In 225 BC Gallic tribes again threatened Rome, but this time they faced an empire, not a city-state.
Near the end of the 4th century BC, scenes of demons and monsters of the underworld replaced Etruscan tomb frescos once radiant with depictions of joyous banquets, dancers and musicians. For the Etruscans the writing was literally on the wall. Their once thriving civilization was caught between the burgeoning Roman republic of peninsular Italy and the violent inroads of Celtic Gauls into the northern Italian plain.
In 390 BC the barbaric Gauls had appeared from the north to crush the legions and put the torch to Rome itself. It was the dies ater, the “black day” of Roman history. In 284 BC a foray by the Senones put Etruscan Arretium under siege, wiped out a Roman relief force and killed its praetor (army commander). In reprisal the Romans struck into the invaders’ homeland. The Senones were expelled from their land, which was so thoroughly scorched that it remained a wasteland for 50 years thereafter.
But another Gallic tribe, the Boii, watched the Roman actions with smoldering hatred, while beyond the Alps there awaited other ferocious Celts hungry for war and loot. Even the mystic Etruscan seers could not predict whether the ultimate masters of northern Italy would be Romans or Gauls.
Fruitless invasions by the Boii in the early 3rd century BC had led to a prolonged peace with Rome. Nearly 50 years later, however, a new generation of Gallic warriors had grown up, “full of unreflecting passion and absolutely without experience of suffering and peril,” as the Greek historian Polybius put it. Their chiefs invited tribesmen from Gallia Transalpina (Gaul beyond the Alps) to aid in a new assault on Rome. A Roman army was hastily sent to intercept them, but the invasion proved to be a false alarm. Quarrels between the suspicious Boii and the newcomers boiled over into a pitched battle in which the Transalpine kings Atis and Galatus were killed.
Nevertheless, the Boii refused to let the matter rest. At the heart of the problem was Roman expansion into the former Senones territory. To begin with, the Roman colony of Sena Gallacia had been founded along the coastal strip. And now the hinterland, which had finally recovered from the Roman ravages, was given to Roman citizens. The settling of such colonies was done in a military manner. Enlisted in Rome, the colonists marched beneath a vexillum, or standard, to their new home. A ritual bronze plow was used to delineate the colony borders, one of many Roman customs adopted from the Etruscans.
Justly anxious that the Romans would not stop until all Gallia Cisalpina (Gaul south of the Alps) was theirs, the Boii joined with the equally powerful Insubres, who shared the Boii’s concerns. To recruit yet more allies, the two tribes sent messengers across the mountains to the Gaesatae, a renowned mercenary tribe that lived near the Rhône River and the Alps. One can imagine how the Boii and Insubres ambassadors stood in the midst of the seated circle of the Gaesatae kings Concolitanus and Aneroestes, their champions and druid advisers at their side. The ambassadors offered them a large sum of gold, a small sample of what could be looted from the rich and prosperous lands of the Romans. The Boii, Insubres and Gaesatae, as proud allies, would honor the deeds of their ancestors who had crushed the legions at the Allia River and made themselves masters of Rome for seven months. Such heroic tales roused the Gaesataes’ lust for war. “On no occasion has that district of Gaul sent out so large a force or one composed of men so distinguished or so warlike,” wrote Polybius.
In 225 BC the Gaesatae descended into the plain of the Po River. The Boii and Insubres stayed loyal to their goals, but as usual there was dissension among the Gauls. More allies were found in the Taurisci, living on the Alps’ southern slopes, but two Gallia Cisalpina tribes, the Veneti and Cenomani, wanted nothing to do with the coming war. They even sent embassies of friendship to Rome. With those pro-Roman tribes threatening their borders, the Boii and Insubres were obliged to leave a sizable part of their army at home. Even then, the Gallic coalition that poured into peninsular Italy was the largest Gallic invasion to date, boasting 20,000 cavalry and chariots, and 50,000 foot soldiers.
