Episode 9: Gaul Before the Fall
Today we are going to talk about the Gauls between 600 BCE up until around 60 BCE when Rome invades. Before we begin I just want to quickly clarify what historians mean when we say Gaul. After all, the Gauls called themselves Celts, the Greeks called them keltoi which in Latin was Galilei or the singular Galli from which we get Gaul. While early research holds that the Gauls were the predominant race in Gaul newer studies indicate that the Gauls were a minority that mixed with the indigenous peoples. The Romans referred to the peoples in Gaul as Gauls not because they were the majority race but because their language and culture was dominant. Think of it this way: between 100 BCE and 200 CE Rome would conquer much of the Mediterranean spreading their language culture and political system. Yet, we recognize that outside of Italy and even within Italy the Romans were not the dominant ethnic group. Likewise while the Gallic languages and culture dominated Gaul it is not certain that the Gauls were a majority ethnicity. So the people we call Gauls were not a unified Celtic people but a conglomeration of different peoples who after centuries of war were brought forcibly under Celtic influence. So from here on when I say Celt I am referring to a supra ethnic group, whereas when I say Gaul I am referring to a mixed race person living in the area which we now call Gaul who has adopted a Celtic lifestyle. All right, Are we all good and confused yet? Fantastic.
The Gauls were taller than their Greco-Roman counterparts and had white skin, blue eyes and many had blonde or red hair. The Greeks were so impressed by the Gallic figure that they regularly made statues of them as they appeared exotic to the shorter, olive-skinned brown-haired, brown-eyed Mediterranean peoples. By all accounts the Gauls were rugged, physically-fit people who strode into battle with relatively light armor. The Greeks viewed the Gauls as unsophisticated and simple yet in harmony with nature and lacking the decadence of civilization. To use an anachronistic trope, the Greeks viewed the Gauls as noble savages much as Europeans did of Native Americans two millennia later. Physically fit, yet simple morally and untainted by modernity. On the other hand, the Romans didn’t share the Greek appreciation for the Gauls. To the Romans, the Gauls were bloodthirsty barbarians who nearly burned their sacred city to the ground in 390 BCE and later sided with Hannibal in the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BCE. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans did not respect the physical prowess of the Gauls but hated and feared them. The Latin phrase for a call to arms was “tumultus Gallicus” which translates to ‘an outbreak of Gauls.’ Clearly the Gauls were a spectre that haunted the Roman mind for centuries as Latin words for Gaul evoked terror and ruin.
Here I want to go off on a small tangent that I think is truly fascinating and will tie into the broader story, I promise. In the 300s BCE a group of Celtic tribes related to our Gauls travelled southeast into the Balkans in 279 BCE. They attacked the Greek city of Delphi, though apparently the Oracle saw that coming and Delphi successfully repelled the attack. These Celts then travelled eastward into central Anatolia and settled there. The Romans later called this Galatia or Land of the Gauls. And yes, Paul the Apostle’s epistle Galatians was written to these Celtic peoples who inhabited central Anatolia. I didn’t mean to get too sidetracked. I just think it’s interesting that these Celtic tribes moved out from Switzerland and into modern day France while another moved into central Turkey and established their own cultures there and their lands were roughly called the same thing which is ‘land of the Gauls,’ one being Gaul itself and the other being Galatia.
Why were the Celts moving into Gaul. Northern Iberia, Britannia and as far away as Turkey? The first reason is that going back as far as the 800s BCE is that the area that the Celts originally inhabited around Switzerland was getting overpopulated. The second reason by the 300s BCE a new group was firmly in control of central Europe that was pushing out the Celtic populations: The Germans. This warlike, populous people controlled Europe from the Rhine River all the way into Eastern Europe. Outnumbered, the Celts migrated into new lands with relatively fewer people who could be more easily subjugated. For hundreds of years the Celts of Gaul managed to build up their fortresses without any major incursion from the Germans who stayed on the eastern side of the Rhine. By the time the Germans became a real threat to the Gauls, Gaul had already been conquered by Rome. But that comes later. This episode is about Gaul before the invasion.
