Helmet and Spear - Alfred J. Church

The Conquests of Caesar

The second great European conquest made by Rome outside the borders of Italy was Gaul. The beginning of this conquest, which was spread over about a century, the last ten years, however, being by far the most productive of result, belongs to the year 152 B.C. The people of Massilia (Marseilles) begged the help of the Romans against two tribes of Gaul who were attacking dependencies of theirs. Much the same thing happened again some twenty years later. The end of this and of other affairs which it is not necessary to describe in detail was the establishment in 121 B.C. of what was called the Provincia  (a name still preserved in the modern Provence). Two colonies were founded in this region, one at Aqu Sexti (Aix), the other at Narbo Marcius (Narbonne). The Provincia  occupied the valley of the Rhone, and reached westward as far as the Garonne.

I pass on at once to the story of how the whole of the country from the Mediterranean to the North Sea and from the Atlantic to the Rhine was incorporated in the Empire of Rome.

In 59 B.C. Julius Csar was appointed to the government of Gaul (on both sides of the Alps) and Illyria. In the April of the next year he proceeded to take up his command. The first important operation which he undertook shows plainly enough how great a change had taken place in the relation between Rome and his barbarian neighbours of the north. The Helvetii, of whom we have heard in connection with the story of the Cimbri and Teutones, were in a restless condition. Their land (which we may roughly describe as the non mountainous part of Switzerland and adjacent districts of France) was too narrow for them, and they resolved to look for another more fertile and more spacious. A hundred or even fifty years before they would certainly have moved southward, as kindred tribes had done under the First and the Second Brennus. But Italy no longer tempted them. It was as attractive as ever, but the way was too perilous. Accordingly, the migration of the Helvetii was northward. Csar saw his opportunity. The Helvetii would have to pass through a corner of the Provincia, and they sent envoys asking his leave. Csar did not directly refuse their request, the truth being that he had not troops enough to stop them, if they were minded to force a passage. He put them off. He would give an answer shortly. When they came again his soldiers were ready and therefore his answer also. They must not go. The Helvetii then chose another way, but Csar is determined that they shall not go at all. They went, indeed, burning everything that they could not carry with them, but Csar pursued and overtook them. The battle that followed was long and fierce. It lasted from one o'clock in the afternoon to evening, and for all these hours no Roman saw the back of a foe. A barricade had been made of the waggons, and this was obstinately defended. At last the camp was taken, but as many as 130,000 men made their escape. They had three days' start, for Csar had to stay where he was so long, providing for the treatment of his wounded, and for the burial of his dead.

But though the fugitives marched without resting day or night they could not get out of their enemy's reach. Couriers were sent on, warning the tribes through whose territories they were to pass not to supply the Helvetii with food. To do so would be to incur the same penalty. This prompt and stern action had its immediate effect. The fugitives halted and sent back envoys begging for peace. Csar granted their request, but they were to give hostages, and to surrender their arms and all runaways and deserters. The men of one canton attempted to escape eastward, hoping that their flight might not be observed till it was too late to overtake them. But Csar observed everything; the unhappy men—there were six thousand of them—were brought back and slaughtered. The rest were admitted to quarter. They were compelled, however, to go back to their deserted country. Their neighbours, the Allobroges, were instructed to feed them till they could grow food for themselves, and they had to build again the houses which they had destroyed. Csar tells the story with a passionless accuracy. He shows neither anger nor pity. But the bare numbers which he gives are eloquent enough. There were 368,000 emigrants; 110,000 returned. More than two-thirds—men, women, and children—had perished. Anyhow, they could no longer complain that the land was too narrow for them.

