Some men are so great they need no lengthy introduction. Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul, member of the First Triumvirate, and Rome’s first dictator for life since King Tarquin’s expulsion from the city centuries before, is one such man.
His military exploits, especially his victory at Alesia, are studied even today, two millennia later. His crossing of the Rhine to punish the Germans, during which he built a bridge across it in ten short days, something the Germans couldn’t even dream of doing, is still remembered as an example of Roman superiority over the barbarians. In a few short years, Caesar brought Gaul into the empire, subdued the German tribes along the border, and even carried the Roman eagles to the shores of Britannia.
And why do we remember those conquests as we do? Why is the enslavement of a million Gauls and death of another million looked back on not with horror and repulsion, but with interested eyes desperately hoping to know more so that the reader can crown Caesar with glory once again?
Because Caesar told the story himself! He wrote reports back to Rome, framing his battlefield conquests as the great victories they were and drawing the Roman people to his side as he drew Gaul into the folds of the Empire. Churchill supposedly said, “history will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” Write it he did and look back favorably on him we do. Caesar could have said the same, for The Gallic Wars is a masterful piece of propaganda that tells the story of the conquest of Gaul in the way most flattering to Caesar.
He begins by describing the nation:
“GAUL, TAKEN AS A WHOLE, is divided into three parts, one of which is inhabited by the Belgae, another by the Aquitani, and the third by a people who call themselves Celts and whom we call Gauls. These peoples differ from one another in language, institutions, and laws. The Gauls are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garonne, from the Belgae by the Marne and the Seine. Of all these peoples the bravest are the Belgae; for they are furthest removed from the civilization and refinement of the Province, traders very rarely visit them with the wares which tend to produce moral enervation...”
Caesare thn sets the scene, describing the migration of the Helvetii that supposedly forced his hand, compelling him to first involve himself in the affairs of Gaul (oh, and like MacArthur in Reminiscences, Caesar refers to himself in the third person throughout:
“the Helvetii in no way relaxed their efforts to carry out their intended emigration. As soon as they believed themselves ready for the enterprise, they set fire to all their strongholds, of which there were twelve, their villages, numbering four hundred, and the remaining buildings, which belonged to individuals; and burned the whole of their grain, except what they were going to take with them, that they might have no hope of returning home, and so be more ready to face every danger…
As soon as Caesar was informed that they were attempting to march through the Province, he promptly quit the capital, pushed on as fast as he could possibly travel into Further Gaul, and made his way to the neighborhood of Geneva. As the entire force in Further Gaul amounted only to one legion, he ordered as many troops as possible to be raised throughout the Province, and directed that the bridge at Geneva should be broken down. The Helvetii, on being informed of his approach, sent an embassy to him, composed of their most illustrious citizens, headed by Nammeius and Verucloetius, to say that they purposed, with his consent, to march through the Province, as there was no other route open to them, but that they would do no harm. Caesar, remembering that Lucius Cassius, when consul, had been slain by the Helvetii, and his army defeated and forced to pass under the yoke, was not disposed to grant their request; and he was of opinion that men of hostile temper were not likely to refrain from outrage and mischief.”
What then follows is a years-long summary of the battles that Caesar waged as he first “helped” Gaul, then subdued the Germans and Britons, then subdued the Gauls. Each campaign is brilliant and his depiction of any one of them alone would make The Gallic Wars well worth reading, and because of that there is not enough space here in which I can summarize each. I have, however, collected some of the best excerpts so that you can understand the nature of the work, how Caesar presented his victories to the Roman people, and the dangers faced by the handful of Roman legions that conquered millions of people in a few short years:
“Caesar had to arrange everything at once,— the red flag, the signal for arming; sound the trumpet; recall the men from the trenches; send for those who had gone further afield in search of wood; form the line; harangue the troops; and give the signal for battle. Want of time and the enemy’s onset prevented much of this from being done. Two things, however, served to lighten his difficulties,—first, the knowledge and experience of the soldiers, who, as seasoned campaigners, were able to decide for themselves what ought to be done as well as others could tell them; and secondly, the fact that he had forbidden his marshals to leave the works and their respective legions till the camp was entrenched. As the enemy were so close and coming up so fast, they did not wait for orders from Caesar, but made the arrangements which they thought right on their own responsibility. Caesar, after giving indispensable orders, hurried down at haphazard to encourage the soldiers, and came to the 10th legion. He spoke briefly, merely urging the men to remember their ancient valour, keep cool, and sustain resolutely the enemy’s rush; then, as the enemy were within range, he gave the signal for action.”
“Publius Sextius Baculus, the bravest of the brave, who was so exhausted by a number of severe wounds that he could no longer keep his feet; the men had lost all dash, and some in the rear ranks had abandoned their posts and were slinking away from the field and getting out of range; while the enemy were coming up in front in an unbroken stream from below, and closing in on both flanks: in short, the situation was critical and there was no reserve, available. Seeing all this, Caesar, who had come up without a shield, took one from a soldier in the rear rank, stepped forward into the front rank, and, addressing the centurions by name, encouraged the men and told them to advance, opening their ranks so that they might be able to use their swords more readily. His coming inspired them with hope and gave them new heart; and as everyone, even in his extremest peril, was anxious to do his utmost under the eyes of his general”
“Thenceforward the struggle turned upon sheer courage, in which our soldiers easily had the advantage, especially as the fighting went on under the eyes of Caesar and the whole army, so that no act of courage at all remarkable could escape notice; for all the cliffs and high ground which commanded a near view over the sea were occupied by the army.”
