Battle of the Allia

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Battle of the Allia
Part of Roman-Gallic Wars
Paul Jamin - Le Brenn et sa part de butin 1893.jpg
Paul Jamin, Brennus and His Share of the Spoils, 1893
Date 18 July 390 BC (traditional), 387 (probable)
Location Allia River, near Rome
Result Decisive Gallic victory
Roman Republic Gauls
Commanders and leaders
Quintus Sulpicius Brennus
around 24,000 warriors around 12,000 warriors

The Battle of the Allia was fought between the Senones, one of the Gallic tribes which had invaded northern Italy and the Romans. It was fought at the confluence of the rivers Tiber and Allia, eleven Roman miles north of Rome. The Romans were routed and subsequently the Senones sacked Rome. The commonly date given for the battle is 390 BC. This is based on the account of the battle by the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius) and the Varronian Chronology, a Roman dating system. Following the ancient Greek historian Polybius, who used a Greek dating system, instead, yields 387/6 BC.


The Senones were one of the various Gallic tribes which had recently invaded northern Italy. They settled on the Adriatic coast around where modern Rimini is. According to Livy, they were called to the Etruscan town of Clusium (modern Chiusi in Tuscany) by a Aruns, an influential young man of the city who wanted to take revenge against Lucumo, who had "debauched his wife."[1] When the Senones appeared, the Clusians felt threatened and asked Rome for help. The Romans sent the three sons of Marcus Fabius Ambustus, one of Rome’s most powerful aristocrats, as ambassadors. They told the Gauls not to attack Clusium and that if they did, the Romans would fight to defend the town. They then asked to negotiate a peace. The Senones accepted a peace on condition that the Clusians would give them some land. There was a quarrel and a battle broke out. The Roman ambassadors joined in. One of them killed a Senone chieftain. This was a violation of the rule that ambassadors have to be neural. The brothers had taken sides and in addition to that, one of them had killed a Senone. The Gauls withdrew to discuss what action to take. [2]

The Senones sent their own ambassadors to Rome, demanding that the three Fabii brothers be handed over to them. The senate was pressured by favouritism not to express opinions against the powerful Fabia family. To avoid being blamed for a possible defeat if the Gauls attacked, they referred the matter to the people. Livy wrote that “those whose punishment they were asked to decide were elected military tribunes with consular powers [heads of state] for the coming year.”36 The Gauls were enraged that those who had violated the law of nations had been honoured and marched on Rome, which was 130 km (81 miles) from Clusium. Livy wrote that “in response to the tumult caused by their swift advance, terrified cities rushed to arms and the country folk fled, but the Gauls signified by their shouts wherever they went that their destination was Rome.”[3]

Size of the belligerent forces[edit]

The Gallic leader Brennus, as depicted on the figurehead of the battleship named after him

The number of fighters involved in the battle is not known for sure. Plutarch said that the Romans were not outnumbered and had 40,000 men, but most were untrained and unaccustomed to weapons.[4] Dionysius of Halicarnassus said that the Romans had four well-trained legions and a levy of untrained citizens which was larger in numbers.[5] This would also give a rough figure of 40,000.* Didorus Siculus said that the Romans had 24,000 men.[6] Livy did not give any figures. Modern historians Cary and Scullard estimate that the Roman had 15,000 men and the Gauls 30-70,000.[7] Berresford Ellis gives an estimate of a minimum of 24,000 based on the assumption that “the Romans had … four legions – for each of consul had to legions under his command – and given that each legion had 6,000 men. He also thinks that there may have been a contingent of allied troop. He thinks that the “Senones’ tribal army could scarcely more than 12,000”[8]

