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Detail of the Triumph of Camillus (cropped) by Biagio d'Antonio c. 1470/1475. Source: Public domain By Marc Hyden

The Camillus Conundrum: Did Camillus Really Save Rome from the Gauls?


Few words evoked as much emotion in ancient Rome as vae victis or “woe to the vanquished.” They harkened back to a period when a Gallic tribe called the Senones had sacked the fledgling city of Rome. These two Latin words were reminders of this catastrophic failure and humiliation, but also Rome’s ultimate triumph over the barbarians, thanks to their hero: Marcus Furius Camillus who became known as Rome’s second founder. While Camillus has historically received much of the credit for saving Rome, there is ample debate over what role he played and the details surrounding Rome’s sacking.

The Barbarians Before Rome, by Evariste-Vital Luminous. (Public domain)

The Barbarians Before Rome, by Evariste-Vital Luminous. (Public domain)

The Prelude to the Sacking of Rome by the Gauls

The canonical legend—found in Plutarch, Livy and elsewhere—begins with the Gauls’ migration into the Italian peninsula where they quickly fell in love with the moderate weather, bountiful countryside and delicious wine. However, their arrival naturally didn’t please many of the locals, and in time, the Senones began waging war against the Etruscan people of Clusium, modern day Chiusi. Staring down an ominous barbarian threat that could lead to their demise, the Clusians turned to the Roman Republic for help.

The Romans and the Clusians weren’t allies, nor enemies, but the Romans felt it prudent to at least investigate the situation. So, Rome forwarded emissaries to learn more about the Senones and possibly broker a peace deal between the warring parties. Within the Roman delegation were three Fabius brothers—Quintus, Numerius and Caeso—who entered the Gallic camp protected by their diplomatic neutrality.

During their conference, they spoke with the Senones and traded veiled threats. The exchanges were testy, but on their own they weren’t enough to cause any international incidents. Yet the Fabius brothers made a fateful decision that ensured that they would be mired in war. The trio stormed out of the Gallic camp, joined with the Clusians and battled the Senones. Quintus even slew a Gallic chief and despoiled his body. This was an overt and egregious violation of ancient diplomatic codes of conduct, which obviously offended the Senones. This drew their ire, but at first, they exercised cool-headed diplomacy.

Brennus dispatched messengers to Rome to demand satisfaction. When they arrived, they asked the Romans to surrender the Fabius brothers so that they could be punished. There is no telling what particular horrors the Fabians would have endured at the barbarians’ hands, but the Gauls would have almost certainly humiliated, tortured and executed them before abusing their corpses.

“Brennus and His Share of the Spoils,” also known as: “Spoils of the Battle,” by Paul Joseph Jamin. (Public domain)

“Brennus and His Share of the Spoils,” also known as: “Spoils of the Battle,” by Paul Joseph Jamin. (Public domain)

The Romans rejected the Senones’ petitions, and they even elected Quintus, Numerius and Caeso to senior postings, which insulted the Gauls who returned to Brennus with this news. As a result, he resolved to march on Rome. Meanwhile, the Romans reportedly underestimated or remained oblivious to the Gallic threat until it was too late.

Even worse, the Romans were without their premier politician and general—Camillus—because an unscrupulous plebeian tribune had previously filed baseless charges against him. Rather than enduring a rigged trial and wrongful conviction, Camillus decided to live in exile, and it didn’t take long for the Romans to regret driving Camillus away.

In c. 390 BC, the Senones invaded the Roman Republic, and at the Battle of the Allia, they effortlessly routed Rome’s soldiers, who retreated to the relative safety of Veii—a town that Camillus had previously sacked. Around the same time, the majority of Rome’s citizens abandoned the ill-fated city of Rome—save for a select corps of men. Many of these holdouts planned to defend the Capitoline Hill against the Gauls.

A few days after their victory at the Allia, the Senones entered Rome through an unbarred gate. With Rome existing in a weakened state, the barbarian horde easily captured the once proud settlement—with the exception of the Capitoline—and laid waste to the lower city. They spent days plundering and toppling defenseless buildings, and they settled into Rome intent on blockading the Capitoline. If they couldn’t capture it by force, then they planned to starve the Capitoline defenders into submission.

