Gallic War, 58-51 B.C.

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Gaul at the Start of the War
58 B.C.
The Helvetii
57 B.C. - The Belgae
56 B.C.
The First Gallic Revolt
55 B.C.
54 B.C.
Winter 54/53 B.C. – Second Gallic Revolt
53 B.C. – Putting down the revolt
52 B.C. – The Great Gallic Revolt
51 B.C.


The Gallic War (58-51 B.C.) was the conflict in which Julius Caesar first emerged as a great military leader, after an earlier career as an impoverished populist politician. A conflict that began with an attempt to preserve stability on the borders of the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul soon turned into a war of conquest. Only after putting down three major Gallic revolts, the last and most famous being led by Vercingetorix, could Caesar claim to have pacified Gaul.

Perhaps the most unusual feature of the Gallic War is that in Caesar's commentaries on the war we have a first hand account of all but the last year of the war, written at the time by the most important figure in that war. Inevitably this gives us something of a one-sided view of the war, although Caesar often reports his opponent's point of view and was willing to accept that his enemies often had honourable motives. It is also worth remembering that Caesar's officers, and many of his men, were literate. Caesar's commentaries will not have been the only source of information on the course of the war available in Rome, and so any blatant distortion of events would have been pointless. Caesar's work was aimed at his contemporaries, and so would have to have been convincing to them. The one area in which Caesar does appear to have exaggerated was the size of the various armies that he opposed, but even then the exaggeration is limited compared to other ancient sources.

Gaul at the Start of the War

Caesar described Gaul as being split into three sections. The north-east of the country, above the Marne and the Seine was populated by the Belgae, the centre of the country was inhabited by people who called themselves Celts, but were called Gauls by the Romans and the area beyond the Garonne River was populated by the Aquitani.  Each of these areas was inhabited by a large number of separate tribes, which were often at war with each other, and had developed a complex series of relationships.

Transalpine Gaul: The Roman Province

The Romans had been present in the south of France since 121 B.C. when they had defeated the Allobroges tribe. Their new province was officially called Transalpine Gaul, to distinguish it from Cisalpine Gaul in northern Italy, but was often simply called 'The Province'. The border between the Province and the rest of Gaul began at Geneva, then followed the Rhöne valley for some way before turning west to reach the Pyrenees. The Via Domitia ran through the Province and linked Italy with the Republic's Spanish provinces. Most of the time Transalpine Gaul was governed separately from Cisalpine Gaul, but in 59 B.C. the governor of the Province died unexpectedly. Julius Caesar, one of the Consuls for 59 B.C., who had already secured Cisalpine Gaul as his province for the following five years, was also given Transalpine Gaul.

In 59 B.C. Caesar was a middle-aged politician with no military reputation. His partners in the First Triumvirate, Crassus and Pompey, both had distinguished backgrounds – Crassus had defeated Spartacus and was fabulously wealthy, while Pompey had ended the Third Mithridatic War and conquered much of modern Turkey. Caesar was a popular politician, who had used unorthodox methods to get two land bills passed during this time as Consul, before arranging to be given a five year command in his new provinces. His conservative opponents in Rome were probably glad to see him removed from the city for such a long time, and had no reason to suspect that Caesar was about to reveal himself as one of the greatest military commanders in Roman history.

The Aedui

In the years before the Gallic War the most important of the Celtic tribes were the Aedui. The Aedui were friends and allies of the Roman people, and their tribal lands were situated west of the Saone and north of the Province.

The Aedui's bitterest enemies before the Gallic War were their eastern neighbours, the Sequani, who occupied the eastern bank of the Saone.


Caesar described the Belgae as being the most warlike inhabitants of Gaul, partly because they were furthest from the corrupting influences of civilisation and partly because they were constantly at war with their German neighbours. As with the rest of Gaul the Belgae were split into a number of tribes, with the Bellovaci, the Suessiones and the Nervii amongst the most important.

The Helvetii

The Gallic Wars were triggered by the Helvetii, a Gallic tribe that lived in modern Switzerland. They were coming under increasing pressure from the Germans in the north and east, and felt trapped with their backs to the Alps. In around 61 B.C. a Helvetii nobleman, Orgetorix, convinced his people to prepare to migrate across Gaul to the west coast where they would establish a new kingdom. This would not have been a peaceful migration – the west coast was after all populated by the Aquitani who would have resisted the invaders. Orgetorix didn't survive long enough to take part in the migration. He was plotting to seize power over the Helvetii, but his plot was discovered and he committed suicide rather than face his trial.

These plans were completely unacceptable to the Romans. Although individual Roman politicians might hope for unrest and a chance to win military glory, as a whole the Republic much preferred to have stable friendly neighbours. A new Helvetian empire on the west coast of Gaul, created by conquest, would not be a stable neighbour. It would also have threatened the Roman road that connected Italy to their Spanish provinces. The migration itself would have caused endless chaos and disruption in Gaul, not least when the Helvetii reached their destination and attempted to overthrow the existing inhabitants of the area. Even if the migrating Helvetii didn’t try to cross the Roman Province, their route would inevitably take them the lands of Rome's allies, the Aedui. There was also the problem of who would fill the gap left behind by the migration – the Romans certainly didn't want a Germanic tribe to move into the newly empty space - there would have been nothing to stop Ariovistus expanding his kingdom south into Switzerland.


