W. Europe Giants 10
Pritchard on Irish Giants
Unable to halt the Senones' advance, the terrified Etruscans sent an urgent plea to Rometheir own ancient enemyfor military help. Perhaps still feeling the economic pinch of their recent war with the Etruscans, or possibly not realizing the gravity of the situation, the Roman Senate decided against military aid. Instead they voted to send three envoys to Clusium to mediate the dispute between the native Etruscans and the invading Celts. For its envoys, the Senate chose three noblemen, all of the well-known Fabian family. While on this assignment, however, one of these gentlemen, Quintus Fabius, committed an act that ignited a quarrel between the Senones and Rome itself. The Senones, bent upon punishing Rome for the offense, eventually brought that great city to its knees.
According to Livy, when the Roman deputation arrived at Clusium to help resolve the conflict, the Celts informed them that "this was indeed the first time they had heard of them, but they assumed the Romans must be courageous people because it was to them that the Clusians had turned in their hour of need. And since the Romans had tried to help with an embassy and not with arms, they themselves would not reject the offer of peace, provided the Clusians ceded part of their superfluous agricultural land; that was what they, the Celts, wanted.... If it were not given," they warned, "they would launch an attack before the Romans' eyes, so that the Romans could report back how superior the Gauls were in battle to all others. . . . The Romans then asked whether it was right to demand land from its owners on pain of war, indeed what were the Celts doing in Etruria in the first place? The latter defiantly retorted that their right lay in their arms: to the brave belong all things."140
The resolute Clusians, however, refused to part with any portion of their land. The Senones, reacting to their unwillingness to share, took up arms. Although the quarrel did not involve him, Quintus Fabius sided with the Clusians and slew a Celtic chieftain. In the aftermath, the Celts demanded that the Roman Senate deliver up the Fabians and sent to Rome their delegation to watch the proceedings. Instead of yielding up the Fabians, the Senate appointed the three as military tribunes with consular powers for the coming yearthe highest honors that could have been bestowed upon them. When the incensed Senone delegation reported to their people this slap in their face, a furorfor which they were most famousarose in the ranks of the blond Celtic giants. That tense, dramatic scene Livy captured in these few words: "From all the immense host, covering miles of ground with its straggling masses of horse and foot, the cry went up, To Rome!'"141
With that cry, a Senone army of some thirty thousand giants began their march, arousing "the whole region with their wild singing and horrible and diverse yelling." As vast numbers of their noisy foot warriors, horsemen, chariots, and supply carts rambled across the land toward Rome, peasants from both countryside and village fled in terror before them. News of the advancing giants reached Rome almost too late. After hastily devising a plan for defense, Rome's legionnaires marched out to intercept the enraged Celtic horde. Upon reaching the little river Allia, a mere eleven miles from Rome, they found themselves face-to-face with a great throng of Goliath's cousins from north of the Apennines.
That terrifying July day the Latins would never forget. The great Celts unnerved them. Some of the giants they saw wore chain-wrought iron cuirasses, and some wore only shirts gathered up "with belts plated with gold or silver." But many wore no armor nor clothes, preferring instead to go into battle naked. Most, however, wore overlong broadswords slung around the right flanks on chains of iron or bronze. The spears and javelins they brandished give us some idea of their size and strength. On the spears were affixed "iron heads a cubit in length and even more, and a little under two palms in breadth."142 Also, the Celts' swords were not shorter than the javelins of average-size peoples, and just the heads of their javelins exceeded in length the swords of others.143 For those confused by these comparisons, Henri Hubert furnishes a most accurate measurement of some Celtic swords. Those that archaeologists recovered "from the second period of La Tene," he reports, "are about 96 inches long." And, he adds, without providing any figures, "the latest swords are still longer."144 It goes without saying, of course, that such enormous weapons required equally enormous men to wield them.
