Battle of the Allia

For other uses, see Sack of Rome (disambiguation).
Battle of the Allia
Part of Roman-Gallic Wars

Paul Jamin, Brennus and His Share of the Spoils, 1893
Date18 July 390 BC (traditional), 387 (probable)
LocationAllia River, near Rome
Result Decisive Gallic victory
Roman Republic Gauls
Commanders and leaders
Quintus Sulpicius Brennus
around 24,000 warriors around 70,000 warriors

The Battle of the Allia was fought between the Senones, the Arverni, the Aedui and others 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 common date given for the battle is 390 BC. This is based on the account of the battle by the Roman historian Livy 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. Tacitus said that the battle took place the 15 before the Kalends of August, which is 18 July.[1]


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 Aruns, an influential young man of the city who wanted to take revenge against Lucumo, who had "debauched his wife."[2] 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 neutral. The brothers had taken sides and moreover, one of them had killed a Senone. The Gauls withdrew to discuss what action to take.[3]

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."[3] 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."[4]

Size of the belligerent forces

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.[5] Dionysius of Halicarnassus said that the Romans had four well-trained legions and a levy of untrained citizens which was larger in numbers.[6] This would also give a rough figure of 40,000. Diodorus Siculus said that the Romans had 24,000 men.[7] Livy did not give any figures. Modern historians Cary and Scullard estimate that the Romans had 15,000 men and the Gauls 30-70,000.[8] Berresford Ellis gives an estimate of a minimum of 24,000 based on the assumption that “the Romans had … four legions – for each consul had two 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 troops. He thinks that the “Senones’ tribal army could scarcely more than 12,000."[9]

The figures given by ancient historians for the size of the Roman army engaged in the battle are unlikely, as they are notorious for exaggerating figures. Contrary to Berresford Ellis' assertion, at that time the Romans had two legions, not four. 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 is for 311 BC.[10] At that point the Romans also had additional military commanders: the praetor (who had been instituted in 366 BC) and the proconsul who was a consul who received an extension of his term of military command (this practice started in 327 BC). The first historical hints of the consuls leading more than one legion were for 299 BC (during a war with the Etruscans) and 297 BC, during the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC). The first explicit mention of a consul with two legions is for 296 BC. In 295 BC the Romans deployed six legions, four, led by the two consuls, fought a coalition of four peoples (the Samnites, Etruscans, Umbrians and Senone Gauls) in the huge Battle of Sentinum and two were led to another front by a praetor. [11] The battle of the Allia took place in the early days of Rome, at a time when the Roman army was much smaller and its command structure was much simpler: the two consuls were the sole military commanders and each headed one legion. In addition to this, the battle occurred during one of the periods of early Roman history when the consulship was replaced by military tribunes with consular powers (often referred to as consular tribunes). There were no consuls in that year. Therefore, Berresford Ellis’ assertion that the Romans at the battle of Allia had four legions, two for each of the two consuls, is doubly anachronistic. Moreover, the size of the Roman legions was never 6,000 men. In the early days it was probably 4,000, later it was 5,200 when at full strength (the legions were often under-strength).

The size of the population of Rome at that time also need to be considered. In her early days Rome 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 25-40,000. The seminal work by Fraccaro gives a pool of military manpower of 9,000 men of military age [12] (aged between 17 and 47), which would require a minimum population 30,000.[13] Archaeological evidence shows that in the 5th century BC there was an economic downturn. This would have precluded considerable population growth. The territory of Rome had increased by 75% by the early fourth century,[14] but the bulk of this increase was due to the recent conquest of the city of Veii and her territory, and its population did not have Roman citizenship, which was a prerequisite for serving in the Roman army. These considerations make it unlikely that the size of the population of Roman citizens would have been big enough to provide a military pool of 24,000 or more soldiers at the time of he battle of the Allia.

