Celts: Livy on legends of fourth century BCE migrations and an invasion of Rome (late first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Livy on legends of fourth century BCE migrations and an invasion of Rome (late first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 26, 2024, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=12294.

Ancient authors: Poseidonios (FGrHist 87 F16), Timagenes (FGrHist 88 F2, 7, 14, 15), or some other Greek author as employed by Livy, Roman History 5.32-35 (link to FGrHist) and 5.36-49 (link).

Comments: Little is known about the life or family of Livy of Patavium (Padua) in northern Italy, but he was among the few early Roman historians to incorporate some Greek approaches to writing history, including the ethnographic digression. Livy’s work on the history of Rome From the Founding of the City (usually just called Roman History) covered the period from origins to his present, finishing in 9 BCE in the edition we have, which places him in the late first century BCE.

In this important passage, Livy is relating historical events at the city of Rome in the early fourth century BCE and the mention of the threat of an invasion of Gauls (or Celts as they would be called in Greek) leads him into a digression on what we would call legends of migration by these peoples from the north down into northern Italy. Livy knows of a tale that says that the whole thing was set in motion by the desire for Italian wine (very Italocentric), but he also goes into an outline of the various subgroups of Celts (transliterating the Greek) or Gauls (transliterating the Latin, Livy’s language) that came down into Italy, according to the sources he is using and / or his own guesses.

As R.M. Ogilvie’s commentary on Livy clarifies, most scholars point to signs of Livy using a Greek ethnographic source for this digression on Celtic migration. Although Livy nowhere states his source, the most common scholarly suggestions are that he used parts of Poseidonios of Apameia’s (link) or Timagenes of Alexandria’s (link) first century BCE works on the Celtic area in this case, but generally speaking in other sections Livy also seems to make use of Polybios (link). As Ogilvie observes, the “detailed account of the migrating tribes which follows is founded not on historical fact but ultimately on the ethnographical rationalizations made, in particular by Greeks, during the second and first centuries at Rome” (Ogilvie 1965, 705). In this case, the Celtic sub-groups mentioned by Livy reflect his own post-Caesarian time more so than some earlier historical era. As we may be used to by now, Greek and Roman ethnographic descriptions are not really valuable for accurate historical information regarding the actual incidents or peoples described as much as they are for understanding postures that particular individuals or groups (in this case a literate Roman author) took in relation to other peoples in particular times and places. This introduction to the Gauls by Livy sets the stage for his extended discussion of specific fourth century BCE incidents involving the Gauls’ relations with Rome, which to Livy all sets the stage for future Roman dominance.

I have now also added the continuing narrative with Livy’s account of a supposed invasion of Gauls as far as Rome itself (which Livy places ca. 391 BCE). Although Livy’s portrayal of Gauls as a people is somewhat scattered throughout, the overall picture of erratic and violent Gauls and composed and pious Romans comes through nonetheless.

Works consulted: R.M. Ogilvie, A Commentary on Livy: Books 1-5 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), 699-715.


[Threat of invasion by Gauls in 391 BCE as the context for the digression]

32 . . . (6) In the same year [ca. 391 BCE] Marcus Caedicius, a plebeian, reported to the tribunes, that in the Nova Via, where the chapel now stands above the temple of Vesta, he had heard in the silence of the night a voice more distinct than a man’s, which instructed him to tell the magistrates that the Gauls (Galli) were approaching. (7) This sign was neglected, as often happens, because of the informant’s low status, and because that descent group (gens) was remote and therefore not well known. And not only did they reject the warnings of the gods, as their doom drew closer, but they even sent away from the city the only human assistance available with them, in the person of Marcus Furius. (8) He had been indicted by Lucius Apuleius, tribune of the plebs, on account of the spoils of Veii [city in Etruria], just at the time of losing his youthful son. . . [omitted details about Furius].

[Tale about Gaul’s motivations to move south: wine]

33 After the expulsion of that citizen whose presence, if anything in this life is certain, would have made the capture of Rome impossible, disaster approached the ill-fated city with the arrival of envoys from the men of Clusium [modern Chiusi, Tuscany] seeking help against the Gauls. (2) The story runs that this descent group, allured by the delicious fruits and especially the wine – then a novel luxury – had crossed the Alps and possessed lands that had previously been farmed by the Etruscans. (3) Also, wine had been imported into Gaul expressly to entice them, by Arruns of Clusium, in his anger at the seduction of his wife by Lucumo. This youth, Lucumo, whose guardian Arruns had been, was so powerful that Arruns could not have punished him without calling in a foreign force. (4) It was he who is said to have guided the Gauls across the Alps, and to have suggested the attack on Clusium. Now I would not deny that Arruns or some other citizen brought the Gauls to Clusium, but that those who besieged Clusium were not the first who had passed the Alps is generally agreed. (5) In fact, it was two hundred years before the attack on Clusium and the capture of Rome that the Gauls first crossed over into Italy. Furthermore, the Clusinians were not the first of the Etruscans with whom they fought. (6) Rather, long before that, the Gallic armies had often given battle to those who lived between the mountain ranges of the Apennines and the Alps.