“as our soldiers were hesitating, chiefly because of the depth of the water, the standard-bearer of the 10th, praying that his attempt might redound to the success of the legion, cried, “Leap down, men, unless you want to abandon the eagle to the enemy: I, at all events, shall have done my duty to my country and my general.” Uttering these words in a loud voice, he threw himself overboard, and advanced, bearing the eagle, against the enemy. Then, calling upon each other not to suffer such a disgrace, the men leaped all together from the ship. Seeing this, their comrades in the nearest ships followed them, and advanced close up to the enemy.”
“To these arguments Cicero simply replied that it was not the habit of the Roman People to accept terms from an armed enemy: if the Gauls would lay down their arms, they could send envoys to Caesar and avail themselves of his intercession; Caesar was just, and he hoped that they would obtain what they asked.”
“On the seventh day of the siege a great a desperate gale sprang up; and the besiegers began to sling resolutely red-hot bullets made of plastic clay and to throw burning darts at the huts, which, in the Gallic fashion, were thatched. The huts quickly took fire, and, owing to the force of the wind, the flames spread all over the camp. The enemy cheered loudly, as if victory were already certain, and began to move forward their towers and huts and to escalade the rampart. But so great was the courage of the legionaries, and such was their presence of mind, that, although they were everywhere scorched by the flames and harassed by a hail of missiles, and knew that all their baggage and everything that belonged to them was on fire, not only did none of them abandon his post on the rampart, but hardly a man even looked round; and in that hour all fought with the utmost dash and resolution. This was far the most trying day for our men; but nevertheless, the result was that a very large number of the enemy were killed or wounded”
“In this legion there were two centurions, Pullo and Vorenus, who, by dint of extraordinary courage, were getting close to the first grade. They were forever disputing as to which was the better man; and every year they contended for promotion with the greatest acrimony. When the fighting at the entrenchment was at its hottest, “Vorenus,” cried Pullo, “why hesitate? What better chance can you want of proving your courage? This day shall settle our disputes.” With these words he walked outside the entrenchment, and where the enemy’s ranks were thickest dashed in. Vorenus of course did not keep inside the rampart: afraid of what every one would think, he followed his rival. At a moderate distance, Pullo threw his javelin at the enemy and struck one of them as he was charging out of the throng: he fainted from the blow, and the enemy protected him with their shields, and all together hurled their missiles at his assailant and cut off his retreat. Pullo’s shield was transfixed, and the dart stuck in his sword-belt. The blow knocked his scabbard round, so that his hand was hampered as he tried to draw his sword; and in his helpless state the enemy thronged round him. His rival, Vorenus, ran to his rescue, and helped him in his stress. In a moment the whole multitude left Pullo, believing that the dart had killed him, and turned upon Vorenus. Sword in hand, Vorenus fought at bay, killed one of his assailants, and forced the rest a little way back; but pressing on too eagerly, he ran headlong down a slope and fell. He was in his turn surrounded, but Pullo succoured him, and the two men slew several of the enemy and got back, safe and sound and covered with glory, into the entrenchment. Thus Fortune made them her puppets in rivalry and combat, rival helping rival and each saving the other, so that it was impossible to decide which was to be deemed the braver man.”
“Caesar found a good position, from which he observed all the phases of the action and reinforced those who were in difficulties. Both sides saw that now was the moment for a supreme effort: the Gauls utterly despaired of safety unless they could break the lines; the Romans, if they could but hold their ground, looked forward to the end of all their toils.”
Desperate battles. Back and forth sieges that hinged on chance, bravery, and perseverance. Hundreds of thousands of German or Gallic barbarians assaulting a few legions of well-trained and well-equipped Romans. Brave, battle-hardened men that would face any danger for their beloved leader and were, in the end, well-rewarded for their courage and loyalty. It reads like a novel because of all the action, flamboyant or otherwise interesting characters, and hair-raising, adrenaline-pumping story in which a brilliant general and his valiant warriors conquer many times their number of hard-fighting barbarians. But it’s all real!
Well, at least Caesar presents it as real. Who knows how much of it happened as he said it did.
In any case, it’s an amazing read. Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was the last great conquest of the Republic. The glory he brought to Rome was, with the exception of his adopted son Octavian (Imperator Caesar Augustus), unparalleled. The wealth, slaves, and land he brought was similarly without precedent, bringing him much acclaim and financial reward.
Julius Caesar is known for many things, not all of them good. But his conquest of Gaul was glorious and the national honor his actions built for Rome is something all of us should try to emulate. While we can’t conquer France on our own like he could (well, if WWII is any guide, I suppose we could and that should is the better word, but you get the point), we can each do our part to make America the greatest nation like Caesar did for Rome.
So why should you read The Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar? Because it’s a story of a great man accomplishing great things in the face of immeasurable hardship and low odds. It’s a tale of heroism, glory, leadership, and, best of all, victory. Of a man acting like the best of his ancestors for the glory of his eternal city.
No matter who you are, what your goals are, of how interested you are in Classical history, you need to read it.
By: Gen Z Conservative