Gaul

Gaul warriors

In Roman times the term Gaul was used to describe two places: Cisalpine Gaul, which was the northern part of Italy occupied by Celtic tribes, and Transalpine Gaul, the area covering modern-day France and some surrounding areas, also inhabited by Celts.

Although the Celtic tribes in both regions had much in common in terms of customs and religion, the histories of the two areas were very different. Both groups have their origins in the Bronze Age, and many of their weapons and ornaments are bronze.

Some have seen them as descendants of the Scythians, but this is largely based on their early metalwork. During the period known as the "La Tène culture", from as early as 500 b.c.e., they started using iron.


In addition to the two parts of the Roman Empire formally known as Gaul, Celts of Gallic descent migrated to other parts of Europe, with settlements in the British Isles, western Spain and Portugal, and through central Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, and even parts of modern-day Bulgaria.

From the sixth century b.c.e. there is archaeological evidence of Etruscan settlements, and the Celts only started to arrive in the region in the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e.

These Celts occupied Piedmont and Lombardy, and they lived side by side with the Etruscans as can be seen by Celtic and Etruscan graves found in the same cemeteries. According to Livy, when the Gauls arrived in northern Italy, they established 12 towns along either side of the Apennines and then another 12 further south.

They moved into the area north of Rome during the reign of Tarquinius Priscus, who was king of Rome from 616 until 578 b.c.e., and one tribe called the Insubes made their headquarters in the region around Mediolanum (modern-day Milan).

Subsequent tribes—the Cenomani, the Libui, the Salui, the Boii, the Lingones, and the Senones—then migrated into northern Italy. The last tribe settled in the Po Valley and rather than ejecting the Etruscans by force, they assimilated with them, gradually taking over the region and eroding the Etruscan cultural identity.

The Gauls Attack Rome

In 386 b.c.e. the Gauls were strong enough to attack the city of Rome. They sacked the city, but in a famous story, Romans held out in the citadel, making entreaties to people in the nearby town of Veii, 12 miles away, to help.

There was a secret route in and out of the citadel, and Livy surmised that it was a messenger who had been observed or followed that showed the Gauls the secret way into the citadel.

One night the Gauls silently scaled the hillside to the citadel, but the geese that had been kept in honor of the goddess Juno squawked when they noticed the Gauls, and this alerted the Romans, who managed to drive off the Gauls.

Although the Gauls attacked the Romans again during the fourth and third centuries b.c.e., the Romans managed to ally with nearby towns and defeat them in the great battle of Telamon in 225 b.c.e.

In order to ensure that the Gauls were no longer a threat to Rome, the Romans then launched a massive war against the Gauls. After three years of bitter campaigning the Romans captured Mediolanum in 222 b.c.e.

Their efforts against the Gauls came to a halt when the Carthaginian general Hannibal chose to attack Rome in 219 b.c.e. Crossing the Alps into Italy in 218 b.c.e., he won support from many of the Gauls in northern Italy, and these helped replenish his forces and supply his army.

Although Hannibal’s armies defeated the Romans in four battles, they never succeeded in capturing Rome, and in 203 b.c.e. Hannibal was recalled to North Africa, where the Romans defeated him.

After the Social War of 91–89 b.c.e., the Romans decided to create the colony of Cisalpine Gaul, with its southern border at the Rubicon River. All Roman settlers who lived there remained as Roman citizens, but the others were given "Latin rights", and many resented this lower status that they retained until 49 b.c.e. when Julius Caesar made them Roman citizens.

Two years after Caesar was killed, his successor Octavian (later the emperor Augustus Caesar), formally integrated the whole of Cisalpine Gaul into Italy. Augustus later divided it into four administrative districts.

By this time Celtic influences had largely disappeared from this area, and most people spoke Latin. The geographer Strabo described it was one of the richest agricultural regions of the Roman Empire, and its people remained loyal to Rome, helping form Italy in the 19th century.

Transalpine Gaul

The Romans had a similar experience with Transalpine Gaul, although their conquering of it took place much later than that of Cisalpine Gaul. Transalpine Gaul covers much of the area of modern-day France and also Belgium and parts of Germany.

The English Channel to the north, the Alps to the southeast, and the Pyrenees to the southwest defined its borders. Prior to the Roman occupation, the area was a loose confederation of Celtic tribes.

