Gallic Wars

Gallic Wars

Roman History in a Nutshell – The Gallic Wars

A Figurehead of Gallic chieftain, leader of the Senones, Brennus – from the French ironclad battleship ‘Brennus’. Launched in 1891 the battleship would be rendered outdated by warship advancements and would be cannabilised and scrapped by the 1920s. (Credit: Med CC-BY-SA 3.0)

In all of the history of Rome, besides themselves, there was only ever one enemy that came close to the total and complete destruction of the Roman state.

For all of the talk of a ‘decline and fall’ narrative in the 5 th century CE I don’t buy it. The mechanics of the Roman state were such a clusterfuck of complexity that who was in charge and who wasn’t in charge in the West was ridiculous. So many of the so-called marauding goths and barbarians were actually foederati, Roman-associate armies, that to say a foreign force sacked Rome would be like if there was a Gurkha revolution in the UK now. Is it really a foreign invasion if it’s your own troops? Even if they come from another country?

Carthage, well they had a go, and they came close but Hannibal never breached Rome. Hannibal never walked through the gates to the steps of the Curia of the Senate. If he had you can bet we’d be talking a completely different history of almost total Phoenician Mediterranean domination.

No, between the years of its founding in 753 BCE (allegedly) and whatever date you take as the end of the ‘Roman Empire’ only one foreign power nearly made it all not happen and it was the Gauls, specifically a warband made up mostly of the Senones tribe, in 390 BCE.

A map showing the major Gallic tribes and their influence across Europe. Again, it must be stressed, as with so many other cultures at this time this was not a unified ’empire’. These tribes may have shared social, religious and linguistic similarities but they would have only associated with each other when forming councils to solve disputes, or when coming together into warbands to raid enemy territories. Had their been any sort of major unification of the Gauls European history would look mighty different! (Credit: Dbachmann by GFDL)

To start with I’ll tell you about the other fights because 390 needs detail.

In 302 BCE the Gauls crossed the alps, did a bit of pillaging and then buggered off again.

We’ll get to this with the Samnites but they join an alliance of Samnites, Etruscans and Umbrians in a long war between 298 BCE and 290 BCE.

They also besieged Arretium in 284 BCE leading to the battle of Lake Vadimo we talked about with the Etruscans.

So, 390 BCE – what’s the deal?

Firstly, what’s a Gaul? The Gauls were a non-uniform group of Celtic peoples who lived on continental Europe. They were, despite supposedly being culturally, technologically, religiously and socially ‘inferior’ to the Romans, wildly successful. They had influence down in the Iberian peninsula, in modern Spain and Portugal, across continental Europe from the West coast of France out as far as the Balkans as well as influence in Southeast England (See the map above).

But, again, this was a non-uniform group and this is across the span of hundreds of years – If they had managed to cement themselves into a cohesive empire there is every chance they would have matched Rome but they were disconnected tribes with cultural, religious, linguistic and social similarities – not a unified force.

Rumours of the involvement of these famous Gauls Asterix (left), Obelix (centre), and Getafix (right) are entirely without evidence. Some modern conspiracy theories may attempt to prove otherwise. (Credit: Capri23auto via Pixabay)

So the group we’re going to talk about are the Senones, originating in – I suppose what would be modern day central France in the Seine basin just south of Paris.

Being a non-uniform, culturally similar group they did sometimes come together in warbands, larger groups, to go off and do a bit of looting. Similar to how Vikings would operate later on. They weren’t so much interested in conquest and expansion as looting and raiding, gather what you can, go home, share the spoils. This is a very important thing to consider in this story.

By around 400 BCE this tribe from modern central France had moved south and come to occupy territories across the Alps in what is modern Northern Italy. They drove out whatever Native tribes were there and set up their own towns.

Around 391 BCE they moved further south still, into Etruria, the historic territory of the Etruscans and, allegedly (more Livy lies?) besieged Clusium who begged Rome for help. The Romans sent to negotiate with the Gauls allegedly caused some upset and the Gauls marched on Rome FOR REVENGE!

