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 east 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 was free to deal with the Hellenic kingdoms in the Middle East, the remnants of Alexander’s empire. In 133 BC, the last king of Pergamon left his domain to Rome by testament, which was 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 and invaded 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 eastern province, resulting first of all in the siege and partial destruction of rebellious Athens in 86 BC, after which Sulla was free to invade Asia, where he beat back Mithridates. 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 Pompey, aiming to sweep away all opposition in the east. No kingdom there proved to be a real match for the Roman thundercloud. Pompey 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 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 Judea 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 Rome into an empire 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 relied heavily 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 the loyalty of soldiers to their commander instead of the Senate. The senatorial elite thus stubbornly clung to the existing institutions which were undermining the Republic they sought to uphold. More importantly, the Senate’s attitude and increasingly shaky position in the face of 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 to the Republic was vested in their commander, not the Senate, and any Roman commander intending to keep his career after a victory needed an army in the field at all times to intimidate the Senate.
Like Sulla before him, Pompey returned victoriously from the east, holding a magnificent triumph in Rome in 61 BC. Pompey’s military achievements had earned him untold prestige and made him a very powerful man. However, powerful men were loathed by the Senate and Pompey made the mistake of disbanding his army upon his return, having promised his veterans a land distribution as reward for their service. The Senate now took its chance and refused to approve said land distribution in order to play down Pompey’s power and isolate him. Yet Pompey 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 faction of Marius, of whom he actually was a nephew.
The purpose of this political alliance, known in history as the First Triumvirate, was to get Caesar elected as consul for the year 59 BC, so that he could arrange the land distribution for Pompey’s veterans. In return, Pompey 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 authorised Pompey’s land distribution. Everything went according to plan and Caesar was subsequently made proconsul of Gaul for five 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 Pompey 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, Pompey increasingly acted as mediator between Caesar and the radicalised Roman proletariat on one side and the politically hard-pressed Senate on the other. Ultimately, Pompey 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 Wars.
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 tribe living in modern-day Switzerland, found themselves at odds with the fearsome 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 moving through Roman territory, as well as territory of Gallic tribes favoured by the Romans. The Helvetii asked for peaceful passage, but Caesar refused, fearing the Helvetii would plunder Roman territory along their way and realising the disappearance of the Helvetic buffer would allow the Germanic tribes 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 stopped the Helvetic advance and forced them to retreat. The Romans in turn advanced north and ultimately smashed the Helvetii at the Battle of Bibracte in 58 BC. Of the 370,000 Helvetii present, over 200,000 were allegedly killed, including women and children. Caesar ordered the remaining Helvetii to return to their homeland, which they wisely did.
Caesar then received word from the Sequani, a Gallic tribe friendly to the Romans, that a major Germanic invasion was underway. This gave Caesar a perfect excuse to continue his campaign without provoking suspicion from the Senate in Rome. Caesar’s armies advanced west to find the Germanic Suebi harassing the 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 Rhine. Caesar had thus accomplished an important victory and subsequently returned to Cisalpine Gaul.
In the spring of 57 BC, rumours reached Caesar of a great anti-Roman coalition assembling among the Belgic tribes in northern Gaul. By now, Caesar had decided that the only way to neutralise the Gallic and Germanic threat would be to subdue Gaul completely and make the Rhine the northern border of the Roman Republic. Furthermore, bringing Gaul under Roman control would certainly 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 north to meet the Belgic tribes. Exhibiting his trademark ability to outmarch the enemy, he first surprised the Remi, who quickly submitted to the Romans, and proceeded to beat back the Belgic forces in a series of decisive battles at Bibrax, the Sambre 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 knew 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 in western Gaul. With the help of a divide-and-conquer strategy, Crassus quickly secured Roman dominance in the region. In the north meanwhile, 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 subdue the powerful Veneti. Brutus defeated the Veneti at sea in 56 BC, bringing significant naval knowledge and resources under Caesar’s control. Caesar now considered 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 for their support of the Veneti in their fight against the Romans.
