Gaul Revolts, Part I – Rise Against the Tide of Insurrection

Vercingetorix, Meet Julius… Wait, Where did he go? Oh, no…

In the winter of 53 B.C., after a failed Belgae rebellion, much of Gaul (modern: France, Switzerland, Belgium) conspired to revolt against Rome. At the time, Caesar’s Roman legions were quartered amongst the Belgae (modern: Belgium).

Map of Gaul, 1st Century B.C.

The tribe of the Carnutes (modern: Centre-Val de Loire, France) stirred up this insurrection. They acted first by massacring the civilian Roman population living in the Roman trade colony of Cenabum (modern: Orléans, France).

At a secret conference of the tribes, most of Gaul save for those tribes especially loyal to Rome like the Aedui swore an oath of allegiance to a new rebel cause. From amongst this rabble, Vercingetorix of the Arverni rose as the agreed upon leader of the rebellion.

Vercingetorix rallying his men - Ernest Lavisse [Public domain]
Vercingetorix rallying his men

Vercingetorix’s key attribute as a military leader was his ruthlessness and inclination toward total war. The rebellion was already kindled by a fervor for freedom from Caesar’s dominating presence and by a desire to restore Gaul’s ancestral military honor. Vercingetorix stoked this fire in the hearts of his soldiers by punishing anyone who expressed timidity in their dedication to the war efforts. Deserters would be killed and the least hint of cowardice was punished with the cutting off of one’s ear or the gouging out of one’s eye. As for his battle tactics, Vercingetorix preferred employing cavalry on open fields and hiding infantry in secluded woods. He placed emphasis on raising and training his horsemen well.

Word of all this reached Caesar who was stationed in Cisalpine Gaul (modern: Northern Italy). He decided to launch an immediate campaign to counter this budding movement despite being separated from his legions and it not yet being the season of war, summer.

So, in early 52 B.C., he swiftly arrived in Narbo (modern: Narbonne, France), a city within Rome’s official province of Narbonensis (modern: Southern coastal France), and gave the people there their hope. A rebel force from among the Arverni tribe was advancing here.

This is a fair time to note that while Caesar was receiving tribute and allegiance from the tribes of Gaul, the only formally governed province of the Roman Republic in Gaul was here in the Province Narbonensis and in Cisalpine Gaul. Celtae Gaul, Aquitania, Armorica, and Belgae – much of what makes up modern France, Belgium, and Switzerland, had every right to be angry with Caesar. Even some of Rome’s Senate was angry with him for taking the initiative to conquer Gaul. Anyway, back to the story.

There, in the Roman province of Narbonensis, Caesar raised some auxiliary troops in addition to the legion of new, young Roman soldiers he had levied back in Italy that winter. Establishing a front, he stood against the approaching Arverni in the district of the Helvii (modern: Ardèche, France), which lied within Roman Narbonensis but bordered on Arverni territory (modern: Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France – Southern France). The Arverni, surprised by seeing a Roman army standing its ground, turned around and avoided battle.

Map of Caesar's Movements to Rejoin his Legions at the start of the Gallic Rebellion

Julius Caesar knew he had to rejoin with the rest of his legions, but marching through Gaul would be a death sentence with this small of an army under his command. So, he dug a path through six feet of snow along the Cevenna Mountain Range (modern: Cevennes, France) until he reached the farther edge of Arverni territory. He sent his cavalry out over a wide expanse of land from there with orders to burn and terrorize the area so to give the appearance of a much larger host descending upon the Arverni. This gave the Arverni cause to pause. Some, in fear, begged Vercingetorix to surrender. Caesar then stationed his army in a camp among the Arverni and in secret met up with that cavalry contingent he had just sent out in Vienna (modern: Vienne, France). From there, they marched day and night, north through Aedui land – again in secret because, though the Aedui were still loyal to him, Caesar dared not put his trust in any Gaul for the moment – until he reached the territory of the Lingones (modern: Grand Est, France) where two of his legions were stationed for the winter. There, he had the rest of his legions, most of whom were wintering close-by to the north among the Belgae, come and join him.

Now, Caesar had his full force altogether. Ten legions (as two were still stationed in Germany) and their commander-in-chief moved swiftly upon many of the revolting tribes of Gaul south of the Belgae. Towns were besieged, supplies were plundered, prisoners and hostages taken, opposing armies checked and forced to flee. Having only recently convened to agree upon the idea of a rebellion, the Gauls and Vercingetorix were not yet able to wholly unify and organize their war efforts. Julius Caesar’s preemptive strike, which was risky and arduous, was highly effective.

Caesar then turned southeast and entered into the midst of Arverni territory in south-central Gaul (modern: south-central France), the heart of the rebellion, and struck fear into its newly beating heart.

Julius Caesar

Source: Caesar. The Gallic War. Translated by H. J. Edwards. Loeb Classical Library 72. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1917.

Caesar: The Gallic War (Loeb Classical Library)

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