The situation in Gaul was complicated by the presence of Ariovistus, a German king who had crossed the Rhine at the invitation of the Sequani, to help them in their wars against the Aedui. His intervention came at the perfect moment. The Aedui requested help from their Roman allies, but in 62 B.C. the Allobroges had risen in revolt, and the Romans were unable to intervene. In 61 B.C. Ariovistus defeated the Aedui at Admagetobriga. By then he had established his own kingdom, taking up to two thirds of the lands of the Sequani. It was probably always going to be only a matter of time before Ariovistus clashed with the Romans, who had a perfectly reasonable dread of Germanic hordes crossing the Rhine, having suffered a series of heavy defeats at the hands of the Cimbri and the Teutones in 113-101 B.C.

58 B.C.

The Helvetii

At the start of 58 B.C. the Romans clearly no longer believed that the Helvetii migration would happen. Caesar had four legions in his massive province, three posted at Aquileia in the north-east of Italy, where there was a threat from the Dacians, and only one was in Transalpine Gaul while Roman politics kept Caesar as close to Rome as he could legitimately reach until mid-March.

Caesar's problems in Rome were resolved just in time, for in March it became clear that the Helvetii were about to begin their migration. They destroyed their towns and villages, and on 28 March 58 B.C. the Helvetii, Tulingi, Latovici and Bpoo gathered on the banks of the Rhone, facing the Roman Province. According to figures given by Caesar a total of 368,000 people were involved in the migration, of whom a quarter, or about 90,000, were fighting men.

There were two possible routes that the migrating Helvetii could take to cross Gaul. The best ran through the Roman Province, and so when they reached the Rhone they asked for permission to cross the border. Caesar had reached Geneva just before the Helvetii, but knew that with only one legion he had no chance of stopping the migration. Caesar gained two weeks by telling the Helvetii that he would consider their request and present his answer on 12 April. Over the next two weeks the Romans destroyed the bridge over the Rhone at Geneva and built nineteen miles of fortifications on their side of the border. On 12 April, with his defences in place, Caesar informed the Helvetii that he could not give them permission to cross the Province.

The Helvetii were forced to search for an alternative route. They were able to call on some of the extensive contacts that Orgetorix had established before his fall. Orgetorix's daughter was married to Dumnorix, a leader of the anti-Roman faction in the Aedui. He convinced the Sequani to allow the Helvetii to cross their lands, and the migration began in earnest.

While these negotiations were going on, Caesar dashed back to Italy to collect his three veteran and two newly established legions. This combined force then crossed the Alps and joined up with the legion already in Gaul.

Caesar's original plan was to wait for the Helvetii to reach the end of their migration before intervening, but by the time he returned to Gaul the Helvetii were about to cross the Saone and enter the lands of the Aedui, who asked Caesar for help.

Caesar's decision to help the Aedui was probably prompted by the discovery that the Helvetii were still crossing the Saone. After a night march the Roman's caught up with and defeated the isolated Helvetii (battle of the Arar). They then threw a bridge across the river, and crossed over in a single day. The Helvetii leaders asked to meet with Caesar, but nothing came of the meeting, and the migration continued.

For the next two weeks the Romans followed close behind the Helvetii, but eventually they began to run short of supplies. Dumnorix of the Aedui had command of the Allied cavalry with the Roman army, and he was making sure that no supplies reached the army. Only the intervention of his brother Divitiacus saved him from severe punishment when Caesar discovered what was going on.

The shortage of supplies forced the Romans to make a diversion towards Bibracte, the largest Aeduan town, where they expected to find supplies. The Helvetii missed their chance to slip away from the Romans and instead turned back to follow them. When Caesar discovered he was being followed he posted his army on the next suitable hill and waited to be attacked. The resulting battle ended in a crushing defeat for the Helvetii (battle of Bibracte), but at some cost to the Romans, who were unable to pursue for three days while they recovered from their efforts. When the Romans did begin their pursuit the Helvetii surrendered. Caesar ordered the survivors to return to their original homeland, where they were to rebuild their towns and villages under Roman protection.


Caesar's next target was Ariovistus and his 120,000 Germans, who had established themselves on the west bank of the Rhine. Caesar describes a meeting with a delegation of leading Gallic nobles who requested his assistance against Ariovistus, but a German presence west of the Rhine would probably have attracted his attentions anyway.

Caesar began by sending two embassies to Ariovistus, each of which was rebuffed. He then advanced rapidly into Sequani territory and captured their capital of Vesontio (modern Besançon). This convinced Ariovistus that it was worth meeting with Caesar, but once again the peace conference ended without any positive results. The two armies then manoeuvred around each other for a few days before Caesar discovered that Ariovistus was waiting for the new moon to satisfy an augury that said he would loose if he fought any earlier.

On the following day the Romans formed up in order of battle, but instead of waiting to see if the Germans would do the same they advanced towards Ariovistus's camp, eventually forcing the Germans to come out and fight. The resulting battle (generally known as the battle of Vesontio despite having taken place some way from that town) ended with a crushing Roman victory. Ariovistus and the survivors of his army fled across the Rhine, and for the moment at least the German threat was removed. 

57 B.C.

The Belgae

Caesar chose to place his army into winter quarters in the lands of the Sequani, well to the north of the Roman Province. He then returned to Cisalpine Gaul to hold the assizes. His motives for this decision are unclear – none are given in his commentary. The most common modern assumption is that this is an indication that Caesar had already decided to conquer all of Gaul. The army was left in the lands of the Sequani either as a provocation or to allow Caesar to begin the next year's campaign as quickly as possible. While he was in Cisalpine Gaul Caesar raised two new legions. This is also taken as a sign that he had aggressive plans for the following year.