In addition to the above, which gives sufficient reasons to doubt the figures given about the size of the Roman forces, 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.[9]

The battle

Battle of the Allia by G.Surand

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.”[4] 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.”[4] 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 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, an Etruscan city which had recently been conquered by Rome and which was near the other bank. They did not even send a messenger to warn 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

Livy provides an account of the sack of Rome.[19] 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 situation was so dire that they left the elderly behind in the city; Livy states that where the plebeians barricaded themselves in their houses, the patricians donned their finest clothes and emblems of honor and seated themselves in their curule chairs before their houses. The Senones entered the city though the unguarded Colline Gate, and began prowling the city for loot. Livy memorably describes their encounter with the elderly patricians:

The houses of the plebeians were barricaded, the halls of the patricians stood open, but they felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, roused the passion of a Gaul, who began to stroke his beard - which in those days was universally worn long - by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was thenceforth spared; the houses were rifled, and then set on fire.[20]

After a few days the Senones attacked the Capitoline Hill, but failing to overcome the determined defenders they set a siege around it. Some of their men, sent to the countryside to pillage for food, approached the town of Ardea, to which Camillus, a great Roman military commander, had been exiled 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. In the meantime, the survivors of the battle who had fled to Veii begun to regroup and defeated the bands of Etruscan raiders looting the territory of Veii. They chose Quintus Caedicius, a centurion, as their leader. Caedicius’ forces grew. Some Romans who had fled the city went to Veii. Volunteers from Latium also joined the force in the city. Caedicius decided to summon Marius Furius Camillus. However, the approval of the senate was needed to have him as the commander. So a messenger was sent to Rome, who managed to climb 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. Manlius 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 intimidated 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!’”[21]

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. Camillius 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."[22]

In the account of Diodorus Siculus, 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.[23] 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. Diodorus provides the name of the man who took the message from the reconstituted army at Veii -- Cominius Pontius. The message he brought the besieged Romans was to hold on for 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.[24] 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.[25] Plutarch mentions that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, said that Rome was saved by ‘a certain Lucius.’[26] This could be the Lucius Albinus who was said to have given the priestesses a lift to Caere. The role of 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, Dionysius I 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 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 they were hired by one of two political factions at loggerheads to intervene in political struggles in this city, rather than the romanticised story of Aruns' revenge for his wife.[27]


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

The Gallic sack was a humiliation for Rome and a setback. It temporarily forced Rome into defensive battles again. Rome had spent much of the fifth century fending off attacks by neighbouring peoples. At first it was by some Etruscan cities to the north, the Sabines to the east and other Latin cities which had formed the Latin League. Then the threat came from the Volsci and the Aequi to the south, which attacked the territories of both Rome and the other Latin towns, which led to an alliance between Rome and the Latin League. In the second half of that century these clashes became mere skirmishes and towards the end the century there was some Roman territorial expansion. There were also three wars against the nearby Etruscan city of Veii. Rome destroyed this city and took over her territory not long before the Gallic sack. This was the greatest Roman conquests to date and Rome seemed to be on the ascendancy. After the sack the attacks on Rome’s territory resumed. There was conflict with the Etruscan coastal cities of Tarquinii and Vulsci. Rome eventually won and founded the colonies (settlements) of Sutrium and Nepete in territories taken in southern Etruria. She also defeated attacks by the Volsci and founded the colonies of Satricum and Setia in their territory. She also defeated the Aequi.

Some modern historians follow Beloch and dismiss such victories soon after the sack.[28] One reason is that they are not mentioned by the Greek historians Diodorus Siculus and Polybius. The other is the assumption that Rome had been damaged too much to be so successful militarily. Livy said that the city was burnt, and that it then developed a haphazard layout because it was rebuilt hastily. However, Cornell notes that Diodorus and Polybius made only scarce references to this period. He also disputes the extent of the damage suffered by Rome. He points out that there is no archaeological trace of the damage of the sack. Signs of burning which were thought to be dated to this event have subsequently been dated to the rebellion which brought down the Roman monarchy more than a century earlier. Cornell thinks that Senones ransacked the city, but were only interested in booty, left most of the buildings alone and went when they were bought off. It was common for the layout of ancient cities to be haphazard. He adds that Rome’s recovery was aided by cementing the newly conquered territory of Veii by granting its inhabitants citizenship without the right to vote and by a strengthening of the alliance with Caere. After the initial setback and attacks Rome resumed her expansionism of the late fifth and early fourth centuries.[29]

A few years after the sack, Rome began to build new city walls using ashlar masonry from a quarry in the territory of Veii. This was a huge undertaking. It was 11 km (7 miles) long and took twenty-five years to complete. The original wall had been built in capelaccio tuff, the local stone which was rather poor quality as it was quite friable. The wall was rebuilt with yellow tuff (which is named Grotta Oscura after its main quarry), which was of much better quality. Thus, the acquisition of Veii provided Rome with better masonry for construction. The new rock was harder and therefore harder to work.

