The Celtic/Gallic invasions of Italy (4th-3rd cen. B.C.)

The Apennines, from their junction with the Alps above Marseilles, are inhabited on both slopes, that looking to the Tyrrhenian sea and that turned to the plain, by the Ligurians whose territory reaches on the seaboard-side as far as Pisa, the first city of western Etruria, and on the land side as far as Arretium ( = Arezzo). Next come the Etruscans, and after them both slopes are inhabited by the Umbrians. After this the Apennines, at a distance of about five hundred stades from the Adriatic, quit the plain and, turning to the right, pass along the centre of the rest of Italy as far as the Sicilian sea, the remaining flat part of this side of the triangle continuing to the sea and the city of Sena.

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The river Po, celebrated by poets as the Eridanus, rises in the Alps somewhere near the apex of the triangle and descends to the plain, flowing in a southerly direction. On reaching the flat ground, it takes a turn to the East and flows through the plain, falling into the Adriatic by two mouths. It cuts off the larger half of the plain, which thus lies between it on the south and the Alps and head of the Adriatic on the north. It is navigable for about two thousand stades from the mouth called Olana; for the stream, which has been a single one from its source, divides at a place called Trigaboli, one of the mouths being called Padua and the other Olana. At the latter there is a harbour, which affords as safe anchorage as any in the Adriatic. The native name of the river is Bodencus.

The Etruscans were the oldest inhabitants of this plain at the same period that they possessed also that Phlegraean plain in the neighbourhood of Capua and Nola, which, accessible and well known as it is to many, has such a reputation for fertility. Those therefore who would know something of the dominion of the Etruscans should not look at the country they now inhabit, but at these plains and the resources they drew thence.

The Celts, being close neighbours of the Etruscans and associating much with them, cast covetous eyes on their beautiful country, and on a small pretext, suddenly attacked them with a large army and, expelling them from the plain of the Po, occupied it themselves. The first settlers at the eastern extremity, near the source of the Po, were the Laevi and Lebecii, after them the Insubres, the largest tribe of all, and next these, on the banks of the river, the Cenomani. The part of the plain near the Adriatic had never ceased to be in the possession of another very ancient tribe called the Veneti, differing slightly from the Gauls in customs and costume and speaking another language. About this people the tragic poets tell many marvellous stories. On the other bank of the Po, by the Apennines, the first settlers beginning from the west were the Anares and next them the Boii. Next the latter, towards the Adriatic, were the Lingones and lastly, near the sea, the Senones.

These are the names of the principal tribes that settled in the district. They lived in unwalled villages, without any superfluous furniture; for as they slept on beds of leaves and fed on meat and were exclusively occupied with war and agriculture, their lives were very simple, and they had no knowledge whatever of any art or science. Their possessions consisted of cattle and gold, because these were the only things they could carry about with them everywhere according to circumstances and shift where they chose. They treated comradeship as of the greatest importance, those among them being the most feared and most powerful who were thought to have the largest number of attendants and associates.

On their first invasion they not only conquered (390 B.C.) this country but reduced to subjection many of the neighbouring peoples, striking terror into them by their audacity. Not long afterwards they defeated the Romans and their allies in a pitched battle, and pursuing the fugitives, occupied, three days after the battle, the whole of Rome with the exception of the Capitol, but being diverted by an invasion of their own country by the Veneti, they made on this occasion a treaty with the Romans, and evacuating the city, returned home. After this they were occupied by domestic wars, and certain of the neighbouring Alpine tribes, witnessing to what prosperity they had attained in comparison with themselves, frequently gathered to attack them.

Meanwhile the Romans re-established their power and again became masters of Latium. Thirty years (360 B.C.) after the occupation of Rome, the Celts again appeared before Alba with a large army, and the Romans on this occasion did not venture to meet them in the field, because, owing to the suddenness of the attack, they were taken by surprise and had not had time to anticipate it by collecting the forces of their allies. But when, twelve years later, the (348 B.C.) Celts again invaded in great strength, they had early word of it, and, assembling their allies, marched eagerly to meet them, wishing for nothing better than a decisive battle. The Gauls, alarmed by the Roman advance and at variance among themselves, waited until nightfall and then set off for home, their retreat resembling a flight. After this panic, they kept quiet for thirteen years, and then, as they saw how rapidly the power of the Romans was (334 B.C.) growing, they made a formal peace with them, to the terms of which they adhered steadfastly for thirty years.

