Conquered, We Conquer

by Terikel Grayhair

The moment Brennus threw his swords on the scales and bellowed "Vae victis!", his people were doomed to be conquered by those he himself had just conquered.

Doomed is perhaps a harsh word, yet history has proven this to be true. But how? Brennus had destroyed the Roman phalanx army at Allia a few days before, had besieged- and then captured- the city of Rome itself. Gauls ruled the lands from modern Florence north to the sea, from the Rhein in the east to the Atlantic in the West. Celtic warlords ruled Britannia and Spain, the mountains of Switzerland, and southeast to the Black Sea. Yet three and a half centuries later, only the island-bound Britons remained, and a century later they too fell to Roman might.

Who were these Gauls? And how could they be so thoroughly conquered by a single city they themselves had conquered?

The answer to the first question is rather difficult, while that of the second is relatively easy. Why is the first so difficult? Well, the Gauls had no written language. Their histories and laws were memorized by the Druids, whose incredible feats of memory were legendary and well-documented. When the Druids died out, so did the Gallic point of view. This leaves us with the written records of those who they fought- the Greeks and Romans- both of whom have ample reason to portray the Gauls in a manner suiting their own ends and aims. It is very true that the victors write the histories. So we have to step away from the bias, and examine the remaining facts in pure form.


Archaeological evidence leads us to believe the Gauls evolved into tribes approximately three thousand five hundred years ago, in the northern part of Modern Germany. Five hundred years later we have evidence of them in southern Germany, suggesting their displacement south toward warmer weather- and maybe under pressure from the emerging Germanic tribes just forming along the Baltic coast. From there they spread in all directions, to Gaul and Britannia in the west, Spain in the Southwest, northern Italy in the due south, and along the Danube to the southeast.

Artifacts left behind tell us that the Gauls were an Iron-Age people, and among the first to use steel. They were masters of working with iron, and from the bridle-bits and other pieces of equipment we can see that they were clever workers of metal and great horsemen indeed. They were among the first to use iron in swords. The chainmail corselet is attributed to Gallic origins, and their Norican steel was reputed to be the finest anywhere.

Their grave sites also tell us much. They were on average taller than the Mediterranean peoples, and had artistic ability. They minted coins, developed art, and were ingenious craftsmen. They had a rich and developed polytheistic religion covering most aspects of tribal life and society. They were a race of tall, strong warriors, clad in shirts of steel, wielding iron weapons when others were still into bronze, and fantastic horsemen. They ruled the lands from East to West, and from South to North.

Yet within three hundred fifty years of conquering Rome, they themselves were but subjugated tribes bled white by Roman steel, leading us to the second question- how was this possible?

Initial Conflict with Rome

At the Battle of the Allia in 390 (some say 387) BC, the Romans fielded their largest army to date to drive the Gauls besieging nearby Clusium from Latin lands. From the date, we can infer that the Romans were still deployed in the old phalanx legion. Any general worth his salt knows that cavalry and phalanxes do not mix- head-on the phalanx will eat up the cavalry, from any other direction the phalanx is vulnerable to cavalry. And the Gauls were the premier horsemen of their day. Thus the Roman legions perished by the Allia and Rome herself was occupied for seven months, until the Gauls moved on with the coming of spring.

Thereafter, in almost every battle and definitely in every war, the Romans defeated their Gallic opponents until the last continental Gallic tribe capitulated at Alesia. A quick comparison of the Gallic and Roman militaries will reveal part of the answer.

Arms and Armor

Gallic warhosts were primarily infantry, much like the rest of Europe at the time, but they had a heavier proportion of their magnificent cavalry than the other armies. But while their nobles and cavalry were armored in those wonderful chain mail shirts, their infantry preferred to fight hand-to-hand and naked, showing their bravery and muscled physiques to their foes as did their forefathers before the advent of chain mail.

The foot warriors were also armed with their preferred weapon- long iron swords. These yard-long weapons had an impressive reach for their time, and were narrower across the blade than other swords- reducing the weight of the blade to something manageable in one hand. This was a slashing sword, but could be used for stabbing.

The Romans, on the other hand, were predominantly infantry with some small cavalry that had a poor reputation. The phalanx legion had heavily armed soldiers equipped as Greek hoplites in bronze armor, using primarily the spear. This legion was replaced after the Fall of Rome to the Gauls with what we call the Camillan legions- named for Marcus Furius Camillus, the conqueror of Veii and the man credited by Roman historians as the Second Founder of Rome for driving off the Gauls. Other innovators had a hand in reforming the legions, but most historians wrap the different changes up into what they call the Camillan Reforms.

