Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Prufrock's Wargaming Blog

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Caesar's Conquest of Gaul.

Caesar’s conquest of Gaul is one of the most successful invasions and subjugations of a people in history.

In Caesar's time, barbarian Gaul was – as the man himself so famously observed - divided into three parts. The Belgae inhabited the area that is modern Belgium and the Netherlands, bounded by the Marne, the Seine, and the Rhine. The Celts occupied the region from the Marne and Seine to the Garonne in the south and the Rhone in the east. The Aquitanii controlled the area south of the Garonne to the Pyrenees, constrained in the west by the Atlantic Ocean and in the east by the Roman province.

Map from the heritage-history.com website
http://www.heritage-history.com/maps/shepherd/shep038a.jpg 
The Gallic tribes were warlike. Frequently fighting amongst themselves, subject to ancient hatreds, forming alliances based upon friendship, conquest or shared interests, they were, according to Caesar, passionate, willful, easily lead and easily discouraged.

They were in awe of the Germans who, in their periodic ventures across the Rhine, had time and again proved themselves hardier and more formidable in the field than their more civilized Gallic cousins.

At the time of Caesar, Roman traders were already established in many areas of Gaul, bringing wine and other luxuries in exchange for slaves and raw materials. Rome had established friendly relationships and more or less formal alliances with some Gallic and German entities, most notably the Aedui. For Rome’s prestige it was important that her friends a) accepted Roman direction and b) were materially improved by the relationship.

Into this jumped Caesar. Rightly or wrongly, he found a pretext for war, and between 58BC and 50BC proceeded to bring Gaul into the Roman fold, defeating his enemies in open battle, by siege, on sea and on land, subjugating them militarily and diplomatically, physically and psychologically, and did so so completely that this passionate people did not cause any more trouble for Rome for a very long time.

What then were the factors in Caesar’s success?

1) Command flexibility. Caesar and his subordinates were sufficiently capable to deal with all issues that arose. They were able to learn from past mistakes and could improvise solutions to problems caused by local conditions and unfamiliar tactics. The Rhine is an obstacle? Bridge it. The Venetii have command of the sea? Build a fleet. Their vessels are more mobile than those of the Romans? Devise a tool to bring down the enemy’s sails. There are many more such examples.

2) Pragmatism. Ever practical, Caesar tailored his approach to meet the changing social, political and military situation in Gaul. He used diplomacy when it seemed appropriate, force when a statement had to be made, and was not above employing dubious arguments and dirty tricks to achieve his ends. The Germans send their leaders as envoys? Arrest them and slaughter the leaderless rest.

3) Clear goals. Apart perhaps from his expedition to Britain, Caesar knew what he wanted to do and made sure that his subordinates knew this as well. The definition of victory was clear, and the path to it well-trodden: subdue the enemy, take hostages, form alliances, honour friendships, create dependency, provide protection, crush opposition.

4) Intelligence. Caesar’s intelligence network was very good. Most of the time he seemed to know what was brewing, and in addition to this helping him prepare to meet the enemy it allowed him to spin the narrative of war for political gain. There were times when he was caught unprepared – the attacks on Sabinus and Cotta and then Cicero being cases in point – but generally speaking the intelligence he gathered allowed him to meet the enemy on equal or superior terms, and to do this hundreds of miles into hostile territory. This was a considerable feat.

5) The motivation of the troops. Under Caesar, the legionaries could be sure that bravery would be acknowledged by their commanders, cowardice punished, and battlefield success rewarded with loot, slaves and – when it was all over – land to settle down on. With success translating directly into honours and material gain, Caesar’s men were devoted to their commander and proud of their reputation. Caesar had only to disparagingly address his mutinous soldiers as “citizens!” to quell dissent.

6) Man management. Caesar was acutely aware of the psychological state of his men and took care to build up morale before pushing them into a fight. When facing a formidable enemy he would test the mettle of his men in skirmishes, improve confidence through demonstrated success, shame the reluctant into action (“All I need is my loyal Tenth!”) and seek out every advantage that terrain, logistics or morale could give him. His skill in manipulating the psychological state of his men was a key element in his success. He would refuse to engage if he was unconvinced that his troops were mentally up to the task.

7) Generalship. Caesar was clearly a general of genius. Not only did he devise appropriate strategy and tactics, demonstrate command expertise and inspire his troops, but he could also frequently get inside the head of the enemy and induce them to engage him at a disadvantage.


8) Demonstration. Caesar was a master of the big statement. Whether it was slaughtering the vanquished, bridging the Rhine, invading Britain, besieging Alesia or any of the countless other demonstrations of Roman and Julian might we read of in the Gallic War, Caesar constantly impressed on both enemies and friends his military power, engineering ability, diplomatic clout and implacable will to victory. This must have had a daunting effect on the morale of all who came up against him.