The Celtic invasion of the land we call Gaul took place around the 6th to 5th century BCE. Archeological findings give us a clue as to why the Celts were successful in their settling of the land and their displacement of the indigenous peoples. The indigenous Indo-European towns had minor fortifications which held off raiders. Celts, however, were not raiders but invaders who came to settle these new lands after much of central Europe became overpopulated. As such, the Celts could engage in prolonged sieges and since they were accustomed to war they overwhelmed the farmers and shepherds who only took up fighting to defend their families and food supply.
We’ve already talked a bit about Celtic religious beliefs so I won’t repeat myself here. If you want to know more you can listen to our episode helpfully titled ‘The Celts.’ But I do want to emphasize the fungibility of religious belief at this time. Europe was an almost exclusively poly-theistic continent. The Indo-Europeans entered this land with a belief that all forces of nature were part of a cosmological hierarchy with a king of the gods ruling over a subset of gods, then demi-gods, then spirits with humans and creatures on the bottom, that’s you all, living on a sentient world which was usually personified as a female deity named Gaia or Terra. As such, religious difference was not the same problem that it would be with the rise of monotheism. Monotheism holds that there is a single God and a single truth and a fundamentalist interpretation of that belief has led to an incredible amount of violence. Polytheism allows for a certain transubstantiability where my river deity and your river deity are probably the same or perhaps different aspects of each other. And in polytheism both of them can be real. After all I’ve only known about my river deity because I live by this river. But I suppose in a far off land where there is another river there could be another river deity so probably we’re both right and I can accept your gods into my pantheon. And yes, please don’t stab me, thank you very much.
One way to think about polytheism and its porous nature is to look at Egypt. Many cities in Egypt worshiped Ra while others worshipped Horus. But when Egypt was unified suddenly people worshipped Horus-Ra. Similarly numerous combinations of different gods such as Osiris-Ra, Horus-Ra and Aman-Ra emerged. When the Greeks invaded under Alexander the Great Zeus was even mixed in with the local deities. As such, Celtic religion was not so much imposed upon the indigenous people of Gaul but merged with their own native beliefs. Likewise, when the Greco-Romans invaded Gaul they probably mixed their deities as well since both of them had numerous deities that shared similar attributes, the most notable being worship of the earth itself as a mother of all.
Among the most interesting of the Gallic rituals was the giving of a part of their treasure to the gods. Gauls would often throw some of the spoils of war into a sacred lake to thank the gods for giving them victory. When the Romans dove into these to seize the wealth they could amass incredible fortunes. Consul Servilius Caepio in 106 BCE estimated that his attack on Gauls near modern day Toulouse brought back hundreds of thousands of pounds of gold and silver when one of the sacred lakes was searched for treasure.
Due to a lack of written sources we know very little about the different Gallic kingdoms and countries and what we do know about individual monarchs or rulers is as much legend as it is history. Instead our primary knowledge about the Gauls comes from archaeology and a very skeptical reading of the Greco-Roman sources. So as I try to create a history of the Gauls know that this isn’t going to be 100 percent accurate but is a mixture of history and myth.
The first great kingdom of the Gauls emerged around 600 BCE and was known as Bituriges. The capital, also named Bituriges, was centered around modern-day Bourges, almost exactly in the center of France. It was a confederation of many clans and became the wealthiest town in Gaul with massive 39 foot stone walls around the city. Add to this that it was bordered by marshes and this fortress was impregnable to any forces of the day. The term Bituriges roughly translates to “kings of the world: as the legendary kings supposedly ruled over an empire that stretched from Iberia, Gaul, Northern Italy and into Germania. In reality these kings almost certainly ruled over a relatively small region, not a continental empire. But let’s not let the facts ruin a good story because the legend isn’t quite over. The most famous of all the kings of the Bituriges was Ambicatus who bequeathed northern Italy to his heir Bellovisus something which I mentioned in the episode ‘Celts on the Warpath.’ By 500 BCE the Bituriges split into two competing clans the Cubi and the Vivisci. Infighting led to a decline such that by the second century BCE the Aedui were the dominant Gallic tribe.