After the Reforms, which began shortly after Allia in 387 BC, the legions became basically swordsmen, using steel swords that were both shorter, broader, and thicker than the Gallic ones. The shorter reach was offset by the large scutum shield, which was like a portable wall behind from which the shorter and more agile gladius could stab outwards into thighs, bellies, or chests.

Metallurgy- while unknown to the ancients- also played a large role in the differences between the Gallic longsword and the Roman gladius. Neither people knew that adding certain impurities to iron made it into strong steel. But nature had blessed Noricum with iron ore that was loaded with the right proportions of impurities for making steel, which was why Norican steel was so sought-after. The Roman smelting process, in addition, added extra carbon to the iron, making its steel stronger than its Celtic counterpart.

In addition, smithing played a part. The Celtic sword was made by hammering out a single lump of iron (called a pig) into the blade, while the Roman method was hammering out several smaller pigs then welding them together. The gladius, being shorter, broader, thicker, and composed of welded layers, meant it was a stronger blade. It is a fact of physics that the longer an item is, the easier it is to bend or break. The longer and thinner blades of the Gauls therefore, could not withstand the abuse of slashing against the portable walls and thus bent. Polybius and other historians record many instances of Gauls stopping in the middle of combat to straighten out their swords. So even though they were master craftsmen who first used iron swords, the long Gallic slashing sword was proven inferior to the shorter Roman stabbing gladius.

And while they originated the chain mail armor, it was hideously time-consuming for a Celtic smith to make and only the nobles could afford it. The Gauls were primarily a cavalry-oriented people, and while their cavalry was indeed so effective that Caesar himself preferred Gallic cavalry over all others, their foot soldiers were less reputable. The masses of foot warriors could not afford the intricate chain mail, and thus did not wear it. This meant that the majority of the Gallic warhost was extremely vulnerable to missiles (from the velites and archers) as well as large, open targets for the deft gladius. Skin deflects steel rather poorly.

The Romans of the phalanx legion destroyed at Allia wore solid bronze cuirasses or boiled leather corselets. Both armor types were stiff- stripping its wearer of dexterity and agility- and the bronze was heavy, slowing the armored phalangite down and forcing him to exert himself to maintain balance. Iphicrates had seen the dangers of the heavy bronze- one of the reasons he moved his phalangites on to longer spears and lighter armor. The Romans after Allia, having learned that painful lesson the hard way, soon adopted the Celtic chain mail- excellent protection from slashing (Celtic) weapons, good protection versus penetrating weapons as spears and arrows, and with a cushioned undergarment, decent enough against blunt-force weapons as well.

Further, the Roman smiths need not devote their entire careers to making chain mail. They could work in teams- one producing the solid links, another open links, while yet others- or apprentices- knitted them together. The lorica hamata (chain mail armor) became the standard Roman armor until the advent of the lorica segmentata- the flexible yet sturdy banded mail so popular in history and Hollywood. But even that was again replaced with the lorica hamata as time went on. Thus, in between Allia and other battles against the Gauls, Rome's soldiers became armored in flexible armor, much lighter than the heavy, thick bronze cuirasses, giving to him close to the speed and agility of the naked, unhampered Celts but with much better protection.

Still, a good general could overcome these differences.

Motivations and Discipline

So, what else could cause such a vibrant people to fall? Their culture was based on the tribe, and the individual was subordinate to the tribe. The gods of battle treasured bravery and valor, and sacrifice for the tribe. Thus the individual warriors had absolutely no fear of dying so that the tribe should continue- and that made them fearless in battle.

The Roman, on the other hand, was a land-owner who fought for his city and his land. He had many gods, even some of war, yet for the most part he felt his piece of land and his family were of more importance than Roman society- to him, his family was the society. Yet the Romans had something the Gauls did not- iron discipline. He was trained to hold formation, and to obey orders. Massing combat power at a crucial point is a principle of war. Massing combat power in those days meant massing the men who delivered it. Formations enhanced that combat power by providing support to the individual combatant from the fellows of his unit, and the training guaranteed he knew what to do and when to do it- and that he would not be alone in doing it.

That gave Roman generals the edge over barbarians in battle- they could issue orders and know they would be obeyed. The discipline allowed Roman soldiers to depend upon each other in battle- and to fight as a unit, instead of a group of individuals. That teamwork had been proven more effective in most battles across the ancient world, in all armies- those armies which held together won more often than those who lost cohesion. The Romans had this, while the Gauls did not.