Unlike nearly two centuries earlier, Rome was no longer merely a powerful city-state. Victorious in numerous wars, the republic had laid the foundation of an empire. Rome had consolidated its hold over Etruria, resubdued the neighboring Latin tribes of central Italy and conquered the southern tribes, most notably the Samnites. In 276 Rome defeated King Pyrrhus of Epirus, the leading Greek warrior of his day, who championed the Greek cities of southern Italy. By 264, through alliances, conquest, colonization and the granting of citizenship, Rome had extended its sway over all peninsular Italy.
Roman interest in Sicily had dragged Rome into the First Punic War (264-241) against the rival Carthaginian empire of North Africa and southern Spain. Rome again was victorious, and Sicily and the Carthaginian domains of Sardinia and Corsica passed under its control. Rome further extended its maritime presence by sending a military expedition against the Illyrian pirate queen Teuta.
In the wake of the dies ater, the Roman army abandoned the unwieldy hoplite phalanx in favor of the flexible maniple, a formation 60-120 men strong; adopted the Samnite scutum, a large semicylindrical four-cornered shield; and hurled volleys of javelins before engaging in man-to-man combat using the short sword. These reforms were tempered in battle with myriad nations on land and sea, in sieges and on the open field, through defeats and victories. The Roman army grew bigger and better. At the end of the 4th century it had grown from a single legion to four legions, whose symbols were the wolf, the boar, the horse and the Minotaur. By 225, there were at least 10 legions.
Having just secured relations with Carthage through a treaty, Rome was free to direct its whole martial might and that of its allies against the Gallic menace. Terrified of the Gallic invaders, all peninsular Italy heeded Rome’s call to arms. Legions and allies were mustered, and large supplies of grain were collected. Joining Rome’s legions were tens of thousands of allied infantry and cavalry of Sabines, Samnites, Lucanians, Marsi and a host of others, until more than 150,000 men stood ready to fight under the Roman banner. This armed might was stationed in three armies: one in Etruria; another to the east, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea (Mare Hadriaticum); and the third on Sardinia. In addition, an army of Veneti and Cenomani assembled to invade the territory of the Boii.
Seemingly oblivious to what awaited them, the Gauls crossed unopposed into Etruria through an unguarded pass in the western Apennines. They plundered at will and struck straight for the heart of their enemy. It seemed as if history would repeat itself and that soon Rome would once again fall to the barbarians. The Gauls advanced all the way to Clusium, the Etruscan city over which Romans and Gauls had first gone to war nearly 200 years before. The invaders were only three days’ march from Rome when the news came: A large Roman force, the army stationed in Etruria that they had slipped past, was at their heels. The Gauls had little choice but to turn and confront the Romans or risk being caught between the legions and the walls of Rome. One evening both armies laagered for the night within sight of each other’s campfires.
The Roman army must have been large, for the Gauls decided to avoid open battle and turned instead to a clever ploy. The cavalry remained beside its campfires, while under cover of darkness the infantry secretly retreated near the town of Faesulae. At daybreak, thinking that the Gallic infantry had taken flight, the Romans advanced toward the Gallic cavalry. In a feigned retreat, the Gallic horsemen took off toward Faesulae, the Romans in hot pursuit. Polybius’ account is unclear, but it seems the Gallic foot soldiers charged out of the town, possibly ambushing the Roman columns. At that point, the Gallic cavalrymen would have turned and fallen on their pursuers.
Caught between the Gallic cavalry and infantry, the Romans were desperate—had they still relied on the bulky phalanx formation, they probably would have met their doom then and there. By that time, however, the internal cohesion of their maniples was so ingrained in the legionaries that they quickly gathered around their straw bundle field ensign, the manipulis, to regain some order. Though the battle went against them, and more than 6,000 Romans were slain, the remainder withdrew to an easily defendable nearby hill. On came the Gauls, but the exertion of their night’s march, compounded by the battle and now a fight up the slope, was beginning to show. The Romans stood their ground and chopped down many enemies before the Gauls wisely decided to retire and get some rest, stationing cavalry around the hill to keep guard.
Time was not on the Gauls’ side. Consul Lucius Aemilius Papus, commander of the Roman army on the Adriatic, had gotten word of the Gallic inroads and their proximity to Rome. Force marching his men, he arrived on the scene and camped near the Gauls. His campfires sparkled in the night, a welcome beacon to the besieged Romans on the hill. Under cover of darkness and a nearby wood, one of them made his way through the Gallic lines and informed Lucius of the plight of his countrymen on the hill.