The Aedui ruled from Burgundy just east of the center of Gaul with their capital Bibracte crowning Mount Beauvray. Yet, despite being at the top of the mountain this oppida was an advanced city with a long thoroughfare cutting through both sides of the fortress with long rows of houses that were partially built into the ground. Historian Funke Brenato points out that in the third century BCE Bibracte was a booming city whose workshops and smithies produced more metal weapons and tools than anywhere else in Gaul. Another major industry was enameling, a process where Glass workers attached powdered glass to metal or clay ornaments by heating them to 800 degrees Celsius or roughly 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. This complex and dangerous process could only have been done by a sophisticated, intelligent and inventive group of people. That they did this on top of a mountain, far from many available resources, shows us how well-adapted they were and also how dangerous Gaul was with its many factions, such that the great cities of the time were in marshes and on mountains rather than in the fertile fields which produced more food but which were more easily attacked by the second century BCE.
The Aedui were building an empire in Gaul, conquering numerous tribes. At the same time, a smaller but still powerful and ferocious confederation called the Arverni aimed to establish themselves as the lords of Gaul. The Arverni dominated much of northern Gaul and even commanded some of the Bellovaci, another Gallic tribe in what is today Belgium. This fighting between the Aedui and the Arverni will continue up until, and serve as the cause for the Roman conquest. And speaking of Rome it’s time to bring them into the picture.
As you’ll recall from the last episode in 155 BCE Masallia was under attack by the Ligurians in southern Gaul and called upon Rome for aid. Rome responded and defeated the Ligurians and returned the territory to Masallia. But then in 125 BCE Masallia called for Rome’s help again and this time Rome decided it would take the territory for itself creating the province of Gallia Nabornensis which stretched across southern France. For the first time, Rome was claiming territory within the land of its ancestral enemy. With the Romans encroaching in Gaul, the Aedui decided to ally themselves with Rome in order to counter the rising power of the Arverni.
The Arverni were having none of this, and in 122 BCE their king Bituitus launched a series of brutal raids into Roman territory. In response the Romans invaded and within a year had smashed the Arverni army and captured Bituitus who was forced to wear his silver ceremonial armor as he was paraded in a Roman triumph alongside other spoils. This defeat meant that even more Gallic territory was seized and slowly but surely Rome was overcoming its greatest nightmare. But the nightmare wasn’t over. And in fact it was set to haunt the Romans yet again.
In 109 BCE a coalition of migrating Germanic and Celtic tribes from Jutland led by the Cimbri and the Teutons invaded Gallia Narbonensis. Over the next four years Rome sent three armies to fight the invaders and all of them were crushed. Realizing how serious the situation was in 105 BCE Rome sent two massive armies with over 100,000 legionnares and auxiliaries to fight the invasion. One of the armies was led by the proconsul Quintus Servilius Capio while the other was led by the Consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus. Normally a professional army of this incredible size could defeat even the largest horde of barbarian invaders. Yet, internal divisions within the army weakened its ability to coordinate. As Consul, Maximus should have been the leader. However Maximus was a novus homo or ‘new man’ meaning that he was the first of his household to hold his position as Consul. The prideful proconsul Caepio was from a powerful and established noble family and refused to submit to Maximus. The result was that the armies camped separately. The two armies even camped on opposite sides of the Rhone River near modern day Orange when pursuing the Cimbri, endangering their entire force.
