Rome in the fourth century BCE was not the imperial powerhouse we would recognise from the history books. It was a fledgling nation. This however didnt mean it lacked any of the narcissism, hubris and self-entitlement of its later glory days. Rome had only been founded a century earlier but already its ambassadors and its armies were expanding into southern Europe.
During initial contact with a tribe of Celts called the Seonnes a self-entitled Roman ambassador offended their chieftain. This doesn’t sound too bad however Rome has always had a philosophy of “Go Big or Go Home”, this offence led the Chieftain Brennus to destroy the Roman Armies and would lead to his occupation and eventual ransom of the city itself.
Side Note: I like to think of this ambassador for some perspective when I tell my wife I have had a bad day at work.
Who was Brennus
The Seonnes were a Celtic tribe based around modern day Loriet (northern central France). Our only written records are provided by the Romans and Greeks but we can use archaeological and topological evidence to try and pick out the facts. They are described as extremely war like and proud. Given their apparent rapid expansion through Southern Europe it is likely they were quite expansionist with more than a little martial prowess. There isn’t much to say about them until they came under the rule of Brennus. I suspect there are two factors to this, firstly the dude was almost certainly a boss, secondly Roman historians don’t really bother to write stuff down that doesn’t directly relate to them.
We do know that he commanded one of the largest armies Gaul had rallied. When he defeated other tribes he appears to have offered them a choice, join him or face complete destruction. The tribes he led appeared to be able to maintain some of their cultural identity and some autonomy in their day to day management. He seems only have been interested in men and resources for his army. I would argue, given what we know of Celtic codes of honour he must have been a profoundly charismatic leader. There isn’t any record of descent in his ranks however given no internal records exist its possible he was putting down insurrection left, right and center.
The actual offence offered by the Roman diplomat varies from source to source. Livy and Dio both seem to think that whilst Brennus was doing his thing, invading the known world and looking good doing it, he attacked a trade relation of Romes and Rome sent a diplomat to try and mediate a peace. What we do know about Roman diplomats is that they were not at all diplomatic when dealing with “barbarians” it was likely that the diplomat didnt even try to conceal his contempt for the Chieftain. Whatever happened Brennus was pissed. When I am angry I have a habit of spreading it around and everyone has a bad day, when our boy Brennus gets angry there is a body count in the tens of thousands.
Side Note: The term Barbarian which we use so often when talking about the Romans view of the world is actually an onomatopoeic description provided by the pre-classical Greeks, any language that wasn’t clear Greek to them, especially the guttural languages of Middle Europe just sounded like “bar bar bar bar” so they called them Barbarians, there are even some outlying Greek cities referred to as barbarous because their use of Greek was less clean. What I am saying is that a number of my ex-girlfriends were right in calling me a Barbarian, I don’t speak a word of ancient Greek.
The Battle of Allia
And do our boy went on the March, we are still unsure how be pulled off the logistics of mobilising a large army at such short notice. As a result he caught the Roman Army on the hop. Numbers vary but all accounts agree that the Celts were vastly outnumbered. The best estimate is 30,000 Romans and 16,000 Celts. The Roman commander, in true Roman fashion, was one hell of an arrogant bastard. He had superior numbers, his men were armoured and armed and they were facing half naked and undisciplined.
The Romans had a force occupying the high ground just off of the battlefield, it was expected that the savages would just run straight at the Roman lines and then this secondary force could hit their flank. However Brennus wasn’t a savage, he was a tried and tested warleader with an incredible natural ability for strategy. His first move was to take out the secondary force, his warriors then hammered the Romans fron two sides. The Romans who lacked the training and skill of their later imperial descendants were crushed between the split Celtic forces. In addition to this the Celts weren’t fighting in a way the Romans could understand, their rules of combat were completely different, the Romans favoured rigid structure and group combat, the Celts were a miracle of single combat and individual valour. The lack of armour which was originally the objected of Roman mockery allowed the Celts to fight with great athletic skill bordering on the acrobatic.
Almost all of the sources I have read refer to the Roman forces as utterly helpless to do anything but stand and die. They appeared like children playing at soldiers in the face of the incredible martial skill of these “savages”. Its unclear how many survived the onslaught but one of the Roman commanders appeared it future campaigns. Again all sources agree that Brennus suffered almost no losses.
The occupation and ransom of Rome
What happened next is commonly referred to as the Sacking of Rome however the archaeological record shows very little destruction. Given most of Romes fighting men were sent to Allia its unlikely they had much left to organise a defence and probably very little appetite for resistance. There does appear to have been an evacuation of the city. I use the term loosely as Allia is only ten miles north of Rome and it wouldn’t have left much time, upon learning of the crushing defeat of their forces for the citizens of Rome to bravely do a runner. I prefer to consider this period an occupation, the city was held for no other purpose than to show the world what happens to all who fuck with Brennus and the Seonnes, it was then ransomed back to the Romans.
The narrative of what happened next is beautiful, highly emotive and almost certainly completely untrue. Brennus demanded one thousand pound weight of gold for the return of Rome. There was some dispute over the weight, the Seonnes brought their own which were heavier, the Romans were clearly disgruntled by this to which Brennus threw his sword on the scales (demanding his swords weight in addition) and uttered the now famous phrase “Vae Victis” , Woe to the vanquished. This account primarily comes from Livy, who does love a bit of florid exposition.
And then …..
After this frankly humiliating defeat Rome took centuries to recover. Not only was their reputation seriously shagged but their pride which as we have discussed was core to what it is to be Roman. It doesn’t appear that they learned from this experience though. Yes they became increasingly militaristic and developed weapons and infrastructure that would allow them to march across Europe, they still faced every Celtic warband with contempt and hubris, and more often than we read about they got thoroughly spanked because of it.
This short piece was a detour from some of the other work I am currently doing. However its something that came up in a lot of my recent reading and it plays really well into my Romani non Invicta series. Below are my recommendations if you want to know more.
The Celts (BBC) – A Series hosted by Neil Oliver and Professor Alice Roberts. Both of these historians are incredible and present a really balanced perspective on the rise of Celtic cultures in Europe. As highly experienced educational presenters the format is incredibly accessible.
The Barbarians by Stephen Kewshaw – Again a highly accessible work written by an experienced historian and author. He uses what few sources we have, compares them to the archaeological record and the topography of areas described in the primary histories to create a compelling and balanced timeline of non-Roman interactions with Rome (because anyone not Roman was clearly a barbarian).
Ab Urbe Condita by Livy – As close to a primary sources we can get, almost certainly entirely made up and impenetrably florid. I would only recommend this one for hardcore history nerds (like me).
Bibliotheca Historica by Dio – if Livy had a a Greek twin it would be Dio.