The fires of the new Roman arrivals did not go unnoticed by the Gauls. A council was held at which King Aneroestes argued that they should retreat with their booty, including an enormous amount of slaves, cattle and other spoils, and avoid battle for now. Once the loot was safely back in their homelands, they could always return to deal with the Romans later. Aneroestes’ prudent advice was accepted, and that night the Gauls again gave the Romans the slip.
At dawn Papus’ tribunes marshaled the infantry while he himself rode with the cavalry to the hill. Although the Gauls were gone, the tracks of thousands of soldiers and horses could not be concealed. The combined Roman armies followed in the Gauls’ wake north along the coast of Etruria.
Near Cape Telamon, Gauls foraging ahead of the main army suddenly stumbled upon Roman soldiers coming the other way. Both sides were almost certainly mounted, but it was the Gauls who yielded in the encounter and were taken prisoner. Together they rode back to the Romans’ camp. To the captured Gauls’ horror, they saw that their captors’ camp lay not behind them but ahead of them. They had been captured by the advance guard of the third Roman army from Sardinia, which had landed at Pisa (Pisae) to the north and was on its way to Rome.
The prisoners were brought before Consul Gaius Atilius Regulus and described all that had occurred, including the position of their army. Regulus gloated, assuming that the Gauls would be squeezed and annihilated between his and Papus’ army. He ordered his tribunes to march in fighting order as far as the terrain permitted.
Ahead of his army, Regulus noticed Aquilone Hill beside the road on which the Gauls were coming to meet his forces. Eager to gain the hill before the Gauls and to initiate a battle that would surely be a Roman victory, he bolted toward the hill with his cavalry. When the Gauls saw Roman cavalry gallop up to a hill in front of them, they understandably assumed that it was Papus’ cavalry, which had somehow outflanked them at night. The Gallic cavalry and light skirmishers rode out to contest the hill, taking some prisoners who told them of Regulus’ approaching legions.
For the Gauls, the situation looked grim. This time there was no escape from the Roman vise. They were in for the fight of their lives, and the Boii and Taurisci formed up to meet Regulus. Behind them the Gaesatae and Insubres faced in the opposite direction to engage Aemilius Papus. The Gauls stationed their chariots and wagons on their flanks, while a body of guards stood watch over the booty in the neighboring hills.
Both Roman and Gallic infantry watched the cavalry melee on the hill. Regulus fought alongside his men until a Gallic blade beheaded him. The Gauls carried their grim trophy back to their leaders, but fortune turned against them when Papus’ army arrived. Though he knew of Regulus’ landing at Pisae, Papus had not imagined that Regulus was so near. Drawing up his legions to advance on the Gauls, he sent his cavalry to aid in the hill battle. The Gallic horse at last were bested, and the Romans seized the hill.
Now it was time for the infantry. Though encouraged by having trapped their foe, the Romans were intimidated by the barbarian horde. As Polybius relates: “They were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry.”
The tall Gallic warriors, though outnumbered and surrounded, showed not a trace of fear. They wore bronze helmets—some adorned with horns, plumes or the Celtic symbol of war, the wheel. Fantastic curvilinear patterns graced their oval shields, which, with a helmet, made up the sole protection for the rank and file. Only a few of the chiefs and their champions had corselets of mail. Most wore multicolored checkered trousers and cloaks. This was not the case for the Gaesatae, who in accordance with their reverence for nature went into battle stark naked. Some Gauls wore torques, armlets and bracelets of bronze, electrum or gold. They gestured with long spears, javelins, slings and great iron swords. The latter were nearly a yard long, rounded at the end and meant for slashing. A few were so poorly forged that they bent after the first stroke, but other weapons approached the quality of steel.
The Romans precipitated the infantry clash with thousands of light troops who streamed through the gaps between the maniples. Skins of wolf, badger and other beasts adorned their helmets. Inside their round shields they carried handfuls of javelins, which they rained in volley after volley upon the Gallic front ranks. Though the Gauls’ oblong, oval or hexagonal body shields offered some protection, many Roman javelins found their mark. The Gauls, however, lacked sufficient missile weapons of equal range to harm their foes.
