The Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns waged by the Roman proconsul Julius Caesar against several Gallic tribes, lasting from 58 BC to 51 BC. The Romans would also raid Britannia and Germania, but these expeditions never developed into full-scale invasions. The Gallic Wars culminated in the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, in which a complete Roman victory resulted in the expansion of the Roman Republic over the whole of Gaul. The wars paved the way for Caesar to become the sole ruler of the Roman Republic.
Although Caesar portrayed this invasion as being a defensive pre-emptive action, most historians agree that the wars were fought primarily to boost Caesar's political career and to pay off his massive debts. Still, Gaul was of significant military importance to the Romans, as they had been attacked several times by native tribes both indigenous to Gaul and further to the north. Conquering Gaul allowed Rome to secure the natural border of the river Rhine.
This military campaign is described by Julius Caesar himself in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which is the most important historical source of the conflict. This book is also a masterwork of political propaganda, as Caesar was keenly interested in manipulating his readers in Rome to support him.
[hide]*1 Political background
Roman legion, 1st century BCIn 58 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar ended his consulship in Rome, and was heavily indebted. However, being a member of the First Triumvirate – the political alliance composed of himself, Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Pompey – he had secured for himself the governorship of two provinces, Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. As the governor of Transalpine Gaul, Metellus Celer, died unexpectedly, this province was also awarded to Caesar. Caesar's governorships were extended to an outstanding five-year period.
Under his direct command Caesar had initially four veteran legions: Legio VII, Legio VIII, Legio IX Hispana, and Legio X. Caesar knew personally most (perhaps even all) of these legions, as he had been governor of Hispania Ulterior in 61 BC and had campaigned successfully with them against the Lusitanians. Caesar also had the legal authority to levy additional legions and auxiliary units as he saw fit.
His ambition was clearly to conquer and to plunder some territories but it is likely that Gaul was not his initial target. It is very likely that he was planning a campaign against the kingdom of Dacia located in the Balkans.
The Gallic tribes were quite civilized, wealthy, and totally divided. Many of them had traded with Roman merchants, and had been already influenced by Roman culture. Some of them had even changed their political systems from tribal monarchies into Rome-inspired republics.
The Romans respected and feared the Gallic and the Germanic tribes. In 109 BC, only fifty years before, Italy had been invaded, and saved only after several bloody and costly battles by Gaius Marius. Very recently the Germanic Suebi tribe had migrated into Gaul with their leader Ariovistus. It seemed that the tribes were beginning to move again.
Celtic warriors, 1st century BCBy 61 BC, the Helvetii were well on their way in the planning and provisioning for a mass migration under the leadership of Orgetorix. The Helvetii were being menaced by encroachments of their northeastern neighbours, Germanic tribes and Gallic/Celtic rivals among the Sequani.
The Sequani were beginning to resent and regret the abundances of unruly Germanic warbands and their huge encampments of dependents. The Aedui were loath to obey the Roman spur any longer than they must and they were keen to revisit their former days at council.
The parley for the trek was successful and Orgetorix was granted passage, and with the trek ratified by council, an army was called up and provisioned for.
During this process, Orgetorix had also succeeded in making a personal alliance with the Sequanii chieftain Casticus and Dumnorix, chieftain of the Aedui. He accomplished this by way of marital arrangements and host exchange of family members. For three whole years the Helvetii planned and prepared themselves. Emissaries were sent out to various Gallic tribes assuring safe passages and alliances.
According to his Gallic rivals, these political successes and displays of diplomacy were alleged to be in personal benefit of Orgetorix alone and this was greatly amplified by Roman intrigues and impositions. Again the accord was strained as the Aedui were brought to bay by their 'protective' overlords.
In 58 BC Orgetorix's ambitions were declared a ruse for personal power and this rumor was celebrated among the enemies of the Helvetii, especially those of Roman clientèle. This succeeded in causing confusions and feuds among the tribes with much of it based on the merits of Orgetorix versus his vices.
There was an effort to seize him at council, however he was protected by his retinue and bodyguards.
During the preceding seasons he had called up a sizeable force of men-at-arms and vassals said to have numbered 10,000 men, this in addition to his armed entourage.
