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What Was Gaul?
Throughout the history of the Roman state, there were several persistent enemies of the Romans. Chief among the enemies of Rome were the Gauls. Gauls are Celtic people from central and western Europe that conquered vast swathes of land in Europe and Asia and plagued the Roman world.
The Gauls had an advanced society with coinage, iron working, and a unifying culture, but they did not have a singular government. Each Gallic tribe ruled its own tribal lands and had its own rulers, with the Gauls uniting under several confederations over time in the face of Roman invasions. Gallic tribes settled from modern Belgium to Spain in Europe, and they had states ranging from modern France to Anatolia in Asia Minor.
Ancient Gaul covered a much greater area than modern France. The first area to be conquered by the Roman Republic was named Cisalpine Gaul. It was all the territory north of the river Rubicon and south of the Alps, stretching across modern Italy from France to Austria. The tribes settled in this area were the first wave of Gallic expansion into Eastern Europe.
Gauls had occupied northern Italy after a series of wars with the Etruscans and Romans. Interim warfare continued as the Roman Republic expanded south and north, but the Cisalpine Gauls managed to sack Rome in 390 BC. The sack of Rome would be the high point of the military success of the Cisalpine Gauls, while inscribing the Gauls into the Roman social thought as enemies. And from 290 BC to 190 BC, the Cisalpine tribes were conquered by the Roman Republic and their lands turned into a Roman province.
Transalpine Gaul was the territory occupied by Gauls along the Mediterranean coast west of Italy, composing most of southern France. Gallic tribes inhabiting this region interacted with the Greek settlement of Massalia from the 6th to 3rd century BC.
Transalpine Gaul was conquered by the Romans in 121 BC for several reasons. At this time, Rome had territory in Spain and lucrative trading ports along the coast that they needed to connect to Italy. To achieve an easy and safe land route to Hispania, the Roman Republic made an alliance with the city-state of Masallia and drove the Celtic tribes off the Mediterranean coast.
Rome was able to build a road from Italy to Hispania as a result of the victory over the transalpine Gauls, as well as building several cities along the trade routes to prevent any further Gallic incursions from central France. This had the effect of making the Gallic tribes in Gaul proper work towards greater confederation, as well as fueling massive support for Hannibal's invasion of Italy. The Gauls saw Hannibal as a chance for liberation from Rome, and their numbers swelled his ranks. There were around 50,000 Gallic warriors supporting Hannibal's army in Italy throughout his campaign.
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Gallia Comata was the Roman designation for the rest of Gaul in western Europe. It contained the modern states of France, Belgium, Luxemburg, and Germany west of the Rhine. These regions were to be some of the least Romanized areas of the Roman world. The Celtic tribes in Gallia Comata were more resistant to the cultural changes wrought by the Romans, and they were the most unified against Roman rule.
Rome was granted a way into Gaul when the Helvetica, a Gallic tribe from modern Switzerland, began to invade Gaul. Julius Caesar led his armies into Gaul to protect Celtic tribes that had sworn allegiance to Rome and conquered most of the country while allegedly defending it. When it appeared the Romans were going to occupy Gaul, many of the Gallic tribes betrayed Caesar and joined a massive uprising under Vercingetorix. Caesar repressed the Gallic revolt in his Gallic Wars from 58 BC to 52 BC.
Gaul After the Roman Conquest
Caesar's conquests destroyed the last vestiges of the Gallic kingdoms in Europe. It is estimated that one in five Gauls died during Caesar's conquest, and many more were enslaved. After Caesar's conquest, the only remaining Gallic kingdom was in Gallicia, in eastern Anatolia. This area was later absorbed into the Roman Empire under Caesar Augustus.
Rome and Gaul had an intertwined fate due to proximity and history. Roman conquest destroyed the Gallic tribal system, but those Gauls who survived the Roman invasion maintained some parts of their culture. Roman Gaul was a unique area that became the heart of the Western Roman Empire through taxation and recruitment for the army.
The conquest of Gaul changed Rome as much as it changed Gaul. Senators and equestrians came from Gallic territories, while generals like Caesar, Constantine, and Marc Antony all made their fortunes and armies in Gaul. Gaul was forced to accept Rome, but only by incorporating Gaul was Rome able to achieve its imperial ambitions.
- Cunliffe, Barry, The Ancient Celts
- Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars
- Sage, Michael M., Roman Conquests
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
ata1515 (author) from Buffalo, New York. on June 24, 2013:
Thanks for stopping by. Territory can be classified many ways, through culture, ethnicity, or geography. In some ways France is Gaul, but it differs in some aspects.
Unifiniti on June 23, 2013:
Nice hub - I've always thought that Gaul was France.