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Caesar's Conquest of the Helvetii
By Michael Heins, 2005; Revised
Category: Classical Mediterranean and Europe: Roman Military
|Roman dominance, in Gaul, started in the Greek colony of Massilia, located by the head of the Rhone River . Massilia, Gaul's oldest and largest city was a very lucrative trading post for Rome . In the second century B.C., Rome had come to the aid of Massilia against a Celtic tribe known as the Ligurians, and, after defending the city for a second time, in 122 B.C., the Romans stayed and built a military base at Aque Sextiae.  Roman expansionism in Gaul would eventually cumulate in total conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar, because of an initial conflict he had with a war-like tribe northeast of Massilia.|
Early in the morning, March of 58 B.C., Julius Caesar, the former Roman consul and governor of Illyricum, southern and further Gaul had been warned about an incursion through Gaul by a band of war-like barbarians. The residents of a neighborhood north of Rome had been awakened to the sound of a small band of horsemen and a two-wheel carriage. Shortly after making Caesar aware of the news the intruders galloped away in a fashion that foretold of a mission of utmost importance. A large number of Celtic people known as the Helvetii had gathered on the banks of the Rhone River across from the Roman garrison Lacus Lemannus next to the border of the Roman Province of Gallia Narbonensis, Provencia as it was called by the Romans. "Caesar was informed that the Helvetii intended to cross the territories of the Sequani and Aedui. which is not far from that of the Tolosates, a tribe living in the Roman Province ."  ``
The sudden incursion by these barbarians, according to his commentaries, led Caesar to believe it was too dangerous to have such a war-like tribe so close to a Roman Province , so he set out quickly to intercept this threat to further Gaul . He arrived by the Rhone within a week's time from Rome , traveling in a horse drawn carriage.  This conflict between the Helvetii and Caesar would alter Celtic culture in Gaul forever and cost them their land, their wealth and their independence. The Roman invasion of Gaul would not only impose Latin culture onto the Gaul but it would, in the long run, shield them from later incursions by their war-like Germanic neighbors for five hundred years. 
Originally, when Caesar took over governorship of the northern provinces he had no such intentions, at the start of his first year, of invading Gaul. In fact, he had no authority to start a war of conquest. Even his own lex repetundarum prohibited a governor from declaring war on his own initiative unless it was in the interest of Rome . His immediate intention was to start a fight with the first barbarian tribe that crossed his path, but one of Caesar's underlying intents was to demonstrate the need for a sizable army in Gaul , which he would command. Another alternative motive that could have influenced his decision to intercept the Helvetii was the fact that Caesar, Pompey and Crassus all held power in Rome . A victory over this tribe and her allies would be a spectacular achievement for him and it would provide him with the political influence to rise over his two rivals. The struggle for power amongst leading families of Rome was strongly influenced by success in military ventures and this argument creates a consistent model for our understanding of Caesar's motivation to invade Gaul .  Contrary to what Caesar says in his commentaries Roman intervention into Gaul was the result of careful planning, on his part, for political reasons and not simply to aid allies of Rome . 
He chose to intercept their migration because he perceived it as a potential threat to Further Gaul, the Roman Province that was just over the Alps from Italy . The route the Helvetii took crossed the very northern section of this province. This was Caesar's province and because of this sudden incursion he needed no further excuses to confront the Helvetii and her allies. Initially at the start of his wars with the Celts Caesar had at his disposal an army of four well disciplined Roman legions numbering from about 3,000 to 4,000 active troops with an auxiliary cavalry unit of about 2,000 from Spain and Gaul . The legionary soldiers were citizens of the Roman Republic from Italy while the cavalry was made up of the allies of Rome , especially skilled at fighting on horseback with bow and arrow . 