There are other equally valid reasons why Caesar may have made this decision. Many later generals would have understood the logic of over-wintering in the territory of recently defeated enemies, thus reducing the burden of maintaining a large army. There was still a threat from across the Rhine. Just before Caesar had defeated Ariovistus a large contingent of Germans had been about to cross the river. They had dispersed after the battle of Vesontio, but could just as easily return, especially if the Romans withdrew back to the south of France.

Whatever Caesar's original motives actually were, the presence of a large Roman army outside the Roman Province worried the Belgae, the inhabitants of north-eastern France and modern Belgium. Over the winter of 58-57 B.C. they formed a league, led by King Galba of the Suessiones, exchanged hostages and prepared to fight the Romans. Caesar states that he was in Cisalpine Gaul, conducting the business of his province, when he received this news. He reacted by raising two new legions, and preparing for a new campaign. At the very least Caesar was now ready to expand the Roman protectorate to include all of Gaul.

One Belgic tribe, the Remi, refused to join the anti-Roman league. They provided Caesar with valuable intelligence on his new opponents, including a list of the tribes involved and the number of men they had promised to bring. According to this list Caesar faced a vast Belgic army. The largest contingent, 60,000 strong, came from the Bellovaci. The Suessiones provided King Galba and 50,000 men, as did the Nervii. The Atrebates promised 15,000 men, the Ambiani 10,000, the Morini 25,000, the Menapii 9,000, the Caleti 10,000. The Velocasses and the Veromandui promised as many, meaning either 10,000 between them or 10,000 each. The Aduatuci promised 19,000 men and the Contrusi, Eburones, Caeraesi and Paemani, a group of tribes known as the Germans, promised 40,000. This gave the Belgae a total of 308,000 men (or 298,000 if the Veolcasses and Veromandui figure is for a single contingent).

This was a massive figure, and would have given the Belgae three times as many fighting men as the Helvetii. Caesar certainly acted as if he believed he was badly outnumbered. His eight legions gave him 40,000 men, although 10,000 of them were new recruits. The army was also supported by a large but unknown number of auxiliary troops – Gallic cavalry, Numidian and Cretan archers and Balearic slingers amongst them. Even if the Belgae only had half as many men as Caesar reports he would still have been outnumbered by two or three to one. In an attempt to counter this Caesar sent Divitiacus and the Aedui on a diversionary raid into Bellovaci territory, which at a key moment after the fighting on the Aisne did indeed help break up the Belgic army.

The biggest weakness of the Belgic army was its supply system. The first clash between the two armies came on the Aisne. Caesar occupied a position that straddled the river, with his main camp on the north bank connected to a smaller camp on the south bank by a bridge. The approaching Belgae attempted to capture the town of Bibrax, but were foiled when Caesar managed to get reinforcements to the town. The Belgae then camped two miles away from the Roman camp. After a series of cavalry skirmishes Caesar decided to offer battle, but neither side was willing to make the first move. Eventually Caesar returned to his camp. The Belgae attempted to cross the Aisne using a ford, but Caesar was able to use his bridge to send his light troops to reinforce the small garrison on the south bank, and this attack was repulsed (battle of the Aisne).

With their supplies running short the Belgic leaders decided to disperse their army and wait for Caesar to make his next move. Unaware of the speed with which a Roman army could move, the Belgae intended to bring their army back together once it was clear which way Caesar was going to move next. This was a disastorous decision. The Romans followed the retreating Belgae, inflicting heavy casualties on them. Caesar then moved so quickly that he reached his next target before their own soldiers had arrived home. Over the next few weeks the Suessiones, Bellovaci and Ambiani each surrendered in turn, normally at the first sight of Roman siege engines.

The only remaining centre of resistance was in the north, where the Nervii, Atrebates, Viromandui and Atuatuci tribes were determined to fight on. Caesar was now becoming rather overconfident. He led his army towards the Nervii, with his six veteran legions at the head of the army and the two new legions at the rear. Towards the end of one days march the Romans reached the Sambre River. Confident that he would not be attacked Caesar ordered all six of his veteran legions to begin building that night's camp. The cavalry and light troops were sent across the river to guard against any attack, but no infantry screen was posted. The Nervii took advantage of this, and launched a surprise attack on the Roman legions. The Nervii advanced so quickly that Caesar didn't have the time to organise his army and only the increasingly professionalism of his men saved him from a humiliating defeat. The Legions formed up in a rough order of battle, with each wing fighting its own battle. The Roman right and centre soon won their battles, but Caesar and the left wing were hard pressed. Caesar managed to restore some order, before the tenth legion and the two new legions arrived to save the day. By the end of the battle the fighting strength of the Nervii had been destroyed. Caesar reported that the tribe's elders claimed that they only had 500 men capable of bearing arms (battle of the Sambre).

This only left the Atuatuci tribe. They had been on their way to join the Nervii, but after the battle of the Sambre retreated back to one of their towns and prepared for a siege. When the Romans built a siege tower and began to move it towards the town the Atuatuci surrendered on generous terms, but on the night after the surrender they attempted to fight their way through the Roman siege works. The sneak attack failed, and having broke the terms of their original surrender the entire population of the town, some 53,000 people, was sold into slavery.

While Caesar was dealing with the Atuatuci one legion under P. Crassus made something of a flying visit to the Atlantic coast, at least officially bringing the Veneti, Unelli, Osismii, Curiosolitae, Sesuvii, Aulerci and Rhedones under Roman control. After two campaigning seasons Caesar could claim to have subdued all of Gaul.

