15 things you should know about the Gallic Wars (Part II)

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You can take a gander at the first part of “15 Things You Should Know About The Gallic Wars” here.

9) The heroism of Cicero –


Illustration by Angus McBride.

We ended our previous article with Caesar triumphantly returning from Britain to his ‘home base’ of Gaul in 54 BC. But as history had proven time and again, military dominance always didn’t translate to actual administrative (and cultural) control. And thus while majority of Gaul was nominally under Roman subjugation, many parts of the vast region were still boiling cauldrons of resent and insurrection. One of such open acts of rebellion dearly afflicted the Romans, with Ambiorix and his Eburones tribe (Germanic in origin, though living west of the Rhine) along with northern Gallic allies managing to wipe out an entire legion and five cohorts under Quintus Titurius Sabinus, who wrongly trusted the former’s feigned offering of safe conduct in case of an invasion of Germanic mercenaries.

The result of unexpected victory encouraged many of the northern Gauls, and thus the instigated Aduatuci, Nervii and their allies decided to rise up in arms and take the fight to the Romans based on their territory, on the similar pretext of feigning to offer them safe passage (in case of a Germanic invasion). But this Roman camp was under the leadership of Quintus Cicero, the younger brother of the famous orator, and he was resolved to not make the same fatal mistake like his army colleague Sabinus.

And so began the defense of Cicero against a multitude of Gallic forces, with the Nervii even using the Roman tactic of circumvallation (aided by Roman prisoners), wherein the besieged defender was surrounded by a line of fortifications made by the attacker. And while the strategy to trap the Romans by their own device worked initially, Cicero didn’t budge from his defensive position – even after weeks of determined attack by Gallic forces who used siege towers and arson. However time was of essence, and the Roman morale and numbers were both dwindling fast. But fortuitously Cicero was able get his message to Caesar, and the proconsul reacted in his timely fashion by force marching up to 20 miles a day to relieve his stranded officer. And ultimately Caesar was able to hand down a heavy defeat to a Nervii army (possibly 60,000 strong) that had moved away from the siege to counter the general’s two legions. In any case, it is estimated that Cicero’s defending force suffered around 90 percent casualties – and yet they managed to hold on successfully against aggression of a now motivated enemy.

10) Druids and revolt –


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In the following year (circa 53 BC), the Romans under Caesar took the offensive by campaigning against the rebellious elements in north-eastern Gaul. Reinforced by three more legions (two of them being newly raised and one even borrowed from Pompey), Caesar even crossed the Rhine for the second time to intimidate the Germanic tribes that had been supporting the Gauls. But in spite of victories and punitive measures, the political climate in Gaul was becoming dire for the occupying Roman forces. And finally in the winter of 53 BC, a large scale revolt ensued, (possibly) partially fueled by Caesar’s notion of transforming Gaul into a full fledged Roman province.

Interestingly enough, while previously Gallic tribes fought as separate political entities against the Romans, many of them were now united on basis of what they perceived as socio-religious ‘duty’. One of the reasons for this incredible outcome was because of the instigation of the Carnutes, who more-or-less occupied the central ‘sacred’ lands of Gaul where druids customarily met to settle disputes between various tribes. These regions were militarily vulnerable to the approaching Romans, which in turn gave an young, charismatic Arvernian noble named Vercingetorix the opportunity to create a ‘grand’ coalition of defending Gallic tribes.

Additionally it should be noted that the Roman Republic’s precarious position in Gaul was further exacerbated with the onset of winter that logistically threatened to cut off its armies from supplies. And while the Romans did successfully capture many fortified Gallic towns (oppida) on their way to crust the revolt, Vercingetorix adopted the defensive strategy of not offering the Romans direct battle. Instead the Gauls frequently raided Roman foraging parties, abandoned their own oppida and even followed a scorched-earth policy in a bid to deplete the enemy supplies (and morale), and thus snatch away their momentum to operate in full scale.

11) ‘Scorpions’ to the rescue –


Source: Historum

Unfortunately for Vercingetorix, while his strategy was taking its toll on Romans, he was convinced to defend Avaricum from his foes, possibly due to the good defenses presented by the oppidum. And that is where Caesar took his opportunity to pin down his enemies, a feat quite remarkable considering that his army had to build a gargantuan terrace (of 330 ft width and 80 ft height) in just 25 days time through the only gap of the town’s natural defenses.

