When Julius Caesar invaded Gaul in the 1st century BC, two very different schools of war clashed.
In some ways, the Gauls and the Romans were similar in their approach to war. They prized battlefield courage above all other virtues. To die in combat was one of the noblest things a man could do. Their social and political elite were warriors as much as statesmen.
In other ways, they were hugely different, and those differences shaped the war between them.
The Wild Passion of the Gauls
In the Roman minds, the Gauls were the ultimate barbarians. Tall and physically intimidating, they fought with wild abandon. Roman writers described them in fearful terms.
Gallic warfare was built around the individual, letting them use their skills and abilities to the utmost. Fighting in loose formations with long swords, every man was given space to show off his ability. One on one hacking and slashing with their blades they were able to master opponents with shorter weapons.
The way they approached the field of battle also celebrated the individual. Gauls often went into battle naked or dressed in elaborate armor, the two extremes achieving the same goal of making a warrior stand out. Fighting was a chance to show off individual heroism.
There was some organization, or the Gauls could never have brought together an army. Under a leader like Vercingetorix, they were capable of clever maneuvers. Musical instruments were used to synchronize troops on the battlefield, but this was the warfare of the individual, and men were not trained for close coordination.
The Fierce Discipline of Rome
The Romans were the opposite of the Gauls. Physically shorter on average, they felt defensive about their height as well as nurturing a sneaking admiration for their opponents. It was with mixed feelings they approached their foe.
Each Roman could defend himself with his shield if need be, but it was in the tight formation of a legion that he found his best defense. Firmly packed together, the Romans could deploy more blades in a small space than the Gauls could, although they lacked their reach. Volleys of thrown spears took some of the impact out of an enemy charge.
Discipline was at the core of the Roman army. The troops were highly trained. Severe punishments ensured they obeyed orders even in the face of death. On one occasion, Caesar’s forces in Gaul were caught by surprise while building field fortifications. Without orders, they dropped their entrenching tools, grabbed their weapons, and formed their lines.
Roman swords were shorter than those of the Gauls and were used differently. While the Gauls used long swings to give their blows force and hold back enemies, the Romans fought up close. They got in at their opponents, stabbing at bodies and punching with their shields.
Roman warfare was every bit as brutal as that of the Gauls, but it was far less flamboyant.
The Gallic Wars
In 58 BC, the migration of a tribe called the Helvetii gave Julius Caesar an excuse for war. Relations between the Romans and Gauls had long been a tense mixture of war and trade. The ambitious Caesar wanted to launch an invasion deeper into Gaul than before, to defend Rome and earn glory for himself.
What followed was the best-recorded incident of war between these two cultures. It showed how their mismatched styles affected the outcome.
Gallic armies relied on the success of their charge to take out enemies. Wildly rushing in with swords swinging, they aimed to break opponents with the ferocity of their attacks. Like any army, they also hoped to get around the flanks.
Roman discipline completely countered any Gallic advantage. Tight Roman formations kept their sides safe. The discipline of the legions held in the face of attacks. Even when driven back, they retreated in good order. They could not be overrun and slaughtered. Casualties were kept to a minimum.
Discipline also let them fight the Gauls on favorable terms. By holding their lines when the Gauls attacked, the Romans got a chance to fight up close. As everyone became tightly crammed together, the Gauls were not able to swing their swords properly. This was no problem for the Romans, who could stab with their shorter weapons, the blades striking out from between the protection of shields.
Once the Romans gained the advantage, the Gauls were vulnerable. Lacking the discipline of their opponents, they found it hard to make an orderly retreat. They were more susceptible to a flanking maneuver or a charge by Roman cavalry. Held on the anvil of the legions, they were then hammered from the flanks.
The Results of the Wars
Different philosophies of war caused a shock for the losers. Gallic warfare had traditionally been small scale. It consisted mostly of raids, with one tribe showing its dominance over another. Easily portable spoils were taken, but the status quo remained virtually unchanged, with leaders left in place.
The Romans, on the other hand, fought wars of conquest. When they seized Gaul, they ousted its rulers, replacing them with Roman governors and occupying troops. Vercingetorix was imprisoned and then executed.
The Romans were also much more destructive. When fighting the Menapii and Morini, they ravaged whole regions rather than leave livestock and crops to feed their foes. The Gauls were forced into similarly destructive tactics to deprive the Romans.
As the losers, the Gauls suffered the worst of the war, with tens of thousands of them taken into slavery to fuel the Roman economy. Their way of war could not stand against the legions of Rome. As a result, a more destructive form of war left Gaul devastated and conquered.
Kate Gilliver, Adrian Goldsworthy and Michael Whitby (2005), Rome at War: Caesar and his Legacy.
Adrian Goldsworthy (2003), The Complete Roman Army.
Adrian Goldsworthy (2003), In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire.