Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Gauls at Rome

We have related in the preceding tale how a Veientian prophet predicted the ruin of Rome, in retribution for the cruelty of the Romans to the people of Veii. It is the story of this disaster which we have now to tell. While the Romans were assailing Veii and making other conquests among the neighboring cities, a new people had come into Central Italy, a fair-faced, light-haired, great-bodied tribe of barbarians, fierce in aspect, warlike in character, the first contingent of that great invasion from the north which, centuries afterwards, was to overthrow the empire of Rome.

These were the Gauls, barbarian tribes from the region now known as France, who had long before crossed the Alps and made themselves lords of much of Northern Italy. Just when this took place we do not know, but about the time with which we are now concerned they pushed farther south, overthrew the Etruscans, and in the year 389 B.C. crossed the Apennines and penetrated into Central Italy.

And now the proud city of Rome was to come face to face with an enemy more powerful and courageous than any it had hitherto known. In the year named the Gauls besieged the city of Clusium, in Etruria, the city of Lars Porsenna, who in former years had aided Tarquin against Rome. The Roman senate, alarmed at their approach, sent three deputies to observe these barbarian bands. What follows is the story as told in Roman annals. It cannot be accepted as the exact truth, though no one questions the destruction of Rome by the Gauls.

The story goes, then, that the deputies sent to the barbarians, and asked by what right they sought to take a part of the territory of Clusium, a city in alliance with Rome. Brennus, the leader of the Gauls, who knew little and cared less about Rome, replied, with insolent pride, that all things belonged to the brave, and that their right lay in their swords.

Soon after, in a sortie that was made from the city, one of the Roman deputies joined the soldiers, and killed a Gaulish champion of great size and stature. On this being reported to Brennus he sent messengers to Rome, demanding that the man who had slain one of his chiefs, when no war existed between the Gauls and Romans, should be delivered into his hands for punishment. The senate voted to do so, as the demand seemed reasonable; but an appeal was made to the people, and they declared that the culprit should not be given up. On this answer being taken to Brennus, he at once ordered that the siege of Clusium should be abandoned, and marched with his whole army upon Rome.

A Roman army, forty thousand strong, was hastily raised, and crossed the Tiber, marching towards Veii, where they expected to meet the advancing enemy. But they reckoned wrongly: the Gauls came down the left bank of the river, plundering and burning as they marched. This threw the Romans into the greatest alarm. For many miles above Rome the Tiber could not be forded, there were no bridges, and boats could not be had to convey so large an army. The Romans were forced to march back with all speed to the city, cross the river there, and hasten to meet their foes before they got too near at hand. But when they came within sight of the Gauls the latter were already within twelve miles of Rome.

The Roman army was drawn up behind the Alia, a little stream whose deep bed formed a line of defence. But the Gauls made their attack upon the weakest section of the Roman army, hewing them down with their great broadswords, and assailing their ears with frightful yells. The Roman right wing, formed of new recruits, gave way before this vigorous charge, and in its flight threw the regular legions of the left wing into disorder. The Gauls pursued so fiercely that in a short time the whole army was in total rout, and flying as Roman army had never fled before.

Many plunged into the river, in hope of escaping by swimming across it. But of these the Gauls slew multitudes on the banks, and killed most of those in the stream with their javelins. Others took refuge in a dense wood near the road, where they lay hidden till nightfall. The remainder fled back to the city, where they brought the frightful tidings of the utter ruin of the Roman army.

The news threw Rome into a panic. Of those who escaped from the battle, the majority had crossed the river and made their way to Veii. No other army could be raised. Most of the other inhabitants left the city, as the people of Athens had done when the army of Xerxes approached. It was resolved to abandon the city to the barbarians, but to maintain the citadel, the home of the gods of Rome. The holy articles in the temples were buried or removed, the Vestal Virgins sent away, and the flower of the patricians took refuge in the Capitol, determined to defend to the last that abiding-place of the guardian gods of Rome.

But there were aged members of the senate, old patricians who had filled the highest offices in the state, and venerable ministers of the gods, who felt that they had a different duty to perform. They could not serve their country by their deeds; they might by their death. They devoted themselves and the army of the Gauls, in solemn invocations, to the spirits of the dead and to the earth, the common grave of man. Then, attiring themselves in their richest robes of office, each took his seat on his ivory chair of magistracy in the gateway of his house.

