Rome versus the Veneti – Caesar’s First Naval Encounter in Gaul

In the winter of 57 BC, the tribes of the northern coast of Gaul had recently surrendered their allegiance to Rome but almost immediately raised an insurrection against Julius Caesar. The movement was led by the Veneti (modern: Brittany, France) and Venelli (modern: Normandy, France). While there was no official Roman government to rebel against, the people of Gaul began to resent Caesar’s domineering presence in their homeland and feared official Roman subjugation was imminent. They were right to fear it.

Map of Gaul, 1st Century B.C.

At the start of 56 B.C., Caesar split his army up and sent them out from their winter quarters to the various corners of Gaul. Titus Labienus, his trusty lieutenant-general and second-in-command in charge of cavalry, went to Belgae to fend off German support at the River Rhine. Quintus Titurius Sabinus, another lieutenant-general with three legions in his charge, went to the territory of the Venelli on the northern coast of Gaul to hinder their attempted uprising. And twelve cohorts led by the young Publius Crassus journeyed far southeast to Aquitania (modern: Aquitania, France) near the borders of the Roman provinces of Hispania (modern: Spain) and Narbonensis (modern: Southern coastal France) to force the official surrender of some yet-unconquered tribes down there. This was all done to keep the rebellious tribes from joining forces and was done so successfully by each of these three men.

With the remaining four legions of his army, Caesar himself moved east from Belgae territory toward to the Veneti on the eastern coast of Gaul. Fearing the conquerors coming, the Veneti began abandoning many of their towns and set up fortified strongholds among their rivers and tributaries whose fluctuating tides made impasse whether by boat or by foot difficult.

Depiction of the Naval Movements During the Battle Against the Veneti in 56 B.C.

After managing to siege these towns and strongholds, Caesar forced the Veneti toward the sea where the rebellious Gauls had amassed a large naval force from among their fleets docked between Gaul and Britannia — about two hundred and twenty ships strong. Intent to thoroughly defeat the Veneti military and squash this budding rebellion, Caesar ordered assistance from the Roman navy and built some ships. It took till summer for the Roman fleet to arrive, having along the way recruited allied Gallic men to outfit them. A member of Brutus family–friends of the Caesars–was put in command of this fleet while Julius Caesar stood aground with his land force on the coastline (modern: Quiberon Bay, Morbihan, France) to witness the impending fight.

Three-banked ("trireme") Roman quinquereme with the corvus boarding bridge. The use of the corvus negated the superior Carthaginian naval expertise, and allowed the Romans to establish their naval superiority in the western Mediterranean.

The challenge facing the Romans was not the size nor the skill of the enemy this time around, but rather the construction of their ships. Roman ships built for the Mediterranean Sea were lighter, simply put, and deeper in the hull. So, they were ill-suited to traverse the rocky, partly shallow coastline, and often stormy Atlantic Sea, whereas the Gallic ships were right at home. They were built of oak, sturdier and thicker. Their bottoms were relatively flat, and (in non-nautical terms) the walls of their hull were taller. Their thickness made the Roman technique of ramming ineffective. Their flatter hulls made them more maneuverable – but slower. And their high sides kept their sailors shielded from Roman missiles and ranged weapon attacks. So, what could the Romans do? Well, a meeting of their minds yielded the solution. They developed a long pole with a large hook fastened to its tip, which would be shot at the yards and masts of the Gallic ships. They would destroy the sails of their enemies and keep them floating still in the water. This was effectively executed during battle by re-engineering a ballistae, a classic Roman artillery device, as a projectile launcher for these hooks. Then, the Romans would encircle the immobilized Gallic ships and board them. In such a way, the naval force of the Veneti was handily defeated.

The rest of the Veneti on land then surrendered. But, as punishment for their leading the insurrection, Caesar killed all of their tribal leaders and enslaved all of the men in the region.

Caesar, despite how iconically we regard his military feats, was still a man capable of villainy. War calls for certain necessary evils. However, there is particular type of viciousness that we see upon victory after battles in which some of the most heinous crimes against humanity are committed. On one hand, its stands to reason that those who cause a war should be severely punished. On the other, those who idolize men like Caesar may be inclined not only to follow in his footsteps but to then outdo his atrocities or double-down on his tactics when run out of ideas – so we find the desperate men in charge of dying empires like Hitler of the Nazis and the Ottomans of Turkey committing unspeakable crimes against humanity once their sickly hands lose grip on the fleeting power they once held. Well past inebriated off the intoxicating effects of war and imperialism, especially when facing their own destruction, they are seduced by the dark side at exponential degrees to unleash vicious acts of violence against the common citizens of peace, women, and children, all in the pursuit of their futile dreams of domination.

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