The Battle of Allia 390 BC

Today is also the anniversary of the Battle of Allia, when the Gauls defeated the Romans and sacked the city of Rome. Rome would not be sacked again until AD 410 when Alaric swept through Italy, but the 390 BC incident was highly traumatic for the Republican psyche and not forgotten in Marius' lifetime. Until Caesar conquered Gaul, they were seen as the ultimate threat to Rome's security.

Long after they had conquered Italy and begun the nucleus of what would become their Empire, the Romans continued to be terrified of hoards of Gauls once again descending into Italy. When the Cimbri and Teutones descended from Denmark, the Romans - who did not at the time differentiate between Germans and Gauls - began to panic. When these new 'Gauls' defeated consul after consul sent to repulse them, the Senators' nightmares seemed to be coming true.

The Gauls in Galatia had also caused problems for Pergamon - and resulted in one of the most famous sculptures of the Hellenistic period. The photo of the painted version of the Dying Gaul comes from here.
At school we learnt of Vercingetorix's defeat by Julius Caesar, and this is the tale of the Gauls that tends to be taught today. To the Republican Romans, as to the Hellenistic Greeks, the Gauls were a redoubtable enemy who literally inspired terror.

We know that the Romans' fear was so great that dramatic action was taken. The Sybilline Scrolls were consulted, and interpreted as demanding human sacrifices. As a result of the 'Gauls' descending towards Italy the Romans killed two Greeks and two Gauls by burying them alive in the Forum Boarium.

A Vestal Virgin had also been condemned to death, something generally only done at times of great crisis - for example, after Rome's defeat by Hannibal at Cannae. The late second century BC killing of Aemilia is generally dated to 114 or 113 BC, but it might make sense to pull the date down since it seems to tally with a crisis - certainly by 113 the Romans were aware of the great mass of Cimbri and Teutones that had gathered at Noreia just to the north east of the Italian peninsula.

I mention this as I was at RUSI yesterday, and noticed that whilst they had many books in their library about Hannibal, they did not have a single one about Gaius Marius. Hannibal has become a romantic figure, but the bottom line is that he lost. Marius won, but was followed by his archenemy Sulla - who was clever enough to re-write history

The Battle of Allia is key to understanding the importance of Marius to the Roman citizens of his day:

  • Hundreds of thousands of 'Gauls' marching towards Italy = most terrifying thing the Romans could possibly imagine.
  • Treat to Rome perceived as so great that human sacrifices were performed by the State, for the very last time in their history.
  • Marius defeats the 'Gauls' and saves Rome from their worst nightmare.

More than his creation of the first professional army, or his involvement in the grain laws and enfranchisement, this is why Marius was hailed as Rome's liberator, and as a new founder of Rome.

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