It was Alexandre Dumas who first put me on to Caesar’s commentaries when he had Luigi Vampa, the bandit king in The Count of Monte Cristo, declaring them to be his favourite read. I suspect Dumas was having a dig there: if you are a bandit king looking for inspiration, who better to turn to than Caesar? As a Frenchman, Dumas might not have been very objective; but there is no denying that Caesar’s adventures in Gaul were largely a matter of plunder and profit, as well as political advancement. But then, neither can it be denied that that was how the game was played back then, by everyone, and that the principle thing Caesar’s opponents could hold against him was that he played it harder than anyone else.
Montaigne writes of Caesar: ‘…the only thing to be said against him is that he speaks too sparingly of himself.’ I disagree. The Gallic War is, among many other things, Caesar’s love letter to Caesar, shot through with self-aggrandisement. Famously, he refers to himself in the third person, which gives a veneer of objectivity when he writes, again and again, of how his very presence made the difference between defeat and victory, or even war and peace. When he is not present at some pivotal moment, he has his officers tell the men to pretend that he is, so that they will fight with greater courage.
This thing, courage, is important. Caesar hardly mentions the tactics, formation and discipline that made the Roman army famous, but he talks a great deal about courage. The word is a rendering of the Latin, virtus, and something gets lost in the translation. Virtus is a characteristically masculine, and Roman, quality; it seems to encompass autonomy and rectitude as well as bravery. Slaves cannot have it, nor children, and very rarely women. Caesar allows that the Gauls have it, especially those such as the Nervii, unsoftened by civilisation, whom he describes as savages. But they don’t have as much of it as the Romans. The Romans do not panic like Gauls do; they do not lose heart in the face of long odds or reversals; and they do not run away. This above all, according to Caesar, is why they win. And it is important that courage be witnessed so that it can be acknowledged and rewarded: men will be braver if they know someone is watching, especially their general.
The other thing that Caesar mentions repeatedly is the corn supply and how it might be secured – war is about the prosaic as well as the glorious. The corn is taken from the Gauls, of course, with varying degrees of resistance. A crucial advantage Caesar had over these communities was their fractious nature, and as they quarreled among themselves they would often turn to him for arbitration. Caesar plays them off against each other expertly, granting favours here, issuing reprimands and warnings there. Rebellious communities are dealt with leniently if they come around quickly enough, but for those that persist in their error, massacre and enslavement await.
To the modern mind, The Gallic War is a catalogue of horror. After the defeat of Dumnorix, Caesar’s cavalry kill the enemy until their horses, and their arms, are too tired to carry on. At Avaricum, no one is spared; not the old men, nor the women, nor the children. The untold numbers of non combatants expelled from Alesia are simply left to expire in no man’s land when Caesar refuses them passage; and once the battle is won, there are enough captives for him to give a slave apiece to every man in his army. Genocide is an overused, and perhaps an anachronistic term here, but what else fits when Caesar states his aim of wiping out the race and name of the Eburones? He is clearly pleased with himself when he claims large numbers of enemy dead, and with good reason, by Roman lights: in the Republic it was necessary to kill at least five thousand in a battle to qualify for a triumph. Out of a Gallic population of around five million, Plutarch tells us that Caesar killed a million and enslaved another million. Nothing comparable would hit Europe until the Black Death, fourteen centuries later. But, as ever with the ancients, we have to adjust our moral response. Plutarch reports his figures neutrally, and his evaluation of Caesar as a general reads thus: ‘If we compare him with (those generals) whose glory, it may be said, went up at that time to heaven for every excellence in war, we shall find Caesar’s actions to have surpassed them all.’ (Dryden).
The Gallic War reminds us that the legions were so effective not just because they were courageous and disciplined, but because they were tireless navvies and expert engineers. The construction of the siege works at Alesia – 24 miles of it in total – is an astonishing feat, mentioned only in passing by Caesar; though he does go into more detail on the innovative man traps that were constructed around its outer ring. Time and again, Caesar’s enemies are stricken by technofear: from Gallic cities surrendering when confronted with moving siege towers, to the ferocious Germans melting away at the sight of a bridge spanning the Rhine, to the Britons thrown into a panic by the appearance of Roman warships and their artillery. Adaptability in the field is also important. The British expeditions put the legionaries up against chariots, which combined the mobility of cavalry with the stability of infantry, and which run rings around them to begin with. Caesar quickly gets the measure of the Britons by using his own infantry and cavalry in close conjunction. But there was an enemy in Britain more difficult to deal with – Caesar might have been the first, but was certainly not the last visitor to those shores to be set back by crap weather. On both expeditions Caesar’s fleet was smashed up by storms, and the unpredictable winds in the Channel meant that many of his ships didn’t reach their destinations at all.
It was of little account. Britain was more of a publicity stunt than a strategic objective for Caesar, and it must have generated some thrilling reports – woad-daubed savages with long moustaches, drinking milk and driving chariots on a mist enshrouded island at the end of the world. This was just the kind of publicity that would have appealed to the commons, Caesar’s political power base in Rome, even while snobs such as Cicero turned their noses up at it. But it was not just Britain: all the campaigns and conquests of Caesar’s nine-year proconsulship were every bit as political as they were military, because those nine years were, in fact, an exile. Had he remained in Rome, without his imperium to protect him, he would certainly have been prosecuted, and likely ruined, for the illegal tactics he employed during his consulship in 59. But if the Gallic campaigns were Caesar’s attempt to rehabilitate himself, they failed, as we know, and his seven commentaries are augmented by another, written by his legate Aulus Hirtius, that takes us to the brink of the Civil War. History is in motion, and Caesar’s continuing commentaries, The Civil War, look irresistible.
But my favourite part of this book, something that has puzzled and amused me for years, is of no consequence at all. In an unusual aside, Caesar writes of an elk-like beast that lives deep in the forests of Germany, where he has never been. This animal has no knee joints, so if it lies down it can never get back up. It takes its rest by leaning against trees, and it has favourite trees. When hunters identify such a tree they cut through the base so that the next time the elk leans on it both tree and elk fall down, rendering it easy prey. The notes in my edition shed no light on this bizarre entry, though they make it clear it is not thought to be an interpolation. Perhaps Caesar, with one eye on his audience as always, had a Baron Munchausen moment. Perhaps, in another life, he could have written sketches for Monty Python.
The edition reviewed is the Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Carolyn Hammond, 1996