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Thread: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

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    Alwyn's Avatar Frothy Goodness
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    Default Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    This question is partly inspired by watching the TV documentary The Celts: Blood, Iron and Sacrifice in which Alice Roberts and Neil Oliver show how the Celtic leader Brennus sacked Rome in 387 BC, followed by the defeat of the Celtic leader Vercingetorix by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Alesia and the last stand (as they see it) of the Celts in the rebellion of Boudica.

    Roberts and Oliver say (in the second episode of their series) that, when Caesar invaded Gaul, the tribes there were initially divided among themselves. At least one tribe had traded with the Romans for almost a century, so some tribes were relatively friendly to the Romans while others resisted.

    As Caesar's campaign proceeded, the Gauls united behind a young, skilled general, Vercingetorix. He initially used guerrilla tactics with some success before being trapped in a hill-fort at Alesia, leading to his defeat by Caesar at the Battle of Alesia. Roman engineering - the construction of a two walls, one facing inwards towards the hill-fort and the other facing outwards for defence against the Celtic relief army - seems to have tilted the battle in favour of the Romans. Perhaps the better logistics, organisation, training and engineering of the Roman Army would have defeated a united Celtic army in any event. In another historical discussion thread, discussing how the Gauls were effective against the Greeks, JaM said:-

    Quote Originally Posted by JaM View Post
    Technically, id say Celts were practically fighting like slightly less organized Romans, which also explains why Romans were so effective in the end against Greeks.. We only know about Celts due to Roman historians who had no intentions to be completely unbiased.. yet certain Roman vs Celts battles give clear info they were not some rag tag band of undisciplined barbarians... they were able to form proper formations, fight in support of each other and even capable to handle attack from behind and doubling the battle line - something that was quite challenging even for Romans, and something Caesar was able to pull off once only with very experienced legions... Yet of course, not all Celtic armies were that effective, quality varied a lot.. yet, Romans were much better accustomed to Celtic fighting tactics than Greeks were..
    This suggests that the Celts were not as disorganised and undisciplined as we might have thought. Perhaps Vercingetorix made a strategic error in allowing himself to be trapped in the hill fort at Alesia. If he had continued to use guerrilla tactics, could he have worn out the will of Caesar to hold Gaul - or was the domination of Celtic lands by Rome inevitable? At the Battle of Bibracte, for example, six Roman legions fought an (apparently) much larger force of Celts - despite being outnumbered, the Romans inflicted a devastating defeat on the Helvetii, even though the Boii and the Tuligni marched to help the Helvetii. Such victories seem to suggest that Celtic tribes did not stand a chance against the Romans.

    But perhaps the Celts could have used different tactics - or, if the Celts had fought the Romans earlier, maybe that would have made a difference? Was there a point in the development of the Roman Army (such as the Marian reforms of 107 BC) after which Celtic armies would have little chance against Roman ones - except for unusually favorable conditions such as the ambush at Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD (the battle which famously caused the Emperor Augustus to cry 'Varus, give me back my legions')?

    For anyone who has interested, I hope to explore this question in an Iceni AAR, Andraste's Children. Perhaps, if the Iceni can unite the tribes of Britain and then some other Celtic tribes under one banner, they can resist Rome. If anyone has ideas on whether, historically, the Celts could have resisted Rome, then - if I use them in the AAR, I will credit you.
    Last edited by Alwyn; January 17, 2016 at 06:46 AM.

  2. #2

    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    Just my two cents; I think so. The Celts could give Rome a run for their money most days; post-Marian, it gets more difficult, but still doable in my mind if they did unify. However, unification early and effectively would be necessary. The big thing that would give them their chance is the manpower. While they weren't Legionaries, they could have beaten Rome if they fielded a large enough army. Plus, while it doesn't help for the AAR (probably), their best chance would be a unified strategy to deliver one knock-out blow on Caesar early; if they had done it, I don't see Rome messing with them for a while. Caesar and the fall of the Republic also doesn't happen, so who knows what happens in the grand scheme of things.

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    Alwyn's Avatar Frothy Goodness
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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    Thanks, Monty_Python55! Yes, unified Celtic tribes could have fielded large armies - and yet, when historically they did field large armies, the Roman Army tended to defeat them. I agree that a knock-out blow early could have made a decisive difference. As you've said, this would be very difficult for my AAR, as I'm playing the Iceni who begin a very long way from Rome.

    Perhaps it depends on the tactics - if the Celts are able to move freely and use 'hit and run' tactics, they can be effective. I believe that the Romans were good at taking advantage of terrain. For example at the Battle of Watling Street, the Roman governor of Britannia, Suetonius, defeated a much larger Celtic army by choosing to fight in a narrow gorge. The gorge protected the flanks of the XIVth and XXth legions, preventing them from being overwhelmed by the larger army of Boudica. The gorge also enabled the Roman soldiers to throw their javelins into attackers who would have been forced into a tightly-packed mass of bodies. If the gorge and the size of Boudica's army forced a lot of people into a small space, perhaps that gave an advantage to the Roman soldiers. If people were packed closely together, then wouldn't the Roman soldiers, with their shortswords and armour, have had an advantage over the Celtic warriors who would (I imagine) have needed more space to use their longswords and spears? Also, I guess that the Celtic soldiers would have relied more on agility, dodging attacks, but you cannot dodge a sword if people are packed tightly all around you.

    This suggests that the Celts would have needed careful strategic thinking, to pick open battle-fields rather than the narrow gorge of the Battle of Watling Street, or the desperate attacks against prepared Roman defence at the Battle of Alesia.
    Last edited by Alwyn; January 17, 2016 at 06:46 AM.

