A migrating wave of Celts from Switzerland gives Caesar the opportunity to invade Gaul. But things aren't so simple; to conquer Gaul he'll have to defeat a German king before he can bring over an overwhelming number of warriors.
Hello and welcome to the second episode in the Gallic Wars series. In today’s episode we are going to be covering Book 1 of Caesar’s “Commentary on the Gallic Wars,” which corresponds to his first year of campaigning in 58 BCE. Before we jump into the narrative itself and send Caesar headlong into his war, we need to briefly introduce our main source. “Commentary on the Gallic Wars” is often regarded as a masterpiece of ancient literature, and has been widely used as a textbook for Latin learners, due to its clear style. The reason for this is that Caesar wanted to reach a wide audience, and his books made him a hero as his exploits were read aloud in squares all across the Mediterranean world. I thoroughly enjoyed reading his works, which are available online for free. The works consist of 8 books, though the ‘books’ are about as long as a ‘book’ from the Bible, rather than the 300 page books we think of today. So, if you want to read Caesar’s epic, I do recommend it, though you may want to do so after our series is done; you wouldn’t want any spoilers after all.
While the Commentary is a masterwork of the Latin language, it does suffer from many historical flaws. For one, it was a work of propaganda, and as such, Caesar omits most battles he lost or were indecisive. I don’t doubt Caesar was a great general, but if you read the Commentary you’d think he only made one or two mistakes in 8 years of campaigning. There were almost certainly a few battles that went sideways for Caesar, armies or rumors of armies he chased but lost track of, and other setbacks, though these are largely absent from the story.
A second problem with the works is Caesar’s depiction of his enemies’ numbers. This is usually par for the course in ancient writing, as ancient historians wildly overestimated their opponents armies. This was both because they didn’t have accurate numbers for their enemies and because they wanted to cast themselves as the heroic manly warriors who could stand against the barbarian hordes. But there’s another reason why the Gallic forces were always depicted as overwhelming. Caesar needed a justification for his wars. Caesar had to depict the Gauls, the Belgae and the Germans as the numberless throngs of savages so that he could continue his wars of plunder and conquest. This is especially true as the wars dragged on. When Caesar first started his war, it was mainly a war to accumulate wealth to pay off his own creditors. As the war dragged on, he illegally added four legions to his hosts, for a total of eight legions. Of course, no one would dare challenge one of the Triumvirs who also had eight legions behind him, so this illegal move went unpunished. But Caesar still needed a justification for his ever-expanding war machine. That isn’t to say that there weren’t legitimately large armies in Gaul that opposed him. Sometimes there genuinely were hordes of Gauls and Germans to fight. What I’m saying is that regardless of whether there were genuine threats to Rome or not in any given year, Caesar claimed there were to justify his constant military expansion.
A third flaw in the Commentary is the motives of Celts and Germans; and just to clarify, I am using the term ‘Celts’ to refer to the 4 Celtic nations involved; don’t worry I’ll get to that in a second. Caesar goes into great detail about inter-tribal politics among the Celts and Germans, but the end result is always the same: a conspiracy to threaten Rome. Sometimes Caesar claimed that the Celts and Germans were threatening Rome when they weren’t at all. Other times Caesar claimed that they threatened Roman interests abroad. Still other times Caesar claimed that they threatened Roman military bases. Each of these were used as his justification to invade more territory. Regardless of whether Caesar’s accusations were true it’s worth considering Celtic and Germanic motives from their viewpoint. Whenever the Celts and Germans developed into a confederation Caesar used it as a pretext to go to war, claiming that this presented a threat to Rome. While Caesar may have been right, couldn’t we say the exact same thing about Rome? If Celts assembling a massive army is justification for Roman invasion, then wouldn’t the Celts be justified attacking Rome if they were assembling an army? In fairness to Caesar, the Celts and Germans had invaded Roman territory before, but the point remains that Rome was now claiming it could determine military precedent outside it’s own territory, which the Celts and Germans must have thought absurd and insulting, especially when Rome claimed it could pick who was going to lead certain Celtic tribes simply because it’s political power extended into Gaul.
