March 31, 2002
Goosing the Gauls

A reader asks for more on the geese who saved Rome from the Gauls, as mentioned in a previous post. Perhaps others will also like to know more.

The main source is the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius), who wrote under Augustus (1st century B.C.). There is a not-bad nineteenth-century translation at the University of Virginia's Electronic Text Center. Do not try to print out the text: just the five books at this URL add up to 400+ pages in book form. Livy was a voluminous historian, who wrote the history of Rome from Romulus and Remus up to his own time in 142 books, of which I-X and XXI-XLV survive. It takes him ten books -- XXI-XXX, around 800 pages in all -- to cover the 17 years of the Second Punic War, the one with Hannibal. Book I, on the seven kings of Rome, is a general favorite, but there are wonderful things in just about every book.

The story of the geese comes in Book V, chapter 47. The year is 387 or 386 B.C. A marauding army of Gauls has captured all of Rome except the citadel at the top of the Capitoline Hill, then the most important of the seven hills, which is occupied by the Senate and a vastly outnumbered Roman garrison. The rest of the Roman army has regrouped at Veii, a town roughly 7 miles NW of Rome, across the Tiber and upstream from Rome. In the previous chapter, a soldier named Pontius Cominius delivers a message from Veii to the Capitoline garrison by riding a cork float down the Tiber and then climbing the hill unnoticed by the incompetent Gauls. Livy continues:

While these proceedings were taking place at Veii, the Citadel and Capitol of Rome were in imminent danger. The Gauls had either noticed the footprints left by the messenger from Veii, or had themselves discovered a comparatively easy ascent up the cliff to the temple of Carmentis. Choosing a night when there was a faint glimmer of light, they sent an unarmed man in advance to try the road; then handing one another their arms where the path was difficult, and supporting each other or dragging each other up as the ground required, they finally reached the summit. So silent had their movements been that not only were they unnoticed by the sentinels, but they did not even wake the dogs, an animal peculiarly sensitive to nocturnal sounds. But they did not escape the notice of the geese, which were sacred to Juno and had been left untouched in spite of the extremely scanty supply of food. This proved the safety of the garrison, for their clamour and the noise of their wings aroused M. Manlius, the distinguished soldier, who had been consul three years before. He snatched up his weapons and ran to call the rest to arms, and while the rest hung back he struck with the boss of his shield a Gaul who had got a foothold on the summit and knocked him down. He fell on those behind and upset them, and Manlius slew others who had laid aside their weapons and were clinging to the rocks with their hands. By this time others had joined him, and they began to dislodge the enemy with volleys of stones and javelins till the whole body fell helplessly down to the bottom. When the uproar had died away, the remainder of the night was given to sleep, as far as was possible under such disturbing circumstances, whilst their peril, though past, still made them anxious.

At daybreak the soldiers were summoned by sound of trumpet to a council in the presence of the tribunes, when the due rewards for good conduct and for bad would be awarded. First, Manlius was commended for his bravery, and rewarded not by the tribunes alone but by the soldiers as a body, for every man brought to him at his quarters, which were in the Citadel, half a pound of meal and a quarter of a pint of wine. This does not sound much, but the scarcity made it an overwhelming proof of the affection felt for him, since each stinted himself of food and contributed in honour of that one man what had to be taken from his necessaries of life. Next, the sentinels who had been on duty at the spot where the enemy had climbed up without their noticing it were called forward. Q. Sulpicius, the consular tribune, declared that he should punish them all by martial law. He was, however, deterred from this course by the shouts of the soldiers, who all agreed in throwing the blame upon one man. As there was no doubt of his guilt, he was amidst general approval flung from the top of the cliff. A stricter watch was now kept on both sides; by the Gauls because it had become known that messengers were passing between Rome and Veii; by the Romans, who had not forgotten the danger they were in that night.

Livy is not the most reliable of historians, but he knows how to tell a story, as even this translation should reveal. The Latin text, with vocabulary help, is at Tufts University's Perseus site.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at March 31, 2002 10:40 PM