The Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns waged by the Roman proconsul Julius Caesar against several Gallic tribes. Rome's war against the Gallic tribes lasted from 58 BC to 50 BC and 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 (mainly present-day France and Belgium). While militarily just as strong as the Romans, the Gallic tribes' internal divisions helped ease victory for Caesar, and Vercingetorix's attempt to unite the Gauls against Roman invasion came too late.
Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer
|Roman Republic||Britons and Aquitanian tribes as well as portions of Iberian tribesmen|
|Commanders and leaders|
Quintus Tullius Cicero
Publius Licinius Crassus
Decimus Brutus Albinus
Servius Sulpicius Galba
|Casualties and losses|
|Credibly estimated at 30,000+ killed and 10,000+ wounded||
Plutarch and Appian:|
1,000,000 Celts killed in battle
1,000,000+ Celts captured or enslaved
800 towns destroyed
430,000 Germani killed
All these figures are considered not credible by Henige
|Caesar would also raid Britannia and Germania, but these expeditions never developed into full-scale invasions.|
Although Caesar portrayed this invasion as being a preemptive and defensive 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 farther to the north. Conquering Gaul allowed Rome to secure the natural border of the river Rhine.
The Gallic Wars are described by Julius Caesar in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which is the main source for the conflict but is considered to be unreliable at best by modern historians. Ceasar and his contemporaries makes impossible claims about the number of Gauls killed (over a million), while claiming almost zero Roman casualties. Modern historians believe that Gallic forces were far smaller than claimed by the Romans, and that the Romans actually suffered tens of thousands of casualties. Historian David Henige regards the entire account as clever propaganda meant to boost Caesar's image, and suggests that it is of minimal historical accuracy.
The countries of Gaul were civilized and wealthy. Most had contact with Roman merchants and some, particularly those that were governed by republics such as the Aedui, had enjoyed stable political alliances with Rome in the past. During the first century, parts of Gaul were becoming urbanized, which concentrated wealth and population centers, inadvertently making Roman conquest easier. Though the Romans considered the Gaul to be barbarians, their cities mirrored those of the Mediterranean, they struck coins, and traded extensively with Rome, providing iron, grain, and a large amount of slaves. In exchange, the Gauls accumulated much wealth and developed a taste for Roman wine. The contemporary writer Diodoros explains that part of the conception of barbarity was because the Gauls drank their wine straight, unlike the supposedly civilized Romans who watered their wine down first. However, the Romans realized that the Gauls were a powerful fighting force, and considered some of the most "barbaric" tribes to be the fiercest warriors, as they were uncorrupted by Roman luxuries.
The Romans respected and feared the Gallic tribes. In 390 BC, the Gauls had sacked Rome, which left an existential dread of barbarian conquest that was never forgotten. In 121 BC, Rome decisively defeated a group of southern Gauls, and established the province of Transalpine Gaul in the conquered lands. Only 50 years before the Gallic Wars, in 109 BC, Italy had been invaded from the north and saved only after several bloody and costly battles by Gaius Marius. Around 62 BC, when a Roman client state, the Arverni, conspired with the Sequani and the Suebi nations east of the Rhine to attack the Aedui, a strong Roman ally, Rome turned a blind eye. The Sequani and the Arverni sought Ariovistus's aid and defeated the Aedui in 63 BC at the Battle of Magetobriga. The Sequani rewarded Ariovistus with land after his victory. Ariovistus settled the land with 120,000 of his people. When 24,000 Harudes joined his cause, Ariovistus demanded that the Sequani give him more land to accommodate the Harudes people. The demand concerned Rome because if the Sequani conceded, Ariovistus would be in a position to take all of the Sequani land and attack the rest of Gaul. They did not appear to be concerned about a conflict among non-client, client and allied states. By the end of the campaign, the non-client Suebi, under the leadership of the belligerent Ariovistus, stood triumphant over both the Aedui and their coconspirators. Fearing another mass migration akin to the devastating Cimbrian War, Rome, now keenly invested in the defense of Gaul, was irrevocably drawn into war.