Finally, there is the threat to Romans within Gaul itself. Oftentimes the Gauls would assemble an army to attack one of Rome’s military bases within their territory. In response, Caesar would condemn the attack and invade whichever tribe was responsible. While Caesar claimed he was maintaining the peace and using his military bases abroad to keep the Celtic and Germanic people from uniting, I think one can understand how a Gaul would see it differently. A Gaul wouldn’t view an attack on a Roman base within Gaul as an attack on Rome, but as a defense of their own homeland. To Caesar though, an attack on his bases was an attack against Rome itself and it provided him with one more justification for conquest.
A fourth and final problem with the Commentary is that Caesar didn’t report the sales of the prisoners of war from his conquests. It is without question that Caesar amassed an incredible number of prisoners of war, which were sold into slavery. It is estimated that between 500,000 to a million people were sold into slavery over the course of the Celtic Wars. Despite this, Caesar never reported on prisoners of war, because POWs were technically under the jurisdiction of the Senate, and as such the Roman state, rather than Caesar personally, would have been entitled to the money from the sale of slaves. As such, Caesar conveniently forget to mention capturing any POWs. While most Romans probably knew he was lying about this, they largely didn’t care. After all, Caesar’s wars were highly popular. But what’s even more important is that the massive number of slaves pouring into Rome was a huge boon to its economy. Since this is a podcast on French history I’ve skipped over a lot of Roman history, but it’s worth noting here that the Gallic Wars began a mere thirteen years after the Third Servile War. What was the Third Servile War? While that name might not ring a bell for most people, I’m sure ‘Spartacus’ does. During the Third Servile War, over 100,000 slaves revolted, rallying around the former gladiator Spartacus. After the war ended, Italy’s slave supply was low, and many middling houses couldn’t afford slaves due to the high prices. The half a million to a million slaves Caesar pumped into the Roman world meant that the rich got numerous slaves on the cheap and middling noble houses could afford a slave and achieve that status symbol that eluded them for so long. Finally, more slaves meant more gladiators for the Roman games, which appealed to the masses. Caesar’s selling off of slaves without giving the Senate a cut may have been illegal, but it proved so profitable that nobody thought it was worth it to challenge Caesar.
So, those are the main things to keep in mind as we go into the Gallic Wars, which we are doing, right now. Caesar begins the Commentary by saying that Gaul is divided into three regions. Here, he is excluding Roman-held territory within Gaul. If we include the Roman province of Narbonensis, which is that strip of land stretching across Southern Gaul and connecting Italy with Hispania, then there are four regions. The other three regions are Aquitania, Celtica and Belgica. Aquitania roughly corresponds to modern-day Aquitaine. It is a relatively small area in the southwestern corner of Gaul that reaches into the Pyrenees and into Hispania. Aquitania is largely unimportant to our story; the Aquitani were less numerous than the other Celtic tribes and because the most populous Gallic tribes were in north-central Gaul, the Aquitani were incapable of joining them when a large anti-Roman confederation was made. Suffice it to say, Aquitania was conquered by a subordinate of Caesar’s while he was off fighting more important foes.
Which brings us to the next territory, which is the center of our story: Celtica. Celtica roughly corresponds to modern-day France, minus Aquitania and Narbonensis in the south and in the north some of what is today France, was part of Belgica then. However, Celtica stretched further east than modern-day France, as it stretched into modern-day Switzerland. Celtica was where the vast Gallic tribes lived in their rich and illustrious oppidums. Celtica was divided into numerous different tribes, but in general the tribes of Celtica were united by a common ethnolinguistic background. Since the Gauls were Celts, they were the cousins of the Aquitani, the Belgae and the Britons, who made up the four Celtic nations of ancient world.
Which brings us to our final part of Gaul, Belgica. The word Belgica clearly corresponds to modern-day Belgium, but don’t let that fool you: Belgica was much larger than just Belgium, as Belgica included part of northern France, Luxembourg, and much of the southern Netherlands. As such, Belgica was a sizeable place with a noticeably large population; not as large as its neighbors but certainly large enough that its people weren’t conquered by the Gauls or Germans. It was also a very important place because of its position. Belgica was closest to Britannia and as such it was one of the crossroads of the north Atlantic world. Goods were traded between Britannia, Germania and Celtica. When Caesar wrote about the Belgae he claimed that they were the farthest of the Celts from civilization, meaning they were hardy, warlike and lacking the effeminacy of city-dwellers. Scholars agree that this comment was Caesar’s way of depicting Rome as the center of civilization and the farther one got from it the more savage people were, so we have to take this quote with a grain of salt. Despite this, the Belgae certainly had to be tough, considering that they were outnumbered by their neighbors.
