The battle of Telamon (225 BC) was a crushing Roman victory over an invading Gallic army that was attempting to retreat north with booty seized during its advance south through Etruria, but that was instead trapped between two Consular armies (Telamon War).
In the years before 225 both sides had been preparing for war. The first contacts between Rome and the Gauls had been disastrous for Rome and had seen their army defeated at the battle of the Allia (c.387) and Rome herself sacked. However in more recent years the Romans had finally been able to go onto the offensive, and in the 280s had defeated the Senones, the tribe that had led the Gallic force at the Allia, establishing a colony on former Gallic lands, and in 238-236 had outlasted the Boii, after a previous Gallic alliance fell part, and forced them to surrender some of their territory.
After a period of relative calm, in the early 220s the Boii (from the lower Po) and their neighbours the Insubres (from the area around Milan) formed an alliance. They were able to recruit allies from Transalpine Gaul, convincing Kings Concolitanus and Aneroestus of the Gaesatae to join them. The Gaesatae, or ‘spear carriers’, were mercenaries from the Alps and Rhone area. They also recruited the Taurisci, who lived on the ‘slopes of the alps’. According to Polybius the Gauls were able to march south with 50,000 infantry and 20,000 cavalry, after leaving some of their troops in the north to deal with the threat from Rome’s own Gallic allies. Diodorus gives the Gauls a much larger army, 200,000 strong.
In either case the Romans took the threat very seriously. In 229 this went as far as carrying out the first recorded instance of human sacrifice in their history, burying alive a Gallic man and woman and Greek man and woman in the ‘forum boarium’, or cattle market, in response to an oracle found in the Sibylline Books that suggested this would stop the Gauls and Greeks occupying the city. They also agreed a treaty with Hasdubal, the Carthaginian commander in Spain, setting the Ebro as the boundary between their spheres of influence. They were able to find allies amongst the Gauls, when the Veneti and the Cenomani, two Gallic tribes from the north-east of Italy, sided with them.
In 225 the Romans recruited five separate armies to deal with the Gallic threat. The two consuls for the year, L. Aemilius Papus and C. Atilius Regulus, were each given an army of 50,800 infantry and 3,200 cavalry, with four legions of Roman citizens and 30,000 allied infantry and 2,000 allied cavalry. In the belief that the Gauls would invade east of the Apennines Aemilius was sent to Ariminum, on the Adriatic coast. Early in the year C. Atilius Regulus was sent to Sardinia, possibly to put down a revolt on the island. The western side of the Apennines was guarded by an army of 50,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry provided by the Etruscans and Sabines, most of whom were now under Roman rule. This army was placed under the command of an unnamed Praetor and posted on the frontiers of Etruria. A combined force of Allied Italians and Gauls was posted somewhere on the borders of Boii land, probably to the north of Aemilius. Finally a reserve army of 20,000 Roman citizen infantry and 1,500 cavalry and 30,000 allied infantry and 2,000 allied cavalry was posted at Rome.
When the invasion came the Gauls caught the Romans out of position by attacking west of the Apennines, into Etruria. They were able to get past the Praetorian army without a fight, and advanced south towards Rome, pillaging as they went. They had soon seized a large amount booty, including many slaves and cattle, which must have slowed down their advance.
On the Roman side the Praetor was soon on the move, following the Gauls south towards Rome. Messages were sent to both consuls. Aemilius marched south back towards Rome, while Atilius Regulus crossed back to the mainland, landing in the vicinity of Pisa. The Gauls were now advancing south into a trap.
The Gauls reached as far south as Clusium, only three days to the north of Rome, when they learnt that the Praetor was following them, and wasn’t too far off to the north. They decided to turn back to deal with him. The two armies were soon camped in close proximity, but the Gauls then tricked the Praetor into believing they had fled in the night, leaving only their cavalry behind. He fell for the trap and followed the withdrawing cavalry at high speed towards the town of Faesulae. When the Romans came close the Gauls attacked them, and after some heavy fighting forced the Romans to flee, killing 6,000. Most of the surviving Romans took refuge on a nearby hill, and after an initial attempt to attack it immediately, the Gauls withdrew to rest, leaving their cavalry to blockade the defeated Romans. Late on the same day Aemilius arrived on the scene, and camped nearby. Both sides saw his campfires. The besieged Romans managed to get messengers through the Gallic blockade, and Aemilius decided to split his force. He led his cavalry in an immediate rescue effort, while his tribunes were ordered to attack with the infantry on the following morning.