There were Greek colonies along the southern coast of Gaul, the most important port being Massalia (modern-day Marseilles), which had been founded by the Phoenicians in about 600 b.c.e., as well as Avennio (modern-day Avignon) and Antipolis.

The Romans called the Gauls the "Long-Haired Gauls", ridiculing them for wearing trousers, tied at the ankle, and shoes. Some used body paint in battle, and in winter the Gauls wore heavy fur clothing and thick woolen cloaks. Some elements of their clothing seem to have been made out of checked cloth, which some have seen as the precursor to the tartans worn in Scotland and Ireland.

In battle the Gauls used swords, large battle-axes and spears, protecting themselves with breastplates, helmets, and large shields. In early battles they used two-horse chariots and had some horsemen, which is why towns in Gaul were usually protected by a series of ditches to prevent a rapid chariot attack. For the most part their battle strength relied on numbers rather than strategy, which can explain their relatively easy defeat by the Romans.

Most Gauls were based in village communities, although a large number of townships in central Gaul also flourished. Houses were built out of wood, with a thatched roof. Many houses were built into the ground to aid insulation during the winter.

Although it was a civilization largely based on the use of bronze, the Gauls did have some small mines to locate copper. The diet was largely bread, meat, and vegetables. Transport was largely on foot or on horseback, with wealthier Gauls using chariots, especially in warfare. The Gauls worshipped using Druids, but the Romans were eager to end this practice.

The Gallic Wars

Gallic Wars
Gallic Wars

In 58 b.c.e. Julius Caesar embarked on the Gallic Wars with the initial aim of conquering some of central Gaul. After his term as consul of Rome, Caesar was made governor of both Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, the latter at that time only covering the area along the Mediterranean coast.

Caesar discovered that there was a large tribe of Helvetians moving from modern-day Switzerland into Provincia, and Caesar hurriedly built and enlarged forts along the border of the region, forcing the Helvetians to move west.

On the move were 386,000 Helvetians, including 100,000 warriors, and Caesar decided to engage them in battle when they were at their weakest. In June 58 b.c.e., at the Battle of Arar (or Saône), the Romans surprised 34,000 Helvetian warriors and apparently killed as many as 30,000 of them.

Those who escaped and the main body headed west for the Loire. In July, at the Battle of Bibracte (Mount Beuvray), 70,000 Helvetian warriors attacked the Romans.

Caesar had under his command about 30,000 legionnaires, about 20,000 Gallic auxiliaries, and 4,000 Gallic cavalry. The superior Roman discipline drove the Helvetians back to their camp where 130,000 Helvetian men, women, and children were slaughtered. Those who survived submitted and returned east.

The Gallic Wars had begun with an attempt to avert a Helvetian attack, and while Caesar was preoccupied with them, a German tribe under their chief, Ariovistus, used the power vacuum to attack some Gallic tribes in modern-day Alsace.

The Gauls there asked for help from the Romans, and Caesar’s armies, triumphant from their victory at Bibracte, managed to attack Ariovistus on September 10. The forces of Ariovistus were driven back, and with most of central Gaul under Roman control, Caesar withdrew his soldiers for the winter.

At this point the Belgae, a tribe in northeastern Gaul, decided to rally together numerous other tribes to attack the Romans in the following year and raised 300,000 warriors. Caesar managed to outmaneuver his opponents, and at the Battle of Axona (Aisne) in March or April 57 b.c.e., the Roman forces destroyed the Belgae army of 75,000–100,000.

In July another tribe, the Nervii, gathered together 75,000 men and attacked Caesar. In the Battle of Sabis (Sambre), Caesar only narrowly managed to achieve a victory, with 60,000 Nervii killed. For the winter of 57–56 b.c.e. Caesar withdrew his forces and returned to Gaul in order to keep up with developments in Rome.

In 56 b.c.e. Caesar led his troops into modern-day Brittany, where he fought the Veneti, who had seized some ambassadors he had sent over the winter. This campaign was different because for the first time Caesar put together a number of ships that supported his force on the land.

His land progress was slow, but finally, in a battle in modern-day Quiberon Bay, the Roman galleys defeated the Gallic ships, preventing the Veneti from supplying their forts.

In the fall of 56 b.c.e. Caesar marched his armies north to attack the Morini and the Menapii in modern-day Belgium. By the end of this year all of Gaul was under Roman control and had become a single political entity.