So, those are the four regions of Gaul. Narbonensis in the south, which is a part of Rome, Aquitania, the small area in the southwest along the Pyrenees. Celtica, the vast land of the Gauls, and Belgica, the far north which was bordered by the sea to its west and north and the Rhine river to the east. Yet, these aren’t the only regions Caesar will war with. There are two more beyond Gaul that are essential to our story. The first we’ll look at is Britannia. To the Romans, Britannia was the edge of the world, but to the people of Gaul, Britannia was that island where their wild cousins lived. Britannia was not a far-off, mystical place, and northern Gauls and Belgae often ventured to and traded with the Britons. According to Caesar, Britons involved themselves in wars in Gaul and provided safety for their cousins fleeing the Romans. As such, Britannia was one more part of an interconnected Atlantic World, which is why as Caesar fights the Gauls he realizes that as long as Britannia is free, Gaul will never truly be settled, due to the cross-Channel connections shared by these Celtic peoples.
There is one final region we need to talk about before our war can begin, the all-important otherworld of Germania. Before the Gallic Wars, no recorded Roman had ever crossed the Rhine river into Germania. As far as the Romans were concerned, Germania was a vast land that covered all of northern Europe, stretching from the Rhine in the west, all the way to Scythia, or modern-day Russia, in the east. And in the Roman mind, Germania contained the numberless hordes of German warriors, driven half-mad by the freezing winters, wearing thick furs and running screaming into battle. Because of this, one of Rome’s primary national security concerns was making sure the Romans didn’t cross the Rhine river, because if they got a foothold on the other side this could open the door to millions of invaders. Furthermore, this concern was shared by the Belgae and the Gauls, who fought brutally to keep the Germans on the other side of the Rhine because of the same fear.
Even today, modern historians don’t know much about Germania during this time. Based on archeological evidence and what written records are left, the Germanic peoples didn’t construct large cities or monuments. Instead, they were spread out in numerous tribes across a vast area that included much of Central and Eastern Europe. One thing that kept Germans spread out was the terrain. Travel was much easier in the Mediterranean due to the easily-managed sea routes, while in Gaul the numerous low valleys lent themselves to habitation. The land north of the Alps was covered in a vast, thick woods. It was much colder than it is today, meaning that few traveled along the north seas. For all these reasons, the Germans were divided politically and geographically. For much of our narrative Germania will be a dark shadow over the events taking place. While the Gauls and Romans fought each other, both would look over their shoulder to make sure that they weren’t overwhelmed by a mass migration.
This fear was what started the Gallic Wars. In our last two episodes I mentioned that the Arverni tribe was tired of the Aedui ruling over Gaul, and invited the Suebi tribe of Germans to conquer the Aedui sometime around 60 BCE. This they did, and while there the Germans took over other Gallic tribes, as every fear the Gauls had came to life as the Germanic king Ariovistus had come as a conqueror. Rome wasn’t ready to intervene then, but as 120,000 Germans marched into Gaul within a few years they knew this had to be stopped. In 59 BCE Caesar was proclaimed governor of Gaul and by early 58 BCE all he needed was an excuse to involve himself in the Gallic Wars.
This excuse came when the Aedui leader Dumnorix hatched a plot to unite with the Helvetti tribe and reconquer North-Central Celtica from the Arverni-German alliance. Dumnorix engaged in secret negotiations with Orgetorix, the leader of the Helvetti, a tribe of Gauls in what is today western Switzerland. Dumnorix married Orgetorix’s daughter, sealing an alliance. Orgetorix stirred his people up, claiming that the Helvetti would leave their homes on the frozen northern side of the Alps and march towards a land of settled oppidums, and incredible wealth. There the Helvetti could be wealthy and powerful and stand at the political, geographic and financial center of the Gallic world, rather than its eastern fringe. While Orgetorix was entreating his people to join him, other leading members of the Helvetti tribe accused him of trying to seize power for himself, making himself king. Thus, the Helvetti started to fight amongst each other. Orgetorix died while on the run, possibly a suicide but we’ll never know.
