Rome in Gaul Before Caesar I

In 125 BC Massalia once again appealed to Rome for help. This time she was under pressure from the Saluvii, and perhaps also the Vocontii, who lived between the Rhône and the Isère rivers. The exact course of the campaign or its effects are extremely difficult to reconstruct as the sources for this period are few and at times contradictory. The consul Marcus Fulvius Flaccus was sent probably with the normal two legions and allies to their aid. His route is not specified in the sources but it appears likely that he marched by way of the Alpine passes and through the territory of the Vocontii. He defeated the Saluvii and Vocontii in battle, but there is no indication as to where these battles took place.

By the opening of the campaigning season of 124 a new consul, Gaius Sextius Calvinus, had arrived. He continued operations in Gaul until 122. The sources claim that he defeated the same tribes as Flaccus had, which seems to indicate that Flaccus’s successes had not been decisive. The combined actions of both consuls seem finally to have solved the problem of the Saluvii. The next reference to them is a rebellion in 90.

In addition to his military activity, Sextius established a garrison at Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence) in 123 where he seems to have won a battle against the Saluvii. Aix replaced the main town of the Saluvii Entremont, which was perhaps destroyed during this campaign. The garrison was located at an important road junction that served to protect the coastal route and as a further measure of security the tribes were forced to pull back from the coast. The foundation of Aix marks the next stage in Roman penetration of the area. For the first time there was a permanent Roman presence in Transalpine Gaul. It appears that Massalia was no longer capable of protecting the eastern part of this vital route for Roman campaigns in Spain.

The campaigns of Sextius did not mark the end of Roman intervention. The king and some of the leading men of the Saluvii fled to the Allobroges, a larger and more important tribe whose territory was situated along the Rhône north of the Saluvii, and which extended from the River Isère east to the Alps. They had also attacked the Aedui, whose land lay north of the Allobroges in Burgundy and who now appealed to the Romans for aid. They were one of the most important of the Gallic tribes. At some point before the late 120s they had concluded an alliance with Rome and were recognized as related by blood to the Romans, perhaps on the basis of a myth of a common Trojan origin. Why the Romans did so is not clear. There is a parallel in the relationship with Saguntum, which also lay deep in Carthaginian territory and in a period when Rome had no manifest interest in Spain. It is possible that the Romans saw such an alliance as a way to deter powerful tribes from attacking the coastal route. They would be able to use the threat of the Aedui who lay to the enemy’s rear as a buffer.

The refusal of the Allobroges to return the Saluvian fugitives led to the sending of another expedition under a consul of 122, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus. War with the Allobroges led to a wider conflict. The Allobroges were subordinate to the Arverni whose territory lay in the Auvergne in south-central France. They were the most powerful tribe in southern France. Some later sources talk of an Arvernian empire extending from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. But it is more likely that, as was the case with the Allobroges, they had a number of weaker tribes as clients. For unknown reasons Domitius did not begin the major phase of his campaign until the following year. The chief of the Arverni, Bituitus, sent an embassy to meet with Domitius, perhaps to persuade him to call off the campaign. Since Bituitus’s envoys refused to hand over the Saluvian chiefs or to settle other Roman grievances the embassy ended in failure. Domitius defeated a combined army of Arverni and Allobroges under the command of Bituitus at a site called Vindalium. Its exact location is unknown but it appears that it lay about 6 miles (10km) north of Avignon. Although we lack any details about the course of the battle the sources report heavy casualties among the Gauls.

Once again, in 121 another consul, Quintus Fabius Maximus, was sent out who seems to have operated jointly with Domitius. Domitius’ victory may have weakened the Gauls but it had not put an end to the conflict. Fabius moved north and somewhere near the confluence of the Rhône and the Isère decisively defeated a combined army of Allobroges, Arverni and Ruteni (another client of the Arverni who lived in the southern Massif-Central). The date was August 121. Bituitus was captured and deported to Italy where he was detained at a villa south of Rome. Fabius and Domitius both celebrated triumphs in 121. The Allobroges as well as the Saluvii were now under Roman control of some sort, while the Arverni and the tribes to the north were left independent.

