I bravely saw off a burglar last night. I glared at him through my bedroom window and he stopped trying to steal my bike, which pleased me. The sophisticated alarm system which alerted me to the attempted pillaging of property was my squeaky front gate. Ancient Roman alarm systems relied on something only arguably a touch more sophisticated: the flappability of their geese.
It is the early fourth century BCE. Rome is under attack from Gauls. The Roman infantry have fought as hard as they can, but the night watchmen have failed in their duty. The Gauls, under cover of darkness, believe they are heading up the Capitoline Hill to the Roman citadel and an easy victory. But a Gaulish invader puts a foot wrong: he disturbs a goose.¹
My favourite thing about this story of the geese saving Rome is not the geese per se, but rather the vocab surrounding the geese. Livy tells us that it was the ‘alarum crepitu’ of the geese which roused the Roman commander Manlius just in time for him to see off the wrong footed Gauls and save the city.² This phrase translates as ‘by the beating of the wings’, alarum being the word for wings. Whilst alarum has come to be a perfectly good English word for an alarm or call to arms, it has also lost a vowel to become the word — have you guessed it yet? — alarm!
So, whilst I have no sophisticated anti-bike-theft alarm system, if a wing beat was good enough for Ancient Rome, then a squeaky gate is good enough for me. And perhaps an extra chain on my bike.
¹ Not just any old goose, but one of a gaggle sacred to Juno.
² Livy Ab Urbe Condita V, 47.