La Bataille de l’allia – A depiction of the battle of Allia by Gustave Surand. Even in this image the well-equipped Romans are up against a band of bare-chested barbarians. The reality was likely much different. (Credit: Surand, Public Doman)

How much of that is true is debatable. Again, their pattern was not necessarily one of conquest and expansion but of raids. It’s just as likely they robbed Clusium on their way to Rome but the political machine in Rome needed some post-hoc excuse for why Rome was attacked to protect its reputation and not make it seem like a bunch of French fellas could just turn up any minute.

This all leads up to the Battle of Allia, usually dated at 390 BCE but it was there or thereabouts (other dates put it at 393 BCE or 387 BCE). Given that it’s history and it’s war there’s a lot of lengthy discussion about this but all you need to know is the Romans got fucked, and the Gauls fucked ‘em.

According to Livy they were so shocked at the ease of their victory they stood dumbfounded, when no other soldiers came to oppose them they just walked right into a wide-open Rome.

The military forces and able men left were charged with defending the Capitoline Hill.

Plutarch’s account is the most violent, otherwise both Livy and Diodorus Siculus describe a very lazy siege. Livy even says at one point a member of the Fabii clan was allowed to walk through the enemy lines to perform a religious rite.

By some stories (mostly by the Greek historians) after a lengthy siege the Romans paid the Senones a hefty sum of gold to piss off.

By other stories (mostly by Roman Historians) they are met by a returning Roman General, Camillus, appointed dictator in the crisis, and he refuses to let them leave with the gold, and kills them all.

What’s the likely ending? It’s hard to say. Even at 390 BCE these stories are semi-legendary, archaeological evidence for the sacking is scant, at best, and certainly, it seems, nobody has found where the bodies are supposedly buried.

An interesting image – Apparently an advertisement trading care series for Liebig Meat Extract featuring “The Supreme Authorities of Ancient Rome” this one is ‘Dictator’ and, presumably being French the most famous dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar, is off limits you know with his…gallic genocidal pacification and all. So instead they used Camillus, according to some histories (I believe Livy and Plutarch) he was one of few who survived the Battle of Allia and he was made dictator to deal with the situation. The bottom caption reads “Brennus, Chief of the Gauls, conquerors of Rome, shows pretentious exaggerations. Camillus, indignant, proclaims himself Dictator and delivers the city.

Given their patterns of behaviour, and despite the talk of a couple of historians, this does not seem like a band of Gallic nomads seeking a new home. This was a warband. They were on the path of plunder. Whether they were mercenaries on their way elsewhere has been debated. If they were, the weight of gold they would have been paid by the Romans would have sent them home sharpish with no shame at betraying their former clients.

I think they came, they saw, they conquered, they got paid, they left, all of Rome went “What the hell just happened?” and got on with dealing with the fact they had been left significantly weakened and significantly poorer, with enemies on all sides and even their Latin allies looking to exploit their weakness.

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Celtic expansion into the Etruscan territories made a great impact upon the peoples of the Italian peninsula. The Celts, named as the tuatha of the Ananes and the Boii (Polybius, Histories, 2.17), came into conflict with Rome through Roman alliance with the Etruscans of Clusium and their gross mismanagement of ambassadorial missions with the Gauls (Appian, Gallic History, Embassies fragment). During these missions, Brennus, king of the Gauls noted "being able to till only a small parcel of earth, they [the Clusians] yet are bent on holding a large one" (Plutarch, Life of Camillus, 17), pointing out the surplus of land available for use.

Brennus pointed out to the Romans that his people were expanding in no different a manner than the recent Roman expansion into her own neighbourhood, and added "Cease ye, therefore, to pity the Clusians when we besiege them, that ye may not teach the Gauls to be kind and full of pity towards those who are wronged by the Romans" (Plutarch, Life of Camillus, 17).