On October 6th 105 BCE the Cimbri army appeared measuring perhaps 200,000 strong. But luck was on the side of the Romans, at least temporarily. The Cimbri, despite their ferocious reputation and recent history of defeating the Romans, were looking to find a peaceful solution to their mutual problem. While the Cimbri were more than willing to kill a Roman or two, the sight of over 100,000 gave them pause. This pause allowed Maximus to convince the rebellious Caepio to move his camp to the other side of the river. But Caepio moved his camp dangerously close to the Cimbri as he wanted to be able to make the first move and dictate the course of battle. At this point the Cimbri leader was looking to negotiate peace terms rather than engage in a costly battle that would decimate both sides. Naturally, he appealed to Maximus as the ranking general. Caepio saw this and was outraged, knowing that successful peace negotiations would result in Maximus receiving glory and wealth beyond anything the aristocratic Caepio could dream of. Consumed by rage at this upstart possibly surpassing him, Caepio ordered his armies to attack the Cimbri.
While the Roman armies together were outnumbered roughly 1 to 2, Caepio’s army alone was outnumbered 1 to 4. Now if you don’t understand how warfare works in general let me explain a very basic rule in war. From ancient times to present, numbers have an exponential effect on battle. Let me explain. Let’s say for a moment I went to a bar with four of my friends. While there we run into four members of the Podcast on Germany, which is an excellent podcast. The two of us get into a heated argument at which point a fight breaks out. Now, the French history podcast has five fighters and the Podcast on Germany has four. For the moment, let’s assume that each of our fighters are equally skilled, although clearly the French History Podcast listeners are the toughest podcast fans there are. If it’s five versus four then each of our members is going to pair up with one of theirs, while we have one member left over to help and one of the fights. This is absolutely essential to understanding how warfare works. Every human being can only fight one person at a time, Jackie Chan excluded, meaning that this fight with five Frenchies and four Germans is actually four individual fights. Three of those fights are 1 v 1s while one of those fights is 2 Frenchies vs. one German. What is going to happen if we assume that all of us are evenly matched is that the three friends each fighting one German will hold their own. Meanwhile that one fight where two Frenchies are fighting one German is going to end very quickly as the two easily defeat that one German. Then what will happen is that the two Frenchies will find themselves without an opponent. Now those two Frenchies will look over at the closest fight taking place next to them and assist in another 1 v 1 fight, turning it into a 3 v 1. As quickly as that 2 v 1 ended a 3 v 1 is going to end even faster. This frees up yet another Frenchie. Thus a fight between one group of five people and one group of four people of equal fighting ability isn’t going to result in one person left standing. A snowball effect will kick in as the superior numbers of one side will free up more fighters to gang up on their opponents. Thus, a fight between five against four would probably result in three Frenchies left standing and all four Germans being defeated. This is the most important law of war and if you understand this you will get a better grasp on warfare across all times.
Each individual battle is different. Troop morale, training, weaponry geography and weather affect battle, but one constant is that superior numbers, if they have the ability to engage their opponent, have an exponential effect on the battle’s outcome. There are times when one force is able to neutralize the numerical advantage, as was the case with the Spartans at the Hot Gates at the Battle of Thermopylae. They were a small force that held off hundreds of thousands of Persians because literally only so many soldiers could fight at once between the two cliff sides. But as long as there is a relatively open space and both armies have the ability to engage each other superior numbers have an exponential effect on the battle.
So when Caepio attacked the Cimbri he was outnumbered at least 4 to 1. Even with superior Roman training there was no way this wasn’t going to turn into a disaster as the Roman soldiers on the flanks of the army had to fight off numerous warriors at once while they were being surrounded by the overwhelming force. The result was that Caepio’s force was almost entirely annihilated while killing relatively few of their opponents. At the start of the day, the Cimbri looked like they were aiming for a peace settlement but now that they had just easily wiped out a massive Roman army they were filled with overwhelming confidence and bloodlust. Thus they turned on Maximus’ army which was undoubtedly demoralized having witnessed an equally sized army just get slaughtered. What’s worse is that the army had nowhere to run as they had camped by the Rhone River.
