“It is by proper maintenance [of supplies] that armies are kept together” – Julius Caesar, as reported in Dio Cassius 43.49.5.
Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul (58 – 51 BC) were a series of conflicts against a variety of peoples in a variety of terrains. Due to the diverse geographic conditions and the large size of the land, logistical support and logistics systems were essential for the smooth running of the campaign, ensuring the soldiers and horses were fed and that the troops were armed and had the resources that were required for sieges, engineering works and open battles. Throughout this essay my definition of logistics is the system which provides the raw materials for war, this includes the growing and gathering of food and fodder (animal feed), the process of getting to the army (be it by road, river or sea) and ability to distribute the raw materials in an orderly and efficient way. This essay has three aims: to review current understanding of logistics in the Roman world (with an emphasis on Caesar), to look at what systems the Gallic Tribes had in place to organise logistical support, as it was on them that Caesar relied for logistical support during his campaigns (Erdkamp 1998, pp. 94; Roth 1999, pp. 146; Mattern 2009, pp. 134); the last aim is to examine how logistical concerns affected the campaigns themselves, this will build upon what I establish in the other sections of the essay and will look at the 56 BC campaign against the Veneti (in what is now Brittany). The purpose of this essay to look beyond our preconceived notions of what civilisation has to offer and how the Gallic tribes were an essential component to Caesar’s war machine, demonstrating the importance of “indigenous” logistic networks and how the Romans supplemented this system, both through direct and indirect means.
In the 1990s the study of the Logistics of the Roman army enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance, with two large monographs by Paul Erdkamp (Hunger and the Sword. Warfare and food supply in Roman republican wars (264-30 BC) 1998) and Jonathon Roth (The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C. – A.D. 235) 1999). Adrian Goldsworthy also discussed the role of logistics in warfare in the appendix of his The Roman Army at War: 100 BC – AD 200. These three works have influenced my study the most and offer the most clear-cut definition of logistics in the Roman World.
All three of these works highlight the difficulties associated with the reconstruction of the Roman Logistics system; the difficulty lies in the fragmented and unreliable sources. Logistics is not seen as the concern of military history, the idea being history as a genre focused on events and great men rather than the coming and goings of supplies (Erdkamp 1998). Statistics used in ancient sources are notoriously unreliable, and “should neither be accepted nor rejected categorically and the best method for judging numbers is to look at their plausibility, and coherence” (Roth 1999, pp. 6). Goldsworthy argues that this lack of coherent statistics makes reconstructing the Roman System of Supply incredibly difficult (1996, pp. 287), which is why he only wrote a short appendix on the subject. Roth argues that it is possible to construct the Roman supply system by looking at many different sources of data, but also to accept that modelling and comparison is essential to creating a coherent system that we would find satisfactory. Another reason it is difficult to reconstruct the supply system is that when it is mentioned in the ancient sources it is because of a system failure or due to extraordinary circumstances (Erdkamp 1998, pp. 5).
Caesar is cited in all three works as an extraordinary individual and as an extremely important source of information regarding issues of logistics, for his concern about the importance of logistics in warfare and the detail that he goes into regarding it (Roth 1999, pp. 14; 141; 157). But they understand his limitations as a source: “By following the pattern ‘Caesar analyses the situation; takes the necessary measures; subsequently the action leads to success’, Caesar depicts himself as the central force in the Roman conquest of Gaul”; The successful operation of the logistics and supply system is used as another rhetorical tool that helps to show the Roman audience how successful a general Caesar was (Erdkamp 1998, pp. 6). This doesn’t necessarily make Caesar’s accounts of his logistics operations unreliable, and because of this rhetoric technique we have a more complete account of the system of supply than any other source, but it is extremely likely that it he is not giving us the whole picture. This is demonstrated by the fact that camp attendants, slaves and non-combatants are rarely mentioned in his narrative, as they take away from the military focus, turning him from military genius to laborious pen-pusher.
What is clear from these works are that the quantity of foodstuff that would have needed to keep the army going would have been immense, and a strain on the landscape. Each author agrees that a Roman soldier would have eaten between 1.4 – 1.6kg of bread a day (Goldsworthy 1996, pp. 291; Erdkamp 1998, pp. 30; Roth 1999, pp. 48) which is based on evidence reported in Polybius 6.39. Goldsworthy estimates that for a fully manned legion of five thousand men 100 bushels of wheat would have been needed per day: the equivalent of around 70 acres of produce (Goldsworthy 1996, pp. 291). The United States Army Recommended daily Allowance for a 19 year old of 3,600 calories per day was used by Roth to demonstrate what the maximum amount of energy required for a soldier would have been, since this figure was calculated “to accommodate periods of extraordinary activity” (1999, pp. 8). I think these figures by Roth and Goldsworthy help to put into perspective what an extraordinary operation the supply system of the Roman was, since the numbers involved are staggering. When these numbers are considered, Caesar’s logic in including his orders to protect and increase the grain supply is that it reassures the audience due process is being followed, ensuring the safety of the soldiers. The scale of the supply operation also links back to the point raised by Erdkamp, that Caesar wanted to be seen as a successful general, and one part of being a successful general was maintaining the health of the troops and ensuring a steady supply of food for them, be it from supplies for an operational base or through pillaging the land.