As a consequence of Roman treachery during these embassies, under the kingship of their ri Brennus, the Celts attacked the city of Rome, taking all but the Capitoline Hill (the subject of Plutarch's Life of Camillus). During the seige, an event is related by Appian (Gallic History, Peiresc fragment) showing the Celtic respect of religious tradition: They allowed a Roman priest "to make a certain yearly sacrifice in the Temple of Vesta, and passed safely, with sacred utensils, through the ranks of the enemy, who were either awed by his courage or had respect for his piety and his venerable appearance."


Caesar's victory at Alesia guaranteed Roman rule in Gaul, which was to last for the following 500 years. Roman troops returned to occupy Britain in 43 AD. The prestige that accrued to Caesar through his campaigns in Gaul were a threat to the position of his rival general, Pompey, in Rome. Caesar was not allowed the celebration of a triumph and, in 50 BC, was ordered to disband his army. Instead, he marched on Rome and civil war followed. Caesar's triumph for his Gallic victories finally took place in Rome in 46 BC. At the triumph, Vercingetorix, held prisoner since Alesia, was first displayed to the Roman public, then executed by strangulation.  

Why ancient German women yelled at male warriors in combat

At the 58 BC Battle of Vosges, Julius Caesar was surrounded. He had to force the Germanic army under Ariovistus into combat because the German was content to starve the Romans out. Cut off from supplies, Caesar’s legions may not last long enough to attack later. So, outnumbered and surrounded, Caesar struck.

He marched his entire force toward the weakest part of the Germanic army: its camp. When the legions arrived, the Germanic women were in the army’s wagon train, shouting, screaming, and wailing… at the Germanic men.

Julius Caesar meets Ariovistus before the Battle of Vosges.

The Gallic Wars were an important moment in the history of Rome. It saw Julius Caesar’s rise in power and prestige as well as an important military and territorial expansion of the Roman Republic. But to the Romans’ well-organized and disciplined fighting force, the wailing Germanic women must have been an altogether strange experience.

Germanic women were forced to defend the wagon trains after many battles against the Romans.

If a tribe was caught up in a fight while migrating or moving for any reason, women would not be left behind. Germanic women would yell at their fighting men, sometimes with their children on hand to witness the fighting. The women encouraged their children to yell and, with bare breasts, shouted reminders at the men that they must be victorious in combat or their families would be captured and enslaved… or worse, slaughtered wholesale.

Their shouts encouraged their men to fight harder, as women were considered holy spirits. Letting them fall into enemy hands was the ultimate failure.

The Roman Senator and historian Tacitus wrote in his work, Germania:

A specially powerful incitement to valor is that the squadrons and divisions are not made up at random by the mustering of chance-comers, but are each composed of men of one family or clan. Close by them, too, are their nearest and dearest, so that they can hear the shrieks of their women-folk and the wailing of their children. These are the witnesses whom each man reverences most highly, whose praise he most desires. It is to their mothers and wives that they go to have their wounds treated, and the women are not afraid to count and compare the gashes. They also carry supplies of food to the combatants and encourage them.

It stands on record that armies already wavering and on the point of collapse have been rallied by the women, pleading heroically with their men, thrusting forward their bared bosoms, and making them realize the imminent prospect of enslavement — a fate which the Germans fear more desperately for their women than for themselves. Indeed, you can secure a surer hold on these nations if you compel them to include among a consignment of hostages some girls of noble family. More than this, they believe that there resides in women an element of holiness and a gift of prophecy and so they do not scorn to ask their advice, or lightly disregard their replies.The women were more than just morale builders, though. They provided aid and comfort to their men after the battle was over, of course. And they would bring supplies and food to their male warriors in the middle of the fight.

If the battle didn’t go well, however, Germanic women could take on an entirely new role. They might kill any male members of the tribe who attempted retreat. They could even kill their children and then commit suicide rather than submit to enslavement by another tribe or army.

Women were captured en masse at the Battle of Aquaq Sextiae.

Vosges wasn’t the first time the Roman Republic encountered this phenomenon. At the 102 BC Battle of Aquae Sextiae a Roman army that was outnumbered by Germans 3-to-1 emerged victorious, according to the Roman historian Plutarch. He notes that 300 of the women captured that day killed themselves and their children rather than be taken back to Rome.

