A History of Rome in Paintings: 8 Sacked by Gauls

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Camillus Delivers the Schoolmaster of Falerii to His Pupils (1637), oil on canvas, 252 x 265 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

After the failed Volscian attack on Rome, the city settled down to its new republican order. There was continued friction between the patricians, who came from noble families, and plebeians or plebs, the vast majority of Roman citizens who made the city tick. There were occasional famines, the odd epidemic, and the administration of the city changed with the addition of tribunes, elected by the plebs.

There were still battles too. In 458 BCE, the Aequi living to the east of Rome tried to take the Roman town of Tusculum. When Rome responded, one of its two armies was quickly pinned down and besieged by the Aequi, and its second army was unable to help. The Senate panicked, and decided to appoint Cincinnatus as dictator. Deputies were sent out to tell him of his appointment, and found him ploughing on his farm outside Rome.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823–1889), Cincinnatus Receiving the Ambassadors of Rome (1843), media and dimensions not known, Musée Fabre, Montpellier, France. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s this scene which was painted so wonderfully by Alexandre Cabanel, then still a student, which reveals his precocious skill. His Cincinnatus Receiving the Deputies of the Senate shows in quite neo-Classical style what had been a well-known moment in Roman history.

By about 390 BCE, a more serious threat came from the north, in the form of invasion by Gallic tribes. It took the leadership of Marcus Furius Camillus to save Rome from annihilation by the Gauls. Yet Camillus never served as one of Rome’s consuls. Instead, he was five time made its dictator, and celebrated four triumphs. He lived in troubled times, when military tribunes ran Rome.

Camillus first came to prominence during a battle with the Aequians and Volscians, when he dashed out on his horse in front of the Roman army, engaged the enemy despite a wound in his thigh, and put them to flight. He was rewarded with the office of censor, from which he persuaded single Roman men to marry some of the city’s many war widows.

One of the most costly campaigns of that period had been the siege of the Tuscan city of Veii, which at the time was a match for Rome itself. That city was well fortified, and the Roman army had been forced to maintain the siege year-round, instead of spending winters back in Rome. In the tenth year of the war against Veii, Camillus was made dictator, sole ruler of Rome, by its Senate. Camillus made a vow that, should Rome succeed in the war, he would celebrate with games, and dedicate a temple to the goddess Mater Matuta (later equivalent to Aurora), whose temple had been destroyed in 506 BCE.

Francesco de’ Rossi (Francesco Salviati) (1510–1562), Camillus Receives the Charge of a Dictator (c 1543-45), fresco in series Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the paintings of this period in the history of Rome come from the superb frescoes made by Francesco de’ Rossi (also known as Francesco Salviati) in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy, between about 1543-45. In Camillus Receives the Charge of a Dictator, he shows a young bearded Camillus being made the ruler of Rome, much to the amazement of his young wife.

When Camillus took command of the siege, he had mines dug while distracting the enemy defending their walls against conventional attacks. This allowed the tunnels to reach into the heart of Veii, from where the Romans took the city by storm. Veii was sacked, the war ended, and Camillus returned to Rome with an image of the goddess Juno. He there undertook his first triumph, in which his chariot was drawn by four white horses through the city – a unique event which the citizens found offensive, as only the god Jupiter was entitled to do that.

Francesco de’ Rossi (Francesco Salviati) (1510–1562), Triumph of Furius Camillus (c 1543-45), fresco in series Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

De’ Rossi’s frescoes show this as the Triumph of Furius Camillus. The young general rides high on a podium placed inside the chariot, at the left. This is drawn by four white horses, and the whole of Rome has come out to watch. At the right is the statue of the goddess Juno, with her trademark peacocks on its roof. There is even a suit of armour being paraded, in honour of the first such triumph.

Camillus also became unpopular because he opposed half of Rome being moved to populate Veii, something the poor felt would prove to their advantage. Most of all, though, the Romans objected to Camillus allowing his soldiers full enjoyment of the spoils of Veii, rather than giving a tenth to the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Camillus claimed that he had forgotten that he had vowed to give that share to the temple.

