In 58 BC, Julius Caesar set out for his province of Gaul. During his unprecedented nine year campaign there, Caesar subjected many peoples and went about trying to bring the whole of Gaul under Roman rule. All of this is recorded by Caesar himself in his de bello Gallico.
This work is highly unusual and worth a great deal of examination if for no other reason than it is a first hand account of a war created by Caesar and therefore gives us great insight into who this man really was.
When considering Caesar and his work, we must ask
ourselves several questions:
1. What was the purpose of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul?
2. What was the purpose of recording this conquest in the de bello Gallico?
3. Can we trust the account of the war given by Caesar in his work?
4. How does the literary style that Caesar employs lend to his aim?
5. How did this literary style go over with the people of Rome?
As we have already discussed, Caesar formed the First
Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus so
that he could obtain a lucrative province. In 58 BC, he set out for that province, Gallia Transalpina; but for what purpose? Caesar seemed to ignore convention and the standards set by the Senate for a ruling governor time and time again for his whole tenure in Gaul. The Senate (and custom) mandated that Caesar make war only in a defensive posture – only when protecting Rome or Rome’s allies. Caesar did exactly the opposite. Caesar redefined what the Romans would accept as a “just” war. His definition of “just” was when a tribe would not follow his decree. Caesar does not apologize for this either; he merely states that, in the past, great Romans had always defied convention and that he was only following their lead. The de bello Gallico does not do a whole lot to hide Caesar’s true motive in Gaul, which was to gain auctoritas and dignitas by subjugating an entire province by himself and therefore vastly expanding the borders of Rome all by himself (bringing to an end the first period of Rome’s vast expansion). The Senate seemed to approve, for the most part, by granting Caesar a 15 day supplicatio in 57 BC, which was unprecedented even for Sulla.
We see that that the Senate approved of what Caesar
was doing, but what about the general populace? The vulgus was still
very sore from all of the injustices put upon it in 59. Caesar knew
this and needed his reports from Gaul to instill in Rome a sense that Gaul
was being conquered for them and that Caesar was acting for all of Rome,
and not merely for himself. The de bello Gallico was the chief piece
of propaganda that achieved this end.
Looking at the work from a literary standpoint, we see a very deliberate and methodical account of a war that was meant to inform Rome of its progress. Caesar writes of himself in the third person and never gives away his personal emotions about the events that transpire. However, Caesar does often refer to the emotions of his soldiers quite a bit, who seem to need his encouragement to allay fear in the face of adversity. These fears are quickly squashed by the exhortations or the mere countenance of Caesar himself on the battlefield. The people of Rome, the majority of whom would have children or at least relatives in the Roman army, needed to see that their sons were being taken care of by a capable, authoritative, and inspiring leader – Caesar shows himself as all of these. One can just imagine the weekly or monthly reports from Caesar’s latest dispatch read out in the Forum to a crowd hungry for encouraging news.
This brings us to another aspect of Caesar’s work: the actual style of Latin. We must remember that the majority of people in Rome were illiterate to some severe degree. The vulgus knew conversational Greek and a little Latin, but could most likely not makes heads or tails of a Ciceronian oration or any other literary styling for that matter. It was important for Caesar to win over the populace with his reports and thus, make them understandable to his audience. Caesar pulled this off so masterfully that even Cicero, not usually a proponent of any style labeled simple, proclaimed Caesar a genius for his brevity and his straight-forward approach to the Latin language. In class, we have already seen how simple the opening line is to take meaning from: Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes… Notice also that Caesar begins his work with a geographical reference and not a reference to time. He wants to paint a very simple picture of Gaul for his audience.
Caesar uses fewer than 13,000 words and adheres to the traditional rules of grammar more closely than any other known author. His Latin is also very predictable and repetitive, which is reason enough why students of Latin make their first foray into the world of “authentic” Latin reading Caesar’s account of his Gallic conquest.
This straight-forward style most certainly lends toward an element of trust between Caesar and the reader. This begs the question, “Can we really trust what Caesar has written?” for the most part, yes. The most untrue of all of Caesar’s statements in his work comes when reporting statistics of battle (i.e. numbers killed, lost, captured, etc.), but his inflation of numbers is certainly in keeping with custom. It was commonly known that military success was the only way to succeed in Rome at this time, so every general exaggerated his numbers to his own end. To a certain extent, the Romans knew this and tolerated it. All other aspects of the de bello Gallico are a matter of viewpoint. As we have said before, Caesar does not do a lot to hide his true motives - he does not deny them, but he doesn’t discuss them either. What little he does say presents Caesar as a puppet doing what a good Roman governor should do. He states that he must go step by step, protect Rome and her allies, act defensively, and oppose dangerous neighbors (remember that he redefines what a “just” war is).
So, yet again, Caesar achieved what he had set out to do in a most unprecedented and superior manner. In one stroke, he created a vast fortune for himself, increased his auctoritas and dignitas by solely increasing the borders of Rome and subjugating an entire province, and gained the confidence and approval of Rome after what was an almost fatally disastrous consulship.
