Battle of Morbihan
Since the destruction of the enemy fleet was the only permanent way to end this problem, Caesar directed his men to build ships. However, his galleys were at a serious disadvantage compared to the far thicker Veneti ships. The thickness of their ships meant they were resistant to ramming, whilst their greater height meant they could shower the Roman ships with projectiles, and even command the wooden turrets which Caesar had added to his bulwarks. The Veneti manoeuvred so skilfully under sail that boarding was impossible. These factors, coupled with their intimate knowledge of the coast and tides, put the Romans at a disadvantage. However, these advantages would not stand in the face of Roman perseverance and ingenuity. Caesar’s legate Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus was given command of the Roman fleet, and in a decisive battle, succeeded in destroying the Gaulish fleet in Quiberon Bay, with Caesar watching from the shore. Using long billhooks, the Romans struck at the enemy’s halyards as they swept past (these must have been fastened out-board), having the effect of dropping the huge leathern mainsails to the deck, which hopelessly crippled the vessel whether for sailing or rowing. The Romans were at last able to board, and the whole Veneti fleet fell into their hands.
CAESAR’S SHIPS IN ARMORICA, 56 BC The scene shows two of Caesar’s ships in action against two Venetian ships in the Morbihan. The Venetians possessed square sailboats, 30-40m long and 10-12m wide, without oars. They were very high on the water, so the crews were protected against the Roman missiles. During the naval battle which took place at Lorient, with the fleet of Caesar fighting against 220 Venetian ships, the Romans managed to recover their initial disadvantage by cutting the halyards of their opponents with sharp hooks inserted in, and nailed to, long poles (dorydrepania); the leather sails fell, thus immobilizing the Veneti and allowing the Romans to board. The main ship is a Roman liburna, copied from the Aquileia Doric Frieze commemorating the Legion of Caesar participating in the campaign. The ship half-visible on the left is copied from the ‘Five’ of the Ostia relief, and shows her rowing system.
All of Gaul was not in fact fully conquered and pacified: far from it. The peoples of Gaul had been overawed by the Romans’ intrusion and victories, and were temporarily cowed, but their desire for independence and fighting spirit were far from broken. During the winter of 57–56, Caesar had his officer Sulpicius Galba fight a campaign, with one legion, to secure the Alpine passes.
In early spring of 56, the Atlantic seaboard tribes, most notably the wealthiest and most powerful of them – the Veneti of Brittany – who had surrendered to P. Crassus without a fight, were moved to assert their freedom. They were motivated specifically by some measures Crassus took to secure supplies, and seized various Roman supply officers to hold as hostages against the safe return of the hostages they had themselves handed over to Caesar the previous autumn. Caesar was still in northern Italy when he was apprised of these events, and sent back instructions to his senior officers to keep his legions in their winter camps until he arrived, but meanwhile to begin building ships on the Loire with which to engage the naval forces of the Veneti, for this maritime tribe could not be defeated by land alone. The settlements of the Veneti were sited for the most part on promontories and peninsulas, difficult of access by land, and some at times cut off by the tides. The Veneti dominated the trade between Gaul and Britain, and had a large fleet of warships on which they relied to defy the Romans.
When Caesar arrived in Gaul in early spring, he divided his forces. He sent Labienus with a cavalry force into the land of the Treveri, to guard against Germans attempting to cross the Rhine. Crassus with a little over one legion and a strong contingent of cavalry was sent into Aquitania, to subjugate that part of Gaul. Sabinus with three legions was ordered to march against the tribes of northern Brittany and Normandy, to prevent them helping the Veneti. His aim was to prevent the ‘rebellion’ of the Veneti from spreading. Caesar himself with a little under four legions marched into the Venetic lands in southern Brittany, ordering young Decimus Brutus to take command of the warships he had ordered built, and to bring them to the coast of Venetia as soon as the fleet was ready.
Initially, Caesar campaigned by attacking the coastal strongholds of the Veneti one by one, using Roman siegecraft and the almost limitless work ethic of his legionaries to create a situation in which his men could get onto the walls and capture each stronghold. However, as each stronghold threatened to fall to the Romans, the Veneti would bring up their ships and evacuate the population and their possessions, rendering the Romans’ capture of the place pointless. Caesar soon realized that only with his fleet could he make decisive headway, and that he would have to suspend operations until the fleet was ready. The ships the Romans had built were essentially Mediterranean war galleys, the kind of ships they were familiar with. As well adapted as they were to Mediterranean conditions, however, these ships were not well suited to the huge waves and extreme tides of the Atlantic, and were held up for long by the weather. Finally, however, the weather became calm enough to allow them to sail to the south Brittany coast and confront the Veneti. It was an exceptionally ill-matched battle. The ships of the Veneti and their allies, some 220 strong, were of a very different sort from the Roman vessels: high decked, to withstand Atlantic waves, shallow bottomed, so as not to be stranded by low tides, and powered by sails rather than oars, as once again the Atlantic waves are not suited to rowing.
The Roman war galleys relied on ramming and boarding tactics, but their rams were ineffective against the strongly built and shallow-bottomed Venetic ships, while those ships’ high decks and manoeuvrability under sail prevented easy boarding. At first the Romans were at a loss to know how to proceed. However, they devised an ingenious device for cutting the rigging of the Gallic vessels: hooks mounted on the end of long poles, which could be used to snag the rigging on Venetic ships. Since the weather was calm, the Roman galleys could row up to a ship, snag its rigging with hooks, and then row away hard, pulling down the rigging and attached yards and sails. In this way, Venetic vessels were immobilized, and the Romans could then row alongside and, by the Roman marines’ superior fighting discipline, force their way aboard and capture the vessel. When a number of the Venetic ships had been captured in this way, the rest sought to sail away to the safety of harbour, but – providentially for the Romans – the wind died down, leaving the ships of the Veneti becalmed and easy pickings for the Roman galleys. Only a few Gallic ships escaped towards evening, when a breeze finally arose to give them some motive power.
This stunning naval victory ended the resistance of the Veneti. They surrendered, and Caesar decided to make an example of them, to discourage other ‘rebellions’. The councillors who had decided to fight the Romans were executed, and the general population were sold into slavery. Meanwhile, Sabinus had cleverly broken the resistance of the tribes of Normandy, and Crassus’s campaign in Aquitania had brought about the subjugation of that region.