In all of the history of Rome, besides themselves, there was only ever one enemy that came close to the total and complete destruction of the Roman state.
For all of the talk of a ‘decline and fall’ narrative in the 5th century CE I don’t buy it. The mechanics of the Roman state were such a clusterfuck of complexity that who was in charge and who wasn’t in charge in the West was ridiculous. So many of the so-called marauding goths and barbarians were actually foederati, Roman-associate armies, that to say a foreign force sacked Rome would be like if there was a Gurkha revolution in the UK now. Is it really a foreign invasion if it’s your own troops? Even if they come from another country?
Carthage, well they had a go, and they came close but Hannibal never breached Rome. Hannibal never walked through the gates to the steps of the Curia of the Senate. If he had you can bet we’d be talking a completely different history of almost total Phoenician Mediterranean domination.
No, between the years of its founding in 753 BCE (allegedly) and whatever date you take as the end of the ‘Roman Empire’ only one foreign power nearly made it all not happen and it was the Gauls, specifically a warband made up mostly of the Senones tribe, in 390 BCE.
To start with I’ll tell you about the other fights because 390 needs detail.
In 302 BCE the Gauls crossed the alps, did a bit of pillaging and then buggered off again.
We’ll get to this with the Samnites but they join an alliance of Samnites, Etruscans and Umbrians in a long war between 298 BCE and 290 BCE.
They also besieged Arretium in 284 BCE leading to the battle of Lake Vadimo we talked about with the Etruscans.
So, 390 BCE – what’s the deal?
Firstly, what’s a Gaul? The Gauls were a non-uniform group of Celtic peoples who lived on continental Europe. They were, despite supposedly being culturally, technologically, religiously and socially ‘inferior’ to the Romans, wildly successful. They had influence down in the Iberian peninsula, in modern Spain and Portugal, across continental Europe from the West coast of France out as far as the Balkans as well as influence in Southeast England (See the map above).
But, again, this was a non-uniform group and this is across the span of hundreds of years – If they had managed to cement themselves into a cohesive empire there is every chance they would have matched Rome but they were disconnected tribes with cultural, religious, linguistic and social similarities – not a unified force.
So the group we’re going to talk about are the Senones, originating in – I suppose what would be modern day central France in the Seine basin just south of Paris.
Being a non-uniform, culturally similar group they did sometimes come together in warbands, larger groups, to go off and do a bit of looting. Similar to how Vikings would operate later on. They weren’t so much interested in conquest and expansion as looting and raiding, gather what you can, go home, share the spoils. This is a very important thing to consider in this story.
By around 400 BCE this tribe from modern central France had moved south and come to occupy territories across the Alps in what is modern Northern Italy. They drove out whatever Native tribes were there and set up their own towns.
Around 391 BCE they moved further south still, into Etruria, the historic territory of the Etruscans and, allegedly (more Livy lies?) besieged Clusium who begged Rome for help. The Romans sent to negotiate with the Gauls allegedly caused some upset and the Gauls marched on Rome FOR REVENGE!
How much of that is true is debatable. Again, their pattern was not necessarily one of conquest and expansion but of raids. It’s just as likely they robbed Clusium on their way to Rome but the political machine in Rome needed some post-hoc excuse for why Rome was attacked to protect its reputation and not make it seem like a bunch of French fellas could just turn up any minute.
This all leads up to the Battle of Allia, usually dated at 390 BCE but it was there or thereabouts (other dates put it at 393 BCE or 387 BCE). Given that it’s history and it’s war there’s a lot of lengthy discussion about this but all you need to know is the Romans got fucked, and the Gauls fucked ‘em.
According to Livy they were so shocked at the ease of their victory they stood dumbfounded, when no other soldiers came to oppose them they just walked right into a wide-open Rome.
The military forces and able men left were charged with defending the Capitoline Hill.
Plutarch’s account is the most violent, otherwise both Livy and Diodorus Siculus describe a very lazy siege. Livy even says at one point a member of the Fabii clan was allowed to walk through the enemy lines to perform a religious rite.
By some stories (mostly by the Greek historians) after a lengthy siege the Romans paid the Senones a hefty sum of gold to piss off.
By other stories (mostly by Roman Historians) they are met by a returning Roman General, Camillus, appointed dictator in the crisis, and he refuses to let them leave with the gold, and kills them all.
What’s the likely ending? It’s hard to say. Even at 390 BCE these stories are semi-legendary, archaeological evidence for the sacking is scant, at best, and certainly, it seems, nobody has found where the bodies are supposedly buried.
Given their patterns of behaviour, and despite the talk of a couple of historians, this does not seem like a band of Gallic nomads seeking a new home. This was a warband. They were on the path of plunder. Whether they were mercenaries on their way elsewhere has been debated. If they were, the weight of gold they would have been paid by the Romans would have sent them home sharpish with no shame at betraying their former clients.
I think they came, they saw, they conquered, they got paid, they left, all of Rome went “What the hell just happened?” and got on with dealing with the fact they had been left significantly weakened and significantly poorer, with enemies on all sides and even their Latin allies looking to exploit their weakness.
Read the other parts in our ‘Roman History in a Nutshell’ Series:
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before
The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Founding – 753 BCE and Before
The Kingdom – 753 BCE – 509 BCE
The Patrician Era and the Conflict of the Orders – 494 BCE – 287 BCE
Wars with Etruscans Pre-753 BCE – ~264 BCE
Wars with Sabines, Veii & Fidenae ~753 BCE – ~287 BCE
The Latin Wars 7th Century BCE – ~338 BCE
The Rest of the Med ~2,000 BCE – ~3rd Century BCE
The Samnite Wars ~343 BCE – ~290 BCE
Want to read more about Romans? We’ve got a little for you.
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The Pleb who Built Rome: Marcus Agrippa – It is my belief that the right-hand-man of Augustus had a much bigger part to play in the building and management of the Empire than did his friend with the titles. Find out why.
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Bad History: Boudica and Bullshit Nationalism – Looking at the use of historical figures for current political or social agendas.
Bad History: Did Rome ever Actually Fall? Questioning the ‘Decline and Fall’ narrative and looking at structures inherited from the Romans we have to this day.
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