The Gauls and the Romans had significantly differing military strategies. The Roman army was a professional army that was kept standing between conflicts, armed and outfitted by the state, and extremely disciplined. However, the professional army consisted mostly of heavy infantry, and any auxiliary units such as cavalry were fielded from the less disciplined Roman allies, which as the war progressed would include some Gauls. By comparison, the Gauls were an irregular fighting force, and were less disciplined. The outfitting of Gauls was done by the individual, and thus wealthy Gauls were well equipped and rivaled the Roman soldiers, but the average warrior was poorly equipped compared to a Roman. All of this was not inherently bad however, as the Gauls were a warrior culture unlike the Romans. They prized acts of bravery and individual courage, and frequent raiding of neighboring tribes kept fighting skills sharp. Compared to the Romans, the Gauls carried longer swords, and had far superior cavalry. The Gauls were generally taller than the Romans (a fact the Romans seem to have been embarrassed about), and combined with their longer swords gave them a reach advantage in combat. Both sides used archers and slingers, though little is known about the Gallic battle strategy and thus their effectiveness is unknown. What is known about battle strategy indicates that it varied between tribe, although engaging in pitched battle was frequent to prove bravery. Not all tribes engaged the Romans directly however, as the Romans were a formidable enemy, and thus guerilla tactics were frequent. While the Gauls had much more flair in combat (such as fighting in intricately decorated armor, or even in the nude), the superior discipline and formation of the Romans combined with uniformly excellent equipment generally gave the Romans an advantage in hand to hand fighting.
As a result of the financial burdens of his consulship in 59 BC, Caesar incurred significant debts. In order to strengthen Rome's position among the Gauls, he had paid substantial money to king Ariovistus of the Suebi to cement an alliance. However, through his influence via the First Triumvirate, the political alliance which comprised Marcus Licinius Crassus, Pompey and himself, Caesar had secured during his consulship his assignment as proconsul to two provinces, Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum, by passage of the lex Vatinia. When the governor of Transalpine Gaul, Metellus Celer, died unexpectedly, the province was also awarded to Caesar at the suggestion of Pompey and Caesar's father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. In the law granting him command of the provinces, Caesar was given a five-year term as governor.
Caesar had initially four veteran legions under his direct command: Legio VII, Legio VIII, Legio IX Hispana, and Legio X. As he had been governor of Hispania Ulterior in 61 BC and had campaigned successfully with them against the Lusitanians, Caesar knew personally most, perhaps even all, of the legions. Caesar also had the legal authority to levy additional legions and auxiliary units as he saw fit. The assignment of the provinces that comprise what is now Northern Italy was also helpful to his ambitions: the Po Valley and the adjoining regions had large numbers of Roman citizens, who could be enticed to sign up for legionary service.
His ambition was to conquer and plunder some territories to get himself out of debt, and it is possible that Gaul was not his initial target. It is more likely that he was planning a campaign against the Kingdom of Dacia in the Balkans. However, the mass migration of Gauls in 58 BC provided a convenient casus belli , and Caesar prepared for war.
Beginning of the war—campaign against the HelvetiiEdit
The Helvetii was a confederation of about five related Gallic tribes that lived on the Swiss plateau, hemmed in by the mountains as well as the Rhine and Rhone rivers. They had come under increased pressure from German tribes to the north and east, and started planning for a migration around 61 BC. They planned to travel across Gaul to the west coast, a route that would have taken them through lands of the Aedui, a Roman ally, and the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul. A plot by the aristocrat Orgetorix to seize power among the tribes during the migration was discovered, and Orgetorix committed suicide; this did not end up delaying the migration. As word of the migration spread, neighboring tribes grew concerned, and Rome sent ambassadors to several tribes to convince them against joining the Helvetii. Concern grew in Rome as well, as it was feared that Germanic tribes would fill in the lands vacated by the Helvetii, and the Romans much preferred Gauls to Germans as neighbors. The consuls of 60 and 59 BC both wanted to lead a campaign against the Gauls while consul, though neither did.
On the 28th of March in 58 BC, the Helvetii began their migration, bringing along all their peoples and livestock. They burned their villages and stores to ensure that the migration could not be reversed. Upon reaching Transalpine Gaul, of whom Caesar was governor, they asked permission to cross the lands of Rome. Caesar entertained the request, but ultimately denied it. The Gauls instead turned north, entirely avoiding Roman lands. The threat to Rome was seemingly over, but Caesar instead led his army over the border and attacked the Helvetii unprovoked. So began what historian Kate Gilliver describes as "an aggressive war of expansion led by a general who was seeking to advance his career".