Scene I: The Forum
People are standing around the Rostra awaiting a message from Gaul. The messenger walks to the middle of the stage and unrolls a scroll.
Messenger: Gallia est omnis divisa in tres partes…
Listener (speaking to another listener): Hey! This is a message from Caesar in Gaul!
2nd Listener: Yes it is! Listen to it – it is so easy to understand!
3rd Listener: Yeah, but who cares! I don’t know if I trust him – look what he did to us last year. He almost ruined all of Rome!
Listener: Well, it sounds pretty good so far. Listen to all of his victories! Think of all of the wealth he will bring back to Rome! Think of how much bigger Rome will become once he’s conquered all of it! Maybe he is the one who will fulfill the prophecy that Rome will overtake the whole world!
2nd Listener: Yeah, besides, think about what those Gauls and Germans have done to us over the years. If it wasn’t for Marius, those barbaric tribes would have taken over Rome just a few years ago! They deserve everything that’s coming to them!
Listener: Deus! And don’t forget what happened so long before that! We came within minutes of total annihilation by those same barbarians. Thank God for the sacred geese of Minerva…
2nd Listener: No kidding. Let’s keep listening.
Scene II: Gaul; Caesar is writing
Caesar sits in a desk writing his memoirs of the bellum Gallicum. The narrator tells us what he is writing
The two listeners from the first scene look on from the side of the stage with much interest and eagerness to hear what he is writing
Narrator: “Caesar offered his terms of peace to these tribes, but they refused to submit to Roman rule, therefore war must be made to protect Rome and her allies. So far, the troops have come up against little resistance and the men have performed with superior skill and discipline. Whenever they do come into trouble, all they need is a little display of leadership and courage and they are back into fighting spirit, better than ever.”
“The only generals to offer any form of organized resistance are Ariovistus, from the German tribe of the Suebi, and Vercingetorix, king of the Averni.”
While the narrator talks, Ariovistus and a Roman soldier come from stage right and mock fight. Quickly, the Roman soldier pushes Ariovistus to the ground and stands over him with his foot on his chest.
“Ariovistus was trying to lead the Helvetii across Gaul to attack the Roman ally Haedui. When the Helvetii tried to cross our province of Geneva and after a long battle lasting most of day, they were defeated.”
Now, as the narrator talks, Vercingetorix runs from two Romans across the stage (left to right) and out of the door. The Romans high five and stand guard at the door with arms folded over their chests. Then in come two more Gauls from the other door and surround the Romans. The Gauls laugh and generally look evil.
“Vercingetorix was a young nobleman that had managed to unite almost all of the Gallic tribes in revolt. They finally figured out that the only way to stand a chance against Caesar was to unite all of the tribes. A long series of battles ensued, all of which culminated at a town called Alesia. Having been defeated in one battle, Vercingetorix retreated inside the town and prepared for a large siege by the Romans. After thirty days, a Gallic cavalry division had attacked the soldiers from the rear at the same time Vercingetorix burst forth from the town.”
As the narrator finishes the last part, the two Romans adopt a three-point stance and bust through the two Gauls like linebackers. The Gauls fall down and someone makes a trumpet sound ending the battle and signaling the Gallic retreat. Vercingetorix comes back in from outside.
“For once, Caesar was outmaneuvered and had to quickly reshape his battle plan. On the verge of defeat and after many days, the brave Roman soldiers fought through the Gallic ranks and split their forces. Just a little while later, the Gallic trumpet for retreat was sounded.”
Vercingetorix kneels before Caesar (as he is still writing – he pays no mind to what is going on) and bows. The two soldiers then lead him off stage right.
“Vercingetorix presented himself for surrender to Caesar as a proud
leader and earned his respect. Caesar, however, stood on high wearing
his blood red cape and patiently watched as the defeated nobleman circled
around the Roman detachment ready to receive his terms of surrender.”
Scene III: Description of Gaul
As the narrator speaks, the Elk crawls on his hands and knees and then falls over on his side and cannot get up.
Narrator: “Book Six: Gaul is an interesting region. The
lands are home to many different creatures both
frightening and beautiful. There is a species of elk here without any joints so that, to sleep, they must lean upon trees and cannot get up again if they fall down. Locals of this area hunt the elk by cutting the trees slightly so that when the elk lean on them to sleep, they are rendered incapacitated and can easily be stabbed to death.”
The “elk” gets up. 2 Druids dressed in robes point to the sky as if reading the stars.
“There are also kinds of men called Druids that are priests. The Gauls are very superstitious and come to them with any pressing matter. The Druids worship gods of the earth and build to please them. They also believe that when a man dies, his animus enters another body and lives again. These men teach this and spend time writing and memorizing all sorts of verse. The Druids do not take part in wars at all.”
The Druids keep inspecting the sky and the camera fades out.
Scene IV: Back in the Forum
The messenger is still reading from scrolls and the people are still there listening.
Listener: Would you listen to all of this? Listen to all of the glory Caesar is bringing to Rome!
3rd Listener: Caesar really is a great man!
2nd Listener: Yes he is! He will truly lead Rome to new
heights of glory! We have nothing to worry
Everybody: This is not good!