These figures for the size of the Roman army engaged in the battle are unlikely. For a start ancient historians are notorious for exaggerating figures. Moreover, at the time Rome only had two legions. The number of legions was increased to four later in the century, during the Second Samnite War (326-304 BC) and the first record of four legions for 311 BC.[9] To do so the Romans instituted the proconsuls. The consuls were the two annually elected heads of the Republic and the army. The proconsuls were consuls whose military command was extended for another year so that more than two legions could be commanded. The first record of the practice of the consuls heading two legions is related to the Second Punic War (218-201 BC),[10] when Rome’s territory and military manpower was much larger and she had to mobilise large numbers of legions to fend off Hannibal’s invasion of Italy. In addition to this, at that time Rome also had two more types of military commanders, the praetors and the propraetors. Berreford Ellis’ assertion that the Romans at the battle of Alia had four legions, two for each of the two consuls, also ignores the fact that in that period the consulship had been replaced by six military tribunes with consular powers and therefore there were no consuls in the year of the battle.

In addition to the above, the battle occurred in the early day of Rome, which at that time was still a city-state of only regional significance and whose territory did not stretch beyond thirty miles from the city. Cornell notes that the estimates of the population of Rome in the late 6th century BC based on the size of her territory range between 25,000 and 50,000 and thinks that the more likely figure is 30-35,000.[11] Archaeological evidence shows that in the 5th century BC there was an economic downturn.[12] This would have precluded considerable population growth. As for the size of the territory of Rome in the early 4th century BC, it was not much bigger; the only conquest was that of the nearby Etruscan city-state of Veii.

There are sufficient historical and demographic and archaeological reasons to doubt the figures given about the size of the Roman forces deployed at the battle of Allia. In addition, it has to be noted that the Romans did not have much time to prepare for the battle properly as, after their embassy was rebuffed by the Romans, the Gauls immediately marched on Rome, which was only a few days’ march away. The Roman army of that time was a part time militia of peasant farmers which was levied for the military campaigning season and then returned to their farms. Not all men of military age were drafted every year. Some of the soldiers would have lived some distance from Rome and would have needed time to walk there (walking was the main means of travel for peasants).

The size of the Senone force should not be overestimated either. The estimate given by Cary and Scullard of 30-70,000 (see above) is highly unlikely. Berresford Ellis rightly points out that his figure of 12,000 would have been quite large for a single tribe. Berresford Ellis, P., idem, p.10

The battle[edit]

There are only two ancient accounts which provide details of the battle. One is by Livy and the other is by Diodorus Siculus.

According to Livy, in Rome no special measures were taken and the levy “was not larger than had been usual in ordinary campaigns.”[13] The Gauls marched on Rome so quickly that “Rome was thunderstruck by the swiftness at which they moved, which is shown both by the haste in mustering the army, as if it were meeting a spur-of-the moment emergency and the difficulty in getting any further than the eleventh milestone.”[14] The Romans were greatly outnumbered. They did not set up camp or build a defensive rampant and they did not divine the gods as they were supposed to. They extended the wings in order not to be outflanked, but this made their line thin and weakened the centre could hardly be kept together. They placed the reserves on a hill on the right. Brennus, the Senone chieftain, suspected that this was a ruse and that the reservists would attack him from the rear while he was fighting the Roman army in the plain. He therefore attacked the hill.[15]

The Romans panicked . The left wing threw away their arms down and fled to the bank of the River Tiber. The Gauls killed the soldiers who were blocking each other’s path in the disorderly flight. Those who could not swim or were weak were weighed down by their armour and drowned. Still, the majority of these men reached Veii, which was near the other bank. They did not even send a messenger to warm Rome. The right wing, which was further from the river and closer to the hill, instead, fled to Rome. The Gauls were surprised about how easy their victory had been. [16]

The ancient Greek historian Diodorus Siculus said the Romans marched and crossed the River Tiber. He is the only ancient historian who placed the battle on the right bank of the river. They lined up their best troops, 24,000 men, in the plain and placed the weakest troops in the hill. The Celt also lined up and placed their best men on the hill and easily won the clash on that hill. The bulk of the Roman soldiers in the plain fled to the river in a disorderly manner and impeded each other. The Celts killed the men in the rear. Some Romans tried to cross the river wearing their armour which, according to Diodorus, they prized more than their lives, but-this weighed them down. Some drowned and some managed to reach the bank further downstream with great effort. As the Gauls kept killing the Romans, the soldiers then threw their arms away and swam across the river. The Gauls threw javelins at them. Most of the survivors fled to the city of Veii. Some returned to Rome and reported that the army had been destroyed.[17]