[Etruscan inhabitants in north-central Italy]

(7) Until the rise of Roman domination, Tuscan influence stretched over a wide expanse of land and sea. The magnitude of their power on the upper and the lower seas (by which Italy is surrounded like an island) is apparent from the names, since the Italian descent groups have called one of them Tuscan, the general designation of the descent group, and the other Hadriatic, from Hatria, an Etruscan colony. The Greeks know the same seas as Tyrrhenian and Adriatic. (9) In the lands which slope on either side towards one of these seas, they had two sets of twelve cities: First there were the twelve cities on this side the Apennines, towards the lower sea, (10) to which they later added the same number of cities beyond the Apennines. They sent over as many colonies as there were original cities and took possession of all the transpadane region (except the angle belonging to the Venetians who dwell around the gulf) as far as the Alps. (11) The Alpine descent groups have also, no doubt, the same origin, especially the Raetians. They have been made so savage by the very nature of the country as to retain nothing of their ancient character except the sound of their speech, and even that is corrupted.

[Early migrations of the Gauls south of the Alps]

34 Concerning the migration of the Gauls (Galli) into Italy we are told as follows: While Tarquinius Priscus reigned at Rome [imagined by Livy to be in the seventh century BCE], the Celts (Celtae), who make up one of the three divisions of Gaul, were under the domination of the Biturigians (Bituriges), and the Biturigians supplied the Celtic people with a king. (2) Ambigatus was then the man, and his talents, together with his own and the general good fortune, had brought him great distinction. Under his control, Gaul grew so rich in grain and so populous, that it seemed hardly possible to govern so large a population. (3) The king, who was now an old man and wished to relieve his kingdom of a burdensome throng, announced that he meant to send Bellovesus and Segovesus, his sister’s sons, two enterprising young men, to find such homes as the gods might assign to them by divination (augury). (4) The king promised them that they should head as large a number of emigrants as they themselves desired, so that no descent group might be able to prevent their settlement. At this point, the Hercynian highlands were assigned by lot to Segovesus. But to Bellovesus the gods proposed a far more pleasant road into Italy. (5) Taking out with him the surplus population of the Biturigians, Arvernians (Arverni), Senonians (Senones), Haeduians (Haedui), Ambarrians (Ambarri), Carnutians (Carnutes), and Aulercians (Aulerci), he marched with vast numbers of infantry and cavalry into the country of the Tricastinians (Tricastini).

(6) The Alps were positioned opposite them. I for one do not wonder that the Alps seemed insuperable, for as yet no road had led across them, at least as far back as tradition reaches, unless one believes the stories about Herakles. (7) While they were there fenced in as it were by the lofty mountains, and were looking around to discover where they might cross, over heights that reached the sky, into another world, superstition also held them back, because it had been reported to them that some strangers seeking lands were harassed by the Saluians (Salui). (8) These were the Massalians, who had come in ships from Phokaia [Greek city in western Asia Minor / Turkey]. The Gauls, regarding this as a good omen of their own success, gave them assistance so that they fortified, without opposition from the Saluians, the spot which they had first seized after landing [modern Marseille]. (9) They themselves crossed the Alps through the Taurine passes and the pass of the Duria. They defeated the Etruscans in battle not far from the river Ticinus. Learning that they were encamped in what was called the country of the Insubrians (Insubres), who bore the same name as an Haeduan district, they regarded it as a place of good omen and founded a city there which they called Mediolanium [Milan].

35 Presently another band, consisting of Cenomanians (Cenomani) led by Etitovius, followed in the tracks of the earlier emigrants. After crossing the Alps by the same pass with the approval of Bellovesus, they established themselves where the cities of Brixia [Brescia] and Verona are now. (2) After these the Lubuians (Libui) came and settled, and the Salluvians (Salluvii) settling right by the ancient descent group of the Laevian Ligurians (Ligures), on the shores of the river Ticinus [Ticino]. Then, over the Poenine pass, came the Boians (Boii) and Lingonians (Lingones). Finding everything claimed between the Po and the Alps, they crossed the Po on rafts and drove out not only the Etruscans but also the Umbrians from their lands. Nevertheless, they kept on the further side of the Apennine mountains. (3) Then the Senonians, the latest to arrive, had their holdings from the river Utens all the way to the Aesis [Esino] river. This was the descent group, I find, which came to Clusium and from there to Rome, but it is uncertain whether this was alone or assisted by all the peoples of Gaul on this side of the Alps (Cisalpine Gaul).