Caesar's troops, composed mainly of heavily armed infantry, typically wore a linen undergarment next to their skin and a short sleeved woolen tunic that reached their knees. They were also outfitted with helmets, leather jerkins, chain mail tunics, shields, spears and swords. Their legs were bare but their calves were protected by greaves made of metal or leather. The standard weapons for a legionnaire was two javelins and a short sword called a gladius. Each soldier carried a rope, two short stakes, a wicker basket for carrying earth, a shovel a hook and saw, adding up to sixty pounds. The Legionnaires discarded most of these items in time of battle.  Caesar organized his legions according to the topography of the land in which they were fighting and the nature of the enemy's forces. The auxiliary fought with their own native weapons and tactics complementing standard Roman fighting techniques. 
During Rome 's earlier wars with the Celtic tribes, in the fourth century B.C., the Roman's discovered that the use of the Phalanx was of little use against these barbarians because of the uneven terrain. The Greeks perfected the phalanx in the seventh century B.C. as a method of infantry attack. The battle took place on a level plain and each general deployed his army in a close formation across his front with rows that ranged from five hundred to sixteen hundred men deep. In this formation the soldiers, wearing armor and welding a sword or a spear, advanced on foot creating a literal wall of shields. The Romans discontinued the use of the phalanx and reorganized their armies into legions made up of 6,000 men. They further divided their troops, according to their function and experience, and over time they increased the flexibility of the troops by breaking up the units to ten cohorts per legion and then three maniples to a cohort. When Caesar took command of his legions this organization provided him the flexibility to fight on any terrain and it allowed him to deploy his infantry into large or small units in different directions and for different missions. Caesar had become an expert in legionary tactics before the Gallic Wars, but this encounter with the Helvetii was the first pitched battle of his career. 
In contrast to the well-disciplined Roman legions the Celts knew little of discipline and every man was for himself and they tended to fight for their own individual glory. They had no tactical organization other than their own tribal group and they made few preparations. The Celts often made headlong assaults in a rough phalangial order but they quickly became exhausted and disoriented. The lack of organization would often shatter their courage.  Caesar commented that only the first charge of a Celtic force was of any note and after that it was easy for his troops to defeat them in battle. The average Celtic warrior fought without armor although body armor and chain mail was also used, especially amongst the wealthier warriors. Instead of short swords they used long swords that were designed for cutting and slashing instead of thrusting like the Roman short sword. A common custom amongst these tribes was to make themselves look more fierce by spiking their hair with lime and shouting curses at their enemies to evoke fear. 
In Caesar's own version he was drawn into this conflict by a single event and then drawn step by step into a greater war. His commentaries provides us with a very detailed account about how this conflict was initiated by pointing to its causation and legitimation from certain power shifts and movements of populations that had caused panic in Rome from 61 B.C. to 60 B.C. 
Based on his commentaries,"The Conquest of Gaul", the territory of the Helvetii was hemmed in by the Rhine River , which formed the boundary between them and the Germanic tribes, with the Jura Mountains on the other side. Between the Helvetii and a Celtic tribe called the Sequani was the Rhone River and Lake Geneva , which bordered the Roman province. Their current boundaries made it harder for them to attack their German neighbors and because of their war-like nature they resented this restraint and being cut off from the rest of Gaul .
Orgetorix, a leading man amongst them with wealth and rank, who under the consulship of Marcus Piso and Marcus Messela, was persuaded with hopes of gaining the royal power. He organized a conspiracy of nobles to convince his people to emigrate en mass into Gaul . He convinced his tribe to migrate by telling them that the Helvetii were the best fighters in all of Gaul and that they could easily conquer the other tribes in Gaul . The consensus of the tribe was that with such a large population the land was too small for their tribe. Their current territory, located in modern day Switzerland , measured only two hundred and twenty miles long and one hundred and sixty five miles wide.
Directed by the bitter feelings of living in a confined space and through the influence of Orgetorix the Helvetii prepared for the migration into Gaul by buying up all the draught cattle and wagons they could. In order to secure adequate grain supply for the journey they sowed as much land as possible. The tribe then established peaceful relations with their neighbors and set the time for the migration within three years.