Plutarch said that the Romans did encamp and that the Gauls fell upon them. There was a “disorderly and shameful battle.” The Roman left wing was pushed into the river and destroyed, while the right wing withdrew before the Gauls’ attack on the plain. The centre escaped to Veii.[18]

Aftermath, the sack of Rome[edit]

This is the account of the sack of Rome by Livy (idem, 5.39-48). The inhabitants of the city of Rome did not know about the soldiers who fled to Veii and thought that the only survivors were those who fled back to Rome and that they had only a tiny force. There was panic. The Senones reached Rome, saw that the city walls were not manned and encamped for the night. The Romans sent the young men who could fight to defend the fortress of the Capitoline Hill. Most people fled to a hill near Rome, other towns or the countryside. The priests and the Vestal priestesses left the city taking the religious relics with them. A plebeian, Lucius Albinus, who was leaving the city, saw the Vestals walking and gave them a lift to Caere (an Etruscan city of the coast which was an ally of Rome) on his cart. The elderly remained in the city. The Senones entered the city though an open gate and went to look for loot. The noble elders stayed in their homes and left their doors open. A Gaul pulled the beard of one of the elders, who struck him with his ivory staff. The Senones then killed all the noble elders and ransacked and burnt their houses.

After a few days the Senones attacked the Capitoline Hill, but could not take it. They decided to lay a siege. They sent some of their men to the countryside to pillage for food. Some Gauls approached the town of Ardea, where Camillus, a great Roman military commander, had been set to in exile because of accusations of embezzlement. Camillus organised the inhabitants into a fighting force and attacked the Gallic camp. The fight continued near another town, Antium, whose inhabitants joined in. This was the beginning of the Roman fightback. In the meantime, the survivors of the battle who had fled to Veii begun to regroup and defeated bands of Etruscan raiders who were looting the territory of Veii. They chose Quintus Caedicius, a centurion, as their leader. Cadeicius’ forces grew. Some Romans who had fled the city went to Veii. Volunteers from Latium (Land of the Latins)also joined the force in the city. Caedicius decided to summon Camillus. However, the approval of the senate was needed to have him as the commander. A messenger was sent to Rome. He climbed up the Capitoline Hill unseen. The senate decreed that the popular assembly was to recall Camillus and appoint him dictator (commander-in-chief) Camillus was escorted from Ardea to Veii.

The Senones found footprints that the messenger had left by the Capitoline hill and found out about a tract which could be climbed. They reached the summit at night and were not heard by the guards and the dogs. However, the geese sacred to Juno (the goddess) did and alerted the Romans. Manlio Capitolinus, a former consul, rallied his men and pushed the Gauls back down the hill. Manlius was praised and one of the guards was thrown from the cliff for the negligence. Meanwhile a pestilence broke out among the Senones. It was caused by diseased cattle, which they cremated because they did not have the energy to bury them. This led to a truce.

The Gauls intimated the starving Romans to surrender. The Roman leaders, who were waiting for the army gathered at Veii, refused. However, the exhausted men of the Capitoline Hill pleaded for peace negotiations. The Gauls agreed to leave in return for a ransom of a thousand pounds of gold. The Senones cheated using heavier weights to weigh the gold. When the Romans protested, “Brennus [the leader of the Senones] tossed his sword on the scale, uttering words intolerable to the Roman ears, ‘Woe to the vanquished!’”[19]

Paying off the Senones to leave the city was a humiliation for the Romans. However, as Livy put it, “god and man forbade the Romans to be a ransomed people.” Before the weighing of the gold had been completed, Camillus reached Rome and ordered the gold not to be taken away. The Gauls said that an agreement had been made, but Camillus said that it had been struck by an official of lesser status than him and therefore invalid. The then offered battle and the Senones were easily defeated. They were defeated again eight miles to the east of Rome. Livy wrote “[the] slaughter was total: their camp was captured and not even the messenger survived to report the disaster.”[20]

