Vae victis (IPA: [ˈwae̯ ˈwɪktiːs]) is Latin for "woe to the vanquished", or "woe to the conquered". It means that those defeated in battle are entirely at the mercy of their conquerors and should not expect—or request—leniency.
According to tradition, in 390 BC, an army of Gauls led by Brennus attacked Rome, capturing all of the city except for the Capitoline Hill. Brennus besieged the hill, and finally the Romans asked to ransom their city. Brennus demanded 1,000 pounds (329 kg) of gold, and the Romans agreed to his terms. According to Plutarch's life of Camillus and Livy's Ab Urbe Condita (Book 5 Sections 34–49), the Gauls provided steelyard balances and weights, which were used to measure the amount of gold. The Romans brought the gold, but claimed that the provided weights were rigged in the Gauls' favor. The Romans complained to Brennus, who took his sword, threw it onto the weights, and exclaimed, "Vae victis!" The Romans thus needed to bring more gold, as they had to counterbalance the sword as well. Livy and Plutarch claim that Camillus subsequently succeeded in defeating the Gauls before the ransom had to be paid, although Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and a later passage from Livy contradict this.
Most of the events related by ancient historians about early Roman history are considered legends, while the Gaulish sack of Rome is one of the first events which modern scholars are confident actually occurred, although the colourful incidents reported by tradition are not accepted.
All accounts of this story, with whatever variations, were written down when the Romans themselves were in the ascendant, conquering various peoples and countries far and wide and imposing terms on them. Thus the implicit lesson of the story was that those conquered by the Romans had no choice but to act as the Romans had acted towards the Gauls - i.e. submit to the victors and accept their terms.
- Battle of the Allia
- Jungle law
- List of Latin phrases
- Might makes right
- Right of conquest
- Trial by battle
- Victor's justice
- Victis is the dative plural form of victus; the dative singular forms of the phrase are vae victo (masculine & neuter) & vae victae (feminine).
- Armstrong, Jeremy. Early Roman Warfare: From the Regal Period to the First Punic War. Pen and Sword. pp. 66–68. ISBN 9781473880160.
- "Livius, Titus. University of Virginia. E-Text Library. Ab urbe condita". Archived from the original on 2005-03-24. Retrieved 2009-07-29.
- Plutarch, Camillus 28