Orgetorix was put in charge of arrangements and set out on a mission to the neighboring tribes to establish peaceful relations. But, he schemed with a Sequanian named Casticus, whose father Catamantaloedis had ruled the tribe for many years and had been honored by the Roman Senate with the title 'Friends of the Roman people', to seize the throne from his father. Orgetorix also convinced an Aeduan named Dumnorix to make the attempt to seize royal power from this brother Diviciacus, who was the chief magistracy of the tribe and had immense popularity amongst his people.
Orgetorix persuaded these men that his plot was easily attainable by convincing them that he would also gain sovereignty over his own tribe the Helvetii. Orgetorix considered his tribe to be the most powerful tribe in Gaul and he promised that through their might he would secure them the possessions of their thrones. The three men swore an oath of loyalty with the hope that eventually they would control all of Gaul . Informants revealed their scheming to the Helvetii and Orgetorix was summoned to stand trial in chains but in fear he escaped. Angered by his escape, the Helvetii attempted to organize a band of men to hunt him down but he died, according to Caesar by possible suicide.
Even after the death of Orgetorix the Helvetii did not give up on their desire to migrate into Gaul and as soon as they were ready they burned their villages and towns and brought with them only enough food supplies for the journey. They had no intentions of returning home so they brought only three months supply of flour with them. They convinced their neighbors the Rauraci, the Tulingi, the Latovici and the Boii to follow them on this migration into Gaul and follow the Helvetii's example by burning all their crops, towns and villages.
There were only two routes for the tribe to take for their long migration, one option was between the Rhone River and the Jura Mountains . This route passed through the land of the Sequani and the mountains were extremely steep with a path so narrow road that they could hardly pass through it single file, only a few men could block the route and make this passage impassable. The other route passed through the Roman province and this route was much easier than the previous choice. The frontier between the Helvetii and a tribe called the Alloboroges had been recently subdued by the Romans, which the Romans turned into an active port on Lake Geneva . The route took the Helvetti across an easily fordable section of the Rhone River , which formed the boundary of the Roman province. Geneva , the frontier town of the Alloboroges, was connected to what is now modern day Switzerland by a bridge. The Helvetii were convinced that the Alloboroges were either unfriendly towards the Romans or that they could compel them by force to allow them to pass through their lands.
Once Caesar had been informed, that the Celts were attempting to pass though the province, he immediately departed from Rome for Geneva . Caesar's first act, after arriving, was to destroy the bridge to Geneva so the enemy could not cross. There was only one legion stationed in Gaul , so he raised as many fresh troops as possible from throughout the province. Upon hearing about the arrival of Julius Caesar the Helvetii sent an embassy made up of their leading citizens to negotiate with the Romans, because this was the easiest route open to the tribe. They promised that they would do no harm while they passed through the province and asked him for permission to proceed with their migration.
He could have simply required hostages as a guarantee against the tribe causing problems in the Province and the fact is they were migrating to a region far from the boundaries of Rome , adding more evidence to Caesar's real motivation for political gain. He had, at this point, no intention of conquering Gaul but he simply wanted a military victory. 
Caesar could not forget the destruction brought upon the consul Lucius Cassius and his army, which had been routed and put under the yoke by the Helvetii in 107 B.C., fifty years earlier. He did not trust them and feared that they would cause wanton destruction as they passed through these lands. He needed more time to organize his troops, so he told the tribe's envoys he would consider their request and if they wanted to present this request again he told them to return on the 13th of April. Meanwhile, he employed his troops to fortify the banks along the Rhone by building an elaborate 19-mile earth work with forts and command centers between the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva , to prevent these barbarians from passing through. 
"When on the appointed day the envoys returned, he told them it would be contrary to precedent and traditions for the Roman state to allow anyone to pass through the Province."  He warned them that if they still attempted to pass through the province he would stop them by force. The Helvetti were not about the change plans after two years of preparation, so in defiance of Caesar's orders they still attempted to cross the Rhone by lashing a number of boats together, making rafts and wading across the shallow portions of the river. The Roman troops aided by the fortifications forced them back with a volley of missiles, causing the barbarians to abandon this route.