However beyond engineered terraces, the Roman advantage when it came to siege battles, arguably related to their usage of various mechanized weapons. The catapults are the prime example of such an advanced tactic, with two types mainly operated by Caesar’s army in Gaul – the ballista (for throwing stones) and scorpion (for shooting heavy crossbow-like bolts). And while stone-throwing siege weapons like ballistae were useful for breaking down rudimentary fortifications, they were not so effective (unlike simpler battering rams) against some Gallic oppidum designs that entailed a reinforced combination of earth, timber and stone ramparts.

On the other hand, the less-bulky scorpions were rather used as anti-personnel weapons, while at the same being more modular in design that allowed them to be transported quite easily by the Roman engineers. So matching up with the modus operandi of Caesar’s fast deployment and attacking stratagem, these artillery weapons were crafted to be precise and even silent – in a bid to catch the enemy unaware of the deadly projectile coming his way. In essence, the scorpions proved their value in various engagements during the Gallic Wars, with one particular example pertaining to the siege of Avaricum when the Gauls tried to set fire to the aforementioned terrace. Targeting them from afar, the Roman army scorpions caused massive casualties among the desperate (and even suicidal) Gallic warriors attempting to fire the constructed passage. This ultimately led to the breach of Gallic defenses, and the Romans vented their winter-long frustration on the town inhabitants by looting and pillaging that left over thousands dead (according to Caesar, the heinous figure stood at 40,000).

12) The defense of Gergovia –


Credit: Callaghan Swearengen/prezi.com

The sacking of Avaricum was undoubtedly a setback for the Gallic coalition, and the next target for Caesar (circa spring of 52 BC) would pertain to Gergovia, the fortified stronghold of the Arverni, the tribe of Vercingetorix. But unlike in the case of Avaricum, the Gallic noble was fully willing to defend his ‘home’ oppidum, possibly because of the rigorous hilly terrain that dominated the surrounding landscape of the hill-fort, which would have made its defense more effective. Caesar on the other hand was bolstered by fresh supplies with the start of a new campaign season, which logistically allowed him to bring forth an impressive force of six legions.

And with typical Roman resourcefulness, Caesar was able to successfully capture a few hills around the parameter of the main hill-fort. These actions might have even resulted in the Roman interception of the principal water supply of the oppidum, and thus effectively gave Caesar an advantage before his planned final assault on Gergovia itself. However confusions mitigated any such military leverage, with Caesar mentioning (in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico) how some of his forces acted prematurely by directly attacking the walls of the hill-fort after capturing a nearby connecting hill.

The aggression, possibly led by some impetuous centurions, had cost the Romans dearly, with Gallic defending forces inflicting over 700 Roman fatalities (46 of them being centurions). Now when it comes to unbiased history, scholars are still not sure if it was serious miscommunication or an uncharacteristic error on the part of Caesar himself (considering he distanced himself from the failure). In any case, the loss of so many officers curtailed the maneuvering capacity of the besieging Romans, and thus Caesar was forced to withdraw from Gergovia, resulting in a rare Gallic victory – which further enhanced the reputation of Vercingetorix.

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13) The siege of Alesia –


So the stage for the showdown at Alesia was set, with Caesar being determined not to repeat his miscalculation at Gergovia and Vercingetorix being confident after his recent success against his foe. In fact, the latter was so self-assured that he allowed his forces to be hemmed in at Alesia, a large hill-fort situated on a plateau 30-miles north of modern Dijon. His plan was to raise a separate relieving army that could catch the besieging Romans in a pincer movement with the help of the defending forces inside the oppidum.

But Caesar had other plans to counter his outnumbering foes (with possibly over 80,000 men), with his adopted strategy pertaining to use of a grandiosely conceived circumvallation of the hill-fort. This extraordinary feat of Roman military engineering (and ingenuity) translated to a massive ditch on the plains to mitigate cavalry attacks on the workers. As a result, the protected working parties were able to construct a fortified rampart with palisades and even towers in regular intervals, accompanied by double-ditches, seven camps, 23 redoubts and a flurry of booby traps (comprising hidden pits with sharpened stakes and barbed iron spikes). The inner line of his impressive circumvallation covered 11-miles, while the outer line (to counter the Gallic relieving army) encompassed 14-miles; and the entire defensive system was built in a month.

