According to Roman tradition, the city of Rome was sacked by a large force of Gallic Senones in the year 390 BCE. Brennus, the leader of these Gallic troops, was said to have defeated a Roman army at the Allia River and then subsequently besieged Rome before the city’s military could reorganize. In all accounts, Brennus and his army breached the city limits, and according to Roman tradition, the only section of the city that he could not conquer was the Citadel of Rome. The story of what happened next differs depending on which ancient historian or antiquarian is being read. As the story goes, Brennus was either bought off in negotiation or fought off in battle (or a mix of the two) by the holdouts in the Citadel, who soon gained the added leverage of reinforcements and allied support. Whatever the case and the cause, the Gallic army soon departed from Rome, likely selling themselves as mercenaries to the powerful tyrant, Dionysius of Syracuse (r. 405-367 BCE), who was then waging war against Rome’s ally, Caere.
Although Roman tradition portrays the sack of Rome as a near-apocalyptic event, the Gallic attack in actuality seemed to harm little more than Rome’s pride, as well as a great deal of their movable property and treasures. In fact, Rome still had enough might and manpower after the sack of their city to promptly send out multiple armies to attack or intimidate rivals and allies of questionable loyalty. This reasserting of dominance was indeed needed, for Rome’s long-time rivals among the Etruscans and Volscians began poking and prodding at Roman territory, testing to see how weakened Rome really was after their ordeal with the Gauls. Unnamed Etruscan cities reportedly took bold action, mobilizing to attack and besiege Rome’s strategic allies, Sutrium and Nepete. These cities sent messengers to call for help, and in response, a Roman army was sent to push back the Etruscans.
As the story goes, Rome first went to the aid of Sutrium. When they arrived at the city, there was fighting in the streets between the people of Sutrium and Etruscans who had breached the walls. Appearing in the cliché nick of time, the Roman army joined the battle and helped the defenders of Sutrium drive off the Etruscan attackers. When the battle was won and the city was secure, the Romans then moved on to Nepete.
Just like at Sutrium, Etruscan attackers were able to force their way into Nepete before the Romans arrived. Yet, unlike at Sutrium, the Romans did not reach the city in time to save the day. Fighting alone against the besieging force, Nepete was forced to surrender. When the Roman army finally arrived at the outskirts of the city, the battle was already over and the city had fallen. Nevertheless, Napete was strategic for Rome and they intended to take it back. According to ancient accounts, the Romans somehow made contact with the people of Nepete, instructing the locals to remain unarmed so as to distinguish them from their occupiers. After that instruction had been given, the Romans scaled the walls and stormed the city. The story of the recapture of Nepete was recounted by the historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), who wrote, “The Etruscans were killed, whether armed or not; the ringleaders of the town’s surrender were also executed, but the innocent people were given back their possessions and the town was left with a garrison” (History of Rome, 6.10).
As can be ascertained from Livy’s quote, the Romans held a grudge against the leaders of Nepete for not fighting it out to the death against the besieging army. Those in power who had proposed, or agreed to, the idea of capitulating to the besieging army were summarily executed by the Roman military. Finally, as added insult, Rome left a force of Roman troops in Nepete, who would not only be keeping an eye on the border, but also on the allied city, itself.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Roman Battle Scene, By Sébastien Bourdon (c. 1616-1671), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum in Sweden).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.