Gateway to the Classics: Stories from the History of Rome by Emily Beesly
Stories from the History of Rome by  Emily Beesly

The Taking of Rome

I N the northern part of Italy there lived at this time a people called the Gauls. They were of the same race as the Scotch Highlanders, who are still sometimes called Gaels, and were a fierce and savage people who loved fighting. They are described to us as tall strong men with fair hair, who wore dresses of many colours, like the Scotch plaids, and were armed with shields and long broad-swords. It was many years before the time of which I am now telling you that the Gauls had first crossed the Alps, and settled in Northern Italy; but they now began to march further south, and attacked Clusium.

The people of Clusium sent to Rome to beg for help. The Senate refused to send an army to their aid, but chose three young nobles of the family of Fabius, as ambassadors to go to the Gauls, to try and make peace.

When the three Fabii arrived in the Gaulish camp they were led before the king, and spoke to him thus:

"The Roman Senate, O king, would have you put an end to the war against the Clusians who have never injured you. If it should be needful, know that the Romans will fight with you to defend their friends and allies; but they will gladly be at peace with you if you will stop fighting."

"We will make peace with the Clusians," answered the Gaulish king, "if they will give up to us a part of their lands. If not, we will fight them in your presence, Romans; and then you may go home and tell your fellow-countrymen how much braver the Gauls are than any other people."

"But," said the ambassador, "what right have you to come and take the lands of Clusium? What have you to do in Etruria?"

"That I will soon show you with this good sword," cried the Gaul fiercely. "A brave man has a right to everything."

So the ambassadors went back to Clusium, and all was got ready for fighting.

Now it has always been a rule among nations that an ambassador ought to take no part in war. He must not fight; and if he were to be harmed by any one of the people to whom he is sent, it would be a great wrong. But the Roman ambassadors, when they saw their Clusian friends march out against the Gauls, could not resist the pleasure of going with them. The battle began, and Quintus Fabius attacked the Gaulish general and ran him through with his spear. The Gauls soon found out that it was the Roman ambassador who had killed their general, and their rage against the Romans was so great, that they left off fighting the Clusians, and marched away to their camp to plan what should be done. Some of them wished to march straight to Rome; but the elder men determined first to send messengers to the Senate, to ask that the Fabii should be given up to them.

The Romans, however, instead of punishing the Fabii, praised them, and chose them to be chief officers in the army for the next year. When the Gauls heard of this their anger was very great, for they were a passionate and savage people, and they at once set out for Rome. The people in the towns and villages through which they passed were very much frightened at the wild and strange warriors; but they, when they saw the people trying to run away to save themselves, cried out in a loud voice that they would do them no harm, and that they were going to punish the Romans.

News soon came to Rome of the terrible enemy that was so near; and the Fabii and the other generals led out the army to meet them. The generals were careless and did not make great preparations, as they ought to have done, against their new foes. The soldiers too, instead of being eager for battle as they usually were, were very much afraid of these fierce strangers, whose arms and looks and ways of fighting were quite different from anything ever seen in Southern Italy before. And if they were afraid when they set out, they grew much more terrified when the two armies came near together, and they could hear the Gauls shouting out their war-songs and clashing their arms, as their wild and savage fashion was.

They met on the banks of the river Allia, eleven miles from Rome. Brennus, the king of the Gauls, led his army to the attack, and the battle did not last long, for neither officers nor soldiers in the Roman army behaved like Romans. They thought of nothing but of saving themselves, and turned and fled without striking a single blow. Many went to Veii, others tried to swim across the Tiber, and many were drowned there, being tired and weighed down by their heavy armour; many were slain by the enemy as they tried to escape; others got safely to Rome, and fled into the Capitol in such haste, that they did not even shut the city gates after them.

The Gauls were quite astonished by their easy victory, and for a while stood still as if they hardly knew what had happened. But at last, seeing that the Romans had all fled, they marched on and reached the city about sunset. When they found that the gates were open, and saw that no one came to resist them, they thought that the army must be concealed in the city ready to attack them if they went in. So, as the evening was coming on, they encamped outside the walls for the night.

In the meantime, the terror in Rome was such as had never been known there before. The Romans supposed that all their army had been killed except the small number who had escaped to Rome; for they did not know that a much larger number had fled to Veii. The whole city was filled with wailing and lamenting. As they had no hope of defending the city with so few soldiers, it was resolved that the young and strong men, with their wives and children, and the strongest of the senators, should go to the Capitol, which was a steep rocky hill defended with strong walls and towers.

