The struggle of the Roman legions with the Celtic tribes was the theme of many films, articles and monographs. He also became known to the general public thanks to comic books such as the Asterix and Obelix series and film adaptations based on them. This resulted in the formation of a stereotypical image of the time, centred around the works of Caesar and his descriptions of the conquest of Gaul. On the other hand, it is commonly believed that the conflict between Rome and the Gauls preceding the times of the end of the republic is overshadowed by other events and has been relatively poorly presented in popular science. One of the themes of this conflict is the war between Rome and the Celts in the run-up to the Second Punic War, culminating in the Battle of Telamon in Etruria, where the Celtic troops were crushed by the army of two consuls.
Gallo-Roman relations in 4th-3rd century BCE
The north of the Apennine Peninsula was from the middle of the 1st millennium BCE the target of migration of peoples of the culture known as the La La Tène culture. These people, called by the Greeks Celts and by the Romans Gauls, had a highly developed ability to work iron, were characterized by an aggressive manner of warfare and a strong military ethos. The Gauls were farmers and traders, rarely clustered in big cities called oppida. Over the centuries, they conquered the areas of today’s Germany, France, northern Spain, and began their expansion in the fertile Po valley, where more and more numerous Gallic populations divided into tribes arose. The first clash with Rome took place at the beginning of the 4th century BCE, when one of such tribes – the Insubres – captured Melpum (today’s Milan), provoking opposition from the Etruscan cities in the Po Valley. Around 350 BCE, the Gauls finally crushed their resistance, ending the period of Etruscan culture in the area. In addition to the Insubres, the colonization was also attended by the tribes of Boii (south of the Po), Cenomani (settled around Verona), Senones (based on the Adriatic Sea), and the Taurines and Lingons. In 387 BCE, the Senones, with the help of other tribes, attacked the Etruscan city of Clusium, whose inhabitants turned to Rome for help. They then travelled south, where they defeated the Roman legions on the Allian River. The consequence of this was the capture of Rome and its several months’ occupation.
It was only the conflict with the Venetians that prompted the Senons to withdraw after receiving a ransom from the Romans. Both the defeat of Allaia and the fall of the city of Wolfs were deeply remembered by successive generations of Quirits, who considered these disasters a great humiliation. These tragic events, however, taught a lesson to the young Roman republic, which learned from them for the future. The city was surrounded by solid walls, which resulted in repelling another invasion of the Celts in 357. These victorious struggles went hand in hand with the expansion of the Romans in southern and central Italy. This expansion made their neighbours uneasy, which led to the formation of a broad anti-Roman coalition of Etruscan, Samnite and Gauls supported by the Sabines and Umbrians. The decision came with the defeat of the coalition partners at Sentinum in 295 BCE, which had a wide impact in the Greek world.
It did not break the resistance of the militant Senons, who besieged the city of Arretium in 284 BCE. The army of L. Cecilius Metellus sent to the rescue suffered a disastrous defeat, the commander himself and 13,000 of his subordinates died – including half of the tribunes and centurions. The old coalition was revived immediately, and the Samnites and some Etruscan cities rose against the Romans. The Senate, weakened by exhaustive wars, sent deputies to the Senons with a proposal to negotiate. Roman legates were brutally murdered by the Gallic commander Bitomaris, which caused a decisive reaction from Rome. The fury of the militant Gauls, which lost to the discipline of the legions, was of no avail. The victorious consul L. Kurius Dentatus invaded the lands of the Senones, ravaging them and killing all adult men. From the conquered lands, the Senate created Ager Gallicus and a colony on the Adriatic Sea Sena Gallica. The neighbouring fighters also tried their luck, and only after two defeats gave up the fight. These activities allowed the Romans to secure their peace on the northern border in the coming conflict with Pyrrhus. Only the new generations of Gauls, the immemorial defeats inflicted by the legions, will take up arms and play a key role as Hannibal’s allies in the Second Punic War.
Celtic March to Rome
The expansion of Rome in the fertile Po valley and its systematic settlement by Roman colonists met with opposition from the Celtic population. The young generation of Gauls, who did not know the bitterness of the defeated, tried to counteract the Roman settlement action. The Celts established cooperation with their peers from across the Alps in order to take joint action against the Romans. This contract, concluded by the leaders of the Battle tribe without the consent of the rest of their fellow tribesmen, sparked criticism and suspicion among them about the army that had come from across the Alps. As a result of an internal dispute, there was a war among the Fighters, which allowed the Romans to better prepare their defence. The parcelling of the Picenum territories deprived of the Senones and the distribution of the Ager Gallicus land between the ever-growing Roman population and their allies caused the fury of the Celts. It was clear to the peoples of the neighbouring Roman territories that the Romans wanted them to be ousted and physically liquidated.
Open war broke out in 225 BCE when the Fighters and the Insubr teamed up with warriors across the Alps called the Gesats, bringing together an army of 70,000. The latter were persuaded to join the expedition thanks to the large amount of gold, the vision of the spoils captured on the Romans and the memories of the victorious expeditions of the Celts to the south. The Senate, mortally concerned by the developments beyond the northern border, proceeded to train the legionaries, form new legions, store grain and war equipment. Units were formed from allies, and officials entered all citizens of draft age on the list. Through diplomatic actions, it was also possible to force the Cenoman and Venetian tribes to remain faithful to the Romans. One of the armies, commanded by consul L. Emilius Papus, was sent to Ariminum in order to block the paths of a possible enemy march. Another Roman army under the command of one of the praetors was sent to Etruria, and the other consuls G. Atilius Regulus stayed with his legions in Sardinia. As reported by Polybius, Rome’s combined forces and allies (which could be fielded at that time) were 700,000 infantry and 70,000 cavalry.