In the aftermath of this success a number of German tribes offered to provide Caesar with hostages to guarantee their good behaviour, but his attention was already turning back to Italy. The Germans were told to return in the next summer, the legions were set to winter in the lands of the Carnutes, Adnes and Turones tribes, close to the Belgic lands, and Caesar departed back to Italy and the other part of his province in Illyricum.

The Romans did suffer one setback that winter. Caesar sent Galba and the twelfth legion to open the Great St. Bernard Pass. After apparently achieving that objective Galba went into winter quarters at Octodurus, but he was then attacked and nearly overwhelmed by a much larger Gallic force. Although the isolated legion eventually repulsed the attack Galba was forced to retreat out of the Alps and back into the Roman Province. Clearly isolated Roman forces, even entire legions, were not yet safe in Gaul.

The Roman people were more impressed by Caesar's achievements than his setbacks. Cicero, who had just returned from a period of exile, proposed that fifteen days of thanksgiving be set aside to commemorate Caesar's triumphs, far more than was normal and five days more than Pompey had been awarded for defeating Mithridates.

56 B.C.

Caesar was never entirely free from the increasingly dangerous politics of Rome. In the spring of 56 B.C. the situation became so dangerous that he arranged to meet his fellow Triumvirs, Crassus at Ravenna and Pompey at Luca. These meetings restored the increasingly fragile unity of the Triumvirate. They agreed to delay Consular elections in Rome for long enough to allow Caesar's soldiers to return to the city and vote Pompey and Crassus in as the Consuls of 55 B.C. In return Caesar's command was to be extended for another five years. He also asked for ten legates and the funds for four extra legions. This request was harder to arrange, but eventually the Triumvirs were able to win Cicero over to their cause, and he was able to arrange for the extra funding. By this time Caesar was already on his way back to Gaul, where the tribes of the north-western coast, led by the Veneti, had risen in revolt. 

The First Gallic Revolt

The first major Gallic revolt broke out on the maritime north-west coast. This area was dominated by the Veneti tribe, which controlled the trade with Britain. Two reasons have been given for the outbreak of their rebellion. P. Crassus, with the seventh legion, was sent to winter with the Andes tribe on the Atlantic coast. In the previous summer he had led a legion through the area, taking hostages and the submission of the local tribes. Now, as supplies ran short, he also demanded supplies. Caesar believed that this, combined with a desire to win back their hostages, led to the revolt. Other ancient authors believed that the Veneti had discovered that Caesar was planning to visit Britain, and were worried that he might steal their trade.

Whatever their true motive, the Veneti revolt began when they seized Q. Velanius and T. Silius, the two representatives sent to request grain. The nearby Esubii and Curiosolitae followed suit and the rebels soon controlled most of the sea coast. The rebels sent a rather optimistic common embassy to Crassus, offering to swap hostages. The seizure of the Roman envoys clearly angered Caesar, who would late use it to justify his harsh treatment of the defeated Veneti.

When news of the revolt reached Caesar in Italy he ordered Crassus to build a fleet in the Loire. As soon as the weather was suitable he left the Italian part of his province, and rushed to join the army.

One of the most significant differences between the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic are the tides. The average tidal range in the Mediterranean is only 28cm, while on the Atlantic coast of France it reaches up to 4 meters. This caused the Romans a number of problems. Most obviously it made navigating the unfamiliar shallow coastal waters around Brittany very dangerous. It also played a major part in the defence of the Veneti towns, most of which were built on isolated islands that were only connected to the mainland at low tide. Caesar soon realised that this made it almost impossible to conduct a regular siege and difficult to even mount a storm. The difficult tides also made it very difficult for the Romans to use their new fleet to land troops on these islands.

Although Caesar rather rushes over the details of this campaign, it clearly lasted for some time, for the Roman fleets were kept in port by storms for 'a great part of the summer'. Caesar describes the Veneti ships in some detail, and in a way that makes it clear that the Romans had suffered some setbacks at sea before the final battle. He also claimed to have captured a great number of Veneti towns, a time consuming processes that apparently required the construction of massive earthwork ramps to allow the Roman army to approach the town walls. Each time a town was about to fall the Veneti simply assembled their fleet and emptied the place.

Eventually the weather improved enough for the entire Roman and Allied fleet, under the command of Decimus Brutus, to leave the Loire and sail up the coast to join the main Roman army. The Veneti decided to concentrate their own fleet to face the Romans. According the Caesar the combined Gallic fleet contained 220 fully equipped warships. The Romans were outnumbered by around two or three to one, giving them somewhere between 70 and 110 ships. The Veneti ships were too strongly built to be rammed and too high sided for Roman missile weapons to be effective, but the Romans did have effective weapon – sharp hooks on long poles that they used to cut the rigging of the enemy ships. After a number of Veneti ships had their rigging cut the rest of the fleet attempted to escape, only to be trapped when the wind fell away. By the end of the day the Veneti fleet had been destroyed, and the tribe was forced to surrender (battle of Morbihan Gulf or Quiberon Bay).

The fate of a defeated enemy depended entirely on the mood of the victor. This time Caesar was in a vengeful mood, apparently angered by the Veneti's failure to respect the rights of ambassadors. The members of the senate were all executed and the rest of the tribe was sold into slavery.