9) Building local relationships. Caesar was careful to reward those Gallic individuals and tribes that sided with him. He was forgiving – to a degree – of their occasional reluctance to co-operate, and made a point of improving the lot of his allies both in terms of territory and in terms of honour in counsel. He used both the carrot and the stick effectively.

10) Commitment. The Gauls soon realized to their dismay that Rome was here to stay, and while this united opposition against Caesar, it also gave his allies confidence that there was a future in siding with Rome. He demonstrated that he would not be put off by setbacks, would not vacate Gaul, and would not abandon his friends to vengeful enemies. His defeat of the Germans sent a powerful message, and over time the tribes came to see that there was more to be gained by friendship with Rome than opposition to her. That sentiment reached tipping point, and by the end of Caesar's governorship the tribes were grudgingly accepting of the Roman yoke.

11) Remorselessness and magnanimity. Caesar would neither give up nor rest until he had avenged defeat or insult. Troop losses were replaced by a factor of two to one, and the tribes which continued to oppose him paid an unbearably heavy price. But he also respected bravery and was generous to enemies who submitted to him. A terrible enemy and a good friend, there was little shame in losing to him, but a great incentive to show him loyalty.

In this brief analysis I have narrowed down the factors in Caesar's success to eleven points, but these could easily be expanded or contracted.  What seems clear to me - by any definition - is that Caesar’s achievement was remarkable. Even today his methods and successes stand out, and without wanting to get into political territory here I think there are cautionary lessons to be drawn from Caesar’s example that modern politicians would do well to study.


So, what do readers think?  Do you agree with this assessment of the important factors in Caesar's success?  Are there other key contributors that I have missed out?  Do you feel I have got my facts wrong or jumped to conclusions that are the historical record does not support?

Please feel free to discuss, criticize or comment, and thanks for reading.


Map taken from Wikimedia Commons,
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_Gallia_Tribes_Towns.png





10 comments:

  1. Interesting read, thanks for the sunmary of the conquest of gaul form Caesar's perspective! Sounds like a good campaign to wargame.

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    1. There are a few boardgames around on the topic actually, but haven't played any of them yet...

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  2. Great post. The only thing I would challenge that this is one of the greatest and most successful invasions and subjugations in history. Germany managed the same thin in a matter of weeks and the Mongol invasion of China also puts It into perspective. But a great read and I agree with most of your points.

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    1. Good stuff, Phil! There have been other successful invasions - as you have shown - but I still think Caesar's is one of the most successful, especially when you consider how long the subjugation lasted. That said, I'm happy for you to disagree!

      Cheers!

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  3. I wouldn't say he had clear goals. A clear goal, singular (his own aggrandizement) to be sure, but everything else was opportunistic. Even his initial decision to invade "Gaul". His province (i.e. terms of command) were Illyria and Translapine Gaul. If you look were his legions were initially stationed, it becomes pretty clear he was looking at Illyria as his target, and not Gaul. But then he heard about the Helvetii, and decided to take them on (entirely illegally) - they'd provide a much higher ratio of glory to effort (no need to besiege a tribe on the move!). This necessitated a nice cover story to justify his actions, and thus De Bello Gallico was written.

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    1. I agree Luke - he certainly was opportunistic, but once his course was set I think the goals were very clear (with the exception of his expedition to Britain) and his subordinates knew exactly what was expected of them. They understood what victory looked like - on both tactical and strategic levels - and how to achieve it. Success is not so easily measured today, and it was the contrast between ancient and modern that I had in mind when I wrote that.

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  4. Interesting piece.

    I think I'd want to add that the legionaries were professionals, permanently in arms, unlike their Gallic foes who needed to break to bring in the harvest, and who were presumably not keen to campaign outside their tribal areas. The legionaries would have therefore been better trained, more disciplined and perhaps more used to killing than their enemies.

    Cheers Simon

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    1. Good points, BRB. Yet for all their professionalism the legions still got mighty afeared at points. When encountering the Germans, and Belgae, for example, and after Gergovia. The barbarians were still scary. You are right though - Caesar himself partly attributed the victory against the Nervii to the "knowledge and experience of the legionaries" (GW: II.20) and the fact that the Gauls had to double as farmers is an excellent point.

      Cheers!

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  5. Command flexibility for the win! This spring, I read about the Mithridatic campaigns and what struck me was Asia Minor revolts, kills every Roman in their midst and the Romans shrug it off. They scratch together a smallish force with almost no money. They land in Greece and loot the temples to fund the campaign. Then they proceed to whip everyone who opposes them. The Pontics sent scythed chariots against them twice and even though they hadn't been seen in a lifetime, the Romans defeat them with ease. The Pontics staked out high ground near a mountain and the Romans moved men to the top and rolled boulders down onto them, disorganizing their army before the battle even starts. In short, there is nothing that is a surprise to them or that they can't deal with.

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  6. Thanks for your thoughts, Monty. Agree that command flexibility is a biggie. I hope you are able to put the same into practice with your newly painted Spanish!

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