As Britain and the Celts there had helped the Gauls resist the Romans, Caesar was eager to punish them and attacked Britain. In July of the following year he again went to Britain where he defeated a large Celtic force near modern-day London.

While Caesar was on his second foray to Britain, news reached Caesar that the Gauls had surrounded a fort where Quintus Cicero was valiantly holding out. Caesar, by now with 10 legions at his disposal, marched to support Cicero and quickly overcame the Gauls.

During the winter of 54–53 b.c.e. Caesar planned to subdue the Gauls who did not want Roman rule. At the same time the Arverni chief, Vercingetorix, had rallied another force to attack the Romans. Unlike previous opponents, Vercingetorix spent the winter training his forces.

When Caesar attacked, rather than immediately engage him in battle, Vercingetorix started a policy of "scorched earth", retreating and destroying any food or supplies that could be useful to the Romans. This drew the Romans into central Gaul where they captured Avaricum and then attacked the Gallic fortress of Gergovia.

Despite many attempts, and a costly assault, the Romans were not able to capture Gergovia, and Caesar withdrew. After defeating some Gauls at the Battle of Lutetia (near modern-day Paris), he moved his armies south.

The Gauls under Vercingetorix decided to attack and harass Caesar’s forces of 55,000 soldiers, 40,000 of whom were legionnaires. Caesar built a series of walls around the city to prevent the defenders from launching a sortie. Vercingetorix had managed to get allies to raise a massive army of 240,000, who attacked the Romans from the outside, while the Gauls inside emerged to attack the Romans.

Caesar’s defenses prevented those outside from doing much damage, and inside, as supplies ran low, the Gauls were forced to eject all their women and children, who died of exposure and starvation.

Finally, Vercingetorix surrendered and submitted. He was taken to Rome, where he was later executed. In 51 b.c.e. Caesar ran a series of small campaigns against small pockets of resistance, and by the end of it Gaul was firmly in Roman hands.

Vercingetorix surrendered and submitted
Vercingetorix surrendered and submitted

The Gallic Wars had a dramatic effect on the nearly 10 million people of Gaul. The massive number of people killed in the battles, as well as those who died of exposure and starvation, resulted in vast tracts of Gaul being heavily depopulated and ready for many settlers to move there, not just from Italy but also from other parts of the empire.

Transalpine Gaul became a Roman political unit until the fifth century c.e., and under Augustus it consisted of four provinces: Narbonensis, Lugdunensis, Aquitania, and Belgica.

Gaul Under Roman Rule

During the many centuries of Roman rule the rich agricultural land attracted many Roman citizens and settlers from all over the empire. The Romans built a large series of roads, with the old Gallic city of Lugdunum (modern-day Lyon) at the center of a series of important trade routes.

Among the many settlers who came to live in Gaul were a number of men from the Holy Land. Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, mentioned briefly in the Bible when Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus return from Egypt, was accused by the Romans of mismanaging the Jewish territory in Syria where he was the procurator.

It was recorded that he was exiled to Gaul. His younger brother, Herod Antipas, the tetrach of Galilee and Perea, who was responsible for the execution of John the Baptist, was also later exiled to Gaul.

During Roman rule Gaul prospered and became a major center for early Christianity, with a number of Christian saints being drawn from the region. However in the third century c.e. neglect of border defenses on the Rhine River meant more frequent invasions from Germans.

Gaul was placed under the direct rule of Roman emperors, starting with Postumus, and more villages and towns were fortified, and city walls strengthened. Gradually, however, the attacks by the Germans, the Franks, the Burgundians, and the Visigoths increased. The latter, in particular, took over much of southern Gaul, and in 410 the Visigoths even managed to sack Rome. However the Franks drove them out of the region.

The period of Roman rule in Gaul was the subject of Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, which was the earliest military history written by a main participant.

Since Roman times Gaul has been the setting of large numbers of novels in French and English, including Sabine Baring-Gould’s Perpetua (1897), about the persecution of the Christians at Nîmes. There is also the diminutive French cartoon character Asterix, and his large friend Obelix, creations of the French writer René Goscinny (1926–77) and cartoonist Albert Underzo.

The Gauls wear winged helmets and live in a village in Gaul that has, somehow, managed to hold out against the Romans. These books have been translated into 15 languages, including Latin, and remain the most popular accounts of life in Gaul.