Orgetorix was able to foil his capture by his rivals and the councils did labor at length to resolve the confusions and disputes; however Orgetorix was murdered or slain during a dispute within his own encampment.
With many conflicts of interest settled, the Helvetii once again returned to their long planned migration to safer pastures among the Santones tribe on the Atlantic seaboard. While the Helvetii were a wealthy and warlike tribe, they were in a weakened condition due to never ending conflicts with Germanic tribes.
The constant destruction of crops and violent raids by the Germanic tribes and the Helvetics' relative distance from what were seen as allied tribes had spurred the long planned for migration. Though their armed formations were both attritted and divided into van guard and rearguard, the number of dependents among he Helvetii were vast in number, indeed the entire population had mobilized for evacuation with their townships and walled cities set afire to cement their resolve to move; as well to deny their use or habitation by the Germanics.
Caesar dated their departure to the 28th of March, and mentions that they burned all their towns and their villages so as to discourage thoughts among undecided client tribes or enemies to occupy their vacated realm.
There were two available routes for them: the first one was the difficult and dangerous Pas de l'Ecluse, located between the Jura mountains and the Rhône River. The second one, which was much easier, would lead them to the town of Geneva, where the Lake Geneva flows into the Rhone River. There a bridge allowed passage over the river. These lands belonged to the Allobroges, a tribe which had been subdued by Rome, and these lands were under the control of the Roman republic.
Meanwhile, Caesar was in Rome, and only a single legion was in Transalpine Gaul, the endangered province. As he was informed of these developments, he immediately hurried to Geneva, and besides ordering a levy of several auxiliary units, ordered the destruction of the bridge. The Helvetii sent an embassy under the new leadership of Nammeius and Verucloetius, to negotiate a peaceful passage, promising to do no harm. Caesar, gaining valuable time, stalled the negotiations and his troops fortified their positions behind the river through a sixteen feet high rampart and a parallel running trench lined with ballistas and legionaries which were backed by mercenary archers and slingers; Caesar had also hired and/or conscripted a contingent of Gallic horseman from the Remi.
Map of the Gallic WarsAs the embassy returned, Caesar officially refused their request and warned them that any forceful attempt to cross the river would be opposed. Several attempts were quickly beaten off. The Helvetii turned back and entered negotiations with the Sequani to let them pass in a peaceful manner.
Leaving his single legion under the command of his second-in-command Titus Labienus, Caesar quickly hurried to Cisalpine Gaul. Upon arrival, he took command of the three legions which were in Aquileia and also enrolled two new legions, the Legio XI and the Legio XII. At the head of these five legions, he went the quickest way through the Alps, crossing territories of several hostile tribes and fighting several skirmishes en route.
Meanwhile, the Helvetii had already crossed the territories of the Sequani, and were busy pillaging the lands of the Aedui, Ambarri, and Allobroges. These tribes were unable to oppose them, and as Roman allies asked for Caesar's help. Caesar obliged them and surprised the Helvetii as they were crossing the river Arar (modern Saône River). Three quarters of the Helvetii had already crossed, but one quarter, the Tigurine (a Helvetian clan), was still on the east bank. Three legions, under Caesar's command, surprised and defeated the Tigurine in the Battle of the Arar. The remaining Tigurini fled to neighboring woods.
After the battle, the Romans built a bridge over the Saône to pursue the remaining Helvetii. The Helvetii sent an embassy led by Divico, but the negotiations failed. For a fortnight, the Romans maintained their pursuit until they ran into supply troubles. Caesar in the meantime sent 4,000 Roman and allied Aedui cavalry to track the Helvetii and during one encounter were severely beaten by only 500 Helvetii cavalry. Apparently Dumnorix was doing everything in his power to delay the supplies. Accordingly, the Romans stopped their pursuit and headed for the Aedui town of Bibracte. The tables were turned, and the Helvetii began to pursue the Romans, harassing their rear guard. Caesar chose a nearby hill to offer battle and the Roman legions stood to face their enemies.