Still, a good warlord could use his strengths and negate those of his opponent to gain victory. Yet the Gauls lost. So we must look deeper into the differences between the two cultures, and bring it down to the level of the man.

The Individual Warrior

The Gallic warriors, being warriors, were large and strong- much more so than the Roman landowner fighting for his farm. He was raised on a diet of meat and milk for the most part- the protein-rich diet enabling his body to build strong bones and stronger muscles. His physical size was impressive for its period- almost a head taller than his Mediterranean opponents.

The Romans, on the other hand, were raised on a grain-rich diet, with much vegetables, some meat, and cheeses. This was a more balanced diet than that of the Gauls, but its lower protein content resulted in a stature that was shorter than the meat-fed warriors of the barbarians. He was also quicker than the meat-fed warriors, due to the carbohydrate content, and legionary training emphasized leg strength and endurance over raw power.

So a battle between the two came down to Speed versus Power, and again a good general could overcome this difference. Yet it never was. Why? The answer to this lies in the tactics and utilization of the warriors and legionaries.


The Gauls had used the same tactics against the Romans as they had against the Germans, the Iberians, themselves, and other barbarian tribes. Which is to say, they lined up their warhost against the lined-up array of their opponent. They would then shout and chant in an attempt to weaken the morale of the enemy, then launch a full wave assault. Within fifteen minutes, one side or the other would be exhausted and broken, deciding the battle. Their diet and way of life determined their endurance, and their endurance determined their tactics in battle. This worked for ages, as long as they were facing a foe who fought in the same way.

The Romans had adopted the Greek manner of warfare, which they soon changed and improved with typical Roman practicality. Discipline, and formation were the keys to deploying effective combat power, with the discipline allowing formations to hold together and the formations themselves allowing effective combat power to be deployed where the general needed it. The Roman soldier held his ranks firmly until released by the commander, whereas a Gallic warrior, seeking glory, might precipitously charge out of formation and get killed. Or worse, start the battle before his side was ready and cause a catastrophic disaster.

The Roman also planned on fighting battles that lasted all day- one of the benefits of having sub-units that can independently maneuver without ripping apart the fabric of the entire army. The Roman general would most often deploy his legions in their quincunx formation, and then make adjustments when he espies the layout of the opposing force. He also had his forces arrayed in ranks- and could rotate those ranks throughout the battle without disrupting his front line- which enabled those battles to last all day.

The Roman diet of grains and vegetables, while not enhancing height and muscle development, did enhance their endurance. The Human Body stores excess carbohydrates in muscles, where those muscles can access the stores of energy quickly when needed. The protein-rich diet of the Gauls, however, enhanced their size at the expense of endurance. The body stores excess protein in the form of fat. Fat cells are not as easily broken down into energy as the carbohydrates stored within muscles.

Thus the Gallic warrior- who despised menial labor, by the way- had far less physical endurance in battle. Once the Romans began deploying their disciplined, armored swordsmen who could fight all day against the unruly, naked Gauls who could not handle more than a half-hour of physical exertion and were armed with swords that bent, it was all over for the Gallic armies. Roman generals after the Battle of Telamon, when faced with Gallic armies, would sneer and remind their men that if they could withstand that first ten minutes of the Gallic charge, their foes would weary and cease their onslaught to catch their breaths and straighten their swords. By then the battle would actually be decided- in Rome's favor. And they were right.


Warhosts and armies on the march need food. There are two ways to feed the marching army- have it bring along its own food, or have it scavenge and forage along the way. The Celts, like all barbarians and most European armies up the Enlightenment Age, chose the latter. A foraging army or warhost could move about five to ten miles per day, as the foraging parties needed time to forage and the animals with the warhost needed time to graze. This took even longer during winter campaigns or droughts- the animals accompanying the army needed that much more time to find fodder upon which to graze, and the men searching for food found that the pickings in winter were scarce. Pillaging local villages inevitably led to the death of most of the villagers through starvation, which led to the countryside being denuded for the following years as well. This death of the countryside was what inspired later armies to attempt to veer away from foraging, though they lacked the infrastructure and technology of food preservation to totally abandon acquiring local food on the march.

Foraging has a second drawback besides moving slow- the diet of the troops is directly related to what is available in the area being moved through. A beef-eating army moving through sheepherder territory will be forced to eat sheep, and the change in diet may cause gastro-intestinal illnesses or other problems as the men are not used to the new foods.