The difficulties of reconstructing an army’s logistics system without reliable statistics have been made clear, but there are ways of overcoming this difficulty, and that includes innovative analysis from multiple sources in order to create the broadest and most complete picture. This literature review had the aim of showing how these reconstructions work, and how different scholars have approached the same subject. One thing that has become clear is that Caesar’s Gallic War Commentaries are an essential piece of the puzzle when it comes to reconstructing the supply system of the Roman army, but that it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Logistic Networks in Pre-Roman Gaul
I have made clear just how difficult it is to attempt to reconstruct ancient logistics networks in well documented literary society, so why have I made things even more difficult for myself with an examination of a pre/proto-historic societies’ logistics system? I believe it possible to reconstruct what we would call the Gallic logistic system, through an examination of archaeological remains, an examination of the historical sources and geographic analysis. Additionally, ancient trade uses many of the same systems as ancient logistics, so it is possible to reconstruct how the movement of troops, goods and essential rations would have been transported and built up based on known trade networks and patterns and from what we know about agricultural production and the ancient economy of Gaul. I believe that it is important to establish the context and environment that the Romans entered when Caesar started his campaigns in Gaul, as a logistics system is a complex entity to create from scratch, and from his own words, we know that Caesar heavily relied on his Gallic allies for logistical support, particularly when it came to the corn ration (this is particularly clear in B.Gall. 1.16; 1.23; 1.40; 1.48). As anthropologist Wells has said, “many of the innovations that Rome is credited with introducing had been adopted well before the Roman arrival” (1999, pp. 33); this includes a network for the transportation of goods and food throughout the region.
I am going to begin with an examination of the geographic conditions of Gaul and how this effects logistic capability. Figure 1 helps to demonstrate the importance of the myriad of rivers that run through Gaul, a series of arteries that run into the heart of the region. Caesar himself reports the importance of the rivers as a military logistic resource during the Veneti campaign, when he ordered the construction of warships on the river Loire, presumably in the land of the Carnutes near their stronghold of Cenabum (modern Orléans) where some of his legions were wintering (B.Gall. 2.35.). This operation relied on the trading networks that Carnutes had established, and Caesar would have used the wintering period to stockpile important resources such as wood for building the warships and grain. The Loire acted as a trade route from the south, with several important Gallic settlements along its banks which were actively involved in trade with Rome (Cunliffe 1988, pp. 87); this would have acted as an important lifeline to the early winter wheat, which would have been transported up from the province of Gallia Narbonensis (Ibid. pp. 40). As the different regions of Gaul had different resources, these trade networks were essential to ensuring that each of the various tribes had enough to go around, with the south being more agriculturally productive and the interior having more raw materials such as wood and metals (ibid. pp. 97).
Gaul was a productive landscape in the period both prior and during Caesar’s campaigns in the 50s BC. In the south of the region (what became the province of Gallia Narbonensis in 121 BC) the warm Mediterranean climate helped to foster a productive landscape that produced a large surplus that was used for trade. This is shown by the large amount of grain storage pits that have been found in the south of Gaul; evidence for export is twofold, the presence of Roman goods as a means of exchange, combined with the networks of trade that I have demonstrated above (Cunliffe 1988, pp. 40). The interior must have had an equally productive landscape, due to the expansion of the Gallic tribes into more organised political structures (due to the economic clout) and the fact that during Caesar’s campaigns he relied on them very heavily for his grain supplies (Ibid. pp. 97; Wells 1999, pp. 70; in B.Gall. 5.23 Caesar had to change his wintering habits due to a drought in Gaul which had ruined the countries supplies of grain). This productivity was just down to the fertility of the land, but due to a series agricultural innovations between the 4th and 2nd century BC, such as more efficient iron tools and the adoption of more centralised and single crop farming methods which gave greater yields (Duval et al. 2019, pp. 11).
