Saturday, May 22, 2010

TARGET: GAUL


A Review of Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul
Published as series (50s-44 BC)
Translated by S.A. Handford (1951 AD)
Revised and edited by Jane F. Gardner (1982 AD)

(Rating 5 of 5)

In 387 B.C., Rome suffered the worst defeat in its history by that point. Brennus of the Senones, a people from Gaul, laid waste to the army of Rome and entered the city. The Gauls looted and devastated the city and they would not leave until the Romans bought them off. The defeat had damaged the Roman psyche, before Rome would only go to war if for a just cause like self-defense. After this attack, their view of self-defense would take on a completely new dimension: preemptive attacks—to use a modern phrase—would be the new norm. Centuries later, Rome had fought Gallic tribes quite a few times, with much better results, but the bitter historical memories remained. Julius Caesar was going to do what no Roman had before him dared to do: take the fight to the heart of Gaul itself. Centuries after their greatest humiliation, it was now payback time.

Julius Caesar would not just invade and conquer all the tribes of Gaul he would write down the accomplishments of himself and his army. This work* would be would be written so the people of Rome could read it and appreciate what he was doing. His allies, his fellow triumvirs, and adversaries, such as Cato and Scipio, would read it. Caesar’s work would continue to be read long after the civilization that lived in and served would crumble and send Europe into the Middle Ages. For centuries, Caesar’s work was often used in Latin classes all across the world so students could practice their understanding of Latin by translating the work into their native language.

“Gaul comprises three areas, inhabited respectively by the Belgae, the Aquitani, and a people who call themselves Celts, though we call them Gauls. All of these have a different languages, customs, and laws. The Celts are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garonne, from the Belgae by the Marne and Seine. The Belgae are the bravest of the three peoples, being the farthest removed from the highly developed civilization of the Roman Province, least often visited by merchants with enervating luxuries for sale, and nearest to the Germans across the Rhine, with whom they are continually at war. For the same reason the Helvetii are braver than the rest of the Celts; they are in an almost daily conflict with the Germans, either trying to keep them out of Switzerland or themselves invading Germany. The region occupied by the Celts, which has one frontier facing north, is bounded by the Rhone, the Garonne, the Atlantic Ocean, and the country of the Belgae; the part of it inhabited by the Sequani and the Helvetii also touches the Rhine. The Belgic territory, facing north and east, runs the northern frontier of the Celts to the lower Rhine. Aquitania is bounded by the Garonne, the Pyremees, and the part of the Atlantic coast nearest Spain; it faces north-west” p.28


When reading Caesar myself their were a couple of things I soon discovered. The first thing I first noticed was that Caesar likes to write about himself in the third person. This makes me wonder, of course, if he actually talked liked that. I have read that he had, but have never been able to really confirm it. The second thing I discover is my own understanding of military matters is much like my understanding of chess: I know how all the pieces move but I do not understand strategy and if someone tries to talk ‘chess’ to me I will not understand what they mean. I do however find the political element that Caesar discusses to be extremely fascinating and there is quite a bit of it.

“Caesar perceived that Liscus’ remarks alluded to Diviciacus’ brother Dumnorix, and as he did not want the matter discussed with a number of others present, he promptly dismissed the assembly, telling Liscus to stay behind. When they were alone he questioned him about what he had said in the meeting, and Liscus now spoke with greater freedom and confidence. On putting the same questions to others in private, Caesar found that his report was true. It was indeed Dumnorix that he had referred to, a man of boundless daring, extremely popular with the masses on account of his liberality, and an ardent revolutionary.” p.36


Although I strongly believe in the above quote's meeting to be as Caesar describes it, it may have had a different spin from Liscus’ perspective, there is always the question of how much of the work is fact and how much is propaganda. History is written by the winners—literally, in this case—so one needs to try to pull away from the text and try to put some context to what he or she is reading. We know that Caesar does tell some tall tales about some funny animals, he also tends to quote people from meetings, which he was never in, and all the participants might be dead. My old history professor*** once explained to our class that in the ancient world it was permitted to quote someone using your words as theirs. That so long as you ‘knew his character’ it would be generally accepted as fact. The scene at Alesia, is described by Caesar, and includes a dialogue of Vercingetorix with the other top leaders in Alesia describing how they will exile all those who cannot fight—women, children, and old people—and hope the Romans take them in. Yet, a lot of Caesar says about this battle was later confirmed by archeological digs that were funded by Napoleon III. In addition, we know from the letters of Cicero that he was in contact with his brother at the time, which leaves us to conclude the Senate had some eye to what was going on there. Since the officers of Caesar’s army were from prominent political families and some of them were opposed to Caesar politically, I think we can safely assume that if Caesar completely made up major points then he would have most likely have been caught and exposed.


I have to admit there is a certain excitement I got from reading this book. Knowing that I was reading the actually words and thoughts that Julius Caesar put down thousands of years before I was ever born** was fascinating experience unto itself. I strongly recommend this work to anyone interested in the world of ancient antiquity. I would also recommend with this book to read Kate Gilliver’s work with it as a guide, for the maps and details are quite helpful in helping one understand the story Caesar is telling.


*His friend, Aulus Hirtius, writes the last book after Caesar’s death.

**Alternatively, to put a stronger point on it, over thousand seven hundred years before my nation was born.

***In the top photo he is the left man in the back, his photo and information is the second individual photo on top.

{Video taken from the already classic HBO series Rome}

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