Fabius followed a standard Roman practice and added the title Allobrogicus to his name in recognition of his victory. He further memorialized it by the erection of a triumphal arch. Domitius’s celebration of his victory was more exotic. According to Suetonius, the biographer of his descendant the emperor Nero:

During his consulate after defeating the Allobroges and Arverni he was carried through the province on an elephant accompanied by a crowd of soldiers as though he was celebrating a triumph.

Other sources mention the fact that Domitius had elephants with his army and had used them to great effect against the Gauls who presumably had never before encountered them.

Domitius’s procession through southern Gaul had less colourful aspects as well. He gave his name to a new road, the Via Domitia, which ran from the west bank of the Rhône at Tarascon to a major pass over the Pyrenees at Le Perthus. The road speeded the movement of men and supplies to Spain where the Romans were still engaged in pacifying the tribes of the centre and west of the peninsula. The road has yielded the earliest Roman milestone we possess, which bears the name of Domitius and records that it marks the 20th Roman mile from Narbo Martius (Narbonne).

Narbo, founded probably in 118, was, unlike the garrison at Aix, a citizen colony; the first founded outside of Italy. In part it must have fulfilled the same function as Aix and Massilia in protecting, in this case, the portion of the route to Spain that lay to the west of the Rhône. It was also located at a site of great commercial importance, and even before the advent of the Romans the site had played an important role in trade. It sat astride an important trade route that ran through Toulouse and linked it to Aquitania and the Bay of Biscay. Although the major reason for this colony as for other Roman colonies was strategic, there is no doubt that the commercial benefits of the site were readily apparent and Italians were quick to take advantage of them. The foundation of the colony was followed by a growth in Italian imports and an increase in local coinage based on the standard Roman coin the denarius.

Its foundation should be linked as well to political problems at Rome. Access to and ownership of land had become a pressing social and political issue. The devastation of southern Italy during the Second Punic War had driven many peasants off their land. Added to this pressure were the constant demands of prolonged military service outside of Italy. The peasant soldier had normally been the main source of labour on his farm and his absence, often for as much as six years, outside of Italy led to severe economic consequences for his family. Added to this was the effect of Rome’s conquests, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean. Enormous wealth in the form of booty flowed to the Roman state, but especially into the hands of the aristocracy. The prestige and safety associated with land ownership led the aristocracy to expand their land holdings at the expense of peasant farmers. Adding to the pressure on small-holders was the importation of slaves acquired in Rome’s wars and their use as agricultural labourers on the elite’s estates. It has been estimated that between the beginning of the Second Punic War and the middle of the first century about 500,000 slaves were imported into Italy. Seasonal labour on estates, which had been used to supplement peasant income, was now no longer available. The pressure on this group is evident in the continued movement of population from the countryside into the cities of Italy.

All of these factors had an effect on Rome’s armies. Military service in the legions was based on the possession of a certain minimum amount of property. Most of those who served were drawn from the rural population. As they lost their farms they no longer qualified for service and this created manpower problems for the levy. Added to this was a conflict in Spain where the Romans were involved in a prolonged guerrilla war that offered few prospects of booty for the average soldier.

By 133 this had become a major issue in Roman politics. After a difficult political struggle one of the tribunes of the plebs, Tiberius Gracchus, passed a law distributing plots of Roman public land to landless citizens. Despite his death in a brawl with his political enemies, a commission established by the law continued with the distributions but by about 120 the available public land in Italy seems to have been all but exhausted. It is in this context that we can place a proposal by Tiberius’s younger brother Gaius, in 123 or 122, to found a colony on the site of Carthage. With the death of Gaius in 122, also as the result of political conflict, the plan for a citizen colony at Carthage was abandoned.