While Caesar had been facing the Veneti, two of his lieutenants were campaigning elsewhere in Gaul. Q. Titurius Sabinus won an easy victory over the tribes of Normandy, who were tricked into attacking his camp, while P. Crassus defeated the tribes of Aquitaine in a campaign that ended when he attacked their camp. Further east Labienus guarded the Rhine, where an expected German invasion failed to materialise.

Caesar's final campaign of the year was less successful. The only tribes that had not yet acknowledged Roman authority were the coastal tribes of the Menapii, who lived in the Rhine delta, and their western neighbours the Morini. As the Romans advanced towards the coast the Menapii and the Morini withdrew into their swamps, and the Romans were unable to catch them. Caesar had to make do with the destruction of some empty villages and then withdrew back to the south to go into winter quarters.

55 B.C.

At the start of 55 B.C., after some political manoeuvring, Pompey and Crassus were elected as the consuls for the year, with the aid of some of Caesar's soldiers. Once they were in power the new consuls passed a bill that gave Caesar his five extra years in Gaul. While this was going on Caesar could only watch from the Italian part of his province, but his command had been secured by the time a threat from across the Rhine forced him to return back to Gaul earlier than normal.

In the fourth year of the war the Gauls were quiet, but at the start of the year Caesar faced another mass migration, this time by two German tribes – the Usipi and the Tencteri. This would lead to one of the most controversial incidents of the entire war - the complete destruction of both tribes. By the time the Germans had been defeated Caesar had arrested their ambassadors (just as the Veneti had done in the previous year), and claimed to have virtually wiped out the two tribes.

Caesar's own view of events is of course slightly different. The Usipi and Tencteri had been forced out of their previous homes by the Suebi. Over the winter of 55-54 B.C. both tribes crossed the lower Rhine, expelling the Menapii. Caesar claimed that between them the two tribes contained 430,000 men, women and children, a figure that is generally considered to be unrealistically high.

When the Germans arrived in Gaul Caesar was wintering in northern Italy. Caesar was still unwilling to let any large body of Germans settle on the west bank of the Rhine, so he would inevitably have led his armies against them. He was also worried that the arrival of the Germans would encourage the Gauls to seek their help in a wider revolt.

Caesar rushed back to Gaul, where he discovered that his fears were justified. The Gauls had indeed sent embassies to the Germans, hoping to draw them further into Gaul to fight the Romans. The Germans had responded by advancing into the territories of the Eburones and Condrusi tribes, areas that were at least theoretically under Roman protection.

On his return to Gaul Caesar held a meeting of the Gallic chiefs where he pretended to be unaware that they had attempted to negotiate with the Germans. He then raised a force of Gallic cavalry and led his army towards the Germans.

As the Romans approached the Usipi and Tencteri sent out ambassadors, offering to serve the Romans as allies in return for land – either the lands they had seized from the Menapii or elsewhere in Gaul. Caesar declined this offer on the grounds that there were no waste lands in Gaul that he could offer them without doing wrong to their existing inhabitants. Instead he suggested that they re-cross the Rhine to support the Ubii in their war with the Suevi.

The ambassadors decided to return to their people to discuss this offer, and asked Caesar not to move his camp any nearer to them for three days while they considered it. Caesar believed that this was simply a ploy to give the German cavalry time to return from a raid into the territory of the Ambivariti, and refused to agree not to move his camp. The Ambassadors returned to their people and the Romans continued to advance.

The next meeting came when the Romans were only twelve miles from the German camp. Once again the ambassadors asked Caesar to stop his advance, and this time Caesar agreed to advance no further than four miles. The Roman advance guard was ordered not to provoke any actions, but only to defend itself if attacked. Having gained this day as a truce, the German ambassadors then left the Roman camp.

Any chance of a peaceful solution to this confrontation ended later that day when a force of 800 German cavalry (limited to the cavalry that were not raiding the Ambivariti) attacked 5,000 Roman and allied cavalry, killing 74 of them. This attack confirmed Caesar's belief that the Germans were only waiting for the right moment to attack. He decided not to accept any more ambassadors and to attack the Germans without any more delay.

The Romans planned to attack on the next day. That morning a delegation of German leaders came to the Roman camp, apparently to apologise for the clash of the previous day. Caesar believed that this was just another attempt to deceive him, and arrested the delegation, which he didn't believe to have the status of ambassadors. Caesar then drew his army up in three lines, with the cavalry at the rear, advanced the remaining eight miles between the two camps and launched a surprise attack on the Germans.

What followed can only be described as a massacre. Caught entirely by surprise the Germans were unable to mount any real resistance. While the men attempted to mount a rearguard action in their camp the women and children scattered into the surrounding countryside, with the Roman cavalry in pursuit. When the Germans defending the camp saw their families being killed they gave up their attempt to defend the camp and fled towards the Rhine. When they reached the confluence of the Rhine and the Moselle the survivors of the men defending the camp threw themselves into the river and drowned. The Romans suffered very few casualties.

Caesar is generally accused of having slaughtered all 430,000 Germans (often just after he has been accused of exaggerating the number of Germans). His text actually suggests that it was the fighting men of the two tribes that were driven into the Rhine. If Caesar's figures are correct then there must have been at least 200,000 women and children in the camps. When they scattered in every direction Caesar only had 7,000 cavalry to send after them, some of whom must soon have been diverted to the pursuit of the main fighting force, so it would seem likely that some at least of the women and children survived to return to Germany. Plutarch's Life of Caesar, written well over a century later, states that 400,000 Germans were cut to pieces, and that the survivors took shelter with the Sugambri, another German tribe.

