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.

Antoine de Saint – Exupery: Wind, Sand and Stars

Explorers and adventurers have always fascinated me and there are endless books in this genre. Robert Scott’s tragic diary, the tale of the USS Jeanette and Captain James Cook’s travels are all personal favourites. What drives us to seek adventure or take enormous risks, when we have but one life to live?

Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars, a memoir of his time as an aviator in the early days of flight, tries to answer this and many other questions. What do we derive meaning from? What is a life well-lived? The writing itself provides his answer, as he approaches the world with a child-like sense of awe, the pages dripping with majestic imagery and metaphor, often reflecting a sense of pure joy.  If he must choose specificity (dates or other particulars) or beauty in recounting his experiences, he opts for beauty and wonder.  Where Orewell’s Homage to Catalonia, a memoir from the same era (both men were in Spain during the civil war), reads like a log of his time, mixed with withering analysis, Wind, Sand and Stars is a piece of art where light on a plane’s wing radiates “in the form of a bouquet of pink flowers.” The titles reflect this difference best.

Though not an explorer, aviation itself was in its exploratory stages.  Saint-Exupéry flies by sight and map, with only rudimentary controls, in small planes that feel the full brunt of nature’s effects.  Navigating by the stars, his course dictated by the wind, he crosses the Pyrenees and the Andes, sails through typhoons, crashes in the Sahara and nearly runs out of fuel over the ocean.  When thought lost for dead in the Sahara he notes that he has “gambled and lost” but has no regrets. He states clearly that “it is not danger I love. I know what I love. It is life.”

Life isn’t shuffling papers in a government office or earning a certain arbitrary amount of money. Man is not “cattle to be fattened for market.” Man’s fulfillment is not to be found in logic, it is to be found in what culture, activity or scale of values brings self-fulfillment or awakens an inner spirit. For Saint-Exupéry the plane was a means towards experience. One does not die for air mail, the same as most men in a war do not die for whatever banner they happen to fight for. Far from escapism, shirking off daily drudgery for something more is the embrace of reality.  Finding beauty, in music or art, is reality.  Love is experiencing this with another person. This is the only way to realize one’s full potential, to test one’s self, to experience freedom.

Consumerism and technology are a constant backdrop to this book.  Saint-Exupéry initially is supportive of new technology, noting that over time it is eventually accepted. The plane, he notes, doesn’t divorce man from nature or feeling, it puts man in touch with nature. At the time this was quite true as he flew in a tiny plane, feeling the cold, rain, his vision obscured by clouds, his destination governed by wind that flew in his face. But what would he think of a modern airplane, on auto-pilot for 90% of the flight, the pilot not feeling the wind or viewing the stars, but instead a series of knobs and monitors? Of a world where any place on Earth could be viewed with the click of a button? Where, like his prisoner digging a hole for punishment, work is neither purposeful nor enriching? Where a car drives itself? This is what I wondered as I finished the book.

It seems I may have received my answer as I then read that Saint-Exupéry went missing in his plane in 1944, just as airplane navigation became heavily dependent on reading instruments, which he was not enamoured with. When a French fisherman pulled his nets in 2004 he found a bracelet with Saint-Exupéry’s name inscribed and his plane was found shortly after. It had no bullet holes and appears to have flown directly in to the sea, with suicide strongly suspected.

I suspect Saint-Exupéry would hate much of the modern world, as it eliminates wonder and joy. For being a world divorced from reality.  One wonders if he hasn’t got to the reasons for why our modern world, despite its benefits, is so full of depression, anxiety and isolation? Where men in droves seek nothing as they see nothing offered in return. Perhaps the technology is no longer a means, as his plane was, but an end itself.

A truly brilliant book and I’d highly recommend reading this back to back with Orewell’s Homage to Catalonia. Was Orewell truly fighting mainly to rid Spain of fascism? In favour of socialism? As he states he joined mainly as it was the thing to do in Spain and his best justification at the end of the war for choosing his side and being shot in the neck is a weak plea that no war is without a difference depending on the victor. I suspect Saint-Exupéry understood better than he what brought Orewell to arms.