Meanwhile the Gauls had delayed for a day their attack on the city, fearing that the silence portended some snare. When they did enter, the people had escaped with such valuables as they could carry. The Capitol was provisioned and garrisoned, and the aged senators awaited death in solemn calm.

On seeing these venerable men, sitting in motionless silence amid the confusion of the sack of the city, the Gauls viewed them with awe, regarding them at first as more than human. One of the soldiers approached M. Papirius, and began reverently to stroke his long white beard. Papirius was a minister of the gods, and looked on this touch of a barbarian hand as profanation. With an impulse of anger he struck the Gaul on the head with his ivory sceptre. Instantly the barbarian, breaking into rage, cut him down with his sword. This put an end to the feeling of awe. All the old men were attacked and slain, their vow being thus fulfilled.

Rome, except its Capitol, was now in the hands of the Gauls. The sack and ruin of the city went mercilessly on. But the Capitol defied their efforts. It stood on a hill which, except at a single point, presented precipitous sides. The Gauls tried to storm it by this single approach, but were driven back with loss. They then blockaded the hill, and spent their time in devastating the city and neighboring country.

While this was going on the fugitives from Rome had gathered at Veii, where they daily became more reorganized. And now they turned in their distress to a man whom they had injured in their prosperity. Camillus, the conqueror of Veii, had been exiled from Rome on a charge of having been dishonest in distributing the spoils of the conquered city. He was now living at Ardea, whither messengers were sent, begging him to come to the aid of Rome. He sent word back that he had been condemned for an offence of which he was not guilty, and would not return unless requested to do so by the senate.

But the senate was shut up in the Capitol. How could it be reached? In this dilemma a young man. Pontius Cominius, volunteered for the adventure. He swam the Tiber at night, climbed the hill by the aid of shrubs and projecting stones, obtained for Camillus the appointment as dictator, and returned by the same route.

The feat of Cominius, whatever its real purpose, came near being a fatal one to Rome. He had left his marks on the cliff. Here the soil had been trodden away and stones loosened; there bushes had been broken or torn from the soil. The sharp eyes of the Gauls saw, in the morning light, these proofs that some one had climbed or descended the hill. The cliff, then, could be climbed. Some Roman had climbed it; why not they? The spot, supposed to be inaccessible, was not guarded. There was no wall at its top. Here was an open route to that stubborn citadel. They resolved to attempt it as soon as night should fall.

It was midnight when the Gauls began to make their way slowly and with difficulty up the steep cliff. The moon may have aided them with its rays, but, if so, it revealed them to no sentinel above. The very watchdogs failed to scent and signal their approach. They reached the summit, and, to their gratification, no alarm had been given. The Romans slept on.

The fate of Rome in that hour hung in the balance. Had the citadel been taken and its defenders slain, Rome might never have recovered from the blow. The whole course of history might have been changed. It was the merest chance that saved the city from this impending disaster.

It chanced that on this part of the hill stood the temple of the guardian gods of Rome,—Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva,—and in this temple were kept a number of geese, sacred to Juno. Though food was not abundant, the garrison had spared these sacred geese. They were now to be amply repaid, for the geese alone heard the noise of the ascending Gauls, and in alarm began a loud screaming and flapping of wings.

The noise aroused Marcus Manlius, who slept near. Hastily seizing his sword and shield, he called to his comrades and ran to the edge of the cliff. He reached there just in time to see the head and shoulders of a burly Gaul, who had nearly attained the summit. Dashing the rim of his shield into the face of the barbarian, Manlius tumbled him down the rock, and with him those who followed in his track. The others, dismayed, dropped their arms to cling more closely to the rocks. Unable to ascend or descend, they were easily slaughtered by the guards who followed Manlius. The Capitol was saved. As for the captain of the watch, from whose neglect of duty this peril had come, he was punished the next morning by being hurled down the cliff upon the slaughtered Gauls.