Caesar's consideration of the Gallic request to enter Rome was not indecision, but rather a play for time. Caesar was in Rome when news of the migration arrived, and he rushed to Transalpine Gaul at speed, though he did raise two legions and some auxiliaries on his way. He delivered the refusal to the Gauls, and then promptly returned to Italy to gather the legions he raised along his previous trip and gather three veteran legions. At this point, Caesar had between 24,000 and 30,000 legionary troops, and some quantity of auxiliaries, many of whom were themselves Gauls. He marched north to the river Saône, where he caught the Helvetii in the middle of crossing. Some three-quarters had crossed, but he slaughtered those who had not. Caesar then crossed the river in one day using a pontoon bridge. Next, he followed the Helvetii, but refused to engage in combat, waiting for ideal conditions. Negotiations were attempted, but Caesar's terms were draconian (likely on purpose, as Caesar may have used it as another delaying tactic). Caesar's supplies ran thin on June 20 and he was forced to travel towards allied territory in Bibracte, as while his army had easily crossed the Saône, his supply train had not. The Helvetii used this moment to attack Caesar's rearguard.
Battle of BibracteEdit
In the ensuing Battle of Bibracte, the Celts and Romans fought for the better part of the day in a hotly contested battle with the Romans eventually gaining victory. Caesar set up his legions on a sloped hill, which put the Gauls at a disadvantage as they had to fight uphill. The Helvetii started the battle with a probable feint, which the Romans easily repulsed. However, the Boii and Tulingi allies then outmaneuvered the Romans and attacked their right flank. At this point the Romans were surrounded. A heated battle ensued. The last line of the legions were ordered to turn their backs around, and thus fought on two fronts instead of just being attacked in the rear, which Gilliver describes as a brilliant tactical decision. Eventually the Helvetii routed and fled, and the now outnumbered Boii and Tulingi were chased back to their encampments, where the fighters as well as the women and children were slain.
Caesar's army rested for three days to tend to the wounded. They then gave chase to the Helvetii, whom surrendered. Caesar ordered them back on their lands to provide a buffer between Rome and the even more feared Germanic tribes. In the captured Helvetian camp Caesar claims that 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. (See historiography section below for a more modern accounting of numbers).
Campaign against the SuebiEdit
In 61 BC, Ariovistus, chieftain of the Suebi tribe and a king from the Germanic peoples, resumed the tribe's migration from eastern Germania to the Marne and Rhine region. Despite the fact that this migration encroached on Sequani land, the Sequani sought Ariovistus’ allegiance against the Aedui and, in 61 BC, the Sequani rewarded Ariovistus with land following his victory in the Battle of Magetobriga. Ariovistus settled the land with 120,000 of his people. When 24,000 Harudes joined his cause, Ariovistus demanded that the Sequani give him more land to accommodate the Harudes people. This demand 'concerned' Rome because if the Sequani conceded, Ariovistus would be in a position to take all of the Sequani land and attack the rest of Gaul.
Following Caesar’s victory over the Helvetii, the majority of the Gallic tribes congratulated Caesar and sought to meet with him in a general assembly. Diviciacus, the head of the Aeduan government and spokesmen for the Gallic delegation, expressed concern over Ariovistus’ conquests and the hostages he had taken. Diviciacus demanded that Caesar defeat Ariovistus and remove the threat of a Germanic invasion otherwise they would have to seek refuge in a new land. Not only did Caesar have a responsibility to protect the longstanding allegiance of the Aedui, but this proposition presented an opportunity to expand Rome’s borders, strengthen the loyalty within Caesar’s army and establish him as the commander of Rome’s troops abroad.
The senate had declared Ariovistus a "king and friend of the Roman people" in 59 BC, so Caesar could not declare war on the Suebi tribe. Caesar said that he could not ignore the pain the Aedui had suffered and delivered an ultimatum to Ariovistus demanding that no German cross the Rhine, the return of Aedui hostages and the protection of the Aedui and other friends of Rome. Although Ariovistus assured Caesar that the Aedui hostages would be safe as long as they continued their yearly tribute, he took the position that he and the Romans were both conquerors and that Rome had no jurisdiction over his actions. With the attack of the Harudes on the Aedui and the report that a hundred clans of Suebi were trying to cross the Rhine into Gaul, Caesar had the justification he needed to wage war against Ariovistus in 58 BC.
