This illustration, attributed to Adam Brenner (c. 1800-1891), re-creates one of the legends surrounding the Gallic sack of Rome, which occurred sometime between 390-386 BCE. As the traditional story goes, a rampaging army of Gauls, apparently led by a Senones chieftain named Brennus, ventured further south into Italy than the Gauls were known to usually roam. The Gallic army first attacked the city of Clusium, where Roman envoys were present. Since Rome had prior warning about the incoming Gallic force, they attempted to quickly mobilize an army and cut off the Gauls at the Allia river, yet the attack failed and the bulk of the defeated Roman army fled toward Veii. Brennus and his Gallic army, after their victory, pushed on to the vulnerable city of Rome. They easily stormed inside the walls, and were able to loot much of the city without contest, for the Romans had hunkered down in defensive positions on the Capitol for a final stand. Brennus besieged the Capitol and reportedly forced the Romans to begin negotiating. The Gallic chief asked for a heavy price. His demand for ending the siege was that Rome pay him 1,000 pounds of gold (not including what he had already looted), and the scale that he produced to measure this gold was in no way a fair standard for the Romans. When Rome protested the measuring device, Brennus responded with his famous line, “Woe to the vanquished!” (Livy, History of Rome, 5.48) and told them to keep bringing out the gold. It is this scene of Brennus demanding for more money to be relinquished that is brought to life in the illustration.
Brennus, nevertheless, had limited time. As the story goes, the legendary Roman general Marcus Furius Camillus returned from exile with a new army to save the day. According to Livy, “The argument about the weights had unduly protracted the weighing-out of the gold, and it so happened that before it was finished and the infamous bargain completed, Camillus himself appeared upon the scene. He ordered the gold to be removed and the Gauls to leave…” (History of Rome, 5.49). Of course, the events surrounding the Gallic sack of Rome are still hotly debated by scholars. There is no question that Rome was truly pillaged by a Gallic army between 390-386 BCE, and it left a permanent ugly stain on the communal memory of the proud Roman people, yet other questions about this obscure time period remain vague because of the conflicting and embellished ancient sources. Whether or not the Romans did or didn’t pay the 1,000 pounds of gold is one of those fiercely debated points in the narrative.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.