While Orgetorix was dead, he had stirred a fire in the Helvetti tribe. Other leaders took his place and urged the people that their future was west, in the heartland of Celtica. According to Caesar, the Helvetti packed up what belongings they could and then burned their homes. Before heading west, they marched east to Noreia, in modern-day Austria, and attacked the city. This city had been a trading partner of Rome, providing them with the highest quality swords in all of Europe.
After attacking Noreia they marched west, towards mainland Celtica, around March. When Caesar heard of this he marched out to Geneva to meet them with one legion, while ordering for more to be raised. In early April, the Helvetti, not wanting to anger Caesar, sent ambassadors to ask for permission to peacefully move through the Roman province of Narbonensis. In response, Caesar pretended to deliberate, while destroying the bridges out of Geneva. After that Caesar made a wall, 18 Roman miles long, sixteen feet high, with a trench from Lake Geneva to Mount Jura, to close in the Helvetti.
The Helvetti attempted to cross over into Gaul using boats but were assailed by Roman missiles. The Helvetti then wanted to march north, through the territory of the Sequani. The Aeduan leader Dumnorix still wanted to bring the Helvetti into an alliance with himself to fight the Arverni and Germans. Dumnorix was popular with the Sequani and arranged for the Helvetti to march through their territory.
Caesar’s spies told him the Helvetti were marching north, but that they also wanted to move south into Midwest Gaul, which was dangerously close to Narbonensis. This is almost certainly propaganda on Caesar’s part as he had to make the Helvetti look like a threat to Rome, when they were in all likelihood meeting up with the Aedui for an inter-Gallic fight in the middle-north. Claiming that the Helvetti might loop around south, Caesar assembled 5 legions from Italy and marched through the Alps into Transalpine Gaul, fighting his way through.
It is here that Caesar begins to his ascent from man to myth. In the following passage Caesar says.
“There is a river [called] the Saone, which flows through the territories of the Aedui and Sequani into the Rhone with such incredible slowness, that it can not be determined by the eye in which direction it flows. This the Helvetii were crossing by rafts and boats joined together. When Caesar was informed by spies that the Helvetii had already conveyed three parts of their forces across that river, but that the fourth part was left behind on this side of the Saone, he set out from the camp with three legions during the third watch, and came up with that division which had not yet crossed the river. Attacking them encumbered with baggage, and not expecting him, he cut to pieces a great part of them; the rest betook themselves to flight, and concealed themselves in the nearest woods. That canton [which was cut down] was called the Tigurine; for the whole Helvetian state is divided into four cantons. This single canton having left their country, within the recollection of our fathers, had slain Lucius Cassius the consul, and had made his army pass under the yoke. Thus, whether by chance, or by the design of the immortal gods, that part of the Helvetian state which had brought a signal calamity upon the Roman people, was the first to pay the penalty. In this Caesar avenged not only the public but also his own personal wrongs, because the Tigurini had slain Lucius Piso the lieutenant [of Cassius], the grandfather of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, his [Caesar’s] father-in-law, in the same battle as Cassius himself.”
This is a truly remarkable passage, that shows that Caesar blended destiny and opportunity to the point where no one can say where one ends and one begins. Did Caesar really fight against a legendary enemy of Rome? Perhaps. But regardless of whether or not he did, Rome’s humiliation at their hands was in the past and one of many setbacks Rome had faced. But Caesar took this minor skirmish with a fleeing group of migrants and made it the first of his legendary exploits, as he molded himself into the savior of Rome and bane of its barbarian enemies.
Seeing that Caesar had five legions at his command the three remaining cantons sent ambassadors calling for peace, while also warning Caesar not to start a fight with them as they reminded him about ancient defeats. Caesar was undaunted and demanded hostages, which the Helvetti refused and withdrew deeper into Celtica. Caesar trailed the cantons with his army, and his cavalry engaged in brief skirmishes as the legions shadowed the Helvetti.