But then, when a fresh movement began among the Transalpine Gauls, and they feared (299 B.C.) they would have a big war on their hands, they deflected from themselves the inroad of the migrating tribes by bribery and by pleading their kinship, but they incited them to attack the Romans, and even joined them in the expedition. They advanced through Etruria, the Etruscans too uniting with them, and, after collecting a quantity of booty, retired quite safely from the Roman territory, but, on reaching home, fell out with each other about division of the spoil and succeeded in destroying the greater part of their own forces and of the booty itself.

This is quite a common event among the Gauls, when they have appropriated their neighbour’s property, chiefly owing to their inordinate drinking and surfeiting. Four years later the Gauls made a league with the Samnites, and engaging the Romans in the (295 B.C.) territory of Camerinum inflicted on them considerable loss; meanwhile the Romans, determined on avenging their reverse, advanced again a few days after with all
their legions, and attacking the Gauls and Samnites in the territory of Sentinum, put the greater number of them to the sword and compelled the rest to take precipitate flight each to their separate homes.

Again, ten years afterwards, the Gauls appeared in (283 B.C.) force and besieged Arretium. The Romans, coming to the help of the town, attacked them in front of it and were defeated. In this battle their Praetor Lucius Caecilius fell, and they nominated Manius Curius in his place. When Manius sent legates to Gaul to treat for the return of the prisoners, they were treacherously slain, and this made the Romans so indignant that they at once marched upon Gaul.

They were met by the Gauls called Senones, whom they defeated in a pitched battle, killing most of them and driving the rest out of their country, the whole of which they occupied. This was the first part of Gaul in which they planted a colony, calling it Sena after the name of the Gauls who formerly inhabited it. This is the city I mentioned above as lying near the Adriatic at the extremity of the plain of the Po.

Hereupon the Boii, seeing the Senones expelled from their territory, and fearing a like fate for themselves and their own land, implored the aid of the Etruscans and marched out in full force. The united armies gave (282 B.C.) battle to the Romans near Lake Vadimon, and in this battle most of the Etruscans were cut to pieces while only quite a few of the Boii escaped. But, notwithstanding, in the very next year these two peoples once more combined and arming their young men, even the mere striplings, again encountered the Romans in a pitched battle. They were utterly defeated and it was only now that their courage at length gave way and that they sent an embassy to sue for terms and made a treaty with the Romans. This took place three years before the crossing of Pyrrhus to Italy and five years before the destruction of the Gauls at Delphi; for it really seems that at this time Fortune afflicted all Gauls alike with a sort of epidemic of war. From all these struggles the Romans gained two great advantages. In the first place, having become accustomed to be cut up by Gauls, they could neither undergo nor expect anymore terrible experience, and next, owing to this, when they met Pyrrhus they had become perfectly trained athletes in war, so that they were able to daunt the courage of the Gauls before it was too late, and henceforth could give their whole mind first to the fight with Pyrrhus for Italy and afterwards to the maintenance of the contest with Carthage for the possession of Sicily.

After these reverses, the Gauls remained quiet and at peace with Rome for forty-five years. But when, as time went on, those who had actually witnessed the terrible struggle were no more, and a younger generation had taken their place, full of unreflecting passion and absolutely without experience of suffering or peril, they began again, as was natural, to disturb the settlement, becoming exasperated against the Romans on the least pretext and inviting the Alpine Gauls to make common cause with them. At first these advances were made secretly by their chiefs without the knowledge of the (288 B.C.) multitude; so that when a force of Transalpine Gauls advanced as far as Ariminum the Boian populace were suspicious of them, and quarrelling with their own leaders as well as with the strangers, killed their kings, Atis and Galatus, and had a pitched battle with the other Gauls in which many fell on either side. The Romans had been alarmed by the advance of the Gauls, and a legion was on its way; but, on learning of the Gauls’ self-inflicted losses, they returned home. Five years after this alarm, in the consulship of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the Romans (282 B.C.) divided among their citizens the territory in Gaul known as Picenum, from which they had ejected the Senones when they conquered them. Gaius Flaminius was the originator of this popular policy, which we must pronounce to have been, one may say, the first step in the demoralization of the populace, as well as the cause of the war with the Gauls which followed.

For what prompted many of the Gauls and especially the Boii, whose territory bordered on that of Rome, to take action was the conviction that now the Romans no longer made war on them for the sake of supremacy and sovereignty, but with a view to their total expulsion and extermination.