But the terror the Romans felt at the Allia sprang not from the Celts' height and armaments alone. These supermen also assaulted their eyes and ears with fierce looks, deep voices, and pre-battle antics. One of these antics called for some of the huge Celtic champions, when they were formed for battle, to step out in front of their lines, brandish their large weapons menacingly at their smaller adversaries and challenge the most valiant among them to single combat. We do not know whether any Romans accepted such a challenge at the Allia, but if they did, according to Celtic custom, each challenger would have then broken forth into a song praising the valiant deeds of his ancestors and boasting of his own high achievements, while at the same time reviling and belittling his opponent, and trying by such talk "to strip him of his bold spirit before the combat."145 Not just the champion warriors, but the whole Celtic army took part in this psychological warfare. Beating their swords rhythmically against their shields, they assailed the enemy's ears with a tumult of almost intolerable sound. The whole country round seemed filled with their exceedingly loud war cries, accompanied by the unceasing blare of innumerable giant boar-headed war trumpeters and horn blowers. That wild, horrible, almost deafening din played on the Romans' nerves, perhaps in a small way at first, but ever building toward a crescendo that made many an alarmed legionnaire's hair stand on end.
But the giants did not immediately exploit their victory. For after a battle it was their custom to cut off the heads of all they had killed and display them before the king. "If he brings a head," explains Herodotus, "a soldier is admitted to his share of the loot; no head, no loot."147 As both Roman and Greek were to learn, the Celts also scalped their victims; from these skins they fashioned garments that looked something like handkerchiefs. These they proudly attached to the bridles of their horses. That's the way they treated ordinary enemies. "With the heads of their worst enemies," says Herodotus, "they proceed as follows: once they have sawn off everything below the eyebrows, they carefully clean out the head. If the owner is poor he will merely stretch calf-leather round it and use it thus. But if he is rich, he will also line the inside with gold and use it as a drinking vessel." If in a quarrel a Celt killed his kinsman, he was treated in the same way: his kinsman's head also ended up as a drinking vessel. On occasions when the Celt had guests in his home he would "bring out these heads and say how they ... attacked him, and how he defeated them."148 Livy reveals that the Boii, a giant Celtic tribe of the Po Valley, also followed this practice, so the custom probably was widespread among the entire Celtic nation.149 For certain, Celts everywhere venerated the skulls of their enemies' heads. As archaeologists have discovered, they all decorated their doorways with them. They also skewered some heads of their enemies to staves and placed these on their roofs to act as guards for their homes.
So, following this tribal custom, the Celts spent the day after their victory at the Allia severing the heads of those they had killed, showing them to the king in order to claim a share of the loot, and then stowing them away to take home as trophies. This unusual suspension of hostilities gave Rome's citizens time to flee. Three days after the Battle of Allia, when the barbarians did venture into the city, they encountered only a "deathly hush." Practically the whole population had left. After gazing in awe at some of Rome's excellent sights, the Celts ransacked the city, then set it afire.
But the giants soon learned they were not Rome's sole occupiers. As they advanced on the Capitol itself, Marcus Manlius and his single maniple of courageous youths confronted them.150 Against Manlius' small band, the Senones launched several assaults. The Capitol, however, stood atop a steep slope, and this high ground gave the Latins such an advantage in the skirmishes, notes Livy, that many corpses of the huge assailants "lay in piles under their swords because, as the bodies fell, they dropped down back into the ranks of the warriors below. The Gauls would not try this kind of fighting again."151 Instead, they resorted to a siege. When that also failed, they tried a commando-like night attack. But as they advanced up the slope under the cover of darkness, the sacred Capitol geese awoke and, with their loud cackling, aroused the sleepy Roman sentries. Running to the front of the hill, Manlius "smote the first Gaul to come up with the back of his shield," sending him reeling down the slope. "Soon the whole band of Gauls was rushing headlong back down."152
As the siege dragged on, both sides experienced famine. The giants also soon fell victim to two somewhat incapacitating plagues: fever and dysentery. Seven months into the siege, they delivered to the Romans a pledge to withdraw from the country upon the payment of a "bushel of gold."153 That amount the proud but deeply humiliated Romans barely raised, by Roman scales. The Celts, however, produced their own scales, which were a bit heavier than those used by the Romans. When the Roman magistrate objected, the Celtic chieftain Brennus insolently threw the weight of his heavy broadsword on the scales. He then reddened the faces of the already embarrassed Romans with this harsh threat: "Woe to the vanquished!" Such insolent words, says Livy, sounded most "intolerable to Roman ears."154 It was, agrees Herm, "the worst humiliation Rome suffered in her history. Even in later, more glorious periods this scene, and the Celts, remained a wound which was never completely to heal."155