Introduction – A clash of cultures
Fought between the Roman Republic and several Gallic tribes (mostly from areas constituting present-day France and Belgium), the Gallic Wars from 58-50 BC for-all-intents-purposes alluded to the clash of cultures. To that end, the Roman army of the 1st century BC was a disciplined force with its veritable command structure and military organizations. Even the Roman soldiers could be considered close to being ‘professionals’, with their wages paid directly by the state and their military tenures encompassing years of service. The Gauls on the other hand saw warfare as an extension of their culture, with courage and ritualism playing their crucial roles in bolstering the morale of the soldiers. And while their elite forces were armed superbly and had experience in conducting raids and battles, the bulk of the Celtic troops lacked any formidable supply system and command chain that could logistically (and strategically) sustain their vast armies on the campaigns for extended periods.
1) Gauls versus Gauls –
Interestingly enough, while we see the Gallic Wars essentially as a mega conflict between the Romans and the Celts, at least two of Caesar’s initial five legions were composed of troops levied from the areas comprising Cisalphine Gaul, a Roman province that was not integrated into Roman Italy till 42 BC (that is eight years after the end of the Gallic Wars). Simply put, many of these Roman troops were essentially Gauls, though born and brought up under Roman administrative systems (and possibly culture).
Furthermore, while these Romanized Gauls fought in the typical legionary manner with more-or-less uniform arms and armaments, they were further supported by auxiliary troops who were levied directly from allied Gaulish tribes and even distant Germanic realms – most of whom followed their own set of military commands and battlefield tactics. So in essence, like most conflicts in history, the Gallic Wars didn’t really pit singular civilizations against one another, but rather alluded to the encounter between two different spheres of influence then existing in ancient western Europe.
2) The multifarious scope of the Roman army –
In one of our previous articles about the Roman legionaries, we discussed how all Roman men aging between 17 and 46 were liable for military service – though the peak age for enlistment tended to be skewed towards the early 20s age group. And interestingly, each legionary had to claim his origo (origin) from a city or at least a town. However in spite of such claims, the vast majority of the legionaries came from a rural background – possibly because the rural folk were considered to be more hardy with higher levels of endurance. As a result, their city-based origo credentials were often fabricated during the time of enlistment, usually by the officials themselves.
And while legionaries tended to be armed uniformly, it was the auxiliaries who truly presented the dynamic scope of the Roman army. Usually recruited from fringe provinces of the Roman Republic along with neighboring states, these auxiliary troops preserved their native brand of fighting styles and tactics. One apt example would pertain to the use of Gallic and Germanic mounted units by the Roman forces. Possibly recruited from the elite ranks of the Roman allied tribes, these horsemen formed the main cavalry arm of Caesar in his Gallic campaign. Interestingly enough, given the Roman penchant for flexibility in operations, Caesar even recruited slingers from the Balearic Islands along with skirmishers and archers from distant Numidia and Crete.
3) The Celtic warrior –
As we mentioned before, the Celts while being one of the warrior societies of ancient Europe, approached warfare as an intrinsic extension of their culture, as opposed to a systematic scope adopted by the Romans with logistical solutions. This translated to varied types of armor worn by their warriors, with the equipment rather mirroring the economic status of the individual (in contrast to the general uniformity of the Roman legionaries). To that end, the elite and richer sections of the Gaulish tribes exhibited armors and weapons showcasing high-levels of craftsmanship – with items like coolus helmets, mail shirts and long slashing swords. In fact, as a testimony to the refined degree of Gallic craftsmanship, many of such equipment were actually adopted by the Romans themselves.
One should also understand that ancient Celtic society was based on the mutual appreciation of physical security, which in turn endowed the nobles with the power of ‘providing’ the security to the commoners. And the scope of security was needed quite regularly since the Celts were often involved in ‘aggressive’ activities, ranging from cattle rustling, slave raiding and trading to even clan-based vendettas and warfare. In fact, these bunch of so-termed low intensity conflicts rather prepared the young Celtic warrior for actual warfare, not only psychologically (since courage was not seen as a virtue but rather viewed as expected behavior), but also tactically, like honing his weapon-handling, and most importantly demonstrating his martial reputation as a warrior.
