The country known collectively as Gaul presents in reality three distinct divisions, inhabited respectively by the Belgae, the Aquitani, and a race which, though commonly described by us as Gauls, is known in the vernacular as Celts. Between these three divisions there exist fundamental differences both of language, customs, and political organization. Geographically, the Gauls lie midway between the Aquitani and Belgae, the respective boundaries being the Garumna (Garonne) in the south, and the Matrona (Marne) and Sequana (Seine) in the north. Of the three the Belgae are conspicuously the bravest race, a fact doubtless derived from the peculiarity of their position, which not only keeps them strangers to the civilization and refinement so characteristic of the Province (Provence), and protects them against traders and all their attendant evils, but brings them also into closest contact with the Germans beyond the Rhine, between whom and themselves there exists perpetual war. The same cause, it may be noted in passing, produces in the Helvetii those striking martial qualities in which they so far excel all the other Gauls; there being scarcely a day that does not witness some border skirmish with their German neighbours, either in repelling a raid upon themselves, or in making reprisals across the frontier. The middle section of the country, inhabited, as already stated, by the Gauls, begins from the Rhone, and from there extends to the Garonne, the Outer Ocean, and the Belgae; whilst on its eastern border, at the territories of the Sequani and Helvetii, it marches with the Rhine. The general trend of the country is northwards. The Belgic division starts from the frontier of the Gauls, and from there stretches to the lower reaches of the Rhine, the country therefore facing north and east; whilst the Aquitani fill up all the region between the Garonne, the line of the Pyrenees, and the bend of the Bay of Biscay, fronting accordingly northwestwards.
Among the Helvetii at the time our narrative opens the most conspicuous figure, both as regards wealth and family descent, was a chieftain named Orgetorix. Three years earlier, in the consulship of M. Messalla and M. Pupius Piso, his restless craving for absolute power had led him to inaugurate a secret movement among the ruling chiefs, by which he persuaded the government to undertake a national migration from their present homes, having as its object (what, according to him, would be an easy result of their military supremacy), the ultimate domination of all Gaul. Such a proposal won the more ready acceptance, from the natural obstacles to expansion by which the Helvetii on all sides found themselves surrounded. Along their northern and eastern frontiers the Rhine forms a barrier which by its formidable depth and width effectually bars all outlet towards the Germans; westwards the lofty range of the Jura blocks the way to the Sequani; southwards the lake of Geneva and the Rhone cut off all access to the Province (Provence). The effect of these obstacles was seriously to impede their freedom of movement, as well as greatly to diminish the opportunities for border warfare; two restrictions which, to a people of born fighters, were peculiarly distasteful. And further, there was the constant feeling amongst them that their present limited area, embracing as it did no more than 240 miles in length and 180 in breadth, was neither adequate to their dense population, nor worthy of their great military name and fame.
To these predisposing causes for action the appeal of Orgetorix added the required occasion, and the Helvetian authorities at once decided to make the necessary preparations for a general exodus. Sumpter beasts and wagons were to be bought up wherever procurable, all the land possible was to be laid down with corn, in order to guarantee supplies upon the road, peace and friendship were to be secured with all neighbouring states. For these several measures two years were deemed to be sufficient; the third, by a solemn resolution of the tribe, was fixed for the departure. The general supervision of affairs was entrusted to Orgetorix, and he accordingly undertook as his special duty the mission to foreign states. The first to be visited were the Sequani; where, entering into communication with a chief named Casticus, a son of that Catamantaloedis, who during his long reign over his people had been honoured by the Senate with the coveted title of ‘Friend of Rome’, he urged him to seize upon the sceptre so lately wielded by his father. Proceeding next to the Aedui, he made similar proposals to a prince called Dumnorix, commending his suit by bestowing upon him the hand of his daughter in marriage. He was to rise against his own brother Divitiacus, at that time the acknowledged ruler of the Aeduan country and the trusted representative of the people. In the case of each, success was to be guaranteed by the approaching accession of himself to sovereign power at home: and the military pre-eminence of the Helvetii being unquestioned throughout Gaul, they were bidden to look to him for the acquisition of their crown, through the civil and military resources that would then be his. These allurements succeeded in their aim, and the three conspirators, having pledged one another to mutual loyalty, looked forward, when once established on their thrones, to climbing, through coalition of the three most powerful and resolute tribes in the country, to the consolidated empire of a united Gaul.