These struggles over the issue of land and other benefits for the Roman lower classes had become deeply intertwined in elite politics. A division opened between those who pushed for such legislation and those who fought against it. A variety of economic and political interests were involved on both sides as members of the aristocracy struggled with each other for prestige and political office. Just as there had been in the case of the colony at Carthage, so there was a great deal of resistance to the founding of Narbo. The proposal was seen as a manoeuvre by those favouring popular legislation to enhance their political position. Despite opposition in the Senate to the measure it was carried. Some scholars have claimed that the basis for the opposition was the distance and isolated position of the colony. This does not seem persuasive. Earlier colonies in Italy, such as Placentia, founded in 218, had often been located at exposed sites. Also, southern Gaul offered a fertile area for Italian settlement. Its climate and topography were similar to Italy’s. By the first century Pliny the Elder could refer to southern Gaul as ‘more Italy than a province’.

The campaigns of 125–121 had been fought exclusively to the east of the Rhône; apparently the Romans had little trouble with the tribes west of the river. The inability of Massalia to maintain control of a vital route had drawn the Romans into southern Gaul. They had subjugated an area extending on the west from the Pyrenees to the Alps on the east, and bordered on the north by the Massif Central and the Cevennes. The lack of any further conquests for seventy years supports the idea that Roman goals in Transalpine Gaul were limited. The main aim seems to have been to safeguard the route to Spain by land and to maintain control of the coastal ports. The more difficult question is what mechanisms they used to achieve those objectives.

The major controversy has centred on the formation of a province which the Romans called Transalpina, or Transalpine Gaul to distinguish it from the Gallic area on the Italian side of the Alps, Cisalpina. The basic meaning of the Roman term provincia (province) is the sphere in which a magistrate or promagistrate (a magistrate whose powers are continued after his term in office has ended) is empowered to act. The province need not be a military command; it designates any sort of politically approved activity. For instance, it included the legal activities of praetors in Italy at Rome or the various duties of quaestors including financial supervision. In 59 Caesar and his fellow consul were given the administration of Italy’s woods and public pasturelands as their province after they left office. For the consuls and praetors, as well as proconsuls and propraetors, the sphere of activity was usually military. The consul and proconsuls were the magistrates that waged Rome’s wars. Rome’s first overseas provinces of Sicily and Sardinia/Corsica were governed by additional praetors, and two more were added to govern the Spanish provinces after 197. The need in these areas for continued oversight led to provincia developing a geographical meaning as an established administrative area. The process developed haphazardly, especially in the west. In the eastern Mediterranean the previously established administrative apparatus of Hellenistic kingdoms and states offered the Romans a system they could use as a basis for their own administrative organization. The lack of such structures in western Europe, and the diffuse nature of tribal authority, made the process far more difficult.

A province in the fullest sense would be a geographical area that possessed a Roman administrative structure under the supervision of a Roman governor. The origin of provinces as military command often meant that administration and control developed slowly and haphazardly. For example, Sicily was conquered by the Romans in 241 but it was not until 227 that a governor was sent. In Spain the process unfolded in the opposite direction. From 197 Roman Spain was divided into two provinces but it was not until 180 that a formal administrative structure developed.

The problem is complicated in the case of Transalpine Gaul. For one thing we know very little about the settlements with the defeated tribes after the campaigns of the late 120s. Caesar informs us that neither the Arverni nor the Ruteni were reduced to provincial status or had yearly taxes imposed upon them. This may imply that Rome concluded treaties with them in place of governing them directly. There is more ambiguity about the status of the other tribes that Rome had defeated. The Allobroges surrendered unconditionally, as presumably did the Saluvii, Ligurians, and the Vocontii who occupied the western foothills of the Alps south of the Allobroges. It has been suggested that Rome bound the tribes by a series of treaties but is more likely that the area became a lightly administered province. There is support for this in the sources, who mention that the Saluvii rebelled in 90. The remark implies that they were directly subordinated to Rome.

