Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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Vae victis


Woe to the conquered

This phrase would be a fun one to shout at your foes after you win during family game night. It dates back more than 2,400 years to the time of the Roman Republic. From wiki:

Vae victis (IPA: [ˈwae̯ ˈwɪktiːs]) is Latin for “woe to the vanquished“, or “woe to the conquered“. It means that those defeated in battle are entirely at the mercy of their conquerors and should not expect—or request—leniency.

According to tradition, in 390 BC, an army of Gauls led by Brennus attacked Rome, capturing all of the city except for the Capitoline Hill. Brennus besieged the hill, and finally the Romans asked to ransom their city. Brennus demanded 1,000 pounds (329 kg) of gold, and the Romans agreed to his terms. According to Plutarch‘s life of Camillus and Livy‘s Ab Urbe Condita (Book 5 Sections 34–49), the Gauls provided steelyard balances and weights, which were used to measure the amount of gold. The Romans brought the gold, but claimed that the provided weights were rigged in the Gauls’ favor. The Romans complained to Brennus, who took his sword, threw it onto the weights, and exclaimed, “Vae victis!” The Romans thus needed to bring even more gold, as they now had to counterbalance the sword as well. Livy and Plutarch claim that Camillus subsequently succeeded in defeating the Gauls before the ransom had to be paid, although Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and a later passage from Livy contradict this.

Most of the events related by ancient historians about early Roman history are considered legends, while the Gaulish sack of Rome is one of the first events which modern scholars are confident actually occurred, although the colourful incidents reported by tradition are not accepted.

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