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The Invasion of the Gauls

A hastily collected army met Brennus near the river Allia, but in spite of the almost superhuman efforts of the Romans, the Gauls won a great victory, and killed nearly forty thousand men. The Roman army was cut to pieces, and no obstacle now prevented the barbarians from reaching Rome.

As the Gauls advanced, the people fled, while many soldiers took refuge in the Capitol, resolved to hold out to the very last. The rest of the city was deserted, but seventy of the priests and senators remained at their posts, hoping that the sacrifice of their lives would disarm the anger of their gods, and save their beloved city. These brave men put on their robes of state, and sat in their ivory chairs on the Forum, to await the arrival of the barbarians.

When the Gauls reached the city, they were amazed to find the gates wide open, the streets deserted, and the houses empty. They did not at first dare enter, lest they should be drawn into an ambush, but, reassured by the silence, they finally ventured in. As they passed along the streets, they gazed with admiration at the beautiful buildings.

At last they came to the Forum, and here they again paused in wonder in front of those dignified old men, sitting silent and motionless in their chairs. The sight was so impressive that they were filled with awe, and began to ask whether these were living men or only statues.

One of the Gauls, wishing to find out by sense of touch whether they were real, slowly stretched out his hand and stroked the beard of the priest nearest him. This rude touch was considered an insult by the Roman, so he raised his wand of office, and struck the barbarian on the head.

The spell of awe was broken. The Gaul was indignant at receiving a blow, however weak and harmless, and with one stroke of his sword he cut off the head of the offender. This was the signal for a general massacre. The priests and senators were all slain, and then the plundering began.

When all the houses and temples had been ransacked, and their precious contents either carried off or destroyed, the barbarians set fire to the city, which was soon a mass of ruins. This fire took place in the year 390 B.C., and in it perished many records of the early history of Rome. Because of their loss, not much reliable information was left; but the Romans little by little put together the history which you have heard in the preceding chapters.

We now know that many of these stories cannot be true, and that the rest are not entirely so. And this is the case also with those in the next two or three chapters; for the first historians did not begin to write till many years after the burning of Rome. The Romans, however, believed thoroughly in all these stories, and people nowadays need to know them as much as the perfectly true ones that follow.