===================The Roman Conquest of Gaul (58 – 51 BC)
In the third century BC, the Roman Republic united most of the Italian peninsula under its rule and succeeded in breaking the power of its foremost rival Carthage in two massive wars, making Rome the strongest state in the Western Mediterranean. In Greece, orators and politicians warned in vain against “the thundercloud in the West”. Indeed the thundercloud would turn eastward very swiftly now. Rome defeated Macedon and the Greek cities in three wars of aggression, culminating in the complete destruction of Corinth in 146 BC and the formal annexation of Greece into the Roman Republic. That same year, the Romans finished off the helpless Carthaginians in much the same way, razing the once so powerful city of Carthage to the ground and annexing its remaining territory. With Carthage, Macedon and the Greek cities out of the way, the Roman Republic could now deal with the Hellenic kingdoms in the Middle East, the final remnants of Alexander’s empire. In 133 BC, the last king of Pergamon left his domain to Rome by testament, which was eagerly accepted. Revolts proved pointless and within a few years the Romans had pacified their first foothold in Asia. Rome’s merciless oppression of resistance sparked significant anti-Roman sentiments in Asia Minor. King Mithridates of Pontos sought to take advantage of this, invading Rome’s new province of Asia in 88 BC. Mithridates ordered the execution of Roman people in Asia Minor as revenge for Rome’s earlier atrocities and then sent his army to Greece, calling for an all-out ‘war of liberation’ against the Romans. Rome’s reaction proved predictable.
The Roman commander Sulla was given special authority to recover Rome’s province of Asia, resulting first of all in the siege and partial destruction of rebellious Athens in 86 BC, after which Sulla was free to invade Asia Minor, where he beat back Mithridates and reclaimed Rome’s Asian territory. But the political situation in Asia Minor and the Middle East continued to be chaotic: Mithridates plotted against Rome with the kingdom of Armenia and the Seleucid Empire faced its umpteenth dynastic crisis which reduced its territory to Syria. In 66 BC, Rome sent forth an expedition under Pompeius, aiming to sweep away all opposition in the east. No kingdom there proved to be a real match for the Roman thundercloud. Pompeius drove Mithridates to flight, annexed Pontic lands into the new province of Bithynia et Pontus
and created the province of Cilicia
in southern Asia Minor. He proceeded to destroy the crumbling Seleucid Empire and turned it into the new province of Syria
in 64 BC, causing Armenia to surrender and become a vassal of Rome. The Roman armies advanced south, took Jerusalem and made it clear that the kingdom of Iudaea was henceforth a Roman vassal as well. However, the massive successes could not conceal the internal troubles stirring back in Rome.
The Roman Republic – with its Senate, people’s assembly and yearly elected magistrates – had the typical government of a city-state. Yet the enormous expansion of the second century BC had made the Roman Republic into an empire, only without the governmental framework needed to manage it. This logically incurred increasingly obvious problems and tensions. The non-stop wars had seriously crippled the Roman peasantry in Italy, whom abandoned their home to campaign for years in distant lands, only to come back and find their farmland turned into a wilderness. Unable to work their land anymore, many peasants were forced to sell it at a ridiculously low price, causing the emergence of an impoverished proletarian mass in Rome and an agricultural elite in control of vast swathes of countryside. This messed up the recruiting system for the Roman army, which heavily relied on the middle class peasants who were able to afford their own arms and armour.
Two possible solutions could remove this problem: a redistribution of the land so that the peasantry remained wealthy and large enough to be able to afford their military equipment and serve in the army, or else allowing the proletarians into military service and make the army into a professional body. However, both options would threaten the position of the Roman senatorial elite: a powerful peasantry could press calls for more political influence and a professional army would bind soldiers’ loyalty first of all to their commander instead of the Senate. The senatorial elite thus stubbornly clung to the existing institutions which were undermining the Republic they wanted to uphold. More importantly, the Senate’s attitude and increasingly shaky position, in addition to the growing internal tensions would prove to be a perfect climate for ambitious commanders.
Gaius Marius had successfully repelled Germanic invasions in Northern Italy, gaining great military prestige and subsequently seizing the opportunity to reform his army without Senatorial approval, allowing proletarians to enlist and creating a force of professional soldiers who were loyal to him before the Senate. Sulla went one step further and occupied Rome with his army upon his return from his victories in the east, ordering executions among the pro-Marius faction and making himself dictator
. Despite the fact that Sulla actually meant well – passing reforms to strengthen the Senate before willingly stepping down – and wanted to protect the Republic, the lesson of all this was clear: Roman armies were now professional forces whose loyalty belonged to the Republic via their commander instead of the Senate and any Roman commander intending to keep his career after a victory needed an army assembled at all times in order to intimidate the Senate.