While the Romans marched many Gallic tribes withheld grain from Caesar as many supported the Helvetti as liberators against the status quo. It was at this point that Caesar discovered that Dumnorix wanted to use the Helvetti to reconquer Aedui territory taken by the Suebi and Arverni. Caesar would not allow for mass migrations of Gauls as it threatened Roman interests, and as such, condemned Dumnorix. Then he summoned Divitiacus, Dumnorix’s brother, who was in high standing with Rome, to judge Dumnorix. Divitiacus in tears begged for Dumnorix’s forgiveness. Dumnorix was then summoned and Caesar ceremonially forgave him. The fact that Caesar claimed that Dumnorix had transgressed against Rome by conspiring with other Gauls to settle an internal affair in Gaul tells us all we need to know about Caesar and Roman power at the time. Rome thought it perfectly reasonable that they should exercise veto power over large-scale activities in Gaul; that Dumnorix wanted the Aedui to chart their own destiny was a crime against Rome.
While Dumnorix and the Aedui symbolically submitted to Rome, this still left the Helvetti loose in Celtica. Caesar’s armies continued to shadow them across mountains, hills and plains, until Caesar broke off the hunt to march to Bibracte, near modern-day Autun, north of Lyon, for food. Seeing this the Helvetti believed Caesar was afraid of the power of their tribe and turned around and the hunter became the hunted. In response, Caesar used his cavalry to buy time while he formed his legions into a line across two hills, facing the Helvetti and put his baggage train behind them. At this point, Caesar supposedly abandoned his horse, to stand by his men, risking his own life beside them. Honestly I’m not sure if this is propaganda or not. It sounds like propaganda, but then again Caesar was beloved by his men, and he did idolize Alexander the Great who supposedly did the same.
Caesar recounts the battle as such, speaking in the third person. “His soldiers hurling their javelins from the higher ground, easily broke the enemy’s phalanx. That being dispersed, they made a charge on them with drawn swords. It was a great hinderance to the Gauls in fighting, that, when several of their bucklers had been by one stroke of the (Roman) javelins pierced through and pinned fast together, as the point of the iron had bent itself, they could neither pluck it out, nor, with their left hand entangled, fight with sufficient ease; so that many, after having long tossed their arm about, chose rather to cast away the buckler from their hand, and to fight with their person unprotected. At length, worn out with wounds, they began to give way.”
Just as the Romans looked like they were victorious, two Gallic tribes, The Boii and Tulingi, decided to fight alongside their fellow Gauls against the Roman invaders and battle was renewed. After seven hours of fighting the 130,000 Helvetti army retreated. While they got away Caesar stayed for 3 days to care for the wounded and bury the dead, then followed them into the Lingones territory in northeastern Celtica. Weary and having already faced a defeat the Helvetti sued for peace. That night one canton fled, leaving only 2 of the original 4. Caesar ordered food to be given to them and that they return to their own land, lest Germans occupy it.
This was an incredible victory for Rome and for Caesar personally, as it impressed their power upon the Gauls. Caesar recounts “When the war with the Helvetii was concluded, embassadors from almost all parts of Gaul, the chiefs of states, assembled to congratulate Caesar, [saying] that they were well aware, that, although he had taken vengeance on the Helvetii in war, for the old wrong done by them to the Roman people, yet that circumstance had happened no less to the benefit of the land of Gaul than of the Roman people, because the Helvetii, while their affairs were most flourishing, had quitted their country with the design of making war upon the whole of Gaul, and seizing the government of it, and selecting, out of a great abundance, that spot for an abode, which they should judge to be the most convenient and most productive of all Gaul, and hold the rest of the states as tributaries. They requested that they might be allowed to proclaim an assembly of the whole of Gaul for a particular day, and to do that with Caesar’s permission, [stating] that they had some things which, with the general consent, they wished to ask of him. This request having been granted, they appointed a day for the assembly, and ordained by an oath with each other, that no one should disclose [their deliberations] except those to whom this [office] should be assigned by the general assembly.”
As we shall see, Celtica frequently had governing conventions overseen by Caesar, and it was at this moment that the Gauls realized that (1) Rome is the new great power in Gaul (2) Rome could be used to counter-balance external threats. Thus, the Gauls probably saw Rome as less of a threat than the Germans, because Rome was only slowly encroaching upon Gaul, while the Germans had invaded swiftly and in large numbers. It was at this point that the Gauls told Caesar of the 120,000 Germans that had entered Gaul on the invitation of the Arverni to fight the Aedui. The Gauls warned Caesar that Ariovistus, king of the Germans, had seized the land of the Sequani, his former Gallic allies, and cruelly invited more Germans in to take their holdings and that unless Rome did something, all Germans would cross over the Rhine into Gaul.
