Caesar: The Gallic Wars

October 20, 2018

The Gallic Wars
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2017) [c.50 BC]
306 p.

In 59 BC Caesar had convinced Pompey and Crassus to form an alliance with him for power in the staggering Roman Republic, and had been awarded governorship of the province of Transalpine Gaul (that is, the south of modern France). The next year he departed to wage what turned out to be a decade-long contest to conquer the whole of Gaul — roughly, the area bordered on the south by the Pyrenees and in the northeast by the Rhine — and bring it under the governance of Rome. His success had the effect of nearly doubling the geographical size of Roman territory. He himself wrote this account of the campaign (with a slight caveat, below).

Caesar’s motive in undertaking the war is partly obscure. His stated reasons were that several peoples of northern Gaul had appealed to him for assistance as they faced violent incursions from Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine. He defended them and established Roman authority to maintain peace. But historians have not failed to notice that Caesar began the war deeply in debt and emerged immensely wealthy, and there is some natural suspicion that this prospect formed part of his motivation as well.

**

The war followed a fairly predictable pattern, year on year. Because the armies involved were immense (tens of thousands of men) and because, as always in ancient warfare, they survived by foraging from the lands through which they passed, they could fight only when food could be had. Thus they would begin in around June and wrap up by October; for the remainder of the year the army would hunker down in winter quarters, making weapons or building boats, while Caesar himself would cross southwards over the Alps to mind his other duties.

In the early years of the campaign the Romans enjoyed a marked military advantage. Their opponents had never seen discipline, technology, and expertise such as Rome possessed. A Gallic army might occupy a hill town — not a bad tactic against a near peer enemy — but the Romans, instead of charging uphill in a wild assault, would build a massive circumvallation to prevent any traffic in or out; they would dig great trenches filled with water; they would construct siege towers and massive earthworks by which to breach the enemy’s walls. It was no contest.

But, to the credit of the Gauls, they learned quickly, and by the midpoint of the decade the technological advantage of Caesar’s forces was less obvious. Countermeasures like fiery projectiles and collapsing tunnels were used against Caesar, and the Gauls adopted siege warfare tactics as opportunity allowed. Caesar does not stint to praise the ingenuity of his foes when, in his eyes, they earned it.

Still, the number of Roman defeats was small. Late in 57 part of the army was ambushed in the Alps and had to flee for safety. The winter quarters were attacked in 54, with many Romans killed. The following year the main supply camp, left on minimal manning while the main army was elsewhere, was surprised by a Gallic attack and routed. But these were exceptional; the Romans faced greater or lesser resistance, but mostly prevailed.

**

The campaign included several famous episodes. In 55 Caesar, keen to demonstrate Roman power to the Germanic tribes harrassing his Gallic allies, did what had been thought impossible: in just 10 days his engineers built a bridge across the Rhine strong enough to march his entire army across. The methods were quite amazing: footings were driven into the river bottom using dropped weights, stabilized against the current by being placed at angles, and the bridge surface was extended from footing to footing until the crossing was complete. They even built deflecting barriers upstream of the footings to prevent logs floated down by the Germans from causing damage. The feat was repeated in 53 at a different location. Once across, Caesar didn’t do much; this was military theatre with a message: don’t think you’re safe just because this paltry creek runs between us.

The other very famous episode, also in 55, and of special interest to English speakers, was Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel into Britain. He embarked in September with a relatively small force, mostly, it seems, from curiosity to see the island which was, in the Roman imagination, the very end of the earth. They first encountered the cliffs of Dover, and, being unable to land, sailed northeast up the coast until they found a beach (probably near modern Walmer). Naturally, the Britons were not overjoyed to see them, and opposed their landing. Nonetheless the Romans were able to establish a small camp, where they remained for about a week before attempting to return to Gaul. En route some of the Roman ships were forced back to Britain by a storm, and this contingent, including Caesar, was attacked again by the Britons, who were resisted only with great difficulty. Finally gaining the upper hand, Caesar imposed on the Britons an obligation to send hostages (a standard penalty for those whom he defeated), and departed. Apparently only one tribe did send hostages, the rest, presumably, hoping that they would never see the Romans again.