The Roman resistance forced them to take the alternative route through the land of the Sequani and since the passage was so narrow they were obligated to ask permission to cross through their lands. The Helvetii sent an embassy to Dumnorix, an Aeduan, hoping that through his intercession they could obtain passage through their lands. Dumorix was well respected amongst the Sequani and he was on very good terms with the Helvetii because he was married to a daughter of Orgetorix. They convinced the Sequani to allow them passage through their land and exchanged hostages so that the Helvetii would not cause any damage.
Caesar was informed that the Helvetii planned to cross the territories of the Aedui and the Seqauni and enter the tribal lands of the Santoni not far from the Tolosates, the latter being located within the Roman province. He believed, as stated in his commentaries, that it was a threat to have such war-like people so close to Roman territory and its rich corn lands. The area was void of any natural protection to protect the cropland from potential raids, so after leaving one of his generals, Titus Labienus, in charge Caesar sped off to northern Italy to enroll new legions. He also sent for three legions that were in winter quarters in Aquileia , located at the head of the Adriatic Sea . He hastened back with all five legions by taking the fastest route through the Alps , but on the way his armies encountered numerous hostile mountain tribes and had to beat them off in several engagements. The march back to Gaul took Caesar six days and after arriving in the Roman province he continued through the land of the Allobroges and on to the land of the Sequani, the first people who lived west of the Rhone beyond the provincial borders.
The Helvetii passed through Sequani territory and upon reaching the lands of the Aedui and the Ambarri they began to loot and pillage. The Aedui went to Caesar for help and pleaded with him that they had always been good allies of Rome and wanted to know why Caesar was allowing their lands to be ravaged and their children carried off into slavery while his army was so close, the Allobroges also came to him for aid. Caesar, upon hearing these complaints was convinced that he must act immediately before the Helvetii escaped to the land of the Santoni.
While in flight, the Helvetii crossed the Saone River , which flowed through the territories of the Aedui and Sequani with an extremely slow current, with rafts and small boats. Caesar, after learning from his patrols that the barbarians had gotten three- fourths of their forces across the River attacked the remaining one fourth that had not made it across, catching them off guard. The barbarians were at a disadvantage because they were hampered by their baggage allowing Caesar's troops time to massacre a great many of them, the rest took flight into the nearby forests. The branch of Helvetii he attacked was from a clan known as the Tigurini. This attack was an act of revenge by Caesar, because by punishing the Tigurini he also avenged the death of his father in-law, who had been killed by them when they had defeated Consul Cassius.
After Caesar repelled the barbarians he quickly had a bridge built over the Saone River and pursued them. It did not take long for Caesar's army to catch up with the Helvetii and astonished by the sudden arrival of Caesar's army the barbarians sent an embassy headed by Divico, the man who had commanded the campaign against Cassius. He told Caesar that if they would leave his people alone the Helvetii would settle wherever Caesar chose. If he insisted on making war on them he would do well to remember the Roman's previous defeat and that Caesar's men defeated only a small their portion of his forces while the rest of their men were unable to assist their colleagues. They warned Caesar that he should not exaggerate his power because of this one defeat and then they reminded him that their ancestors and fathers taught them to fight like valiant men.
"Caesar replied that he had no hesitation about the action he should take, especially as he had not forgotten the Roman reverse to which the envoys referred, a misfortune he resented all the more because it was undeserved..even if he were willing to forget the old affront, could he banish recollections of their fresh insults." Caesar asked for hostages and then reminded them of their recent attacks upon the Aedui, the, Ambarri, and the Allobroges. Caesar offered them peace only on the condition that they recompense the Aedui and the Allobroges for the damage and injury they had done to them. Divico's reply was that the Helvetii were not in the custom of giving hostages but only taking them and with that the Helvetii envoys departed.
The next day the barbarians disbanded their camp. Caesar did the same and sent scouts ahead to see which direction the enemy went and followed the Helvetian rearguard with a cavalry detachment of about four thousand men. Overconfident, the Roman Calvary followed the enemy too eagerly and engaged the Helvetii on unfavorable ground and suffered some casualties. The fact that the barbarians handled such great odds, with only five hundred horsemen, made them overconfident. Caesar ordered his men not to fight because he was just content with preventing the Helvetii from looting, foraging, and ravaging the countryside. They followed the barbarians for a fortnight, keeping them at a distance of no more than five to six miles from the his troop's Vanguard.
