This illustration was created by Dudley Heath around 1912 for Mary Macgregor’s Story of Rome, From the Earliest Times to the Death of Augustus, Told to Boys and Girls (published in 1912). The scene here depicts a legend from the Gallic sack of Rome, an event traditionally dated to 490 BCE. That year, a formidable force of Senones, reportedly led by a figure named Brennus, defeated a Roman army at the Allia River and then subsequently besieged Rome before the city’s military could reorganize. As the story goes, those who were present in Rome at the time of the siege decided to set up a last stand bastion of defense in their Citadel. Unfortunately, it was only those who were young and able to fight that were let into the fortress, with the sick and elderly being left outside to the mercy of the Senones. As the image above hints, the oldest members of the Roman senate were allegedly not given entrance into the Citadel, either. Instead, these elders apparently donned their best robes, and tranquilly waited for the Gallic army to enter the city. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), recorded the legend about the Senones’ encounter with these abandoned senators:
“They might have been statues in some holy place, and for a while the Gallic warriors stood entranced; then, on an impulse, one of them touched the beard of a certain Marcus Papirius—it was long, as was the fashion of those days—and the Roman struck him on the head with his ivory staff. That was the beginning: the barbarian flamed into anger and killed him, and the others were butchered where they sat. From that moment no mercy was shown; houses were ransacked and the empty shells set on fire” (The History of Rome, 5.41).
Such was the fate of the men depicted in the illustration. They, along with other sick and elderly, suffered the brunt of the Gallic sack of Rome, while the more youthful members of society hunkered down in the Citadel. As the Senones pillaged the undefended sections of the city, the garrison in the Citadel maintained its defenses and the Roman army outside the city began to regroup. Before long, the Gallic troops were convinced (or forced) to leave the city, allowing the Romans to recover and rebuild.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.