[Reaction of those at Clusium to the invasion and involvement of the Romans]

(4) The men of Clusium were alarmed by this strange invasion when they saw the size of the invading population, the unfamiliar figures of the men, and their novel weapons and when they heard that on many battle fields on this side of the Po river, as well as beyond it, these same people had gotten rid of the levies of Etruria. Although they had no rights of alliance or friendship with the Romans – except that they had refused to defend their kinsmen the Veientians (Veientes) against the Roman People – the men of Clusium nonetheless dispatched envoys to Rome to ask for help from the senate. (5) As for the help, they were unsuccessful.

However, the three sons of Marcus Fabius Ambustus were sent as ambassadors [ca. 391 BCE] to protest with the Gauls, in the name of the senate and the Roman People, against their attack on those who had done them no wrong, and were the Roman People’s allies and friends. (6) The Romans, they said, would be obliged to defend them even to the point of going to war if circumstances should make it necessary. However, it had seemed preferable that the war itself should, if possible, be avoided, and that they should become familiar with the Gauls – a new descent group to them – in a friendly rather than in a hostile manner.

[Gauls demand land in diplomatic relations with Romans, and clashes begin]

36 It was a peaceful embassy, had it not been for the violence of the Roman ambassadors, who were more like Gauls than Romans. (2) When the Roman ambassadors had made known their mission in the council, the Gauls replied to them that, although they only heard the designation “Roman” for the first time, they could still believe that they were respectable men, since the Clusians had sought the Romans’ help in time of danger. (3) Since the Gauls had chosen to defend their allies by negotiation rather than by the sword, they would not, for their own part, spurn the peace which the Romans proposed, if the men of Clusium, who possessed more land than they could till, would surrender to the Gauls, who needed land, a portion of their territory; on no other terms could they consider granting peace. (4) They added that they desired to be answered in the presence of the Romans, and that if land were refused them, it was under the eyes of these same Romans that they meant to fight. They would do this so that they might be able to tell their friends how greatly the Gauls were superior to all other men in prowess. (5) When the Romans asked what conceivable right they had to demand land of its occupants under threat of war, and what business Gauls had in Etruria, they were harshly informed that the new-comers carried their right with the threat of the sword and that all things belonged to the brave.

(6) Since angry emotions were being provoked on both sides, they ran to their weapons and began to fight. Forced by the fate which was even then urging Rome to its doom, the Roman ambassadors took up weapons in defiance of the common law of all peoples (iure gentium) [i.e. that ambassadors should not instigate war on their own]. The strangers’ bravery was so conspicuous that it did not pass unnoticed that, at very fore-front of the Tuscan line, three of the noblest and most valiant of the Roman youth were fighting. (7) Quintus Fabius even rode out in front of the line, and meeting the Gallic leader as he charged boldly at the very standards of the Etruscans, ran his spear through his side and killed him. (8) As Fabius was engaged in taking spoils from this man, the Gauls recognized him and the word passed through all the army that it was the Roman ambassador. At that point the Gauls did not hold back their anger at the Clusians and sounded the retreat, uttering threats against the Romans.

Some of the Gauls were in favour of marching against Rome immediately. Yet the older men brought them over to send ambassadors first to complain about the Romans’ wrongs, and to demand they surrender members of the Fabius family in satisfaction for their violation of the common law of peoples. (9) When the Gallic emissaries had stated their mission according to instructions, the senate disapproved of the conduct of members of the Fabius family and felt that the demands of the barbarians were just. However, their own interests would not allow them, in the case of men of such high position, to decree what they approved. (10) To prevent the blame from resting with the senate if a Gallic war by chance brought disaster, they referred the demands of the Gauls to the people for consideration. With the people, wealth and influence carried so much more weight, that the men whose punishment was under discussion were elected consular tribunes for the ensuing year. (11) At this the Gauls were enraged, as they had every right to be. They returned to their people with open threats of war. The tribunes of the soldiers chosen with the three members of the Fabius family were Quintus Sulpicius Longus, Quintus Servilius (for his fourth term), and Publius Cornelius Maluginensis.

[Romans prepare for war]

37 In keeping with the type of blindness Fortune brings to men’s minds when she wants her increasing power to have no hindrance, now a terrible disaster approached that city which, against the Fidenatians (Fidenates), Veientians (Veientes) and other neighbouring enemies, had on many occasions resorted to the last expedient and named a dictator. (2) Though a previously unknown enemy was rousing up war from the ocean and the remotest corners of the world, this was a city, I say, that had recourse to authority and help. (3) The tribunes whose rashness had brought on the war were in supreme command. They conducted the levy with no greater care than had usually been employed in preparing for ordinary campaigns, and even downplayed the rumoured seriousness of the danger.