Caesar's arrest of the final set of German ambassadors certainly provoked a hostile reaction at the time, although a suggestion that Caesar should be handed over to the Germans to atone for his offense was made by Cato, who had a long track record of hostility to Caesar.

Caesar now had his extended command, an army, and no enemies, while in Rome his fellow triumvirs and rivals Pompey and Crassus were gaining prestige. Caesar filled the rest of the year with two spectacular but slightly pointless expeditions outside Gaul. On the grounds that his Gallic enemies had had German auxiliaries, Caesar built the first of his famous bridges over the Rhine, and for eighteen days became the first Roman general to lead an army across that river.

Even though the summer was close to its end Caesar's next move was even more dramatic. He gathered a fleet on the north coast of Gaul, and led two legions on the first Roman expedition to Britain. A combination of the small size of his force and poor weather in the channel limited the scope of Caesar's first visit to Britain, and after accepting the submission of some Kentish chiefs Caesar returned to Gaul.

54 B.C.

Caesar was clearly not satisfied with the results of this first expedition. On his return to Gaul he ordered his men to construct as many transport ships as they could, and by the end of the winter they had built 600 transports and 28 warships. The second expedition was delayed by the need to restore Roman authority over the Treveri, and by poor weather, and the fleet finally crossed the channel in July. This time Caesar had five legions and 2,000 Gallic cavalry, and the Romans were more successful, but a series of revolts in Gaul meant that any thought of a permanent Roman presence in Britain soon had to be abandoned.

Winter 54/53 B.C. – Second Gallic Revolt

The second Gallic Revolt broke out in the north-east of the country. A poor harvest meant that Caesar's winter quarters were spread out over a larger area than normal, making them vulnerable to surprise attacks. The inspiration for the revolt seems to have come from Indutiomarus, a member of the same Treviri tribe that had delayed Caesar's passage to Britain earlier in the year, but it was the Eburones tribe, led by their kings Ambiorix and Cativoleus, who actually began the fighting.

The three most vulnerable camps were those commanded by Quintus Cicero, Labienus and Sabinus. Indutiomarus intended to lead the Treviri against Labienus, but the first blow fell on Sabinus's camp at Atuatuci, somewhere in the lands of the Eburones. An initial attack on the camp failed, but Ambiorix managed to convince Sabinus to abandon the camp and attempt to join up with either Cicero or Labienus. Two miles from the camp the Romans were ambushed and the entire column was destroyed. This was the biggest victory won by any Gallic force during the entire war – Sabinus had commanded a legion and a half, and very few survivors escaped to bring the news to Labienus.

Ambiorix moved on to attack Q. Cicero's camp, but Cicero was less willing to listen to his arguments. A regular siege followed, at which the Gauls showed that they had learnt from the Romans, building their own siege tower and contravallations around the Roman camp. Eventually Cicero managed to get a message to Caesar who scrapped together a relief force of two legions, won a victory over the besieging army, and raised the siege. Discouraged by this defeat Indutiomarus abandoned his plans to attack Labienus and retreated back into Treviri territory.

With the immediate crisis over Caesar decided to go back into winter quarters, and wait for the following spring to restore his control over the rebellious legions. For the first time he spent the winter in Gaul himself, staying with three legions posted near Samarobriva.

Indutiomarus didn't survive the winter. An attempt to attack Labienus backfired badly when the Gauls were surprised by a strong force of Roman cavalry. Indutiomarus was killed in the fighting and for a short period Gaul was more tranquil. 

53 B.C. – Putting down the revolt

Over the winter Caesar raised two new legions of his own and borrowed a third legion from Pompey, who had gained Spain as his province, but had then received permission to remain at Rome. This gave Caesar ten full legions, a force of 40-50,000 men, plus his Celtic auxiliaries. His opponents included the Nervii, the Atuatuci, the Menapii and their German allies, the Senones and the Carnutes as well as the Treviri and the Eburones, but the rebels failed to find a common leader or to act together.

This was partly because Caesar acted too quickly for the rebels. Late in the winter of 54-53 B.C. he led four legions on a raid into the lands of the Nervii. With their fighting men scattered across the countryside the Nervii were unable to resist, and were forced to surrender.

Caesar's next move was to hold a council of Gaul, partly to see who turned up. The Senones, Carnutes and Treviri delegates failed to appear, effectively confirming that they were involved in the revolt. Caesar moved the council to the town of Lutetia (modern Paris), and then led his legions on a rapid march into the lands of the Senones. Once again he caught them unprepared, with their towns undefended. The Senones were forced to seek peace, getting the Aedui to argue their case with Caesar. He agreed to pardon them, and this encouraged the Carnutes to seek peace, using the Remi as their intermediaries. 

Caesar's next move was to lead seven legions into the Rhine delta, to attack the Menapian tribe. They attempted to retreat into the swamps, a tactic that had worked in previous years, but the Romans built three causeways across the swamps and forced the Menapi to submit. 

Caesar then turned south and prepared to deal with the Treveri, but by the time he arrived they had already been defeated. Labienus had been left to watch the Treveri with a single legion. Instead of attacking this single legion the Treveri decided to wait for their German allies to cross the Rhine. Before this happened Labienus was given two more legions. Taking two and a half of them he advanced towards the Treveri and tricked them into attacking him. In the resulting battle the Treveri were defeated and Indutiomarus's supporters fled into exile in Germany.

