X. Warfare

1. Carnyxes (war trumpets):


Carnyx at Bibracte Museum






Carnyx found at Tintignac









2. Making iron weapons:

The distribution map of Iron Age forge sites in the Parisian basin reveals a few clusters of forge sites along its river valleys. Although there were little mineral resources in this region the making of iron tools and weapons was quite prevalent.



 3. Oppida: These were one of their main defensive weapons. Fortified behind their impressive murus gallica walls, monumental wooden gateways and deep ramparts the Gauls could put up a protracted fight. Caesar had to withdraw from the Arverni tribe’s oppidum at Gergovie.

The size, number and design of oppida varied throughout Gaul. Bibracte in Burgundy was close to 300 hectares; yet, the Veneti in Brittany had oppida of only a few hectares. In Germany some oppida were up to 1800 hectares. The Bituriges Cubi had densely occupied large oppida such as Bouriges, Levroux and Argenton. The Aedui had several oppida but their main two were Bibracte and Saone Cabillonum (a port oppidum). Caesar tells us that the Helveti tribe had 20 oppida (Collis 2000:234).

The variety of oppida size and design can be seen in the diagram below of 4 oppida: Manching (Germany), Chartres, Reims and La Cheppe (all from Gaul).


From http://racf.revues.org/index515.html











Variscourt oppidum: is near Reims in Champagne region. It consists of 170 hectares and was built 100-50 B.C.
1000 people lived here working as stockbreeders, farmers and trading as witnessed by the presence of Italian amphorae.



Excavations carried out in 1985 reveal a very important Gallic village built between 100 and 50 B.C. Evidence of town planning exists with a main street, an open forum-like area and streets that run off the main road. Variscourt is one of the first northern Gaul oppida to be planned.


The main street is shown by the thick black line with lighter black arrows show the many side streets and entries to structures in clearly defined areas. This discovery contradicts Paul MacKendrick’s assertion that “Gallic oppida were shabby and disorganized; the donkey was the Gauls’ city planner” (MacKendrick 1987:439).

Vermand oppidum: was the capital of the Veromandui tribe just north of the Parisii tribe. The town of Vermand was built within its fortified ramparts. The Veromandui and the Nervii tribes were northern tribes that nearly defeated Julius Caesar.














Châteaumeillant oppidum: is located between Argentomagus and Néris-lesBains. With an impressive 12 metres rampart the oppidum comprises some 60 hectares in total but the settlement itself was only 24 hectares. Excavations between 1958-1961 by Emile Hugoniot and Jacques Gourvest discovered two defensive structures: a murus gallicus wall and a massive rampart 40 metres wide. The former structure was built circa.100 B.C. giving the oppidum a symbolic limit whilst the defensive rampart was built later during Caesar’s Gallic Wars.



Oppida of Bituriges Cubi (http://racf.revues.org/index632.html A map of oppida in Europe with their sizes can be seen on www.oppida.org













 4. War Trophy discovery:

French archaeologists found a Gallic ‘war treasure’ of 470 artifacts in a dig at Tintignac (Naves) within the department of Correze, Southern France. Among these artifacts found in a ditch within a Gallic temple were:

  • 5 almost complete carnyxes (previously known from fragments and coins). These bronze war trumpets were 2 metres long and were used to scare the enemy. Four bore the flag of wild boars; one a snake
  • 9 exceptional war helmets with rear peaks- one was decorated as a swan and another with golden leaves. 8 were made of bronze and one in iron.
  • Swords, sheaths and spearheads
  • Bronze animal heads- boars and a horse that were used as signs on poles to inspire and protect warriors in battle

This war trophy was buried as a votive offering to the gods




A collection of 500 weapons including spears, swords, helmets and 5 carnyxes pieces that were found at Tintignac (Naves).








Helmets- only 20 helmets have been excavated before the discovery of these 8 from Tinignac. http://www.dossierpourlascience.fr/e_upload/boutique/_done_20090108_103004_les_dossiers-2008-octobre_decembre_61-fondamental-fondamental18-dossier_61_p109111_encadres1.pdf  
















5. Celtic Image:

Roman writers often portrayed the Celts as noble barbarians such as Strabo in Geography 4.4.2:

“The whole race…is madly fond of war, high-spirited and quick to battle. They wear ornaments of gold torques on their necks…It is this vanity which makes them unbearable in victory and so completely downcast in defeat".

Another aspect of the Gallic image created by the Romans one should keep in mind was the bias towards generalising about the northern tribes of Gaul based upon their knowledge of southern tribes of Gaul. Woolf (2003) goes so far as to describe most Roman writers’ views of northern Gaul as “a profound ignorance” (Woolf 2003:52).

Julius Caesar, one Roman writer who did actually visit northern Gaul, admired the far northern tribes in his Commentaries for their prowess and bravery. At the battle of Sambre in northern Gaul of the 60000 from the Nervii and their client tribes who fought Caesar’s legions only 500 survived.




