Roman Conquests: Gaul, Michael M. Sage

gaulReviewer: Wouter van Dijk
Roman Conquests: Gaul, Michael M. Sage

Pen & Sword Military (imprint of Pen & Sword Books), Barnsley 2011
ISBN: 978-1-84884-144-4

Hardcover with maps, appendix, notes, bibliography and index
188 pages
£19,99 / €21,99

The demise of Celtic Gaul

In history there are some topics that keep historians occupied throughout the decades. The Roman conquest of Gaul, and especially Vercingetorix’ last stand at Alesia have entered the pantheon of French myth in the course of the nineteenth century and have remained there ever since. For what if-historians the campaign of Vercingetorix against Caesar remains a favorite subject. However, this is not what this book by Michael Sage is primarily about. Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, Sage has written several books on ancient warfare, such as Warfare in Ancient Greece: A Sourcebook (1996) and The Republican Roman Army: A Sourcebook (2008). In Roman Conquests: Gaul he tells the story of Caesar’s campaigning in Gaul, thereby closely following Caesar’s own account Commentarii de bello Gallico. In the introduction Sage gives an overview of Celtic culture and history before the Roman advance into Gaul, the main subject of the book. After some introductory chapters, Sage roughly devotes one chapter to each year Caesar spent campaigning in Gaul, followed by an epilogue about Gaul after the conquest and an interesting appendix focusing on the development of the Roman army in the first century BC.

In the first chapters Sage explains the coming into existence of Gallia Narbonensis, the Roman province in southern Gaul that preceded Caesar’s conquests with decades. Then, in 60 BC the Romans became more and more concerned with the peace in Transalpine Gaul (Gaul at the other side of the Alps, seen from Roman perspective). The Celtic tribe of the Allobroges had risen against Roman rule and Rome’s allies the Aedui had been defeated by their neighbors the Sequani, who had called in help from the Suebi chieftain Ariovistus from across the Rhine to achieve their victory. Also, the large tribe of the Helvetii was making preparations to cross into Gaul from their homesteads in modernday Switzerland. They were in search of more and more fertile land and also tried to escape the pressure of surrounding German tribes. This was the precarious situation when Caesar left for Gaul to take up his command in the province.

Because of Sage’s conscientious following of Caesar’s account of the war, large parts of the book will appear familiar to anyone who has read Caesar’s book on the Gallic War itself. Besides narrating the course of the campaigns however, the author discusses and questions Caesar’s writings regularly, giving the book an interesting additional layer. Sage also looks at Caesar’s motives in writing De Bello Gallico and he shows that, despite its shortcomings, Caesar’s book is the only source for the wars in Gaul that we have. As regards the story of the war between the Romans and the Celts, the enormous difference in technology and military organization is striking. That point may be well known, what is interesting however, is the speed at which the Gauls were learning from their Roman adversaries in the field of siege craft, for example. Before the advance of the Romans it was common practice among the Gauls when besieging a population center of the enemy, to keep the defenders from their walls by releasing a storm of missiles while advancing to the wall at the same time in a sort of turtle-formation also familiar to Roman armies. When the Romans besieged the Gaulish oppidum Bibrax in 57 BC the advance of their siege towers alone was enough to terrify the defenders into submission. They had never seen such machines. During Vercingetorix’ great rebellion in 52 BC however, the Celts were building siege towers themselves to subdue hostile towns. Another example of the Gaul’s steep learning curve is the way they waged battle against the Romans; in the first years of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul they fought pitched battles regularly, which they all lost. The battle of Bibracte where the Helvetii fought Caesar in 58 BC and the defeat of Ariovistus the next year are examples of this. Then already in 56 BC the tribe of the Morini starts a kind of guerrilla campaign to defend itself against the Roman legions and in 54 BC the Nervii, Eburones and Atuatuci use trickery and deceit to defeat a Roman legion in Belgica.

The great rebellion under Vercingetorix in 52 BC forms the climax of the book. Under Vercingetorix’ leadership and for the first time since Caesar’s arrival in Gaul, there emerged a centrally organized alliance of Celtic tribes to resist Roman dominance. The threat of permanent Roman rule, and Vercingetorix’ charismatic leadership were most instrumental in this. Although Vercingetorix was more successful than any other Gaul before him in the struggle against Caesar, a major flaw in his leadership was the non-institutionalized base of his authority. Almost every decision had to be deliberated with the other chieftains, and often Vercingetorix had to compromise, as in the issue of whether or not saving the town of Avaricum during his scorched earth-campaign. On a wider scale this lack of unity is what ultimately decided the fate of the rebellion, more than any mistake or defeat in the field. Emblematic in this respect is the refusal of the Allobroges to join Vercingetorix’ rising when he passes their lands on his way to bring the war to the Roman province. The Allobroges had rebelled several times some ten years before but could now, when the time seemed to be right, not be brought to action. Eventually Vercingetorix had shut himself up in Alesia by Caesar, although knowing that the Romans had won every siege they had begun in Gaul, Gergovia being the only exception in the decade of campaigning. The inability of the tribal release army to breach the Roman lines sealed the fate of Vercingetorix and the rebellion and although Gaul was nog pacified yet, the Roman military superiority was never to be challenged by the Gauls on such a scale afterwards.

Professor Sage’s book on the wars in Gaul does shed some new light on Caesar’s motives and decisions during his campaigns but also treats the changing political situation in Rome in which Caesar played his role and which was very important to him in his search for power. Also, some treatment of the Gallic leaders, such as Ambiorix, Dumnorix and of course Vercingetorix and their behavior can be found but the dominant theme of the book remains simply the narration of the events in Gaul in the period 60 BC–50 BC and in that Michael Sage succeeds wonderfully. His narrative reads pleasantly and will be entertaining for anyone interested in the Celts or the Romans.

Wouter van Dijk

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