Around the year 361 BCE, the city of Rome received disturbing intelligence reports that a Gallic army was loitering along the Via Salaria (Salt Road), particularly near where the road bridged over the Anio river. News of any uninvited army would have been shocking, but the knowledge that the military force was Gallic inspired extra fear in the hearts and minds of the Romans. After all, the city of Rome had been sacked by a similar rogue Gallic army between 390 and 386 BCE, only a few decades prior to the incident in 361 BCE. With the sack of Rome still fresh in their memories, the Romans reportedly decided to appoint a dictator to quickly mobilize an army to confront the Gallic warband near the Anio River.
As the story goes, the Gallic army was waiting for the Romans at the river, and as a result, each army set up camp at opposite ends of the bridge. The two sides launched small skirmishes, testing the strength of the other side. It quickly became clear that the river and bridge gave a great advantage to the defender, be it the Gauls holding off a Roman attack, or the Romans fending off an assault from the Gauls. Before long, the opposing armies found themselves in a stalemate, each still camped at opposite ends of the bridge. With no end to the standoff in sight, one of the leading fighters within the Gallic army proposed a legendary solution to decide the fate of the battle—a duel.
The tale of what happened next was preserved in two main sources, the History of Rome by Livy (c. 59 BCE-17CE) and the Attic Nights by Aulus Cornelius Gellius (whose source in this case was the 1st century BCE annalist, Claudius Quadrigarius). As the story was a centuries-old legend even in the time of these ancient Roman historians, their accounts differed from time to time. Yet, the core elements of the story aligned in both versions of the tale.
Both accounts agreed that the Gallic champion was the one who initially made the call for a duel. This mysterious Gaul was unfortunately left unnamed in both versions of the story. As for the Roman warrior who answered the call, his name was well-known, for he would become a famous (if not infamous) figure in Roman history. As the story goes, it was young Titus Manlius who took up the challenge of the Gaul. Before the time of the duel, Titus Manlius was already a man of some renown, for his father, Lucius, had been a dictator. Titus and his father were allegedly on poor terms—resulting in Titus being either momentarily exiled or imprisoned—but that treatment did not dissuade Titus from openly threatening his father’s political opponents at knifepoint (an act that supposedly resulted in commendations for filial piety). That prelude aside, it would be this duel against the Gallic champion that would serve as the real origin legend for the career of Titus Manlius.
In the Roman accounts of the duel, the fight between Titus Manlius and the unnamed Gallic champion was presented like a David and Goliath story. To use Livy’s description, the challenger was “a Gaul of enormous size” (History of Rome, 7.9), whereas Titus Manlius was a man with “a moderate physique for a soldier and was nothing special to look at…” (History of Rome, 7.10). The two were also quite different in the way they went into battle. Titus Manlius reportedly took a practical approach, gearing himself with equipment such as a common infantryman’s shield, as well as a sword designed like those used in the Iberian Peninsula. The Gaul, in contrast, was said to have been decked out in jewelry and ornamentation. Our ancient sources, however, disputed about just how much gold the Gallic champion wore during the duel. Aulus Cornelius Gellius, citing the annals of Claudius Quadrigarius, claimed, “a Gaul came forward, who was naked except for a shield and two swords and the ornament of a neck-chain and bracelets…” (Attic Nights, IX.13). Livy, on the other hand, drastically increased the Gallic warrior’s splendor, claiming he was “resplendent in multi-coloured clothing and painted armor inlaid with gold” (History of Rome, 7.10). Whatever the case, whether the Gaul wore gold only as jewelry, or if he brought a set of gilded armor to the duel, it evidently left an impression on the Roman observers. Besides his accessories, the Gallic champion’s behavior also stood out to the Romans. In both versions of the tale, the Gallic warrior was presented as a figure who was quite loud, occupying himself before the duel by flinging insults at the Romans or shouting out war songs. Most memorable of all, however, was an incident where the Gallic champion stuck out his tongue at the Roman army—a curious move that was preserved in both accounts of the story. In the version preserved by Gellius, it was the episode of the tongue-wagging that inspired Titus Manlius to accept the duel.
By all accounts, the Gallic champion was the stronger and more talented fighter of the two. Yet, quick-thinking Titus Manlius, like any successful underdog, had a brain that could find a route to victory despite unfavorable odds. Instead of stabbing, blocking and slashing against the undoubtedly stronger Gallic warrior, Titus Manlius developed a much simpler, but bold, strategy to use in the duel. Simply put, his game plan was to close the distance between him and his opponent as quickly as possible, hoping to slip in between the Gallic warrior’s sword and shield. Once this was accomplished, all he had to do was keep stabbing with his sword until the Gallic warrior was dead. According to Livy’s account, Titus Manlius only had to charge forward once, as he managed to tackle and stab the Gallic champion in the same series of movements. In the version of Aulus Cornelius Gellius, however, Titus had to successfully pull off the move at least twice, closing the gap and stabbing the Gallic champion in different locations each time. Whatever the case, the strategy worked and Titus Manlius emerged victorious in the duel.
After the duel was over, Titus Manlius, was known to have looted the body of his opponent. His conduct while removing the loot, however, was an area of dispute among the storytellers. In Livy’s account, Titus “spared the corpse of any abuse, despoiling it only of a torque, which, blood-spattered as it was, he put on his own neck” (History of Rome, 7.10). In the alternative account, however, Titus Manlius was much more aggressive in the way he obtained the neck ornament. Aulus Cornelius Gellius’s account stated, “he cut off his head, tore off his neck-chain, and put it, covered with blood as it was, around his own neck” (Attic Nights, IX.13). Regardless of how exactly he obtained it from his slain foe, the neck-chain or torque that Titus picked up that day would become a part of his legend and legacy. From then on, he became known as Titus Manlius Torquatus. This loot-inspired name was passed on to Titus’ children.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Titus Manlius Fighting Against The Gaul, by Bartolomeo Pinelli (c. 19th century), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum.jpg).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.