Vercingetorix’s Army II

Gallic gods were worshipped in religious sanctuaries often cut off from the outside world by large walls and ditches filled with ritual offerings. At Beauvais and Amiens, enclosures have been found with 30–50m-long sides surrounded by palisades, ditches and banks. A wooden temple in the centre of the enclosure was decorated with paintings, sculptures and weapons. Caesar and Livy both suggest that temples were used to display human and animal trophies of war until they decomposed and then were ritually destroyed in enclosure ditches. Animal bone and human sacrifice have also been discovered in these enclosure ditches. One of the largest was at Ribemont-sur-Ancre in the Somme, where remnants of over a thousand individuals aged between fifteen and twenty years old were found. They were probably sacrificed, possibly to war gods, and their bones were stacked criss-cross in a pile.

‘They [the druids] wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valour, the fear of death being disregarded.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 14]

This treatment was not confined to sacrificial victims. Warriors also were given sacrificial treatment. Community ossuaries are known, where dismembered bodies were laid on the ground and skulls detached and treated ritually. These practices may be connected with cult practices and much of the skeletons show evidence of wounds that do not suggest a natural death. One ancient author, Nicander of Colophon, noted that the Celts practised a form of divination at tombs of dead warriors. In the south of France, a whole range of stone sculptures from sanctuaries reveals that the development of a hero cult was widespread in the centuries before the Roman invasion. Entremont, Roquepertuse and Glanum, all in Provence, are some of the best known Celtic sanctuaries in the world, due mainly to the cult of the head found at these places. Headhunting seems to have occupied a curious place in Gallic religion, and commonly occurs in art as carved stone severed heads with half closed eyes. There are historic accounts of how Gauls collected human heads and hung them from their horse’s necks or nailed them up as trophies. An explanation has yet to be found for the practice, although the cult must be linked with the concept of the spirit residing in the head and may even be linked to the ritual wearing of a torc necklace.

‘Their hair was of gold, their clothing was of gold and light stripes brightened their cloaks. Their milk-white necks had gold collars around them, a pair of Alpine spears glinted in each warrior’s hands, and their bodies were protected by tall shields.’

[Virgil, Aeneid, VIII. 659–62]

Certain warriors would wear chunky neck rings called torcs, usually made of gold or bronze and very rarely of silver, and these would reflect the noble status of the individual. Torcs represented the epitome of the Celtic craftsman’s skill and are well represented in Gallic and Classical art. After the Gallic Wars, many torcs were taken from the defeated warriors. In the Roman military torcs came to be used as a symbol of rank and achievement, finally being incorporated into the military decorations of the Roman army. Clearly the torc was a significant part of the Gallic warrior’s dress. So important, in fact, that some Gallic warriors wore only the torc. For religious reasons these warriors, called gaesatae, went to war naked. However, it is unlikely gaesatae were present at Alesia because Caesar would have mentioned them given their specific religious connections and unusual appearance.

‘For they [the Gauls] were most excellent fighters on horseback, and were thought to be specially superior as such …’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, 6]

In ancient sources the Gauls were famed for their excellence as cavalry and the quality of their horses. It is likely that they carried small shields, in either geometric shapes or simply round. Although the cavalry wore no clothing specific to their rank, we can assume that their higher status meant that their equipment was of better quality. Excavation at Alesia has revealed the advanced nature of Gallic horsemanship. Two types of horse bit were found, one a simple snaffle-bit of a common form used across Europe at the time. The other, a complex curb bit, is a form invented by the Celts only a hundred years before the Battle of Alesia and would have given the rider complete command of the horse with one hand. The Gauls were also credited with inventing spurs, although of the six spurs originally discovered at Alesia only two remain, one of iron and one of bronze. The Gauls were also notable for having developed an ingenious form of saddle, one reason for their renowned cavalry skills. Unfortunately no saddle remains have been discovered at Alesia, but contemporary examples show they had four pommels that held the rider on the horse without the need for stirrups.

‘The Gauls are tall, with moist white flesh; their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also make artificial efforts to lighten its colour by washing it frequently in lime water. They pull it back from the top of the head to the nape of the neck … thanks to this treatment their hair thickens until it is just like a horse’s mane. Some shave their beards, others let them grow moderately; nobles keep their cheeks clean shaven but let their moustaches grow long until they cover their mouths … they wear amazing clothes: tunics dyed in every colour and trousers that they call bracae [breeches]. Their pinstriped clothes in winter and light material in summer, decorated with small, densely packed, multicoloured squares.’

