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The Gallic Wars



The Gallic Wars were a series of military campaigns fought by the Roman proconsul Julius Caesar against the Gallic tribes of Gaul (Modern France) from 58 BC to 51 BC.  The Gallic Wars ended in the decisive for the Romans at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC.  The Gaulish Chieftain Vercingetorix submitted himself to Caesar.  To understand the Gallic Wars in context, we must look at Julius Caesar’s motives for the campaign. He was politically ambitious but financially weak.  The Roman army, recently restructured and upgraded in weapons and fighting techniques by Marius was now for the first time capable of defeating the large, Celtic Armies which had invaded Italy so many times in the past. Caesar knew that the Gauls, as suggested by the archaeology at the city of Bibracte were very wealthy.  Caesar understood that to seize Gaul, he would have the Wealth, the Veteran battle tested army and the Prestige with which to further his political ambitions in Rome.  This was the turning point for Roman victory and the expansion of the Roman Republic over the whole of Gaul. As a result of the Gallic War, Caesar wrote his memoires “The Gallic Wars by Tacitus” (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) to justify how he had “killed a million and enslaved a million” (Gauls) the sale of said slaves bringing him the power to eventually become the sole ruler of the Roman Republic.



The Celts fought each other inter-tribally and sometimes they made alliances with the Greeks, the Romans and Thracians etc. when it suited them. Often to give themselves an advantage in their warfare with their tribal neighbours. Such warfare was a regular feature of Celtic societies if any of the primary evidence, Caesar’s accounts are to be believed. Archaeologists suggest thee wars were usually nothing more than quarrels and confrontations between small bands of warriors on boundaries though the primary evidence  suggests it was more to do with tribes using warfare to exert political control.


Archaeology has provided us with much material culture of the Celts, such as weapons, warrior burials and evidence of damage to enclosures etc. but understanding how the ancient tribesmen actually fought has been the subject of much speculation.


The earliest culture to be identified as “Celtic” is generally agreed to have been the Hallstatt Culture which began in the late Bronze Age spreading from modern Austria as far as Southern Britain.  During this period, the weapon of favour seems to have been the sword. By nature a close quarter weapon, can we suppose that at this time, the weapons themselves were simply worn by small bands of elite, free – men as a sign of their position in the society or perhaps indicates that warfare was as the Archaeologists suggest, a small scale affair.  Later when iron began to replace bronze in the manufacture of weapons, we see the classic "Celtic longsword" making its appearance.


By the beginning of the La Tene Period in the 6th Century BC the pattern of warfare began to change. We begin to see the iconic chariot emerge as a way to deliver large numbers of fighting men to different areas of the battle field where they were needed, giving them the fluidity to sustain an attack and just as quickly disengage to relocate themselves on another part of the field.  The chronology of the sword changes during this time too and in the British Museum we can observe changes to the length of blades in favour of shorter thrusting swords.  A large variation in swords appear just in Britain, with Northern Tribes appearing to prefer the short thrusting sword, whilst tribes in the South retained their long slashing blades without tips.

By the end of the La Tene period, we see larger numbers of Spearmen appearing suggesting that the nature of warfare was changing from individual champions fighting duels to large organised ranks suggesting the development of infantry tactics as described of the Gauls by Pliny the younger.


During this time, iron armour in the form of hamata constructed of riveted inter-linked metal rings. Whilst finds of hamata are rare, suggesting that it was a luxury restricted to Kings and chieftains, I would suggest that the majority of warriors were wearing Greek Linen or homogenous leather cuirasses of which there is some suggestion from Grave goods. Together with the evidence for crested helmets being plentiful in this era, I believe the accepted overall the picture of Celtic armies being made up largely of lightly armoured or unarmoured fighters is not accurate and we should instead consider the Celtic armies looking similar to the earlier continental classical armies of Greece but with individual shield and weapon styles being more local.  I propose this because I think the Roman description of Celtic warriors fighting naked might suggest they simply weren’t wearing iron armour.


During the La Tene period, we find Chariot burials, suggesting their continued importance in warfare. The La Tène chariot was a light, two-wheeled vehicle suggested by the arrangement of the chariot poles in a reconstruction of the Wetwang Chariot excavation in Yorkshire.  


Jeff's Iron Age sword Cheiftain's_shield_LLp Iron_Age_Shields_LLp