The Romans chose the first option. Each soldier carried with him six sextarii of grain- a three day ration. The legion's baggage train carried more, and the base from which the legion departed on its trek had even more. Sixteen sextarii made one modius, thus the two sextarii per man meant each contubernum (or squad) of eight needed one modius. A century needed ten modii per day, a cohort sixty, and a legion six hundred twenty.

The Romans built extensive road and river networks to support the incredibly thorough logistics network needed to keep the rations and supplies flowing to the troops that used it. Procurement agents resided in every town and province, calculating and keeping track of production. Legionary clerks kept detailed records (by weight and cost!) of how much grain was being consumed. Couriers relayed the information between units and sources, and supply convoys were dispatched to refill units low on supplies. Entire books have been written covering the magnificent Roman logistics system, but the point of it all was to keep the legionary fed with rations he was used to. And that allowed him to march farther and faster than his opponents.

No matter how good of a general one was, overcoming the combined disadvantages facing the Gauls would take a major effort. Brennus led a cavalry-strong army against rigid spearmen in a single, blocky phalanx at Allia. Later Gallic chieftains fought a fluid army of flexible, armored swordsmen that could peel off subunits and deploy them where needed. Few if any Gallic chieftains rose to the level of military genius needed to achieve victory after Brennus.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall

Yet in the beginning of the Romano-Gallic struggle, Gallic tribes ruled a vast stretch of land, and Rome but a tiny part of Italy. A single city against much of Europe, and the city won. The answer to this lies in the structure of Rome versus that of the Gauls. Rome was a single city, true, but it was a highly-efficient, structured, unified city. The Gauls, or Celts if one prefers, were not a single, unified nation. Each tribe was a nation unto itself, and often at war with other tribes. Each jealously guarded its own lands, or spread to other lands but conquering and absorbing the populations of those lands.

Rome, as single entity, could not be divided. The Gallic tribes, however, could be divided as they were never unified. Caesar, in his campaigns, frequently used these tribal divisions to weaken one tribe while holding the others at bay through alliances, offers of Friendship, and other diplomatic means. As one tribe would go to war or revolt, Caesar would defeat it in detail before the others could join in- utilizing the incredible marching speed of the legions. He also used Gallic allies- until they revolted and were put down with ruthless speed. Towards the end of his campaign, the Gauls realized what was happening and tried to unite- but Vercingetorix was no Caesar and although he inflicted a defeat upon Caesar, he ended up trapped and besieged at Alesia. His capitulation there marked the end of the Gallic struggle against Rome- with Rome emerging as victor.


And the rest of the Gallic tribes? Those who had conquered the Thracians perished when the Thracians rose up against them. Those who had settled in Hispana were vastly outnumbered by the local Iberian population they had conquered, and were absorbed- but there were enough of them to change the Iberians into the Celtiberians. These hardy warriors fought both for and against Carthage, and against Rome. They fell as a power at the Siege of Numantia. The Gauls who had survived the Thracians joined their fellows in Galatia, which succumbed to Pontus and finally to Rome. The continental Celts fell tribe by tribe to Rome, until at last only the tribes on Britannia were left. Then they too eventually fell to Rome.

So the Gauls fell, one by one. You will remember I wrote in the opening sentence that the actions and words of Brennus doomed the Gauls, and that I remarked that doomed was a harsh word. The Romans never forgot the brutal conquest of their city at the hands of the Gauls- their seven month stay in Rome as its masters left an indelible blight upon Roman memory. For example, during the siege, the Gauls attempted to assault the Capitol at night. The dogs slept unawares, but the sacred Geese of Juno cackled madly, waking the consul who roused the men in time to repulse the assault. Thereafter, every year on the anniversary of that day, the Romans crucified nine dogs and honored the geese in sacred ceremonies. Gauls became the bogeymen Roman mothers used to frighten their unruly children. Rome never forgot, nor did she forgive that blight upon her honor, though the Romans did expunge it. After the conquest of the continental Celts, when all the last of the free Celtic tribes were firmly under Roman rule, any Roman could look back and say, "True, the Gauls once captured Rome. And look at them now. Cardixa dear, would you bring our guest some more of that lovely wine from your native Gaul, please?"


Roman tactics, Roman unity, Roman discipline, the Roman diet, and above all Roman logistics proved to be an unbeatable combination for the strong and fearless Gallic warriors. Those factors continued to provide Rome with military dominance against another meat-and-milk eating barbarian people known as the Germans, until those peoples began uniting and learning the Roman art of war. Only then did a barbarian people begin to gain ascendancy over the power of that single city.