Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars mark a turning point in history, not just the end of tribal independence in Gaul, but also the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic. Caesar’s ten-year proconsulship as governor of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, gained through the formation of the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, gave him both the military power and wealth to dominate Roman politics in the years that followed.
Our best source for the Gallic Wars is Caesar’s own commentary, which tells the story from his initial actions against the migrating Helvetii, through his policy of dividing and conquering the Gallic tribes, to the quelling of subsequent rebellions, and finally the Siege of Alesia and surrender of Vercingetorix.
Alongside his campaign in Gaul, Caesar fought a different battle against his naysayers and opponents in the Roman Senate. His political power stemmed from an expedient and fragile alliance with Pompey and Crassus, each using the other for their own ends.
Both Caesar’s Gallic campaign and his political manoeuvrings were an undertaking fraught with risk. Had his opposition to, and wars against, the Gallic and Germanic tribes failed, especially his dealings with the Arverni, Nervii, and Suebi, Rome itself could have paid the price, and the world as we know it could have been very different.
Born in July 100 BC, Julius Caesar was a member of the Julii patrician clan, who claimed descent from the goddess Venus. A brilliant strategist, inspiring commander, and shrewd politician, Caesar manoeuvred himself into a position of power within the Roman Republic. With Pompey and Crassus he formed the First Triumvirate, an expedient political alliance that pitted them against their conservative opponents in the Senate. Holding a ten-year proconsulship through the machinations of this alliance, he used the time wisely to conquer Gaul and defeat the Germanic tribes of the Rhineland. Recording the success of these campaigns in his ‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’, including his invasion of Britannia and the bridging of the Rhine. Following his conquest, when ordered by the Senate to relinquish his command and return to Rome, Caesar refused. His crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC and the civil war that followed led to the end of the Republic. As dictator he made many positive reforms, but his enemies continued to circle. On the Ides of March 44 BC he was assassinated in the Senate by a group of senators led by Marcus Brutus. His adopted heir, Gaius Octavius, eventually succeeded him, in time becoming Augustus Caesar, Rome’s first emperor.
Born in January 83BC, into the Antonia clan, Marc Antony’s mother was the cousin of Julius Caesar. Following his command of a Gallic cavalry regiment in Syria, he was appointed to Caesar’s staff in 54BC and fought in the Gallic Wars. Marc Antony was a staunch supporter of Caesar, both as an accomplished military commander and later in political office. In 50BC, Caesar arranged for him to become augur, quaestor, and a plebeian tribune in an attempt to secure his own political position. Marc Antony’s subsequent violent expulsion from the Senate was one of the justifications Caesar used for crossing the Rubicon. After Caesar’s assassination, Marc Antony allied with Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, and Lepidus. But then this Second Triumvirate also descended into civil war, as Antony and Cleopatra struggled with Octavian for control of the Republic. Marc Antony’s defeat at the naval Battle of Actium in 31BC, and the desertion of his legions, led both he and Cleopatra to take their own lives.
Although his exact birth date is unknown, Titus Labienus was born into an equestrian family sometime around 100BC. Labienus had ties to Pompey, but developed a close friendship with Caesar. Following his appointment as a plebeian tribune in 63BC, he became Caesar’s legatus pro praetore in Gaul. As such, he commanded engagements throughout the Gallic Wars of 58-50BC, and took full command of the legions and magisterial duties during Caesar’s absences. A brilliant strategist and commander, it was Labienus who turned the tide of battle against the Nervii. Prior to the Battle of Agendicum in 52BC, he tricked the rebelling Gallic tribes into splitting their forces, before out manoeuvring and defeating Camelugenus’ army in a pincer movement. In the civil war that followed the Gallic campaigns, Labienus allied with Pompey against Caesar. After Pompey’s death, he remained loyal to his sons, fighting against Caesar in the battles of Ruspina, Thaspus, and Munda, where he was killed during the final rout.
Born in 115BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus was a member of the First Triumvirate, alongside Caesar and Pompey. A supporter of Sulla in his Civil Wars against Marius, Crassus commanded the right flank at the battle of Rome’s Colline Gate in 82BC, in which the Samnites were defeated. With war over, Crassus began accumulating his fortune though the cheap auctioning of the property of proscribed persons that was forced on Marius the Younger’s defeated supporters. It was this vast wealth that bought Crassus his place in the Triumvirate, paying off Caesar’s debts and securing their later political appointments. Sharing the consulship in 55BC with Pompey, they awarded Caesar an extension of his proconsulship in Gaul, and Syria and Hispania to themselves respectively. In an attempt to match the military victories of his political allies, Crassus launched an ill-conceived war against Parthia from Syria. Defeated at the Battle of Carrhae in 53BC, Crassus’ was put to death by his Parthian captors, allegedly by having molten gold poured down his throat.