But the spirit of unrest had reached to other tribes beside the Helvetii. The Germans from the eastern side of the Rhine had made their way into Gaul, under the command of their King Ariovistus. They had been invited to come by one tribe of Gauls to help them against another, but had soon made themselves odious both to friends and to foes. The particular tribe which had called them in had given up to them one-third of its land, and was now called upon to surrender another. Csar was called upon to help. The invitation was just what he wanted. To be the champion of Gaul was the first step towards being its master. Accordingly he informed the German king that he must let the friends of the Roman people alone. Ariovistus's answer was a defiance, and Csar's rejoinder was a rapid march eastwards. There was no time to be lost. Other tribes from beyond the Rhine were said to be on the move. Were these to join the first-comers, it would be a very formidable combination. Seven days' marching brought the Romans within twenty-four miles' distance of the enemy. There were negotiations which came to nothing, various strategic movements, with a cavalry skirmish now and then. Finally Csar made an attack on the German host, and drove it before him to the Rhine. It suffered heavily in the flight. Ariovistus escaped, but he took very few of his Germans back with him.

In the following year (57 B.C.) Csar was engaged with the Belg in North-eastern Gaul. (Gaul must always be conceived of as the whole country to the westward of the Rhine.)

He fought and won a great battle on the Aisne, falling on the enemy while they were endeavouring to cross the river, and inflicting a heavy loss on them. "They tried," says Csar, "in the most daring way to pass on the dead bodies of their own comrades." As he never puts anything in for the sake of effect, we may rely on the absolute truth of this gruesome picture. This victory was not easily won; a harder piece of work was the conflict with the Nervii that shortly followed. The Nervii occupied the country now known as Belgium, and had a high reputation for valour and for simplicity, not to say savagery, of life. They would not allow the importation of wine or any other foreign luxuries, and they were firmly resolved not to have any dealings with Csar. Their kinsmen and neighbours who had consented to treat with the Romans, had behaved, they considered, with much base- ness and cowardice. The great battle was fought on the Sambre, and seems to have been, at one time, the most critical thing that Csar was ever engaged in.

Csar had been marching with his legions—he had eight in his force—each followed by its own baggage, and so far, therefore, separated from each other. The Nervii had been informed of this arrangement by some well-wishers in Csar's train, and had been advised to deliver their attack on the foremost legion as soon as the baggage came in sight. But the Roman general, who probably knew this, as great commanders have a way of knowing everything, altered his order on the way. First came the cavalry, then six legions together, all in light marching order, then the baggage, and bringing up the rear two newly levied legions. When the baggage came in sight the Nervii saw, as they thought, their opportunity. As a matter of fact, they had been waiting too long. They had to deal with six legions, not, as they expected, with one. Even then their onslaught came perilously near to a success. Emerging unexpectedly from the woods in which they had been lying hid, they drove before the Roman cavalry, and were engaged in hand-to-hand fight with the legions almost before these knew what had happened. It was almost a surprise. "Csar," so he writes of himself, "had everything to do at once—to hoist the red flag that was the signal for battle, give the trumpet call, summon back to their places in the ranks the men who were collecting materials for the rampart, draw up the line, and address the troops." The enemy had been unexpectedly quick in their attack. On the other hand, the army was in thoroughly good order; every man knew what he had to do. But the time was very short. The men could not even don their helmets or get their shields out of their covers before the enemy was upon them. The tribesmen in alliance with the Nervii could not hold their own against the Romans, but the Nervii themselves for a time carried everything before them, breaking through the two legions that confronted them, and actually taking possession of the Roman camp. The camp followers fled in dismay, and were followed by some of the light-armed troops. Even a contingent of cavalry sent by the Treveri rode off the field, and carried with them the report that the day was lost. As the Treveri had a high reputation for courage, their flight was of the very worst omen.

At this critical moment Csar personally intervened, and restored the fortunes of the day. He seized a shield, addressed himself to the centurions, whose names, again after the fashion of the great general, he knew, and turned the tide of battle. Csar did not show himself so frequently in the front as was the habit of Alexander, but he could do it on occasion with the happiest effect. At the same time the officer in command of the tenth legion (Csar's corps d'lite, as we may call it), who had made a successful attack on the enemy's position, brought back that force to the help of his chief. The Nervii still resisted with the greatest courage. But the day was lost, and few of the tribe, so far, at least, as it had taken part in the battle, were left alive. An episode of the campaign is worth relating, though it had little or no effect on the general result. The force left by the Cimbri and Teutones to guard their spoil had after various wanderings found their way into this region. They asked and obtained terms from Csar, tried to outwit, and were, by way of punishment, sold as slaves.