The naked Gaesatae who formed the front ranks of the Gauls facing Papus suffered most of all. The bravest Gaesatae stormed forward and were impaled by javelins before they could close with the enemy. Others pressed backward, throwing their own ranks into disorder.
Trumpets blared and standards rose above the ocean of bronze Roman helmets as the maniples advanced upon the Gallic horde. The first maniple line, the hastati, let loose another javelin barrage upon the Gauls. When the heavy pilum they used struck an enemy’s shield, the barbed iron head bent and remained embedded in it, making the shield cumbersome to use.
Roman short swords slid from thousands of scabbards. With a yell the hastati charged the Gauls. As long as the Romans held their shield wall, the tactical advantage was theirs. Swinging his long sword in great arcs, the Gallic warrior found it vexingly difficult to avoid the short Roman thrusting blades or to bypass the Roman guard and inflict a decisive blow. Unlike a Gaul’s shield, the oblong Roman scutum, a wooden shield, bent backward to enclose part of the bearer’s body. Above the upper shield rim, all a Gaul could see was the slits of his foe’s eyes beneath a bronze helmet. Even below the shield, the front of the Roman’s leg was protected by a bronze greave. And when, in the heat of battle, the Roman let down his guard, pectoral armor further protected the hastatus, while the second and third Roman lines, the principes and triarri, wore mail hauberks.
The Gallic warrior made up for those disadvantages with skill, brute force and raw courage. His mighty sword could splinter a Roman shield and bite through the bronze of the Roman helmet. The Gauls fought on, and for a time it looked like the battle could go either way. But by then the Gallic cavalry had fled the field. The Roman horsemen rode down the hill to attack the Gallic flank, their spears striking into the panicky mob.
The unexpected cavalry charge broke the spirit of the Gauls, who were cut to pieces. When the battle was over, 40,000 of them lay dead, including King Concolitanus, and another 10,000 marched into captivity and slavery. King Aneroestes escaped the slaughter with a few of his followers but, overcome by grief over the disaster, took his own life.
Papus collected the Gallic booty and sent it to Rome, whence it was returned to its owners. Determined to exact vengeance, he pushed his legions on to the lands of the Boii, where his men raped and plundered at will. After a few days, he entered Rome with his loot and captives in a triumphal march through streets adorned with Gallic standards and torques of precious metal.
The Battle of Telamon marked the decline of Gallic fortunes in northern Italy. Henceforth it was the Romans who retained the advantage. In the following three years, a series of Roman campaigns broke the back of Gallic independence in the Po Valley of northern Italy. The last of these, at Clastidium in 222 BC, saw the personal duel between the Roman general M. Claudius Marcellus and Virdomarus, the Insubres chieftain, in front of the assembled Gallic and Roman armies.
Virdomarus bellowed that he had been born from the waters of the Rhine and would make quick work of the Roman invader. Both leaders hurled their spears, and both missed. Blades in hand, they went at each other to the exuberant cheers of their countrymen. Marcellus’ sword slit Virdomarus’ throat, and his golden torque fell to the ground. Without their leader, the Gauls crumbled before the advance of the legions.
Only two years after Clastidium, most of the Gallic tribes of the Po Valley submitted to the Romans, who further solidified their gains with Latin colonies at Placentia and Cremona. The Gauls won a respite through the advent of Hannibal Barca and the Second Punic War, and after that resisted Roman encroachment for 10 more years. The Boii were the last to be defeated, in 191 BC, but they never submitted to the Roman yoke. Instead they drifted east, where they gave their name to Bohemia in the Danube region.
Roman roads and colonies spread across northern Italy. When Polybius wandered across the land nearly half a century later, he remarked that the roadside lands were already Italianized. Like the ancient Etruscan territory, the Gallic realms of Northern Italy had been absorbed into the Roman world.
Ludwig Heinrich Dyck writes from Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. For further reading, he recommends Polybius’ The Histories, translated by W.R. Paton, and Barbarians Against Rome, by Peter Wilcox and Rafael Trivino.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.