What Role Did Gaul Play in Ancient History?

A map of Gaul around 400 A.D.
Jbribeiro1/Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The quick answer is ancient France. This is too simplistic, though, since the area that was Gaul extends into what are the modern neighboring countries. Generally, Gaul is considered the home, from about the eighth century B.C., of ancient Celts who spoke a Gallic language. People known as Ligurians had lived there before the Celts migrated from more eastern Europe. Some areas of Gaul had been colonized by the Greeks, especially Massilia, modern Marseilles.

The Province(s) of Gallia

The Rubicon Border of Cisalpine Gaul

When Celtic tribal invaders from the north entered Italy in about 400 B.C., the Romans called them Galli 'Gauls'. They settled amid the other people of northern Italy.

Battle of the Allia

In 390, some of these, the Gallic Senones, under Brennus, had gone far enough south in Italy to capture Rome after they won the Battle of the Allia. This loss was long remembered as one of Rome's worst defeats.

Cisalpine Gaul

Then, in the final quarter of the third century B.C., Rome annexed the area of Italy in which the Gallic Celts had settled. This area was known as 'Gaul on this side of the Alps' Gallia Cisalpina (in Latin), which is generally Anglicized as the less cumbersome 'Cisalpine Gaul'.

A Gallic Province

In 82 B.C., the Roman dictator Sulla made Cisalpine Gaul a Roman province. The famous Rubicon River formed its southern border, so when proconsul Julius Caesar precipitated civil war by crossing it, he was leaving provinces over which he, as a pro-magistrate, had legitimate military control and bringing armed troops against his own people.

Gallia Togata and Transpadana

The people of Cisalpine Gaul were not only Celtic Galli, but also Roman settlers -- so many that the area was also known as Gallia togata, named for the signal article of Roman apparel. Another area of Gaul during the late Republic lay on the other side of the Alps. The Gallic area beyond the Po river was called Gallia Transpadana for the Latin name for the Po River, Padua.

Provincia ~ Provence

When Massilia, a city mentioned above that had been settled by Greeks in about 600 B.C., came under attack by Ligurians and Gallic tribes in 154 B.C., the Romans, concerned about their access to Hispania, came to its assistance. Then they took control of the region from the Mediterranean to Lake Geneva. This area outside Italy, which became a province in 121 B.C., was known as Provincia 'the province' and is now remembered in the French version of the Latin word, Provence. Three years later, Rome established a colony at Narb. The province was renamed Narbonensis provincia, under Augustus, the first Roman emperor. It was also known as Gallia braccata; again, named for the special article of apparel common to the area, braccae 'breeches' (trousers). Narbonensis provincia was important because it gave Rome access to Hispania through the Pyrenees.

Tres Galliae - Gallia Comata

At the end of the second century B.C., Caesar's uncle Marius put an end to those Cimbri and Teutones who had invaded Gaul. A monument to Marius' 102 B.C. victory was erected at Aquae Sextiae (Aix). About forty years later, Caesar went back, helping the Gauls with more intruders, Germanic tribes, and the Celtic Helvetii. Caesar had been awarded Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul as provinces to govern following his 59 B.C. consulship. We know a great deal about it because he wrote about his military exploits in Gaul in his Bellum Gallicum. The opening of this work is familiar to Latin students. In translation, it says, "All Gaul is divided into three parts." These three parts aren't the already well-known to the Romans, Transalpine Gaul, Cisapline Gaul and Gallia Narbonensis, but areas further from Rome, Aquitania, Celtica, and Belgica, with the Rhine as the eastern border. Properly, they are the peoples of the areas, but the names are also applied geographically.

Under Augustus, these three together were known as Tres Galliae 'the three Gauls.' The Roman historian Syme says Emperor Claudius and the historian Tacitus (who preferred the term Galliae) refer to them as Gallia comata 'Long-haired Gaul,' long hair being an attribute that was noticeably different from the Romans. By their time the three Gauls had been subdivided into three, slightly different ones encompassing more peoples than those named in Caesar's tribal groupings: Aquitania, Belgica (where the Elder Pliny, who may have early served at Narbonensis, and a Cornelius Tacitus would serve as Procurator), and Gallia Lugdunensis (where emperors Claudius and Caracalla were born).


Under Augustus, the province of Aquitaine was extended to include 14 more tribes between the Loire and Garonne than just the Aquitani. The area was in the southwest of Gallia comata. Its boundaries were the ocean, the Pyrenees, the Loire, Rhine, and Cevenna range. [Source: Postgate.]

Strabo on the Rest of Transalpine Gaul

The geographer Strabo describes the remaining two sections of Tres Galliae as consisting of what is left over after Narbonensis and Aquitaine, divided into the Lugdunum section to the upper Rhine and the territory of the Belgae:

" Augustus Caesar, however, divided Transalpine Celtica into four parts: the Celtae he designated as belonging to the province of Narbonitis; the Aquitani he designated as the former Caesar had already done, although he added to them fourteen tribes of the peoples who dwell between the Garumna and the Liger Rivers; the rest of the country he divided into two parts: one part he included within the boundaries of Lugdunum as far as the upper districts of the Rhenus, while the other he included within the boundaries of the Belgae."
Strabo Book IV

The Five Gauls

Roman Provinces by Geographic Location


  • "Gaul" The Concise Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Ed. M.C. Howatson and Ian Chilvers. Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • "'Imaginary Geography' in Caesar's Bellum Gallicum," by Krebs, Christopher B.; American Journal of Philology, Volume 127, Number 1 (Whole Number 505), Spring 2006, pp. 111-136
  • "More Narbonensian Senators," by Ronald Syme; Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik Bd. 65, (1986), pp. 1-24
  • "Provincia" Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) William Smith, LLD, Ed.
  • "Messalla in Aquitania," by J. P. Postgate; The Classical Review Vol. 17, No. 2 (Mar. 1903), pp. 112-117
  • "The Patria of Tacitus," by Mary L. Gordon; The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 26, Part 2 (1936), pp. 145-151
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Gill, N.S. "What Role Did Gaul Play in Ancient History?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-gaul-116470. Gill, N.S. (2023, April 5). What Role Did Gaul Play in Ancient History? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaul-116470 Gill, N.S. "What Role Did Gaul Play in Ancient History?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-gaul-116470 (accessed June 5, 2023).