57-56 BC: The First Rebellion
Caesar’s next initiative over the winter, however, was unsuccessful. In order to open up the route over the Alps so that traders could travel safely and without paying heavy tolls, he sent the twelfth legion and a cavalry detachment under the command of S. Sulpicius Galba to the territories of the Nantuates, Veragri and Seduni tribes. Galba was initially victorious, capturing some enemy fortresses and taking hostages.
However, having left two of his cohorts in Nantuantes’ territory, he and the rest of his troops, whilst fortifying part of a Veragri village called Octodurus, were attacked by Veragri and Seduni tribesmen who were suspicious of the Romans’ motives and decided to take advantage of their weakened situation. The Gauls also had the advantage of a higher position and, after six hours of fighting, the Romans were exhausted and had hardly any weapons left. Their only hope was to break through the enemy lines, which they did successfully, surrounding and killing over ten thousand, while the remaining twenty thousand fled. Short of supplies, Galba burnt the village and returned to the province, encountering no opposition, and he spent the winter with the Allobroges.
Whilst on his way to Illyria, Caesar heard that war had broken out again in Gaul. The Veneti tribe on the Atlantic coast had a large fleet of ships, traded as far afield as Britain and were very knowledgeable about navigation. When P. Licinius Crassus, who was wintering in the area with the seventh legion, sent two commanders to them to request supplies, the Veneti detained them, urging their neighbours, the Essuvii and Coriosolites to do the same to the two officers sent to them and also persuading all the maritime tribes to join them. They then sent a joint embassy to Crassus asking him to return their hostages in exchange for the Roman officers.
When Caesar was informed of events, he told Crassus to build warships and acquire crews for them until he rejoined them at the beginning of the campaigning season. Realising the gravity of the situation, the Gauls prepared for war, placing their trust in their sailing experience, knowledge of the area and the Romans’ lack of supplies. They fortified their strongholds, collected together supplies and called on the help of other local tribes as well as from Britain. Caesar divided his forces to prevent more tribes joining the rebellion: he sent Labienus with cavalry to ensure the Treveri, Remi and other Belgic tribes remained loyal and to stop any Germanic tribes who might try to cross the Rhine. Crassus with twelve legionary cohorts and cavalry was sent to Aquitania to prevent reinforcements arriving, Q. Titurius Sabinus was sent to isolate the Venelli, Coriosolites and Lexovii tribes and D. Junius Brutus was placed in command of the fleet which was to sail to Venetia whilst he himself marched there by land with the remainder of the Roman troops.
The Venetii strongholds were difficult to attack because of their positioning near the sea and the ease with which they could sail to other strongholds if the Romans seemed likely to conquer any. Their manner of building boats, flat bottomed with high bows and sterns, made of oak, leather sails and iron anchors, were well suited to the waters in that area and made it virtually impossible for the Romans to overcome them. However, once it arrived, the Roman fleet, by means of hooks on the ends of poles, managed to pull down the enemies’ sails, which immobilised their ships as they did not have oars and there was no wind. The Romans were easily superior in the hand-to-hand fighting which followed on board.
When the Venetii surrendered, Caesar made an example of them by executing all their councillors and selling the rest into slavery. The remainder of the revolt was stopped through the actions of Sabinus: when Sabinus arrived in the territory of the Venelli, he found a number of rebel tribes had amassed under the leadership of Viridovix but Sabinus refused to leave camp to fight them, making the Gauls think he was afraid. A Gaul, who Sabinus persuaded with bribes to go to the rebels, posing as a deserter, further convinced the rebels of his cowardice. They therefore rashly attacked the camp which was at the top of a hill. Sabinus was waiting and the Gauls retreated after the first attack and many were killed, most of the remainder being rounded up by Roman cavalry. When news came of Caesar’s victory, all the rebels immediately surrendered.
Crassus likewise had a victorious campaign in Aquitania, roughly a third the size of Gaul. Previous victories against the Romans in 78 BC caused Crassus to be cautious and call on the help of towns close by whilst the Sotiates were encouraged and ambushed the Romans. After fierce fighting, Crassus gained the upper hand, wounding and killing a large number of the enemy, and laying siege to their main town. When the Aquitani’s attempts to tunnel out of the town and an attempt by their king, Adiatuanus, and six hundred loyal followers to break out of another part of the town were unsuccessful, they surrendered and handed over their weapons.
As Crassus approached the territory of the Vocates and Tarusates, these tribes sent for reinforcements from their neighbours and from northern Spain. Although Crassus wanted to fight before these reinforcements arrived, the Gauls sought to gain a bloodless victory by cutting off supply routes to the Romans. Crassus thought they were refusing to fight through fear, which increased the troops’ enthusiasm to attack the enemy camp. The outcome of the attack was evenly balanced when the cavalry told Crassus the rear of the enemy camp was less well fortified. Fresh troops, keeping out of sight of the enemy, advanced to the rear of the camp, demolished the fortifications and entered before the enemy realised what was happening, who then found themselves surrounded. The Roman cavalry pursued them as they fled and barely a quarter escaped from the initial fifty thousand Aquitani and Cantabri. Most of the Aquitani tribes surrendered and gave hostages.
Towards the end of the summer of 56 BC, Caesar marched against the Morini and Menapii tribes, who had not surrendered. Using different tactics from the rest of the Gauls, these tribes took refuge in a region protected by forests and marshes. They attacked the Romans as they constructed a camp on the edge of this area and suffered heavy losses as well as inflicting some as the Romans chased them into the forests. The Romans began to cut down the forest trees, piling these to form a rampart, but bad weather forced them to stop. As Caesar retreated, he burnt the tribesmen’s villages and land and wintered his troops in the territory of tribes who had recently surrendered.