The two largest tribes, therefore, the Insubres (281 B.C.) and Boii, made a league and sent messengers to the Gauls dwelling among the Alps and near the Rhone, who are called Gaesatae because they serve for hire, this being the proper meaning of the word. They urged and incited their kings Concolitanus and Aneroestus to make war on Rome, offering them at present a large sum in gold, and as to the future, pointing out to them the great prosperity of the Romans, and the vast wealth that would be theirs if they were victorious. They had no difficulty in persuading them, as, in addition to all this, they pledged themselves to be loyal allies and reminded them of the achievement of their own ancestors, who had not only overcome the Romans in combat, but, after the battle, had assaulted and taken Rome itself, possessing themselves of all it contained, and, after remaining masters of the city for seven months, had finally given it up of their own free will and as an act of grace, and had returned home with their spoil, unbroken and unscathed.

When the kings had been told all this, they became so eager for the expedition that on no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike. All this time, the Romans, either hearing what was happening or divining what was coming, were in such a state of constant alarm and unrest, that at times we find them busy enrolling legions and making provision of corn and other stores, at times marching to the frontier, as if the enemy had already invaded their territory, while as a fact the Celts had not yet budged from their own country. This movement of the Gauls contributed in no small measure to the rapid and unimpeded subjugation of Spain by the Carthaginians; for the Romans, as I stated above, regarded this matter as of more urgency, since the danger was on their flank, and were compelled to neglect the affairs of Spain until they had dealt with the Gauls. They therefore secured themselves against the Carthaginians by the treaty with Hasdrubal and threw their whole effort into the struggle with their enemies in Italy, considering it their main interest to bring this to a decisive conclusion.

The Gaesatae, having collected a richly equipped and formidable force, crossed the Alps, and descended into the plain of the Po in the eighth (225 B.C.) year after the partition of Picenum. The Insubres and Boii held stoutly to their original purpose; but the Veneti and Cenomani, on the Romans sending an embassy to them, decided to give them their support; so that the Celtic chiefs were obliged to leave part of their forces behind to protect their territory from invasion by these tribes. They themselves marched confidently out with their whole available army, consisting of about fifty thousand foot and twenty thousand horse and chariots, and advanced on Etruria. The Romans, the moment they heard that the Gauls had crossed the Alps, sent Lucius Aemilius, their Consul, with his army to Ariminum to await here the attack of the enemy, and one of their Praetors to Etruria, their other Consul, Gaius Atilius having already gone to Sardinia with his legions. There was great and general alarm in Rome, as they thought they were in imminent and serious peril, and this indeed was but natural, as the terror the old invasion had inspired still dwelt in their minds. No one thought of anything else therefore, they busied themselves mustering and enrolling their own legions and ordered those of the allies to be in readiness. All their subjects in general were commanded to supply lists of men of military age, as they wished to know what their total forces amounted to. Of corn, missiles and other war material they had laid in such a supply as no one could remember to have been collected on any previous occasion. On every side there was a ready disposition to help in every possible way; for the inhabitants of Italy, terror-struck by the invasion of the Gauls, no longer thought of themselves as the allies of Rome or regarded this war as undertaken to establish Roman supremacy, but every man considered that the peril was descending on himself and his own city and country. So there was great alacrity in obeying orders.

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But, that it may appear from actual facts what a great power it was that Hannibal ventured to attack, and how mighty was that empire boldly confronting which he came so near his purpose as to bring great disasters on Rome, I must state what were their resources and the actual number of their forces at this time. Each of the Consuls was in command of four legions of Roman citizens, each consisting of five thousand two hundred foot and three hundred horse. The allied forces in each Consular army numbered thirty thousand foot and two thousand horse. The cavalry of the Sabines and Etruscans, who had come to the temporary assistance of Rome, were four thousand strong, their infantry above fifty thousand. The Romans massed these forces and posted them on the frontier of Etruria under the command of a Praetor. The levy of the Umbrians and Sarsinates inhabiting the Apennines amounted to about twenty thousand, and with these were twenty thousand Veneti and Cenomani. These they stationed on the frontier of Gaul, to invade the territory of the Boii and divert, them back from their expedition. These were the armies protecting the Roman territory.

In Rome itself there was a reserve force, ready for any war-contingency, consisting of twenty thousand foot and fifteen hundred horse, all Roman citizens, and thirty thousand foot and two thousand horse furnished by the allies. The lists of men able to bear arms that had been returned were as follows. Latins eighty thousand foot and five thousand horse, Samnites seventy thousand foot and seven thousand horse, Iapygians and Messapians fifty thousand foot and sixteen thousand horse in all, Lucanians thirty thousand foot and three thousand horse, Marsi, Marrucini, Frentani, and Vestini twenty thousand foot and four thousand horse. In Sicily and Tarentum were two reserve legions, each consisting of about four thousand two hundred foot and two hundred horse. Of Romans and Campanians there were on the roll two hundred and fifty thousand and twenty-three thousand horse; so that the total number of Romans and allies able to bear arms was more than seven hundred thousand foot and seventy thousand horse, while Hannibal invaded Italy with an army of less than twenty thousand men.

