Modern biographies of Julius Caesar abound. He is usually portrayed as a great general, a brilliant politician, and an outstanding author. Or he is seen as a self-serving propagandist whose words cannot be trusted. The last view is popular because Caesar’s own annual commentaries on the war, de bello Gallico, are almost the only written source about it, but enough fragments from alternative versions survive to show that it is selective and self-interested.
But Caesar’s audiences understood this. During the Republic, every Roman general had to submit an annual report to the Senate. Caesar’s are unique only insofar as they are the only ones to have survived intact and are also works of literary distinction. Caesar stood in a long Roman tradition of unprovoked and often unnecessary overseas wars that could bring a successful general glory and great personal wealth. Few Romans believed that the war in Gaul, fought between 58 and 51 BC, was anything other than a shameless power grab.
The peoples of Gaul, Germany, and Britain certainly knew this. Colonial wars often have a greater impact on the conquered peoples than the conqueror. An ambitious Roman general could always pick another war. But for the Gauls, who according to Caesar’s own accounts had seen whole tribes slaughtered and others sold into slavery, their freedom was at stake.
So, in 52 BC the Gauls rose in revolt. Vercingetorix, a young nobleman of the Arvernian tribe of central France, was given supreme command of the coalition. That summer, the war raged across central France. Both sides won major, but not decisive, victories until Vercingetorix was forced to withdraw to the town (oppidum) of Alesia.
Caesar described how Alesia stood on an isolated hill in a plain and was protected by steep cliffs. Deciding that the town could only be taken by siege, Caesar reported that he had built siege works 10 Roman miles (c.15km) long around the town and sited camps on the surrounding hills. In the meantime, the Gauls assembled an immense relief force of over 250,000 men. Knowing they would be heavily outnumbered, the Romans built a second line of defences parallel to the siege works in order to defend themselves both from the relief force and a breakout by Vercingetorix. The ensuing battle lasted for days until a counter-attack by the Romans led to a bloody rout and the surrender of Vercingetorix. Alesia proved to be the decisive battle of the war; the Gauls never assembled such a force again.
The result of the Battle of Alesia was so important and Caesar’s account so graphic, that its location fascinated medieval historians, prompting a debate that continued until Emperor Napoléon III intervened. He was captivated by ancient history and, in 1861, he established the Commission de la Topographie de la Gaul to identify the places described by Caesar. The fieldwork was led by army officers, who could read Latin and were trained to read the landscapes of war before the age of mechanised conflict. They identified the sites of several sieges and set-piece battles using the geographical clues given by Caesar, and their work was illustrated by superb topographic mapping. The terrain at Alesia was shown to match Caesar’s description and it proved possible to trace most of the Roman siege works using earthwork survey on the higher ground and trial trenching in the plain. Napoléon III used the discoveries to promote his vision for France and as part of the founding collection of his new national archaeology museum in Paris.
A new phase of research
Perhaps because Alesia was now such an iconic part of the fabric of France’s national heritage, little archaeological work on the battle was undertaken for a century. But as new archaeological techniques developed, it was an obvious site on which to apply them. The potential of air photography to discover Roman camps had already been demonstrated in northern France and a range of techniques was used at Alesia, verifying the location of the siege works and some camps. The camps are irregularly shaped contour forts, not the playing-card shape so well-known from the Roman imperial period. Open-area excavations followed in the 1990s, confirming the accuracy of Caesar’s descriptions, but also demonstrating the potential of archaeology to deepen understanding of the war.
All the finds excavated from the battlefield in the 1860s were published for the first time, identifying the weapons and equipment used by the Gauls, Romans, and the Roman auxiliaries, some of whom were Germans. Soon, Caesarian weapons were identified among the old finds from many oppida and, as the size of the hobnails on legionaries’ sandals changed over time, these humble finds can now be used to show, almost literally, the footprints of Caesar’s legions.
