Around 390 BC, Gauls invaded Italy for the first time and sacked a Rome weakened by previous wars. In his new book The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire (Random House), Anthony Everitt—author of biographies of Cicero, Augustus, and Hadrian—recounts how the plundering Gauls (also called Celts) met the all-but-defeated leadership of Rome.
With morning came the Celts. The citadel was now safe, but, rather than hide away, senators decided to consecrate themselves to the underworld and death in a strange ritual called devotio (whence, in passing, our word devotion).
The sacrifice of their lives would bring the same devotio onto the heads of their enemies—in other words, it would consecrate the Celts to their destruction too.…The senators went home and dressed themselves in their old robes of office. They sat quietly, awaiting their fate in the courtyards of their houses.
The porta Collina, the Colline Gate, at the northern tip of the city, had been left open, and it was here that the Celtic invaders made their entry. They proceeded coolly and calmly down the long, straight street that led from the gate to the foot of the Capitol and then the Forum. They wandered around the square, gazing at the temples and the citadel.
After sightseeing, they fanned out through the city in search of booty. To their surprise, they found that while the dwellings of the poor were locked and barred, the mansions of the rich lay wide open.
They were startled by the senators, sitting stock-still, and one Celt touched the beard of a certain Marcus Papirius, thus interrupting the ritual devotio gesture. The offended Papirius at once hit the man on the head with his ivory staff. The furious Celt butchered him on the spot and the other senators soon met the same fate. The devotio was now complete.
Looting now began in earnest.