‘Rome made a desert, and called it peace’.
Caesar’s first foray into Gaul had been an overwhelming success.
He had vanquished one of the most powerful tribes, and their wealth had paid off his debts.
Emboldened by the quick victory, he sent his legions to the distant corners of the continent.
As time dragged on, the people of Gaul realized Caesar had no plan to leave.
Any tribe that resisted faced slavery or extinction.
But even so, there were a handful of crafty Chieftains who took a stand...
This episode follows Caesar’s struggles against The Tribes who defied him.
Sources and Further Reading:
There was something that kept Julius Caesar up at night. This something was not a thing he experienced personally. In fact, he wasn't even alive when it happened. 350 years ago, something happened in the city of Rome that could have so easily been the end of the empire before it began.
Back in those days, Rome was a grubby little city, a home to vagabonds and outcasts, its borders barely extended beyond its own city walls. Every day was a fight for survival. Times were hard, but this one shameful day would be seared into the collective memory of its people forevermore. A huge band of Gallic raiders were heading for the little city, baited by stories of fertile lands, of fields that could produce the most exquisite dates, figs and grapes that their northern soil could not. The army of Rome, if you could even call it that, came out to meet these invaders.
But upon seeing these towering, pale barbarians in the flesh, they broke ranks and ran. With the army, dispersed the city's elites, the senators made a pact to go down with the ship. Each one of them sent their family away to safety. And in their sunny courtyards of their sprawling mansions, they sat in their finest clothes. As the birds tweeted and the grape vines swayed in the wind, they waited. Roman historian Livy tells us,
The Halls of the Patricians (that's the senators) stood open.
But they (meaning the invaders) felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in their porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanor, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the Patricians empaperis roused the passion of a Gaul who began to stroke his beard, which in those days was universally worn long by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed. The others were butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was thence, force spared. The houses were rifled and then set on fire.
After all these senators were put to death, the Gauls tried to storm the citadel, a little fortified keep that was the highest part of the city. As the days dragged on, those holed up in the tower agree to pay off the Gauls in exchange for their lives.
£1000 of gold is usually the number thrown around, so what's left of the Roman aristocracy come out and start loading up the gold bars on a set of scales. But soon it becomes clear that the dastardly Gauls had fixed the scales. They'd altered the weight. So the Romans had to add more to the scales to get them to balance one of the senators clues in on this and says, what are you playing at?
Fair is fair. We agreed a thousand pounds. And overhearing this, the Gallic king, a man named Brennis waltze in, and without saying a word, unsheathed this big heavy.
Sword and just drops it on the scale, the slight difference in weight now.
Completely tilting to one side. And he says these famous words Vae Victis - woe to the vanquished. In other words, what are you going to do?
We've beaten you.
You are completely at our mercy.
And if we want to rig the scales, we'll do it. And you'll accept it, because you have no other choice. Rome, as it would do so many times, again rose from this setback. But this near annihilation of this burgeoning state would never be forgotten. An empire that became so great, almost smothered in the crib. Whether this story is true in full, in part or not at all, it doesn't matter.
For Julius Caesar, he would capitalize on his countrymen's hatred of these foreign people. He knew whatever he did in Gaul, whatever atrocities he committed in the name of Rome, there will be precious few Romans shedding a tear.
You're listening to Anthology of Heroes, the podcast sharing the stories of heroism and defiance from across the ages. And this is Vercingetorix: caesar's worst nightmare. Part Two Gaul Strikes Back.
Welcome back to the show. In Part one, we covered the background of Caesar's life and his appointment as governor of Gaul. We spoke about Gallic or Celtic culture, how it evolved and changed over the years. Specifically, how the Roman influence had seeped in and altered their way of life, either through conquest or just proximity.
Caesars thorough and, well, pretty brutal subjugation of the Halvanian tribe had cleared his mounting debts that were piling up and bought the fame he craved back in Rome. So what was he still doing there?