[Gauls begin to invade due to their uncontrollable and innate blazing anger]

(4) Meanwhile, on learning that honours had actually been conferred on men who had violated the rights of humankind [i.e. the offenders had been chosen tribunes] and that the Gauls’ embassy had been made light of, the Gauls were consumed with blazing anger (an emotion which their descent group is powerless to control). They immediately picked up their standards and set their column in rapid motion. (5) As they marched swiftly and noisily on, the terrified cities quickly armed themselves, and the peasants fled. But the Gauls signified with loud cries, wherever they came, that Rome was their goal, and their horsemen and foot-soldiers in an extended line covered a vast tract of ground. (6) Yet, even though rumours and the report of the Clusians preceded them, as well as messages from other peoples afterwards, extreme fear came over Rome due to the enemy’s swiftness.

An army quickly pulled together 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. [8] The whole country in front and around was now swarming with the enemy, who, being a descent group given to wild outbreaks, had by their hideous howls and discordant clamour filled everything with dreadful noise.

[Continuing preparations for battle]

38 [Preferable Roberts translation from here on.] The consular tribunes had secured no position for their camp, had constructed no entrenchments behind which to rest, and had shown as much disregard of the gods as of the enemy. This was because the Romans formed their order of battle without having obtained a favourable divinatory result (auspices). (2) They extended their line on either wing to prevent their being outflanked, but even so they could not make their front equal to the enemy’s, while by thinning their line in this way they weakened the centre so that it could hardly keep in touch. On their right was a small projection which they decided to hold with reserves. This disposition, though it was the beginning of the panic and flight, proved to be the only means of safety to the fugitives.

(3) Bennus, the Gauls’ chieftain, feared some trick in the scanty numbers of the enemy and thought that the rising ground was occupied in order that the reserves might attack the flank and the rear of the Gauls while their front was engaged with the legions. So he directed his attack upon the reserves, feeling quite certain that if he drove them from their position, his overwhelming numbers would give him an easy victory on the level ground. So not only Fortune but tactics also were on the side of the barbarians.

[Romans flee in fear of the Gauls]

(5) In the other army there was nothing to remind one of Romans either amongst the generals or the private soldiers. They were terrified, and all they thought about was flight. They had so completely gone out of their minds that a far greater number fled to Veii, a hostile city, though the Tiber lay in their way, than by the direct road to Rome, to their wives and children. For a short time the reserves were protected by their position. (6) In the rest of the army, no sooner was the battle-cry heard on their flank by those nearest to the reserves, and then by those at the other end of the line heard in their rear, than they fled, whole and uninjured, almost before they had seen their untried enemy, without any attempt to fight or even to return a battle-cry. (7) None were killed while actually fighting; they were cut down from behind while hindering one another’s flight in a confused, struggling mass. (8) Along the bank of the Tiber, where the whole of the left wing had fled, after throwing away their weapons, there was great slaughter. Many who were unable to swim or were hampered by the weight of their breast-plates and other armour were sucked down by the current. (9) However, the majority reached Veii in safety, yet not only were no troops sent from there to defend the city, but not even was a messenger despatched to report the defeat to Rome. (10) 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.

[Gauls arrive outside Rome]

39 The Gauls for their part were almost dumbfounded with astonishment at so sudden and extraordinary a victory. At first they did not dare to move from the spot, as though puzzled by what had happened. Then they began to fear a surprise. Finally, they began to take spoils from the dead and, as is their custom, to pile up the weapons in heaps. (2) Finally, as no hostile movement was anywhere visible, they commenced their march and reached Rome shortly before sunset. The horsemen, who had ridden on in front, reported that the gates were not shut, there were no pickets on guard in front of them, and no troops on the walls. This second surprise, as extraordinary as the previous one, held them back. Fearing a night-time conflict in the streets of an unknown city, they stopped and camped between Rome and the Anio. (3) Parties of spies were sent out to examine the circuit of the walls and the other gates, and to ascertain what plans their enemies were forming in their desperate plight.