The third campaign was carried on in Western Gaul, among the Veneti, represented by the Bretons of to-day. Csar had made a requisition on them for corn, of which, as they were a seafaring people, they had probably little to spare. They refused the demand, which, indeed, he had no right but that of superior force to make, and even detained his envoys, whom they probably considered, and not without good reason, to be spies. Csar found that he wanted ships if he were to deal successfully with the Veneti. Accordingly he had a fleet built on the Loire, and manned with a levy raised in the neighbourhood. It was the First Punic War over again. The tribes of the western coast were beaten on their own element. As they had been guilty of what Csar chose to consider a great offence, an insult to ambassadors, he determined to punish them with unusual severity. Their chiefs were put to death; the rest of the population sold into slavery. A general surrender of the western tribes took place. Meanwhile one of the great man's lieutenants subdued the region between the Pyrenees and the Garonne (to the west, therefore, of the Provincia), and Cesar himself spent what remained of the year in reducing some tribes in the northeast.

In the following year (B.C. 55) Northern Gaul was disturbed by another great movement of population. Two German tribes, themselves dispossessed by the overpowering strength of the Suebi, a great confederation of kindred tribes from Eastern Germany, crossed the Rhine, and quartered themselves on the Menapii, a people which inhabited the left bank of the lower Rhine. Csar was well aware that the ill-affected Gauls would soon make common cause with the new-comers, and determined to be beforehand with his enemies of either race. He marched with great promptitude against them, not allowing himself to be put off by the negotiations which they desired or pretended to open with him. Before long a treacherous attack, made by the German horsemen on Csar's cavalry—chiefly composed, it would seem, of native levies—gave him an excellent justification for acting. He attacked the enemy, and drove them in headlong flight to the river. Many were slain in the fight and the pursuit, more were drowned in the river; the result was the almost entire destruction of the invading host. Nor did this satisfy him. He determined to make a demonstration of his strength in Germany itself. To do this he had to transport his army across the Rhine. To carry them over in boats did not, as he puts it, suit the dignity of the Roman people.

Possibly he thought it unsafe. Accordingly he built a bridge, a marvel of engineering skill, when we consider the breadth, depth, and force of the river to be spanned, and the short supply of tools and materials at hand. The work was complete in ten days; eighteen days more were spent in Germany. And Csar then came back, having certainly impressed the tribes beyond the Rhine with a great idea of his resources. Late in this year Csar made his first expedition to Britain. Of this and of the more serious invasion of the following year I shall have to speak elsewhere.

The year 54 B.C. was a very critical time. Csar evidently had overrated the result of his successes, a pardonable error, so rapid and apparently so complete had they been. A feeling of false security had suggested the somewhat romantic expedition to Britain, an expedition which he certainly would not have made if he had been aware of the real state of affairs in Gaul. He supposed that the country had been finally subdued—"pacified" or "quieted" was the Roman euphemism—but he was rudely undeceived. Fortunately for him he was in Gaul when the formidable rising, which he had soon to crush, took place. If he had been still in Britain, or if, as had been his intention, he had started for the south, the consequences might have been more serious than they were.