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, was born in September 106BC. Like his father, he was a supporter of Sulla in his civil war against Marius. Inheriting his father’s command and legions, he was victorious over the Marian forces in Africa and Scilly. Proclaimed Imperator by his legions, he was granted the title Magnus, or "the Great". Subsequent victories, first Hispania and then in the East, which concluded the Third Mithridatic War, won him a further two triumphs. On his return to Rome, to secure land for his veterans, Pompey entered into the First Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus. With his political position secured he granted himself, as consul alongside Crassus, command of Hispania. The collapse of Triumvirate, and Caesar’s subsequent crossing of the Rubicon in 49BC, sparked another civil war, pitting the two great generals against each other. Defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48BC, Pompey fled to Egypt and the court of the young Ptolemy XIII, where he was betrayed and assassinated by the king’s councillors. Upon his arrival in Egypt Caesar took bloody revenge upon the assassins, indicating that he intended to pardon his old ally following his appointment as dictator.
Quintus Tullius Cicero was the younger brother of the famed statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero. He served under Caesar as a trusted legate in his Gallic campaigns, notably accompanying the Proconsul on his second expedition to Britannia. Gaining much praise and support from Caesar for his inspirational military leadership, on more than one occasion, Cicero’s command turned almost certain Roman defeats into victory. The loyalty engendered between Caesar and Cicero may go some way to explaining the pardon he received after supporting Pompei during Caesar’s civil war. An honest governor who did not take bribes, Cicero was, however, also known for his emotional impulsiveness and occasional, but worrying cruelty. The Romans of the first century BC - firm believers in their own brand of stoicism - looked down on these harsh outbursts, particularly his treatment towards captives and any who dared to disobey, as he favoured old-fashioned, brutal punishments. Ultimately, Cicero’s loyalty and skill preserved him following Caesar's victory, but his good fortune left him during the Second Triumvirate, when he found himself proscribed as an enemy of the state and was killed in 43BC.
Gaius Scribonius Curio was the son of the Roman statesman and orator of the same name. He was a contemporary of Pompey, Caesar and Cicero, and a respected orator in his own right. He is particularly noteworthy for constructing Rome’s first amphitheatre. Elected as a tribune in 50BC, Curio became a supporter of Caesar just as Pompei demanded Caesar give up his command. Cicero was one of the last senators to try and broker peace between the two statesmen. Despite his efforts, the two did not come to terms, and Curio was forced to flee Rome and join Caesar. In return for his support, Caesar paid off Curio’s debts. This led to the belief (as stated by Tacitus) that Caesar bribed him for his oratory skill. In the Civil War, Curio was made praetor, emerging victorious against the armies of Pompei. Eventually, he was sent to Africa to quell pro-Pompey sentiment, where he was killed during the 2nd Battle of Bagradas River.
Vercingetorix, which roughly translates as "great warrior king", was a chieftain of the Gallic Arverni. Against a backdrop of increasing anti-Roman sentiment in Gaul, he led his tribe and others in rebellion against Caesar’s legions in 52BC. Although initially opposed by the Arverni noble council, who expelled him and his dependents from the capital of Gergovia, he retook the city by force and was proclaimed king. In a later attempt to cut off the Roman legions from their supplies, he conducted a scorched earth policy. Eventually out-manoeuvred by the Romans, the Gallic tribes were forced to retreat to natural strongpoints. It was Vercingetorix’s retreat to the fortified city of Alesia that proved the undoing of his grand rebellion. Trapped by Caesar, who circumvallated the entire city, Vercingetorix and his force were starved into submission. After a Gallic relief force failed to beak in, Vercingetorix surrendered. Taken in chains to Rome, he was held prisoner for five years, before being displayed and then executed at Caesar’s processional triumph in 46BC.
Ariovistus was the leader of the Germanic Suebi, or "our people". Invited by the Arverni and Sequani to aid them in their struggle against the pro-Roman Aedui, Ariovistus led his people across the Rhine, defeating the Aedui at the Battle of Magetobriga in 63 BC. In the aftermath, in exchange for their aid, the Suebi began to settle in Sequani territory. This put considerable pressure on the surrounding tribes, sparking the mass migration of the Helvetii. Rome was equally uncomfortable with the Ariovistus taking root in Gaul, but the Senate recognised him as a ‘King and Friend of the Roman People’, reputedly at Caesar’s behest, in a move to appease him. By 58BC, with the situation worsening, the Aedui and other Gallic tribes petitioned Caesar for aid. Given an ultimatum by Caesar to cease Suebian settlement and warring in Gaul, Ariovistus challenged Caesar to stop him. Conflict was inevitable as their envoys failed to reach agreement. In the battle that followed however, Ariovistus’ tribal force was broken and he and his surviving kin fled back across the Rhine, after which he was never heard from again.
Leader of the ferocious Nervii, a Celto-Germanic tribe that resided in northwest Gaul, Boduognatus led his people against Caesar’s legions in 57BC. A shrewd war-leader, Boduognatus used the advantage of his local knowledge of the terrain to spring an ambush on the Romans at the Battle of Sabis. The attack of the Nervii and their allied client tribes, the Atrebates and Viromandui, took Caesar’s forces by surprise and almost overwhelmed them. However, the 10th legion, under the command of Titus Labienus, turned the tide of battle. Boduognatus, like his warriors, refused to give ground, even in defeat, and was killed, while the strength of the Nervii was decimated. In his Commentaries, Caesar praises their heroic courage, stating that they fought almost to the last man, standing on the bodies of their fallen brothers to fight on.