I mean, that was the question the Senate was asking. He'd help the tribe that had called for his aid. So he should just be heading back soon, right? Roman senators had just as little idea as anyone. Listen to this letter sent from Marcus Rufus to Cicero on the 24 May, 51 BC.
As to Caesar, there are frequent and rather ugly reports. At any rate, people keep arriving with mysterious whispers. One says that he has lost his cavalry, which in my opinion, is without a doubt an invention. Another says that the 7th legion has had a dropping, that he himself is besieged among the Bellovaci(that's one of the Gallic tribes) and cut off from his main army. But neither is there anything known for certain as of yet. Nor are even these uncertain rumors publicly brooted abroad. After all, they are mentioned as open secrets among the small clique in which you are acquainted, but Domitius with his finger on his lips, hints at them.
Man, gossip never changes, does it? Replace Caesar with Kanye West. And that could be written this year.
But the people of Rome weren't the only ones concerned about Caesar's intentions. Far away in their moss covered groves, underneath the branches of ancient oak tree, druids held councils with their tribes.
From the shores of the North Sea to the forest of the Swiss Alps, all whispers were the same. In hush tones, they spoke about this Brazen foreigner who was encroaching on their lands. His boldness only growing by the day.
All recognized the Rome that they had once kicked around for easy plunder was long gone. Now they had to decide what could be done about this emergent power in their backyard. One of those tribes was the Averni, inhabiting the area around Clement forone in southern France, these guys were big players in the Gallic world.
Ancient, powerful - Their government was a type of republic made up of the wealthiest members. Kind of like an oligarchy, actually.
Somewhere near the modern French village of Gergovia, the council met. Greybearded Druids acted as facilitators, while the chieftains of all the Arverni clans waited for their turn to speak.
I always picture this scene, something like where those big old Ents meet in Lord of the Rings. And much like that scene, they decided to stand aside.
The Averni would weather this storm like they'd weathered those in the past. Rome had surpassed them, true, but for how long? The people of Gaul were not blind to what was happening in the empire's capital. They knew the Forum was a wasp's nest of corruption and wannabe dictators. They also knew Rome's borders has expanded at breakneck speeds over the last decades. This growth was not sustainable. Surely rebellions would crop up. And when they did, who knows?
Perhaps Caesar would stomp out a few of their enemies for them.
Maybe the Averni could actually come out in a better position than they were in now. But one man disagreed. Vercingetorix was around 30 years old, and as a nobleman, he had the right to voice his opinion. Young, headstrong and pumped up, full of youthful Bravado, the man's father had been executed some years ago, but not by the Romans, by his own tribe, perhaps the very man he sat with now.
The Averni hated the idea of a king ruling them. And many felt that Vercingetorix's father had tried to become one, the penalty for which was death, perhaps even being burnt alive. Unbothered, his son stepped into his shoes. He spoke passionately about the need to unite. The times had changed, he said. The enemy was nothing like the one they had faced before. Its men were cold, emotionless units, and Caesar, the man that led them, was driven solely by ambition, dreams of glory. Why should he stop at the Helvetians? He had seen what Gaul had to offer, and greatness was his for the taking. The Averni needed to put aside their ancient grievances and grudges with other tribes and extend the olive branch.
Only then could they hope to meet this threat. But his own uncle and many others shouted him down. Their mind was made up, and when the young man wouldn't drop it, they drove him out of town, worried that his charisma might rouse up others. They were right to be worried, because very soon, Vercingetorix had raised a little army of Gallic patriots. As intent on war as he was. We've got no descriptions of what he looked like, but Gallic men at this time usually wore their hair long, about shoulder length. It was probably blonde, if not a natural blonde. It was the Gallic way to dye your hair, to make it lighter, clean shaven, except for a long, unkempt moustache that drooped past his chin, is usually pictured in a baggy tunic with tight trousers. Perhaps, like many other Gallic men, he wore a thick, golden bangle around his neck and arm.