The Celts, descending on Etruria, overran the country devastating it without let or hindrance and, as nobody appeared to oppose them, they marched on Rome itself. When they had got as far as Clusium, a city three days’ journey from Rome, news reached them that the advanced force which the Romans had posted in Etruria was on their heels and approaching. On hearing this, they turned to meet it, eager to engage it. At sunset the two armies were in close proximity, and encamped for the night at no great distance from each other. After nightfall, the Celts lit their camp-fires, and, leaving orders with their cavalry to wait until daybreak and then, when visible to the enemy, to follow on their track, they themselves secretly retreated to a town called Faesulae and posted themselves there, their intention being to wait for their cavalry, and also to put unexpected difficulties in the way of the enemy’s attack. At daybreak, the Romans, seeing the cavalry alone and thinking the Celts had taken to flight, followed the cavalry with all speed on the line of the Celts‘ retreat. On their approaching the enemy, the Celts left their position and attacked them, and a conflict, at first very stubborn, took place, in which finally the numbers and courage of the Celts prevailed, not fewer than six thousand Romans falling and the rest taking to flight. Most of them retreated to a hill of some natural strength where they remained. The Celts at first attempted to besiege them, but as they were getting the worst of it, fatigued as they were by their long night march and the suffering and hardships it involved, they hastened to rest and refresh themselves, leaving a detachment of their cavalry to keep guard round the hill, intending next day to besiege the fugitives, if they did not offer to surrender.

At this very time Lucius Aemilius, who was in command of the advanced force near the Adriatic, on hearing that the Celts had invaded Etruria and were approaching Rome, came in haste to help, fortunately arriving in the nick of time. He encamped near the enemy, and the fugitives on the hill, seeing his camp-fires and understanding what had occurred, immediately plucked up courage and dispatched by night some unarmed messengers through the wood to announce to the commander the plight they were in. On hearing of it and seeing that there was no alternative course under the circumstances, the latter ordered his Tribunes to march out the infantry at daybreak, he himself proceeding in advance with the cavalry towards the hill mentioned above. The leaders of the Gauls, on seeing the campfires at night, surmised that the enemy had arrived and held a council at which the King Aneroëstes expressed the opinion, that having captured so much booty (for it appears that the quantity of slaves, cattle and miscellaneous spoil was enormous), they should not give battle again nor risk the fortune of the whole enterprise, but return home in safety, and having got rid of all their encumbrances and lightened themselves, return and, if advisable, try issues with the Romans. It was decided under the circumstances to take the course recommended by Aneroëstes, and having come to this resolution in the night, they broke up their camp before daybreak and retreated along the sea-coast through Etruria. Lucius now took with him from the hill the survivors of the other army and united them with his other forces. He thought it by no means advisable to risk a general battle, but decided to hang on the enemy’s rear and watch for times and places favourable for inflicting damage on them or wresting some of the spoil from their hands.

Just at this time, Gaius Atilius, the other Consul, had reached Pisa from Sardinia with his legions and was on his way to Rome, marching in the opposite direction to the enemy. When the Celts were near Telamon in Etruria, their advanced foragers encountered the advance guard of Gaius and were made prisoners. On being examined by the Consul they narrated all that had recently occurred and told him of the presence of the two armies, stating that the Gauls were quite near and Lucius behind them. The news surprised him but at the same time made him very hopeful, as he thought he had caught the Gauls on the march between the two armies. He ordered his Tribunes to put the legions in fighting order and to advance thus at marching pace in so far as the nature of the ground allowed the attack in line. He himself had happily noticed a hill situated above the road by which the Celts must pass, and taking his cavalry with him, advanced at full speed, being anxious to occupy the crest of the hill before their arrival and be the first to begin the battle, feeling certain that thus he would get the largest share of credit for the result. The Celts at first were ignorant of the arrival of Atilius and imagined from what they saw, that Aemilius’ cavalry had got round their flank in the night and were engaged in occupying the position. They therefore at once sent on their own cavalry and some of their light-armed troops to dispute the possession of the hill. But very soon they learnt of Gaius’ presence from one of the prisoners brought in, and lost no time in drawing up their infantry, deploying them so that they faced both front and rear, since, both from the intelligence that reached them and from what was happening before their eyes, they knew that the one army was following them, and they expected to meet the other in their front.

