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The Gallic Wars

Julius Caesar's campaigns in Gaul (58-51 BC) are collectively termed the Gallic Wars. In 58 BC, Gallic agitation against the Suevi, a German tribe that had recently conquered territory in Gaul, and the threat of invasion by the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe from the area that is now Switzerland, gave Caesar a pretext to advance his career through war. Lack of cavalry support almost caused Caesar's defeat by the Helvetii at Bibracte, but his legions rallied and forced the Helvetii to withdraw (58). In the same year Caesar's army defeated and killed the Suevi's leader Ariovistus in Alsace after a hard campaign.

In 57, Caesar successfully met the attacks of the Gallic tribes of the Belgae and Nervii and established Roman control over what is now Belgium and northern France. The following year he conquered the Atlantic coast, thus isolating the central Gallic tribes, and massacred the German Usipites and Tencteri, who had entered Belgium. His invasions of Germany (55) and Britain (55 and 54) accomplished little but provided much publicity for Caesar.

The winter of 54 and most of 53 were spent in suppressing sporadic revolts in northern Gaul. The biggest threat came in 52 when a coalition of tribes in central Gaul under Vercingetorix (chieftain of the Averni) rose against the Romans. Caesar finally besieged Vercingetorix at Alesia. Famine overcame the defenders while Caesar's troops defeated a Gallic rear attack. Vercingetorix was brought to Rome, exhibited in Caesar's triumphal march, and executed. Serious Gallic resistance had now ended, but minor uprisings caused Caesar considerable frustration during 51 BC.

The Gallic Wars provided Caesar with wealth, a trained loyal army, and enormous popularity to use against his rivals at Rome.

Allen M. Ward, Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9, ©1997
Bibliography: Caesar, Julius, The Conquest of Gaul, trans. by S. A. Hanford (1951); Gelzer, Matthias, Caesar, Politician and Statesman (1968); Holmes, T R. E., Caesar's Conquest of Gaul, 2d ed. (1911).


Gaul (from the Latin Gallia) was the ancient name for an area roughly equivalent to modern France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany west of the Rhine. In Italy, the Po Valley was called Gallia Cisalpina ("Gaul this side of the Alps") by the Romans. The Celts, whom the Romans called Galli (Gauls), began to cross the Rhine into Gaul c.900 BC and by the 5th century BC had established a fairly uniform culture typified by the art of La Tene. Along the Mediterranean coast Greek civilization was introduced with the founding of Massilia (now Marseille) c.600 BC.

To protect its ally Massilia and ensure communications with Spain, Rome annexed a strip of territory between the Cevennes and the Alps in 121 BC. Roughly equivalent to the modern Provence, this became known first as Gallia Transalpina ("Gaul across the Alps") and later as Gallia Narbonensis ("Narbonese Gaul"). Julius Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul, called Comata ("Long-haired Gaul"), during his Gallic Wars (58-51 BC). Three new Roman provinces eventually emerged: Belgica, Lugdunensis, and Aquitania.

Emperor Claudius I, who was born at Lugdunum (now Lyon), admitted Gallic nobles to the Roman Senate in AD 48. He also ordered the suppression of the druids, the Celtic priests. Native deities were amalgamated with Roman counterparts, and emperor worship was encouraged. By the 4th century AD, however, Christianity predominated and weakened Celtic culture further by using Latin in worship.

In the 1st and 2d centuries AD, Gaul flourished through the export of food, wine, and pottery. In the 3d century it suffered devastating barbarian raids, however, and the Roman emperors' ineffective defense led to the creation c.260 of a short-lived kingdom of the Gauls. Beginning in 406 various Germanic tribes, especially Vandals, ravaged Gaul. The Visigoths (see Goths), nominally Roman allies, settled in Aquitaine, where they cooperated with the Roman general Flavius Aetius in the defeat (451) of the Huns. By 478 the Visigoths had also acquired Narbonensis. Meanwhile, the Franks took over northern Gaul, and the Alamani and Burgundians settled in the east. The last Roman territory in Gaul fell to Clovis, king of the Franks, in 486.

Allen M. Ward , Professor of History, University of Connecticut, Storrs.
Source: The New Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia, Release #9, ©1997
Bibliography: Brogen, Olwen, Roman Gaul (1953); Brunaux, Jean-Louis, The Celtic Gauls: Gods, Rites, and Sanctuaries, trans. by Daphne Nash (1988); Drinkwater, J. F., Roman Gaul (1983); Ebel, Charles, Transalpine Gaul (1976); King, Anthony, Roman Gaul and Germany (1990); Rivet, A. L., Gallia Narbonensis (1990); Wightman, Edith, Gallia Belgica (1985).

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