Episode 17: A Bitter Peace
The defeat of Vercingetorix and the amassed forces of Gaul sent a clear message that Rome could not be defeated in pitched battle, no matter the circumstances. Yet, a handful of Gallic leaders still dreamt of independence and led their states into rebellion under the belief that if state after state engaged in simultaneous guerrilla war tactics it would wear down the Roman occupiers.
In response, Caesar amassed an army of two legions and marched against the Biturigies and his forces came upon them while they were foraging, forcing them to flee. Caesar offered clemency to neighboring states if they turned over those Gauls in rebellion. Since the previous wars devastated them, they agreed, and the Biturigies rebellion was crushed not by a Roman army but by their fellow Gauls who feared another apocalyptic war.
After dealing with the Biturigies Caesar marched to the Carnutes’ territory. Just as they approached a terrible storm rolled in and Caesar and his men sheltered in the abandoned town of Genabum, while the Carnutes were literally left in the cold. As the storm calmed Caesar left a guard in Genabum and turned his men loose in Carnutes territory where they razed and sack town after town, driving out most of the tribe.
As soon as he was finished with the Carnutes, he learned the Bellovaci were in rebellion and marched out to meet them, in a year that was quickly turning into a game of whack-a-mole. As he approached, Caesar then sent his cavalry out in cohorts to capture prisoners and learn the location of the Bellovaci. He then learned the Bellovaci were leading other tribes to create a massive army to oppose Caesar and drawing out every man who could hold a sword.
Caesar then stationed three legions at the head of his army, with the baggage behind and a fourth legion in the rear, disguising his numbers from the enemy. At this point Gauls and Germans were integrating into the legions and Caesar may have had more Gauls fighting for him than any one tribe could muster against him. Then he ordered fortifications to be built in order to trick the Gauls into thinking he feared an engagement. Caesar then ordered reinforcements, which the Bellovaci learned of, putting a timer on them.
Despite this the Bellovaci were terrified of Caesar and fled before him, even burning their camp to put distance between themselves and the Romans, before fortifying a hill. As the Romans approached they captured a spy who told them a party of 7,000 Bellovaci were waiting to ambush foragers. In response, Caesar sent out a great number of elite guards to join the foragers. A battle ensued and when the Bellovaci tried to retreat they became trapped by the thick woods and rivers and most were killed. Seeing their doom, the entrenched Bellovaci blamed the entire rebellion on the leader of the ambush the Romans had just killed. In response, Caesar berated them, saying no one man could be so influential (pretty ironic for someone so narcissistic). Despite this he knew their forces were diminished so he gave them clemency while taking more hostages.
This show of strength and mercy meant other Gallic states sent emissaries and hostages to Caesar. But Comius of the Bellovaci refused to give hostages, so Caesar attempted to have him assassinated in a council. A Roman centurion drew a sword and struck him in the head, but amazingly Comius survived and fled. This attempted assassination caused fear among the Gauls of Roman treachery.
Caesar then split up his army to deal with potential pockets of resistance, realizing no general revolt was possible. He then marched to the country of Ambiorix with orders to his men to leave it in utter ruin. He then sent his trusted lieutenant Labienus to fight the Treveri who frequently rebelled and who he considered as savage as the Germans who they bordered. Meanwhile the Pictones tribe was in a civil war between the pro and anti-Roman faction, with a large anti-Roman army assaulting the town of Limonium. Caesar sent two lieutenants to aid the pro-Roman Pictones and the rebel leader Dumnacus fled. As he did the Roman cavalry seized his baggage trains and slew much of his forces. Dumnacus ordered his men to stand in line for a last stand, but when the legions arrived they broke in terror and fled, leaving the cavalry to cut them down.