In the ensuing Battle of Bibracte the Celts and Romans fought for the better part of the day with the Romans eventually gaining victory after hours of hard fighting in which Caesar writes that "the contest long and vigorously carried on with doubtful success." The defeated Helvetii offered their surrender which Caesar accepted. However, 6,000 men of the Helvetian clan of the Verbigeni fled to avoid capture. Upon Caesar's orders, other Gallic tribes captured and returned these fugitives, who were executed. Those who had surrendered were ordered back to their homeland to rebuild it, and the necessary supplies were organized to feed them, as they were far too useful as a buffer between the Romans and other northern tribes, such as the Germans, to let them migrate elsewhere. In the captured Helvetian camp a census written in Greek was found and studied: of a grand total of 368,000 Helvetii, of which 92,000 were able-bodied men, only 110,000 survivors were left to return home.
Following this campaign, several Gallic aristocrats of almost every tribe arrived and congratulated Caesar for his victory. They called a Pan-Gallic meeting to discuss certain matters and invited Caesar to it.
In this meeting the deputies complained that because of the struggle between the Aedui and the Arverni, that a large number of Germanic mercenaries had been hired by the latter. These mercenaries, who were led by Ariovistus, had betrayed their employers and taken hostage the children of several Gallic aristocrats. They had won several battles, been heavily reinforced and the whole situation was getting out of control. Caesar intervened in the conflict and soundly defeated Ariovistus at the Battle of Vosges, driving the remaining Germanic forces back across the Rhine.
In 57 BC Caesar once again intervened in an intra-Gallic conflict, marching against the Belgae, who inhabited the area roughly bounded by modern-day Belgium and had recently attacked a tribe allied with Rome. His army suffered a surprise attack in the battle of the Sabis while it was making camp near the river Sambre and came close to being defeated, but was saved by its greater discipline and Caesar's own personal intervention in the fighting. The Belgae suffered heavy losses and eventually surrendered when faced with the destruction of their towns.
A map of Gaul showing all the tribes and cities mentioned in the Gallic Wars.See also: Caesar's invasions of Britain and Caesar's Rhine bridgesThe following year, 56 BC, Caesar turned his attention to the tribes of the Atlantic seaboard, notably the Veneti tribe in Armorica (modern Brittany), who had assembled a confederacy of anti-Roman tribes. The Veneti were a seafaring people and had built a sailing fleet in the Gulf of Morbihan, requiring the Romans to build galleys and undertake an unconventional land and sea campaign. Again, Caesar successfully defeated the Gauls, destroying their tribes.
Caesar took his forces across the Rhine in 55 BC in a punitive expedition against the Germans, though the Suebi, against whom the expedition was mounted, were never engaged in battle. That same year, he then crossed the English Channel with two legions on his ships to mount a similar expedition against the Britons. The British adventure nearly ended in disaster when bad weather wrecked much of his fleet and the unfamiliar sight of massed chariots caused confusion among his forces. Caesar did manage to secure a promise of hostages, though only two of them were actually sent. He withdrew but returned in 54 BC with a much larger force that successfully defeated the powerful Catuvellauni and forced them to pay tribute to Rome. The expeditions had little lasting effect, but were great propaganda victories for Caesar, keeping him in the public eye at home.
The campaigns of 55 BC and early 56 BC have caused controversy for many centuries. They were controversial even at the time among Caesar's contemporaries, and especially among his political opponents, who decried them as a costly exercise in personal aggrandizement. In modern times, commentators have been sharply divided between critics of Caesar's nakedly imperialist agenda and defenders of the benefits that the expansion of Roman power subsequently wrought in Gaul.
See also: Ambiorix's revolt
Roman silver Denarius with the head of captive Gaul 48 BC, following the campaigns of Caesar.Discontent among the subjugated Gauls prompted a major uprising in the winter of 54–53 BC, when the Eburones of north-eastern Gaul rose in rebellion under their leader Ambiorix. Fifteen Roman cohorts were wiped out at Atuatuca Tungrorum (modern Tongeren in Belgium) and a garrison commanded by Quintus Tullius Cicero narrowly survived after being relieved by Caesar in the nick of time. The rest of 53 BC was occupied with a punitive campaign against the Eburones and their allies, who were said to have been all but exterminated by the Romans.