In the account of Diodorus Siculus (idem,115-116), which is much less detailed, the Senones spent the first day after the battle by the Allia cutting off the heads, which he claimed, was their custom. They then encamped by the city for two days. Meanwhile, the despairing inhabitants of Rome thought that the whole army had been wiped out and that there was no chance of resistance. They fled to other towns. The leaders of the city ordered that food, gold silver and other possessions be taken to the Capitoline Hill and fortified it. The Senones thought that the noise in the city meant that a trap was being prepared. However, on the fourth day they broke down the city gates and pillaged the city. They did not hurt any civilians and suffered many casualties. Finding that they could not take the city by force they decided to lay a siege.

Meanwhile those who fled to Veii put to flight an Etruscan army which had entered the Roman territory around Veii and captured prisoners and booty. The Roman soldiers who had fled to Veii ambushed them, put them to flight and seized their weapons. They also recruited men from the countryside. According to Diodorus their leader was Cominius Pontius, (Livy said that it was Quintus Caedicius). He sent a messenger to Rome to inform the city about these developments. The Romans were told that the men in Veii were waiting for an opportunity to attack. There is no mention of Camillus. The episode of the geese of Juno and Manlius Capitolinus is mentioned. It is at this point that the Romans decided to negotiate a peace and persuaded the Senones to leave in return for gold. Most of the houses in Rome had been burnt and most of its people had been killed.

The accounts of the battle of the Allia and the sack of Rome were written centuries after the events and their reliability is questionable. This may also account for the discrepancies between Livy and Diodorus Siculus with regard to the sack of the city.

The rescue of the city by Camillus is seen by many modern historians as an artificial addition to the story. It was not mentioned by Diodorus Siculus and Camillus was never mentioned by Polybius, another ancient Greek historian. Diodorus said that the Gauls were defeated at the Trausian Plain (an unidentified location) by an Etruscan army when they were on the way back from southern Italy[21]. Strabo also says that they were defeated by Caere (the Etruscan city allied to Rome where the Vestal priestesses had fled to) which also recovered Rome’s ransomed gold.[22] Plutarch mentions that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, said that Rome was saved by ‘a certain Lucius.’[23] This could be the Lucius Albinus who was said to have given the priestesses a lift to Caere. The role that Caere in the saga of the Gallic sack is unclear and it may be that this city played a bigger role than the one given in the Roman tradition.

There is also the question of what the Senones were doing in central Italy. The ancient writers said that they were attracted by fertile lands. However, according to Cornell, this is unconvincing. Through the story the Senones appear like a warrior band. There is no mention in any of the accounts of wives and children, who would have been present if these Gauls would have been a migrating people in search for land. Cornell thinks that they were mercenaries. A few months after the sack of Rome, Dionysus of Syracuse, the tyrant of the Greek city of Syracuse, in Sicily, hired Gaul mercenaries for a war in the south of Italy. It may well be that the Senones were on their way to the south because of this. The story of their defeat when they were on their way back form the south also seems to fit with this hypothesis. It could also be that the Senones went to Clusium because hired by one of two political factions at loggerheads to intervene in a political struggles in this city, rather than the romanticised story of Aruns' revenge for his wife.[24]

==Recovery and reform==

Celtic expansion and invasions in Europe (in grey), 6th-3rd century B.C.

It was considered that the capital be moved to Veii, but the Senate decided against it when a centurion was overheard saying to his men "Let us stay here."[25]

It is conjectured that there was no effective wall around Rome before the siege because Rome's earlier Etruscan rulers may have forced the Romans to dismantle significant defences. As a result of the siege and near total destruction of Rome, Rome built the much stronger Servian Wall.

The Romans also began restructuring their military organization: They ceased using the Greek phalanx style spear and adopted better and more standardized armour and weapons. The massacre of the 1st Class infantry, representing many Patrician and aristocratic citizens, enforced the need not to expose such important members of Roman society. It could have been at this time that the Triarii (remnants of the 1st Class) were formed, as a reserve.