These matters were overtaken by events, when Camillus was one of six to be appointed to rule Rome as a military tribune, and was immediately called to lead its army in an invasion of the territory of the Faliscans, and to lay siege to the city of Falerii. Being another well-fortified city, life went on as normal in Falerii during the siege. Its citizens employed one teacher for its boys, and he wanted to betray the city using those pupils. Each day, the teacher led his school further and further out from its city walls, until he finally reached the Roman forces. He then handed the children over to the enemy, and demanded to see Camillus.

The Roman commander was not swayed by this, and condemned the teacher’s action. Camillus said that a great general wages war using his own valour, not on the baseness of other men. He had the teacher stripped and his hands tied, then gave the boys rods with which to beat him back into the city. This action caused the citizens to sue for peace, and the Faliscans made an alliance with Rome.

Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Camillus Delivers the Schoolmaster of Falerii to His Pupils (1637), oil on canvas, 252 x 265 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

This short story inspired Nicolas Poussin to paint Camillus Delivers the Schoolmaster of Falerii to His Pupils in 1637. The teacher grimaces at the right, as his pupils get their own back by beating him, for once. In the background is the fortified city of Falerii, high on a hill and not to be taken by force easily.

Domenico Corvi (1721–1803) after Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665), Camillus and the Schoolmaster of Falerii (c 1764-66), oil on canvas, 134 x 143 cm, Musei Capitolini, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

In about 1764-66, Domenico Corvi made this copy, after Poussin, of Camillus and the Schoolmaster of Falerii. Although less grand than Poussin’s surviving version above, the teacher is still getting a sound beating from his younger pupils.

Unfortunately, when the general and his army returned to Rome, his success made him even less popular, as this time his soldiers had not won any booty at all. Camillus also lost his two sons to sickness, presumably during one of the epidemics which periodically ravaged the city, and he was overcome by grief. He was next accused of the theft of bronze doors from Tuscan booty, and voluntarily went into exile.

It was then that the Gauls laid siege to the Tuscan city of Clusium, whose leaders asked the Romans for their assistance. Rome sent envoys to speak to the Gauls, but quickly realised that there was no coming to terms with them. The Roman envoys slipped into Clusium, where they encouraged the Tuscans to go out and fight the Gauls; one of those envoys led by example, and was recognised by the Gauls, who decided to attack Rome instead.

Rather than the Romans condemning the actions of their envoy, the people appointed him and his brothers to the military tribune, which strengthened the resolve of the Gauls to attack and defeat Rome.

In the absence of Camillus, the Roman army lacked good leadership, and was surprised by the Gaulish army when they were only eleven miles from the city of Rome. The Gauls overwhelmed the Romans, who fled back to Rome or the city of Veii. Taken aback at their success, the Gauls didn’t press on immediately to take Rome, which had been abandoned by most of its citizens.

Three days after their rout of the Roman army, the Gauls entered the city of Rome, occupied it, and put a guard around its Capitol, which remained in the hands of Romans. Although this was peaceful at first, a Gaul and a Roman clashed, leading to overreaction by the Gauls, who then killed the remaining Romans, and sacked and plundered the city.

Hearing of this, Camillus raised forces from Ardea, and with them attacked a Gaulish camp at night, when most of its troops were drunk and asleep. Surviving Romans rallied to the cause, but Camillus would not assume leadership of a reconstituted Roman army without the agreement of the Romans still defending the Capitol. Those remaining there eagerly agreed, and Camillus was again appointed dictator and military commander.

One night, the Gauls attempted an assault on the Capitol, and succeeded in scaling its cliffs. However, they were detected by the sacred geese of the temple of Juno, and were repelled. Then the tide turned against those occupiers, who were themselves effectively under siege by Camillus and his growing army. They were cut off from supplies of food obtained by foraging outside the city, suffering from outbreaks of disease, and were unable to cope with the heat of the city in late summer.

Conditions drove the Romans besieged in the Capitol to make peace with the Gauls besieged in the rest of the city. Rome was to pay the Gauls a thousand pounds of gold, but even there the Gauls cheated the Romans and tampered with the scales. While this was taking place, Camillus entered Rome as its appointed leader, and told the Gauls to quit without any gold, as Rome delivered its city with iron (the sword) instead.

