The Gallic War II – The Battle of Telamon (225 BC)
It is only during the Gallic retreat northwards that Polybius reintroduces the second Consul, C. Atilius Regulus. We have no details of his activities in Sardinia, and only know that he was detained long enough to leave eastern Italy under-defended, allowing the Gallic tribes to push through unopposed. We must assume that when the Gallic army did invade western Italy, messengers were sent to him at the same time as Aemilius in the east. Again, Polybius does not provide us with a timescale, but whilst events were transpiring at the Battle of Faesulae, Atilius seemingly ended his campaign in Sardinia (though we are not told with what level of success) and transported his army across the Tyrrhenian Sea to the city of Pisa. Polybius states that Atilius marched south towards Rome, which he must have assumed was the intended objective of the Gallic force. At this point it is clear that he did not know of the events of Faesulae or that the Gauls were heading directly towards him. He naturally sent scouts out ahead of the main force and it was they who first encountered the retreating Gallic army near the city of Telamon (modern Talamone) on the Etrurian coast:
When the Celts were near Telamon in Etruria, their advanced foragers encountered the advance guard of Caius and were made prisoners. On being examined by the Consul they narrated all that had recently occurred and told him of the presence of the two armies, stating that the Gauls were quite near and Lucius behind them. The news surprised him but at the same time made him very hopeful, as he thought he had caught the Gauls on the march between the two armies.
The Battle of Telamon (225 BC) – Polybian Version
Thus, through a change of circumstance Atilius found his fortunes drastically changed; from having been held too long in Sardinia and missing the Gallic invasion, he now found that he was in prime position to fight and defeat the Gauls, and set his army to give battle. We are fortunate to have a detailed narrative of the battle preserved in Polybius, probably based on a first-hand account from Fabius Pictor:
He ordered his Tribunes to put the legions in fighting order and to advance thus at marching pace in so far as the nature of the ground allowed the attack in line. He himself had happily noticed a hill situated above the road by which the Celts must pass, and taking his cavalry with him, advanced at full speed, being anxious to occupy the crest of the hill before their arrival and be the first to begin the battle, feeling certain that thus he would get the largest share of credit for the result.
It seems that Atilius was over-eager to claim the glory of defeating the Gauls for himself and neglected to link up with the army of Aemilius, which was trailing the Gauls. Once again two Roman commanders failed to link up properly and deliver a decisive blow to the Gauls, and utilise the numbers of both armies catching the Gauls in a pincer. Nevertheless, Atilius’ decisiveness had allowed him to select his own battle site and occupy the high ground. The first clash of the battle was a light skirmish between an advance force of Gallic cavalry and infantry and Atilius’ cavalry on the top of the hill:
The Celts at first were ignorant of the arrival of Atilius and imagined from what they saw, that Aemilius’ cavalry had got round their flank in the night and were engaged in occupying the position. They therefore at once sent on their own cavalry and some of their light-armed troops to dispute the possession of the hill. But very soon they learnt of Caius’ presence from one of the prisoners brought in.
Although Polybius gives us no details of this first skirmish between the two sides at Telamon, his narrative does indicate that the Gauls were able to take prisoners and thus ascertain the nature of the threat they faced, and were able to make the appropriate tactical decisions. Thus Atilius seems to have lost some of the initiative:
[the Gauls] lost no time in drawing up their infantry, deploying them so that they faced both front and rear, since, both from the intelligence that reached them and from what was happening before their eyes, they knew that the one army was following them, and they expected to meet the other in their front.
Whilst the fighting was continuing for the hill between Atilius’ cavalry and the Gauls, fortune again favoured the Romans, as Aemilius was now close enough to learn of Atilius’ disposition and lend aid:
Aemilius, who had heard of the landing of the legions at Pisa but had not any idea that they were already so near him, now, when he saw the fight going on round the hill, knew that the other Roman Army was quite close. Accordingly, sending on his cavalry to help those who were fighting on the hill, he drew up his infantry in the usual order and advanced against the foe.