Soon, Vercingetorix's warning to the elders began to ring true. All around Gaul. Tribes fell to Caesar. Vini, Vidi, Vici. I came, I saw, I conquered. This phrase, attributed to Caesar, would come later in his life, but could just as easily apply to these blitzkrieg victories.
Throughout Gaul, like flowing blood, roman control began to spill into all corners of the land. It was during this time that he honed what would become the trademark of his general ship Speed. He would march his men ragged if it meant getting there first. There seemed to be no place in Gaul that was safe. Remember, we're talking about the size of Texas, and this general, along with the ten legions, just seemed to pop up at a moment's notice. It was during these campaigns that the glaring difference between Gallic warfare and Roman warfare just became impossible to ignore. For the Romans, warfare was about the unit, the legion. Discipline and training trumped everything. When glory was won in battle, it was won first for Rome and second for the legion that fought victory. A soldier celebrated the achievements of his legion and mourned when it was brought low. Decades of training had effectively tricked the common soldier into expanding his sense of self to be a collective of his peers.
But to the Gallic soldier, it was about the individual. If a man was fearless and last in the face of death, he was respected. But the difference didn't stop there. Roman soldiers on the whole were better armed than armored and had a few little ingenious tricks up their sleeve to give them a nice edge in combat, like the pilum, the throwing spear.
Simple enough, right? Well, what happens when you throw a spear and it lands on the ground next to the enemy? They throw it back, don't they? Well, not these ones, because these were designed to bend on impact. So you had this needle like spear with no flared head that these soldiers would hurl en masse at the start of the battle. If the enemy wasn't quick enough with their shields, they'd be hit by one. And even if they were quick enough, the spear was sharp enough to punch right through a wooden shield. And once it was in, the head warped so you couldn't pull it back out. So you've got this two meter six and a half foot long wooden body of the spear awkwardly hanging out of your shield with the bent tip pressed against your body. Carrying it was more trouble than it was worth. So usually they just dropped it and just like that, your opponent now has no shield. Clever. For the Gauls, their trump card had always been a massive charge, a brutal display of raw power at the start of the battle, designed to break the enemy quickly. This was always the most risky part of battle against the Gauls. If the enemy could withstand it, the ghosts would usually begin to tire out, having spent all their energy in the charge.
With his recent victory making waves around southern Gaul, caesar looked north to the tribes around modern Belgium, Netherlands and northern France. These tribes, which he collectively referred to as the Belgia, were the furthest away from the taint of Roman civilization. They were wilder and more ideologically opposed to diplomacy. They also shared a border with those really fierce German tribes. So Caesar correctly assumed hard times breed hard men. And he was right. The Belgian tribes were about to give him a lot of trouble, but if he could break them, the rest of Gaul would see the futility of resistance. Most of the trouble began when Caesar decided to spend winter with the Belgae. This wasn't just Romans living aside the Belgae people. The tribes that Caesar wintered with were expected to feed his entire army, all ten legions or so of them. This was an enormous task for these tribes. They just didn't have the facilities to store so much food.
There wasn't really a need, as they never really had to feed so many people at one time. The strategy was a dual benefit to Caesar. Their presence of the legions would hopefully be a deterrence to anyone stupid enough to rise up. And it would also plant the seed in these people's minds that Rome was here to stay, softening them up for future conquest. Right at this point, Caesar was kind of spinning this narrative in his letters to the Senate. He's telling them now, he's really saving Gaul.
Eluveitie, the Gallic inspired metal band we quoted in part one speak of this moment again in their song Thousandfold
”The crucial weapon is not the pilum, but the feather held in your hand, penned in blood. Your tall tales rule the forum, altering it into the battlefield”
The poor, oppressed people of Gaul are at risk of being overrun by these fearsome Germans from across the border. It's my duty as a Roman to protect them right?