However by the next morning the Gauls were gone. Overnight they held a council of war, at which Aneroestus, one of the leaders of the Gaesatae, argued that it wasn’t fighting worth fighting a second battle that might risking losing all of their booty. Instead he wanted to retreat back to their homeland, secure the booty, and only then turn back to face the Romans. The Boii and Insubres probably had no choice other than to agree to this – the Boii in particular will have had bitter memories of the previous war, which ended when their alliance fell apart and the former allies ended up fighting each other. As a result the Gauls left their camp during the night, and began to move north along the Etruscan coast.
On the following morning Aemilius was thus able to unit his army with the survivors from the Praetorian army. However he decided not to risk an immediate attack on the Gauls, and instead to follow them north, harassing them and waiting for a suitable moment to attack. He will also have been aware that the second Consular army was somewhere to the north, so there was every chance of trapping the Gauls between the two Roman armies.
This would be exactly what happened, but not because of any coordination between the two Roman armies. Atilius was unaware of what had happened on the road to Rome until his troops captured the leading Gallic foragers somewhere near the Etruscan city of Telamon. From them he learnt about the battle at Faesulae, that the main body of Gauls were close by to the south, and that Aemilius was not far behind with the second Consular army. Atilius decided to take advantage of this news to try and get the largest share of the glory from the upcoming battle. He ordered his tribunes to take command of the infantry and advance south at marching pace for as long as the nature of the land would allow them to stay in land. In the meantime he decided to lead his cavalry onto a hill which was alongside the road the Gauls were using, presumably hoping to be able to attack them from the flanks or rear once they were engaged with his infantry.
The Gauls were also unaware that a second Roman army was nearby, and when they saw Roman cavalry on the hill assumed it was part of Aemilius’s army that had outflanked them in the night. They sent a mixed force of cavalry and light infantry up the hill, and were able to capture prisoners from whom they discovered the presence of Atilius and the second Consular army. Aemilius’s men were close enough for his scouts to see this fighting, and he sent his cavalry into the battle on the hill. The first part of the battle was confined to the hill. At first things went against the Romans – Atilius was killed, beheaded and his head brought to the Gallic kings, suggesting that the Gauls had control of the hill for some time. However eventually the Romans gained control of the hill, probably after Aemilius’s cavalry joined the battle.
Atilius’s rash move gave the Gauls time to prepare for the upcoming battle. They sent their booty and some guards onto a nearby hill, presumably on the opposite side of the battlefield to Atilius. The Gaesatae were placed at the rear, facing Aemilius, with the Insubres behind them. The Taurisci and the Boii faced forward, towards Atilius’s infantry. Most of the Gauls wore trousers and light cloaks, and carried shields, but the Gaesatae discarded their cloths. Polybius says that this was partly because of their confidence in themselves and partly because the ground was covered with brambles and they didn’t want to get their clothes caught.
Polybius gives us a detailed examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the two positions. The Gauls had no way of escaping if they were defeated, but at the same time each half of the army knew it couldn’t be attacked from the rear. The Romans were encouraged by having trapped the Gauls between two armies, but discouraged by the fine appearance of the Gallic troops, and by the noise of their war-cries and trumpets, which made it sound as if ‘all the country round had got a voice and caught up the cry’.
The battle began with the normal Roman volley of pila. Most of the Gauls were fairly well protected but the naked Gaesatae suffered badly under the volley of javelins and eventually their disciple broke. Some charged the Romans and were cut down and others retreated, causing some disorder behind them. However when the main infantry forces clashes the Gauls held their own for some time. However eventually the deadlock was broken when the Roman cavalry attacked from their hill, hitting the Gauls in the flank. A slaughter followed, and the sources agree that 40,000 Gauls were killed and 10,000 taken prisoner. Concolitanus was captured and Aneroestus committed suicide to avoid being captured,.
This was by far the most devastating defeat that the Gauls had yet suffered at Roman hands. If Polybius’s original figure of 70,000 men is correct, then at most 20,000 Gauls escaped from the battlefield. Atilius’s decision to try and capture the hill had proved to be correct, although his decision to actually join the fighting on the hill was probably at fault, leaving the rest of his army without its commander. Aemilius, as the surviving Consul, was given most of the credit for the Roman victory, and was awarded a triumph for his role. Some later histories split the battle into two, considering the battle on the hill and the main infantry battle as two separate fights. Some also place some time between the two battles.
In the aftermath of the battle Aemilius sent the spoils back to Rome and then launched an invasion of the Boian lands in northern Italy. This was more of a massive raid than a full scale invasion, and after seizing more plunder the Romans returned home. The war continued for several more years, but this time with the Romans on the offensive, gaining a significant foothold in the Po valley.