Ancient Celtic Warriors: Caesar and Vercingetorix


Part Six

CELTIC WARRIORS: Caesar Invades Gaul

Celts from Gaul face-off against Julius Caesar, 1st century BC

[Celts fighting Romans]
Julius Caesar was the nemesis of the Celts in Europe. The most successful of the Roman warlords, he turned the tide of Celtic military dominance in the ancient world. Until his arrival, The Celts enjoyed unrivaled power in western and central Europe. After him, things would never be quite the same, and supporters of Celtic independence would retreat to the outskirts of Britain and Ireland, the region known today as the Celtic fringe. The bad news for the Celts arrived between 65 and 60 BCE when a German warlord named Ariovistas invaded the land of the Gauls (now France). At first the 'French' Celts tried to use the Germans to defeat their own Celtic rivals. Celtic inter-tribal warfare and blood feuds have always been the bane of Celtic peoples, and this would be used against them masterfully by Caesar (who coined " divide and conquer”) and later in history, the English would do the same.

The attempt to use the Germans to enact revenge on a rival Celtic tribe just gave them more power and encouragement. When things were bad, the Gauls made a very unwise and hasty decision: they turned to Rome to help with their "German problem". Julius Caesar leapt at the opportunity. He'd been searching for a good conquest to increase his power in Rome, and this intervention provided him with a golden opportunity. Never has the phrase " divide and conquer" been more appropriate. On invitation of the Celts, Caesar marched a Roman army into Gaul, thus beginning the conquest of the whole country. To understand Caesar's motives one needs to examine how Roman generals used the army to gain political power in this period of Roman history.

Around this time, the Roman army had become so powerful that the senate was almost a slave to the whims of the army. In order for an ambitious man (like Caesar) to gain absolute political dominance over his rivals (such as Pompey), a successful military campaign was the surest way to force your political rivals to bow to your power. Romans loved power, and although Pompey was also a strong general and political rival, Caesar was cunning and saw a victory in Europe - such as Gaul - as the perfect means of gaining absolute control. Gaul just happened to be the country he used to gain this power.

[Caesar] Caesar played Celtic tribe against Celtic tribe, even employing Celtic horsemen as mercenaries and winning weaker chieftains over to his side. It was only after he'd marched into the heart of the country that the Celts began to rally themselves. In the north of Gaul, a particularly fierce confederation of tribes known as the Belgae (from whence Belgium derives its name) stood in his way. Hardened by years of border warfare with the Germans, and possibly part German themselves, they were ferocious warriors, and Caesar took his time. He used Celtic horsemen allies to plunder the lands of the Belgae, thus weakening their resolve to confront him as they heard reports of their farms being ravaged by the Romans. Caesar dug in his main army behind entrenchments and waited for the skirmishing to take its toll, a strategy used by the Celts themselves centuries earlier in Greece. (See Brennos). It could be that Caesar had read of this in the classical texts he is known to have carried with him. But the world had never seem the kind of earthworks, walls, trenches and fortifications such as Caesar's Legions built now, leading to one historian to call the Roman war machine 'the bulldozing Legions'. The strategy worked. The supplies of the main Belgic army began to run out and their forces broke apart under the strain of attrition and constant raiding. Caesar now mobilized his main army, until now unused except for construction, and the Belgae were defeated piece by piece. Of course this strategy would not have worked if Caesar had not been able to maintain a steady supply line for his forces, and one can only wonder why other Celtic tribes did not come to the aid of the Belgae by raiding and destroying these supply lines. Had the Celts done so with their superior horsemen, Caesar would have been forced into a defensive mode. But alas, it did not happen.

Only one man saw what was going on: Vercingetorix of the Arverni (modern Auvergne) tried desperately to unite the Gauls against the common enemy. His defeat was inevitable, for the Gauls could not make common cause, after centuries of tribal independence. But Vercingetorix, a Celtic prince, was determined to resist at all costs. Initially, and with brilliant leadership, he routed a completely surprised Roman army when his horsemen charged down on an active Roman encampment. He had planned well using spies to determine when the guards changed and when the Romans were least organized. However, it was not a total victory for the Celts because the Romans had one of their toughest Legions nearby under the command of Caesar himself.