The harvest in Gaul that year (B.C. 54) had been short. Hence it became necessary to scatter the legions in arranging for their winter quarters. There were eight legions, and the half of another, and they were located in eight camps. Two of these camps were in Normandy (Seez and Chartres), two in Picardy (Amiens and Montdidier), one in Artois (St. Pol), and three in Belgium (Charleroi, Tongres, and Lavacherie on the Ourthe). One of the last three, that at Tongres, which was under the command of two legates, Sabinus and Cotta, was attacked by a detachment from one of the tribes in the neighbourhood. Force not succeeding, treachery was tried. One of the local chiefs, Ambiorix by name, proposed a conference. He was friendly, he said, to the Romans, Csar having done him a kindness, though he had been compelled to pose as an enemy. His advice to the generals was to leave the camp, which it would not be possible to hold. A multitude of Germans had crossed the Rhine, and were on their way to attack the camp. If the troops were withdrawn to one of the other camps in Eastern Gaul, he would guarantee them a safe-conduct. The two officers in command were divided in opinion. Finally Sabinus, who was in favour of evacuating the camp, had his way. At dawn next day they started; after proceeding two miles they fell into an ambush. Forming into a circle they resisted, till the severity of their losses made them ask for terms. These were granted, and immediately broken. Sabinus and some officers laid down their arms and were massacred; Cotta died fighting; the survivors of the day's battle made their way back into the camp. Seeing that they could not possibly hold it against the enemy, they committed suicide during the night. A few stragglers escaped to the camp at Lavacherie, where Labienus was in command.

The camp at Charleroi, in the country of the Nervii, where Q. Cicero, younger brother of the great orator, was in command, was next attacked. The Gauls, now largely increased in number, assaulted it with the greatest fury, but were repulsed. Csar was informed of the position of affairs, and acted with his usual promptitude. He was able to concentrate a force of two legions, and with these he promptly relieved Cicero, having inflicted a severe defeat on a force of Gauls which attacked him on the way.

The next year (53 B.C.) was entirely devoted to exacting vengeance for the massacre of Sabinus and Cotta with their men. It is needless to follow the operations of Csar. It must suffice to say that though one somewhat serious reverse was sustained, they were successful on the whole. But much yet remained to be done before Gaul could be said to have been thoroughly "pacified." Csar was yet to be reduced to greater straits than he had yet experienced.

The year 52 B.C. was one of furious party strife in Rome, and Csar gives us clearly to understand that this state of things had its effect on the Gauls. Chafing under the newly imposed yoke, they naturally exaggerated the troubles of their masters. In one matter in particular, their "wish was father to their thought." They dreaded, and with excellent reason, the commanding personality of Csar. He had done in seven years more than his predecessors had been able to accomplish in seventy. What an inestimable advantage it would be if he were to be kept away from the scene of war by these party quarrels! The report that this was the case was spread about and eagerly believed. In a very short time all Gaul was in a blaze of revolt, the news spreading with extraordinary rapidity. What had happened at Gennabum (Orleans) at sunrise was known in the country of the Auverni, nearly 150 miles away, before 9 p.m. It was shouted from field to field.

Vercingetorix, an Auvernian, was the hero of the new movement. All the tribes of Western Gaul joined him immediately. He began his own operations in the south-west on the borders of the old Provincia. While occupied with them, Csar suddenly appeared on the scene, bringing with him new levies from the other side of the Alps. His coming caused an immediate change in the aspect of affairs. Moving with his usual speed, he concentrated his army at Sens (80 miles to the south-east of Paris). He then proceeded to attack one after another of the revolting tribes. His successes were so numerous and so rapid that Vercingetorix felt that he must change his plan of campaign. Unable to meet Csar in the field, he must starve him out. To do this it was necessary to lay the whole country waste. Even the towns would have to be burnt. Only the policy, to be useful, had to be thorough. This was more than Vercingetorix could effect. When it came to the question of destroying Avaricum (Bourges) he had to give way. Its inhabitants pleaded for it too earnestly, for it was the finest city in Gaul. If it had been burnt with all the stores that it contained the Roman campaign must have ended in disaster. As it was, the town was besieged by Csar. The Gallic chief, who had his camp sixteen miles away, did all he could to annoy and injure the besiegers. But he could not stop them. He threw 10,000 men into the city, but though the defence was prolonged, the skill and determination of the Romans would not be denied. When the prospect seemed desperate the garrison resolved to leave the city, but the shrieks of the women revealed their intention to the besiegers. Finally Avaricum was stormed, and all its inhabitants massacred.