(4) As for the Romans, since the greater number had fled from the field in the direction of Veii instead of Rome, it was universally believed that the only survivors were those who had found refuge in Rome. Mourning for all who were lost, whether living or dead, filled the whole city with the cries of sadness. (5) But the sounds of private grief were stifled by the general terror when it was announced that the enemy were at hand. Presently the yells and wild war-howls of the squadrons were heard as they rode around the walls. (6) All the time until the next day’s dawn the citizens were in such a state of suspense that they expected from moment to moment an attack on the city. (7) They expected it first when the enemy approached the walls, for they would have remained at the Alia had not this been their object. Then just before sunset they thought the enemy would attack because there was not much daylight left. Still then when night was fallen they imagined that the attack was delayed until that point to create even more terror. (8) Finally, the approach of the next day deprived them of their senses. The entrance of the enemy’s standards within the gates was the dreadful climax to fears that had known no rest.

[Romans’ devotion to sacred customs and noble reaction to impending doom]

But all through that night and the following day the citizens presented a complete contrast to those who had fled in such terror at the Alia. (9) Realizing the hopelessness of attempting any defence 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. After gathering stores of weapons and provisions, they should from that fortified position defend their gods, themselves, and the great name of Rome. (11) The priest and priestesses of Vesta were to carry the sacred things of the city 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. (12) If only the citadel and the capitol, the dwelling of gods; if only the senate, the guiding mind of the people’s purpose; if only the men of military age all survived the impending ruin of the city, then the loss of the crowd of old men left behind in the city could be easily sustained. Anyways, they were certain to die. (13) 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 weapons or defend their country.

40 So they tried to comfort one another, these aged men doomed to death. Then they turned with words of encouragement to the younger men on their way to the citadel and capitol, and solemnly commended to their strength and courage all that was left of the fortunes of a city which for three hundred and sixty years had been victorious in all its wars. (2) As those who were carrying with them all hope and support finally separated from those who had resolved not to survive the fall of the city, the misery of the scene was heightened by the distress of the women. (3) Their tears, their distracted running around as they followed first their husbands then their sons, their imploring appeals to them not to leave them to their fate, made up a picture in which no element of human misery was missing. (4) A great number of them actually followed their sons into the capitol, none forbidding or inviting them, because even though diminishing the number of non-combatants would have helped the besieged, it was too inhuman a step to take. (5) Another crowd, mainly of plebeians, for whom there was not room on so small a hill or enough food in the scanty store of grain, poured out of the city in one continuous line and made for the Janiculan hill. (6) From there they dispersed, some over the country, others towards the neighbouring cities, without any leader or concerted action, each following his own aims, his own ideas and all despairing of the people’s safety.

While all this was going on, the priest of Quirinus and the Vestal virgins, without giving a thought to their own property, were deliberating as to which of the sacred things they should take with them, and which to leave behind, since they had not strength enough to carry all, and also what place would be the safest for their custody. (8) They thought it was best to conceal what they could not take in earthen jars and bury them under the chapel next to the priest’s house (where spitting is now forbidden). The rest they divided amongst them and carried off, taking the road which leads by the Pons Sublicius to the Janiculan hill. (9) While ascending that hill they were seen by L. Albinius, a Roman plebeian who with the rest of the crowd who were unfit for war was leaving the city. Even in that critical hour, the distinction between the sacred and the human was not forgotten. (10) He had his wife and children with him in a wagon, and it seemed to him an act of impiety for him and his family to be seen in a vehicle while the priests should be trudging along on foot, bearing the sacred vessels of Rome. He ordered his wife and children to get down, put the virgins and their sacred burden in the wagon, and drove them to Caere, their destination.

41 After all the arrangements that the situation 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. (2) Those who had filled curule offices resolved to meet their fate wearing the insignia of their former rank, honour, and distinctions. They put on the splendid clothing which they wore when conducting the chariots of the gods or riding in triumph through the city. Dressed in this way, they seated themselves in their ivory chairs in front of their houses. (3) Some writers record that, led by M. Fabius, the high priest, they recited the solemn formula in which they devoted themselves to death for their country and the Quirites.

[Gauls enter Rome, react to what they find, and engage in slaughter]

As the Gauls were refreshed by a night’s rest after a battle which had at no point been seriously contested, and as they were not now taking the city by assault or storm, their entrance the next day was not marked by any signs of excitement or anger. Passing the Colline gate, which was standing open, they came to the forum and gazed round at the temples and at the citadel, which alone wore any appearance of war. (5) They left there a small body to guard against any attack from the citadel or capitol while they were scattered, and then they dispersed in search of plunder through streets in which they did not meet a soul. Some poured together into all the houses near, others made for the most distant ones, expecting to find them untouched and full of spoils. (6) Appalled by the very desolation of the place and dreading in case some stratagem should surprise the stragglers, they returned to the neighbourhood of the forum in close order. (7) The houses of the plebeians were barricaded, the halls of the patricians stood open, but they felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. (8) They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. (9) So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, until, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, provoked the emotion of a Gaul who began to stroke his beard (in those days everyone wore long beards) by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs. (10) After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was spared afterwards. The houses were rifled, and then set on fire.

