The conflict known as the Gallic Wars was a military struggle fought between the Roman proconsul Julius Caesar and the Gallic tribes between 58 and 51 BC. These were not a handful of barbarians; on the contrary, they were civilized tribes with a significant influence from Rome, most of which had abandoned the monarchical system for systems similar to the Roman Republic. However, they were highly divided and in constant conflict with each other.

So, when in 52 BC the Arvernian chief Vercingetorix united all the Gallic tribes against Caesar, only one initially resisted joining the rebellion, though it did so briefly.

The reason for such reluctance was that this tribe had long been proclaimed a sister of the Roman Republic and was, therefore, a staunch and loyal ally of Rome. They were the Aedui.

Not only that, but Julius Caesar considered them blood brothers of the Romans, and later, in 48 AD, Emperor Claudius granted them Roman citizenship.

After delivering this speech, he dismissed the assembly; and, in addition to those statements, many circumstances led him to think that this matter should be considered and taken up by him, especially when he saw that the Aedui, repeatedly designated as “brothers” and “kinsmen” of the Senate, were subjected to slavery and the rule of the Germans.

Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico I-33

Who were the Aedui, and why did they have that privileged relationship with Rome?

They were a confederation of peoples settled in the Saône River valley with their capital in the city of Bibracte, on Mount Beuvray. They rivaled the neighboring confederation of the Arverni, a fact that Rome exploited to control Gaul by forming an alliance with the Aedui, whom they supported in their war against the Arverni in 121 BC.

The Aedui had a political system based on a senate that gathered aristocratic families, similar to the Roman Republic, with the limitation that only one member per family could belong to it.

By Hermolaus, a grammarian who wrote in Constantinople in the 6th century during Justinian’s time, an epitome of Stephanus of Byzantium’s Ethnica (which in turn collected works from older Greek authors), we know that the alliance between Rome and the Aedui had already been established before 138 BC.

This alliance surprisingly rested on the common origin of both peoples, descendants of the Trojans through Aeneas (in the Roman case) and other Trojan refugees in the case of the Aedui. Based on this common ancestry, the Roman Senate declared the Aedui blood brothers.

The Arverni, who also claimed that consideration, were ignored by Rome, and the true reasons for such an alliance have long been a subject of speculation by historians. One hypothesis is that Rome was interested in an alliance with the Aedui because the rivers running through their territory were major routes used by Roman merchants in Gaul. According to the historian Camille Jullian:

Roman products went up the Rhône (waterways were the fastest means of transportation at the time) and then took the rivers Saône, Loire, or Allier, which passed through Aedui territory before joining the basins of the Loire and Seine. The Aedui were located at a crucial commercial crossroads between the Celtic world and Rome, especially because Bibracte dominated the Loire valley to the west and the Saône valley to the east. In this way, they allowed the spread of Roman products throughout Gaul as early as the 1st century BC, enabling their allies in the confederation to benefit from their trade with Rome and undoubtedly with Greek colonies like Massilia. Evidence of this is the large quantities of amphorae and ceramics from Italy found in landfills and on the floors of houses.

Camille Jullian, Histoire de la Gaule

At the same time, the Aedui were interested in having the power and prestige of Rome on their side to compete with their neighboring peoples.

As mentioned earlier, the first time the alliance became effective was in 121 BC when Rome helped the Aedui defeat the Arverni and their allies:

The first transalpine nation to feel the strength of our arms was the Salii, whose raids forced the city of Marseille, our most loyal friend and ally, to complain to us. Then we subdued the Allobroges and the Arverni, against whom the Aedui complained similarly, and they asked for our help and relief. We had as witnesses to our victories, both the Var and the Isère, the Sorgue and the Rhône, the swiftest of rivers. The barbarians experienced the greatest terror at the sight of elephants, worthy of competing with these fierce nations. Nothing in the triumph was as remarkable as King Bituitus, covered with arms of various colors and mounted on a silver chariot, as he had fought.

Lucius Annaeus Florus, Epitome of the History of Titus Livius I-XXXVII

The Aedui played a strange double role in the uprising of the Gallic tribes in 52 BC. On the one hand, they recognized Vercingetorix as the king of the Gauls, but on the other hand, they remained faithful to Julius Caesar, in a kind of double game that possibly sought to maintain their special status. Thus, after Vercingetorix’s defeat at Alesia, they returned to Caesar’s side.

Tacitus states that the first senators of Transalpine Gaul were Aedui:

because of an ancient alliance and because only they among the Gauls bear the name of brotherhood with the Roman people.

Tacitus, Annals 11.25

And Plutarch also echoes that traditional brotherhood:

But now Caesar, whose genius was to make use of all accidents for war, and above all to take advantage of the opportunity at the very moment when the announced rebellion was to him, raised the camp, returned by the same road he had come, and with the strength and speed of his march, despite the indicated obstacles, showed the barbarians that the army pursuing them was untiring and invincible; for when they thought that neither messenger nor courier could reach him in a long time, they saw him already upon them with the whole army, cutting down their lands, seizing their positions, devastating their cities, and restoring to his friendship those who had changed sides; until also entered into the war against him the nation of the Aedui, who, having been called brothers of the Romans throughout the previous time, had now joined the rebels, causing no small discouragement to Caesar’s army.

Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Julius Caesar 26

Augustus dismantled their original capital, Bibracte, relocating them to a new city that he named half Roman and half Gaulish: Augustodunum (modern-day Autun).

It was not until the late 19th century that Bibracte was rediscovered, thanks in part to the personal interest of Emperor Napoleon III.

Claudius granted the Aedui the right to be senators in Rome. And according to Andrew C. Johnston in his work The Sons of Remus, even in Late Antiquity, the memory of their essential connection with Rome through a shared Trojan origin played a significant role in shaping the common identity of the Aedui.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on June 29, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los Heduos, el pueblo celta que se consideraba hermano de origen de los romanos


Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana: Guerra, paz y conquista en el mundo romano | Andrew C.Johnston, The Sons of Remus | Julio César, Comentarios de la Guerra de las Galias | Wikipedia

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