Caesar decided to cross the Rhine for a second time. Once again he was unable to force the Germans to fight, and had to return across the Rhine without achieving anything of substance. Only then did Caesar turn his attention towards Ambiorix, who now lead the only remaining rebel force. Despite a number of close calls Ambiorix managed to avoid capture, but his co-king Cativolcus committed suicide. Caesar's next attempt to end the Eburones revolt almost ended in disaster. He gave the neighbouring Gallic tribe's permission to raid Eburones territory. This encouraged at least one German tribe, the Sigambri, to cross the Rhine to take part. After capturing a number of Gauls the Sigambri realised that they had a chance to capture the Roman's baggage, which had been left at Atuatuci, the site of the disaster that had started the revolt. Q. Cicero, the commander of the baggage camp, was lucky to avoid the same fate.

Caesar ended the year by holding an investigation into the revolt of the Senones and Carnutes. The leader judged to be responsible for the revolt, Acco, was executed using a method described by Caesar as 'the custom of our ancestors' – he was probably flogged to death. The Romans then went into winter quarters, with six legions quartered around Agendicum (Sens) to watch the Senones and two legions each quartered on the Treveri and the Lingones. Caesar then returned to the Italian part of his province. 

52 B.C. – The Great Gallic Revolt

If Caesar had hoped that the fate of Acco would intimidate the Gauls, then he was to be disappointed. Over the winter of 53-52 B.C. an increasing number of Gallic leaders began to meet in private to discuss a new rebellion. Acco's death did indeed play a part in their discussions – a fear of sharing the same fate actually encouraged the rebels. Events in Rome also encouraged them – in the aftermath of the death of the unstable radical politician Clodis the city was in chaos, and the Gauls hoped that this would prevent Caesar from leaving Italy.

This time the revolt involved the tribes of central Gaul, amongst them the Carnutes and the Arverni. The coastal tribes of the north-west were also involved, but neither the Belgae nor the Aquitania played any real part in the revolt.

The start of the revolt was signalled by the Carnutes, who massacred all of the Romans at Cenabum (Orleans). This time the rebels appointed a supreme commander – Vercingetorix, probably the most famous of the Gauls. He seized power in his own tribe, the Arverni, and gained the support of the Senones, Parisii, Pictones, Cadurci, Turones, Aulerci, Lemovice and the tribes of the northern and north-western coasts.

Vercingetorix's first move was to split his army in two. One part was sent south, into the lands of the Ruteni, where they posed a threat to the Roman Province, while Vercingetorix moved north to attack the Bituriges. This tribe was under the protection of the Aedui, Rome's firmest allies in Gaul. The Bituriges called on the Aedui for assistance, but the response was half-hearted at best. An Aeduan army advanced as far as the Loire and then returned home. This was very worrying for the Romans – if the Aedui joined the revolt then Caesar's ten legions would be dangerously isolated in their winter quarters.

For the moment the Aedui stayed loyal, although the Bituriges joined the revolt.  Caesar rushed back into the Province, eventually reaching Narbo, which for the first time was in real danger of being attacked. After organising a defensive force in the Province Caesar gathered a small mobile army and crossed the snowy Cevennes Mountains. This unexpected move brought him into Arverni territory, where his arrival came as a nasty shock. Vercingetorix was forced to move south to protect his homeland.

Once Caesar was sure that Vercingetorix was on his way he moved east to Vienna (modern Vienne), on the Rhone, where he picked up more troops. Caesar was already worried about the loyalty of the Aedui, and so he dashed north through their territory into the lands of the Lingones, where two of his legions were in their winter quarters. A short time later the entire army was reunited.

The rest of the revolt was dominated by a series of sieges. Vercingetorix began the sequence with an attack on the Boii town of Gorgobina. This forced Caesar to leave his winter quarters and attempt to lift the siege. Leaving his baggage at Sens (Agendincum) Caesar marched south, capturing Vellaunodunum, Cenabum (Orleans) and Noviodunum on his way. Vercingetorix abandoned the siege of Gorgobina, and attempted to prevent the fall of Noviodunum, but despite an inconclusive cavalry engagement the town still fell.

Caesar's next target was the Bituriges capital of Avaricum. Vercingetorix wanted to adopt a scorched-earth policy and attempt to starve the Romans out of Gaul, but the Bituriges persuaded him to try and defend Avaricum. Events soon proved Vercingetorix to have been right. After a month long siege the town fell to the Romans, and everybody in the place was killed. Vercingetorix hadn't entered the town, and his army was able to slip away intact.  

The fall of Avaricum came at the end of the winter of 53-52 B.C. As the weather improved Caesar decided to divide his army in two. Four legions under Labienus were sent north into the lands of the Parisii and Senones, while Caesar led six legions to attack Gergovia. Both of these expeditions ended in failure. Gergovia was a very strong defensive position, but would probably have fallen in time, but soon after Caesar began his siege it became clear that the Aedui were about to join the revolt. Caesar realised that he would have to abandon the siege and reunite his army. After an unsuccessful attempt to save face by capturing Vercingetorix's camp, Caesar escaped to the north, crossing the Loire across a barely passable ford. 

In the north Labienus reached as far at Lutetia (modern Paris) before he discovered that the Bellovaci tribe had joined the revolt. He was forced to abandon his attack on the Parisii, fight his way back across the Seine, and make his way south to join up with Caesar.

Just as Caesar expected the Aedui openly joined the revolt, eventually accepting Vercingetorix's authority. He turned south, sending several forces to attack the Roman Province in southern Gaul. In the west the Helvii were forced back into their strongholds, but the Allobroges held their ground, supported by twenty-two cohorts that Caesar had put in place at the start of the year. Caesar responded to this threat by moving east towards the lands of the Sequani through the territory of the Lingones. Vercingetorix sent his cavalry to attack the Romans on their march, but Caesar had recruited a force of German cavalry. The Gauls were defeated, possibly on the Vingeanne River, and were forced to retreat west towards Alesia.