Later on, Caesar's patrol had brought word that the Helvetii were camped by a hill about eight miles from their camp, so he sent a party to reconnoiter the hill to find out what was on the further side of it. His men reported back it to him that it would be easy to take the hilltop. Later at midnight Caesar discussed plans with Labienus, his second in command, and instructed him to take two legions with him and climb the hill, taking scouts with them. The next morning, Caesar marched towards the enemy camp and sent the cavalry ahead of him, under the command of a Publius Considius.  In Caesar's earlier Gallic campaigns he made full use of hillside positions but this was not a great advantage if the enemy possessed a strong archery contingent, which made the use of javelins obsolete because of its shorter range. 
By daybreak, Labienus was in possession of the hill while Caesar was not more than a mile and a half from the enemy camp. According to prisoners captured by the Romans neither Caesar nor Labienus had been seen by the enemy. Considius panicked and made his way quickly to Caesar and warned him that the enemy still had the hill, which Labienus was suppose to have taken. He thought he had seen their Gallic arms and the crests on their helmets, so Caesar withdrew to a nearby hill and formed his line of battle. In reality, Labienus had taken possession of the hill, but he was ordered not to engage the enemy until Caesar's forces were close to the Helvetii camp so they could attack from all sides at once. Later, Caesar learned that Considius was in error and indeed the hill was occupied by Labienus' men. According to Caesar's commentary Considius had lost his head and had seen what was not really there. The Helvetii moved their camp, so Caesar followed them and he pitched the Roman camp within three miles of the enemy camp.
The following day, Caesar broke off his pursuit of the enemy because they were running short of food supplies. They were only seventeen miles from Bibracte the largest and richest town of the Aedui, so he diverted his troops to resupply them and after resupplying he resumed his pursuit of the Helvetii. The Helvetii altered their direction and began to harass Caesar's troops in order to cut the Romans off from their supplies. Caesar's movement was reported to the enemy by a runaway slave who belonged to Lucius Aemilius, Ceasar's commander of the Gallic cavalry. The Helvetii erroneously believed that the Romans broke off the engagement because of fear. The Romans refused to engage the enemy, even when they had a strategic advantage. Caesar states in his commentaries that the Romans withdrawal could have made the barbarians more aggressive.
Caesar, after observing this withdrew to a nearby hill and sent out his cavalry to repulse the enemy's attack. Meanwhile, he formed his four veteran legions into three lines halfway up a nearby hill. He then posted another two legions on the summit with all the auxiliaries; the upper portion of the hill was occupied with Roman troops. Caesar ordered the baggage to be collected in one place and had defense works to be dug around his men. The enemy, who had been following the Romans, halted their advance and formed a phalanx with ranks and files close and deep. They held swords or spear in one hand and their joined their shields to overlap and form a phalanx, then they advanced towards the Roman lines on the hilltop. 
"Caesar had all the horses, starting with his own, sent away out of sight, so everyone might stand in equal danger and no one have any chance of flight."  Caesar addressed his men and joined them in the battle facing death as an equal. When the Helvetii were about ninety feet away the legionaries, in the front ranks, hurled their javelin from a commanding position, into the mass of the charging enemy. This strategy broke the enemies phalanx. Standing behind their shields the Romans drew their swords and charged.  Caesar had ordered his armorers to make the javelin tips out of a soft metal so they would bend after piercing the enemies shields, forcing the enemy to drop their shields when they were unable to pull out the spear head. According to Caesar, when more than one of the overlapping shields were pierced it forced the enemy to drop their shields and fight unprotected. Eventually after sustaining a lot of casualties the barbarians drew back to a hill about one mile away. The javelin (pilum) embodied what is called the Marian principle of buckling which upon impact caused the javelin to bend and become imbedded in the enemy's shields. The idea was to make it difficult to remove when it struck their overlapping Gallic shields, often pinning them together with a single pilum.
