THE DAY OF ALLIA
 ONE Roman historian tells us that his countrymen believed that while their valour could easily overcome all other
dangers, a contest with the Gauls must be for existence and not for fame; another remarks that the Senate
never neglected any tidings that might reach it of a movement among this people. For such movements there was
a special name,
tumultus, and a special reserve of treasure was laid up in the Capitol to be employed when this
particular danger threatened the State. There were Gauls, as the classical atlas tells us, on either side of
the Alps. The tribes that dwelt south of the Alps were unquiet neighbours to the
 Latin nations, but the real danger arose when a swarm of invaders from beyond the mountains, moved by the love
of adventure, or driven by famine, descended on the fertile plains of Northern Italy. The first invasion of
which we have any detailed account took place in the early part of the fourth century B.C.
The true story of this event has, as usual, been not a little overgrown with legend. It was said that the
Gauls, under their king Brennus, were induced to attack the Etrurian town of Clusium by one of its citizens,
who hoped thus to avenge a private injury inflicted by a powerful noble who could not be reached by the law.
The inhabitants, alarmed by the formidable appearance of the invading host, sent envoys to Rome begging for
help. Livy tells us that there was no alliance between the two towns. All that the Clusines could plead was
that they had remained neutral in the long war between Rome and Veii, an Etrurian town, which it would have
been natural to help. The Romans sent
 envoys to the Gauls, three brothers belonging to the Fabian house (not a very likely thing, one would
imagine), with a message to this effect: "Clusium is a friendly State; we must help it even by force of arms,
if that should be necessary, when it is wantonly attacked. But we wish to avoid war if it is possible. Let the
Gauls explain what they want." The Gallic leaders replied that they too preferred to be on good terms with the
Romans, who, from the fact that their help had thus been asked, were evidently brave men. What they wanted
from the Clusines was a portion of land. They had more than they could use, whereas the Gauls had none. The
Roman envoys made an indignant reply. "By what right do you demand land from its lawful possessors; what have
you Gauls to do with an Etrurian town?" "Our rights," said the Gauls, "is in the point of our swords; as for
property, all things belong to the brave." The conference broke up, and both parties prepared for battle. In
the conflict that ensued the brothers Fabii took a prominent part. So conspicuous was their valour that it
could not but be noticed both by friend and foe; one of them in particular was recognised as he was stripping
the arms from a Gallic chieftain whom he had slain in single combat.
 The Gauls now suspended all hostilities against Clusium. They were bent on demanding satisfaction from Rome
for this gross offence against the law of nations. The more impetuous spirits were for marching against the
offending city, but the older and more prudent counsellors prevailed when they suggested that envoys should be
sent to represent their wrongs, and to claim redress. The envoys came, and were heard by the Senate, which
acknowledged the transgression of the Fabii, but hesitated to accede to the demand that the guilty should be
given up. Unable or unwilling to come to a decision, they referred the matter to the General Assembly of the
People. Here there was little chance of justice being done. The proposition that these brave nobles should be
given up was at once scouted. The Fabii's were not only not punished, but were actually elected Military
 ensuing year. No one thought of the step usually taken in an emergency, the appointment of the ablest soldier
available as dictator. Even the ordinary preparations for meeting a formidable enemy were neglected.
Meanwhile the Gauls were advancing on Rome, thinking of nothing but vengeance on this insolent city. The
appearance of their host terrified the inhabitants of the country through which they passed, but they did not
turn aside to attack or plunder any of the towns on their route. They gave it to be understood that all their
quarrel was with Rome.
Roused at length to a sense of their danger by the frequent messengers who came hurrying in from the north the
Romans hastily got together such troops as they could find, and marched out to meet the enemy, who had now
advanced as far as the river Allia, little more than eleven miles from the city. Livy tells us that the
generals formed no camp, constructed no rampart to protect them in case of a reverse, and offered no
sacrifice. The battle-line had to be widely extended if they were to be protected against a flanking movement;
but this could not be done without perilously weakening
 the centre. It mattered, however, little or nothing what arrangements were or were not made. There was nothing
like a battle; only a blind panic and headlong flight. "No lives," says Livy, "were lost in battle." But
thousands were cut down in the pursuit, while the fugitives, so densely packed was the throng, hindered each
other from escaping; many perished on the Tiber bank, where they stood helpless, the enemy behind, the
impassable stream in front; not a few were drowned, some who, unable to swim, yet threw themselves into the
stream, in the wild hope of somehow struggling through, or, being swimmers, were weighed down by their heavy
armour. Of those who escaped the greater part made their way to Veii. These neglected to send any tidings of
their safety to Rome. Those who reached Rome did not even stop to shut the gates of the city, but hurried to
take possession of the Capitol.