For the Germans at the Battle of Vosges, the situation wasn’t as desperate. They were all well-rested and their march from the Rhine River didn’t take a heavy toll on their strength. But the Romans were formidable and, thanks to a sudden moment of quick thinking by one of Caesar’s cavalry officers, they were able to drive the Germans back across the Rhine. When Caesar returned from Rome after the conquest of Gaul, he came back with a million slaves.


As a result of the financial burdens of his consulship in 9942 , Caesar incurred significant debts. 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, this 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 9940 and had campaigned successfully with them against the Lusitanians, Caesar knew personally most (perhaps even all) of these legions. [ citation needed ] 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 we today know as 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, ⎝] located in the Balkans.

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 and Helvetii, had enjoyed stable political alliances with Rome in the past.

The Romans respected and feared the Gallic tribes. Only fifty years before, in 9892 , Italy had been invaded from the north and saved only after several bloody and costly battles by Gaius Marius. Around 9939 , 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 Arverni sought Ariovistus’ aid and defeated the Aedui in 9938 at the Battle of Magetobriga. The Sequani rewarded Ariovistus with land following 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. ⎡] ⎢] 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. ⎡] 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 co-conspirators. 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 Title

Caesar's title for The Gallic Wars is not known for sure. Caesar referred to his writing as res gestae 'deeds/things done' and commentarii 'commentaries,' suggesting historical events. In genre it appears to be close to the Anabasis of Xenophon, a hypomnemata 'memory helps'—like a notebook to be used as a reference for later writing. Both Anabasis and the Gallic War commentaries were written in the third person singular, relating historical events, with the intention of sounding objective, and in simple, clear language, so that the Anabasis is often the first continuous prose beginning Greek students face.

In addition to not knowing for sure what Caesar would have considered its proper title, The Gallic Wars is misleading. Book 5 has sections on the customs of the British and Book 6 has material on the Germans. There are British expeditions in Books 4 and 6 and German expeditions in Books 4 and 6.

Gallic Wars

The Gallic Wars were military campaigns waged by the Roman proconsul Julius Caesar against tribes in Gaul between 58 BC and 50 BC. The wars gave Rome rich farmlands in Gaul (roughly France and Belgium up to the Rhine).

Julius Caesar described the Gallic Wars in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico. This is the main source, but it makes impossible claims about the number of Gauls killed (over a million), while claiming few Roman casualties. Modern historians believe that Gallic forces were far smaller than Caesar claimed, and that they (the Romans) suffered tens of thousands of casualties. One of the leaders of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, was taken to Rome, and later executed.

The main contemporary source for the conflict is Julius Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. This was thought to be truthful and accurate until the 20th century. Even in 1908, Camille Jullian wrote a comprehensive history of Gaul and took Caesar's account as absolutely true. But after World War II, historians began to question if Caesar's claims stood up. [2] [3]

Modern estimates are that at the battle of Alesia, in 52 BC, there were about 70.000 Gauls, and the same number of Roman troops.

A Overview - Caesar's Gallic Wars

Gallic wars are a collection of military campaigns conducted by Julius Caesar, a Roman proconsul fighting several Gallic tribes 58BC to 50BC. The war gave the Romans a taste of victory that made room for expanding the roman republic, which took over Gaul's land. Many historians believe the war helped Caesar improve his political career and pay off his debts, even though the invasion was due to preemptive and defensive action. The overview of Gallic Wars is significant in understanding the role played by Julius Caesar and Gallic tribes in the history of the Roman military.

Caesar briefly describes the Gaul in his book The Gallic Wars opening and then explains how Helvetti was repelled first by Orgetorix in 61BC. It describes how immediately after the death of Orgetorix, the preparation for war continued, where they finally achieved commerce for military operations in the year 58BC. The strategy they placed in the place of marching close to an area that bordered the Roman province posed a threat to Roman rule according to Caesar thus, he directs energy against them. He defeats Helvetii and fights Germany, brought by the Sequani tribe (Caesar, 2019).

