Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

The Day of Allia

One Roman historian tells us that his countrymen believed that while their valour could easily overcome all other dangers, a contest with the Gauls must be for existence and not for fame; another remarks that the Senate never neglected any tidings that might reach it of a movement among this people. For such movements there was a special name, tumultus, and a special reserve of treasure was laid up in the Capitol to be employed when this particular danger threatened the State. There were Gauls, as the classical atlas tells us, on either side of the Alps. The tribes that dwelt south of the Alps were unquiet neighbours to the Latin nations, but the real danger arose when a swarm of invaders from beyond the mountains, moved by the love of adventure, or driven by famine, descended on the fertile plains of Northern Italy. The first invasion of which we have any detailed account took place in the early part of the fourth century B.C.

The true story of this event has, as usual, been not a little overgrown with legend. It was said that the Gauls, under their king Brennus, were induced to attack the Etrurian town of Clusium by one of its citizens, who hoped thus to avenge a private injury inflicted by a powerful noble who could not be reached by the law. The inhabitants, alarmed by the formidable appearance of the invading host, sent envoys to Rome begging for help. Livy tells us that there was no alliance between the two towns. All that the Clusines could plead was that they had remained neutral in the long war between Rome and Veii, an Etrurian town, which it would have been natural to help. The Romans sent envoys to the Gauls, three brothers belonging to the Fabian house (not a very likely thing, one would imagine), with a message to this effect: "Clusium is a friendly State; we must help it even by force of arms, if that should be necessary, when it is wantonly attacked. But we wish to avoid war if it is possible. Let the Gauls explain what they want." The Gallic leaders replied that they too preferred to be on good terms with the Romans, who, from the fact that their help had thus been asked, were evidently brave men. What they wanted from the Clusines was a portion of land. They had more than they could use, whereas the Gauls had none. The Roman envoys made an indignant reply. "By what right do you demand land from its lawful possessors; what have you Gauls to do with an Etrurian town?" "Our rights," said the Gauls, "is in the point of our swords; as for property, all things belong to the brave." The conference broke up, and both parties prepared for battle. In the conflict that ensued the brothers Fabii took a prominent part. So conspicuous was their valour that it could not but be noticed both by friend and foe; one of them in particular was recognised as he was stripping the arms from a Gallic chieftain whom he had slain in single combat.

The Gauls now suspended all hostilities against Clusium. They were bent on demanding satisfaction from Rome for this gross offence against the law of nations. The more impetuous spirits were for marching against the offending city, but the older and more prudent counsellors prevailed when they suggested that envoys should be sent to represent their wrongs, and to claim redress. The envoys came, and were heard by the Senate, which acknowledged the transgression of the Fabii, but hesitated to accede to the demand that the guilty should be given up. Unable or unwilling to come to a decision, they referred the matter to the General Assembly of the People. Here there was little chance of justice being done. The proposition that these brave nobles should be given up was at once scouted. The Fabii's were not only not punished, but were actually elected Military Tribunes for the ensuing year. No one thought of the step usually taken in an emergency, the appointment of the ablest soldier available as dictator. Even the ordinary preparations for meeting a formidable enemy were neglected.

Meanwhile the Gauls were advancing on Rome, thinking of nothing but vengeance on this insolent city. The appearance of their host terrified the inhabitants of the country through which they passed, but they did not turn aside to attack or plunder any of the towns on their route. They gave it to be understood that all their quarrel was with Rome.

Roused at length to a sense of their danger by the frequent messengers who came hurrying in from the north the Romans hastily got together such troops as they could find, and marched out to meet the enemy, who had now advanced as far as the river Allia, little more than eleven miles from the city. Livy tells us that the generals formed no camp, constructed no rampart to protect them in case of a reverse, and offered no sacrifice. The battle-line had to be widely extended if they were to be protected against a flanking movement; but this could not be done without perilously weakening the centre. It mattered, however, little or nothing what arrangements were or were not made. There was nothing like a battle; only a blind panic and headlong flight. "No lives," says Livy, "were lost in battle." But thousands were cut down in the pursuit, while the fugitives, so densely packed was the throng, hindered each other from escaping; many perished on the Tiber bank, where they stood helpless, the enemy behind, the impassable stream in front; not a few were drowned, some who, unable to swim, yet threw themselves into the stream, in the wild hope of somehow struggling through, or, being swimmers, were weighed down by their heavy armour. Of those who escaped the greater part made their way to Veii. These neglected to send any tidings of their safety to Rome. Those who reached Rome did not even stop to shut the gates of the city, but hurried to take possession of the Capitol.