But this was wishful thinking. Caesar’s men spent the winter building boats, and in July of 54 he crossed the Channel again, this time with more than 600 vessels in his fleet. Astonished, the Britons failed to even contest his landing. Several conflicts ensued, as Caesar marched his men approximately 100 km inland over the course of a campaign lasting 2-3 months. On those whom he defeated he imposed financial penalties on the understanding — still a pretense, but soon enough a reality — that Britain was now under Roman control. It was Caesar’s last British hurrah; once departed, he never returned to Britain.

**

The overall arc of the Gallic Wars was of escalating conflict against progressively better organized foes. When first Caesar came to Gaul it was divided into many small tribes, but as the scale of the Roman threat became more evident the Gauls organized into larger groups to increase their chances of success. This resistance culminated in 52 with the formation of a pan-Gallic force led by Vercingetorix. He conceived a new strategy: scorched earth. Attempting to use the size of the Roman army against it, he directed that the Gauls burn their fields, farms, and towns in order to deprive the Romans of supplies. But this tack was only partly successful; yes, it made things harder for Caesar, but he simply foraged farther afield. Eventually he cornered Vercingetorix in the city of Avaricum (near modern Bourges). A difficult siege ensued, but the Romans eventually breached the walls.

Vercingetorix, however, escaped and took shelter in Alesia (modern Alise-Sainte-Reine), where the culminating battle of the Gallic Wars took place. The city was situated on a hill, with strong fortifications. A sizable Gallic army was inside, and another was outside at some distance. Standard procedure was to lay siege to fortified cities, but the presence of the second Gallic army, roaming about, complicated things. Caesar’s response was to make a double-facing circumvallation of the city: walls, towers, trenches, and booby traps facing both toward Alesia and away. Though he had few men to staff such an extensive fortification, the obstacles he installed allowed him time to concentrate his men where the attacks took place. Eventually, their hand forced by hunger, the Gauls broke out of Alesia and attacked, and the second army also assaulted the Romans in a co-ordinated effort. But Caesar and his men proved too strong. Vercingetorix was captured, and surrendered along with all the forces at his command. The conquest of Gaul was, more or less, complete.

More or less, because although Caesar’s own account of the campaign concludes after the siege of Alesia, one Aulus Hirtius appended an eighth and final book in which he recounts the events of the years 52-50, bridging the gap between Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars and Caesar’s account of the Roman civil wars (which I hope to read sometime soon). In these years, we learn, there were a variety of smaller skirmishes against pockets of resistance. But they have the feeling of being an aftermath, or a mopping up operation, and it is perhaps for those reasons that Caesar did not take the trouble to write about them himself.

**

As in most accounts of ancient warfare, the methods employed by Caesar (and his opponents) can be shocking to us. Even so standard a tactic as siege warfare, involving, as it does, civilians alongside soldiers, fails to meet ethical standards of modern warfare. There were rare occasions when Caesar was especially brutal — as at the siege of Uxellodenum, when he had the hands of the defeated soldiers cut off — and, as was standard, he gloried in reporting how many foes had been killed (often, modern historians suspect, greatly exaggerating the numbers). It is possible that a million Gauls lost their lives in the decade-long fight against Rome, so this was war on a large scale, and, we must admit, despite that fact that Caesar acquired in his own time a reputation for clemency, he would by modern standards be guilty of war crimes. The same, of course, could be said of other Roman generals, and of Persians, Greeks, and Gauls.

The people of Rome, though, had few qualms about Caesar’s methods or aims. Caesar would send back reports, and he tells us, with pride, that he was on several occasions awarded lengthy public celebrations in Rome that outstripped in lavishness and duration those of any previous military commander. When he did finally return to Rome in 49, it was, of course, an epoch-making (or, to be more specific, a Rubicon-crossing) event. His fame and power had waxed greatly, and although he faced powerful opponents, especially in the person of Pompey, it was clear that he was a man with whom the Roman Republic could not avoid a reckoning.

**

This was a tremendously enjoyable book. Being one of the few ancient accounts of a military campaign written by the responsible military commander, it has special historical value, but the importance of the story it tells has made it attractive to a wide swath of readers. Indeed, The Gallic Wars was for centuries one of the standard books that students of Latin would read in the course of their education, admired for the clarity of its style in addition to the interest of the story it tells.

I read a new edition published in the Landmark series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The text is enriched by a generous helping of maps, paragraph summaries, timelines, many explanatory notes, an excellent introduction, and a daunting set of essays on various aspects of Roman warfare, economics, and politics. An immense amount of work went into it, and we, the readers, benefit. It deserves to win every pertinent publishing award, and maybe a few others besides.

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