Caesar, learning that Ariovistus intended to seize Vesontio, the largest town of the Sequani, commenced marching his troops toward Vesontio. Some of Caesar's officers held their posts for political reasons only and had no war experience. Consequently, they suffered from poor morale which threatened Caesar's campaign. Caesar challenged the officers and their legions, saying that the only legion he could trust was the 10th. With their pride on the line, the other legions followed the 10th's lead, determined not to be outdone. Consequently, Caesar arrived in Vesontio before Ariovistus.
Ariovistus sent emissaries to Caesar requesting a meeting. They met under a truce at a knoll on the plain. The truce was violated when Caesar learned that German horsemen were edging towards the knoll and throwing stones at his mounted escort. Two days later, Ariovistus requested another meeting. Hesitant to send senior officials, Caesar dispatched Valerius Procillus, his trusted friend, and Caius Mettius, a merchant who had successfully traded with Ariovistus. Insulted, Ariovistus threw the envoys in chains. Ariovistus marched for two days and made camp two miles behind Caesar, thus cutting off Caesar’s communication and supply lines with the allied tribes. Unable to entice Ariovistus into battle, Caesar ordered a second smaller camp to be built near Ariovistus’ position. After the camp was completed, Caesar again challenged Ariovistus and was rewarded when Ariovistus attacked the smaller camp and was repulsed.
The next morning Caesar assembled his allied troops in front of the second camp and advanced his legions in triplex acies (three lines of troops) towards Ariovistus. Each of Caesar's five legates and his quaestor were given command of a legion. Caesar lined up on the right flank. Ariovistus countered by lining up his seven tribal formations. Caesar was victorious in the battle that ensued due in large part to the charge made by Publius Crassus. As the Germans began to drive back the Roman left flank, Crassus led his cavalry in a charge to restore balance and ordered up the cohorts of the third line. As a result, the whole German line broke and began to flee. Caesar claims that most of Ariovistus’ one-hundred and twenty thousand men were killed. He and what remained of his troops escaped and crossed the Rhine, never to engage Rome in battle again. The Suebi camping near the Rhine returned home. Caesar was victorious. In one year he had defeated two of Rome's most feared enemies. After this busy campaigning season, he returned home to Transalpine Gaul to deal with the non-military aspects of his governorship. At this point it is possible he had already decided that he would conquer all of Gaul.
57 BC: Campaigns in the eastEdit
Caesar's stunning victories in 58 BC had unsettled the Gallic tribes. Many rightly predicted that Caesar would seek to conquer all of Gaul, and some sought alliance with Rome. As the campaigning season of 57 BC dawned, both sides were busy raising new soldiers. Caesar set off on the season with two more legions than the year before, with a total of 32,000 to 40,000 men, along with a contingent of auxiliaries. The exact number of men raised by the Gauls is unknown, but Caesar claims he would fight 200,000.
Caesar once again intervened in an intra-Gallic conflict, marching against the Belgae, who inhabited the area roughly bounded by modern-day Belgium. The Belgae had recently attacked a tribe allied with Rome and before marching out with his army to meet them, Caesar ordered the Remi and other neighbouring Gauls to investigate the Belgae's actions. The Belgae and Romans encountered each other near Bibrax. The Belgae attempted to take the fortified oppidum from the Remi, but were unable and instead chose to raid the nearby countryside. Each side tried to avoid battle, as both were short on supplies (a continuing theme for Caesar, who often was faster than his own baggage train). Caesar ordered fortifications built, which the Belgae understood would give them a disadvantage. Instead of making battle, the Belgic army simply disbanded, as it could be re-assembled easily.
Caesar realized that an opportunity was presenting itself: if he could beat the men from the army home, he could take their lands with ease. The travel speed of his armies proved to be a crucial aspect in his ensuing victories. He rushed to the Suessiones oppidum at what is now Villeneuve-Saint-Germain, and laid siege to the settlement. The Belgic army nullified Caesar's advantage by sneaking back into the city under cover of darkness. The Roman siege preparations proved to be the decisive factor: grand Roman-style siege warfare was unknown to the Gauls, and the might of the Roman's preparations drove the Gauls to surrender promptly. This had a ripple effect: the nearby Bellovaci and Ambiones surrendered promptly after realizing the Romans had defeated a powerful army without even entering combat. Not all tribes were so cowed however. The Nervii allied with the Atrebates and Viromandui, and planned to ambush the Romans. The ensuing battle of the Sabis was nearly a humiliating defeat for Caesar, and the Roman victory was very hard won.