It is here that Caesar portrays Ariovistus as a sadistic torturer. Whether this was Gallic propaganda fed to the Romans to get Caesar to fight the Germans, or Caesar’s propaganda to depict himself as a hero against a perverted wicked king, we’ll never know. Believing he was the new master of Celtica, Caesar ordered Ariovistus to meet him. The German king refused, fearing treachery. Caesar sent out new envoys and demanded Ariovistus halt the incoming Germans and restore the hostages he’d taken. Ariovistus replied that Rome governed conquered nations as it willed, therefore the Germans could do the same. While negotiations were ongoing Caesar learned that a new batch of Suebi were migrating over. Alarmed, he marched out to attack Ariovistus.
As Caesar neared, Ariovistus called for a meeting, at which point the Roman general and the German king rode out with their elite guard to negotiate. It must have truly been a strange site for both, as the olive-skinned, mid-sized Mediterranean man in shining armor, stared down the hulking wild-haired German, covered in furs. Undaunted, Caesar demanded Ariovistus return to Germania and let the Aedui rule Gaul. Ariovistus scoffed, insulted, and claimed he was invited by the Gauls and won his spoils in war, giving him every right to hold onto his lands. With negotiations going nowhere, Ariovistus’ cavalry hurled weapons at Caesar and his guards. Caesar hastily retreated rather than fighting. According to Caesar it was because he didn’t want to kill any Germans and give Ariovistus an excuse to say he was attacked first, though I’m guessing Caesar was still human enough to run away when a bunch of angry Germans were hurling spears at him.
At this point Ariovistus knew there was no avoiding a fight, unless he wanted to be chased back into Germania. The German king swung his army around to come between Caesar and his supply lines. In response, Caesar lined up his army for battle. Caesar waited for five days but Ariovistus remained entrenched, only skirmishing with cavalry. Caesar then moved his camp retaking a position to resupply himself with food from his Aedui dependencies. A small battle ensured before Ariovistus retreated. It was then that Caesar learned that Ariovistus would not engage because his matron diviners told him that he could not win a battle before the new moon. Upon learning this, Caesar led his troops against the Germans and thus began the Battle of the Vosges.
Caesar himself led the right wing against the German left, which he believed was their weakest. From behind the German army, their women were gathered, crying out to them to get them to fight desperately as defeat meant everything would be lost. The Germans rushed forward so quickly the Romans couldn’t throw their javelins and dropped them while swordfighting. It was during this battle that Publius Licinius Crassus, son of the Triumvir Marcus Licinius Crassus, first proved himself in battle by ordering the reserve to support the Roman right. After a hard-fought battle the Germans broke and fled, those that weren’t quick enough to get across the Rhine were cut down. We can only guess what happened to the women, children and elders left behind, though I am guessing they became one of the potentially million slaves sold into Rome.
Caesar’s first year in Gaul was an unmitigated triumph. First, he had become the recognized master of Celtica, forcing all the Gauls to submit to his authority in matters of state. Even those allied to Rome such as the Aedui, who only wanted to call upon their brothers the Helvetti to expel a foreign invader, now had to appeal to Rome first. Caesar’s second victory, came from the expulsion of the Germans, as he had expelled or sold into slavery 120,000 invaders and stopped a new wave of migrants from crossing the Rhine. His third victory was the mass numbers of slaves he was able to sell off, which lined his coffers and kept his creditors off his back, if only for a while. Finally, Caesar’s propaganda war was working marvelously. He had defeated a legendary enemy of Rome, and stared down a German king. His legend was now rivalling Pompey the Great, as Caesar angled himself as Rome’s new master.
But if Caesar thought Gaul would submit to him this easily, he had another thing coming. As Caesar wintered in Italy, and 58 BCE turned to 57 BCE, Celtica quieted down as it recovered from the war. But up in the north, the Belgae were organizing. Seeing Rome bring Celtica to a heel, the Belgae began to form a confederacy against a possible Roman invasion.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.