The Helvetii took a defiant stand on the next hill, but the Roman's advanced and forced them down the hill. Suddenly, several thousand Boii and Tulingi, fifteen thousand according to Caesar, attacked the Romans on their right flank and surrounded them. The Romans quickly changed their front and advanced in two divisions. The first and second lines faced the Helvetii who had already been defeated and driven back and the third line attacked the newly arrived column of enemy warriors.
The battle lasted from midday till midnight and when they could no longer withstand the Roman charges the Helvtii began to retreat. Meanwhile, their allies the Boii and Tulingi retreated to their encampment, where their baggage was stacked, and quickly made a barricade with their wagons. From this position the Celts threw down spears and javelins at the advancing Romans below, wounding some of the Romans. Eventually the Roman's captured the wagons and the daughter of Orgetorix. The remaining enemy army fled all night into the country of the Lingones, but Caesar did not pursue them because he spent three days attending the wounded and burying the dead. Caesar sent a message to the Lingones warning them not to aid the Helvetii and her allies or to supply them with grain, otherwise, they would face Caesar's wrath, three days later he began his pursuit of the enemy.
The Helvetii surrendered because of their need for food and other supplies so they sent some envoys to Caesar. The envoys, upon meeting Caesar, prostrated themselves before him and begged for mercy. Caesar ordered that the Helvetii and her allies should remain where they were until he arrived and once he reached the barbarians Caesar ordered that them to surrender. The Helvetii complied by moving their camp and surrendering all their arms and the slaves who had abandoned their Roman masters. They also provided hostages to the Romans. Meanwhile, according to Caesar's commentaries, about six thousand of the Helvetii, a clan known as the Verbigeni, snuck out of the camp early in the morning and fled to the German frontier. They had hoped that get away unobserved because of the large number of prisoners taken by Caesar's army.
Caesar sent word to the Germanic tribes, in the territories where the fugitives were passing through, that they were to hunt them down and bring them to him or he would hold these Germanic tribes responsible. When they were brought back he had them executed but the rest were allowed to surrender after handing over their arms, hostages and deserters. The Helvetii along with their allies the Tulingi, the Latovici and the Raurci were ordered to return to their own lands. Caesar ordered the Allobroges to provide them with grain, he also ordered the Helvetii to rebuild their burnt towns and villages.  It would have been much more lucrative for Caesar to sell them as slaves but apart from their inconvenience  his main motivation, for allowing them to return to their lands, was because he did not want their land to remain vacant. He feared a migration of the more war-like Germanic tribes, from across the Rhine , into this region because of its fertile soil. He did not want such hostile neighbors so close to the Roman province. The Boii were given homes on the land of the Aedui because the Aedui asked for this arrangement. This was requested because the Boii were known for their bravery, later the Aedui gave the Boii equal rights and liberties with themselves.
According to Caesar's commentaries, at the conclusion of this campaign, the leading men of the Gallic tribes came to offer Caesar congratulations. They all agreed that the motivation for Caesar's attack on the Helvetii was to punish them for their injury to Rome and this was an advantage to all the tribes of Gaul because Caesar prevented the Hevetii and her allies from invading Gaul and becoming its masters. The disadvantage of this was that the Romans would become the masters of Gaul .
Caesar records in his commentaries that some documents were found in the Helvetii camp, written in Greek, containing the names of all tribal members capable of bearing arms. Documents, under a different classification, listed all the women, children, and old men in the tribe and according to Caesar the census for this tribe totaled 368,000. This comprised of 263,000 Helvetii, 36,000 Tulingi, 14,000 Latovici, 23,000 Rauraci, 32,000 Boii, listing 92,000 men fit for military duty. After their defeat, Caesar ordered a census of the Hevetii he sent back to Switzerland and this added up to 110,000. 
It is believed, by some scholars, that these figures are highly inflated, which was a common practice amongst Roman commanders. It is also important to point out that Caesar's army of six legions or about 35,000 men was probably also inflated and the real count was less. Caesar fails to gives no details about his own losses but he makes it very clear they were substantial.
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