Thus a third force of cavalry entered the battle on the hill, to join Atilius’ cavalry and the Gallic cavalry supported by Gallic infantry. Away from the hill, it seems that Aemilius was in fact closer to the main body of the Gallic army than Atilius’ main force, which must have been further ahead. Polybius presents us with a detailed disposition of the Gallic force:
The Celts had drawn up facing their rear, from which they expected Aemilius to attack, the Gaesatae from the Alps and behind them the Insubres, and facing in the opposite direction, ready to meet the attack of Caius’ [Atilius’] legions, they placed the Taurisci and the Boii from the right bank of the Po. Their wagons and chariots they stationed at the extremity of either wing and collected their booty on one of the neighbouring hills with a protecting force round it. This order of the Celtic forces, facing both ways, not only presented a formidable appearance, but was well adapted to the exigencies of the situation. The Insubres and Boii wore their trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae had discarded these garments owing to their proud confidence in themselves, and stood naked, with nothing but their arms, in front of the whole army, thinking that thus they would be more efficient, as some of the ground was overgrown with brambles which would catch in their clothes and impede the use of their weapons.
Despite the Gauls being caught between two Roman armies, the lack of Roman co-ordination and the skirmish on the hill had allowed them time to make adequate dispositions to face both Roman armies with confidence. Facing the north and Atilius’ army were the Boii and Taurisci, and to the south and facing Aemilius’ army were the Gaesatae and the Insubres.
As before, the initial phase of the battle was between the cavalry of all three armies and focussed on gaining control of the hill, though we do not know the number involved:
At first the battle was confined to the hill, all the armies gazing on it, so great were the numbers of cavalry from each host combating there pell-mell. In this action Caius [Atilius] the Consul fell in the mêlée fighting with desperate courage, and his head was brought to the Celtic kings; but the Roman cavalry, after a stubborn struggle, at length overmastered the enemy and gained possession of the hill.
Thus, the Romans emerged victorious in this initial phase, but lost the Consul Atilius. It is difficult to know what to make of Atilius’ tactics. He seems to have made the decisive move to offer battle at Telamon and chose his ground well, but we must question his decision to take the fore with his cavalry on the hill. From the information we have, it does seem that he struck out too far from his main army and made himself a tempting target sat on top of that hill. At first the Gauls were able to attack him in force, capturing prisoners, and thus learn of the nature of the force that awaited them, avoiding any attempt at ambush.
Furthermore, his force seems to have been overwhelmed on that hill, leading to his death in battle. Ultimately, his decision not to link up with the army of his Consular colleague appears to have cost him at least his life, but not the battle; an outcome which was only avoided by Aemilius’ timely arrival rather than any co-ordination between the two men.
With the cavalry battle concluded and the Romans victorious on the hill, the main armies moved to engage. Despite the loss of the Consul Atilius Regulus, it seems that the Romans armies were able to co-ordinate their actions, possibly thanks to the cavalry of the two Roman armies intermingling on the hill. We have no timescale for the lapse between the cavalry battle and the advance of the main armies. Now, however, the Gauls found themselves attacked on two fronts:
The infantry were now close upon each other, and the spectacle was a strange and marvellous one, not only to those actually present at the battle, but to all who could afterwards picture it to themselves from the reports. For in the first place, as the battle was between three armies, it is evident that the appearance and the movements of the forces marshalled against each other must have been in the highest degree strange and unusual. Again, it must have been to all present, and still is to us, a matter of doubt whether the Celts, with the enemy advancing on them from both sides, were more dangerously situated, or, on the contrary, more effectively, since at one and the same time they were fighting against both their enemies and were protecting themselves in the rear from both, while, above all, they were absolutely cut off from retreat or any prospect of escape in the case of defeat, this being the peculiarity of this two-faced formation. The Romans, however, were on the one hand encouraged by having caught the enemy between their two armies, but on the other they were terrified by the fine order of the Celtic host and the dreadful din, for there were innumerable horn-blowers and trumpeters, and, as the whole army were shouting their war-cries at the same time, there was such a tumult of sound that it seemed that not only the trumpets and the soldiers but all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry. Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets. The sight of them indeed dismayed the Romans, but at the same time the prospect of winning such spoils made them twice as keen for the fight.