Arms and food were got together, and taken to the Capitol. They thought if they could defend the temples of the gods, which were on this hill, and keep alive the strongest of the people and some of the senate, that the loss of the old people and of the rest of the city would have to be borne. And that the people who were left in the city might bear their fate more patiently, the aged nobles, many of whom were senators, and had been consuls, declared themselves ready to die with them; so that they might not be a burden to the small number of men who were able to fight.

Many of the people fled out of the city; some went to neighbouring towns, others wandered about in the fields. Some of the priests and priestesses (or vestal virgins as they were called) carried away the statues of the gods and other sacred things, and fled with them to a town not far off.

When all had been made ready for the defence of the Capitol, the old men went back into their houses. Those who had been consuls, or had held any other high office, clad themselves in their splendid embroidered robes, and seated themselves in their ivory chairs, and thus they waited for the coming of the enemy.

The Gauls spent the night outside the town, as I told you, but when morning came they marched in. They were much surprised to find no one in the streets, or public places; so after setting a small number of men to watch the Capitol, lest the garrison there should attack them unexpectedly, they began to go into the houses to look for plunder, and finding the doors of the great houses where the nobles lived unfastened, they first went in to them. There, to their great astonishment, they found the grand old nobles sitting in their chairs of state so still and quiet that the Gauls did not know if they were real men or statues of the gods. Then a Gaul stretched out his hand and touched the long white beard of Papirius, one of these old nobles, to see if he were alive. Papirius, angry at the insult, struck the rude soldier on the head with his ivory staff. At this the Gaul quickly drew his sword, and killed the old Roman. Then the slaughter began. The Gauls killed the old men, and plundered their houses, and then rushed into the other houses, plundering and setting them on fire, and killing the people who had not fled.

When the Romans in the Capitol saw their dear city full of enemies, plundering and burning and killing, and heard their shouts, the cries of the Romans, and the noise of the falling houses, they were full of misery and sorrow. They were so few that they could do nothing to help their friends; but their courage still did not fail them, and they resolved to defend the little hill which was all they had left to the very last.

After some days, when the Gauls had finished burning and plundering the city, they began to wish to take the Capitol too. First they made an attack upon it, and tried to climb up the sides of the hill. The Romans let them come half-way up, and then suddenly set upon them, threw them down the steep rocks, and killed a great many. So, finding that they could not take the Capitol by force, they resolved to lay siege to it. They left a small number of their warriors to guard it, so that no one should go in or come out, while others of their troops plundered the country round, or attacked the towns that were near.

I told you in the last story that the brave Camillus had been banished from Rome; he had gone to live in a town called Ardea. When he heard of all the misfortunes of his country, he was more unhappy than his own troubles had made him; and he wondered what had become of those brave soldiers who had fought with him at Veii and Falerii. News was brought to Ardea that the Gauls were coming, and the terrified Ardeans asked Camillus what they should do. When he heard these things, he went to the Ardean Assembly, and spoke in these words to the people:

"My old friends of Ardea," he said, "I hope none of you think that I forget all the kindness you have shown me since I came to your city. And now in this danger it is fitting that every one should do what he can for the common good. How can I show you how grateful I am to you, better than at such a time? And how can I be of use to you except in war? For in my own country I had some fame as a soldier. Now, then, Ardeans, you have a chance of repaying the Romans for all their kindness to you, and also of winning for your city a glorious name in war. The people that are coming against you are men who are very big, but not so strong as they look. They are tired with the siege of Rome, and they wander about the country, filling themselves with meat and wine, which they get by thieving. When night comes on they lay themselves down without any camp or sentinels, in the fields or by the river sides, like so many wild beasts; and since their victory they are even more careless than they were before. Now, then, if you dare defend your town, stand to your arms when evening comes on, and follow me; and if I do not give you the chance to kill them like wild beasts when they are asleep, banish me from Ardea, as I was banished from Rome!"

Everybody before this believed that there never was such a man for war as Camillus, and the Ardeans now followed his advice. As soon as it grew dark, they met him at the city gates. He led them out, and they had not gone far before they came to the place where the army of the Gauls lay sleeping. There were no guards nor sentinels, so the Ardeans rushed upon them, and killed great numbers of them, unarmed and asleep. Of the rest of the army, some were killed by the people of other towns near Ardea, and some fled away to their fellow-countrymen at Rome.