One problem with accepting the establishment of a province at this time has been the absence of evidence for a regular succession of governors. It makes it more difficult that an individual can be specified as having Transalpine Gaul as his area of action without any explicit reference as to whether he was also administering it. For instance, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, who had been consul in 93, is mentioned in the sources as proconsul in Gaul from 84–81, but this may have been in connection with the war then raging in Spain and so is no certain indication that he was the governor of the province. The first definitely-identifiable governor was Marcus Fonteius, who probably served in Transalpine Gaul from 74 to 72. But even this is not totally certain. By Caesar’s time he can refer to all of south Gaul simply as ‘the province’, which provides our first unambiguous evidence.

Prior to Fonteius the whole of southern Gaul seems to have often been administered by the governors of contiguous provinces. The western portion often fell under the purview of the governor of Nearer Spain while the part east of the Rhône was assigned to the governor of Cisalpine Gaul. This again implies nothing about the status of Transalpine Gaul. Caesar was assigned Transalpine Gaul as a supplementary command when he had been given Cisalpine Gaul.

There is no definitive evidence for the status of southern Gaul until Caesar’s time. In part this is the result of the absence of sources for this period. It is also a result of the relative absence of conflict in Gaul for most of the period before Caesar, except for a major crisis caused by the migration of two German tribes towards the end of the second century.

In 113 a wandering tribe of Germans, the Cimbri, had been laying waste the Celtic kingdom of Noreia, which was allied to the Romans and located in the eastern Alps south of the River Danube. The consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, fearing a possible invasion of Italy, confronted them. After entering into negotiations with them he launched a surprise attack and was disastrously defeated. The Cimbri and their fellow Germans the Teutones seem to have begun a migration from their homeland in Jutland in modern Denmark around 120. The reasons for the migration were as disputed in antiquity as they are today. One possibility is that they were driven out by the slow encroachment of the sea on their homeland or some sort of climatic change. But there may have been other factors at work. The last two centuries BC are marked by the migrations of other northern European tribes and the Cimbri and Teutones may simply be part of this larger movement. Their actions and negotiations with the Romans suggest they were looking both for plunder and for new lands to settle in. Their initial movement was towards eastern Europe and the Danube. However, they were defeated by the tribes already established there and turned west, where they encountered Carbo. After his defeat the Germans could have crossed the Alps into Italy but for unknown reasons turned west again. They seem to have remained in the area of the Rhine for a year, where they were joined by Celtic tribes including the Tigurini, a sub-tribe of the Helvetii. Finally in 110, or a little earlier, they crossed the Rhine into Gaul.

In 109 the Cimbri defeated the consul Marcus Junius Silanus, probably near Lake Geneva. The Cimbri followed up their victory with a request to the Roman Senate for land to settle in, probably in Gaul, in return for performing military service. The Senate refused and it is not clear what land could have been given to them. Two years later a Roman army once again met the wandering tribes. The consul Lucius Cassius Longinus and his legate Lucius Calpurnius Piso had been operating near the colony at Narbo in an attempt to pacify the area, which had been thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the Germans. The Tigurini encountered Cassius in the territory of the Nitiobriges, which lay in south-west Aquitaine. Cassius fought the Tigurini under their war leader Divico near the town of Aginnum, probably modern Agen; and suffered a crushing defeat. Both the consul and his legate were killed and the survivors surrendered unconditionally. These two defeats shook Roman prestige in Gaul to its core. Soon after the campaigns of the 120s a garrison had been established at Tolosa (Toulouse) to guard the road to Spain where it ran west of the Rhône. It lay, as did Narbo, in the territory of the Volcae Tectosages, who may have had a treaty with the Romans. The loss of land to Narbo and the presence of the garrison at Toulouse were clearly irritants for the Volcae and with the defeat of Cassius they rose in revolt and imprisoned the garrison.