A combined force of Gauls, including 10,000 Gesats, crossed the Apennines and entered Etruria. At the same time, the Roman praetor, having gathered reinforcements of the Sabines and Etruscans, began to pursue the invaders’ army. The first clash took place at Kluzjum, where the Celtic chiefs organized an ambush. They left fires lit, behind which they set up a cavalry that was to lure the Romans straight into the snares set by the Gauls. During this time, the rest of the army took up position in the woods and wooded hills east of the valley near the city of Fesulae. As the praetor’s army pursued the fleeing Celtic cavalry and found themselves alongside the hidden rest of their army, it was unexpectedly attacked by masses of enemy warriors emerging from the forest and wooded hills. Meanwhile, the Celtic cavalry pretending to escape attacked the Romans on the other hand, capturing them with two fires. Despite fierce resistance, the Sabines and Etruscans could not match the Gauls, who were favoured by the terrain. 6,000 praetor soldiers were killed, the rest gathered on a nearby hill surrounded by the victors. The Celts, exhausted from the recent fight, did not take advantage of the victory and decided not to eliminate the enemy’s remnants. At that time, another Roman army, consul Emilius Papus, crossed the Apennines and entered the battlefield immediately after the defeat of the praetor’s army. Her arrival cheered the soldiers on the hill and put the Gauls army in a problematic position.
Battle of Telamon
In this situation, the Celtic commanders at the council decided not to risk the battle, but to return to their homeland with their loot and prisoners. Blocked by Papus’ army from the north and forested mountains to the east and west, they pulled south, and in the vicinity of Lake Bolsena, they headed for the Etruscan coast to set a course north towards the Po Valley. Meanwhile, the Roman army from Sardinia, led by consul G. Atilius Regulus, sailed around Corsica and landed near Pisa. Regulus, informed of the return of the Gauls, decided to cut off their path. Near Cape Telamon, his ride took a gentle hill that lay beside the road where the hostile armies would meet. The Gauls were completely unaware of the arrival of the new Roman army, believing that the ride on the hill belonged to Pappus’s group. They sent light troops and cavalry to clear the hill of Roman cavalry. From Roman prisoners captured in combat, they learned the terrible truth about the ticks set by the enemy’s two armies.
The Gauls only now realized that all they had to do was fight to the death. The Fighters and Taurisks faced the army of Regulus, while the Insubrs and Gesats turned their backs on them to the army of Papus. On the wings of their armies, the commanders of the Gauls set up chariots and supply wagons. The loot escorted by a small group of warriors was concentrated on the surrounding hills. On the hill, there was a fierce battle between both sides, in which consul Atilius was killed. Consul Papus, therefore, sent his entire 3200-strong cavalry there to support his fellow countrymen. The combined Roman forces easily defeated and forced the Celtic riders to retreat from the hill and flee north. At that time, the infantry stocks of both armies began in the valley. For Roman soldiers, the appearance of the enemy ranks was at first terrifying, however, motivated by the possibility of gaining fame and loot, they engaged with barbarian warriors without regret. At first, velites, that is, light Roman infantry launched their javelins at the ranks of the Insubres. After the exchange of missiles, velites withdrew among the heavy infantry manipulations, and the attack was launched by hastati, the youngest soldiers in legions. After throwing out the spears and spears, from which the ranks of the Gesats had suffered the most, they set off with their swords against the Gauls. Legionaries, hidden behind large shields, fighting with their gladius, towered over the tribal army, rather modestly dressed. Despite this, the Gallic warriors bravely struggled with the Romans, and for a moment it was not known which side would emerge victorious from this stockpile. Only the attack of the Roman cavalry, which fell from the hill to the flanks and rear of the Celtic troops, weighed the scales in favour of Rome. Surrounded Gauls had no chance against the enemy pressing on from all sides. 40,000 Gallic corpses remained on the battlefield, and 10,000 warriors were captured.
The victorious consul Emilius Papus went north, where he attacked the lands of Bojia, burning and murdering according to the Roman custom. Endowed by the Senate with the right to triumph, he led the captured prisoners and the loot in a ceremonial procession. Gallic tribes devastated by the Roman invasions and bled out of constant fights ceased resistance. It was only during the Second Punic War that the Gauls stood shoulder to shoulder with the Punics against the hated Republic. After the defeat of Hannibal, some tribes would still fight under the command of Carthaginian officers. The last tribe causing troubles for Rome – the Bojowie, will fight until 191 BCE, after which it will emigrate to the territories of today’s Czech Republic.
It seems that even the possible victory of the Celts at Telamon and their capture of Rome would not determine the fall of the power from the Tiber. Rome was already then a very populous and resistant to blows behemoth. He had the unique ability to rebuild his own war machine, and he waged wars with his own consistency, no matter what the cost. The Roman elite has repeatedly shown that even after the greatest defeats, their country is able to get up from its knees and defeat an apparently triumphant enemy. The quarrelling Celtic tribes did not have the human resources to deal the final blow to the Romans.