Like Sulla before him, Pompeius returned victoriously from the east, holding a magnificent triumph in Rome itself in 61 BC. Pompeius’ military achievements had earned him untold prestige and made him a very powerful man. However, powerful men were loathed by the Senate and Pompeius made the significant mistake of disbanding his army upon his return, having promised his veterans a distribution of land as reward for their service. The Senate now took its chance and refused to order said land distribution in order to play down Pompeius’ power and isolate him. Yet Pompeius was not contained so easily and responded by forging a political alliance with the rich Marcus Licinius Crassus and a young, ambitious politician: Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of ancient nobility who belonged politically to the supporters of Marius, of whom he actually was a nephew.
The purpose of this political alliance (known as the First Triumvirate) was to get Caesar elected as consul in the year 59 BC, so that he could arrange the land distribution for Pompeius’ veterans. In return, Pompeius would use his influence to make Caesar proconsul and thus give him the chance to levy his own legions and become a man of power in the Roman Republic. Crassus, being the richest man in Rome, funded the election campaign and easily got Caesar elected as consul, after which Caesar secured Pompeius’ land distribution. Everything went according to plan and Caesar was subsequently made proconsul of Gaul for 5 years, starting in 58 BC.
Caesar knew very well that the Triumvirate would not last and that the Roman Republic was on the brink of a great internal struggle for power between its most prestigious men and the Senatorial elite. Therefore, both Caesar and Crassus required prestige and power equal to that of Pompeius if they were to have a chance at becoming the undisputed leader of Rome. For Crassus, it all ended in 53 BC during a failed attempt to defeat the Parthian Empire in the east. With Crassus gone, Pompeius increasingly acted as mediator between Caesar and the radicalised Roman proletariat on one side and the politically hard-pressed Senate on the other. Ultimately, Pompeius chose to side with the Senate, realising that Caesar’s extraordinary achievements in Gaul, as well as his popularity among the masses, had come to overshadow his own prestige. Thus the stage was set for the Roman Civil War.
Yet in 58 BC, Caesar was still at the outset of his rise to prominence, having just secured his position as proconsul of Gaul. This did not automatically imply that he intended the conquest of all of Gaul, but it nonetheless paved the way for it. Parallel to past wars, a string of seemingly minor happenings triggered these Gallic Wars that would change the face of Europe forever and bring Caesar the power and prestige he required for the political struggle back in Rome.
The Helvetii, a Celtic tribe living in modern-day Switzerland, found themselves at odds with the feared Germanic tribes to the north. Unable to successfully fend off their continuous raids, the Helvetii intended a mass-migration to safer lands in western Gaul. This implied they would move through Roman territory, as well as through territory of Gallic tribes favoured by the Romans. The Helvetii asked for peaceful passage, but Caesar – as proconsul – refused, fearing the Helvetii would plunder Roman territory along their way and realising the disappearance of the Helvetic buffer would allow the Germans to directly attack the Romans and their allies. The Helvetii marched all the same, attempting to force their way through Roman lands. Caesar’s legions quickly moved against them, stopping the Helvetic advance and forcing them to retreat. The Romans in turn advanced northwards and ultimately smashed the Helvetii at the Battle of Bibracte (58 BC). Of the 370,000 Helvetii present, over 200,000 were killed, including women and children. Caesar ordered the Helvetii to return to their homeland, which they wisely did.
Caesar now received word from the Sequani, a tribe friendly to the Romans, that a major Germanic invasion was underway. This granted Caesar the perfect excuse to continue the campaign without provoking hostility or suspicion from the Senate in Rome. Caesar’s armies advanced westwards to find the Germanic Suebi harassing the Gallic Sequani and Aedui. In September 58 BC, Caesar’s forces battled the Suebi invaders under their warlord Ariovistus, killing no less than 25,000 and driving the remainder back across the Rhenus (Rhine) River. Caesar had accomplished an important victory against the fearsome Germans and subsequently returned to Cisalpine Gaul.
In the spring of 57 BC, rumours reached Caesar of a great anti-Roman coalition assembling among the Belgae in northern Gaul. By now, Caesar realised that the only way to neutralise the Gallic and Germanic threat would be to subdue Gaul completely and make the Rhenus the northwestern border of the Roman Republic. Furthermore, bringing Gaul under Roman control would give Caesar the power, prestige and wealth required to compete with his rivals in Rome. Levying two new legions, Caesar hurried to his already active legions, which had been quartered in Sequani lands during winter. From there, he advanced northwards to meet the Belgic tribes. Exhibiting his brilliant ability to outmarch the enemy, he first surprised the Remi, making them a faithful Roman ally, and proceeded to beat back the Belgic forces in a series of decisive battles at Bibrax, the river Sabis and the fort of Aduatuca, where over 50,000 Belgae were captured and enslaved. Caesar once more stationed his army into winter quarters and returned to Roman territory.