Evidence for the war has been found at many sites, often validating the fieldcraft of the Commission. Air photography has shown that its identification of the site of the Battle of the Aisne in 57 BC was correct, and excavation has confirmed Uxellodunum as the site of the last major battle of the war, in 51 BC. Hundreds of arrowheads have been unearthed: deadly testimony to the arrow storms rained down on the Gauls as they tried to collect water.
The increased awareness generated by this work has prompted rethinking of some older discoveries. In the Netherlands, swords and human bones dredged from the River Meuse near Kessel had been interpreted as votive offerings, but new radiocarbon dates showed that the bones could date to the time of the war, and strontium isotope analyses indicated that some people were not local. The topography around Kessel is consistent with the place where the Tencteri and Usipete tribes were defeated and then slaughtered in 55 BC. Under pressure from other tribes, these Germanic peoples had crossed the Rhine during the preceding winter. Caesar soon moved against them and gave permission for everyone, women and children included, to be killed.
Other recent discoveries have been serendipitous. The substantial defences at Ebbsfleet on the east Kent coast were unknown before excavations in advance of a new road. The site lies on a narrow peninsula, but further fieldwork showed that instead of cutting off the tip of the peninsula, a large ditch protected an area next to the coast. The defence is interpreted as the one built in 54 BC to protect the Roman fleet and it is a reminder that Caesar’s two expeditions to Britain – he never intended to stay – were also complex naval operations. In 54 BC, Caesar quickly led his army inland to attack the Britons, who were eventually defeated after taking refuge in an old hillfort whose defences they had renewed. That site has long been identified, almost certainly correctly, as Bigbury hillfort near Canterbury.
In contrast, the Gauls redesigned the defences of their oppida. Caesar described the murus gallicus, a rampart built around a wooden framework that was secured by long iron nails. Recent excavations have shown that faced with Roman siege engines, artillery, auxiliary archers, and slingers, all of which could shoot from a safe distance, the Gauls entombed these ramparts under massive dumps of earth excavated from equally huge defensive ditches. Now the siege engines could not overlook the ramparts and projectiles had to be fired from further away. Completing these massive engineering works in short order required very large workforces to be assembled.
The soldiers who helped build these defences and who fought against Caesar were usually paid in coins, often gold staters. A sudden and very large increase in the number of staters issued in northern France is interpreted as the coinage produced by the tribes of Belgic Gaul in 57 BC. Many of these coins have been found in south-east England and some of them must have been brought back by Britons who had fought in Gaul. On the Isle of Jersey, an enormous hoard of almost 70,000 coins was found at Le Câtillon in 2012. Nearly all of the coins are local and date to the time of the war. While it is not yet clear if the hoard was buried in the war or shortly after it, its sheer size illustrates the scale on which wartime coinages were minted and acts as a reminder of the magnitude of the conflict. In addition to the tens of thousands of Gauls who fought in individual battles, there was mass enslavement and violence. Plutarch wrote that over 1 million people were killed and another million enslaved.
But not all Gauls fought against Caesar. Tribes such as the Remi remained loyal allies throughout the war and this led to neighbouring tribes being pitted against each other. Caesar rewarded tribes loyal to him, but those he fought and defeated often had new leaders installed, their loyalty ensured by taking hostages that bound them to Caesar personally. Several graves show that after the war young men served as auxiliaries with the Roman army, moving potential rebels in an already depleted generation of fighting age far from home and immersing them in Roman culture.
These methods proved successful. When Rome descended into a bloody civil war in 49 BC after Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Gaul seems to have remained largely at peace. By the 20s BC, Caesar’s adopted heir, the future emperor Augustus, could build on the peace that Caesar had enforced, initiating a sustained programme of cultural change in Roman Gaul and renewing treaties with the kings of Britain. The peoples conquered by Julius Caesar in his Battle for Gaul were now to be the subjects of Roman emperors.
A P Fitzpatrick and C Haselgrove (eds) (2019) Julius Caesar’s Battle for Gaul: new archaeological perspectives, Oxford: Oxbow.
K A Raaflaub (2017) The Landmark Julius Caesar: the complete works, New York: Pantheon.