Nervii ambush—battle of the SabisEdit
The Nervii set an ambush along the river Sambre, lying in wait for the Romans. The Romans arrived and started setting a camp, but detected the Nervii. The battle began with the Romans sending a light cavalry and infantry force across the river to keep the Nervii at bay while the main force fortified. The Nervii easily repulsed the attack. In an uncharacteristic move for Caesar, he made a serious tactical error by not setting up an infantry screen to protect the entrenching force. The Nervii took ample advantage of this, and their entire host crossed the river at speed and caught the Romans off-guard and unprepared. As the battle began, two legions had not even arrived, whereas the Nervii had at least 60,000 fighters.
The Roman's superior discipline and experience came in much use. Instead of panicking as they had against Ariovistus the year before, the Romans quickly formed lines of battle. The centre and left wing of the Romans were successful, and chased the Atrebates across the river. However, this left the half built camp exposed, and the Gauls easily took the camp. To make matters worse for the Romans, the right wing was in serious trouble. It had been outflanked, its line of battle had become too tight to swing a sword, and multiple officers were dead. The situation was so critical that Caesar himself took up his shield and joined the front line of the legion. Caesar's mere presence greatly increased morale, and he ordered the men to form a defensive square to open up the ranks and protect from all sides. What turned the tide of battle was Caesar's reinforcements, in the form of the X legion which returned from chasing the Atrebates, and the two straggler legions who finally arrived. The strong stand by the X legion and the prompt arrival of reinforcements enabled Caesar to regroup, redeploy and eventually repulse the Nervii once the Atrebates and Viromandui were put to flight.
Caesar's cockiness had nearly ended in his defeat, but the experience of the legions combined with his personal role in combat turned a disaster into an incredible victory. The Belgae were broken, and most of the German tribes offered submission to Rome. The end of the campaigning season saw Caesar take care of tribes along the Atlantic coast, and deal with the Atuatuci, who were allies of the Nervii, but had broken the terms of surrender. Caesar punished this by selling 53,000 Atuatuci into slavery. The profits were by law Caesar's alone. Caesar saw a minor setback towards winter as he sent one of his officers to the Great St Bernard Pass, where local tribes fought back fiercely; the campaign was abandoned. But overall, Caesar had seen monumental success in 57 BC. He had accumulated great wealth to pay off his debts and increased his stature to legendary levels. Upon his return, the senate granted him a 15-day thanksgiving (supplicatio), longer than any before. His political reputation was now formidable. Again, he returned to Transalpine Gaul for the winter to see to the civil affairs of the province. His troops were wintered in northern Gaul, where the tribes were forced to quarter and feed them.
56 BC: By land and by seaEdit
The Gauls were embittered by having to feed the Roman troops over the winter. As the Romans sent out officers to requisition grain from the Veneti, a group of tribes in northwest Gaul, the Veneti had other ideas and captured the officers. This was a calculated move: they certainly knew this would anger Rome, and prepared by allying with the tribes of Armorica, fortifying their hill settlements, and preparing a fleet. The Veneti and the other peoples along the Atlantic coast were versed in sailing, and had vessels that were well suited to the rough waters of the Atlantic. By comparison, the Romans were hardly prepared for naval warfare on the open ocean. Rome was a feared naval power in the Mediterranean, but there the oceans were calm, and ships could be built flimsier. Regardless, the Romans understood that to defeat the Veneti they would need a fleet: many of the Venetic settlements were isolated and best accessible by sea.
Caesar wished to sail as soon as the weather would permit, and ordered new boats and recruited oarsmen from the already conquered regions of Gaul to ensure the fleet would be ready as soon as possible. The legions were dispatched by land, but not as a single unit. Gilliver regards this as evidence that Caesar's claims the prior year that Gaul was at peace were untrue, as the legions were apparently being dispatched to prevent or deal with rebellion. A cavalry force was sent to hold down the Germans and the Belgic tribes. Troops under Crassus was sent to Aquitania, and Quintus Titurius Sabinus took forces to Normandy. The remaining four legions were led by Caesar, and were sent by land to meet up with his recently raised fleet near the mouth of the Loire river.