Manlius was rewarded, says the story, by each man giving him from his scanty store a day's allowance of food,—namely, half a pound of corn and five ounces in weight of wine. As for the real defenders of Rome, the geese of the Capitol, they were ever after held in the highest honor and veneration.

As the Capitol could not be taken by assault or rise, there remained only the slow process of siege. For six or eight months the Gauls blockaded the hill. So says the story, but it was probably not so long. However, in the end the Romans were brought to the point of famine, and offered to ransom their city by paying a large sum of gold. Brennus, the Gaulish king, was ready to accept the offer. His men were suffering from the Roman fever; food had grown scarce; he agreed, if paid a thousand pounds' weight of gold, to withdraw his army from Rome.

Much gold had been brought by the fugitive patricians into the Capitol. From this the delegates brought down and placed in the scales a sufficient quantity. But while they found the gold, the Gauls found the weights, and it was soon discovered that the wily barbarians were cheating. Their weights were too heavy. Complaint of this fraud was made by the Roman tribune of the soldiers. In reply Brennus drew his heavy broadsword and threw it into the scale with the weights.

"What does this mean?" asked the tribune.

"It means," answered the barbarian, haughtily, "woe to the vanquished!" "Væ victis esse!"

While this was going on, says the legend, Camillus, the dictator, was marching to Rome with the legions he had organized at Veii. He appeared at the right minute for the dramatic interest of the story, entered the Forum while the gold was being weighed, bade the Romans take back their gold, threw the weights to the Gauls, and told Brennus proudly that it was the Roman custom to pay their debts in iron, not in gold.

A fight ensued, as might be expected. The Gauls were driven from the city. The next day Camillus attacked them in their camp, eight miles from Rome, and defeated them so utterly that not a man was left alive to carry home the tale of the slaughter.

This story of the coming of Camillus is too much like the last act of a stage-play, or the dénouement of a novel, to be true. Most likely the Gauls marched off with their gold, though they may have been attacked on their retreat, and most or all of the gold regained.

Camillus, however, is said to have saved Rome in still another way. The old city was in ashes. Most of the citizens were at Veii, where they had found or built new homes. They were loath to come back to rebuild a ruined city. This Camillus induced them to do. Every appeal was made to the local pride and the religious sentiments of the people. A centurion, marching with his company, and being obliged to halt in front of the senate-house, called to the standard-bearer, "Pitch your standard here, for this is the best place to stop at." This casual remark was looked upon as an omen from heaven, and by this and the like means the people were induced to return.

Then the rebuilding of Rome began. The sites of the temples were retraced as far as could be done in the ruins. The laws of the twelve tables and some other records were recovered, but the mass of the historical annals of Rome had been destroyed. Some relics were said to have been miraculously preserved, among them the shepherd's crook of Romulus.

But the bulk of the possessions of the Romans had vanished in the flames; the streets were mere heaps of ashes; the very walls had been in part pulled down; rubbish and ruin lay everywhere. Rome, like the phnix, had to be born again from its ashes. Men built wherever they could find a clear spot. Stones and roofing-material were brought from Veii, and one city was dismantled that another might be restored. Stones and timber were supplied to any man from the public lands. The city rapidly rose again. But it was an irregular city; the streets ran anywhere; no effort was made at rule or system in the making of the new Rome.

As for Camillus, he came to be honored as the second founder of Rome. While the Romans were at work on their new homes they were harassed by their foes, and he was kept busy with the army in the field. He lived for twenty-five years longer, and in the year 367 B.C., when some eighty years of age, he marched again to meet the Gauls in a new assault upon Rome, and defeated them with such slaughter that they left Rome alone for many years afterwards.

Marcus Manlius, the preserver of the Capitol, was not so fortunate. He came forward as the patron of the poor, who began to suffer again from the severe laws against debtors. Finally he began to use his large fortune to relieve suffering debtors, and is said to have paid the debts of four hundred debtors, thus saving them from bondage. This generosity won him the unbounded affection of the people, who called him the "Father of the Commons." But it aroused the suspicion of the patricians, and some of these, against whom he had used violent language, had him arrested on a charge of treason, perhaps with good reason. Though he showed the many honors he had received for services to his country, he was condemned to death and his house razed to the ground. Thus the patricians dealt with the benefactors of the poor.