The fall of the Swiss at the hands of Caesar

      Home » World History » The fall of the Swiss at the hands of Caesar
More History Articles

The fall of the Swiss at the hands of Caesar

This is an amazing story. In 58BC the Swiss (Helvetti) tribes, all 368,000 people decided it would be nicer to live in what is now called France. So they all upped sticks and moved enmass, one huge convoy of tribes.

Naturally the French were not impressed by this and asked Caesar to come and deal to them. Caesar had skirmished with the Helvetti and was withdrawing to find a better place to battle. Here is where the story picks up .....

The legions had turned away from the Helvetii column and were marching toward Bibracte when Colonel Lucius Aemilius, commander of Caesar's Gallic cavalry, came galloping to his commander in chief from the rear.

"The Helvetii are following us, Caesar," Aemilius reported. "Their cavalry is harrying my rear guard, and the entire column is moving down the road to Bibracte behind us."

Caesar rode to the rear of the legion column and saw for himself the dust to the east raised by the feet and hooves and wagons and carts of the Helvetii trailing him in their tens of thousands. Now he ordered Colonel Aemilius to take all the cavalry and head off the Helvetii to give him enough time to prepare the legions for battle. As his four thousand mounted troops from southern and central France thundered away with Aemilius, Caesar chose a grassy hill close by as the place where he would form his battle lines, and in a hasty conference on horseback agreed unit dispositions with his generals. Soon the trumpets were sounding, standards were inclining to one side, and the legions were wheeling off the road and toward the hill.

The 10th and the three other Spanish legions, the 7th, 8th, and 9th, were formed up in three lines halfway up the hill. The two new legions, the 1lth and 12th, took up their position on the top of the hill along with the auxiliaries-Caesar didn't have a great deal of faith in either the new legions or the auxiliaries.

Veterans of the older legions occupied the third line, and they quickly dug entrenchments around the wagons of the baggage train, and the backpacks of all the legionaries of the army were brought and piled in the same enclosure. All this time, as lines were formed and trenches dug, the legionaries could see the Helvetii slowly flood across the plain toward them.

Standing with his men of the 10th Legion in the first line was Centurion Gaius Crastinus. His rank evidenced by the transverse crest of eagle feathers on his helmet, the metal greaves on his shins, and the fact that he wore his sword on his left hip rather than on the right like enlisted men, Centurion Crastinus had joined the 8th or 9th Legion in 65 B.C. when Pompey the Great raised the new legions in Spain.

He had transferred over to the 10th when it was formed four years later as a junior grade centurion, being personally chosen by Caesar. Now, not more than twenty-seven, he would have commanded a cohort of six hundred men. Later events would suggest that Crastinus was a good centurion.

He was a fearless fighter, but it took more than that to command the respect and attention of his men. He showed an interest in their welfare, on and off the battlefield. And he never tired of encouraging them. A few weeks back, the legion had turned back a mass of Helvetii tribesmen when they'd tried to make another river crossing, this time at the Saone, and if Crastinus remained true to form he would have dived from maniple to maniple of his cohort, exhorting his men.

Crastinus, standing on the extreme left of his cohort's front line, probably pondered the same question that would have been exercising the minds of his men as they watched the Helvetii roll up to their elevated position.

Later, documents would be found in the Helvetii baggage, written in Greek, that turned out to be a register of the names of 368,000 men, women, and children who were taking part in the migration from Switzerland. And the vast majority of them were here, now.

Mounted Helvetii had dispersed Colonel Aemilius and his cavalry and were chasing them all over the plain as the main Helvetian body came up to the hill with all their wheeled transport.

Their women, children, and elderly parked the vast train in a mass below the hill as their men-at-arms joined their traditional clans and formed into solid phalanxes of spearmen many men deep, each wearing a Gallic-style helmet with a plume like a horse's tail, a small breastplate, and carrying a spear up to twelve feet long. The Helvetii were Celts, larger men than the Romans, brave, and well versed in the arts of war. They had defeated Roman armies in the past and were confident of doing it again.

As Centurion Crastinus looked down the slope, he would have seen Caesar dismount and have his horse led away. At the commander in chief's instruction, all the other officers did the same. Crastinus was to become devoted to Julius Caesar, and it's probable that ever since he'd served under Caesar in Spain he'd been of the firm opinion that the general was a great man, a man destined for great things. And Crastinus would have recognized that in sending the horses away Caesar was cleverly sending a message to his troops that they all, officers and enlisted men alike, now stood in equal danger.

As Crastinus took a quick glance to his right, he would have seen the faces of his men as they stood stock-still in their rows with their expressions set, their eyes to the front, some betraying their tension with pale, bloodless faces. The breeze rustled the yellow horsehair crests on their helmets, the sun glinted on the bravery decorations they'd put on for the battle on Caesar's orders to awe the Celts.

On their left arm, each legionary held his shield. Polybius tells us the legionary's rectangular, curved shield was as thick as a man's palm, curved, but with straight sides, four feet high and two and a half feet wide, made from two layers of wood covered with canvas and calfskin, the metal boss in the center fixed to the handle on the reverse. In these ranks, the shields were painted with the bull emblem of the 10th Legion.

In his right hand each man held two javelins, straight up and down for now. On his right hip hung his sword. When the javelins had all been released, Crastinus would give the order for his men to draw their swords, in preparation for close combat.

If Crastinus had looked to the sky, he would have seen that the sun was directly overhead.

