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Overview on the Gallic Wars

Gallic Wars - Helvetii

Date: 58  B.C.E.


Overview: A Celtic tribe living in modern day Switzerland, the Helvetii, were under pressure from various Teutonic tribes in the area. Under their chieftain Orgetorix, they had been planning a move from the Alps region to the west of modern France, or Aquitania. In order to make such a move, however, the Helvetians would have to march not only through Roman controlled territory, but also through that of the Roman allied Aedui tribe. 

Other Gallic Celts and people within the Narbonensis province of Gallia feared that the Helvetii would plunder everything in their path as they went, instead of just traveling through as they proposed. Without question, Caesar opposed the idea and hastily recruited two more fresh legions in preparation. 

However, before the Helvetii marched, Orgetorix died. The planning for the move continued, nevertheless. Several other local tribes joined the Helvetii in lesser numbers making the entire force among the largest and most powerful in all of Gaul. In total, according to Caesar, nearly 370,000 tribesmen were gathered, of which about 260,000 were women, children and other non-combatants. 

Before leaving, the Helvetii burned their villages and destroyed whatever foodstuffs and other commodities could not be taken along. The intention was to make certain that they continued to their destination against all odds. After setting off despite Caesars objections, the two forces inevitably met. 

After several skirmishes, Caesar occupied the high ground with his six legions, and lured the enemy into a poorly matched battle. Somewhere near the Aedui capital of Bibracte, Caesar crushed the Helvetii, slaughtering the enemy wholesale with little regard for combat status. 

According to Caesar himself, of the 370,000 enemy present, only 130,000 survived the battle. In the next few days following the battle, the fleeing Helvetii were pursued, and it seems that at least another 20,000 were killed. While the numbers may very well have been exaggerated, there is no doubt of the slaughter. In all, nearly 260,000 people, including a great many women and children, were reportedly killed.

While today this may seem an atrocity, to the Roman people these Helvetii, seemingly mistaken for Teutons [or intentionally named so for political reasons! ed.], were considered the barbaric enemy deserving of no better fate. Caesar's great victory left him with other problems, however. First he forced the Helvetii back to their home land to prevent more Teutonic incursions into what had become open land. Next he allowed the somewhat friendly or at least pacified Boii tribe to settle into a buffer zone with the Aedui and the Helvetii.

However, Caesar's conquest had left these Southern Gallic tribes in a weakened state, and thus open to Teutonic incursions. A federation of tribal leaders came to Caesar to request assistance against their old nemesis Ariovistus and his Suebi tribesmen. Failing to note that his own tactics had backfired, Caesar described the despair of one particular tribe, the Sequani, who faced the raids and occupation of Ariovistus.

Seeing the obvious potential for further glory, under the pretense of responding to calls for help, he then 'took the opportunity' to protect his Gallic 'friends'.

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