As the year 56 BC began, Caesar realised he had not yet done enough to actually subdue the Gallic tribes, let alone incorporate their lands into the Roman Republic. He therefore sent his general Publius Crassus (son of Marcus Licinius Crassus) to the Aquitani tribes in western Gaul. With the help of a divide-and-conquer strategy, Crassus overpowered the Gauls there and quickly secured Roman dominance in the region. In the north, Caesar sent Quintus Sabinus to deal with the Lexovii, Venelli and Coriosolites, bringing them under Roman control without much difficulty. Furthermore, Caesar sent the young Decimus Brutus (who would later betray him and participate in the assassination plot) to the powerful Veneti tribe. Brutus defeated the Veneti at sea in 56 BC, bringing significant naval knowledge and resources under Caesar’s control. Caesar now considered the Roman authority over Gaul to be pretty much uncontested and returned to Cisalpine Gaul, ultimately intending to deal with the Briton tribes across the sea, which had helped the Veneti in their resistance against the Romans.
In 55 BC, Caesar was still in Roman territory, meeting with Pompeius and Crassus and planning an expedition to the near-mythical islands of Britannia. Yet he first received word that the warlike Germanic tribes of the Usipetes and Tenectri, both at war with the Suebi, were planning to migrate into Belgic lands in order to escape the Suebi’s attacks.
Caesar hurried north along the Rhenus, marching fast as always and meeting up with Germanic heralds. Initially desiring a diplomatic solution, Caesar proposed that the Usipetes and Tenectri move to the lands of the Ubii tribe, who would welcome them as additional forces in their own fight against the Suebi. More importantly, Caesar made clear that he would never allow the Germanic request for settlement in Belgica. Negotiations ultimately broke off due to the Germanic inability to convince Caesar of their peaceful intentions. The Roman armies smashed the migrating Germans numbering over 400,000, including women and children, massacring a staggering number of people in one of the greatest bloodbaths of the Gallic Wars. The Romans drove the Germans into the Rhenus, where many more drowned. Caesar then crossed the Rhenus with his legions to help the Roman-allied Ubii tribe – the first Roman crossing of the Rhenus – and campaigned for eighteen days in Germanic territory, proving that Rome’s power was strong enough to cross the Rhenus at will.
Still in 55 BC, Caesar launched a reconnaissance-in-force expedition to Britannia, resulting in a tactical Roman retreat. In 54 BC however, the Romans returned better prepared and in full force, landing unopposed and fighting their way north towards the Tamesis (Thames) River, ultimately achieving a decisive victory over the Briton warlord Cassivellaunus which encouraged multiple tribes to submit to Roman power and promise to pay tribute. Although not a single Roman soldier remained in Britannia to ensure tribute was actually paid, Caesar’s prestige reached untold heights all the same, being the first Roman commander to set foot in the mysterious lands of Britannia and achieve a military victory there.
Returning to Gaul, Caesar had to deal with a frightening revolt risk. During the winter of 54 – 53 BC, an uprising by the Eburones under Ambiorix resulted in an ambush of Roman forces under Caesar’s commanders Cotta and Sabinus, leaving over 7,000 Roman soldiers dead. The Roman retribution was predictable and exceptionally brutal, even by the standards of the war; still in 53 BC, Caesar’s forces smashed the Eburones and their allied Belgic tribes, systematically burning their lands and exterminating their people to set an example to other potentially rebellious tribes. Hereafter, most of the Belgae scattered like leaves in the wind and the Romans even pursued the fleeing survivors across the Rhenus, crossing into Germanic lands once again. Caesar then set up a headquarters near Lutetia, from where he suppressed the Carnutes and Senones. Nevertheless, the Roman ruthlessness would ultimately prove counter-productive.
Caesar returned to Cisalpine Gaul, but in 52 BC the real Gallic uprising broke loose as a massed confederation of tribes gathered under the leadership of the young chieftain Vercingetorix. The Gallic forces destroyed the Roman settlement of Cenabum and rallied as many tribes as possible into the greatest anti-Roman coalition yet. Vercingetorix then set about destroying as many food supplies and farmlands as possible, adopting a scorched-earth tactic, but sparing the settlement of Avaricum, which had ample food supplies to maintain the Gallic forces.
Caesar’s legions advanced rapidly through Central Gaul to Avaricum, aided by the allied Ubii, but were starved by the time they arrived there. Nonetheless, the Romans won the Battle of Avaricum and all save a handful of its inhabitants were immediately put to the sword. Now well-fed and in good morale, the Romans were ready to smash Vercingetorix’s uprising once and for all. However, his support among the Gallic tribes had increased as a result of the Roman atrocities at Avaricum and Vercingetorix strengthened his position as the leader of a Gallic alliance boasting a previously unseen unity.