Walking along the front line, Caesar addressed his troops. Above him, the hill was covered with forty thousand men. Caesar had done plenty of public speaking, would even write a book on the subject. He chose his words with care, and he expertly elevated his voice so that even those in the rear ranks could hear him. He praised his men, and he urged them to victory. It had to be a short speech-the Helvetii had combined smaller phalanxes into one dense mass of spearmen, who were now advancing toward the hill.

The phalanx, a formation developed into an art form by earlier Greek armies, had two strengths. The Greek phalanx had been sixteen men deep, so that a graduated wall of spear points protruded for some eight feet from the front of the formation like the spines of a porcupine. The men of the tightly packed formation also overlapped their shields, so that there were sixteen solid lines of shield from front to rear. We don't know how deep the Helvetian phalanx was, but with no shortage of warriors it would have been as deep as was practicable.

Caesar withdrew behind his second line and waited as the phalanx began to move up the lower slope of the hill toward the Roman front line at walking pace. Then Caesar gave an order. With a roar from thousands of legionary throats, his front line launched a volley of javelins. On command, another volley flew through the air.

Coming up the slope, with the hill above them thick with Roman legionaries and the air full of missiles, the Helvetian warriors instinctively raised their shields to protect themselves from the Roman javelins. This, they quickly discovered, wasn't as easy as just blocking them.

Forty years before, Consul Marius had introduced a revolutionary change to the design of Roman javelins; since his time, they had been manufactured with soft metal behind the point. Once the javelin struck anything, the weight of the shaft caused it to bend like hockey stick where the shaft and the head joined. And if it lodged in a shield, it became extremely difficult to remove, as the Helvetii now found. What was worse in their case, with their shields overlapping, javelins were going through several shields at a time, pinning them together. With some members of the phalanx downed and others struggling with the tangled shields, their formation was broken by these initial volleys.

Caesar gave another order. His flag dropped, and the trumpets of the first line sounded the "Charge."

With a roar, the front-line legionaries charged down the hill with drawn swords. After repeated attempts to free their shields, many Helvetii threw them away, leaving themselves virtually defenseless. Getting in past the massive but unwieldy spears, the legionaries cut the Celts to pieces, inflicting terrible wounds to necks, shoulders, arms, and torsos.

The bloodied Helvetii bravely stood their ground, despite their losses and despite their wounds, but after a while they were forced to begin to yield ground, and steadily withdrew to a hill a mile away, fighting all the way. Leaving the 11th and 12th Legions on the hill to guard his baggage, Caesar ordered all three lines in advance of them to pursue the Helvetii, at marching pace and maintaining formation.

But as the Roman troops came up, a force of fifteen thousand members of the Boii and Tulungi clans, who had been acting as the Helvetii rear guard, unexpectedly swung around from the rear and attacked the Romans' right flank. Encouraged by this, the Helvetii on the hill regrouped and advanced to attack once more.

Caesar acted swiftly and decisively to this threat. He ordered his first and second lines to take on the Helvetii main force, while the third line wheeled to the right and engaged the Boii and Tulungi. With a blare of trumpets, the legions charged on two fronts. Time and again the Romans charged, reformed, then charged again. The fighting lasted all afternoon. Not a single warrior of the Helvetii turned to run. But gradually their shattered formations were divided and pushed back. The men from the hill were forced to retreat up the slope, with Centurion Crastinus and his 10th Legion troops in the thick of the fighting. The enemy on the right were pushed all the way back to the parked wagons by men of other legions.

On the hill, the fighting for the 10th Legion and its companion units ended at sunset. But at the wagons, the battle continued well into the night, with defiant tribesmen raining spears from the vehicles and poking pikes out beneath them and between the wheels. Finally, the wagon laager was overrun by the legions. All the Helvetian worldly goods and all the tribe's supplies were captured, along with numerous noncombatants, including the children of nobility. The booty would be shared among the legions.

It was later said that 130,000 Helvetii fled from the scene of the battle that night. How many were killed in the fighting no one could calculate; there were too many to count.

Caesar spent three days burying the dead of both sides and patching up his wounded before marching after the surviving Helvetii. Centurion Crastinus was leading his men of the 10th Legion down the road when envoys from the Helvetii approached the Roman column. When they were conveyed to Caesar, the Helvetians prostrated themselves in front of him, and, in tears, begged him to grant peace to their people. Caesar commanded them to cease their flight and wait for him.

The Helvetii obeyed, and the Roman army found them waiting apprehensively several miles ahead, their people on foot now-the fighting men and the women, children and old people, looking tired, hungry, bedraggled, and defeated. The legions formed up and watched in silence as the tribesmen lay down their arms, handed over escaped Roman slaves, and provided hostages. Apart from six thousand fighting men who slipped away at night and were rounded up by friendly tribes and put to death, the Helvetii received no punishment other than being sent back to Switzerland, repairing the damage they'd done to towns, villages, and farms en route.

The tribe tramped back to where they'd come from and never ventured from Switzerland again. The official name of Switzerland today is the Helvetian Confederation.

This is from ...

Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins
By netchicken: posted on 30-9-2007

I've heard of this phallanx strategy used by Greeks. It was supposedly originally developed by Alexander of Macedonia and used by him to great effect. There was also an account of an early Roman Army facing the Phallanx formations of the Greeks. Apparently the Roman army then was terrified of this wall of spear and man. I believe the Roman army at that time out flanked this formation and were able to pull off a victory then. Caesar's approach is interesting too.
By IAF: posted on 1-10-2007

The fall of the Swiss at the hands of Caesar | [Login ]
Powered by XMB
Privacy Policy