Aemilius, who had heard of the landing of the legions at Pisa but had not any idea that they were already so near him, now, when he saw the fight going on round the hill, knew that the other Roman army was quite close. Accordingly, sending on his cavalry to help those who were fighting on the hill, he drew up his infantry in the usual order and advanced against the foe. The Celts had drawn up facing their rear, from which they expected Aemilius to attack, the Gaesatae from the Alps and behind them the Insubres, and facing in the opposite direction, ready to meet the attack of Gaius’ legions, they placed the Taurisci and the Boii from the right bank of the Po. Their wagons and chariots they stationed at the extremity of either wing and collected their booty on one of the neighbouring hills with a protecting force round it. This order of the Celtic forces, facing both ways, not only presented a formidable appearance, but was well adapted to the exigencies of the situation. The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army, thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with brambles which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons. At first the battle was confined to the hill, all the armies gazing on it, so great were the numbers of cavalry from each host combating there pell-mell. In this action Gaius the Consul fell in the mellay fighting with desperate courage, and his head was brought to the Celtic kings; but the Roman cavalry, after a stubborn struggle, at length overmastered the enemy and gained possession of the hill. The infantry were now close upon each other, and the spectacle was a strange and marvellous one, not only to those actually present at the battle, but to all who could afterwards picture it to themselves from the reports.

For in the first place, as the battle was between three armies, it is evident that the appearance and the movements of the forces marshalled against each other must have been in the highest degree strange and unusual. Again, it must have been to all present, and still is to us, a matter of doubt whether the Celts, with the enemy advancing on them from both sides, were more dangerously situated, or, on the contrary, more effectively, since at one and the same time they were fighting against both their enemies and were protecting themselves in the rear from both, while, above all, they were absolutely cut off from retreat or any prospect of escape in the case of defeat, this being the peculiarity of this two-faced formation. The Romans, however, were on the one hand encouraged by having caught the enemy between their two armies, but on the other they were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry. Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets. The sight of them indeed dismayed the Romansbut at the same time the prospect of winning such spoils made them twice as keen for the fight.

But when the javelineers advanced, as is their usage, from the ranks of the Roman legions and began to hurl their javelins in well-aimed volleys, the Celts in the rear ranks indeed were well protected by their trousers and cloaks, but it fell out far otherwise than they had expected with the naked men in front, and they found themselves in a very difficult and helpless predicament. For the Gaulish shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were the better chance had the missiles of going home. At length, unable to drive off the javelineers owing to the distance and the hail of javelins, and reduced to the utmost distress and perplexity, some of them, in their impotent rage, rushed wildly on the enemy and sacrificed their lives, while others, retreating step by step on the ranks of their comrades, threw them into disorder by their display of faint-heartedness. Thus was the spirit of the Gaesatae broken down by the javelineers; but the main body of the Insubres, Boii, and Taurisci, once the javelineers had withdrawn into the ranks and the Roman maniples attacked them, met the enemy and kept up a stubborn hand-to-hand combat. For, though being almost cut to pieces, they held their ground, equal to their foes in courage, and inferior only, as a force and individually, in their arms. The Roman shields, it should be added, were far more serviceable for defence and their swords for attack, the Gaulish sword being only good for a cut and not for a thrust. But finally, attacked from higher ground and on their flank by the Roman cavalry, which rode down the hill and charged them vigorously, the Celtic infantry were cut to pieces where they stood, their cavalry taking to flight.

About forty thousand Celts were slain and at least ten thousand taken prisoners, among them the king Concolitanus. The other king, Aneroëstes, escaped with a few followers to a certain place where he put an end to his life and to those of his friends. The Roman Consul collected the spoils and sent them to Rome, returning the booty of the Gauls to the owners. With his legions he traversed Liguria and invaded the territory of the Boii, from whence, after letting his legions pillage to their heart’s content, he returned at their head in a few days to Rome. He sent to ornament the Capitol the standards and necklaces (the gold necklets worn by the Gauls), but the rest of the spoil and the prisoners he used for his entry into Rome and the adornment of his triumph. Thus were destroyed these Celts during whose invasion, the most serious that had ever occurred, all the Italians and especially the Romans had been exposed to great and terrible peril.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.I, Book II, Loeb Classical Library)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

 

 

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