Marius Furius Camillus introduced changes in the military formation of the Roman heavy infantry, which were designed to make up for the rigidity of the hoplite phalanx. In this system the soldiers lined up in close ranks, locking their shields together. This made attacks against it difficult. It was a powerful system, which relied on the soldiers holding the lines tight even if under pressure. However, it was also rigid. To add flexibility the soldiers, who still fought in the hoplite way, were divided into three classes based on wealth: the hastati the principes and the Triarii. The hastati were less well-off conscripts who formed the first line. They were equipped with bronze light armour (breastplates) and helmets, shields, swords and hastae, spears about 1.8 metres (6 feet) long. The principes formed the second line, wore better armour and carried two javelins, a large one and a thin one. The triarii formed the third line, had the best equipment and hastae. The hastati attacked first and if they did not defeat the enemy they fell back and the principes took over. If the principes could not break the enemy they, too, fell back and the triarii took over. Later the three classes ceased to be based on wealth and the criterion became age.

The Gallic sack led to a long lasting great fear of the Gauls in Rome. In 350 BC and 349 BC unspecified Gauls attacked Latium. These were probably marauding raids. On the second occasion Marcus Valerius Corvus was said the have fought a duel with a Gallic Champion.[30] Polybius said that Rome made a peace with the Gauls, who did not return for thirty years.[31] Despite Rome defeating the Senones in the Battle of Sentinum (295 BC) of the Third Samnite War (298-290 BC), popular fear of the Gauls persisted. In 228, 216 and 114 BC fears of Gallic attacks led to the Romans performing human sacrifices by burying alive a pair of Gauls and a pair of Greeks, even though human sacrifice was not a Roman custom. Presumably this was to avert the danger of Gallic disaster.[32]

Legend about Brennus

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 was able to reform the lines and stop the attacks. Brennus and Belinus continued forward until the walls were breached and the Britons and Gauls invaded the city. According to this story Brennus stayed in Rome and ruled ruthlessly for the rest of his days, although this seems highly unlikely.

See also


  1. Tacitus, Historiae, 2.91
  2. Livy, Ab Urbe Condita, 5.33
  3. 1 2 Livy, 5.36
  4. 1 2 3 Livy, 5.37
  5. Plutarch, The Life of Camillus, 18
  6. Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 13-19
  7. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, 4, XIV, 114-115
  8. Cary, M. and Scullard, H.H., A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine
  9. 1 2 Berresford Ellis, P., Celt and Roman, p. 10
  10. Livy, 9.30
  11. Livy, 10.11, 14, 18, 26-27
  12. Fraccaro P, in Atti II del Congresso nazionale. di studi Romani 3,, 1931, pp. 91-7
  13. Cornell T.J., The Beginnings of Rome, p. 207
  14. Beloch, Romische Geschichte bis zum Beginn der punischen kriege, 1926, p. 320
  15. Livy, 5.38
  16. Livy, 5.38-39
  17. Diodorus Siculus, XIV.114-115
  18. Plutarch, Camillus, 14.114-115
  19. Livy, 5.39-48
  20. Livy, 5.41
  21. Livy, 5.48
  22. Livy, 5.49
  23. Diodorus Siculus, 14.115-116
  24. Diodorus Siculus, 15.4
  25. Strabo, Geographica, 5.2.3
  26. Plutarch, Camillus, 12.22.3
  27. Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, pp. 313-18
  28. Beloch, Romische Geschichte, pp. 314-20
  29. Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, pp. 318-19
  30. Livy, 7.26
  31. Polybius, History, 2.18.19
  32. Cornell, Beginnings of Rome, p. 325


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