The Veneti held the upper hand for much of the campaign. Their ships were well suited to the region, and when their hill forts were under siege, they could simply evacuate them by sea. The less sturdy Roman fleet was stuck in harbor for much of the campaign. Despite having the superior army, and great siege equipment, the Romans were making little progress. Caesar realized that a battle by sea would be necessary, and thus the campaign halted until the seas calmed.
Battle of MorbihanEdit
At last, the Roman fleet sailed, and encountered the Venetic fleet off the coast of Brittany in the Gulf of Morbihan, and engaged in a battle that lasted from late in the morning until sundown. On paper, the Veneti appeared to have the superior fleet. Their sturdy oak beam construction meant they were effectively immune to ramming, and their high profile protected their occupants from projectiles. The Veneti also had sails, whereas the Romans relied on oarsmen. The Veneti had some 220 ships, although Gilliver notes many were likely not much more than fishing boats. The number of Roman ships is not reported by Caesar. But the Romans had one advantage: grappling hooks. This allowed them to shred the rigging and sails of ships who got close enough, which rendered the Venetic ships sitting ducks. The hooks also allowed them to pull ships close enough to board. The Veneti realized they had been outplayed, and retreated. However, the wind dropped, and the Roman fleet (who did not rely on sails) was able to catch up. The Romans were able to now use their superior soldiers to board ships en masse, and picked the Gauls off leisurely. Just as the Romans had beaten the superior forces of Carthage in the First Punic War by using the corvus, a simple technological advantage allowed them to beat the superior Venetic fleet.
The Veneti, now without a navy, had been bested. They surrendered, and Caesar made an example of the tribal elders by executing them. The rest of the Veneti were sold into slavery. Caesar now turned his attention to the Morini and Menapii along the coast.
Caesar's subordinates and mopping upEdit
During the Venetic campaign, Caesar's subordinates had been busy pacifying Normandy and Aquitania. A coalition of Lexovii, Coriosolites, and Venelli charged Sabinus while he was entrenched atop a hill. This was a poor tactical move on the part of the tribes, as by the time the reached the top of the hill they were exhausted, and Sabinus defeated them with ease. The tribes consequently surrendered, yielding up all of Normandy to the Romans. Crassus did not have such an easy time in facing the Aquitania. With only one legion and some cavalry, he was outnumbered. He raised additional forces from Provence, and marched south to what is now the border of modern Spain and France. He fought off the Sotiates along the way, who attacked while the Romans were marching. The Vocates and Tarusates proved a tougher task. Having allied with the rebel Roman general Quintus Sertorius during his uprising in 70 BC, these tribes were well versed in Roman combat, and had learned from the guerilla tactics of the war. They avoided frontal battle, and harassed supply lines and the marching Romans. Crassus realized he would have to force battle, and located the Gallic encampment of some 50,000. However, the camp was only fortified at the front, and Crassus thus circled the camp and attacked the rear. The Gauls were taken by surprise, and attempted to flee. However, Crassus' cavalry pursued those who fled. According to Crassus, only 12,000 survived the overwhelming Roman victory. The tribes surrendered, and Rome now controlled most of southwest Gaul.
Caesar finished up the campaign season by trying to take out the coastal tribes who had allied with the Veneti. However, the tribes outmaneuvered the Romans. Due to superior knowledge of the local terrain (which was heavily forested and marshy), and a strategy of withdrawing into that terrain, they avoided battle with the Romans. Poor weather worsened the situation, and Caesar could do little more than raid the countryside. Realizing he would not meet the Gauls in battle, he withdrew for the winter. This was a setback for Caesar, as not pacifying the tribes would slow his campaigns the next year. The legions overwintered between the Saône and Loire rivers, the lands which he had conquered during the year. This was his punishment to the tribes for having fought against the Romans.