As was custom, the Romans opened with a volley of pila, which seemed to have a particularly devastating effect on the Gaesatae facing Aemilius’ army:
But when the javelineers advanced, as is their usage, from the ranks of the Roman legions and began to hurl their javelins in well-aimed volleys, the Celts in the rear ranks indeed were well protected by their trousers and cloaks, but it fell out far otherwise than they had expected with the naked men in front, and they found themselves in a very difficult and helpless predicament. For the Gallic shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were the better chance had the missiles of going home. At length, unable to drive off the javelineers owing to the distance and the hail of javelins, and reduced to the utmost distress and perplexity, some of them, in their impotent rage, rushed wildly on the enemy and sacrificed their lives, while others, retreating step by step on the ranks of their comrades, threw them into disorder by their display of faint-heartedness. Thus was the spirit of the Gaesatae broken down by the javelineers.
With the volleys of pila exhausted, the two sides met head on:
…but the main body of the Insubres, Boii, and Taurisci, once the javelineers had withdrawn into the ranks and the Roman maniples attacked them, met the enemy and kept up a stubborn hand-to hand combat. For, though being almost cut to pieces, they held their ground, equal to their foes in courage, and inferior only, as a force and individually, in their arms. The Roman shields, it should be added, were far more serviceable for defence and their swords for attack, the Gallic sword being only good for a cut and not for a thrust.
It seems, however, that the two sides were evenly matched until the decisive move was made by the Roman cavalry on top of the hill, attacking the Gallic force from the flanks:
But finally, attacked from higher ground and on their flank by the Roman cavalry, which rode down the hill and charged them vigorously, the Celtic infantry were cut to pieces where they stood, their cavalry taking to flight.
Thus it seems that both Consuls had a hand in the tactics that led to the Roman victory; Atilius for recognizing the importance of taking control of the hill top which would give the Romans access to the Gallic flank, and Aemilius for having the presence of mind to send reinforcements to the hill top when it seemed that Atilius had overreached himself and placed his position in jeopardy. In the end, despite the disjointed start to the battle, the Roman emerged totally victorious, with the defeated Gauls trapped between three Roman forces and annihilated. Polybius, supported by other sources, places the total Gallic dead at 40,000, with 10,000 taken prisoner; the most comprehensive Roman victory over the Gauls in Roman history to date. Given that our sources stated that the Gallic forces were 70,000 strong (50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, see above), this must mean that some 20,000 Gauls escaped. Of the Gaesatae chieftains, Concolitanus was taken prisoner and Aneroëstus fled, but committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner.
The Battle of Telamon (225 BC) – Non-Polybian Versions
Although Polybius preserves by far the best account, written less than 100 years later and based on first-hand accounts, a number of other sources provide shorter versions of the campaign, some of which add some interesting details or variations. Both Diodorus and Orosius offer short accounts of the campaign and the Battle of Telamon; both are remarkably similar:
The Celts and Gauls, having assembled a force of 200,000 men, joined battle with the Romans and in the first combat were victorious. In a second attack they were again victorious, and even killed one of the Roman Consuls. The Romans, who for their part had seven hundred thousand infantry and seventy thousand cavalry, after suffering these two defeats, won a decisive victory in the third engagement. They slew forty thousand men and took the rest captive, with the result that the chief prince of the enemy slashed his own throat and the prince next in rank to him was taken alive.
Battle was joined near Arretium [modern Arezzo]. The Consul Atilius was killed and his 800,000 Romans, after part of their number were cut down fled, even though the slaughter on their side ought not to have panicked them, for historians record that only 3,000 of them were killed.
After this a second battle was fought against the Gauls in which at least 40,000 of them were slaughtered.
Both sources seem to make the same mistake on the Roman numbers, interpreting Polybius’ figures for total available manpower as the number of soldiers Rome had in the field, and Orosius seems to believe that all eight hundred thousand Roman soldiers fled the field. Diodorus interestingly has three battles in his campaign; two Roman defeats and a victory. However he states that a Consul (Atilius) was killed in the second battle, which indicates that both sources, or their source, separated the Battle of Telamon into two separate battles; the cavalry action on the hill and the infantry clash, the former of which he believes to have been a Roman defeat. Similarly Orosius has separated the battle into two, with Atilius being killed in a defeat, followed by a victory.
