Roman possessions in Gaul before Caesar

Until the middle of the I century B.C.E the Romans only had possession of Gallia Cisallpina and had only a foothold in Gallia Transalpina. Still, this was only a small part of Gaul, which consisted of today’s France, Belgium, parts of Holand and Switzerland. The Romans called this part of Gaul, Gallia Comata (Hairy Gaul or Free Gaul) so they could distinguish it from Roman Gaul or as it was known as, Gaul that was dressed in a toga ( Gallia Togata).

The Celtic Tribes

The majority of Free Gaul’s population consisted of Celtic tribes. These tribes were bearers of the unique La Tene culture, which changed the former culture of the early Iron Age also known as Hallstatt culture. In the south the Celtic population mixed with the Iberians and Ligurians, in the north the Celts were neighboring the Germanic tribes. These Celtic tribes were separated into three groups: in the north there were the Belgae, from the Seine all the way to Garonne were the Celtae and last there were the Aquitani spreading from the river Garonne to the Pyrenees.

Relations between the Celtic Tribes

The constant fighting between the Celtic tribes prevented the unification of Gaul. Wars were mainly fought for land suitable for processing pastures. The possession of the territory constantly changed. An important part of Gaul’s history was the Helvetii migration. By the end of the first quarter of the I century B.C.E. the Helvetii migrated from the territories between the Main river and upper Rhine and settled in the western part of Spain. This triggered another migration from the Germanic tribe Suebi, which settled in the upper Rhine. In Gaul itself at the head of the
warring tribes were the Aedui and their main adversaries were the Sequani. Both of these tribes had enemies and allies in almost all of Gaul. In the fight Against the Aedui, the Sequani called for help Ariovistus the leader of the Germanic tribe Suebi and after prolonged fighting they defeated the Aedui. The Aedui were considered allies of the Roman people and they asked the Roman Senate for help. This roman intervention into the war stopped the actions of Ariovistus against the Aedui, and he was proclaimed an ally to the People of Rome. But this did not secure the peace and the Germanic tribes could at any time mount an attack on the neighboring Celtic tribes. Rome’s grip over Gaul was shaken because of the Helvetii migration.

Caesar’s conquests in Gaul 58-56 B.C.E.

In March, 58 B.C.E. Caesar arrived in Cisalpine Gaul. He took all measures necessary to prevent the Helvetii from attacking roman strongholds, but when they chose the path through the lands of the Sequani and Aedui, Caesar responded to the call for help of these tribes and trespassed outside of his borders so he could hunt down the Helvetii. Not far from the town of Bibracte (the capital of the Aedui) came to a decisive battle between the Romans and the Helvetii. The Helvetti even though outnumbered the Romans still suffered heavy losses and were forced to make peace with Rome, become their allies and fulfill Caesar request and go back from the lands they migrated from. After this victory Caesar started to get involved in Celtic internal affairs, acting as patron to the Aedui and their vindicator against Ariovistus. He attacked the Germans before they could be reinforced from the Rhine. The perseverance of the Helvetti, their advantage in numbers and the skills of Ariovistus did not prevent their defeat at the hands of Caesar. The final battle took place on the territory of where the city of Strasbourg stands today. The victory over Ariovistus was of great importance. It prevented the German masses from crossing the Rhine and strengthened Caesar influence in Gaul, in itself creating conditions for conquests in other Parts of Gaul. Caesar passed the remainder of the year in Cisalpine Gaul, where he performed the office of proconsul.

Conquest of Northern Gaul

In the spring of 57 B.C.E. Caesar started his war with the Northern Celtic Tribes, the Belgae. Caesar armies were significantly smaller, but the Belgae could not retain the ability to fight for long and they fell apart. Isolated tribes gave significant resistance, that almost ended in a defeat for the Roman army, but Caesar quick reactions and battle skills prevented him from being defeated even under the hardest conditions. All of the Belgae tribes were
conquered. Under the pretext of punishment for the treacherous attack on Romans, 53.000 people of Aduatuci tribe were sold into slavery. Caesar legates continued the conquest of Gaul. Of these stands out Publius Crassus , the son of the triumvir Crassus. He succeeded in the conquest of the Aquitani tribes. The northwestern tribes with the help of the Britons managed to build a fleet, but Caesar himself defeated them at the battle of the Loire. By the end of 56 B.C.E the conquest of Gaul could be considered finished. The victory for the Romans secured for them endless riches, lots of cattle, precious medals and even hundreds of thousands of slaves. Caesar’s successes caused admiration and amazement in Rome. By a decision of the senate celebrations were made that lasted for fifteen days.