[Diodorus Siculus, World History, V. 28. 30]

This description from a Roman source gives a general likeness of the Gallic men. Some of these characteristic features are mentioned by other authors and so are likely to be applicable to Vercingetorix’s army as a whole. Long hair seems to feature strongly, often as a wild swept-back mane or lime washed and drawn into a horse-like mane. Likewise, with this long hair comes a long curving moustache, often covering the mouth and sometimes with a small beard. In the main, the Gallic warrior’s dress was similar to peoples across northern Europe at the time, consisting of tight breeches with a long shirt with sleeves, and slits on the sides to help movement. Light cloaks were also worn, sometimes fastened by bronze brooches with elaborate decoration and coral or enamel inlay. Clothing was usually manufactured from woven wool and when different dyed wools were used this would produce attractive multicoloured plaid or striped patterns. This could be enhanced with embroidery and belts with gold and silver ornamentation. In wartime the wealthier members of Gallic society would have worn coats of mail. Unfortunately, not even the smallest scrap of mail has been recovered from Alesia, although a number of mail coat fasteners have been recovered, confirming they were in use, no doubt this was because of their high value.

‘Meanwhile the King of the Gauls espied him, and judging from his insignia that he was the commander, rode far out in front of the rest and confronted him, shouting challenges and brandishing his spear. His stature exceeded that of the other Gauls, and he was conspicuous for a suit of armour which was set off with gold and silver and bright colours and all sorts of embroideries; it gleamed like lightning.’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives 7]

Weapons found at Alesia provide us with excellent examples of late La Tène (first century BC) metalwork. Unfortunately, the location of the weapons recovered from Alesia were not recorded to modern standards, being simple lists attributed to ditches without any complex stratigraphic analysis. However, on the basis of coin dates, from more recent excavation it has been shown that these ditches are contemporary with the Battle of Alesia. Regrettably, only the ironwork from the Gallic warrior’s assemblage of equipment survives, as the wood and leather has long since decomposed in the moist soils. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the weapons provide a useful cross-section of the iron weapons used at Alesia.

‘These are the creatures who assail you with such terrible shouts in battle, and clash their arms and shake their long swords and toss their hair.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

The ideal Gallic warriors were, above all, swordsmen. Their swords were long, often close to a metre in length, and were not used for thrusting but for a slashing style of fighting. The ferocity of these assaults meant that Roman legionaries had to be trained to overcome the fear that these wild charges created. By the late La Tène period swords were becoming shorter than they had been in the past, but swords as long as 0.75m were common. These longer blades have been attributed to the cavalry, but this is not necessarily the case as earlier Gallic swords had much longer blades. The Gallic peoples liked elaborate metalwork, and so swords and scabbards have been found with ornate patterned and inlaid designs. At Alesia, twenty-one swords have been found, in some cases still in their original sheaths. In general, these swords are typical of other European examples from the late La Tène period. The swords have blades with either rounded or pointed tips, with the wider examples having acid-etched decorations on them. Examples of sheaths show they originally had oval U-shaped fittings on one side, for attachment via straps to the belt. There they would be worn on the right hip. These belts could be made of linked iron rings or loops, but more commonly would be simple leather straps. Sword handles were wooden and so now are lost, but their bent W-shaped guards still occur, usually made of iron, but sometimes made of bronze. The parts of twenty-one swords found at Alesia present a broad spectrum of sword evolution, indicating they were in use over a long period of time, perhaps representing their prior use as heirlooms or the desperate use of any weapon available, even if it was old and damaged. Remarkably, two more unusual types of sword were uncovered deliberately intertwined with a sword sheath and buried in a ditch. This behaviour hints at possible ritualistic practices that were carried out after the battle, the ditches of the circumvallation perhaps being seen in Gallic eyes as enclosure ditches around the sanctuary of Alesia, a place where so many Gauls had sacrificed themselves.

‘[The Gauls] … wear bronze helmets with large projecting figures which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached so as to form one piece, in others foreparts of birds or quadrupeds worked in relief.’

[Diodorus Siculus, History, 30.2]

Gallic helmets came in a variety of forms, from simple bronze bowls to elaborately decorated tall bronze helmets with coloured inlays on them. The more simple helmets were plain bronze bowls with short protruding neck guards, called ‘Montefortino’ or ‘Coolus’ types, after the place of their original identification. More elaborate versions had decorative edges and domes and cheek pieces decorated with multiple circular bosses. Sometimes the wealthiest individuals would have taller pointed domes to their helmets, enhanced with pink coral or red enamel inlays, ornately decorated horns, statuettes or horsehair plumes. None of these more elaborate helmets were discovered at Alesia, presumably because such expensive items would only be attainable by a few commanders and as such would be too valuable for Roman soldiers to leave behind. A further type of helmet was developed in the late La Tène period, which was made of iron. This ‘Agen-Port’ form of helmet became the forerunner to the imperial Gallic helmet that was popular in the Roman army for the next 200 years. Agen-Port helmets had corrugated reinforcements and wide strengthening brims. The Gallic helmets found at Alesia are of a very similar form that was widespread in Gaul. Indeed, their importance is such that they were named the ‘Alesia’ type. The inner domes of the helmets were discovered to have the remains of organic materials still adhering to their sides, indicating that leather or wool was used to pad them out. Twenty cheek pieces, some highly elaborate, suggest that some of the helmets were richly decorated and probably belonged to noble warriors. Only tribal chiefs and cavalrymen are likely to have worn these helmets.

