The Hilltop Battle Of Consul Popilius Of Rome Against A Gallic Army

According to the Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), a Gallic warband wandered into Roman territory around 350 BCE, which caused alarm in the city of Rome. Such sporadic appearances of Gallic troops were a recurring problem for the Romans in the 4th century BCE, with the most famous incident being the Gallic Sack of Rome, which occurred sometime between 390 and 386 BCE. Understandably, the Sack of Rome caused the Romans to take much more seriously any news that arrived of nearby Gallic armies. In order to prevent another Gallic Sack of Rome from happening, the Romans decided to proactively engage any Gallic warbands that traveled too close to Roman territory, hopefully keeping the carnage in far-off fields of battle. Returning to the events of 350 BCE, when Rome learned that yet another Gallic warband had wandered too close for comfort, the Romans decided to employ the proactive seek-and-destroy policy that they had, by then, been using against Gallic armies for decades.

Marcus Popilius Laenas (one of Rome’s two consuls at the time) was put in charge of organizing and leading the Roman military response to the Gallic army. As the story goes, he pulled together four legions and set off to confront the invaders, who were camped in the vicinity of a place known as the Alban Citadel. When Consul Popilius arrived in the mountainous region, he claimed a hilltop for himself and began fortifying the slopes in view of the Gallic camp. As the story goes, the nearby Gauls perceived the Roman Consul’s decision to take a defensive stance on the hill as a sign of weakness or cowardice. Alternatively, maybe the Gallic commander believed the Romans would be distracted while they focused on setting up their camp.  Propelled by these interpretations, the unknown leader of the Gallic warband decided to go on the attack, and he sent his troops charging up the hill against the Romans while they were still building their hilltop fortifications.

Unfortunately, the leader of the Guals misjudged the ability of the Romans to multitask—for, despite their divided attention, the vast majority of Consul Popilius’ army was battle-ready when the assault began. Additionally, the Gallic commander also undervalued the often-clichéd, but quite deadly, advantage of the high ground. Therefore, although a portion of the Roman army was indeed distracted, the rest of the force was prepared for a fight and would be defending on highly favorable terrain. The aforementioned Roman historian, Livy, described the battle that reportedly occurred on the hillside that day:

“Without interrupting their work, on which the soldiers of the third line were engaged, the Romans opened the battle with their first and second lines who stood armed and ready for action in front of the working-party. In addition to their fighting spirit they had the further advantage of the rising ground, so that their javelins and spears did not fall without effect, as often happens when thrown on level ground, but were kept on course by their own weight, and all found their mark” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.23).

Consul Popilius and his legions easily fended off the Gallic charge, and the Romans quickly counter-attacked, fighting downhill against the wavering foe. The battle moved from the hillside slope to the plains below, where the Gallic troops were trying to regain some sense of order. Consul Popilius, once he reached the plains, briefly halted his army’s advance long enough to make sure that his troops were still well-ordered and cohesive; then, he gave his men a quick battle-speech and sent them off against the remnants of the Gallic army. Livy wrote, “Roused to further action by such stirring words, the Romans pushed back the leading maniples of the Gauls and then broke through to the main army in wedge formation” (Livy, History of Rome, 7.24). Before long, the Gallic warriors lost the will to fight and they began to scatter from the battlefield. The fleeing warriors of the warband abandoned their previous camp and instead seemed to head in the direction of the nearby Alban Citadel landmark. Consul Popilius considered pursuing the remnants of the vanquished foe, but as many of the Roman troops were wounded (including himself), Popilius and the legions instead opted to loot the deserted Gallic camp. Once the pillaging was complete, Marcus Popilius Laenas and his army returned home. After recovering from his battle wounds, Popilius was honored with a triumphal celebration in Rome in honor of his victory over the Gallic army.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Roman Commander Ordering Attack, attributed to Pietro da Cortona (c. 1596-1669), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Art Institute of Chicago).

 

Sources:

  • The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.

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