While Caesar’s commander Labienus moved to smash the Parisii near Lutetia, Caesar himself pursued Vercingetorix’s army with six Roman legions. Vercingetorix made it to the fort of Gergovia first, and prepared to make a stand against Caesar. The Romans arrived and beleaguered the fort, intending to starve out the Gallic defenders. However, Vercingetorix eventually claimed victory at Gergovia, masterfully using the chaotic situation of the Aedui tribe switching sides to him, in combination with his scorched-earth policy which messed up Roman supplies.
Failing to defeat Vercingetorix at Gergovia caused Caesar to call off the siege and retreat, advancing instead into the territory of the side-switching Aedui. Vercingetorix thought his chance at victory had come and attempted to ambush the Romans in September 52 BC. With the help of allied Germanic cavalry, the Romans drove off the attack and in turn pursued the Gauls. Vercingetorix moved his forces into Central Gaul and regrouped at Alesia, waiting for Gallic reinforcements.
The Roman armies, numbering some 60,000 legionaries, arrived at Alesia before the Gallic reinforcements and trapped the 80,000 Gallic forces in the settlement, intending to starve them into submission by building an extensive network of encampments, trenches and fortifications around the city. The Gallic morale soon started crumbling under the starvation, the sight of the increasingly formidable Roman encampments and the uncertainty as to whether reinforcements would come or not. In this hour of despair, the Gauls expelled all women and children into the no man’s land between Alesia and the encircling Roman camps, in hopes that Caesar would allow them free passage, thereby making a gap in the Roman entrenchments which the Gauls could exploit. However, Caesar did not take the bait and ordered the Roman lines to remain completely shut. Many women and children subsequently starved to death in the no man’s land, often before the eyes of their husbands and fathers on the city walls, further breaking the Gallic morale.
On 2 October 52 BC, a 60,000 strong reinforcing army arrived to relieve the hard-pressed forces of Vercingetorix. The Gauls knew it was now a matter of all or nothing, launching a fanatical attack on the only weak point in the Roman fortifications while Vercingetorix’s men emerged from Alesia to siege the Romans in return. Caesar ordered a defensive stance, trusting the discipline and courage of his soldiers. However, the Roman lines ultimately began to crumble under the numerically superior Gallic forces, causing Caesar to manoeuvre part of his forces out and around the Roman camps to attack the Gauls in the rear.
Now trapped in turn from two sides, panic broke out among the undisciplined Gauls and the battle turned into a massacre as tens of thousands of Gallic soldiers were killed. Seeing the defeat of his reinforcing troops, and the utter despair among the surviving defenders of Alesia, Vercingetorix surrendered himself and his remaining men to Caesar. The capture of Vercingetorix deprived the Gauls of the strong leader they needed so desperately. While many tribes continued revolting, the Gallic alliance fell apart without Vercingetorix, allowing the Romans to finish off the hostile tribes one by one. Caesar first subdued Vercingetorix’s own tribe, the Arveni, in addition to re-subduing the Aedui.
But the revolts were not over yet and rekindled in the winter of 52 BC. Caesar promised his war-exhausted soldiers significant rewards if they remained with him to continue the campaign. Having gone through so much and being so close to ultimate victory, the Roman legions remained loyal to their esteemed commander. Throughout 51 BC, any remaining bastions of Gallic resistance were systematically destroyed, most prominently at Lemonum where the Roman army murdered no less than 12,000 Gauls. Simultaneously, a final campaign was conducted against the Treveri tribe near the Rhenus.
In the end only the city of Uxellodunum continued resisting the Roman onslaught. The Romans sieged the settlement much like they had sieged Alesia, this time cutting off the water supplies and purposefully letting the people starve to death. Uxellodunum ultimately had no choice but to surrender. All resistance had been broken and the Gallic tribes accepted their defeat, no longer offering organised resistance. Exhibiting their exceptional brutality once more, the Romans cut off the hands of every man they could find that had taken up arms against Rome.
The Gallic Wars immortalised Julius Caesar and the Roman legions as the most efficient but also cruellest conquerors the world had ever seen until then, further enhancing Rome’s image of military supremacy. In eight years time, the Romans under Caesar had conquered an area of roughly 350,000 km², systematically murdered nearly a million Gallic people, enslaved another million, subdued no less than 300 tribes and razed approximately 800 towns. Though ravaged throughout, Gaul would eventually become a prosperous, highly Romanised region which remained under firm Roman control until the second century AD.
Gaius Julius Caesar now held the greatest power and prestige a Roman had ever held and was fully prepared to press home his advantage in Rome itself. There, the Senate and Pompeius shivered at the thought of his approach, denying Caesar the right to a triumph and ordering him to disband his legions and return to Rome alone and unarmed. Needless to say, Caesar’s response was the exact opposite, causing the Roman Civil War to begin in earnest.© 2012 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com