It is also important to consider that logistically the Romans were able to maintain supplies and rations with their legions campaigning in Gaul because of a major operations base that was linked via land, sea, and river routes (the importance of which is emphasised in Roth 1999, pp 220) – namely Gaul itself. Since the Punic Wars, Rome had a foot in southern Gaul and from the 120s BC there were a series of wars with the tribes in that region that ended with allegiances with some of major players in the Conquest of Gaul (the Aedui and the Allobroges) but also with the creation of the province of Gallia Narbonensis. These two tribes were made allies of Rome, the Allobroges changing their currency to match the denarius and having much of their territory as part of the province and the Aedui were now in easy reach of Roman trade networks and no longer were at war with the now subjected Allobroges (Cunliffe 1988, pp. 57). With Roman rule came a hybridisation of the two logistics systems, the Via Domitia, presumably built 122 BC (when Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus was consul), was a great highway that connected Italy with Spain by transecting southern Gaul, allowing movement of goods and logistics and connecting it with the ancient sea routes associated with the ‘Tin Route’, the series of ports in Southern Gaul that received raw materials from Britain and North Gaul (Cunliffe 1988, pp. 57). Roth calls attention to the fact that infrastructure like the via Domitia, although having trade and economic benefits, were mainly for the purposes of swift troop and logistic transport, making these operations as easy as possible. The logistical state of play at the start of Caesar’s campaign was a land that was ripe with the three most important things to the mobile ancient army: food, fodder, and firewood. The logistics network was a combination of traditional Gallic infrastructure and the more well-known Roman infrastructure. Gaul was not virgin territory, but a complex region with a well-established logistical system that Caesar relied on heavily during his campaigns in the 50s BC.
Case Study: The Veneti Campaign 56 BC
Any number of campaigns from the Gallic Wars could have been chosen to illustrate the importance of the system of logistics during Caesar’s conquests and to highlight the importance of the Gallic system of supply. I think the Veneti Campaign really drives home the fear that Caesar had regarding the supply system, and what lengths he would go to in order to restore the situation where he was exploited the Gallic system in order to aid in his campaigns and occupation of Gaul.
An overview of events is necessary to then go into detail analyse the finer points of Caesar’s and the Veneti’s logistic and military strategy. The Veneti’s revolt began against a backdrop of unrest, as Caesar’s legates quelled minor uprisings whilst he was in Italy, one of the major goals of this was to keep the routes across the Alps open in order to facilitate trade and to ensure the supply lines were open (B.Gall. 3.1). These actions were successful, and Caesar made preparations to visit Illyricum, and it was then that the Veneti revolted. Caesar’s legate Crassus, who was wintering on the Atlantic coast of Gaul, sent envoys to the Veneti to ask for contributions to the legions corn supply and the Veneti detained them in order to exchange them for their own hostages and appealed to their neighbours to join them in pursuit of liberty (B.Gall. 3.7-8). Crassus reported this Caesar, and Caesar ordered the construction of warships on the Loire (see above so my discussion on the location this), drafted skilled oarsmen and helmsmen from the Province of Gallia Narbonensis and made his way west towards the coast. Caesar reports that in preparation for the conflict the Veneti fortified their strongholds and brought in all their corn (Ibid. 3.9). Caesar makes clear that the main reason he undertook this campaign was because “if their behaviour was overlooked the rest of Gallic peoples might think they could act in a similar fashion” (ibid. 3.10). A series of land and naval battles occurred, and the Romans prevailed by destroyed the rigging and sails on the Veneti ships (ibid. 3.15), grounded and with no means of escape, the Veneti surrendered; their senate was executed and the rest of the people were sold into slavery (ibid. 3.16).
I think this campaign helps to reveal the complexity and the fragility of the system that the Romans relied on for supplies. The event that caused the war were the envoys sent by Crassus to obtain corn from the Veneti. Call me sceptical, but I think Caesar is perhaps downplaying their role, I think it was likely that they were part of a foraging party, which perhaps overstepped the bounds of what the Veneti thought was acceptable, Erdkamp makes clear that this form of foraging depletes the land. Once the Roman ‘envoys’ were detained, it broke the form of mutual exploitation that the Romans and Gallic tribes had operating under were Caesar used the tribes to sure up his position in region and at home, whilst the Gauls exploited Caesar as tool to act on there behalf to fight their enemies (Levick 1998, pp. 71). Since Gaul was at ‘peace’ (as Caesar claimed at the beginning of book 3), under Roman ideas of imperialism, all the tribes has either submitted or entered into an allegiance with Rome, and the supply of corn was seen a non-negotiable obligation of being a Roman ally (Mattern 2009, pp. 134). Once the Veneti broke (or failed to adhere to) this contract of exploitation that Caesar had imposed on the Gallic Tribes, it threatened his position as a general and threatened to topple the supply system as the Veneti had managed to persuade their to join in with the revolt, which may have led domino effect if left unchecked.
