Gallic Wars

The Gallic Wars were waged between 58 BC and 50 BC by the Roman general Julius Caesar against the peoples of Gaul (present-day France, Belgium, along with parts of Germany). Gallic, Germanic, and Britonic tribes fought to defend their homelands against an aggressive Roman campaign of expansion. The Wars culminated in the decisive Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, in which a complete Roman victory resulted in the expansion of the Roman Republic over the whole of Gaul. While militarily just as strong as the Romans, the Gallic tribes' internal divisions helped ease victory for Caesar; Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix's attempt to unite the Gauls under a single banner came too late. Although Caesar portrayed the invasion as being a preemptive and defensive action, historians agree he fought the Wars primarily to boost his political career and to pay off his debts. Still, Gaul was of significant military importance to the Romans, as native tribes in the region, both Gallic and Germanic, had attacked them several times. Conquering Gaul allowed Rome to secure the natural border of the Rhine river.

Gallic Wars

Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar, 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer
Date58–50 BC
Location
Result Roman victory
Territorial
changes
Roman Republic annexes Gaul
Gaul becomes a Roman province
Local client kings and tributary tribes set up in Britain
Belligerents
Roman Republic Gauls
Germani
Britons
Aquitanies
Iberians
and others...
Commanders and leaders
Julius Caesar
Titus Labienus
Mark Antony
Quintus Tullius Cicero
Publius Licinius Crassus
Decimus Brutus Albinus
Servius Sulpicius Galba
Quintus Titurius Sabinus 
Titus Sextius
Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta 
and others...[1]
Vercingetorix (POW)
Ambiorix
Indutiomarus 
Commius
Ariovistus
Cassivellaunus
and others...
Strength

Modern estimates:

  • 30,000 troops (6 under-strength legions plus cavalry auxiliaries)[2]
  • (58 BC) 11 legions
    10,000 auxiliaries[3][4]
  • 60–75,000 approx. total Romans and allies in 52BC at Alesia
  • Appian: 4,000,000 in total[5]
  • Plutarch: 3,000,000 in total[6]
  • Modern estimates: 70,000–100,000 Gallic combatants in 52 BC at Alesia[2][7]
Casualties and losses
Credibly estimated at 30,000+ killed and 10,000+ wounded Plutarch and Appian:
1,000,000 Celts killed in battle[5][6]
1,000,000+ Celts captured or enslaved[6]
800 towns destroyed[8]
Julius Caesar:
430,000 Germani killed[9]
All these figures are considered not credible by Henige[10]

The Wars began with conflict over the migration of the Helvetii in 58 BC, which drew in neighboring tribes and the Germanic Suebi. By 57 BC, Caesar had resolved to conquer all of Gaul, and led campaigns in the east, where the Nervii nearly defeated him. In 56 BC, Caesar defeated the Veneti in a naval battle and took most of northwest Gaul. In 55 BC, Caesar sought to boost his public image, and undertook first-of-their-kind expeditions across the Rhine river and the English Channel. Upon his return from Britain, Caesar was hailed as a hero, though he had achieved little beyond landing because his army had been too small. The next year, he went back with a proper army and conquered much of Britain. However, tribes rose up on the continent, and the Romans suffered a humiliating defeat. 53 BC saw a draconian campaign against the Gauls in an attempt to pacify them. This failed, and the Gauls staged a mass revolt under the leadership of Vercingetorix in 52 BC. Gallic forces won a notable victory at the Battle of Gergovia, but the Romans' indomitable siege works at the Battle of Alesia utterly defeated the Gallic coalition.

In 51 BC and 50 BC, there was little resistance, and Caesar's troops were mostly mopping up. Gaul was conquered, although it would not become a Roman province until 27 BC, and resistance would continue until as late as 70 AD. There is no clear end-date for the war, but the imminent Roman Civil War led to the withdrawal of Caesar's troops in 50 BC. Caesar's wild successes in the war had made him extremely wealthy and provided a legendary reputation. The Gallic Wars were a key factor in Caesar's ability to win the Civil War and declare himself dictator, in what would eventually lead to the end of the Roman Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar described the Gallic Wars in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico, which is the primary source for the conflict, though modern historians consider it to be unreliable. Caesar makes impossible claims about the number of Gauls killed (over a million), while claiming almost zero Roman casualties. Modern historians believe that Gallic forces were far smaller than the Romans claimed, and that the Romans suffered significant casualties. Historian David Henige regards the entire account as clever propaganda meant to boost Caesar's image and suggests it is of minimal historical accuracy. Regardless of the accuracy of the Commentarii, the campaign was still exceptionally brutal. Untold numbers of Gauls were killed, enslaved, or mutilated, including large numbers of civilians.