(For a full account of Vercingetorix, please visit
Vercingetorix history )

Vercingetorix kept busy despite the victory. His spies were convinced that Caesar intended to withdraw into Gallia Narbonensis to clear passes in Northern Italy that were blocked by a Celtic tribe (Allobroges). Caesar's forces, now receiving military support from some paid Germanic horsemen, were supposed to be on the march. To most Celts, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for ambush and victory. To Vercingetorix, it was a risk he would rather not take. But drunk with victory, his Celtic warriors would not be denied the chance, so they imagined, wiping out the Romans. The best Vercingetorix could do was to persuade them to instead attack key Roman positions, forcing them to abandon their baggage trains -- contending it would be a much more effective tactic. What he was hoping to do is obvious -- trying to prevent his hotheaded Celts from charging headlong into Roman spears.

All of Vercingetorix's cautions were thrown to the wind, however, as the Celts forgot all of his instruction, charged at whatever was in front of them. All that they had gained by slow methods in the long guerilla war and from cautious ambush was in jeopardy. Caesar did not miss this opportunity.

Allowing the Celts, in their battle furor, to engage the Romans in a pitched hand-to-hand battle, Caesar slowly began to encircle them in a pincer movement. Celtic confidence began to erode as their swords were shattered on Roman defenses; Celtic temperament broke on Roman discipline. It was obvious that any hope for a quick victory was over. Suddenly, Celtic lack of discipline and frustration seized Vercingetorix's army. It began to disperse in disarray and retreat. Discouraged horsemen went in all directions as the Romans moved forward.

Statue of Vercingetorix

Vercingetorix's warning had proved correct, but he was not able to capitalize on this for fear of alienating his already fragile alliance. Without much other choice, he began a hasty withdrawal -- and this was to be his fatal mistake - towards Alesia, where he and his army planned to hide behind its walls. The formidable Celtic fortress at Alesia would have deterred most generals from attempting a siege: not so Caesar, and his bulldozing Legions. First Caesar began to construct an outer wall around the entire city. Then, to the amazement of the Celts watching from their ramparts, Caesar began building a second set of walls closer in.

With single-minded determination and precision, he constructed the walls, displaying a zeal for perfectionism. The second wall, a double one, was filled with water from a nearby source. Then came a series of "man-traps" -- "iron caltrops, wholly buried" -- and carefully concealed holes in the ground, several feet deep and containing pointed stakes in the center that would easily impale. They were called "cippus" which is a combination of 'gravestone' and 'pointed pillar'. A third wall, far behind the others, was nine feet high and capped with tin and other breastworks. In addition, parallel to it was another similar wall, but facing towards the exterior of the city, not inwards. It was 15 miles long. The total effect was not only of the enclosure of Alesia, but also of Caesars own army, which surrounded it. It was constructed something like a layered cake: several layers (walls) and several areas of open space - a dead mans land - in between them, with the Celtic stronghold -- Alesia -- at the center.

It didn't take too long for the construction to have an effect: the Celts were running out of food. A war council was held to discuss options. Three ideas were obvious. One was surrender, but no one actually felt Vercingetorix should, or even would be allowed by his Celtic comrades, accept this option at this point. Another option was to make an attack - a sortie -- on Roman positions, but this seemed like suicide. Third, to wait until the end, was finally agreed. But this decision was not made until a fanatic anti-Roman Celt, Critognatus, suggested an alternative option: to eat the old people and "lengthen their lives with the bodies of those too old to fight" -- not surrender. Vercingetorix did not consider that option. Seemingly a rather cold but, probably a desperate move, they ordered the women and children, who were by now starving, out of the city into the no man's land. One hopes that the Celts expected the Romans to take the women and children hostage - or as slaves - and that they would at the very least be fed -- something the Celts could no longer do for them. Nevertheless, Caesar ordered his Legions to ignore the pleas of the women for shelter and food, and let them slowly starve to death in that no man's land in between the walls. It was a cruel act on both sides. But we should not judge the actions of a desperate army facing certain annihilation. Clearly, this is a black mark on Vercingetorix's reputation in history, but cruel treatment of civilians was not unusual in the ancient world.

What the Celts under Vercingetorix had been counting on to save them was a strike by other Celtic horsemen coming to their rescue. But Caesar's Legions, using the walls as both a shield and a weapon, repulsed the attempted relief of the siege. Placing his men, those on the outer walls -- on the inside now -- he was able to face the relieving forces and still keep Alesia surrounded. Not only that, but the walls served as tremendous protection from both Celtic fronts. It might be the only time in history that an army involved in a siege became a siege-target themselves and still maintain an advantage. It seems like Caesar must have foreseen this and it makes his intentions -- genius or insanity -- seem all the more plausible. The Celts could still evoke fear and dread in their opponents, but it was not sufficient to deter the Romans. After five long days of continued fighting, the Celtic leaders met to decide a course of action.

Finally, the time came when Vercingetorix had no more tricks up his sleeve and he surrendered himself to the Romans. We get two descriptions of this event. Caesar describes that Vercingetorix was "handed over" to him as well as some tribal chieftains.

Vercingetorix surrenders
[Vercingetorix surrenders]

The Greek historian Plutarch, born a century later, has it differently. He says that Vercingetorix put on his most colorful amour, had his horse carefully groomed and rode from his camp to Caesar. Once there, he rode a circle around Caesar, came down from his horse, removed his amour and surrendered himself at Caesar's feet. Dramatic? Probably. Also very Celtic in its romantic nature. Whatever the exact truth, Vercingetorix did surrender to Caesar, and the revolt in Gaul was over. Caesar was victorious despite the stiff resistance of the Celts and in a bizarre homage to Vercingetorix's courage, Caesar parades him around Rome in chains for the amusement of the Roman audience, then executes him by ritual strangulation for the adoring Roman fans.

With the death of Vercingetorix and the defeat of the Gauls at Alesia, Celts began to flee Gaul in large numbers. Many fled to the British Isles and settled in England, reforming their tribes there. They did not seem to learn that unity would be their only salvation against the might of the Roman Empire and continued their feuding and peripheral warfare in Britain. Some Gauls chose to align with the Germanic tribes instead of fleeing to Britain and thus many Celts were absorbed into German culture.

Legacy of the European Celts

Celtic Charioteers

The chariot, so often associated with the Greeks and Romans, are thought by some historians to really be a Celtic invention copied by the classical civilizations. In addition, many historians now believe that it was the Celts, not the Romans, who first created many of the great roads of Western Europe. These historians, and I can see their point, feel that the Celts built these long straight roads with planks of wood for their chariots to run along and for easier travel from one Celtic center to another. The Romans may have simply come along afterwards and covered them in stone. This is further backed up by recent excavations showing chariot burials (some leaders were buried with their own chariots, amongst other things) alongside many of the "Roman" roads. Why would the Romans have built so many roads near Celtic graves? Additionally, many of the roads credited to the Romans do not go places the Legions would have gone and one cannot readily explain why so many various roads, supposedly initially built by the Romans, would go to areas that were once Celtic strongholds or held no strategic interest for the Romans. Celtic coins found in France have also been unearthed near many of these roads. The Romans never used Celtic currency as a nation, so they would have had no use to carry them. (photo below, right).

[Vercingetorix surrenders]
It took historians centuries to give proper credit of the invention of the iron long sword to the Celts when it was generally thought to be either a Persian or a Greek invention for years. In the middle of the 20th century, historians, largely due to the discoveries of archaeologists, began to recognize Celtic identity and as separate people from either the Greeks or Germans tribes, as gathered from the evidence. It was once thought they were simply a barbarian people found in various places, no different from anonymous Germanic tribes. But the Celtic language, culture, which was finally studied, and the artifacts uncovered, proved beyond a doubt that the Celts were an Indo-European people with a unique culture and heritage with surprising sophistication. Sadly, even so, you can still pick up a standard college text on Western Civilization and find almost no mention of the Celts anywhere in state approved texts. I share a frustration with other Celtic historians who clearly see the separate and advanced identity of the Celts as one of the more important races in ancient Europe.

Portents of the Future

Next: In the next entry of Celtic Warriors the Romans decide that the Island of Britain, the last bastion of Celtic lands, as something they covet once again. How do the British Celts fare against the Romans in relation to the Gauls? In the next article, we will look at the early British Celts and a mysterious leader who history doubted existed for centuries. But, he was real.

Next, in Part 7 of Ancient Celtic Warriors
  • British Celtic Chieftain v Rome a British Celtic Chieftain faces Caesar.

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