4) The superior cavalry –
Till now we had mostly talked about the general soldier (and warrior) types of the factions involved in the Gallic Wars. However while cavalry was still not the dominant force on the ancient European battlefield (in contrast to the medieval times), the Gauls were clearly better in horsemanship when compared to their Roman auxiliary counterparts. One particular example would relate to the acrimonious defeat of the Roman cavalry at the hand of the Nervii horsemen in 57 AD.
And much like the Roman cavalry auxiliaries, the Gaulish cavalry forces were filled by the wealthiest members of their society. Now it should be noted that stirrups were probably not used by these troops, which partly negated their ability to mount cyclic charges on their infantry-based foes, unlike later-day knights. However at the same time, the Celtic saddle design was sturdy and effective enough for a skilled rider to maneuver his sword or spear thrust, while also allowing him to throw javelins and projectiles. And interestingly enough, even beyond the armor and skill of the horse-mounted warrior, there was tactical acumen to consider – like the co-ordination between some Germanic cavalry and their light infantrymen that shockingly took the Romans by surprise.
5) The contrast –
Kate Gilliver in her co-authored book Caesar’s Gallic Wars 58-50 BC says – “Gallic and Roman fighting styles were the complete antithesis of each other.” So in essence, while the end goal pertained to a victory on the chosen battlefield by any means necessary, the approach to warfare in these two cultures were distinctly different to each other. For example, the Roman military cornerstone was the deep organization of its army, with formations and team-work viewed as preferred factors when it came to dynamic solutions for winning an encounter. On the other hand, the Gauls were motivated by the valor shown in the battlefield through individual deeds, thus making the encounter itself a spectacle where rich nobles and champions could flaunt their ritzy armor, heavy weapons and indomitable courage.
Now while objectively, both of these approaches had their limitations – with Romans relying heavily on the discipline and training of even their new recruits and Gauls depending on the ardor of their elite warriors to carry forth the day, the Romans clearly had an advantage in close-quarter infantry fighting, especially when it came Gallic opposition. That was because of the tactical system adopted by the Romans that allowed them to fight in compact formations armed with the gladii (short swords for thrusting). In contrast, the Gauls preferred to swing their arms and long slashing swords – actions that needed space and looser formations. So in a way, the Roman solid formations countered the Gauls by snatching away the room needed for boisterous weapon swings. Also such tactics rather aided the Romans to maintain their cohesion and discipline, factors that were ultimately more helpful in winning engagements than the flair of the Celtic champions.
6) Brutus and his grappling hooks –
By 56 BC, after two major engagements against the Helvetii and the Nervii, the Romans had established their control (albeit precarious) over the eastern parts of the Gaulish lands. In fact, pertaining to the latter tribe, the Nervii were almost successful in inflicting a heavy defeat on Caesar’s forces, especially after their cavalry triumphed over the Roman auxiliary horsemen – but the day was saved (for the Romans) by reinforcements coming from two inexperienced legions who wheeled back to the battlefield after capturing the enemy encampment.
In any case, now the Romans were pitted against the Veneti, who in spite of losing most of their hill-forts in the land, successfully managed to salvage most of their wealth by virtue of their maritime endeavors. And much of the tribe’s navy, suited to the rough sea-water, shifted to the Atlantic coast of Brittany. To that end, the general sturdiness of Venetic ship-designs made them almost invincible against ramming. So as a result, the desperate Roman fleet under the command of one Decimus Brutus (who later became one of the chief instigators of Caesar’s assassination; not to be confused with Marcus Brutus – one of the chief assassins) devised the ingenious tactic of using grappling hooks that would allow them to cut the rigging of the heavy Venetic vessels.
Simply put, this tactic handicapped the maneuvering power of the Venetic ships that were mostly depended on their sails – thus rendering them as immobile targets floating on the high sea (a predicament exacerbated by lack of wind on that fateful day). On the other hand, the Romans ships relied on oars, which allowed them to catch up with the Venetic vessels, and then destroy them in a piecemeal fashion from morning till sunset. And while this audacious naval ploy worked in favor of the Romans, Caesar was clearly frustrated by the resistance of these seafaring Celtic tribes – as can be discerned by his command to execute many of the Veneti elders and sell high numbers of the Veneti population into slavery.