All this sounds very romantic, not to say improbable. It is strange to find these barbarous Gauls so strict in
demanding an observance of international laws. And then the battle—there was, indeed, nothing Roman
about it. Where were the three Fabii, all in high command, whose valour had been so
 conspicuous at Clusium, but on the Allia are unable either to rally their soldiers or to strike a blow for
themselves? And the sacrifices—is it credible that so regular a custom, observed almost mechanically,
was for this one occasion omitted? And the behaviour of the fugitives—what could be more unlikely? If
they were in too great a hurry to shut the city gates, were there no old men or boys to do it? Livy manifestly
piles up every possible neglect or misdoing to heighten the dramatic contrast between reckless pride and
humiliating defeat. But that a great disaster occurred at the Allia, it is impossible to doubt. Allia was,
indeed, as Virgil calls it, infaustur nomen, an ill-starred name. For centuries afterwards its
anniversary, the 15th of July, Dies Alliensis, was marked as one on which no public business could be
transacted. When Tacitus wishes to describe the height of reckless impiety in Vitellius, one of the
short-lived Emperors who succeeded one another after the fall of the Julian Cęsars, he says that he was so
regardless of all law, human or divine, that he actually published an edict on the fatal Day of Allia.
The story goes on in the same romantic style. But a sudden change comes over the
 whole temper of the nation, from the highest to the lowest. Impiety, recklessness, and cowardice give place to
reverence, prudence, and constancy. The Capitol, the last hope of Rome, is to be held by its picked warriors.
No one is to consume its scanty stores who cannot contribute his full share to its defence. The populace obey
without a murmur, and flock out of the city, seeking a refuge where they may, or remain to await their doom.
The old nobles who have borne high office, consuls, prętors, and senators, will not leave the city but will
abide, each in his robes of office and chair of state, the coming of the foe; the holy things from temple and
shrine are either buried or conveyed to some place of safety. Now all is dignity as before all was disgrace.
The story goes on in the same romantic style—the venerable old men, treated at first with reverence, are
slaughtered when one of them resents with a blow of his ivory sceptre a barbarian's too familiar touch. The
Capitol is closely invested, resolutely defended, but almost lost by the carelessness of the sentries. The
besiegers had either observed the track of one of the messengers who had carried some communication from the
garrison to the outer
 world, or had discovered the place where the ascent was not too difficult to attempt. They make the venture
one moonlight night—one would think that the moonlight would be more of a hindrance than a
help—and almost succeed. The watch has neglected its duty; the very dogs are asleep. But Roman piety
saves the last refuge of Rome. There was a flock of sacred geese in the temple of Juno, and these had been not
only spared but fed, hard pressed as the garrison had been for food. And now they give warning of the enemy's
approach. Manlius, one of the most distinguished veterans in the garrison, for he had been Consul, is roused
by their clamour, hurries to the edge of the height, hurls one man down by driving his shield into his face,
slays others, and gives the garrison time to assemble.
But though the Capitol is not to be taken by force, it cannot stand out against hunger. Negotiations are
opened, for the Gauls have somehow given it to be understood that they are ready to depart if a sufficient
price can be paid. A thousand pounds weight of gold is agreed upon for the ransom. As the weighing is going on
one of the Romans complains that the weights are unfair. Thereupon the insolent Gaul throws his sword into the
 uttering words that were beyond all bearing by a Roman ear, "Woe to the vanquished!"
But the gods will not allow the most pious of nations to suffer this last humiliation. Before the price can be
handed over to these insulting barbarians, the greatest of Roman soldiers appears upon the scene, orders
scales and gold to be removed, bids the Gauls prepare for conflict, and defeats them, first in the Forum
itself, and afterwards at the eighth milestone from Rome, as completely as they had themselves routed the
Romans at Allia.
We need not endeavour to disentangle the true from the false in this story. That Roman pride covered a
humiliating fall is plain enough, and we may well doubt the too opportune arrival of the victorious Camillus.
But it is certainly true that Rome recovered with amazing rapidity from what might well have been an
overwhelming blow. In the first three centuries and a half of her existence Rome has made so little progress
that she has still a rival city not more than ten miles from her gates. She is reduced to her last stronghold,
and has to ransom even that. Nevertheless in the course of another century and a half she is in undisputed
possession of the whole of Italy. It has been suggested, not without
proba-  bility, that the other Italian peoples suffered even more from this barbarian deluge, and that the Roman arms
when once the acute crisis had passed encountered a less formidable resistance.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics