Saturday, January 20, 2018

Julius Caesar - The Conquest of Gaul

Julius Caesar's personal account of his time as military commander (58-50 BCE) in central and north-west Europe is a fascinating read. Caesar has responsibility for an area that mostly covers modern France, Switzerland and parts of Germany and the low countries. Today, his account is often remembered as it contains the first written accounts of Britain and the Britons. But it should also be read for its insights into the reality of the Roman Army.

Rome's imperialism allowed it to gather booty and slaves, essential for the functioning of its economy. But the subduing of huge areas of the continent also allowed it to create areas with which trade was possible. Caesar was mostly concerned with making sure that the local tribes could not damage Rome's economic interests. So some of the book is accounts of Caesar's attempts to create alliances between Rome and various French and Germany tribes. It's fascinating to see how divide and rule is used to undermine the power of the united tribes.

But most of the book is a military account. In places it's breathless as thousands of Roman soldiers and their mercenary allies (often German cavalry) smashes the numerically superior tribes. Sections of the book contain detailed accounts of contemporary warfare. The description of the Siege of Alesia, where the Roman area besieged a town held by the Arveni tribe under the leadership of Vercingetorix. The Roman's completely surrounded the town and held off a huge relief force before winning a military victory that is probably still looked at in academies today.

But what really struck me about reading this book is how it exposes Roman occupation and military action as essentially terror. Hostages are demanded, villages and towns are razed. People are killed in huge numbers when they aren't captured into slavery. Crops are despoiled or stolen to keep the legions marching and the enemies aren't simply defeated, they are smashed.
Setting out once more to harass the Eburones, Caesar sent out in all directions a large force of cavalry that he had collected from the neighbouring tribes. Every village and every building they saw was set on fire; all over the country the cattle were either slaughtered or driven off as booty; and the crops, a part of which had already been laid flat by the autumnal rains, were consumed by the great numbers of horses and men. It seemed certain, therefore, that even if some of the inhabitants had escaped for the moment by hiding, they must die of starvation after the retirement of the troops.
Caesar here is writing about himself in the third person, so this is his own account of events. This sort of mass terror is repeated time and again by the Romans and their allies. What is also remarkable about these descriptions is that they were intended to be read as a celebration and justification of Caesar's actions. In other words, they were read and accepted by the Roman population, who presumably didn't object - or if they did we have no record of it. Certainly Caesar saw no problem in putting his mass oppression in print.

For those interested in military history this is a great read. For those who want to understand the reality of Imperial rule there's also much in it. Sadly the parallel with more recent imperial behaviour is all too clear.

Related Reviews

Harper - The Fate of Rome
Beard - SPQR
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Tacitus - The Annals of Imperial Rome
Plutarch - The Fall of the Roman Republic
Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar

1 comment:

Jordan @ForeverLostinLiterature said...

I took quite a few Ancient Roman/Greek military courses in college as part of my focus for my major (Classics) and was so fascinated by Caesar's accounts. I found it so fascinating that he wrote these with the intent of them being a sort of propaganda in his favor. Definitely a fascinating read, and glad you enjoyed it!