42 Now, it is not certain whether it was that the Gauls were not all motivated by a passion for the destruction of the city. Nor is it certain whether their chiefs had decided, on the one hand, to present the spectacle of a few fires as a means of intimidating the besieged into surrender from a desire to save their homes and, on the other, by abstaining from a universal conflagration to hold what remained of the city as a pledge by which to weaken their enemies’ determination. What is certain is that the fires were far from being so indiscriminate or extensive as one might expect on the first day of a captured city. (3) As the Romans beheld from the citadel the city filled with the enemy who were running around in all the streets, while some new disaster was constantly occurring, first in one quarter then in another, the Romans could no longer control their eyes and ears, let alone their thoughts and feelings. (4) 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, they turned their eyes and minds as though set by Fortune to be spectators of their country’s fall. They were powerless to protect anything left of all they possessed beyond their lives. (5) They were to be pitied beyond anyone who has ever faced a siege since they were cut off from the land of their birth and saw 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 bit more restful, this again by a day of anguish. There was not a single hour free from the sight of some ever fresh calamity. (7) And yet, even though they were weighed down and overwhelmed with so many misfortunes, even though 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. (8) In the long run, 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 around them to their weapons and the sword in their right hand, which they gazed upon as the only things left to give them hope.

[Confrontation at the citadel]

43 For some days the Gauls had been making useless war merely upon the houses of the city. Now that they saw nothing surviving amidst the ashes and ruin of the captured city except an armed enemy whom all these disasters had failed to appal, and who would entertain no thought of surrender unless force were employed, they determined as a last resort to make an assault on the citadel. (2) At daybreak the signal was given and the whole of their number formed up in the forum. Raising their battle-cry and locking their shields together over their heads, they advanced. The Romans awaited the attack without excitement or fear. The detachments were strengthened to guard all the approaches. In whatever direction they saw the enemy advancing, there they posted a picked body of men and allowed the enemy to climb up, because the steeper the ground they got on to, the easier they thought it would be to fling them down the slope.

(3) About half way up the hill the Gauls stopped. Then from the higher ground, which of itself almost hurled them against the enemy, the Romans charged, and defeated the Gauls with such loss and overthrow that they never again attempted that mode of fighting either with detachments or in full strength. (4) All hope, therefore, of forcing a passage by direct assault being put aside, they made preparations for a blockade. Up to that time they had never thought of attempting one. All the grain in the city had been destroyed in the fires, while the grain in the fields nearby had been quickly carried off to Veii since the occupation of the city. (5) So the Gauls decided to divide their forces: one division was to invest the citadel, the other to forage amongst the neighbouring cities so that they could supply grain to those who were keeping up the engagement.

[Roman courage on display for Gauls and Marcus Furius Camillus’ legendary speech to the Romans]

It was Fortune herself who led the Gauls after they left the city to Ardea, so that they might have some experience of Roman courage. (7) Camillus was living there as an exile. He was grieving more over his country’s fortunes than his own, he was eating his heart out in reproaches to gods and men, he was asking in indignant wonder where the men were with whom he had taken Veii and Falerii, men whose valour in all their wars was greater even than their success. (8) Suddenly he heard that the Gauls’ army was approaching, and that the Ardeates were engaged in anxious deliberation about it.

Camillus had generally avoided the council meetings, but now, seized with an inspiration nothing short of divine, he hurried to the assembled councillors and addressed them as follows:

44 “Men of Ardea [suburb south of Rome]! Friends of old, and now my fellow-citizens – for this your kindness has granted and this my fortunes have compelled – let none of you imagine that I have come here in forgetfulness of my position. The force of circumstances and shared danger constrain every man to contribute what help he can to meet the crisis. When will I ever be able to show my gratitude for all the obligations you have conferred if I fail in my duty now? (2) When will I ever be of any use to you if not in war? It was through war that I held my position in my native city as having never known defeat. In times of peace my ungrateful countrymen banished me. (3) Now the chance is offered to you, men of Ardea, of proving your gratitude for all the kindness that Rome has shown you. You have not forgotten how great it is, nor need I bring it up against those who so well remember it. You have the chance of winning for your city a vast reputation for war at the expense of our common enemy.

