Well-known sayings: “Vae Victis”

The real-life counterparts to the tribes in Travian shared a long, ever-changing history, in which the Romans not always had the upper hand: 750 years prior to the Germanic Vandals, Gaul tribes had conquered Rome once before.

About 500 BC the Romans settled around their capital on the Tiber river in central Italy and controlled an area hardly greater than their city state. North of the Roman territory and extending until the southern edge of the Alps lived the Etruscans with their various city states, while Celts lived north of the Alps. Their area of settlement reached from today’s Austria across southern Germany and to the French Atlantic coast. The Gauls, who lived in what is southern France today, also were part of Celtic culture.

The Gauls are coming

Discoveries of Celtic metal works in Etruscan graves prove that trade relations between the Italian Etruscans and the Celts from up north had existed for centuries. In the fourth century BC, Celtic tribes from Gaul did however advance south and conquered a range of Etruscan territories in order to settle down.

Some cities had been able to put up defenses, while others succumbed to the attacks by the uncultivated barbarians. They fought with iron swords and spears and wore spiky helmets. Some of the foreign fighters, in their scorn for death, went without any protective gear and fought topless. This image of the Gaul barbarians in Italy was to influence popular memory for centuries to come.

What caused the attacks is a mystery of history: Was it overpopulation or the outlook of easy loot? Had other tribes expelled the Gauls? Their zones of settlement north of the Alps do not show big changes at that time, so there shouldn’t have been any catastrophic events that could have caused the move south. Probably creeping changes were the cause. Investigations into pollen have shown a deterioration in climate and in turn harvests around that time.

Attack on Rome

Subsequently Gaul tribes occupied northern Italy and the Po plains and established themselves as the upper class in some areas, while others settled down to become farmers and craftsmen while mixing with the local population. Other Gaul tribes moved farther and in 387 the loose army of the Seneones crossed the Apennines.

At the time, Rome was little more than a city state among many on the Italian peninsula and it was in constant competition with its neighbors. Rome was organized politically as a republic. The senate elected consuls, which would take on political and military leadership roles for a limited amount of time, and the Roman nobility, the so-called patricians, jealous and worried about their own power, made sure that no one would rule as an autocrat.

Clusium, a city about 130 km north of Rome, then asks the Romans for help against the Senones, which the senate declines. Instead envoys were to negotiate peace with the attackers. Only if that attempt failed, were the Romans to fight. Negotiations fail and war breaks out, even involving the Roman negotiators. The Gaul’s attack on Clusium also fails, but they were now turning against Rome. Thrown into panic, Rome puts up an army, but the quickly drafted citizens stand no chance against the battle-tested Gauls, superior to them in both equipment and numbers.

15 km outside Rome, on the banks of the Allia, a tributary river of the Tiber, battle ensues. The Gauls easily push through the Roman formation and chase them into the river by the thousands. Many drown, some can recover and retreat to neighboring Vejii; only a few arrive back in Rome. Seized with panic, the few defenders abandon six of the seven hills of Rome and retreat to Capitoline Hill, the site of the most important sanctuaries and last defense of the city. Yet there is not enough space for all Roman citizens on the hill, so many have to flee or simply await their fate stoically in their houses.

That thing about geese

This siege is also the event of the famous episode in which geese once saved Rome. One night, the Gauls attempted to catch out the besieged with an attack under the cover of darkness. A group of soldiers climbed up on a steep slope in order to gain entry to the fortress.

As they were just about to jump he walls, a flock of geese gave them away. The birds were sacred to Juno and indeed so holy, that due to a food shortage during the siege, they were not slaughtered. The loud quack of the animals alarmed the Roman guards and the Gauls were pushed back.

The Gauls now plundered and savaged the city and besieged the Capitoline Hill. With ever new attacks, they attempted to wear down the defenders, but the Romans stood their ground. Both attackers and defenders lacked food stuffs and illnesses spread. The summer heat takes its toll on the Gauls and so Brennus has to agree to a deal after countless weeks of siege.

“Vae Victis“ – Woe to the conquered

He agrees to lift the siege of the city and withdraw in exchange for a considerable amount of gold. As the gold was weighed, suspicion arose amongst the Romans that the Gauls might be working with manipulated weights. Brennus was unimpressed as he took note of their protest: With the words “Vae Victis” – “Woe to the conquered” – he threw his sword in the balance tray with the weights, increasing the amount the Romans had to pay. And so they did, since as the defeated, they were subject to the Gauls despotism.

Even more than the great tribute, the Romans were pained by the moral weight of their defeat. Their glorious city was almost completely conquered and destroyed by a horde of uncivilized barbarians; this may never happen again! As a consequence, Rome reforms its army and subjects all soldiers to a strict discipline. Rome expands in the following centuries, conquers the Greek colonies in southern Italy and even defeats the new Gaul settlers in northern Italy.

The cavalry

If we believe the historian Livius, who wrote about the events long after they occurred, Brennus and his Senones didn’t enjoy their bounty for too long as the remains of the Roman army had gathered in the neighboring city of Vejii. There they had to defend against an attack by the Etruscans, who attempted to use this moment of Roman weakness to their own advantage. The Romans however remained victorious and in the end could come to the rescue of their home city.

In this depiction the reserve army appeared while the tributes were still being weighed up and in the unfolding battle, the Gauls were annihilated. Other, older sources, do however claim that the Gauls moved north unchallenged and even the name of their leader, Brennus, has not been historically documented.

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