Well, that wasn't how the tribe saw it. Many were willing to tolerate Caesar marching around and stamping down Roman authority. But when he started taking food out of their mouths, that was it. With the support of a couple of German tribes, they murder a group of Caesar's officers one night.
And this begins the first real coordinated rebellion where multiple tribes are coming together. Caesar could just stamp this out the way he stamped out other rebellions, right? Well, no, because these people were from coastal tribes. Unlike the Gauls from the interior, they knew how to swim and they were expert sailors. Millennia of making a living in the rough seas of the English Channel had made them expert boat builders, too. The most defensible part of any galaxy settlement was the hill fort, essentially stone, earth or wooden fortifications built on the tortilla they could find. Caesar besieged these fortresses and they eventually surrendered. But he was frustrated. Time and time again, these tribes would just escape onto their boats, into the English Channel. They'd wait Caesar out, return when he left, and start again. In a show of just how dedicated he was to this conquest, caesar ordered his legion Is to start building them a little navy, as you do. Romans were decent shipbuilders, too. I mean, you can't conquer the Mediterranean Sea without knowing how to build a good boat, can you? But the waters of the Mediterranean were calm and predictable. The English Channel was choppy and wild.
Oars quickly proved useless. Whenever the Romans rode up to them, the Gallic ships hoisted sails and sped away. Eventually, Caesar puts a trusted lieutenant in command of the Navy and he MacGyvers up this nifty hook that he could either use to pull down the galaxy sales or just pull them in closer. And fun fact, the guy that came up with it, marcus Junius brutus. Yep. As in Caesar's most famous assassin, Brutus.
This proves to be the death knell of the tribe. Once the legionnaires could catch them, they really had no chance. And eager to make another example of what happens when you mess with Rome Caesar had all the elders killed, and virtually all of its people sold into slavery.
Right, so I know we are glancing over the staggering defeats fairly quickly, but this was not the norm. Caesar was effectively bouncing around Europe, stomping down these tribes within a few weeks before moving on to the next one. To give you some perspective on time at this point, it's been under two years since the Helvetian migration began. Think of how much has changed and how much Gaul has been shaken up in such a short time and it just doesn't stop. I won't go into the subjugation of each of these tribes, but I mean, Caesar is everywhere.
With his new Navy, he crosses into Britain not once, but twice, really, just to prove that he could to the Senate.
Over there he struggles more than he cared to admit against the fabled british chariots. Chariots. I mean, this is some ancient military tech. They're all the rage about 1000 years ago, but Rome, even in her earliest days, never really used them on the battlefield. It would be like, if you ask your friend, hey, can I use your phone? And he goes, no can do, I only communicate with smoke signals. Sorry. But nevertheless, the legionnaires do struggle with them.
You can really sense Caesar's frustration when he says,
first of all, they drive in all directions and hurl missiles. And so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels, they generally throw ranks into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops of cavalry, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile, the charioteers retire gradually from combat and dispose of the chariots in such a fashion that if the warriors are hard pressed by the host of the enemy, they have a ready means of retirement to their own side.
He eventually does manage to stop these charities and the tribes agree to pay tribute to Rome. We don't really know if they ever did, but that wasn't the point of the expedition. It was to prove to Gaul and the Senate no lands were too obscure, no mountain too tall, no river too wide.
Veni Vidi vici. I came, I saw, I conquered.
This strategy of spending winter with the local tribes continued to rub people the wrong way. After a particularly bad harvest, the soldiers were literally taking food out of the mouths of these people. The ones that had actually farmed all his food were going hungry. So the people oppressing them, could eat.
But what could they do? This was Caesar's orders.
One cunning Belgian chief, a guy named Ambiorix, decided enough was enough. He and his entire tribe set a trap for the Romans.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a big group of Belgian warriors charged from the trees into one of the Roman camps and just begin murdering these unprepared legionnaires indiscriminately.