Representational image of the sack of Rome by barbarians.  The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Barbarians by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre. (Public domain)

Representational image of the sack of Rome by barbarians.  The Sack of Rome in 410 by the Barbarians by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre. (Public domain)

Romans Turn to the Forsaken Camillus: Rome's Salvation in the Face of Gauls

In response, the Romans turned to the man whom they had forsaken: Camillus. The Romans sent an envoy to beg him to accept the title of dictator, take command of Rome’s legions, defeat the Senones and save those on the Capitoline Hill. Without any resentment, Camillus agreed, and he formulated a battleplan, readied his soldiers and began marching toward Rome.

As this was underway, matters grew increasingly dire on the Capitoline. Its defenders were starving and feared that they couldn’t resist much longer. They therefore agreed to a humiliating deal: They would give the Senones 1,000 pounds of gold if they would depart. Thereupon, the Romans started delivering the riches to the Gauls who weighed the spoils. Soon the Romans realized that the Senones had rigged the scales to cheat them out of much more of their wealth.

When confronted with the Romans’ complaints, the Gallic king threw his sword on the scales. Confused, one of Rome’s consular tribunes, Sulpicius, turned to Brennus and asked, “What means this?” The barbarian indignantly exclaimed, “ vae victis!” His point was clear: Rome was defeated and at his mercy, or so he thought.

Around this time, Camillus and his men dramatically entered Rome and interrupted the Roman/Gallic transactions. He declared the peace settlement with the Senones invalid because he, as Rome’s temporary dictator and supreme leader, hadn’t endorsed the ridiculous terms, nor would he.

Shortly thereafter, he prepared his legionaries for battle within Rome and sounded the charge. They attacked the Gauls who responded in a disorganized frenzy. Seeing a disaster in the making, Brennus ordered his men to withdraw from the city. The next day, Camillus massacred them in battle about eight miles outside of Rome and recaptured the city-state’s gold. This permitted the Roman populace to return to their city, provided Camillus a glorious triumph and enabled him to oversee much of Rome’s reconstruction.

Vae victis! Woe to the vanquished! Brennus throws his sword on the scale after the sack of Rome in 390 BC. Print by Ludwig Gottlieb Portman. (Public domain)

Vae victis! Woe to the vanquished! Brennus throws his sword on the scale after the sack of Rome in 390 BC. Print by Ludwig Gottlieb Portman. (Public domain)

Did Camillus Really Save the Day?

This represents the canonical account that the Romans would have known by heart, but how much of the legend is true? It turns out that the answer isn’t so simple. To begin with, no serious modern historian doubts that Camillus was a historical figure of great importance and that a band of Gauls sacked Rome, but many other details are up for debate. Modern and ancient historians have proposed a host of different scenarios that conflict with the canonical tale—some of which present plausible alternatives and question even the war’s impetus.

As modern scholars have suggested, the Fabius brothers’ run-in with the Senones may very well have been a historical revision and the Gauls had no real grievances with the Romans. “What really seems to have happened is that Brennus led a band of marauders intent on plunder […] It is very possible that they were in the pay of the [tyrant] of Syracuse, Dionysius, whose principal aim in these years was to undermine Rome’s ally, the Etruscan trading entrepôt of Caere, and the Greek cities of Magna Graecia. If that was so, the [Gauls] were just passing through on their way to southern Italy,” historian Anthony Everitt theorized in The Rise of Rome.

Per this theory, the Gauls weren’t bent on punishing Rome for its ambassadors’ supposed misconduct. Rather, Dionysius had hired the Senones as a mercenary war band to do his bidding. As they marched to assist him, they either targeted the Romans because they were allied with one of Syracuse’s enemies or simply decided Rome and its riches were too tempting to pass by.

Possibly in search of spoils, the Senones then clashed with the Romans, but the legionaries’ retreat might not have been the chaotic, embarrassing defeat that the ancient authors recounted. “It has been reasonably suggested that the flight of the soldiers to Veii was not a spontaneous act arising in the panic of the moment, but part of a prearranged plan,” esteemed historian T.J. Cornell wrote in The Beginnings of Rome.

