City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

The Coming of the Gauls

In all the wars which the Romans had fought up to this time, they had been fighting with people who were near neighbors to them, and who were like themselves in speech, and manners, and ways of fighting. But six years after the capture of veil, the Romans were called upon to meet a new race in battle, whose like they had never seen before, and at whose hands they met a terrible defeat.

North of the peninsula of Italy, you will remember, and shutting it off from the rest of Europe, lies the great snowy chain of the Alps. These mountains are higher and more difficult to cross than any of the mountains of our own country; but there are now many well-made wagon roads through the Alps, and even some railroads. In the early days of Rome, however, there were no such roads, and the great snow-covered ridges made a barrier which people rarely thought of crossing. The Romans knew nothing of the people who lived on the other side of the Alps, and would, perhaps, never have thought for many centuries longer, of climbing through their rough passes to find out what lay beyond them.

But the peoples who lived north of these mountains were very different from the Italians, and were not held in one place by the love of their lands and homes. They had villages and towns of their own; but these were poor and ill-made, compared to the Italian cities, and the people were always ready to leave them to follow their chiefs into other countries to gain new possessions. The Alps, too, are easier to climb from the north than from the south, for the slope on the northern side is much more gradual. So, some of these peoples found their way over into Italy while the Romans were still thinking only of their own city, and their little neighborhood wars. These tribes from the north had many different names among themselves, but the Italians usually called them by the name of "Gauls."

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


The Gauls were very different in appearance from any people that the Italians had ever seen. The Romans and the other Italians were small people compared with the Gauls, and had black hair and eyes, and dark skins browned by the hot suns of the long Italian summers. The Gauls were from the north, where the milder sunlight and the cooler summers had left their hair and skins fair and their eyes blue. This was a continual wonder to the darker Italians; and, when we add that the Gauls were larger and heavier in body than the Italians, you will not be surprised to find that the Romans spoke with awe of the blue-eyed giants, for many years after the Gauls had all disappeared from the neighborhood of Rome.

The dress of the Gauls was also strange to the Romans. They wore garments checked and striped in many colors, which remind us of the bright tartans in which the Highlanders of Scotland clothed themselves for centuries, and of which they make some use even to this day. Indeed, the Highlanders are, perhaps, the most closely related to these ancient Gauls of any people now in the world, and only a few hundred years ago, they were using war-horns and swords in their battles very much like the ones that the Romans tell us the Gauls brought with them into Italy.

The Gauls differed as much from the Romans in their manner of fighting as they did in their appearance. The Romans, during their long experience in warfare, had learned to draw up their soldiers in a regular form, with the cavalry and the infantry in fixed positions, and they always went into battle in an orderly manner. The Gauls never dreamed of anything like order in their fighting. Each man, with his broad, unpointed sword, and long shield, took his place in the great mass of his fellow soldiers; and, when the signal for battle came, they all rushed furiously at the enemy. Those who were behind pushed on those in front, if they showed signs of giving way, and their savage yells and the din of their horns terrified the enemy as much as the blows from their heavy swords.

Some tribes of the Gauls had been settled in the northern part of Italy for a long time before the Romans heard anything about them. You must understand by this time that the Romans lived in a much smaller world than ours is to-day. In a very short time, we now hear of almost everything that happens on the earth,—at least of everything within the reach of the railroads and the telegraph. But, in those days, the Romans had no way of getting word even from the different parts of Italy.

So it was only when a band of the Gauls, leaving their families behind them, with their relatives who had settled in the valley of the Po, pushed down farther to the south, and crossed the Apennines, that they came to the knowledge of the Romans.

These Gauls were terrible destroyers; and, as they went, they left a broad path behind them, in which there were only ruined towns, and fields bare of any sign of life. City after city fell into their hands; and when they came to the Tuscan town of Clusium, where Lars Porsena had ruled a century before, messengers were sent to Rome to beg for help against this new enemy.

At first, Rome only replied to this request by sending three ambassadors to treat with the Gauls. When these ambassadors and the men of Clusium met the chiefs of the Gauls, they asked them why they had come in this manner into the country of another people.

"We want land for those of us who have none," replied the Gauls, "and the men of Clusium have more than they can use. Give us what we ask, and we will not make war upon you."

Then the Romans cried out, thinking of their own lands, which might be asked for next:

"What right have you to ask for land from the men of Clusium, and threaten war if they refuse it?"

"We carry our right in our swords," the Gauls replied. "All things belong to the, brave. Do you stand by, O Romans, and see us decide this matter with our arms, and then carry home the story of how much the Gauls excel all other peoples in bravery."

The people of Clusium could not endure this haughty speech. They refused the demand of the Gauls, and a battle almost immediately began. The Roman ambassadors, too, were angry, and this caused them to forget the law of nations, which does not allow ambassadors to fight. They entered the battle, side by side with the soldiers of Clusium, and one of the three killed a chieftain of the Gauls in the sight of both the armies.

Then the Gauls were much enraged. With a sudden impulse, they gave up their attack on Clusium, and sent messengers to Rome to demand that the offenders should be given up to them for punishment; and when this was refused, they marched straight upon that city.

The Romans heard of their coming, and prepared to meet them, but not so carefully as they would have done if the Gauls had been the people of some neighboring city. They did not seem to think it worthwhile to appoint a Dictator, as they had so often done when other dangers threatened them. They did not realize that they would have to meet an enemy more difficult to face than any they had ever fought before. Perhaps they even despised the Gauls for their savage ways, and their clumsy weapons, of which they must have heard; and thought that it would not be so difficult to defeat men who fought with their heads unprotected by helmets. But, if the Romans despised the Gauls before they met them, they learned from them one great lesson,—that it is never safe to scorn an enemy, until you have learned what he can do.

When the Gauls had come as near as the eleventh milestone from the city, the Romans went out to meet them with a large army. The battle took place on the banks of a little stream which flows into the river Tiber. There the Romans drew up their army in a long line, as they were in the habit of doing when they met their Italian enemies. But this was not the way in which to meet the Gauls.

As you know, the Gauls had but one way in which to fight, and that was to rush blindly at their enemy, careless whether they met death or not. It was in this way that they charged at the Roman line. With their horns blowing and their shouts rising in a fearful roar, they dashed in a great mass at the Roman army, and went through the line of brave soldiers with a rush that could not be resisted. The Romans were divided into two parts, as if a wedge had been driven through their lines; and, terrified at the savage attack and their sudden defeat, they fled blindly, as they had so often caused their own enemies to flee.

The greater part of the Roman army was cut off from Rome by the force of the Gauls, and the men were obliged to throw themselves into the Tiber, and swim to the other shore, where they took refuge behind the walls of the deserted city of Veii. The smaller part retreated in a panic to Rome; and, rushing through the city, without stopping even to close the gates, the defeated soldiers made their way into the citadel on the Capitol, which was the strongest hill of Rome.

The Gauls did not pursue them. They were amazed at their sudden success, and they hesitated to go on, for fear lest there might be some trap prepared for them. They turned back, to gather up the arms of the Roman dead; and then they spent their time in dividing the spoil and feasting. As a result of this, it was not until the third day after the battle, in the hot days of July, three hundred and ninety years before Christ was born, that the army of the Gauls appeared before the gates of Rome.