Francesco de’ Rossi (Francesco Salviati) (1510–1562), Attack on the Gauls who Sacked Rome (c 1543-45), fresco in series Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

De’ Rossi shows this in composite form in his fresco of the Attack on the Gauls who Sacked Rome. In the foreground, the Gauls and Romans are still arguing about the weight of gold, as Camillus’ forces start to take possession of the ruins of what had been Rome.

The Gauls withdrew with Camillus and his army in hot pursuit, killing and routing Gauls until they were well clear of Rome. After seven months of occupation, the city was finally back in the hands of the Romans.

Camillus then oversaw its rebuilding. That was controversial at first, but eventually became so hasty that the city was rebuilt with confused and narrow streets, forming a maze of houses.

Francesco de’ Rossi (Francesco Salviati) (1510–1562), Camillus Inaugurates a Temple (c 1543-45), fresco in series Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Camillus Inaugurates a Temple in de’ Rossi’s series of frescoes may refer to this time, or to the earlier vow to dedicate a temple to Mater Matuta.

This peace didn’t last long, though, and Latins, Tuscans, and other tribes laid siege to the city of Sutrium, an ally of Rome. Camillus was appointed dictator a third time, and manoeuvred his army into a position so that it surrounded the enemy, who decided to fence themselves in behind a wooden palisade and await the arrival of reinforcements. The Romans attacked with fire, using the strong wind which blew to fan the flames and force their enemy out.

Camillus then invaded the enemy’s territory, and drove on towards the city of Sutrium, only to discover that its people had already surrendered and been forced to abandon it as refugees. The Roman commander attacked the occupied city, recapturing it and earning Camillus his third triumph in Rome.

Francesco de’ Rossi (Francesco Salviati) (1510–1562), The Inhabitants of Sutri Supplicate to Camillus to Free them from Tyranny (c 1543-45), fresco in series Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Inhabitants of Sutrium Supplicate to Camillus to Free them from Tyranny is another of de’ Rossi’s frescoes, here showing some of the refugees from the city pleading with Camillus to recapture their city.

Once again, Camillus became unpopular because of jealousy. The people became seditious, under the leadership of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, who had heroically defeated the Gauls when they had attacked the Capitol. He was arrested, and his trial started on the Capitol, from where he could arouse the emotions of his judges. Camillus moved the court outside the city, out of sight of the Capitol, enabling Capitolinus to be convicted and hurled from the Tarpeian Rock for his crime.

By now, Camillus was growing old, and declined appointment to the military tribune for a sixth time. But the people refused to let him quit, claiming that he didn’t need to physically lead the army into battle any more. He therefore appointed a field commander, who was such a disaster that the army was put to flight. Camillus took charge, turned the fleeing soldiers around, and crushed their Tuscan enemy. The following day, he led the army on to recapture the Roman city of Satricum.

Francesco de’ Rossi (Francesco Salviati) (1510–1562), Camillus Called to Battle (c 1543-45), fresco in series Stories of Marcus Furius Camillus, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

De’ Rossi may be referring to this episode in his fresco of Camillus Called to Battle. The general is noticeably older here, his beard fully white. At the left, he is helped into his clothes by a servant, then rides off in his armour at the right. Behind them are retreating Romans, travelling in the opposite direction – something that Camillus was just about to reverse.

On his return to Rome, the city was in turmoil again, and Camillus was made dictator for the fourth time, against the wishes of the people, and against his own desire. As the crisis deepened, Camillus could see that he couldn’t solve it, so he withdrew to his house, claimed to be sick, and finally resigned his office.

News reached Rome that the Gauls were again on the march, and heading for Rome. Camillus was made dictator for a fifth time, and prepared his army by having helmets forged for them, to protect against the slashing blows that were commonly used by Gauls. The Romans also added bronze edging to their wooden shields, and Camillus trained them to use their javelins like spears.

Camillus led his soldiers out and caught the Gauls unawares as they were still gorged with food and drink. When the Gauls tried to fight back, they found that their swords quickly blunted against the Romans’ helmets, and volleys of javelins caught the Gauls defenceless. The Romans went on to capture Velitrae in this, the last campaign of Camillus’ long career.

His final public act was to see for the first time in Roman history one consul chosen by the patricians, the other from the plebeians. The following year, Rome suffered an epidemic which killed many of its citizens, among them Camillus.