But their secret was ill-kept: their plot was betrayed, and fully reported to the Helvetian authorities. In accordance with tribal usage Orgetorix was summoned to stand his trial in chains; conviction was to be followed by being publicly burned at the stake. On the appointed day the accused surrendered to his judges; but he came at the head of ten thousand serfs, who had been specially drafted from his wide estates, and with countless numbers of retainers and poor debtors also impressed for the occasion, and, thus surrounded, successfully defied the court. Justly incensed at so gross an outrage, the Helvetian authorities prepared to uphold the civil arm by an appeal to the sword; and steps had already been taken to call out the tribal levies, when suddenly Orgetorix died; nor is there wanting the suspicion, strongly held by the Helvetii, that his death was self-inflicted.
It was not, however, allowed to affect their decision as to migration. When to the best of their judgement every arrangement had been perfected, under a strong impulse to take an irrevocable step that should more easily reconcile them to whatever dangers fortune might have in store, they deliberately burned down every one of their twelve fortified towns, four hundred open villages, and every private residence throughout the land. At the same time all stocks of corn not destined to be carried with them on the march were indiscriminately committed to the flames; the only provisions permitted to remain being three months’ supplies of ground grain for each head of the population. Three of their nearest neighbours, the Rauraci, Tulingi, and Latovici, were also induced to follow their example of burning their town and villages, and to throw in their lot with the migratory movement; whilst another people, the Boii, whose home had been formerly beyond the Rhine, but who had since invaded Norican territory and there laid siege to Noreia (Neumarkt in Styria), were invited to join them and received into close alliance.
Two routes, and two only, presented themselves as practicable for their purpose. They might either pass through the country of the Sequani, by a narrow and difficult defile running between Mount Jura and the Rhone; — so narrow that even a single line of carts could hardly pass, and so completely dominated by the frowning heights, that even a slender force could easily bar it in their face — or they might go through the Roman Province, a far easier and less complicated route, where, just across the upper Rhone, which here forms the boundary, lay the friendly district of the Allobroges. This people had been only lately reduced to obedience, and numerous fords were also available in their country. The actual point of contact of the two tribes is the city of Geneva, which lies at the easternmost end of the Allobroges, and communicates by a bridge with the Helvetii on the opposite side. Either then, they argued, they would peacefully persuade the Allobroges, who hardly yet seemed reconciled to Roman rule, to grant them a passage through their borders, or else they would compel them by armed force. Everything being ready for the start, a date was fixed on which the entire nation was to assemble along the northern bank of the Rhone; this date being the twenty-eighth of March, in the consulship of Lucius Piso and Aulus Gabinius (58 B.C.).
The news that the Helvetii were contemplating a movement across the Province reached Caesar whilst still in Rome. Upon its receipt, he hastily quitted the capital, and travelling through post-haste to Further Gaul, quickly reached Geneva. Arrived here, he issued orders to raise the military forces of the Province to their utmost limit (the whole of Further Gaul, it should be mentioned, was at the time garrisoned by a single legion only), and to cut down the bridge at Geneva. His arrival had not escaped the notice of the Helvetian leaders, and a deputation of their chief notables, headed by the two chiefs Nammeius and Verucloetius, presently appeared to lay their case before the Roman governor. These informed him that their sole intention was to march through the Province without causing any disturbance of the peace, and only for the reason that no other route lay open to them, and that for this they humbly solicited his leave. In considering his answer, Caesar found it impossible to forget that these same Helvetii had not so many years before first routed a Roman army and afterwards forced it under the yoke, whilst causing the death also of its commander, the consul Lucius Cassius. This fact alone precluded a favourable reply; but apart altogether from this, it was difficult to believe that a people, who harboured no very friendly feelings towards Rome, would repress their natural instincts of plunder and pillage, if once allowed the chance of marching through the Province. On the other hand, it was essential to temporize till the concentration of the new levies was completed; and he therefore replied to the envoys that he should require to think over the matter, and that if they had anything further to urge they might return on April 13.