‘[The Cimbri] … wore helmets, made to resemble the heads and jaws of wild beasts, and other strange shapes, and heightening these with plumes of feathers, they made themselves appear taller than they were. They had breastplates of iron, and white glittering shields; and for their offensive arms, every one had two darts, and when they came hand to hand, they used large and heavy swords.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 25]

Sculptural and archaeological evidence points to the Gauls using long wooden shields about one-half to three-quarters the length of the body. These could be oval, round or geometric in shape, with iron bosses covering the handgrip, and, more rarely, iron edging strips. Parts of shields that have been discovered suggest they were made of a tough wood like oak, about 1.2m long and 1.2cm thick at the centre, with the addition of a thick wooden spine. Roman shields of this type date to about 300 years before the first Gallic examples, so it is likely that the Gauls adopted the shield form after their invasion of Italy in the fifth century BC. It is thought that in rare cases the fronts of Gallic shields were decorated in elaborately decorated bronze sheet with inlays. Although nothing like this has been found at Alesia, this is no surprise, as richly decorated shields would have been removed as booty. Most Gallic shields of the period had either round or ‘butterfly’ bosses, made from a single piece of beaten iron. Seventeen dome-shaped shield bosses were discovered at Alesia, all conforming to these descriptions. Although the wood does not survive, the iron shield bosses, nails, edging strips and ornamentation have been discovered. The bosses are typically Gallic, occurring in a wide circular form with large attachment nails and a butterfly form with small nails. We have no evidence of the colours that shields were painted, but sculptures hint they were very ornate, which seem to match the Gallic love of intricate design as manifest in their beautiful metalwork.

‘The spears of the Gauls were not like javelins, but what the Romans called pila, four-sided, part wood and part iron, and not hard except at the pointed end.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Although the Gallic warrior is described by the ancient sources as predominantly a swordsman, for the poorer Gallic warrior the most fundamental part of his equipment was his spear. A warrior would be able to obtain a spear before a shield, sword or helmet. Spears tend to be split between the heavier forms and lighter throwing spears or javelins. The larger spears can range up to 2.5m long, the heads being almost 0.5m alone. Smaller spears are assumed to be throwing javelins. Almost 400 fragments of weapons have been found at Alesia, 140 of them being javelins and 180 being spears. The huge number of missile weapons discovered suggests that this form was the predominant weapon used at Alesia. Often the ends are bent and the edges are damaged by cut marks. Similarities in the manufacture of these weapons mean they could be Gallic, but they could also be Roman or German in origin. This is particularly the case with the leaf-shaped blades that are 15cm to 30cm in length. The larger acid-etched and wavy bladed spears are probably Gallic, although some of these may also be German in origin. The identifiably Gallic spears are of the long thrusting type, with a heavy median vein for strength. The concave section of the blades at the tip, along with many traces of cut marks, indicate that these weapons were used for thrusting as well as cutting. The majority of these larger blades have some form of acid etching, either circles, triangles, zigzags or lattice designs. With these decorated spearheads, comes a series of wavy edged spears, which would inflict particularly grievous wounds. Some spears also have cross guards towards their sockets. These guards led excavators working for Napoleon III to think of them as small stabbing swords. It is likely, however, that the cross guard was part of the offensive use of the spear, enabling a shield to be pulled down before the spear was thrust into its victim. As such, these are very similar to medieval spears of similar form. Pila have also been found at Alesia, and although usually attributed to Romans, some authors have suggested that they could also be of Gallic origin, as a few examples have been discovered in Gallic oppida. This is not too far-fetched, as it is known that the Germans at the time used a similar type of weapon, and so the Gauls may also have been employing related forms. The truth is that in a time of need, all forms of weaponry, whether indigenous or foreign, were put to use.

The Gauls were not famed for their archery but Caesar mentions Vercingetorix found archers for his army. Presumably these archers were made up from the lower classes of Gallic society, although their presence in the battle played a more significant role than this rank would suggest. More than forty examples of arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia, with either one or two barbs, and many can be paralleled by examples coming from other Gallic oppida. It is clear that the Gallic army also contained bands of slingers, but as yet evidence of their presence at Alesia is yet to come to light. This may be because their shot was usually simple rounded stones and so their presence elsewhere has usually only been confirmed by the occurrence of large piles of such material.

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