Saturday, 18 July 2020

Brennus the Contested Conqueror of Rome

July 18 is the anniversary of the momentous Battle of the Allia (c. 390 BCE). The Gallic Senones defeated the Roman Republic as their prelude to sacking Rome itself. The humiliation was compounded when the conquering chief Brennus, having fixed Rome’s ransom at 1000 pounds of gold, added his sword to the scale (either cleverly or treacherously depending on your perspective), and, according to Livy declared, in perfect Latin, VAE VICTIS, or WOE TO THE VANQUISHED. 

Paul Jamin, "Le Brenn et sa part de butin" (1893)

This unlovely sentiment has become proverbial. it has always been quoted by imperialists justifying cynical reprisals against conquered peoples. In an oppositional tone, it is cited by campaigners for just treatment of those defeated in war, from the Elizabethan poet Thomas Fenne ("For Allia brook can witness yet where thousand Romans dide; / The want of justice was the cause, it will not be denide") to a recent discussion of the predicament of Palestinians in the face of what is presented as their victors' settlement colonisation. 

Figurehead of Brennus in Maritime Museum 

Ezra Pound, with typical facetiousness, claimed in Canto 96 that Brennus came to Rome only "for the wine, liking its quality". But Brennus, whose story also survives in Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch, provides an outstanding example of the contestation of ancient history. Many extreme but contradictory positions have been defended by citing the defeat of the mighty soon-to-be-world-empire of Rome and the northern European tribesmen. French nationalists obviously love Brennus. Thinking about his Roman spoils allowed salon painters to imagine their bizarrely helmeted forefather reviewing his allocation of five naked Italian women. 

The first pre-dreadnought battleship built for the Marine Nationale was named Brenn and a spectacular portrait sculpture planted atop it. But British imperialists have also adopted him as exemplar ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in his twelfth-century Breviary exaggeratedly calls Brennus conqueror of "Romans, the Grekes, and almost all the nations of the worlde". 

By the time of Robert Montgomery Bird's popular abolitionist drama The Gladiator (1831), however, Brennus was associated with Spartacus as symbol of brave resistance to Rome by peoples of lands from which they drew their slaves. He was adopted as an ancestor of early trade union activists in Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (1848), where the factory owners awaiting a delegation of ragged workers resemble "the Roman senators who awaited the irruption of Brennus and his Gauls". The Celtic Revival poets identified themselves as "of the race of Brennus and Vercingetorix, of Cuchullain and Maeve...of the breed of the warriors who had shaken all empires although they had founded none". 

"My sword is heavier than yours"
But for admirers of Italy, ancient Roman civilisation, and indeed "law and order", Brennus has always represented anarchy, vandalism (after all, the Vandals themselves sacked Rome in 455 CE) and perfidy. In these versions, the hero is Camillus, who in Livy's patriotic account responded by putting his own sword in the scale, saying Non auro, sed ferro, recuperanda est patria (Not with gold but with iron will the fatherland be recovered). He is alleged to have routed the Gauls the next day. 

The sword-and-scales face-off was painted by Sebastiano Ricci and appallingly dramatised in the 1963 sword-and-sandals movie Brenno il nemico di Roma, starring the thoroughly decent Denver-born wieghtlifter Gordon Mitchell. He utterly failed to make Brenno as cruel and brutal a barbarian as the execrable screenplay required. Livy, frankly, had already done much better. 

Scarily Aryan "Celtic Rock" band VAE VICTIS

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