Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul is in the tradition of reports by Roman military commanders, but at the same time, is like a novel in that it is composed in a literary style. Apart from its being propaganda for Caesar, the work has a documentary purpose. Caesar records his deeds for posterity (7-24). Caesar’s account gives an impression of total objectivity. He always speaks of himself in the third person, using the first only in his capacity as the author.
The Gallic War
The “Introduction” of the book provides a background of the Roman politics in the late Republic, a description of Gaul and its inhabitants and Caesar, the man. This portion explains that Caesar was not content with being a consul. Caesar, the ruler of Rome, realized he had to be a military conqueror. The drive for glory would be the land of Gaul. Northern Gaul consisted of large expanses of unconquered land. Conquering Gaul had been a Roman objective because of the problems posed by regular incursions of its warrior tribes into Italy. In 58 B.C. Caesar had himself assigned proconsul, or provincial governor of Illyricum, Cisalpine Gaul, and Narbonese Gaul (7-26).
As Caesar reports in Book I, “The Expulsion of Intruders,” in March 58 B.C., as he mobilized his army, a Celtic tribe called the Helvetii, a band of nearly 400,000 men, women, and children, were reported to be on the move, leaving their home on the north shore of Lake Geneva, in what is now Switzerland, and crossing Transalpine Gaul to the Atlantic Ocean. It was a disciplined, highly trained professional army that he led into Gaul. The power legions made up to 60 centuries of 6,000 men. Mercenaries from Spain, Germany and Egypt joined the Roman force. Caesar confronted the Helvetii at Bibracte, west of the Saone River. The Helvetii attempted to tell Caesar that they were not there to fight the Romans but to move their people father west, away from bands of Germanic tribes that had been disrupting their lives. Caesar listened to their pleas but refused to allow them passage. If the Helvetii wanted to move west, they would have to defeat the Roman army. Caesar reports that while Rome had the advantage in organization and superior weaponry, the Helvetii had a larger army (28-57).
When providing the accounts of the campaign in Helvetii, in Book I and “The Conquest of the Belgic Tribes,” in Book II, at first, Caesar lets it appear as if he proceeded step by step in accordance with the principles of Rome’s foreign policy. Allies must be protected and dangerous neighbors opposed. He protected Rome’s allies selectively, as his interests required. In taking preventive measures against the Helvetii he counted on the reader’s lack of geographical knowledge, because the territory the Helvetii wanted to conquer was no near the Roman province. It seems as though he moved from pure defense in isolated cases to the conquest of the whole territory (28-73). It is typical of Caesar’s presentation that circumstances are introduced as motives and incorporated into the dynamics of the action.
Caesar’s accounts of the collapse of the Belgic coalition (57 B.C.) in Book II, and the victorious campaign in Aquitania (56 B.C.) in Book III, makes it clear that he expected all the Gauls to submit. He gave them orders that they were expected to obey. Every tribe he encountered, with the exception of Rome’s long-standing friends, had to submit. They all had to give hostages. If they did, Caesar usually treated them leniently. This was evidence of his clemency. Caesar demanded universal obedience and submission. He understood the pride that caused tribes to resist defeat. His description is generally fair and arouses the reader’s sympathy for the Gauls. Caesar proceeded from the premise that they must be subjugated, even if the Senate wished the Gauls to remain free (58-88).
Caesar’s Gallic conquests, lasting from 56 to late 54 B.C., involved preparing and executing his invasion of the remote island of Britain. Caesar provides the reader with a number of what he considered compelling reasons for invading Britain. The first was to give the Romans first-hand knowledge of the mysterious land. Secondly, Caesar wanted to exploit Britain’s legendary natural resources. Thirdly, a successful invasion of Britain was sure to bring him much personal wealth, glory, and prestige. In addition, there were two more immediate and strategies reasons for opposing the Britons, First, a number of Belgian tribesmen, who remained hostile to Caesar had taken refuge in Britain, which they planned to use as an anti-Roman base. Second, the Britons were giving aid to the Benti, who were presently in open rebellion against Rome (Books IV & V, 88-132).
Caesar regarded his actions as the proper way to act, to show no consideration, to aim for total success, to behave with generosity when necessary, but also severity and cruelty as he did in the later operations near the Rhine, when he routed the Treveri (53 B.C, Book VI). the siege and capture of Avarcium (52 B.C, Book VII), and The capture of Uxellodunum (51 B.C., Book VIII). Yet even the later severity was consistent with his duty. Throughout the accounts Caesar shows how a responsible governor must conduct himself. He must not be bound by an attitude that is unimpressive, but in keeping with the current mood. Having no governmental backing or sizeable military forces, and unable to achieve much by coercion, Rome usually had to rely on numerous contacts, showing consideration to various parties. This is what made Caesar so different. He set out to perform his tasks comprehensively. Aware of every problem and prepared for action, he set new standards, and by matching up to these standards, he was able to demonstrate his superiority (155-227).
Caesar breaks out of the narrative only at one point, which is in the sixth book, where he compares the characteristics of the Gauls and the Germans. These chapters explain why Caesar broke off his campaign against the Germans without subjugating them. The reason was that the Germans were not like the Gauls who were “extremely devoted to superstitious rites,” and that many human sacrifices were conducted, generally according with Strabo’s accounts, “they who are troubled with unusually severe diseases, and they who are engaged in battles and dangers… think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods can not be rendered propitious (Book VI: 138-142).
In the seventh book, which describes the great crisis of the Gallic war, including Vercingetorix’s defeat in open warfare (52 B.C.) and the siege and capture of Alesia (52 B.C.), he hints that on occasion he came close to abandoning everything (155-200). A special feature of Caesar’s account is the almost total exclusion of emotion. Only the soldiers are allowed to feel fear. Caesar is seemingly immune to it. However, he has some degree of sensitivity. Towards the end of his book, he reveals a good deal more about himself and writes with more freedom. The outward image he displayed may have determined his inner attitude. His essentially playful temperament, his willfulness, and his faith in the fortune given him by Venus, seems to have played a part (189-214)
Hirtius’ preface in the last book, Book VIII, leaves the reader with a picture of Caesar as a man worthy of admiration, who is praised for his accounts of the Gallic War, “Caesar possessed not only the greatest facility and refinement of style, but also the surest skill in explaining his own plans” (Book VIII, 201-2). After the last encounters and the capture of Uxellodunum (Book VIII), Caesar succeeded in achieving his goal, to a degree beyond his own high expectations. In 50 B.C., with his Gallic conquests complete, he camped with his army in Cisalpine Gaul and contemplated how best to take control of Rome. On January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar made his fateful choice. He paused with his troops at the Rubicon River, the recognized border between his province and the Italian heartland. He then led his men across the river and plunged the Roman world into tragic civil strife (201-227).
Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul reveals that one man, decided, without authority, to conquer the whole of Gaul, simple because he felt it ought to be conquered. Gaul fell because of Caesar’s legions, but it eventually rose to become a great nation. Ironically, Rome acted as both destroyer and creator. Though the Romans devastated the original Celtic cultures of Gaul and Britain, in doing so they gave birth to new and successful European cultures.
Caesar, Julius. The Conquest of Gaul. S. A. Hanford (Translator). New York: Viking Press. Revised edition, 1983.