It is interesting to see how the narrative of this battle has evolved over time, with Atilius’ action evolving into a Roman defeat, which was then avenged at Telamon, rather than being seen as two parts of the same battle. Ancient historians seemed to have judged Atilius poorly, mostly for being killed in battle, which then discredited his actions on the hill. As it was, it was his tactical move to secure the hill for the Roman cavalry which proved to be the turning point of the battle, securing Roman victory, though he needed Aemilius’ force to secure control of the hill, having seemingly overstretched his own position. Despite his short and garbled account, Orosius is the only one to provide us with a figure for the Roman dead; three thousand as opposed to the forty thousand killed on the Gallic side.
The theme of Atilius’ role being downgraded as time passed can be seen in the account preserved by Eutropius, who erases him altogether:
When Lucius Aemilius was Consul, a vast force of the Gauls crossed the Alps; but all Italy united in favour of the Romans; and it is recorded by Fabius the historian, who was present in that war, that there were eight hundred thousand men ready for the contest. Affairs, however, were brought to a successful termination by the Consul alone; forty thousand of the enemy were killed, and a triumph decreed to Aemilius.
Here Eutropius goes out of his way to state that it was Aemilius alone who was responsible for the Roman victory. Florus too has a short account of the war, which although severely lacking in detail, states that it was Aemilius who defeated the Gauls.¹⁷ The only exception to this trend is Pliny, who does not provide detail of the campaign, but does comment on Aemilius and Atilius raising nearly 800,000 men (again a misreading of Polybius, who stated that that number were available, not mobilized. Plutarch comments on the early years of the war without even mentioning either Consul of 225 BC:
The first conflicts of this war brought great victories and also great disasters to the Romans, and led to no sure and final conclusion.
The figure of 40,000 Gallic dead is a common one throughout all accounts of the battle. Even Jerome preserves the figure in an entry. Dio has a fragment on the Gallic character, which may reveal some small additional detail about the battle:
The Gauls became dejected on seeing that the Romans had already seized the most favourable positions.
Zonaras, however, preserves an interesting variation on the campaign, no doubt mirroring the original account of Dio:
The barbarians plundered some towns, but at last a great storm occurred in the night, and they suspected that Heaven was against them. Consequently they lost heart, and falling into a panic, attempted to find safety in flight. Regulus pursued them and brought on an engagement with the rear-guard in which he was defeated and lost his life. Aemilius occupied a hill and remained quiet. The Gauls in turn occupied another hill, and for several days both sides were inactive; then the Romans, through anger at what had taken place, and the barbarians, from arrogance born of their victory, charged down from the heights and came to blows. For a long time the battle was evenly fought, but finally the Romans surrounded the others with their cavalry, cut them down, seized their camp, and recovered the spoils.
Here we have some significant differences. The first notable one concerns the early Gallic campaigns, which ignores the Roman defeat at Faesulae and has the Gauls turning back due to divine omens. Next we have the role of Regulus, who again is relegated to a supporting role, killed fighting the Gallic rearguard, which is interesting as he actually lay in the path of the Gauls and was attacked by an advance contingent of Gallic cavalry, whilst it was Aemilius who was to their rear. Dio again separates the two engagements, this time inserting a number of days between the clashes. During the final battle, again unnamed, both sides occupied opposing hills and then charged at each other, though again the battle is won by the Roman cavalry.
This is a fascinating example of the divergences we see in the ancient sources. If we did not have the account of Polybius, then it would be Zonaras who provided the most detail. We would conclude that there were indeed two final battles to the campaign, separated by a period of time, with Atilius and Aemilius not joining up their forces and Atilius dying in battle first. Given this disparity, it does beg the question how many other accounts of Roman battles and campaigns we have which are similarly skewed towards one version without us even being aware of it.