Caesar spent the year travelling from tribe to tribe offering clemency except for those who instigated the revolts. By this manner he turned the Gauls against each other, and the Carnutes turned over their rebel leader who was whipped to death and had his head cut off to add to a growing list of Gallic leaders who had lost their heads fighting Rome. Caesar then heard that an army of Pictones numbering only in the thousands were holding out on a rocky hill town and decided to make a show of them. He marched with his legions and fortified the area around the town. This denied the Pictones access to the nearby springs and rivers, leaving those inside to slowly die of thirst. After a few days Caesar’s tunnellers sapped the water from the spring from underneath them, causing their last source of water to dry up. The Gauls despaired thinking that the gods did this and they submitted.
But the Pictones had surrendered too late. Caesar was done with leniency and ordered the hands of all those who had raised arms against him to be cut off to provide living examples of what happens to those who oppose Rome. For the rest of the year Caesar and his commanders engaged in mop-up operations across Gaul and there was no hope for them of a general revolt. Caesar dealt kindly with those who submitted and gave them friendship, as he genuinely wanted to avoid another war, because he knew that a greater war was about to begin between himself and Pompey and he wanted to draw on the strength of Gaul to help him win. Thus the Gallic Wars ended in one final year of quiet capitulation and utterly ruinous revolts. The preceding years had been so utterly devastating that when revolts broke out they were so small that the Roman garrisons could do away with them, though they were hardly needed as more often than not fellow Gallic leaders would put down the revolts themselves so as not to incur the wrath of Rome.
The peace that settled over Gaul was a bitter one. Caesar’s wars and Vercingetorix’s scorched earth policy lead to mass deaths. It’s estimated that of the roughly 5 million Celts who lived in Gaul in 58 BCE, 1 million were killed while another million were sold into slavery. The remaining 3 million didn’t live as before as much of their great cities had been razed. The new large cities were made as Roman garrisons, meaning that the Gauls often lived under the watch of Roman armies, and were subjected to Roman law and custom. Those that didn’t lived in small towns in the countryside, and were incapable of organizing serious revolts.
After the Gallic Wars, Gaul remained relatively peaceful. No doubt most Gauls were tired of fighting the Romans who at this point appeared unbeatable. Before the Gallic Wars, Gaul was undergoing a period of creeping Romanization as Roman trade, language and political patronage entered Gaul. Military occupation meant that Romanization occurred rapidly as Rome exercised direct control over the Gauls and forcefully imposed their way of life upon the Celts.
In retrospect we must ask: what did the Gallic Wars mean for Gaul and for Rome? For Gaul this was the end of their independence and a fundamental reordering of their identity. The Celts identified themselves largely by tribal affiliation while the Romans went by citizenship. While tribes would not disappear entirely, their status as Roman subjects and later citizens became far more important.
For the Romans, success in Gaul fundamentally changed the Roman Republic and soon the Roman Empire. To explain why this was so momentous we need to use a new historical tool and that is environmental history. While human thoughts and cultures may change the world around it, especially in our current age of machines, the farther back we go through history the more the environment shapes humans. Thousands of years ago, most cultures in the Eastern Hemisphere with large populations lived in and competed for territory within an environmental zone. This zone straddled a latitudinal line stretching from Spain and Morocco in the west all the way through India and China in the east. This environmental zone is the largest of its kind on Earth and due to the relatively similar climate many plants and animals in southern Spain can be transported all the way from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast and still survive. The Earth was significantly colder 5,000 years ago when Egypt and Sumeria first emerged and this zone was ideal for early human habitation. This led to the far largest concentration of people and trade across this zone than any other.
There were of course natural boundaries to this zone. In Africa the Sahara desert divided Mediterranean Africa from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Europe the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Balkan mountains divided Mediterranean Europe from northern Europe. Finally the Himalayas divided the subcontinent of India from the rest of Asia, much to the chagrin of Alexander the Great. Thus a human community developed, though it was segmented between the Mediterranean world, Greater Persia, India and East Asia, and goods, people and ideas flowed across it. Throughout antiquity the bent of empires bordering the Mediterranean has been to conquer along a latitudinal line correlating with the Mediterranean environment. The Achaemenid Persian Empire stretched from northern Greece in the northwest, Egypt in the southwest and through to Iran and what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. This was a vast geographic landscape but had a relatively similar environment. Likewise, when Alexander the Great built his empire it stretched from Greece and Egypt into northern India.