[Characterization of Gauls]

“Those who are coming here in loose and disorderly fashion are a descent group (gens) to whom nature has given bodies and minds distinguished by bulk rather than by resolution and endurance. (4) It is for this reason that they bring into every battle a terrifying appearance rather than real force. Take the disaster of Rome as a proof. (5) They captured the city because it lay open to them. A small force repelled them from the citadel and capitol. Already a tiring investment has proved too much for them. They are giving it up and wandering through the fields in straggling parties. (6) When they are gorged with food and the wine they drink so greedily, they throw themselves down like wild beasts, on the approach of night, in all directions by the streams, without building trenches or setting any outposts or pickets on guard. And now after their success they are more careless than ever. (7) If it is your intention to defend your walls and not to allow all this country to become a second Gaul, seize your weapons and muster in force by the first watch and follow me to what will be a massacre, not a battle. If I do not deliver them, while enchained by sleep, into your hands to be slaughtered like cattle, I am ready to accept the same fate in Ardea which I met with in Rome.”

[Slaughter of Gauls]

45 Both friends and opponents were persuaded that nowhere else was there at that time so great a master of war. After the council broke up they refreshed themselves and waited eagerly for the signal to be given. When it was given in the silence of the night they were at the gates ready for Camillus. (2) After marching no great distance from the city they came upon the camp of the Gauls, unprotected, as he had said, and carelessly open on every side. (3) They raised a tremendous shout and rushed in. There was no battle, it was a complete massacre everywhere. The Gauls, defenceless and fast asleep, were butchered where they slept. Those in the furthest part of the camp, however, startled from their lairs, and not knowing where the attack was coming from and what was happening, fled in terror. Some actually rushed, unawares, among their attackers. (4) A considerable number were carried into the neighbourhood of Antium, where they were surrounded by the townsmen.

[Slaughter of Etruscans at Veii]

A similar slaughter of Etruscans took place in the district of Veii. So far were these people from feeling sympathy with a city which for almost four centuries had been their neighbour, and was now crushed by an enemy never seen or heard of before, that they chose that time for making forays into Roman territory. After loading themselves with plunder, intended to attack Veii, the bulwark and only surviving hope of the Roman name. (5) The Roman soldiers at Veii had seen them dispersed through the fields, and afterwards, with their forces collected, driving their booty in front of them. (6) Their first feelings were those of despair, then indignation and rage took possession of them. “Are even the Etruscans,” they exclaimed, “from whom we have diverted the weapons of Gaul on to ourselves, to find amusement in our disasters?” (7) With difficulty they restrained themselves from attacking them. Caedicius, a centurion whom they had placed in command, induced them to defer operations till nightfall. (8) The only thing lacking was a commander like Camillus, in all other respects the ordering of the attack and the success achieved were the same as if he had been present. Not content with this, they made some prisoners who had survived the night’s massacre act as guides, and, led by them, surprised another body of Tuscans at the salt works and inflicted a still greater loss upon them. Ecstatic about this double victory, they returned to Veii.

[C. Favius Dorsuo’s demonstration of Roman piety and bravery]

46 During these days there was little going on in Rome. The investment was maintained for the most part with great slackness. Both sides were keeping quiet, the Gauls being mainly intent on preventing any of the enemy from slipping through their lines. Suddenly a Roman warrior drew upon himself the admiration of foes and friends alike. (2) 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 soldiers, unmoved by either challenge or threat, and reached the Quirinal. (3) There he duly performed all the solemn rites and returned with the same composed expression and stance, 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. Either the Gauls were shocked at his extraordinary boldness, or else they were restrained by a sense of obligation regarding ritual, because as a descent group they are by no means inattentive to this. . . [omitted paragraphs].

[Gauls sneak up the citadel and Manlius stops them]

47 While these proceedings were taking place at Veii, the citadel and capitol of Rome were in imminent danger. (2) 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 weapons where the path was difficult and supporting each other or dragging each other up as the ground required, they finally reached the (3) 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 (4) sounds.

However, the Gauls 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 fight, and while the rest hung back he used the boss of his shield to strike a Gaul who had got a foothold on the summit and Manlius knocked the Gaul down. (5) He fell on those behind and upset them, and Manlius killed others who had set down 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 until the entire group fell helplessly down to the bottom. (6) When the uproar had died away, the remainder of the night was given to sleep, as far as was possible under such disturbing circumstances, while their peril, though past, still made them anxious. . . [omitted paragraph].

A stricter watch was now kept on both sides: by the Gauls because it had become known that messengers were passing between Rome and Veii; and, by the Romans, who had not forgotten the danger the Gauls posed that night.

[Famine and disease kills off Gauls]

48 But the worst thing that happened as a result of the siege and the war was the famine which began to afflict both armies, while the Gauls also faced disease. (2) They had their camp on low-lying ground between the hills, which had been scorched by the fires and was full of malaria, and the least breath of wind raised not dust only but ashes. (3) Accustomed as a descent group to wet and cold, they could not stand this at all. Tortured as they were by heat and suffocation, disease became rife among them, and they died off like sheep. They soon grew weary of burying their dead individually, so they piled the bodies into heaps and burned them indiscriminately and made the locality notorious. Afterwards it was known as the Busta Gallica [Funeral Pyre of Gauls].