7) Caesar, ‘war crimes’ and pontoon bridges –
Caesar’s impressive generalship during the Gallic Wars was often accompanied by ‘bloodthirsty’ streaks. One blatant example would relate to the episode (in 55 BC) of the Usipi and Tencteri, both Germanic tribes that resolved to cross the Rhine after being driven out of their own lands by the Suebi. Now Caesar’s policy restricted these tribes to settle in Gaul, and he enforced his statute by sending around 5,000 Roman auxiliary cavalry to threaten the Germans. Unfortunately for the Romans, the Germans with their mixed cavalry tactics (as we mentioned before) and 800 horsemen were able to rout the force, and even killed around 74 of the Roman men. Caesar saw this as an grave affront to the Roman army and promptly attacked the German camp. The aggressive maneuver totally took the Germans by surprise – resulting in the massacre of not only men but also women and children. According to Caesar’s own accounts, his punitive action caused around 430,000 casualties – though the figures were surely exaggerated.
And intriguingly enough, Caesar didn’t just stop at the bloody massacre, he even endeavored to cross the Rhine to further intimidate the Germanic tribes. And Rome’s first invasion of Germany was complemented by ingenuity, with one fascinating example pertaining to the 437 yards (400 m) long floating bridge deployed to cross the Rhine river. This tactical trick caught some fringe villagers off guard, who were showed the Roman force of arms. After demonstrating his superiority in arms, Caesar promptly withdrew from the Rhine territory and dismantled his hastily-constructed pontoon bridge, all within just 18 days.
And while these actions may seem excessive and brutal, one should also objectively understand that many of the deeds (and crimes) were actually planned by Caesar as publicity stunts to earn prestige among the fellow Romans and even Gauls and Germans. Simply put, in a fervent bid to outmatch his rivals Pompey and Crassus, Caesar couldn’t let go of the opportunity to be the first Roman to invade Germany, which would have boosted both his public image and political mileage. However relating to the latter, there were some political enemies of Caesar who actually threatened to prosecute him on charges of war crimes once Caesar’s governorship term was over.
8) The invasions of Britain –
By 55 BC, the Romans had managed to subjugate many Gallic tribes, including the factions of Aquitania (south-west France) as a result of victories under Publius Crassus, the son of Marcus Licinius Crassus and a noted cavalry commander of his day (who led as a junior officer under Caesar, much like Brutus). They even managed to make of a show of their strength by crossing the Rhine and ‘defeating’ some of the Germanic entities. But the act that pushed Caesar into the focal point of public imagination back at Rome, arguably relates to the audacious invasion of Britain – an incredible feat that was never tried before by any Roman general.
Caesar even had the casus belli for invading the foreign (and mysterious) land, with reports of the British Celtic tribes (Britons) helping their continental brethren with ‘possible’ military assistance. But much like Rhine episode, the British campaign was probably more of a calculated move by Caesar to bolster his publicity. Unfortunately, while the notion was clearly cunning the execution lacked in its logistical capacity – with Romans crossing the English Channel at Kent with just two under-prepared legions.
The problems were exacerbated when the supporting cavalry forces were unable to make their landing due to high tides. The army disembarked after much difficulty and straggled their way to build a roughly defensive encampment. But they were already cut-off from supplies and the Britons even managed to ambush many of Roman grain harvesters. A short-pitched battle ensued with the legionaries just being able to hold their positions, and Caesar promptly demanded hostages from the British tribes. But the precarious nature of his expedition becomes quite evident on account of the Romans withdrawing from the Kent coast on the arrival of spring (and thus storm season), before their spurious demands were met – thus making the expedition last only 20 days.
Fortunately for Caesar, his first ‘invasion’ of Britain was wildly celebrated in Rome with a decreed public thanksgiving of 20 days. More importantly, Caesar returned to conduct his unfinished business in Britain in 54 BC – and this time around the Romans were amply supplied by transport ships and reinforced by a total of five legions and two-thousand cavalry. And while having similar difficulties during landing and also facing hit-and-run resistance from the elusive Britons, the Romans finally scored their first major victory in Britain by defeating a big raiding party. They were also able to storm the Catuvellauni capital, the hill-fort of southern Britain’s most powerful tribe (possibly located in modern Hertfordshire), and consequently most of the proximate tribes surrendered to the Romans. So finally after negotiating opportune terms of surrender and annual tributes, Caesar returned triumphantly back to Gaul.
UPDATE: The second part of the article can be viewed by following this link.
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