Meanwhile he proceeded to strengthen his own defences. The distance between the western end of Lake Geneva, where it passes into the Rhone, and a point lower down the stream where the Jura range (the barrier between the Helvetian and Sequanian lands) descends upon the river, is between eighteen and nineteen miles. Along this stretch of water he constructed, with the single legion of his original command and the various drafts since arrived from the Province, a fortified embankment, 16 feet high, protected by a ditch, which when completed was strengthened by a line of forts garrisoned by detachments. These measures, he hoped, would successfully frustrate any attempt on the part of the enemy to force a passage against his will. The Helvetian envoys, on the day appointed, again presented themselves in camp. Here they were plainly told that the settled policy of the Roman government was never to allow any one a passage through its southern Province, and any attempt at violence on their side would be instantly resisted. Disappointed in this expectation, the Helvetii next turned to the desperate expedient of forcing the Roman lines. For this operation every device was exhausted. Pontoon bridges, rafts improvised by the score, the fords of the Rhone where the river was shallowest, were all tried in turn: sometimes by day, though more often at night, until, finding themselves always and everywhere rolled back before the solid strength of the obstructions, the rapid mobility of the defence, and the ceaseless discharge of spears, they finally abandoned the attempt.
There remained the single route through the Sequani; a route that, owing to the narrow gorge through which it leads, it was impossible to take should the Sequani prove unfriendly. Failing therefore to obtain the necessary consent by direct negotiations of their own, the Helvetian authorities dispatched a deputation to the Aeduan chieftain Dumnorix, conceiving that his advocacy might perhaps enlist for them the sympathy of the Sequanian government. To the task now devolving on him Dumnorix was admirably fitted. Popular manners and a judicious employment of immense wealth had won for him an assured place in the counsels of the Sequani; whilst his marriage with a Helvetian princess, a daughter of the late chief Orgetorix, cemented his friendship with that people. He cherished, moreover, certain dynastic ambitions of his own, and with that object was secretly plotting the overthrow of the present Aeduan regime; it was therefore to his interest to lay under obligation all the surrounding nations that he could. Most willingly, therefore, did he now listen to the proferred appeal for help; and at his request the Sequani agreed to grant the Helvetii the desired passage, each party giving pledges to the other, the Sequani, that they would not oppose the march of the Helvetii, and the latter, that they would commit neither robbery nor violence on their road.
These intrigues were duly reported to the Roman governor, who now learnt that the present Helvetian design was to march by way of the Sequani and Aedui to the distant settlements of the Santones, in South-western Gaul. As the lands of this tribe are situated not far from the territory of Tolosa (Toulouse), and Tolosa, as need scarcely be added, is an important centre of the Roman Province, the new movement, if consummated, was fraught with grave danger to the Empire; for it could not fail to bring upon the flank of the rich corn plains of this district a race of turbulent tribesmen, openly and avowedly hostile to Rome. In the face of such a menace one course alone was possible. Deputing his chief-of-staff, Titus Labienus, to hold the recently-erected line of works, the Roman commander by rapid stages hastened back to Italy; where, besides embodying two new legions, he summoned from their winter cantonments round Aquileia (Aquileja) the three that formed his original establishment in these quarters. At the head of these five he then selected the nearest route across the Alps and started back for Gaul. A certain amount of trouble was encountered from the hill tribes of the Ceutrones, Graioceli, and Caturiges, who gathered on their mountain fastnesses to obstruct his passage; but though frequent actions were necessary to dislodge them, the army accomplished the march from Ocelum, the last town on the Italian side, to the Vocontii in the Further or Western Province, in just under a week. From thence the advance was continued to the Allobroges, and from the Allobroges to the Segusiavi, who, as the first people beyond the Rhone, lie outside the Roman Province.
The Helvetii were found to have already passed the gorge of the Jura, and to have crossed the country of the Sequani. They had now appeared among the Aedui (district of Lyon), whose cultivated lands they were plundering on all sides. Unable to protect either themselves or their property from such a scourge, the Aedui dispatched an urgent appeal for help to Caesar, reminding him of their unswerving devotion in the past to Rome, which, as they put it, had surely deserved a kinder fate than, virtually beneath the eyes of a Roman army, to see their fields ravaged, their children swept into slavery, and their cities carried by the sword. Along with this appeal there came a similar message from the Ambarrian Aedui (politically and racially connected with the parent stock) announcing that the enemy had already licked up all the countryside, and only with the greatest difficulty were kept out from the towns. The same story was repeated by a body of Allobroges, who came flying from their settlements beyond the Rhone, bearing the pitiful tale that, beyond the bare surface of the soil, they had nothing left to call their own. Reports like these admitted of but one solution. To look on quietly whilst the Helvetii slowly made their way across Gaul to their goal among the Santoni, amid the wreckage and ruin of prosperous Roman allies, was a course of conduct wholly indefensible in the eyes of a responsible Roman governor.