The uprising was, however, merely the prelude to a much bigger insurrection led by Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe of central Gaul, who successfully united the Gauls against the Romans. Recognizing that the Romans had an upper hand on the battlefield, due largely to the fact that Gaul had spent the twenty years preceding the Gallic wars fighting various enemies within and outside their domains, he declined to give battle against them and instead fought a "scorched earth" campaign to deprive them of supplies. Caesar hurriedly returned from Italy to take charge of the campaign, pursuing the Gauls and capturing the town of Avaricum (modern city of Bourges) but suffering a costly defeat at Gergovia. Vercingetorix, instead of staying mobile and in the open, chose to hold out at Alesia (see Battle of Alesia). Caesar successfully besieged him and beat off a huge Gallic relief force. This effectively marked the end of the Gallic Wars, although mopping-up actions took place throughout 51 BC. A number of lesser rebellions took place subsequently, but Roman control of Gaul wasn't seriously challenged again until the 2nd century AD.
The Roman success in the Gallic Wars was due to a combination of clever politics, effective campaigning and greater military capability than their Gallic opponents. Caesar pursued a policy of "divide and conquer" to pick off his enemies, siding with individual tribes in disputes with their local rivals. He systematically gathered intelligence on the Gallic tribes to identify their characteristics, weaknesses, and divisions, thereby being able to dispose of them in turn.
Many of Caesar's troops were themselves Gallic, so the conflict was not simply a war between Romans and Gauls. Indeed, his army was an extremely cosmopolitan entity. Its core consisted of six (later ten) legions of heavy infantry, supported by the equivalent of two more in later campaigns. He relied on foreign allies for his cavalry and light infantry, recruiting from the Numidians, Cretan, Hispanians, Germanics, and Gaulish tribes. Caesar made very effective use of these forces, using individual units' pride to spur them to greater efforts.
For years, the general wisdom concerning Caesar's Gallic opponents was that they were considerably less capable militarily than the Romans. They could field large armies but suffered from a lack of flexibility and discipline. Gallic warriors were ferocious opponents and were much admired for this by the Romans, but they are said to have lacked discipline in the field by Classical historians. It is also argued, however, that certain Gallic tribes were in possession of small professional warbands, whose warriors were at least as disciplined as their Roman counterparts. The overall military organization and hierarchy of the Gauls may not have been quite as complex as the Roman Army, but it would be naive to consider that the members of the professional Celtic warrior caste were fundamentally incapable of keeping good order and remaining cohesive in the heat of battle. Celts from Gaul, Iberia, eastern Europe, and Galatia were widely sought as mercenaries by recruiting agents from Carthage, Greece, Syracuse, and the Hellenistic kingdoms, due to their military prowess. It is rather unlikely that they would be considered for employment by such a diverse range of civilized states if they were lacking in tactical knowledge. Not to mention that both the Romans and the Greeks from the Third Century BC onward had eagerly adopted Celtic military equipment, such as Chainmail armour, Shortswords, and Scutum/Thereos shields. The general problem with the Gauls would have been the centuries long political rivalries among the main tribes, the individual forces of which would have been worn down over generations of intermittent warfare. And Caesar commanded the largest pool of professional soldiers in Gaul; the Roman Legions.
Conversely it could have also been possible that Gallic defeat was, in part, the result of generations of warfare against German invaders who were subdued at great cost of manpower. Caesar mentioned that a long standing conflict between the Aedui and Arverni had ravaged and depleted the Gallic nobility, especially the Aedui nobility, thus causing Germanic military aid to be sought in this conflict.
The primary historical source for the Gallic Wars is Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico in Latin, which is one of the best surviving examples of unadorned Latin prose. It has consequently been a subject of intense study for Latinists, and is one of the classic prose sources traditionally used as a standard teaching texts in modern Latin education.
The Gallic Wars have become a popular setting in modern historical fiction, especially that of France and Italy. Claude Cueni wrote a semi-historical novel "The Caesar's Druid" about a fictional Celtic druid, servant of Caesar and recorder of Caesar's campaigns. In addition, the comic Astérix is set shortly after the Gallic Wars, where the titular character's village is the last holdout in Gaul against Caesar's legions.