Have you ever heard the saying “The cackling of geese saved Rome”? Apparently even Albert Einstein famously said: “Remember Capitol of Rome was once saved by cackling of geese” … But where did this surprising phrase originate from, and what does it mean?
The famous legend of the geese saving Rome took place on Capitoline Hill in Roman times. Legend has it that the sacred geese of Juno warned Romans of the invasion of the Gauls and saved the city. After this, Juno temple, located on the site where Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara coeli stands today, was named “Juno Moneta”, from the Latin “monere”, meaning “to warn”.
The history is that, during the Gauls invasion of northern Italy, after the Romans lost the battle of the Allia in 390 BC, the defeated Roman soldiers fled to Veii, an ancient Etruscan city 16 km (9.9 mi) northwest of Rome. Having nothing to stop them in their way, the Gauls marched straight to Rome.
The panicked and defenseless citizens of Rome retreated to the Capitoline Hill and, aided by the steep and rocky walls of the hill, pushed back the Gauls attacks. After several unsuccessful attacks, the Gauls decided to use a ruse and, under the cover of the night, to climb the walls into the Capitoline. They were not heard by the guards or their dogs, but miraculously were heard by the sacred geese of Juno from the Capitoline temple, which woke up the Roman soldiers with their honks and cackling. Romans were able to stop and push back the Gauls attack. So, the geese truly saved the great Rome!
Even the end of the story is remarkable, with unexpected twists and turns, being worthy of a movie! After many days, when both parties were hit by starvation and sickness, they agreed to negotiate. It was agreed that the Gauls would retreat from the city if the Romans paid in gold. It was at his time when the Gauls leader, Brennus, uttered the famous words, so unbearable for Romans: “Vae victis”, translated “Woe to the vanquished!”.
Meanwhile, the troops that had fled to Veii regrouped under the command of the great Roman military commander Marcus Furius Camillus. They obtained the approval of the senate though a messenger who was able to sneak through the Gaul lines, and Marcus Furius Camillus arrived in Rome just in time to save the Romans from the shameful agreement. It is said that he took the gold from the scale and declared that it was a Roman custom to deliver the city with iron, not with gold! Thus, he ended the agreement and instead of paying with gold, the Romans fought and defeated the remaining Gaul troops.
If you visit the Capitoline Museum, look for the statue of the bronze goose (pictured above). Truth being told, the statue resembles a duck more than a goose, but nonetheless, let’s just assume they might have had weird-looking geese back then!