55 BC: Crossing new watersEdit
Caesar's campaigns in 55 were likely determined less by tactical concerns than by a need for prestige. Pompey and Crassus were the Consuls of 55. While they were Caesar's political allies, and Crassus had fought under him the year before, they were also his rivals. Since the consuls could easily sway and buy public opinion, Caesar needed to stay in the public eye. His solution was to cross two water bodies no Roman army had before: the Rhine and the English Channel. Crossing the Rhine was a consequence of Germanic/Celtic unrest. The Celtic Usipetes and Tencteri had recently been forced out of their lands by the Suebi, and had crossed the Rhine in search of a new home. Caesar however had previously denied their request to settle in Gaul, and the issue turned to war. The Celtic tribes sent out a cavalry force of 800 against a Roman auxiliary force of 5,000 (that was actually made up of Gauls), and won a surprising victory. Caesar responded by attacking the Celtic camp, and slaughtering the men, women, and children. Caesar claims he killed 430,000 in the camp. Modern historians greatly dispute this number (see historiography below), but it is apparent that Caesar killed a great many Celts. So cruel were his actions, his enemies in the Senate wished to prosecute him for war crimes once his tenure as governor was up and he was no longer immune from prosecution. After the massacre, Caesar led the first Roman army across the Rhine in a lightning campaign that lasted just 18 days.
Gilliver considers all of the actions of 55 to be a "publicity stunt", and thus suggests that Caesar's continuation of the Celtic/Germanic campaign to be based on a desire to gain prestige. This also explains the short timespan of the campaign. Caesar wanted to impress the Romans and scare the Germans, and he did this by crossing the Rhine in style. Instead of using boats or pontoons as he had in earlier campaigns, he built a bridge out of timbers in a mere ten days. He walked across, raided the Suebic countryside, and retreated across the bridge before the Seubic army could mobilize. He then burned the bridge, and turned his attentions to another feat no Roman army had accomplished before: landing in Britain. The nominal reason to attack Britain was that the British tribes had been assisting the Gauls, but like most of Caesar's casus belli it was just an excuse to gain glory.
Caesar's trip into Britain was less invasion than expedition. He took only two legions, and his cavalry auxiliaries were unable to make the crossing despite several attempts. Caesar crossed late in the season, and in great haste, leaving well after midnight on August 23. He initially planned to land somewhere in Kent, but the British were waiting for him. He moved up the coast and landed (modern archeological finds suggest at Pegwell Bay), but the British had kept pace and fielded an impressive force, including cavalry and chariots.  The legions were hesitant to go ashore. Eventually, the standard bearer of the X legion jumped into the sea and waded to land. To have the legion's standard fall in combat was the greatest humiliation, and thus the legion disembarked to protect the standard bearer. After some delay, a battle line was finally formed, and the British withdrew. Because the Roman cavalry had not made the crossing, Caesar could not chase down the British. The Roman's luck did not improve, and a Roman supply party was ambushed. The British took this as a sign of Roman weakness, and amassed a large force to assault the Romans. A short battle ensued, though Caesar provides no details beyond that the Romans prevailed. Again, the lack of cavalry to chase down the fleeing British prevented a decisive victory. The campaigning season was now close to over, and the legions were in no condition to winter on the coast of Kent. Caesar chose to withdraw back across the Channel.
Gilliver notes that Caesar once again narrowly escaped disaster. Taking an understrength army with few provisions to a far-off land was a poor tactical decision, which could have easily led to Caesar's defeat. Yet he lived to tell the tale, and while he had achieved no significant gains in Britain, he had achieved a monumental feat in its own right by simply landing in Britain. Caesar's goal of prestige and publicity succeeded enormously: upon his return to Rome he was hailed as a hero and given a 20 day thanksgiving. He now began planning for a proper invasion of Britain.
Consolidation and Gallic offensivesEdit
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 arms 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.
Pacification of the last GaulsEdit
Ambiorix's revolt was, however, merely the prelude to a much bigger campaign led by Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe of south-central Gaul, who united many Gallic tribes and states under his leadership. Recognizing that the Romans had an upper hand on the battlefield due to their panoply and training, 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 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, who dispersed with the exhaustion of their stores. 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 was not seriously challenged again until the 2nd century AD.
Very few sources about the Gallic Wars survive. The Gauls did not record the history of their peoples in a written form, and thus any Gallic perspective has been lost to time. The writings of Julius Caesar remain the main source of information, which complicates the task of historians as it is biased by Caesar. Only a handful of other contemporary works refer to the conflict, and none as in-depth as Caesar's. The fact that Caesar conquered Gaul is certain. The details however are less clear.