6. Other weapons: Their weapons were swords, spears, shields and less often ring-mail iron tunics.


Gaulish chief with iron ring-mail armour from Vacheres, Basses-Alpes, France from Musee Calvet, Avignon. Celtic shields can be witnessed on the Orange triumphal arch in Provence. Here the Roman conquerors show their humanitas mission (civilise and educate) by boasting of their victory over the brave yet ‘uncivilised’ Gaul.

Stacked Celtic shields can be seen on the top right and left of the triumphal charioteer Coutesy http://etc.usf.edu/clipart/














The gold/bronze torc was an important religious symbol of the Celtic warrior. It is also thought to be a sign of nobility and a battle honour. In one battle in 191 B.C. the Romans defeated the Celts near Bologna, Italy and acquired 1500 gold torcs from the battlefield as booty (Cunliffe 1997:99).



A bronze torc found at Somme-Suippe in the Marne region (late 4th century B.C.) Reims Museum. Courtesy Vassil in Wikimedia Commons







7. Nakedness: Some Roman writers referred to the Celtic habit of wearing only a gold neck torc and a sword belt into battle. When this occurred it was probably of ritual significance. Cunliffe (1997) believes that there is enough evidence to argue that nakedness in battle was a common tactic of the Celts.



‘The Dying Gaul’ sitting naked on his shield from Rome’s Capitoline Museum. The marble statue is believed to have adorned the Temple to Jupiter at Pergamon. The temple was built by Attalos II to honour his victory over the Celtic Galateans of Asia Minor.







8. Chariots: Caesar does not mention the use of chariots by Gallic warriors. The use of chariots in Gaul was seemingly limited. However, a coin of the northern Remi tribe depicted a warrior with spear and shield riding a two horse chariot into battle.



An electrum coin of the Pictones tribe depicting a warrior fighting from a single horse chariot. Coutesy of Bill Blank.







9. Cavalry: The cavalry had replaced the chariot in Gaul at the time of the Gallic Wars. According to Collis (2000) only the Gallic elite rode horses. Caesar employed the Gallic allied horsemen in his auxiliary cohorts. Later many of these auxiliary warriors returned to become the new obliging elite of Roman Gaul.

“On the following day they move their camp from that place; Caesar does the same, and sends forward all his cavalry, to the number of four thousand (which he had drawn together from all parts of the Province and from the Aedui and their allies), to observe toward what parts the enemy are directing their march. These, having too eagerly pursued the enemy's rear, come to a battle with the cavalry of the Helvetii in a disadvantageous place, and a few of our men fall. The Helvetii, elated with this battle, because they had with five hundred horse repulsed so large a body of horse, began to face us more boldly, sometimes too from their rear to provoke our men by an attack. Caesar [however] restrained his men from battle, deeming it sufficient for the present to prevent the enemy from rapine, forage, and depredation. They marched for about fifteen days in such a manner that there was not more than five or six miles between the enemy's rear and our van”.
Caesar’s Commentaries I.15





A bronze horse figurine (reproduction) found by Joseph Déchelette (1910) at Joeuvres oppidum, Loire.

A graffiti of an Arverni warrior on horseback scratched on ceramics. It was found at Aulnat, 2nd century B.C.












10. Slingshots:

At the extraordinary battle at Alesia in 52 B.C. Caesar with his 40,000 men faced an enemy (80,000 infantry; 12,000 cavalry) on two fronts: in front and behind. To counter this threat Caesar built a double wall or fortification called a circumvallation around the Gallic Mandubii tribe’s oppidum at Alesia (Alise-Ste-Reine). It is estimated that the walls’ total length was 40 kilometres.

In this unusual midnight battle Caesar risked everything with the Romans finding themselves surrounded- the ham between the sandwich. Interestingly in this desperate battle, both sides used slingshots:

“The Gauls attacked at midnight…with a great shout to inform the besieged of their approach they began to throw bundles of wood to fill the trenches and drove the Romans from the ramparts with arrows, slingshots, hand-thrown stones and every other means of assault.

Meanwhile, hearing the tumult, Vercingtorix (Gallic leader) sounded the trumpets and led his men out of town. The Romans moved into their battle stations, and kept the Gauls at bay with slingshots, stakes and stones which had been piled up on the ramparts, while the artillery rained missiles down on them.”
(Caesar De Bello Gallico 7.81-82).




© Musée des Antiquités nationales – RMN












Roman defences in front of their fortification walls at Alesia; above a coin minted by Vercingtorix, the Gallic leader, found at Alesia.




From MuséoParc Alésia (link) French website: http://www.alesia.com/index.php








11. Conclusion: Despite their well-made iron weapons and their fearsome bravery the Gallic warriors seldom proved a match for the disciplined, highly drilled Roman legions of Julius Caesar. The 8 year war that raged in Gaul took a heavy toll on its population and wealth. In 50 B.C. at the conclusion of the Gallic Wars one million Gauls were casualties or killed and the same enslaved. It left Gaul quiet; in fact, "the quiet of the cemetery" (Drinkwater 1983:119).



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