Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Reading between history's lines -- part two

Titus Livius

“When the Gallic Senones besieged Clusium, and envoys were sent by the Senate to negotiate a peace between them and the Clusians, and the envoys [instead] fought in the Clusian battle array against the Gauls, the Senones, insulted by their behavior, marched on Rome with an army ready for battle, defeated the Romans near the Allia and captured the city, except for the Capitol, which was the refuge of the young men; the old men, sitting at the entrances of their houses with their signs of honor they had obtained, were killed. And when the Gauls climbed to the summit of the hill opposite the [temple of Jupiter on the] Capitol, their approach was betrayed by the sound of the geese, and they were thrown down by the efforts of especially Marcus Manlius. Forced by famine the Romans descended, to pay a thousand pounds of gold and buy the end of the siege, but Furius Camillus, who had been made dictator while away, arrived during the peace negotiations with an army, expelled the Gauls who had been in the city for six months, and massacred them."
Livy, Periochae 5, 10-12 [386 BC]
In his History of Rome,  Livy elaborates even more saying that the Romans observed that the Gauls were using false weights to weigh the gold and complained about this. The Celtic commander, Brennus, takes his sword and adds it to the scales declaring “Woe to the vanquished”.

Now, if you want to know what was happening with the Celts in northern Italy, Daniele Vitali is your man and you can freely download a number of his papers and books (mostly in Italian) by following the link. He also contributed a survey paper in English: The Celts in Italy in The Celts, Venceslas Kruta et al. (eds.), New York, 1999, where he says:
"Modern historians have exposed the falsifications in the ancient accounts that were designed to cover Rome's inability to recover, militarily and politically, after this catastrophic defeat. The heroic deeds of men such as Camillus, “architect” of immediate Roman revenge on the Gauls and rescuer of the gold that had to be paid to ransom the city are all pure invention”
Gnaeus Pompēius Trōgus.almost contemporary with Livy, is one ancient historian who gave a better account of the matter. He was a Celt of the Vocontii who was greatly respected by other Roman writers and apparently quite brilliant. He complained, too, about Livy's embellishments, focusing on the invented speeches he gave to his heroes. Sadly most of his works are lost but Justin gives this from him:
“Now that peace had been obtained and concluded, ambassadors of the Massiliotes on the way back from Delphi, where they had been sent to give gifts to Apollo, heard that Rome had been taken and burned by the Gauls. When this event was reported in the city, the citizens mourned it with a public funeral and collected public and private funds to make up a sum of money to pay the Gauls, from whom, as they had learned, peace had been bought. For this service trade immunities were granted to them by the Romans, a senatorial seat was allocated to them in the auditorium for the games, and a treaty was concluded on terms of equality"
At that time, Massalia, Carthage and Syracuse held most of the economic power in the western Mediterranean. Rome was an upstart and Athens was going into decline. Augustus gave Rome's earlier history rather more glory than it deserved, and Livy was certainly going along for the ride.

Polybius, who died in about 118 BC, was a Greek historian who has a much better reputation than the later Livy. After supporting Macedon against the Romans, he was deported to Rome but then allied himself with the Republic. His account allows for the verity of Trogus, but omits that which would place his new patrons in too bad a light:
"...the Gauls, after taking Rome itself by assault, occupied the whole of that city except the Capitol. The Romans, after making a truce on conditions satisfactory to the Gauls and being thus contrary to their expectation reinstated in their home and as it were now started on the road of aggrandizement, continued in the following years to wage war on their neighbours."
One of Livy's (7.26) colourful stories of heroism involves a contest between a Celtic and a Roman champion:
"Whilst the Romans were passing their time quietly at the outposts, a gigantic Gaul in splendid armour advanced towards them, and delivered a challenge through an interpreter to meet any Roman in single combat. There was a young military tribune, named Marcus Valerius, who considered himself no less worthy of that honour than T. Manlius had been. After obtaining the consul's permission, he marched, completely armed, into the open ground between the two armies. The human element in the fight was thrown into the shade by the direct interposition of the gods, for just as they were engaging a crow settled all of a sudden on the Roman's helmet with its head towards his antagonist. The tribune gladly accepted this as a divinely-sent augury, and prayed that whether it were god or goddess who had sent the auspicious bird that deity would be gracious to him and help him. Wonderful to relate, not only did the bird keep its place on the helmet, but every time they encountered it rose on its wings and attacked the Gaul's face and eyes with beak and talon, until, terrified at the sight of so dire a portent and bewildered in eyes and mind alike, he was slain by Valerius. Then, soaring away eastwards, the crow passed out of sight. Hitherto the outposts on both sides had remained quiet, but when the tribune began to despoil his foeman's corpse, the Gauls no longer kept their posts, whilst the Romans ran still more swiftly to help the victor. A furious fight took place round the body as it lay, and not only the maniples at the nearest outposts but the legions pouring out from the camp joined in the fray. The soldiers were exultant at their tribune's victory and at the manifest presence and help of the gods, and as Camillus ordered them into action he pointed to the tribune, conspicuous with his spoils, and said: "Follow his example, soldiers, and lay the Gauls in heaps round their fallen champion!" Gods and man alike took part in the battle, and it was fought out to a finish, unmistakably disastrous to the Gauls, so completely had each army anticipated a result corresponding to that of the single combat. Those Gauls who began the fight fought desperately, but the rest of the host who came to help them turned back before they came within range of the missiles. They dispersed amongst the Volscians and over the Falernian district; from thence they made their way to Apulia and the western sea."
Crows do not usually come to the aid of people, let alone take sides. One of their warning calls is reserved just for humans. Granted, they are highly intelligent birds and a crow can even recognize a specific human face (to us all crows look alike). Yet this crow seems not to have had a previous relationship with the Roman who was later given the nickname of "Corvinus" (crow). What, if anything, might be true about this story? If the crow had young in the immediate area, the bird could well have swooped over the head of the Celt, but it seems unlikely that it could have chosen the Roman's helmet as a perch from which to launch the attack. I have felt the wind from a crow's wings on my own face when I got too close to its offspring.

Perhaps the real reason for the nickname was something else, and we might get an idea about that from the symbolism. Homer, in the opening of the Iliad gives us a clue:
"The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment, from the time when first they parted in strife Atreus' son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles."
Corvidae are scavengers and would have been such a familiar sight after a battle as to become an icon of its aftermath. Livy's description of the Roman being "conspicuous with his spoils" makes me think that his nickname was given for other reasons. There is, however another possibility for the iconography and perhaps the inspiration, if not the story. Take a look at this rather famous Celtic helmet:

Celtic helmet, 3rd century BC, Keltenmuseum Manching (Bavaria)
photo: Wolfgang Sauber

It is said that history is often inaccurate because it was written by the victors. Apparently, the vanquished can get it wrong too.

No comments:

Post a Comment