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In the beginning of the 4th century BC a Gaulish war party had been pushing south into Italy and the Romans assembled an army to force them out of Italy. In the subsequent battle the Romans fled and the Gauls progressed onto Rome which was undefended. There was a siege on just one hill inside the city however the Gauls could not defeat them and eventually an agreement was made to ransom the city so that the Gauls would leave Rome in peace (the parts they hadn’t destroyed).
The agreed amount the Romans had to pay to the Gauls was 1,000 pounds of gold in coins. During the weighing process the Romans found out that the Gauls had been tampering with the scales so that they could scam the Romans out of more gold and protested. Their leader, Brennus, laughed at their complaints and added his sword to the weights, saying to the Romans,
“Vae victis!” 1,2,3
This phrase means woe to the vanquished/conquered. It exemplified the position that the Romans had found themselves in. They had still been thinking of the agreement in terms of a just conclusion to their war with the Gauls. The Gauls did not care about their idea of justice and only sought plunder. The phrase was meant to force the Romans to understand that they had lost and what the Gauls wanted was now the law, period.
It cannot be overstated the importance of the moment. In its history Rome had only fallen a few times. It was the traditional home of the Romans. If you wanted to vote as a Roman citizen you had to be present in the capitol. To run for office you had to be present in the capitol. There were no weapons or armies allowed inside the capitol. It was a highly sacred place for the Romans, beyond just being their home. To hear, “Vae Victis” being directed towards them in their home was unbearable. They would get their revenge and defy conquest again for a long time, even when a Carthaginian came to their neighborhood.
1. Plutarch, Camillus – Chapter 28.4
2. Plutarch, Camillus – Chapter 28.5
3. Livy, Ab urbe condita – Book 5 Chapter 48
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