It is this fear of what might happen if they did not act that led to the massacre and enslavement of Veneti; to Rome it was the only way to ensure that their allies would not follow the Veneti example. Caesar cites “the laws of nations” (B.Gall. 3.16) which the Veneti broke when they detained the envoys as justification for the killing and enslavement; a citizen upholding natural order, rather than a warlord terrifying his allies into obedience. The Veneti were still operating as if they were dealing with other Gallic Tribes, as the middlemen in a trade network – a position they had enjoyed for almost a century (Cunliffe 1988, pp. 102) – where they would be able to bargain for the return of their hostages from the Romans. Although the Romans used the system that had been in place since the Gallic Iron Age prior to their conquests, they created an unbalanced power situation with them at the top, rather than the previous situation were the other tribes operated almost as equals. Once the system was threatened, Rome had to act to protect there interests, and in destroying the power of the Veneti on the Atlantic coast Caesar seized control on the supplies lines up and down the coast (Cunliffe 1988, pp. 102; Levick 1998, pp. 72), this ensured that they no longer had to rely on actors with their own agenda, securing the Roman grain supplies, and emptying a region so that its productivity could be further utilised by the Romans.
The war against the Veneti was all about the importance of maintaining solid supply lines. The Veneti controlled (or had influence over) the west coast of Gaul, all trade and supplies that came from the coast or one of the large rivers that fed into the Atlantic would have been overseen by them. When they revolted against the system of logistics and challenged Rome’s authority they had to be dealt with, as it threatened both the short-term success of Caesar’s campaign efforts in the west Gaul by not providing his legions with corn that was essential to them, but it would have disrupted the system that Rome had been a part of for over a century, and encouraged other Gallic Tribes to refuse Caesar’s exploitation of their fertile and productive land.
The theme of logistics is heavy throughout Caesar’s commentaries. As shown in my analysis of the campaign against the Veneti, the importance of maintaining supplies and the system that provides them was more than enough justification for starting a war; and then ending that war with a brutal massacre, to ensure that the status quo remains. My aims in this essay, reviewing the scholarship of Roman Logistics, thinking about how supplies were moved and maintained in the period prior to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul and an in depth study of a campaign that was steeped in logistical issues, was to show the complexities of the issues and tear down some assumptions about the nature of war, and of how we view it through the lens of civilisation.
Although Caesar tries to downplay the role of the Gallic Tribes as logistical support, as it takes away from his topos of civilising a wildland, the transformation of a changeless society (Wells 1999, pp. 32), his logistics system would not have been possible without the established networks that were shaped in pre-Roman Southern Gaul that allowed him to resupply from friendly territory and the fact that his allies operated as the primary suppliers of corn whilst he was out in the field. For Caesar logistic capability was a useful tool with which to demonstrate his prowess as a general, a strategist and a politician, it was used in the Gallic War as theme to present himself as thoughtful and cunning leader, one which used all the benefits of Roman expansion to civilise a wild country. The irony was, in order to be efficient and effective, he had to rely on indigenous methods of supplying his armies and to ensure he was supplied he depended upon the Gallic tribes, but whether he dealt with them as friends, allies or enemies depended on context, the methods of supply and logistic capability were intrinsically linked to how the tribes has been conducting themselves for centuries before the Roman arrival.
Julius Caesar, The Gallic War. Translated by Hammond, C. 1996. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dio Cassius, Roman History: Books 41-45. Translated by Cary, E. 1916. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Polybius, The Histories. Translated by Waterfield, R. 2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Cunliffe, B. 1988. Greeks, Romans and Barbarians. London: B.T. Batsford.
Duval, C., Cucchi, T., Horard-Herbin, M.P. and Lepetz, S., 2018. The development of new husbandry and economic models in Gaul between the Iron Age and the Roman Period: New insights from pig bones and teeth morphometrics. Journal of Archaeological Science, 99, pp.10-18.
Erdkamp, P. 1998. Hunger and Sword: Warfare and Food Supply in the Roman Republican War (264 – 30 BC) Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben.
Goldsworthy, A. 1996. The Roman Army at War 100 BC – AD 200. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Levick, B. 1998. ‘The Veneti Revisited: C.E. Stevens and the tradition on Caesar the Propagandist’, in Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The War Commentaries as Political Instruments. Ed. Welch, K. & Powell, A. pp. 85-110.
Mattern, S. 2009. Imperial Power in the Roman Republic. In TABACHNICK D. & KOIVUKOSKI T. (Eds.), Enduring Empire: Ancient Lessons for Global Politics (pp. 127-146). Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press.
Roth, J. 1999. The Logistics of the Roman Army at War (264 B.C. – A.D. 235). Leiden: Brill.
Wells, P. 1999. The Barbarians Speak. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Figure 1. Map of Gaul in the First Century BC. This map demonstrates the importance of rivers in traversing the region, providing a ready built extensive logistics network. From Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gaul,_1st_century_BC.gif (Public Domain).