Many historians speculate that the Romans learned much about weapons technology and battle tactics from this run-in with the Senones. Though only a single tribe, the Senones were part of the much larger culture of Celts (or Gauls) that had more advanced iron-working and close-quarter combat techniques. Specifically, the Celts/Gauls used heavier long swords and full body shields, which allowed them to interlock shields for greater defence (a tactic later named "tortoise" (testudo) in the Roman histories).

Later, after Roman defeats in the second Samnite War had shown novel enemy tactics and formations, the need for increased flexibility was recognized, leading to the reorganization of the legion into three main lines of soldiers: the hastati in front, the principes in the middle, and the triarii in the rear organized in alternating "maniples" (units). This was to be known as "manipular formation". Lightly equipped men who had been fighting in the legion for up to two years would fight in the Velites rank in the far front, throwing javelins at the enemy and then retreating. Men with more experience would fight in the next two ranks armed with a heavy javelin, a short sword and a shield: Hastati in the front, veteran Principes behind them. Finally the older Triarii would be in the rear, organized in smaller units of 60 men as opposed to 120 in the front ranks. The Triarii were armed in Hoplite weapons and armor. The Romans had created a "teaching army" that would introduce the young Velites to battle while minimizing the chances of death.

The military system that resulted remained the basis of all Roman armies for the next few centuries, as well as the instrument that made possible the Roman Empire.

The defeat at the hands of the Gauls was the last time the city of Rome was captured by non-Roman forces until AD 410.

Legend about Brennus[edit]

The Historia Regum Britanniae, a medieval work written c. 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth on the legendary kings of Britain, states that Brennus led both Britons and Gauls. He besieged Rome for three days until his brother came to aid in the invasion. The Romans defended the city for many days and were successful in repelling the invaders. Finally, the two consuls put on armour and joined the men defending the city. They pushed the invaders back but Belinus (Brennius' brother) was able to reform the lines and stop the attacks. Brennius and Belinus continued forward until the walls were breached and the Britons and Gauls invaded the city. According to this story Brennius stayed in Rome and ruled ruthlessly for the rest of his days, although this seems highly unlikely.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Livy, idem, 5.33
  2. ^ Livy, The History of Rome, 5.36
  3. ^ Livy, The History of Rome, 5.37
  4. ^ Plutarch, The Live of Camillus, XVIII
  5. ^ Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities XIII- XIX
  6. ^ Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, 4, XIV, 114-115
  7. ^ Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H., A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine
  8. ^ Berresford Ellis, P., Celt and Roman, p.10
  9. ^ Livy; idem, 9.30
  10. ^ Polybius, The Histories, 1.6.1
  11. ^ Cornell T.J., p. 204
  12. ^ Cornell, T., J., idem, p. 266-68
  13. ^ Livy, idem, 5.37
  14. ^ Livy, idem, 5.37
  15. ^ Livy, idem, 5.38
  16. ^ Livy, idem, 5.38-39
  17. ^ Diodorus Siculus, idem, XIV. 114-115
  18. ^ Plutarch, idem, XIV, 114-115
  19. ^ Livy, idem, 5.48
  20. ^ Livy, idem, 5.49
  21. ^ Diodorus Siculus, idem, XV.4.
  22. ^ Strabo 5.2.3, Geographica, 5.2.3
  23. ^ Plutarch. idem. XII.22.3
  24. ^ Cornell, idem, pp.313-18
  25. ^ Livy, History of Rome, Book 5, Chapter 55


Primary sources

Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities

Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History; Loeb Classical Library, 1954

Livy, The History of Rome Vol I,

Plutarch, The Live of Camillus

Secondary sources

Berresford Ellis, P., Celt and Roman, St. Martin’s Press, 1998

Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H., A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine, Bedford/St. Martin's, 1975

Cornell T.J., The Beginnings of Rome; Routledge, 1995,

External links[edit]