This would become the site of the decisive battle of the revolt. Vercingetorix took shelter in the strongly fortified town, where he was soon besieged by the Romans. Before the Romans had completed their siege works Vercingetorix sent away his cavalry, and ordered them to gather a massive relief army. Caesar was forced to construct his famous double lines of defences around the city. Eventually a relief army estimated by Caesar as 250,000 strong arrived outside the Roman defences, but the Gauls failed to take advantage of their numbers. Caesar was able to fight off three attacks, and after the failure of the third attack the relief army dispersed. Vercingetorix surrendered to save his men from further pointless suffering, and was taken prisoner.

The fall of Alesia and the loss of Vercingetorix didn't mark the end of the revolt, but it did effectively end the fighting in the south of Gaul. The Aedui and Arverni submitted soon after the end of the siege in return for the liberation of 20,000 prisoners taken at Alesia. Caesar then went into winter quarters, posting two legions with the Sequani, two with the Remi, one each with the Ambivareti and Bituriges and two amongst the Aedui, while he spent the winter at Bibracte.

51 B.C.

51 B.C. was both the final full year of Caesar's command and the final year of the war. The revolt continued into the summer, and wide areas of Gaul were still out of Roman control. In the west an army was campaigning south of the Loire. In the centre of the country the Bituriges and Carnutes were in revolt and in the north the Bellovaci were undefeated.

On the day before the calends of January Caesar moved against the Bituriges, catching them by surprise. After a campaign that lasted for forty days the Bituriges sued for peace and Caesar was able to return to his winter quarters.

Eighteen days later he received a call for help from the Bituriges, who were now being attacked by the Carnutes. Caesar took the fourteenth and sixth legions on a raid into Carnutes territory and once again caught them out by arriving before they were prepared. The Carnutes submitted and Caesar went into new winter quarters at Cenabum. 

The next threat was the most serious. The Bellovaci, led by Correus of the Bellovaci and Comius the Atrebatian, gathered a strong army, abandoned their lands and pulled back into a strong position surrounded by swamps. Caesar led four legions against them, but was unable to force them into a battle. Eventually seven legions were involved in the campaign, but the Gauls continued to elude the Romans until eventually Correus was killed while attempting to ambush a Roman foraging party. This disaster convinced the Bellovaci to seek peace, while Comius fled into Germany. The defeat of the Bellovaci effectively ended the war in the north-east.

The Gallic army on the south of the Loire was defeated by two of Caesar's lieutenants. The Gauls, led by Dumnacus of the Andes, were besieging Limonum (Poitiers). Two week legions, under Caius Caninius Rebilus, moved towards the town but Caninius realised that he wasn't strong enough to attack the much larger Gallic army. Instead he built a strong camp a few miles from the siege, and waited for reinforcements to arrive. As the fighting in the north-east began to wind down, Caesar sent Caius Fabius with two and a half legions west to reinforce Caninius. When Dumnacus discovered that a second Roman army was on its way he abandoned the siege and attempted to flee to the north, but he was caught by Fabius somewhere close to the Loire and his army was destroyed.

Some of the survivors of this disaster, led by a Senonian called Drapes and an Cadurcian called Lucterius, escaped to the south in an attempt to reach the Roman Province. When they discovered that Caninius was following them south they decided to attempt to defend Uxellodunum, in what became the final siege of the Gallic War. Drapes and Lucterius were only involved in the early states of the siege. During an attempt to gather extra supplies Lucterius was forced to flee and Drapes was captured, but despite this the defenders of Uxellodunum continued to resist. Eventually Caesar arrived to take command of the siege. He ordered tunnels to be dug to divert a natural spring that was the defenders last source of fresh water, and when the spring suddenly dried up the defenders promptly surrendered. Caesar was aware that his period of command in Gaul was going to end in the following summer, and so he decided to make an example of the defenders of Uxellodunum. Instead of executing them or selling them into slavery he had their hands cut off and then they were set free, in the hope that this example would discourage further revolts.

The final recorded action of the war came in the east of Gaul, where Commius of the Atrebates was waging a guerrilla war with his last supporters. After suffering heavy loses in a cavalry engagement he too surrendered to the Romans, but only if they agreed that he didn’t have to come into the presence of any Romans (defeat of Commius).

Caesar took advantage of the Gaul's exhaustion after the failure of the great revolt to win over their leaders. His military victory was followed by a generous peace settlement. The surviving tribal leaders were won over with valuable gifts and the tribute to be paid by Gaul was set at a lower level than might have been expected. Caesar was aware that he would soon be involved in a struggle with his political opponents in Rome, and the last thing he wanted was another Gallic revolt in his rear. His efforts at conciliation were successful, and at no point during Great Roman Civil War did Caesar have to worry about fighting in his new province.


The Gallic War , Julius Caesar. One of the great works of western civilisation. Caesar was an almost unique example of a great general who was also a great writer. The Gallic War is a first hand account of Caesar's conquest of Gaul, written at the time to explain and justify his actions. cover cover cover
The Complete Roman Army, Adrian Goldsworthy. A very good history of the Roman army from the early Republic to the end of the Empire. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (26 March 2009), Gallic War, 58-51 B.C. , March 2009.html

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