This could have bought many Romans enough time to flee the city and others a chance to fortify the Capitoline. Meanwhile, the pre-arranged tactical retreat provided the legionaries a defensible base of operations: Veii. However, the plan also gave the Senones easy access to Rome, which they sacked, but they may have acted with restraint. Despite accounts claiming otherwise, archaeological evidence does not suggest that the Senones razed the city; they left it in relatively good shape.

What’s more, there are modern and ancient sources claiming that Camillus didn’t save the day as the canonical account suggests. In fact, some contemporary historians believe that the story of Camillus’ exile was created to protect his reputation from Rome’s sacking and that the Romans paid the Senones to leave. There are ancient accounts that support these claims and state that the Romans only recaptured the gold much later.

The Triumph of Camillus, by Biagio d'Antonio c. 1470/1475. (Public domain)

The Triumph of Camillus, by Biagio d'Antonio c. 1470/1475. (Public domain)

Camillus Chronicles: Rome's Salvation as Recorded by Ancient Historians

According to Diodorus; “The Gauls on their way from Rome laid siege to the city of Veascium which was an ally of the Romans. The dictator attacked them, slew the larger number of them, and got possession of all their baggage, included in which was the gold which they had received for Rome and practically all the booty which they had gathered in the seizure of the city […] Those Celts who had passed into Iapygia turned back through the territory of the Romans; but soon thereafter the [people of Caere] made a crafty attack on them by night and cut all of them to pieces in the Trausian Plain.”

Strabo offered a similar account; “[The people of Caere] defeated in war those [Gauls] who had captured Rome,​ having attacked them when they were in the country of the Sabini on their way back, and also took away as booty from the [Gauls], against their will, what the Romans had willingly given them.”

Meanwhile, Suetonius claimed that matters were resolved entirely differently. He reported that a member of the Livia Drusi—Drusus—played a central role in the matter. “Drusus gained a surname for himself and his descendants by slaying Drausus, leader of the enemy, in single combat. It is also said that when propraetor he brought back from his province of Gaul the gold which was paid long before to the Senones, when they beleaguered the Capitol, and that this had not been wrested from them by Camillus, as tradition has it.”

Aristotle added more confusion to the matter—claiming that a certain Lucius saved Rome, not Camillus. Unfortunately, Aristotle failed to provide Lucius’ full name. As has been previously theorized, perhaps Aristotle was referencing the plebeian, Lucius Albinius, who selflessly helped the Republic’s venerated Vestal Virgins during their withdrawal from Rome in c. 390 BC.

Clearly, even in antiquity, there was disagreement over what happened to Rome and what role—if any—Camillus played, which leaves modern historians to sift through the limited evidence. So was Camillus a consequential political and military leader who benefited from historical revisions, or did he actually rescue Rome from the clutches of barbarians?

In the end, it is impossible to know exactly where the truth lies, but one thing is certain: Camillus’ renown and his alleged heroic deeds are so sensational that they have captured readers’ imaginations for thousands of years.

Marc Hyden is the Director of State Government Affairs at a Washington DC-based think tank, a weekly newspaper columnist, and a Roman historian. He graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in philosophy. He has had a long-standing fascination with ancient Rome and has written extensively on various aspects of its history. He is the author of Gaius Marius: The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Saviour (Pen & Sword, 2017), Romulus: The Legend of Rome’s Founding Father (Pen & Sword, 2020), and his latest release,  Marcus Furius Camillus: The Life of Rome’s Second Founder (Pen & Sword, 2023).

Top image: Detail of the Triumph of Camillus (cropped) by Biagio d'Antonio c. 1470/1475. Source: Public domain

By Marc Hyden


Cornell, T. 2015. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c1000-264 BC). Routledge.

Everitt, A. 2013. The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire. Random House Trade Paperbacks.

Hyden, M. 2023. Marcus Furius Camillus: The Life of Rome's Second Founder. Pen and Sword Military.

Seutonius Tranquillus, C. 1913. “The Life of Tiberius” in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Available at:*.html

Strabo. 1923. The Geography. Available at:*.html

Marc Hyden's picture

Marc Hyden

Marc Hyden graduated from Georgia State University with a degree in philosophy. He is a lobbyist, media spokesman, and Roman historian. He has a long-standing fascination with ancient Rome and has had numerous articles published on various aspects of its... Read More

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