By all accounts, Rome was set to follow this trend of expanding along a similar environmental biome. Before the Gallic Wars Rome was a wholly Mediterranean civilization, controlling Italy, Spain, Northern Africa, Greece, Anatolia, the Levant and Syria. But then two events occurred that produced a remarkable shift in world history: first: Gaius Julius Caesar led one of the most successful wars in Roman history and subdued an Atlantic country. The Celts inhabited a separate eco-space from the Romans. But southern Gaul with its warm Mediterranean coasts served as a gateway for trade and the exchange of culture, peoples and ideas. This, combined with Caesar’s own military genius meant that this large Atlantic nation was now brought into a Mediterranean system. But just as Rome brought Gaul into the Mediterranean world, Gaul pulled Rome toward Europe, as Rome invaded Britannia, Helvetia (or modern-day Switzerland), western Germania and the northern Balkans. While Caesar conquered Gaul, Marcus Licinius Crassus led one of the most disastrous Roman invasions into Persia. This weakened the Roman ability to wage wars in the east, and warned the Persians and divided Arab tribes to Roman ambitions and the weaknesses of their armies.
In summation, something incredible happened in the 50s BCE that had unimaginable consequences for world history. Centuries of cultural exchange between Rome and Gaul, Caesar’s legendary military genius and finally Crassus’ legendary stupidity meant that Rome was expanding in a way that was completely unlike previous empires. The Gallic Wars united the Atlantic World with the Mediterranean World to wholly reshape the geo-cultural landscape, creating something far similar to the ‘Europe’ we think of today, as Rome expanded into Continental Europe while largely foregoing expansion into western Asia. Rome was becoming less of a Mediterranean civilization and more of a European one. But this was only occurring very slowly; for a century Gaul was an impoverished part of the empire, and soon Rome would conquer its last major non-European territory of Egypt. So, for the time being, Rome remained a Mediterranean-based civilization. But change was coming as Rome continued its successful expansions across the temperate zones of Europe and failed to invade eastward.
Thus a momentous change occurred as human interactions overcame environmental determinism and this Mediterranean people found it easier to put on coats and march northward than to take their normal clothes and march eastward. That might not sound like the biggest deal, but for ancient peoples, who largely lived and died within a hundred miles of where they were born, to travel from warm, sandy beaches lined by cypress trees and march into snow-covered forests of pine trees is a huge shift in human behavior. While the Romans thought the conquest of Gaul was incredible because it meant final Roman victory over the barbarian peoples who sacked their capital three hundred years before, in hindsight the biggest change Gaul brought was that it pushed Rome northward and began the slow transformation of a Mediterranean power into a European power.
Though this process would take a few more centuries. In the meantime, it’s time to end our tale of Caesar, because after this episode he won’t play much of a part in the history of Gaul, though in fairness he has done enough. With Gaul finally pacified it was time for Caesar to leave as winter was approaching. Since this was the last year Caesar was governor and consul he proceeded slowly to Italy. As was his custom he visited many towns on his way back, held festivals, uplifted priests and made himself well-known and maybe even admired by the town-dwelling Gauls who received him. Caesar had spent 8 years giving them the stick, and by all accounts the Gauls were grateful for the carrot. As Caesar left he decided to make Labienus governor of Gaul, which was illegal, in order to ensure he had a supporter in power in a province that was now loyal to him personally.
Caesar camped with an army in northern Italy while Pompey and the Senate waited tensely in Rome. Pompey made the first move and had the Senate order Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome since his term as governor and consul had ended. Caesar knew he would be prosecuted or assassinated if he entered Rome and refused to disband his legions, leading Pompey to accuse him of treason. On the 10th of January, 49 BCE, Caesar crossed the Rubicon river and started a civil war. In our next episode we will examine Gaul as it became a Roman province and the process of Romanization over this conquered Celtic nation.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.