Umm how to put this? The Romans were not all-powerful and invincible. In the late 4th century BC, they were still a regional entity with struggles that they could not overcome. The Romans were, like everybody else, amateurs once. So it is only fair that in addition to the glorious military success of Rome, we talk about the utterly humiliating defeats it had to bear. Luckily, the Battle of Allia happens to be just that. (Personally, I hate this battle because so many precious artifacts and primary sources of the period were lost when Rome was sacked and that has left so many loopholes in Rome’s history. Oh also it traumatized a whole city-state so that.)
Background of the Battle of Allia
So a lot of Gallic tribes had been migrating across the Apennine Mountains and along the Danube. They invaded much of northern Italy and settled on the Adriatic Coast. The one tribe we’re going to talk about is the Senones.
The most popular version of the pretext of this battle starts with a young man named Aruns, who called the Gauls to Clusium, an Etruscan town, to take his revenge against a Lucumo, who according to Dionysius of Halicarnassus was the king of the city. This Lucumo had taken advantage of his influence and raped Aruns’ wife. When the Senones came to Clusium, its people asked Rome for help in case of a possible invasion. The Romans sent the three sons of Marcus Fabius Ambustus, one of Rome’s most powerful aristocrats to negotiate a peace. The Senones agreed to accept the peace in return for land. But of course something had to go wrong (Duh…). A quarrel resulting in murder of one of the Senone chieftains by Quintus Fabius broke out which was followed by (wait for it) BATTLE!!! (The Gallic ambassadors would have settled for the three Fabii brothers but the Senate was pressured so it conveniently let someone else decide.)
Those whose punishment they were asked to decide were elected military tribunes with consular powers for the coming year.Livy
Which basically means:
Those who had doomed Rome and should have been handed over to the very dangerous looking Gauls who would make super scary enemies, were made the heads of the state to honor their selfless efforts and bravery.
Needless to say, the Senones were enraged.
TOTAL ANNIHILATION!!! (AMAZING video game name no?)
Livy and Diodorus Siculus are the only two historians who actually describe the battle. Both their accounts were bleak, to put it mildly. The Romans were underprepared and well, overconfident- no special efforts had been made and no special defenses built to resist the Gauls. They were caught off-guard by the swift, clinical precision of the Gauls’ advance. A highly competent chieftain, Brennus, who left Rome defenseless with calculating and efficient tactics that exploited the inherent defects in Rome’s defendants, led them.
The two armies had clashed near the river Allia on 18th July, 390 BC, a few miles north of Rome. Plutarch wrote that the Gauls encamped near the confluence of the Allia with the Tiber, some 18 km from Rome.
The Romans were outnumbered and outmatched. They did not set up camp or build a defensive rampart. (It is said that the augurs did not divine the will of the gods, which come on man, is obviously not what you do when you’re at war.)
Stupid Roman Tactics during the Battle
The Romans, in a moment of sheer brilliance, decided to extend their wings to avoid being outflanked. They did not care how thin their lines actually got. (You don’t need to be an expert to know that thin lines equal bad BAD BADDDDDDDD.) They could hardly hold their center together. Also they decided that it would be a GREAT move to place their weakest men on a hill. The Gauls also though that it would be a GREAT move to line up and place their best troops on the hill. The Romans were obliterated on that hill. Oh and also everywhere else. The Roman left wing was pushed into the river and destroyed. The left wing had thrown away their arms and fled to the bank of the River Tiber. The right wing drew back, before the Gauls’ could attack, from the plain to the hills and most of them bolted to Rome which was near the hill. The rest of the survivors fled to Veii at night.
As the Gauls kept killing them, the soldiers tried to swim across the river. Some Romans, who heroically placed their armor above their lives, tried to cross the river wearing their armor. Many of these noble heroes drowned. The Gauls threw javelins at others. So if you were a Roman who crossed the river that day, the gods must really love you.
A Little Bit of Numbers
The Romans were outnumbered. We don’t know by exactly how much but here are some numbers to give a vague idea.
So the Roman army had a strength of around 15,000 men, with the legion being the key organizational prop. The Phalanx of hoplites was how the 6,000 Roman citizens fought as. The hoplites were heavy infantry armored with helmet, breastplate, greaves and a bronze round shield with the thrusting spear and the sword as their weapons of choice. The Roman light troops and 600 cavalry as well as soldiers from allied city-states were also a part of this soon to be decimated army. The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote that the Romans lined up their best troops, 24,000 men in the plain. About 30,000 Gauls faced the Romans most of which were light infantry, protected by a yard-long oblong shield and a helmet.
As the Gauls advanced, the fighting men of Rome – as well as the most important senators – took refuge on the fortified Capitoline hill and prepared for a siege. This left the lower city undefended and it was razed, raped, pillaged and looted by the gleeful attackers.
The Siege of Battle of Allia
The Romans were defenseless so they sent the men of military age, the able-bodied senators and their families to the Capitoline Hill with weapons and provisions to defend the fortress in preparation of a possible siege. The Flamen of Quirinus and the Vestal Virgins (the virgin priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of the Hearth), who were priests, took “the sacred things of the State” away and continue to perform their sacred cults. They could take only some of the sacred objects and buried the rest under the chapel next to the Flamen’s house. The elderly were left behind in the city and the former consuls were instructed to stay behind with them. Many of them though, followed their sons and families to the Capitoline hill.
Eventually, the Gauls got tired of waiting around (they did not have the patience to lay siege I reckon) and also plague struck (yeah…) so they decided to move on with a ransom of a thousand pounds of gold (legend goes that the Senones used heavier weights to weigh the gold. When the Romans protested, Brennus tossed his sword on the scale, uttering the famous ‘Vae victis,’ or ‘Woe to the vanquished!’). Even though Rome escaped a probably irreversible loss of its culture and identity, it still suffered a huge setback. To understand how bad the situation was for them.
They thought that Rome was lost and all her people slain.”Plutarch
Now modern historians think that the Battle of Allia may not have been as bad as the ancient historians wrote. It ushered in military reforms that would fuel Rome’s emergence as one of the most formidable empires in all of history but this war put in motion a chain reaction that would cost Rome in blood and men and abandoned treaties. A series of wars against nearby peoples, the Latins, would gradually win Rome absolute dominance in the Italian peninsula of course but we’ll talk about it in the next article.