In the meantime the part of the Roman army which had gone to Veii was getting larger; for not only more Romans came to join them, who had fled from Rome when the Gauls took it, but many soldiers came in from the towns of Latium to help them. When they heard of the victory that Camillus had won over the Gauls, they determined to ask him to come and lead them. They did not like to do this without asking the leave of the senators at Rome; yet it was a difficult thing to get to them, as they were on the Capitol surrounded by the army of the Gauls. A young man called Pontius Cominius offered to do his best to take the message. He easily got to the Tiber, and then swam down the river till he came to Rome. The side of the Capitol nearest the river was a very steep craggy rock, and the Gauls did not watch it as carefully as the other sides, thinking that no one could climb it. But Pontius crept out of the river, managed to scramble up the rock, and so got into the Capitol. He was taken to the senators, and gave them his message from the army at Veii. They were very glad to hear the good news he brought, and sent word to the soldiers that the Senate recalled Camillus from banishment and made him dictator. The young man then went back the same way that he had come, and got safely to Veii.

Now, though Pontius got safely away, he had not been able to help leaving on the rocks the marks of where he had scrambled down, and the Gauls, when they saw these footprints, found out that some one had been up the cliffs which they thought could not be climbed.

"If the Romans can get up, why should not the Gauls do the same?" said one of the boldest of them. And the next night, when it was dark, he climbed up. When he came down, it was resolved that a party should go up and attack the Romans while they were asleep. So they began to climb, helping one another and pulling one another up as best they could, all without speaking a word.

Now the Romans, trusting in the steepness of the rocks, kept careless guard; they were all asleep, and so quietly did the Gauls come up that no one heard them; even the dogs slept on. But in one of the temples near the walls there were some geese which were sacred to Juno the goddess of that temple. These geese were disturbed by some sound that the Gauls made, and began to cackle and clap their wings. They made such a noise that they awoke Marcus Manlius, a brave Roman, who had been consul three years before. Springing up, and seizing his weapons, Manlius ran out to see what was the matter. When he came near the temple, what was his surprise to see the tall figure of a Gaul standing on the wall at the top of the rock. Manlius shouted to the other Romans to follow him, and rushing at the Gaul he gave him such a blow with his shield, that he knocked him right off the wall and down the rocks outside. The fall of this man knocked down some of those who were standing below him, and frightened the others so that they dropped their weapons. By this time the other Romans had joined Manlius, and they threw their spears and large stones down upon the Gauls, putting them into such fear that they fell down the rock, and many of them were killed.

Next morning the soldiers were called together before the generals, who praised Manlius for his bravery; but they ordered that the sentinel who ought to have been watching the part of the wall where the Gauls climbed up, should be thrown down the rock.

After this both the Roman and Gaulish guards kept better watch. But now both parties began to be troubled by want of food, and many of the Gauls fell ill and died. They were used to live in a much cooler country, and the heat of Rome made them ill. The Romans, too, were quite tired of being shut up in the Capitol. Their food was nearly finished, the soldiers grew so weak that they could hardly bear the weight of their arms, and they began to think that the dictator Camillus would never come to drive away the Gauls. So both parties were very glad to make a truce, that is, to agree that they would not fight each other for several days. The Romans said they would make any conditions the Gauls liked, and the Gauls said they would go away if the Romans would give them a thousand pounds weight of gold. The Romans agreed to this, and Sulpicius, one of the generals, was sent to Brennus the king of the Gauls to pay him. The gold had to be weighed, for it was not in coins, such as we have, but in lumps. The Gauls tried to use weights which were not fair, so as to get more gold than they ought to have had. Sulpicius saw this, and told them it was unfair and shameful. Then King Brennus threw his sword into the scale, exclaiming, "Woe to the conquered!"

The weighing was not yet done, when, to the joy of the Romans, the dictator Camillus and his soldiers arrived. When he saw what they were doing he was very angry.

"Begone," he said to the Gauls, "and do you, Romans, take away that gold."

The Romans at first said they could not obey him, and told him what they had promised before he came.

"The promise cannot be kept," he answered; "no Roman had any right to make such a promise without the leave of the dictator."

Then turning to Brennus, he bade him get his men ready for battle.

The Gauls seized their arms, and attacked the Romans with more rage than skill. They were driven back and forced to fly, and at last had to march out of the city. The Romans followed them, and another battle was fought about eight miles from Rome in which the Gauls were all killed, their camp was taken, and not one man was left to carry the news back to their own country.

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