In Book II, the events in the year 57BC where Caesar battles the Belgae in the north of Gaul and coastal Gaul, Crassus combat the maritime states. The two operations' results greatly expand the area that is influence roman. Caesar allows the enemy to move sluggishly, and then he sends his two men to slaughter them like animals. The tribes often moved with women and children to look for better land while roman troops moved with only soldiers to conquer new lands. The senate of the roman republic and populace celebrated for 15 days a thanksgiving that resulted from Caesar's achievements (Heather, 2020).

Book III explains Caesar's events in the year 56BC, where he sends Galba on a mission to open a route that will pass through the Alps. Unfortunately, when Galba accomplishes the task, the Seduni and Veragri tribes attack him. He manages to defend himself and moves his legion in territory that was safe for the entire winter. The Veneti, who began a rebellion that spread the whole area, was battled by Caesar's navy later and defeated the rebellion. The other navy of Caesar, headed by Sabinus and Crassus, defeated the Vanelli and their friends at war and the tribes of Aquitania (Caesar, 2019).

In Book IV, it speaks about two German tribes, namely the Usipetes and the Tencteri, in the year 55BC who were forced out of their homeland by the Suebi. In searching for new territory, the two tribes crossed the Rhine, but Caesar defeats them and moves the tribe out of the land then he moved the army inside Germany for the first time. Britain's military aid gave to the Gallic tribes made Caesar make a brief tour across the channel, making his roman force the first to make such moves since the beginning of the time (Raaflaub and Ramsey, 2017).

In Book V, events that happened in the year 54BC where Caesar returns to Britain but this time with an estimated 600 ships. He fights all through to the Thames and then moves to the coast, defeating Britain's force. He then returns to Gaul, where Ambiorix and Catuvolcus participate in the Belgae revolt. Ambiorix then tricks and finally destroys the roman legion. The roman camp is attacked by the Nervii, by the commander in charge manages to hold the attacks till Caesar brings reinforcement. The gallic force encountered defeating by Labienus, led by Indutiomarus (Heather, 2020).

Book VI is the shortest explanation of the Gallic Wars events, which occurred in 53BC. The difference in the cultures related to both Germany and Gaul is elaborate in this book. The battle narrative explains an early revolt that concerned several tribes that Caesar and Labienus involved. Caesar then returns to the Rhine for another time. Still, Suebi moves to the forest as their hiding zone, leaving them and returning to Gaul, where he achieves victory against Eburones forces that Ambiorix was leading (Raaflaub and Ramsey, 2017).

The final book VII, which is the longest in the narrative, explains how 52BC, Caesar manages to fight fourteen Gallic tribes and withstand them. Caesar's forces managed to take over several enemy territories but almost lost at Gergovia. Vercingetorix led the Gallic to reach its most significant dimension and spread widely. In Alesia, a major battle between the Roman forces and Vercingetorix's forces occurs, and the roman troops become victorious, bringing an end to the revolt (Caesar, 2019).

In conclusion, the Gallic wars played a significant role in the Roman Empire's history. Most of the military strategies in the modern days have been a shadow of the army techniques used by Caesar's army. Thus showing the impact of Caesar long after he was gone.

Won by Siege

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer.

The Gallic Wars were won at the Siege of Alesia in 52 BC. There, Gallic troops retreated to a defensive hilltop town. Caesar created a double ring of fortifications around it – one facing in to contain the Alesians, the other facing out to hold off relief forces. Besieged while they laid siege, the Romans held off Vercingetorix’s army when it came to assist Alesia. The town fell and with it any chance of lasting resistance.

Fighting continued for a generation after Alesia, but it was the last time the Gauls stood any chance of stopping the Romans. Vercingetorix surrendered, and Gaul was subsumed into the empire.

Kate Gilliver, Adrian Goldsworthy and Michael Whitby (2005), Rome at War: Caesar and his Legacy.

Watch the video: Caesar in Gaul - Roman History DOCUMENTARY