The result was an unmitigated disaster. The Romans were demoralized and surrounded by a highly motivated fighting force that was at this point more experienced than their Roman counterparts, having now destroyed their fourth Roman army in just as many years. Most of the Romans were slaughtered on the field. Many Romans who tried to swim to safety drowned due to the weight of their armor. There were very few who escaped to tell of this disaster. This was the single greatest military defeat the Romans face in over a hundred years when they were up against the armies of Hannibal. As a result the Cimbri menace remained to haunt Rome.
Yet the Cimbri were not a marauding or invading force. The Cimbri were settlers looking to find land of their own. As a result they did not immediately move into Italy. On the contrary the Cimbri seemed to genuinely want to carve out some space for themselves and didn’t want to fight the Romans. As a result some of them marched into Iberia where the Iberians actually fared better against the Cimbri than the Romans whose pride and insistence on large-scale pitched battles resulted in crushing defeats against the Cimbri’s superior numbers.
At this point the Romans realized they needed a battle-tested leader to pull them out of this crisis as Scipio Africanus had done in his victory over Hannibal. To accomplish this task they turned to Gaius Marius, one of the most important figures in the history of the Roman Republic. Fresh off his victory against Jugartha in Numidia, which is modern day Algeria, Marius instituted what are known to history as the Marian Reforms. Before the Marian Reforms the Roman army operated like most armies throughout the world. They were staffed by generally wealthy people. The reason for this is that only the wealthy could afford to leave their estates for long periods and fight while their poor workers tilled the land for them. This and the fact that the wealthy often had to provide their own weapons and horses. Marius created a professional army by having the state pay for the arms and salaries of its soldiers. This opened up military careers to even the poorest Romans and the part-time soldiers of the Roman Republic were replaced by professionals. Thus the quantity and quality of the military greatly expanded due to these reforms as the aristocratic part-time soldiers were replaced by masses of poor laborers who took up soldiering as a career.
In 102 BCE Marius marched out into Gallia Narbonensis with his professional army and camped at modern day Aix-en-Provence. Marius was a calculating general who wasn’t consumed by the pride that had destroyed so many previous Roman armies. On the contrary, by this point the invading barbarians were overtaken by pride due to their numerous victories and chose to attack Marius’ army which was camped on top of a fortified hill. The Romans waited for the army to tire themselves out charging uphill and then cut them down. On July 30th, 101 BCE Marius’ victorious legions met the Cimbri’s main host in northern Italy. Using trickery and cunning, Marius lured the Cimbri cavalry into a trap, destroyed them and then broke the main army. The Cimbri were now utterly defeated and Rome was once again master of Southern Gaul after a long and brutal war.
One of the main beneficiaries of Roman victory was the Aedui, that Gallic confederation that sided with Rome against their rival Gauls the Arverni. But the Arverni must have realized the power that the Germans presented. The mostly German invading force had conquered much of the Roman holdings in Gaul and nearly defeated Rome. The Germans had assailed the Celts pushing them west of the Rhine. But what if the numerous German tribes could be turned against a mutual enemy? This wasn’t too far fetched an idea as Rome possessed wealth far beyond any other country in all of Europe and was the natural target for barbarians looking for plunder. After the war ended, a generation of relative peace lasted in Gaul until the 60s BCE when the Arverni struck a deal with Ariovistus, the German king of the Suebi confederation. to fight the Aedui. Helpless against these overwhelming forces, the Aedui succumbed to the Celto-Germanic confederation which rampaged across central Gaul. Seeing this, Rome knew it had to act or else risk another unified Celto-Germanic invasion. Thus began the Gallic Wars as the Romans appointed an ambitious general to defeat the Gallic nightmare once and for all, named Gaius Julius Caesar.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Richard Engels
Braudel, Fernand, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 1949.