The main contemporary source of the conflict is Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which was largely taken as truthful and accurate until the 20th century. Even in 1908, Camille Jullian wrote a comprehensive history of Gaul and took Caesar's account as unerring. But after World War II historians began to question if Caesar's claims stood up.
Historian David Henige takes particular issue with the supposed population and warrior counts. Caesar claims that he was able to estimate the population of the Helvetii because in their camp there was a census, written in Greek on tablets, which would have indicated 263,000 Helvetii and 105,000 allies, of whom exactly one quarter (92,000) were combatants. But Henige points out that such a census would have been difficult to achieve by the Gauls, that it would make no sense to be written in Greek by non-Greek tribes, and that carrying such a large quantity of stone or wood tablets on their migration would have been a monumental feat. Henige finds it oddly convenient that exactly one quarter were combatants, suggesting that the numbers were more likely ginned up by Caesar than outright counted by census. Even contemporary authors estimated that the population of the Helvetii and their allies were lower; Livy surmised that there were 157,000 overall (though Henige still believes this number inaccurate). Hans Delbrück estimates that there were at most 20,000 migrating Helvetii, of whom 12,000 were warriors. Gilliver thinks that there were not more than 50,000 Helvetii and allies.
During the campaign against the Usipetes and the Tenceri, Caesar makes the incredible claim that the Romans faced a host of 430,000, that the Roman victory was total, that the Romans lost not a single soldier, and that upon their loss the tribes committed mass suicide. Henige finds this entire story impossible, as did Ferdinand Lot, writing in 1947. Lot was one of the first modern authors who directly questioned the validity of these numbers, finding a fighting force of 430,000 to have been unbelievable for the time. Gilliver considers 430,000 to be absurd as well, but does note that likely tens of thousands were killed, and finds the claim of zero Roman losses possible, as the brutality of the Romans was excessive.
Ultimately, Henige sees the Commentarii as a very clever piece of propaganda written by Caesar, built to make Caesar appear far grander than he was. Henige notes that Caesar's matter of fact tone and easy to read writing made it all the easier to accept his outlandish claims. Caesar sought to portray his fight as a justified defense against the barbarity of the Gauls (which was important, as Caesar had actually been the aggressor contrary to his claims). By making it appear that he had won against overwhelming odds and suffered minimal casualties, he further increased the belief that the he and the Romans were godly and destined to win against the godless barbarians of Gaul. Overall, Henige concludes that "Julius Caesar must be considered one of history's earliest – and most durably successful – "spin doctors"". Gilliver also calls Caesar a "spin-doctor", noting that Caesar realized the importance of keeping up appearances in Rome.
In literature and cultureEdit
Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, in Latin, 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 text 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 semihistorical novel, The Caesar's Druid, about a fictional Celtic druid, servant of Caesar and recorder of Caesar's campaigns. Morgan Llewelyn also wrote a book, Druids, about a Celtic druid who assisted Vercingetorix in his campaign against Julius Caesar. Similarly, Norman Spinrad's The Druid King follows the campaigns from Vercingetorix's perspective. 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.
The TV series Rome begins during the conquest of Gaul, and protagonists Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, are based on two historical centurions who fought during the Gallic Wars in Caesar's Legio XI Claudia and are mentioned in Commentarii de Bello Gallico.
The concept album Helvetios, by Swiss folk metal band Eluveitie, tells the story of the Gallic Wars through the eyes of the Helvetii. The 2001 film, Druids, starring Christopher Lambert as Vercingetorix, depicts the Gallic Wars from the Gallic perspective. The film is considered historically inaccurate however, and was a box office failure.
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Because of chronic internal rivalries, Gallic resistance was easily broken, though Vercingetorix's Great Rebellion of 52 BC had notable successes.
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Indeed, the Gallic cavalry was probably superior to the Roman, horseman for horseman. Rome's military superiority lay in its mastery of strategy, tactics, discipline, and military engineering. In Gaul, Rome also had the advantage of being able to deal separately with dozens of relatively small, independent, and uncooperative states. Caesar conquered these piecemeal, and the concerted attempt made by a number of them in 52 BC to shake off the Roman yoke came too late.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Gallic War.|
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