All this sounds very romantic, not to say improbable. It is strange to find these barbarous Gauls so strict in demanding an observance of international laws. And then the battle—there was, indeed, nothing Roman about it. Where were the three Fabii, all in high command, whose valour had been so conspicuous at Clusium, but on the Allia are unable either to rally their soldiers or to strike a blow for themselves? And the sacrifices—is it credible that so regular a custom, observed almost mechanically, was for this one occasion omitted? And the behaviour of the fugitives—what could be more unlikely? If they were in too great a hurry to shut the city gates, were there no old men or boys to do it? Livy manifestly piles up every possible neglect or misdoing to heighten the dramatic contrast between reckless pride and humiliating defeat. But that a great disaster occurred at the Allia, it is impossible to doubt. Allia was, indeed, as Virgil calls it, infaustur nomen, an ill-starred name. For centuries afterwards its anniversary, the 15th of July, Dies Alliensis, was marked as one on which no public business could be transacted. When Tacitus wishes to describe the height of reckless impiety in Vitellius, one of the short-lived Emperors who succeeded one another after the fall of the Julian Cęsars, he says that he was so regardless of all law, human or divine, that he actually published an edict on the fatal Day of Allia.

The story goes on in the same romantic style. But a sudden change comes over the whole temper of the nation, from the highest to the lowest. Impiety, recklessness, and cowardice give place to reverence, prudence, and constancy. The Capitol, the last hope of Rome, is to be held by its picked warriors. No one is to consume its scanty stores who cannot contribute his full share to its defence. The populace obey without a murmur, and flock out of the city, seeking a refuge where they may, or remain to await their doom. The old nobles who have borne high office, consuls, prętors, and senators, will not leave the city but will abide, each in his robes of office and chair of state, the coming of the foe; the holy things from temple and shrine are either buried or conveyed to some place of safety. Now all is dignity as before all was disgrace.

The story goes on in the same romantic style—the venerable old men, treated at first with reverence, are slaughtered when one of them resents with a blow of his ivory sceptre a barbarian's too familiar touch. The Capitol is closely invested, resolutely defended, but almost lost by the carelessness of the sentries. The besiegers had either observed the track of one of the messengers who had carried some communication from the garrison to the outer world, or had discovered the place where the ascent was not too difficult to attempt. They make the venture one moonlight night—one would think that the moonlight would be more of a hindrance than a help—and almost succeed. The watch has neglected its duty; the very dogs are asleep. But Roman piety saves the last refuge of Rome. There was a flock of sacred geese in the temple of Juno, and these had been not only spared but fed, hard pressed as the garrison had been for food. And now they give warning of the enemy's approach. Manlius, one of the most distinguished veterans in the garrison, for he had been Consul, is roused by their clamour, hurries to the edge of the height, hurls one man down by driving his shield into his face, slays others, and gives the garrison time to assemble.

But though the Capitol is not to be taken by force, it cannot stand out against hunger. Negotiations are opened, for the Gauls have somehow given it to be understood that they are ready to depart if a sufficient price can be paid. A thousand pounds weight of gold is agreed upon for the ransom. As the weighing is going on one of the Romans complains that the weights are unfair. Thereupon the insolent Gaul throws his sword into the scale, uttering words that were beyond all bearing by a Roman ear, "Woe to the vanquished!"

But the gods will not allow the most pious of nations to suffer this last humiliation. Before the price can be handed over to these insulting barbarians, the greatest of Roman soldiers appears upon the scene, orders scales and gold to be removed, bids the Gauls prepare for conflict, and defeats them, first in the Forum itself, and afterwards at the eighth milestone from Rome, as completely as they had themselves routed the Romans at Allia.

We need not endeavour to disentangle the true from the false in this story. That Roman pride covered a humiliating fall is plain enough, and we may well doubt the too opportune arrival of the victorious Camillus. But it is certainly true that Rome recovered with amazing rapidity from what might well have been an overwhelming blow. In the first three centuries and a half of her existence Rome has made so little progress that she has still a rival city not more than ten miles from her gates. She is reduced to her last stronghold, and has to ransom even that. Nevertheless in the course of another century and a half she is in undisputed possession of the whole of Italy. It has been suggested, not without probability, that the other Italian peoples suffered even more from this barbarian deluge, and that the Roman arms when once the acute crisis had passed encountered a less formidable resistance.