A peculiar warband of Gallic warriors neared Roman territory around 350 BCE, marauding around the Latin and Volscian borderlands. The pillaging was too close to home for the Romans, so Marcus Popilius Laenas (one of Rome’s two consuls at the time) was sent to attack the Gallic force—he engaged them near a landmark called the Alban Citadel (or Heights) and forced the Gallic warband to retreat. Although the particular band of Gauls featured here had to withdraw, their odd adventures in Italy were far from over. As the story goes, the Gallic force regrouped for a time in the mountains and then quickly resumed their pillaging of the Latin and Volscian countryside. Curiously, at the same time, a fleet of Greek pirates was said to have been simultaneously raiding the Italian coast. Much to the amusement of the Romans, these newer Greek pirates from the sea reportedly clashed with the older band of Gallic raiders on land, igniting a peculiar skirmish between the two forces—yet a skirmish was all it was, and both of the dangerous forces survived the encounter intact. By 348 BCE, Rome decided to dispatch its military once again to face what was left of the Gallic warband. This time, Consul Lucius Furius Camillus was in command of the army, and he decided to camp his force in the Pomptine District, where he believed the Gallic warriors would eventually make an appearance.
Among the warriors in the consul’s army was a man named Marcus Valerius. He was an up-and-coming patrician who wanted to make a name for himself in war and statesmanship. Marcus Valerius received what he wished for, at least in the category of war and fame, for while he was present with the army in the Pomptine District, a huge Gallic warrior supposedly appeared before the Roman camp and challenged them to a duel. The Roman historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), described the legend: “While the Romans were quietly passing the time on guard duty they were approached by a Gaul who was outstanding for his great size and armor. He struck his shield with his spear, thereby obtaining silence, and then through an interpreter challenged someone to do battle with him” (Livy, Roman History, 7.26). Marcus Valerius jumped at this chance and rushed off to his commander, Lucius Furius Camillus, to receive permission to participate in the duel. The consul conceded, allowing Marcus Valerius to represent the Roman army in the fight to the death.
Unfortunately for the Gallic warrior, the duel would not be a fair fight. And the difference between the two was not even Marcus Valerius’ skill. Quite the contrary, as the peculiar story goes, the Roman warrior’s triumph in the fight was actually due to the intervention of a raven. The aforementioned historian, Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) narrated the odd scene:
“[A]s the Roman engaged his adversary, a raven suddenly alighted on his helmet, facing the Gaul…Marvellous to relate, not only did the raven keep the perch it had once chosen, but as often as the struggle was renewed it rose up on its wings and attacked the enemy’s face and eyes with beak and claws, until he was terrified at the sight of such a portent; and so, bewildered as well as half-blinded, he was killed by Valerius. The raven then flew off out of sight towards the east” (Livy, Roman History, 7.26).
After this awkward and bizarre victory from Marcus Valerius and the helpful raven, both sides witnessing the duel were stunned. During this period of shocked silence, Valerius began looting the corpse of his defeated foe. Yet, this act was said to have brought the nearby Gallic warriors back to their senses. In short, they were not happy; perhaps they believed the involvement of the raven was cheating. Whatever the case, the Gallic warriors supposedly began charging at Valerius, which, in turn, caused the Roman army to also surge forward. Before long, a full-scale battle erupted. The fresh Roman army, however, was stronger and healthier than the remnants of the Gallic force that had been wandering around Italy for years. Leadership figures among the Gallic raiders perceived their own weakness and quickly called for a retreat. Consul Lucius Furius Camillus and the Romans apparently did not pursue the fleeing warriors, and instead began cheering for their champion who had won the duel. In the aftermath, Marcus Valerius’ name was elongated to include the word Corvus (raven), in honor of the memorable fight. Marcus Valerius Corvus would go on to be elected as a consul of Rome between 4 or 6 times in the second half of the 4th century BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.