Ambiorix arrives just in time and finds the two panicked Roman officers trying to restore order. And he kind of goes, oh, no, they've attacked. They must have done that without my consent. And I hear more coming. Come with me. Take all your men and head out this way. I'll cover you. At this point, Ambiorix had always been loyal to the Roman, so they had no reason to suspect him.
So the two officers, probably thanking Jupiter to have a friend like him, escape the ambush and head to this undisclosed location with all the soldiers. And once they get there, they find out their old friend Ambiorix was not as loyal as they thought. With the rest of his army, Ambiorix leads them into another trap and the legionnaires again are cut to shreds. The cunning chief had double crossed the Romans, and for two years, Caesar has to deal with this tribe in open rebellion against him. Though Ambiorix’s rebellion eventually petered out, he's remembered as a national hero in Belgium to this day.
As Caesar predicted, the Belgae people proved difficult to keep down. But there was one specific tribe that was more fearsome than the rest, centered around modern Brussels, were The Nervii. These guys, even by the standard of Belgae, were wild, suicidally brave, and completely unpredictable. Caesar had been warned by the other tribes against them. You know, hey, if you think we're tough, you should see The Nervii as a little fun fact. For those of you that watched HBO series Rome, in a previous rebellion led by the Nervii, two centurions are called out for their valor by name. Their names were Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo.
According to Caesar, just like in the show, the two men kind of get at each other about who's more valorous and who's more brave while they're trying to fight this tribe. It ends with Vorenus losing his footing during a fight and Pullo saving his life.
At the last minute. Both men return to the Roman lines “covered with glory” - Caesar's words not mine!
Anyway, the Nervii allows no traders or merchants from the rest of Gaulon to their land. They completely abstained from alcohol, no booze at all, fearing that it would dull their senses and make them lose their age in battle. So it goes without saying that they hated Caesar, even going as far to several relationships with tribes that were friendly to the Romans. And its with these guys, that Caesar almost loses everything.
It's such a fantastic story, and even in Caesar's writing, you can just feel the panic. It starts with Caesar marching north, determined to punish the tribe and stomp out any ideas of rebellion other tribes nearby may have had. But it was a little too late. The coalition had already formed. Nervii scouts are watching each of these six or so legions snake up towards this ambush point. Each legion had its baggage, food, armor, equipment just behind them, so the order went something like legion, baggage train. Legion, baggage train.
Many of the recently formed legions were made up of young, inexperienced men who the Nervii were relying on to be skittish and nervous. The plan was to ambush the baggage train of the first legion and cut them off from the rest and go from there. But midway through the march, Caesar commands everyone to stop, and he orders all baggage be moved to the back. So now it was all the leads in the front and the entire baggage train behind them.
Whether or not he felt something was off or he'd been tipped off, we don't know. But even with this change of plan, the Nervii still think this is the best chance they're going to get. Their men peered out from the forest and just waited for the opportune moment.
Quick as he can, Caesar orders the construction of a fortified camp, knowing that they're probably surrounded, but with no clue as to the real size of the enemy. In another astute move that probably saved him, he forbids any of the offers to leave their post. He knew how green some of his soldiers were and how they would rely on orders rather than instinct if something was to go down. As the first baggage train arrives at the semi constructed camp, the valley just explodes from all around.
The trees just bleed people and the warriors of the Nervii charge down in droves. In a rare moment, Caesar is caught completely off guard. He bellows at his men to form up and blowing the horn to muster orders that everyone out chopping would drop everything and return immediately.
The camp is in utter chaos. Men are scrambling down from these half built structures and just grabbing whatever weapon was nearby. Many of the men didn't even have a chance to put a helmet on, and some were still bearing shields covered in their leather traveling bag. So running up and down the line, Caesar was just putting out fires left and right. As men scramble out of their quarters, he just throws them into these gaping holes in the line. As more and more Roman soldiers arrive, Gallic soldiers from the other tribes begin to buckle under the pressure, but the nervii soldiers don't give an inch. With every gap that sees a plugs, the nervii chieftain doubles down with everything he's got on another spot.