(4) Subsequently a truce was made with the Romans, and with the sanction of the commanders, the soldiers held conversations with each other. The Gauls were continually bringing up the famine and asking them to yield to necessity and surrender. To remove this impression it is said that bread was thrown in many places from the capitol among the enemies. (5) But soon the famine could neither be concealed nor endured any longer.

[Condition of the Romans, discussions of ransom, and Camillus’ return and defeat of Gauls]

At this very time that the dictator [Furius Camillus] was raising his own levy at Ardea; ordering his master of the horse, L. Valerius, to withdraw his army from Veii; and, making preparations for a sufficient force with which to attack the enemy on equal terms. The army of the capitol was worn out with incessant duty but still superior to all human ills, if nature had not made famine alone insurmountable for them. Every day they were eagerly watching for signs of any help from the dictator. (7) Finally, not only food but hope failed them. Whenever the sentinels went on duty, their feeble frames almost crushed by the weight of their armour, the army insisted that they should either surrender or purchase their ransom on the best terms they could. The Gauls were throwing out unmistakable hints that they could be induced to abandon the siege for a moderate consideration. (8) A meeting of the senate was now held, and the consular tribunes were empowered to come to terms with the Gauls. A conference took place between Q. Sulpicius, the consular tribune, and Brennus, the chieftain of the Gauls, and an agreement was arrived at by which one thousand pounds of gold was fixed as the ransom of a people destined before long to rule the world. (9) This humiliation was great enough as it was, but it was aggravated by the despicable meanness of the Gauls, who produced unjust weights. When the tribune protested, the insolent Gaul threw his sword into the scale, with an exclamation intolerable to Roman ears: “Woe to the defeated!”

49 But gods and men alike prevented the Romans from living as a ransomed people. By a dispensation of Fortune it came about that before the infamous ransom was completed and all the gold weighed out, while the dispute was still going on, the dictator appeared on the scene and ordered the gold to be carried away and the Gauls to go away. (2) As they declined to do so, and protested that a definite compact had been made, he informed them that when he was once appointed dictator no compact was valid which was made by an inferior magistrate without his sanction. (3) He then warned the Gauls to prepare for battle, and ordered his men to pile their baggage into a heap, get their weapons ready, and win their country back by steel, not by gold. They must keep before their eyes the temples of the gods, their wives and children, and their country’s soil, disfigured by the ravages of war, in other words everything which it was their duty to defend, to recover or to avenge. (4) He then drew up his men in the best formation that the nature of the ground, naturally uneven and now half burnt, allowed. He made every provision that his military skill suggested for securing the advantage of position and movement for his men.

The Gauls, alarmed at the turn things had taken, seized their weapons and rushed upon the Romans with more rage than method. (5) Fortune had now turned, with divine aid and human skill on the side of Rome. At the very first encounter the Gauls were defeated as easily as they had conquered at the Alia. (6) In a second and more sustained battle at the eighth milestone on the road to Gabii, where they had rallied from their flight, they were again defeated under the generalship and responsibility of Camillus. (7) Here the carnage was complete; the camp was taken, and not a single man was left to carry news of the disaster.

After recovering his country from the enemy in this way, the dictator returned in triumph to the city, and amongst the jokes which soldiers are accustomed to deliver, he was called in no idle words of praise, “A Romulus,” “Father of his country,” and “Second Founder of the city.” He had saved his country in war, and now that peace was restored, he proved, beyond all doubt, to be its saviour again, when he prevented the migration to Veii. (8) The tribunes of the plebeians were urging this course more strongly than ever now that the city was burnt, and the plebeians were themselves more in favour of it. (9) This movement and the pressing appeal which the senate made to him not to abandon the republic while the position of affairs was so doubtful, determined him not to lay down his dictatorship after his triumph. . . [omitted lengthy account of Camillus’ actions to purify Rome and his lengthy speech retelling the story as Providence guiding the Romans].

[For Livy’s subsequent discussion  of x peoples, go to this link (coming soon)]


Source of the translation: B.O. Foster, F. Gardner, and E.T. Sage, Livy, volumes 1-11, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1919-1936), public domain (Foster [vols. 1-5] passed away in 1938, Gardner [vols. 6-8] in 1955, and Sage [vols. 9, 11] in 1936), adapted by Harland. For sections 38 and following, I switched to the much better translation of W.M. Roberts, Livy: The History of Rome (London: Dent and Sons, 1912), public domain, adapted by Harland (link).

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