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Updated on February 13, 2010

Gaul was the homeland of the Gauls in western Europe in ancient times. It was bounded by the Rhine River and the Alps on the east, the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees on the south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west and north. Most of Gaul now lies within France.

The inhabitants of Gaul (Latin, Gallia) were of mixed origin. The Celtic language was probably brought to the west by migrant groups of the Bronze Age Urnfield culture from the area immediately north of the Alps. They spread slowly across Gaul in the 8th century B.C., reaching Spain and Portugal in the 7th century. In the 7th century, the early (Hallstatt) period of the Iron Age, Celtic invaders from the same sub-Alpine zone arrived in Gaul, followed from the end of the 6th century by bearers of the La Tene culture. This was the distinctively Celtic culture, which had developed around what is now Wiirttemberg, Germany. At the beginning of the 5th century b.c., Celts (whom the Romans called "Gauls") crossed the Alps into Italy and settled in the Po Valley, which thereafter was known as Gallia Cisalpina (Cisalpine Gaul or "Gaul this side of the Alps").

About 390 B.C., the Gauls sacked Rome but were driven back. In 222 B.C., Cisalpine Gaul was conquered by the Romans, and eventually it adapted to the Roman way of life. Its two sections, south and north of the Po River, were called respectively Gallia Cispadana and Gallia Transpadana. The whole of Cisalpine Gaul was merged into the Roman body politic with a grant of citizenship by Julius Caesar in 49 B.C.

In 121 B.C., Rome acquired the Gallic province across the Alps. The Gauls had become a menace to the ancient Greek colony of Massalia (Latin Massilia, now Marseille) on the Mediterranean coast. Rome came to the rescue of Massalia and, after defeating two powerful tribes, the Allobroges and the Arverni, combined the Rhone Valley and the land between the coast and the Cevennes Mountains into a Roman province. This southern region of Gaul was usually referred to simply as Provincia ("the Province"), from which the modern name Provence is derived.

Gauls in Rome
Gauls in Rome

Characteristics of the Gauls

The Gauls were renowned as warriors and horsemen. They were generous and impetuous in nature and ingenious and skillful workers, who excelled in metalwork, agriculture, and mining. Their commerce extended widely, and they minted coins from the 3rd century B.C. They also developed a certain degree of town life. They had great  respect for oratory and poetry, and their bards were important members of the community. Stimulated by Greek and Etruscan metal work and pottery and also to some degree by motifs of Scythian and Iranian origin, they produced a highly individual art.

Most of the tribes of Gaul had at one time been ruled by kings, but during the 1st century B.C. the kingship was gradually eliminated, and the nobles formed a ruling caste, maintaining themselves and large bodies of retainers on their estates. The national priesthood, the druids, had considerable influence in public affairs; their periodical assemblies were attended by emissaries from all the tribes. The druids taught the doctrine of transmigration of souls and resorted upon occasion to human sacrifice. They were suppressed by the Romans since they tended to foment political opposition.

Roman Invasion

In the late 2nd century B.C. the southward pressure from across the Rhine of advancing tribes, called Germans by the Romans, began to be felt in Gaul. The irruptions of the Cimbri and Teutones wrought havoc, but were halted by Marius in 102-101 B.C. The intertribal jealousies of the Gauls were so acute that the Sequani, to get the better of their enemies the Aedui, called in the German adventurer Ariovistus shortly before 61 B.C. while the Aedui no less willingly called on Rome for aid. The fear of German invasion also caused the Helvetii to leave Switzerland. They threatened Roman and Aeduan territory, which resulted in new appeals to Caesar from the Aedui. The requests by the Aedui and the movement of the Helvetii thus gave Caesar, the new proconsul of Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul, ample pretexts for his invasion and conquest of Gaul in 58-51 B.C. The inability of the Gauls to unite against Caesar, even under Vercingetorix of the Arverni, enabled Caesar to conquer the land piecemeal.

Roman Gaul

The organization of Gaul as part of the Roman Empire was accomplished by Augustus from 27 to 12 B.C. Caesar had observed the essential division of the tribes of Gallia Comata ("Long-Haired Gaul") into three regions. Celtic Gaul covered the center of Gaul from the Marne and the Seine to the Cevennes and included the tribes of the Sequani, Arverni, and Aedui. Belgic Gaul contained the Remi, Nervii, and other tribes; these had entered Gaul later than the tribes of Celtic Gaul, and many had some German blood. Aquitania was the southwest region between the Pyrenees and the Garonne, where a pre-Celtic Iberian (Basque) predominated.

Following this division, Augustus created the three provinces of Gallia Belgica, Gallia Lugdunensis (Celtic Gaul, renamed after its new capital Lugdunum, modern Lyon), and Aquitania. Aquitania, however, was expanded at the expense of Celtic Gaul to include the Celtic tribes between the Loire and the Garonne, among them the Arverni. In the south the old Provincia, to which Massilia was added, was renamed Gallia Narbonensis, and the largely Celticized Ligurian tribes of the Riviera were subdued. The land bordering the Rhine was formed into two military zones, which under Domitian (reigned 81-96 A.D. ) became the provinces of Upper and Lower Germany.

Gaul was one of the wealthiest regions of the Roman Empire. The Gauls settled down to a peaceful life, and many flourishing towns developed. They became noted for their agricultural produce, wool, cloth, pottery, and metalwork.

The Gauls adopted Latin, though Celtic persisted for a long time in the remoter districts. Many of the old Celtic deities were worshiped until the establishment of Christianity.

For more than 200 years the Roman peace was maintained, except for a few local revolts and the civil strife at the end of Nero's reign (69-70) and after the death of Commodus (192). Peace was again broken by the Germanic incursions and by the civil wars of the 3rd century. In the reorganization of the empire by Diocletian, Augusta Treverorum (Trier) became the capital of the Diocese of Gaul and the seat of the Caesar of the West.

During the 4th century the Germans were held at bay by soldier-emperors like Julian and Valentinian I. In 406, however, a great host of Vandals and others crossed the Rhine. Shortly after, the Visigoths were settled by treaty in the province of Aquitania. Finally, most of Gaul was conquered by Clovis by the early 6th century and became part of the kingdom of the Franks.


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