This scene, painted by the Italian artist Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1659–1734), re-creates one of the legends surrounding the Gallic sack of Rome, which occurred sometime between 390-386 BCE. As the traditional story goes, a rampaging army of Gauls, apparently led by a Senones chieftain named Brennus, ventured further south into Italy than the Gauls were known to usually roam. The Gallic army first attacked the city of Clusium, where Roman envoys were present. Since Rome had prior warning about the incoming Gallic force, they attempted to quickly mobilize an army and cut off the Gauls at the Allia river, yet the attack failed and the bulk of the defeated Roman army fled toward Veii. Brennus and his Gallic army, after their victory, pushed on to the vulnerable city of Rome. They easily stormed inside the walls, and were able to loot much of the city without contest, for the Romans had hunkered down on the Capitol for a final stand. Brennus besieged the Capitol and reportedly forced the Romans to begin negotiating. The Gallic chief asked for a heavy price. His demand for ending the siege was that Rome pay him 1,000 pounds of gold (not including what he already had looted), and the scale that he produced to measure this gold was in no way a fair standard for the Romans. When Rome protested the measuring device, Brennus responded with his famous line, “Woe to the vanquished!” (Livy, History of Rome, 5.48) and told them to keep bringing out the gold.
It was at that moment of humiliation, so the story claims, that the legendary Roman general Marcus Furius Camillus returned from exile with a new army to save the day. As told by Livy, “The argument about the weights had unduly protracted the weighing-out of the gold, and it so happened that before it was finished and the infamous bargain completed, Camillus himself appeared upon the scene. He ordered the gold to be removed and the Gauls to leave…” (History of Rome, 5.49). Such is the scene that Sebastiano Ricci re-creates in his painting, featured above.
Of course, the events surrounding the Gallic sack of Rome are still hotly debated by scholars. There is no question that Rome was truly pillaged by a Gallic army between 390-386 BCE, and it left a permanent ugly stain on the communal memory of the proud Roman people, yet other questions about this obscure time period are left vague by the conflicting and embellished sources. Whether or not the Romans did or didn’t pay the 1,000 pounds of gold is one of those fiercely debated points in the narrative. Whatever the case, at least in Sebastiano Ricci’s artistic interpretation of the story, Camillus was able to stop Rome from paying its embarrassing tribute to the Gauls.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.