The Gallic Wars

map of Gaul in the 1st century BC

THE GALLIC WARS – 58-50BC

The Gallic wars were a series of military campaigns waged by Julius Caesar against the Gauls, a collection of tribes which occupied modern-day Switzerland, Belgium, and France. While Gallic tribes regularly traded with Roman merchants, the two powers had a history of conflicts, with the Gauls invading Italy and threatening Rome in 109BC. Rome had established a province in southern France in 121BC, and maintained a military presence in the region.

Caesar conquered the Gallic territories over the course of eight years, and surprised his contemporaries by establishing a reputation as a powerful military leader in the process. The result was the Roman domination of western Europe which endured until the fall of Rome itself.

 

THE ROMANS

At the beginning of the Gallic wars, Julius Caesar was a career politician with no military accomplishments to his name. The Roman republic was already a powerful force in the Mediterranean, with provinces throughout Europe. After an extremely expensive election in which he occurred many debts, Caesar was looking for foreign lands to plunder and opportunities to consolidate his personal power.

THE GAULS

The Gauls were not a single political entity like the Roman Republic, but instead multiple tribes with strong military alliances that had served them well throughout the 2nd century BC. These tribes were civilized and very wealthy, with access to gold mines and rich agricultural lands, which made a tempting target for Caesar. The most important Gallic tribes at the time of the Gallic wars were the Aeudui, the Belgae, and the Helvetii.

ROMAN INTERVENTIONS IN GAUL

The Helvetii tribe had decided to migrate from their territory to the west coast of Europe, hoping to displace the Aquitani people and establish a new kingdom. The Roman Republic was opposed to this migration, as the formation of a new competing empire on the Republic’s western border was considered a threat to the Republic’s security. Therefore, Caesar stalled the Helvetii’s attempts to negotiate safe passage through Gaul, and assembled his legions to oppose the migration.

At the first clash of the wars, the Battle of the Arar, Caesar surprised the Helvetii people and routed a quarter of their population. Several days later the two forces met and the Helvetii were defeated at the Battle of Bibracte.

The Suebi tribe, led by Ariovistus, had been expanding their territory and were in a position to threaten domination of Gaul. Uncomfortable with a united enemy, Caesar intervened and met the Suebi forces as they attempted to seize the town of Vesontio. Defeating the Suebi in battle, the Romans continued to heavily influence the region.

A third Roman intervention was ambushed and nearly destroyed by the Belgae tribe, who had recently attacked a Roman ally. Caesar managed to reach relief forces, and proceeded to wage a campaign against the Gauls in present day Belgium. The Romans were successful in dispossessing the Gauls, and gained control of Belgium.

EXPANSION INTO GAUL

Having established a foothold in Gaul, Caesar proceeded to attempt to expand Roman influence. Expeditions between 56 and 54BC saw Roman forces going as far as to cross the English Channel into Britannia. These expeditions, however, did little to consolidate Roman power in the region.

GALLIC REBELLIONS

The next two years saw discontent amongst the Gauls ferment into open rebellion. Ambiorix, leader of the Eburones, rose in defense of their homeland and succeeded in destroying fifteen Roman cohorts and nearly ejecting the Romans from the north of Gaul entirely at the Siege of Cicero. The Roman military response all but annihilated the rebels.

A more significant force rose up against the Romans in 52BC, led by Vercingetorix. This force recognized the difficulty of facing Roman forces head on, and instead opted to fight a guerrilla campaign to starve the legions out. However, Vercingetorix was surrounded and defeated at the Battle of Alesia, giving the Romans uncontested dominion over Gaul.

 

BATTLES OF THE GALLIC WARS

Battle of the Arar

Battle of Bibracte

Battle of Octodurus

Siege of Cicero’s Camp

Battle of Alesia

 

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