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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    Skirmishes and avoiding real battles doesn't work for a king who lacks legitimicy. He needed real victories to keep the coalition alive and beeing in Alesia were such a battle would happend was a good choice to force his reather unreliable allies to join the battle. Otherwise they would have lost face. It's the same reason why Arminius did deliver Germanicus a series of battles which only resulted in draws and heavy losses on both sides. Avoiding those battles would have been wiser but than he would have been killed or meaningless as a king much earlier.

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    johan_d's Avatar Civis
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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    The main difference is between farmers called to arms, and a proffesional army.
    Thats why they were so successfull.
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    Alwyn's Avatar Frothy Goodness
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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    Thanks, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and johan_d! Based on what you said, the problem was partly political - that Vercingetorix needed to fight battles to hold a coalition together and partly professional - that farmers cannot defeat professional soldiers. That makes sense. So, to resist Rome, the Celts would have needed a leader with legitimacy, who would be free to use whichever tactics worked best, and trained soldiers.

    I wonder if the choice of terrain was also a factor. Perhaps this was linked to the point about legitimacy. A king with sufficient support could more easily wait until a Roman army reached a good location before attacking. The Romans seemed to have been made a wise choice of location for the Battle of Watling Street, while the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest shows that wise use of terrain can be devastating. As johan_d said, we would expect professional soldiers to win battles against farmers called to arms, so it seems remarkable that a Celtic army could defeat legions of Roman soldiers in the first century AD - more than a century after the reforms of Gaius Marius (so these were well-trained, disciplined soldiers).

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    caratacus's Avatar Primicerius
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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    Roman soldiers were undoubtedly better trained and equipped than the majority of their Celtic opponents and in a battle the odds were firmly stacked in favour of the Romans. However, I don't the consider the military dominance over the Celts, especially in Gaul, is attributed entirely to them having a professional army against predominantly a farming class of people. History shows right up to the present that a professional highly trained and well equipped army, can be humbled by a much weaker opposition, Vietnam being a prime example.

    Even the fact that Rome could field an army of many thousands of such soldiers, against a less well organised and often geographically dispersed opposition, doesn't automatically assure success. Many thousands of men need a great amount of supplies. And wars have been lost, where battles have been won but armies became denuded and weakened by reduced provisions, through a too extensive supply line subject to constant sustained attacks. Conquering territory doesn't in itself win wars, but the act of securing it. Romans were not only good soldiers, they were good engineers and planners. And the laying out of extensive road networks across conquered territory contributed greatly to holding it.

    If the Celts had mobilised themselves to fight guerrilla type warfare, there is the possibility that Rome's grip would have been weakened substantially on their lands. I would hazard to guess that Celtic tribes probably utilised raiding often against themselves, to steal livestock and in border disputes. And that such a nature of conflict was probably a lot more common, than all out war between neighbouring tribes. However such engagements probably were limited to the noble classes who had the weapons and horses to undertake such fighting. And they no doubt these warriors boasted of their exploits in tales and songs sat beside fires in the long winter months. For Celts were warriors in which fighting and honour were considered to equate to high status. Fighting and warfare were also bound up with their religion. And to kill an enemy was not sufficient to defeat them, unless you had also severed their heads to defeat their souls also.

    Successful guerrilla warfare however is underhand and dirty, it isn't honourable. And warriors that would fight as individuals on the front line to demonstrate their bravery, probably could not adjust to fighting constant hit and runs, in which a retreat is as important as an attack. Lets not forget also that the Romans were totally brutal and opposition was usually met with slaughter and/or slavery of whole populations whether they were combatants or not. Attacks upon Roman occupation would have been met with a brutal response on the general population, whether or not they were directly implicated.

    Rome therefore was not merely conquering a people by military force, they were also defeating their heroic spirit, which was deeply rooted in Celtic society. Those that accepted Roman rule were transformed whether or not they adapted Roman ways and those that did not faced total annihilation
    Last edited by caratacus; April 11, 2016 at 06:16 PM.

  8. #8

    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    At Alesia the gauls had a bigger army than the Romans and even more reinforcements. But the Romans kicked back the reinforcements first and only then they attacked the trapped gauls .
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    legate's Avatar Campidoctor
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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    How accurate are Celtic peasant levy's in this time period?

    I have read a few sources that state in the later antiquity/early medieval period that they are a myth. Only the upper classes engaged in warfare.


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    Alwyn's Avatar Frothy Goodness
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    Default Re: Could unified Celts have resisted the expansion of Rome?

    I think you make good points, caratacus, mad orc and legate. Roman infrastructure was important, as well as Roman training and equipment. Roman commerce and culture seem to have been important too. Leaders of pro-Roman Celtic tribes could have become used to a lifestyle which depended on Roman goods. Celts had some success with guerrilla warfare but their culture of heroic fighting would have made it difficult not to return to the battlefield, as Vercingetorix did at Alesia.

    As mad orc mentioned, the Romans benefited from some clever commanders. legate, I don't know how accurate the peasant levy units are. I believe that there are Roman reports of very large Celtic armies at some battles, such as Alesia and Watling Street. Did such large numbers mean that the Celts gathered upper class warriors from a very wide area? Or do they show that, for major campaigns, the nobles brought peasant levies with them? (Of course, Roman writers could have inflated the numbers of Celts on the battlefield, to make their generals and armies look even more impressive.)

    Some Celts - those in modern Germany and Scotland - did successfully resist Roman occupation, despite occasional incursions from Roman armies. I wonder what enabled them to succeed while other Celtic tribes were occupied? Was it the distance from Rome's core territory (stretching supply lines and making it potentially dangerous to keep a large army on a distant northern frontier, leaving Rome's heartland vulnerable)? Was it the terrain? Did the Celts in Germany and Scotland do something differently, perhaps learning from the defeat of others? Was it something else?
    Last edited by Alwyn; February 04, 2017 at 03:26 AM.

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