This was the fearsome Gallic charge we talked about, by far the most dangerous point in any battle with the Gauls. As the men carrying the baggage begin to arrive at this scene of complete chaos, they start panicking and run. They're now just arriving at this camp in a scene that looks like It's all over for the Romans.
So they take off, and you know what they say fear rules of battlefield. Some of the soldiers see these guys running and think, forget this, and they bolt, too. So pushing himself through, this crowd of fleeing recruits sees or reaches the front lines and sees this absolutely threadbare group of men. Every centurion was gone, dead or missing. The battle standard lost, nowhere to be seen. The leader of the Cohort is covered with so many wounds, bleeding so badly, was struggling to hold himself up. Knowing a breakthrough was close, the Nervii chief directs everything he's got at this gap, and Caesar, knowing this was it.
Just grabs the shield off the ground and shoulders himself in next to the men holding line. He yells to his soldiers to extend their stamps so they have enough room to stab with their swords. As the men break off and begin to flee, he calls them out by name. And these men, faced with the shame of letting their general stand in the front lines instead of them, turn back!
They pick up their weapons and they fall up to siding. As the allies of the nervii begin to peel off. This frees up some of the other legions who can see just how close Caesars line is to completely buckling. And just in the nick of time, they arrive and stabilize it. The battle soon begins to turn, but the Nervii soldiers had already decided that today was it for them.
The Roman army begins to encircle them, but they show no signs of giving in. Standing on the corpses of their own dead comrades, they keep fighting until the very end. As their shields begin to be little more than pin cushions against the Roman pilums, they drop them. And standing atop this mound of bodies, they still refused to give in. And a few actually managed to catch the spears in mid air and hurl them back at the Romans!
By this time, the day was winding down and whoever was still left eventually slipped away, back to the forest. But even Caesar couldn't help but marvel at the suicidal bravery of these guys. I mean, what a battle, right? For me, this is one of these rare accounts that even 2000 years later, you can still get a feeling of what it must have been like to be there.
I've just picked a few examples but all across Gaul, cesar and his legions were facing stiffer and stiffer opposition as tribes banded together to stand a better chance against him. Even Germany wasn't safe. Crossing the Rhine River, the traditional border between Gaul and Germania, had never been done. But Caesar wanted to prove that there was nowhere to hide for those who defied Rome. So in just ten days, he had these legions construct a bridge to cross it. And this is no little Indiana Jones Rickety little rope bridge.
The river was 9 meters, 30ft deep, and perhaps 400 meters, 1300ft long. Even with Rome's infinite resources, to construct something like this is an incredible achievement. So crosses the bridge, and once the Germans realize, good God, he's actually building a bridge, they pack up and head east.
So with not much to do. Caesar burns down a few villages, kills whoever we can find. In a week or two, he crosses back and just destroys a bridge. As if to say this wonder of civil engineering that I just whipped up, no bother, I'll tear it down. If I want another one later, I'll build one.
Wow. All these ventures, battles and rebellions were the talk of the continent. Aware that very soon they would either be asked to cough up some gold or at very least, food for the Romans,
There was no room for neutrality going forward.
Caesar was just about to see when you push people past their breaking point, when you steal their food and enslave their children, then at that point, a shared hatred becomes a stronger motivator than fear….
And that is where I will hit the pause button this week.
I know I'm making a habit of turning two parties into three plus parts. But please do forgive me. I promise a conclusion will be worth it.
In two weeks time Caesar finally gets his comeuppance as not just one, not just two, but almost every tribe in Gaul turns on him.
But who would lead them?
I'm sure there's someone who's been harping on about a Gallic alliance wasn't it?...
This has been anthology of heroes. Thanks for tuning in.