Celts did march down again into the peaceful Italian peninsula. During the prolonged death throes of the Roman Empire many hundreds of years later, successive waves of barbarians followed one after another, and in the fifth century A.D. the much feared calamity occurred. Rome was sacked for a second time, at the hands of a new Brennus—king of the Visigoths, the fearsome Alaric. It would not be long thereafter before the Western Empire itself collapsed.

Elements of the story are not to be trusted, though. The exile of Camillus was probably an invention, to give him an alibi during the sack. His final victory over the Celts and the saving of the gold sound very much like false excuses. We may guess that in fact the invaders left at their leisure, with the classical equivalent of Danegeld in their pockets. Polybius says that “at that moment an invasion of their own territory by the Veneti [a tribe in the area where today’s Venice is located] diverted their attention, and so they made a treaty with the Romans, handed back the city and returned home.”

It took a surprisingly short time for Rome to recover. Having your city looted and burned is obviously a cataclysm. It is reported that some traditional enemies—the Etruscans, the Aequi, and the Volsci—tried their luck and attacked Rome when it was down, but to little effect. Some members of the Latin League suspended or abandoned their alliance with Rome, which dominated the federation. The fact that the city still had most of its army intact, and that Veii and its territory remained in the Republic’s hands, was of far greater importance. New grants of citizenship were awarded to people in the Veii region and in two neighboring towns. Land was distributed to Roman citizens, and in 387 four new tribes were created in the newly conquered territory. None of these measures sound like the actions of a state in crisis.

As for the Celts, they had not disappeared, but it was thirty years before they returned. By that time Rome had fully reestablished its power. The city was quickly, although haphazardly, rebuilt. According to Livy:

All work was hurried and nobody bothered to see that the streets were straight. Individual property rights were ignored and buildings went up wherever there was room for them. This explains why the ancient sewers, which originally followed the line of the streets, now run in many places under private houses, and the general layout of Rome is more like a squatter’s settlement than a properly planned city.

Greater efficiency marked the building of a wall around the city’s perimeter to insure against another invasion. Its circuit ran for about seven miles, longer than the earlier earthworks. In later times, as we have seen, it was attributed to King Servius Tullius, but in fact work began in 378. Up to twenty-four feet high and twelve feet wide, the wall consisted of large rectangular blocks of tufa from the annexed quarries of Veii. On a plateau running southward behind three of the city’s hills—the Quirinal, the Viminal, and the Esquiline—the wall gave way to a vast earthen rampart, revetted with stone, which stood behind a ditch 100 feet wide and 30 feet deep. This ambitious and costly enterprise was funded by an unpopular tax, which bore down heavily on the poor, but once complete Rome was as good as impregnable.

These great Servian fortifications survive in part to this day, but they long ago lost their defensive importance. By the first century, suburbs extended far beyond them, “giving the beholder the impression of a city stretching out indefinitely.” The walls themselves, smothered by buildings, became almost invisible.

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