In early 55 BC, Caesar met with Pompey and Crassus and planned an expedition to the near-mythical British Isles. However, he first received word that the Germanic Usipetes and Tenectri, both at war with the Suebi, were planning to migrate into Belgic lands in order to escape the Suebi’s incessant attacks. Caesar hurried north along the Rhine, 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, who would welcome them as additional forces in their own fight against the Suebi. More importantly, Caesar made it clear that he would never allow Germanic settlement in Belgic lands. Negotiations broke off largely due to the Germanic inability to convince Caesar of their peaceful intentions. The Romans then smashed the migrating Germans, whose numbers were said to be as many as 400,000 or more, in one of the greatest bloodbaths of the Gallic Wars. The Romans then drove the survivors into the Rhine, where many more drowned. Not content yet, Caesar crossed the Rhine with his legions to help the Roman-allied Ubii tribe – the first Roman crossing of the Rhine – and campaigned for eighteen days in Germanic territory, proving that Rome’s power had become strong enough to cross the Rhine at will.
Still in 55 BC, Caesar launched a reconnaissance-in-force expedition to the British Isles, 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 Thames, ultimately achieving a decisive victory over the Briton warlord Cassivellaunus which encouraged multiple tribes to submit to Rome and promise to pay tribute. Although not a single Roman soldier remained in Britain 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 Briton lands and achieve a military victory there. Returning to Gaul, Caesar had to deal with an escalating 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 as ever and exceptionally brutal, even by the standards of the war: still in 53 BC, Caesar’s forces virtually exterminated the Eburones and their allied Belgic tribes to set an example to other potentially rebellious tribes. Hereafter, most of the surviving Belgic people scattered like leaves in the wind but the Romans drove these unfortunates across the Rhine and crossed into Germanic lands once again. Caesar then retreated and set up a headquarters near Lutetia, from where he suppressed the Carnutes and Senones. Nevertheless, Rome’s ruthlessness and borderline genocide of Gallic peoples would prove counter-productive, to say the least.
Caesar had returned to Cisalpine Gaul when the real Gallic uprising broke loose in 52 BC: a massive confederation of tribes under the leadership of the young chieftain Vercingetorix took to the field to drive the Romans out of Gaul. 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 adopted a scorched-earth policy, destroying as many food supplies and farmlands as possible but sparing the settlement of Avaricum for its ample food supplies to maintain the Gallic forces. Caesar’s legions advanced directly through central Gaul to Avaricum, joined by the Ubii, but were starved by the time they arrived there. Nonetheless, the Romans won the subsequent 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 poised to smash Vercingetorix’s uprising once and for all. However, his support among the Gallic tribes had increased as a result of Rome’s renewed 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, trying to starve the 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 first and surrounded the 80,000 Gauls 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 Roman forces, in hopes that Caesar would allow them free passage, thereby making a gap in the Roman lines which the Gauls could exploit. However, Caesar did not take the bait and the Roman encirclement remained unfazed. Many women and children subsequently starved to death in the no man’s land, often before the eyes of their husbands, brothers 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 victory or death and launched 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 their enemies one by one. Caesar first subdued Vercingetorix’s own tribe, the Arverni, 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 Rhine.
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 waiting for hunger and thirst to take their toll on the defenders. Uxellodunum ultimately had no choice but to surrender. All resistance had been broken and the Gallic tribes now had no choice but to accept their defeat. Exhibiting their exceptional brutality once more, the Romans allegedly cut off the hands of every man they could find that had taken up arms against them. The Gallic Wars immortalised Gaius 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 reputation as a fearsome military power. In eight years time, the Romans under Caesar had conquered an area of roughly 350,000 km²; systematically murdered nearly 1,000,000 Gallic people; enslaved another 1,000,000; subdued no less than 300 tribes and razed approximately 800 towns. Though ravaged, 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 Pompey 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 Wars to begin in earnest…
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