Julius Caesar: The Gallic War

In his early thirties Julius Caesar is said to have looked upon a statue of Alexander the Great and felt miserable. At the same age Alexander had already conquered much of the known world. What had Caesar accomplished? He’d served as a priest, raised a fleet to crucify pirates, had a gay love affair with a foreign king (allegedly), and was responsible for governing part of Spain. If your benchmark is Alexander though, this is small potatoes. What kind of person is so ambitious that their standard is the greatest conqueror ever known?

Caesar left that statue and went back to Rome, where he was elected consul, serving with two others as rulers of Rome.  As happens in politics things got tense and Caesar deemed it wise to leave Rome to earn glory and money (he was a bit broke) as Governor and military commander of Gaul . I’d equate this to the modern politician who leaves office to do speaking tours, write a book and be on the board of directors for a few companies. Raise your profile and make lots of money, but stay out of the fray.

Thus in 58 BC Caesar exits politics to cement Rome’s authority over Gaul, which is basically all of modern France, Belgium, Northern Italy and parts of Spain. Rome had been in Gaul for over 70 years, but did not exactly have a firm command of the territory. Only 50 years previous a barbarian tribe, the Cimbri, had marched from northern Europe through Gaul and terrorized the Romans.

This book is Caesar’s account of his attempt to conquer and subdue Gaul from 58 to 52 BC and to gain the sort of glory that would put him in the echelon of Alexander. Caesar recounts numerous wars with individual Gallic tribes. When I hear the word tribe I think of a few thousand people, but the Gallic tribes were massive, often able to deploy nearly 100,000 men for a single battle. This is real life Game of Thrones as everyone involved, within their own clan or externally, vies for dominance over the others through all manner of subterfuge and gamesmanship.

Caesar is able to crush individual tribes in huge battles, but must use all of his political savvy to attempt to control them and prevent future wars. It is impressive how adaptable he is and how well he understands the human psyche. When he catches a tribe leader plotting against him, Caesar has the sense to simply forgive him, as the alternative leader is worse. In another instance he cuts off the hands of an entire rebel army rather than kill them, so as to leave a permanent reminder to their neighbours not to mess with Rome. In a siege he has the sense to divert an entire river, cutting the enemy town off from water. Whatever the situation calls for he adapts and uses all of his abilities to solve the problem.

With his own troops, often fighting far from home and against long odds, he is a true leader. When he senses that they are fearful, he knows what to say. If words seem insufficient, he picks up a a sword and shield and leads them to battle.  He knows when to push and when to ease off. He often references the advantage of battles where those fighting can be seen by their own side since the peer pressure prevents cowardliness and inspires bravery.

In the end the Gallic tribes fighting individually fail to defeat Caesar.  Vercingetorix, a tribal leader appeals to the Gauls to join forces behind him. As he states, it was accepted that one tribe would attack another; the Cimbri had sacked most of Gaul not long ago. The difference though, is that while they raped and pillaged, they also left. The Romans didn’t intend to leave though, they intended to rule.  Gaul, always warring with one another, stood together to fight the Romans, their own White Walkers. The final battle is as massive as it is conclusive.

What is striking is how terrifying living in this era would have been. As Caesar states “what is out of sight disturbs men’s minds more seriously than what they see.” Damn near everything in this era is out of sight.

One tribe, the Helvetti, feel like they are geographically constrained, so burn all of their own villages and crops (so they can’t change their minds) and decide to migrate. All 300,000 people give up everything they have and simply march in another direction, hoping for good fortune. Imagine all of Switzerland burned to the ground, its citizens simply picking up and walking East. Except most of the ancient Gauls probably hadn’t traveled more than 50 kilometres and were entirely ignorant of what existed in the world outside these limits.

Caesar at one point decides that tribes in Britain are helping his enemies, so builds boats to take an army across the English Channel. The unknowns involved are incredible. This mission involves traversing an unknown ocean with rudimentary ships, finding a safe harbour to land over 50 ships and then fighting whatever people live there, with almost no food. At one point all of the Roman ships are shattered due to weather.  So the Romans are stuck on a British beach with minimal food and the enemy literally swarming above them. The only option is to fight these unknown people of unknown numbers. Oh and these people are blue (they dye their skin) and fight on horses equipped with a kind of chariot sidecar nobody has ever seen. When the Romans first fight Germans it is noted that they are physically massive compared to the shorter Romans and are half-naked, the rest covered only in animal skins.

Imagine being an average person in Uxellodunum and the Romans are besieging your city. You know that a previously besieged city ran out of food, but your leaders have planned ahead and you have enough food to last years, if need be. One side of the town is mountain and the other a river, behind which are massive fortifications. The Romans shouldn’t be able to breach the walls. You should be safe. But a short while into the siege there is less and less water. Eventually the spring running under the city runs bone dry. The options are to die of thirst or open the gates to the Romans.

Overall the book doesn’t provide much in the way of historical context so it helps if you know a bit about Roman history already. Dan Carlin’s podcast series on Rome is a perfect prelude to this if that’s your thing.  In the book itself you don’t feel as though you are reading something written by Caesar as it isn’t written in first person and doesn’t provide insight into his own internal thinking, only what he did and the rationale for these actions. It was easy to get lost in repetitive minutiae at times.

The ambition of Caesar is incredible. Whenever an option presents itself he opts for immediate action, often taking insane risks in pursuit of greater glory.  Alexander did more at a younger age, but Caesar left a much larger imprint. He likely wouldn’t be dissatisfied that someone 34  is blogging about him in 2017 and feeling a bit inadequate.