Between the territories of the Aedui and Sequani there flows a tributary of the Rhone, called the Arar (Saone), so extraordinarily sluggish in its movement that the eye can scarcely discern the direction of the current. This river the Helvetii were now engaged in crossing by means of rafts and temporary pontoons; and according to the reports of scouts had already transported three-fourths of their number to the western bank, leaving about a quarter still remaining. Shortly after midnight, therefore, a force of three legions quietly left camp under the personal leadership of Caesar, and coming up with that section of the enemy which had not yet passed the stream, fell upon them without warning. Disorganized by their passage, large numbers were destroyed, and the rest only escaped by seeking refuge in the woods. The particular division thus accounted for proved to be that of the Tigurini, one of the four principal cantons into which the Helvetian race is subdivided. It was this division which, in the memory of those still alive, had by itself issued from its homes, and after destroying a Roman consul, Lucius Cassius, on the field of battle, had forced the survivors to pass under the yoke. Fortuitously, therefore, or providentially, that particular section of the Helvetian people which had inflicted this signal disaster upon Roman arms was now the first to pay the penalty. An interesting circumstance of the event that may perhaps be mentioned was that Caesar was able to avenge not only a national but also a private quarrel; for among those who fell that day with Cassius before the swords of the Tigurini was one of his generals, Lucius Piso, grandfather to the present bearer of that name, whose daughter Caesar had lately married.
After the decision of this battle, there remained the further task of overtaking the rest of the Helvetian force. For this purpose it was necessary to bridge the Arar; and this having been done, the army was transported to the farther side. Such a rapid advance on the part of their opponent took the Helvetian leaders completely by surprise. That an operation like the passage of this river, which had taxed all their ingenuity to accomplish within three weeks, should be safely conducted by their pursuers in twenty-four hours, was a feat that filled them with amazement, and their immediate answer was an offer to negotiate. Their spokesman on this occasion was the old chieftain Divico, famous as having led the Helvetian army in its memorable campaign against Cassius. He now put forward the following proposals. ‘As the price of peace, the Helvetii were prepared to retire to any part of the country that Caesar might enjoin, and to settle anywhere that he might wish. Any further attempt to goad them into war would be answered as they had already answered it by that first reverse inflicted on Roman arms, and as became a nation of their spirit. True, Caesar had surprised an isolated detachment, where circumstances rendered it impossible for those who had first crossed the river to go to the assistance of their kinsmen: yet he would be a bold man if he exaggerated the importance of this achievement, or made the fatal mistake of underestimating his opponent’s strength. If there was one thing which the Helvetii had inherited as a tradition from their fathers, it was to fight in the open like men, and not to rely on trickery or ambuscade. The Roman commander therefore would be wise to pause ere hazarding a step, the result of which could only be to associate the name of the place on which they stood with a terrible disaster to the Roman race, and the annihilation of a Roman army.’
To such language there could be but one reply. Any difficulty, he told them, he might otherwise have felt in coming to a decision, had been dispelled by his own vivid recollection of the events they had been good enough to mention; events which only stirred his deeper resentment, because so utterly unmerited by his own nation. Had Rome been conscious of any act of past injustice committed on her side, she could, by being forwarned, have been forearmed; in point of fact she had been betrayed by her own conscious innocence of any grounds for fear, and by her refusal to entertain fears that seemed groundless. Assuming, however, on his part a willingness to forget their truculent attitude in the past, it was quite impossible to rid his mind of their more recent deeds of violence — their attempt to force a passage through the Province in defiance of his orders, and their pillaging of the Aedui, Ambarri, and Allobroges. Their presumptuous boasting of their earlier victory, and their wonder at the dispensation of Providence which had allowed them to go so long unpunished, was, he told them, but one more indication of their impending doom. When Heaven was preparing vengeance for past crime, she not unfrequently gave the guilty a longer lease of prosperity and impunity, simply to deepen the remorse raised by a contrast with their previous lot. In spite of all, however, one way still lay open. If the Helvetii would give hostages as a guarantee of their desire loyally to abide by their compact, then, provided they also indemnified the Aeduans for the damage done to them and their allies, and similarly reimbursed the Allobroges, Rome would also, on her side, conclude a lasting peace. To these terms of Caesar’s Divico replied that it was a tradition of the Helvetians, and one always observed by them, never to give hostages, but only to take them; and in proof of that statement he haughtily referred him to the experience of Rome herself. This ended the conference.