Caesar didn’t even order for an assault on Alesia itself, and thus the Gauls had to take the bait and sally out to attack the encircling Romans. And while these aggressive maneuvers were pretty well coordinated with the ‘outer’ relieving army, the imposing defensive siege works of the Romans ultimately proved to be an effective bulwark – so much so that starvation was an inevitable outcome for the defenders of Alesia. Finally the relieving force disbanded and Vercingetorix unceremoniously surrendered from ‘within’, thus signifying the defeat of organized Gallic resistance.

14) The last oppidum –


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By 51 BC, the Roman legions had established their dominance over most of Gaul, with both Gallic and Belgic tribes bearing the brunt of Caesar’s punitive actions over the winter. However in 50 BC, south-western Gaul was still offering resistance to Caesar, bolstered by the strongly-fortified oppidum of Uxellodunum. Their leaders Drappes and Lucterius were already experienced in dealing with Roman tactics, and as such even led sorties (to collect supplies) against the almost ‘standard’ circumvallation of the hill-fort by two legions. Unfortunately for the Gauls, Roman reinforcements arrived in a timely fashion to inflict a serious defeat on their foraging parties.

Consequently, the defenders made their stand inside the well-protected oppidum, still supplied by an external spring. The Romans took advantage of this strategic weak point and surrounded the water reservoir with engineered siege ramps and towers. In response, the trapped Gallic forces tried rolling flaming casks towards the besieging forces, but in vain with the Romans being able to diffuse the incendiary objects. And finally the Romans even managed to bore underground tunnels that caused the spring to dry up. The Gauls saw it as divine intervention and abruptly surrendered. Caesar went on to unceremoniously punish (most of) the defenders by cutting off their hands, and thus ended the bloody historical episode of Gallic Wars. As a result, most of the Gallic tribes accepted the Roman sphere of military control, and the conflict ironically heralded the mercurial political climate of Rome that would catapult the victors into a civil war of their own.

15) The slavery factor –


Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar. Painting by Lionel Royer.

Without a shred of doubt, the Gallic Wars not only resulted in appalling loss of human lives but also dreadful damages to the relatively rural infrastructure of Gaul (brought on by both the resource-consuming advancing Romans and scorched earth policy of the defending Gallic tribes). In fact, according to Caesar himself, his conquering forces inflicted fatalities that went beyond tens of thousands in punitive actions that followed hard-won sieges and battles – and these figures abhorrently also included women and children (like in the case of the butchering of Germanic tribes Usipi and Tencteri).

But objectively, the overall Gallic Wars entailed a profitable though long-drawn endeavor for the Romans; especially Caesar who had bankrupted himself in 63 BC. This scope of profitability was fueled by the rampant acquisition and selling of slaves – a very lucrative source of income in the ancient world. Slaves (in high numbers) were readily available after wars of conquests, from prisoners-of-war and even ordinary civilian tribal members. To that end, Caesar himself claimed how he had sold around 53,000 members of the Aduatuci tribe (including men, women and children) after a particular incident in which they feigned surrender and attacked the Romans in 57 BC.

It should also be noted that this very ambit of slave-based economy was monetarily more effectual when slaves could be acquired in very large numbers. And while back in Rome, Gallic slaves were often looked down upon as being ‘barbaric’, they were used as nominal laborers who could break their backs in the agricultural fields, mines and quarries. Interestingly enough, on the other side, the Gallic warlords (before Caesar’s campaign) also engaged in such slave-trading activities with the Romans, in a bid to gather luxury goods like wine and gold coins. Now while for a Mediterranean merchant the deal was seen as being ‘too easy’ – since slaves were often more profitable than mere fixed commodities, the trade was practical for a Gallic warlord. That is because the acquisition of wines (and luxury goods) and their distribution among his retainers would actually reinforce his standing within the tribe structure.

Sources: HistoryNet / Livius / University of Chicago / RomeAcrossEurope

Book References: Commentarii de Bello Gallico (by Julius Caesar – translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn) / Caesar’s Gallic Wars 58-50 BC (by C M Gilliver, K. M. Gilliver)

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