Ancient history

The Gauls in Battle:A Damn Well-Organized Fury

Last updated:2022-07-25

Romans and Gauls confront each other on this bas-relief adorning the triumphal arch of Orange. Erected at the beginning of the 1st century AD. AD, this arch may commemorate the victories of the Roman general Germanicus. • YVAN TRAVERT / AKG-IMAGES

At the end of II e millennium BC. J.-C. appeared towards present-day Ukraine very warlike peoples, known thereafter under the name of Celts. They then occupied a territory covering the Danube Valley and much of Western Europe during the La Tène period (c. 450-c. 25 BC). The Romans called Galli (Gauls) those who lived in northern Italy and between the Mediterranean and the Rhine. However, none of them would have called themselves by this name, but by that of Aedui, Lingon, Veneto, etc.

Scary big blondes

By their appearance and their combativeness, these Gauls were very similar to the Germans. They had large, muscular bodies, with white skin, blue eyes and blond hair, elements which, curiously, frightened the Romans, as reported by Caesar and other authors. They dressed in a tunic that fell over trousers. To defend themselves, they used shields and sometimes helmets; to kill, spears and swords. They especially shone in the field of throwing weapons (stones, slingshot bullets, arrows and javelins of various types, including propellants).

Vercingetorix perfectly illustrates the figure of the Gallic generals. It has its counterpart in the current British Isles, where women were equal to men. This situation can be seen by a famous example:Boudicca, queen of the Icenians and warlord, took the lead in a conflict that left 70,000 dead among the Romans and their allies, 80,000 among her subjects. The troop was, as for it, constituted by the customers of the noble ones (one gave this name to poor men who depended for their daily life on rich personages). Among their ranks were the ambattes and the soldures:these were free and equally poor men, who attached themselves to a leader for life… or death. For economic reasons, other Celts enlisted as mercenaries; they were much sought after by the kings of Macedonia and the Senate of Carthage. The most famous example of these professionals is given by Flaubert, in his novel Salammbô . For political reasons, still others served as socii , allies of the Romans.

Contrary to popular belief, the Gauls fought in a disciplined manner, advancing in line to the sound of their trumpet, the carnyx.

The soldiers fought in a phalanx, a more disciplined order than that popularized by Obelix and Asterix:they remained neatly lined up, and cavalry troops were spread out on the flanks; they followed signs and they obeyed the sound of their trumpets, the carnyxes. Also, in the Isle of Britain they used chariots for battle:each driver was accompanied by a warrior. Everywhere, the nobles served as officers, and they moved around on horseback.

In front of the enemy, the Gauls had to show their courage. They were prompted to do so by a sacred fury that resulted from a state of enthusiasm in the first sense of the word:a god (theos , in Greek) had entered into them. So they stripped, threw down their defensive armament, looked for duels; they obeyed a tradition of violence well anchored among them. It was increased by an exasperation caused by the Roman presence and the humiliations it engendered. A behavior that does not mean that they did not behave with as much cruelty towards their compatriots as towards the Romans.

Severed heads, trophy heads

If historians have often been seduced by battle, they have unfortunately neglected poliorcetics, the art of siege, which the Gauls practiced in its two forms, offensive and defensive. If necessary, they surrounded a city or an enemy camp to prevent those who were installed there from leaving, but without carrying out complex works like the Greeks and Romans. And they knew how to defend themselves. Part of the settlements were settled on "barred spurs"; others had been built on the plain. In any case, a rampart was needed:the Gauls had invented the murus gallicus , which Caesar described with admiration. And archeology has confirmed his text, with enough precision for an enlightening reconstruction to have been proposed at Bibracte, on Mont Beuvray. The workers placed beams on the ground, lengthwise and widthwise. Then they nailed them together, and they put stones in the gaps. Finally, they started again on several levels so that the wall was erected. The ends of the beams, protruding outwards, gave it an aesthetic appearance.

Also read:The centurions, pillars of the legions of Rome

A victory brought benefits:the victors picked up the spoils, material and human. Captives could be killed, for example if they were to be punished for treachery. Others were enslaved, and still others returned to their families for ransom. These practices were, after all, very commonplace in antiquity. Another fairly widespread habit, original and very important for the Gauls, was to cut off the heads of dead enemies. They could serve as trophies, individual or collective. In France, a site deserves great fame:Ribemont-sur-Ancre, in the Somme. A monument of victory was found there where the bodies of 700 individuals were deposited, all decapitated. Although the excavation yielded 50,000 bones and 10,000 weapons, the skulls were not found.

In the South, the famous portico of Roquepertuse (Bouches-du-Rhône) comprises three pillars hollowed out with cells intended to collect severed heads. At Entremont, in the same department, they adorned the pillars of another portico. Another case, the skull of the consul Flaminius, defeated by Hannibal at the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC), was considered lost. An Italian historian found it:a Gaul, an ally of the Punic chief, had made a haircut of it. The physical aspect, the enthusiasm and the extreme violence made the originality of the Gallic warriors. An originality that ultimately did not prevent them from being defeated by the Romans.

Find out more
The Celtic Mercenaries in the Mediterranean. V e -I er centuries BC, L. Baray, Lemmes Édit, 2015.
The Gauls at war. Strategies, tactics and techniques, A. Deyber, Wandering, 2009.

The Gauls besiege Rome!
The sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC. AD is an event that is partly legendary. Gauls belonging to the people of the Italian Senones marched from the region of Ancona towards Rome. Along the way, they encountered a Roman army on the banks of the Allia; this battle of 30,000 Senons against 15,000 legionnaires ended in disaster for the latter. After their success, the Gauls marched on Rome and encamped on the Forum:the city had been abandoned, and the inhabitants had taken refuge on the Capitol, defended by Manlius. They attempted two assaults; on their second attempt, at night, they failed because the geese dedicated to the goddess Juno had awakened the sleeping defenders. Although General Camille had assembled an army outside, it had to be dealt with; Chief Brennus demanded and obtained a ransom of 1,000 pounds of gold. As he cheated during the weighing of the metal, a Roman reproached him for it. So he added his sword to the scales:"Pay this again." Woe to the vanquished. In reality, the Senones left either because of an epidemic or because the Veneti were attacking their territory.