Great as was this disaster, Vercingetorix felt his position to be strengthened by it. He could now say to his countrymen, "Avaricum has perished, after all, but the Romans have got the stores." Csar's next proceeding was to lay siege to Gergovia, a town which cannot be identified. Here he met with a decided reverse. One division of his army persisted in an attack upon the walls after the recall had been sounded, and were repulsed with heavy loss, 700 men, of whom nearly fifty were officers, falling in the action. Csar himself seems to have had a narrow escape. He does not mention it himself, not thinking, perhaps, that it was of sufficient importance to be recorded. But Servius, an ancient commentator on Virgil, relates it on the authority of a Diary (Ephemeris)  which was extant in his time. In Virgil, Tarchon, an Etrurian chief and ally of neas, drags one Venulus, in full armour, from off his horse. The same thing, he says, happened to Csar at Gergovia. One of the Gauls recognised him as he was being carried away, and shouted out Csar! The name was very like the Gallic words for "Let him go!" And Csar's captor relaxing his hold, the great man escaped. Plutarch tells another story of how the Auverni had a sword hanging up in one of their temples which they declared to be Csar's, and that when it was shown to him, he smiled. Nor was the defeat at Gergovia the last of his troubles. The dui, who had been loyal to Rome from the beginning, now joined the rebellion. They seized Csar's depot at Noviodunum (site unknown), slaughtered the garrison, and possessed themselves of the stores, and with them, of the hostages, who were pledges of the fidelity of the other tribes. They then tried to stop him from crossing the Loire. As usual, he was too quick for them. His legions forded the river, though the river, swollen with the melted snows, was breast-high.

Labienus, who was operating in the neighbourhood of Paris, had had difficulties of his own, but had surmounted them with his usual skill. He was Csar's ablest lieutenant, as useful to his chief as Lord Hill was to Wellington in the Peninsula. He now succeeded in joining the main army. Notwithstanding this addition of strength, the Roman commander was compelled to retreat. He was not far from the Provincia  when he turned upon Vercingetorix and defeated him, largely by the help of the German cavalry. The Romans, among other qualifications of a ruling race, had the gift of turning to the best account the qualities of others. Eight or nine years before there was not a trooper of German race in the Roman army; now that nation furnishes it with an efficient arm.

Vercingetorix now threw himself into Alesia, a strong place in the hills, probably to be identified with Alise-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy. He sent messengers to the various States in alliance asking for a lev-en-masse. This was not made, but a huge army was gathered, 250,000 infantry and 8,000 horse. It was the last great effort of Gaul for freedom, and it failed. The Gauls came on, convinced that they must triumph, but the Romans stood firm during a struggle that lasted from noon till sunset, and the enemy were driven back to their camp. Another attack, made after a brief rest, failed also. Then came the last desperate struggle. One of the chiefs of the relieving army, a kinsman of Vercingetorix, threw himself on a weak spot in the lines of investment, where the Roman camp had been constructed on ground that sloped towards the town. He had 60,000 men with him; the Roman force consisted of two legions. The besieged made a simultaneous effort to break out. The struggle was long and fierce. Csar directed the Roman battle from a point of advantage. When the time came, he himself, conspicuous in the scarlet cloak of command, took personal part in the struggle. His trusted lieutenant Labienus got together forty cohorts from all parts of the lines of investment, and Csar put himself at their head. The Gallic host was utterly broken. The slaughter on the field was great, and the survivors dispersed during the night that followed, every man seeking his native State. The next day Vercingetorix surrendered himself to the conqueror. He was kept in prison for seven years, was led in the triumph which Csar celebrated in 45 B.C.and put to death afterwards. The war in Gaul lasted for two years more. One after another the rebellious States were subdued, and dealt with mercifully or severely as policy dictated. Csar, who recognised the duty, or, anyhow, the policy, of forgiveness where his countrymen were concerned, was wholly proof against any emotion of the kind when he had to do with barbarians. He had no pleasure in a massacre; but, on the other hand, it caused him no compunction or even pain. These eight years of war must have cost Gaul some two millions of lives. It was an awful price to pay, but it completed a great work, which had been on hand for three centuries and a half. In 390 B.C. Brennus captured Rome; in 50 B.C. the Gauls had become the Latin people which they are to-day.