Caesar’s commentaries on the Gallic Wars – the Commentarii de Bello Gallico – are one of the most accessible Latin texts. Because of it’s clear prose, straightforward message and lack of complex poetic constructions, it is often used as a practice text for students of Latin. This, in turn, has made the Roman conquest of Gaul one of the most widely known episodes in Roman history. Moreover, it has given schoolchildren of all times the chance to read the work of one of history’s greatest generals: Julius Caesar. Whether you love him or hate him, Caesar certainly was a talented writer in addition to being a great general. He managed to captivate the people of Rome with his commentaries on the Gallic Wars, which contributed greatly to his political success. It is therefore of great importance to understand the political context of his work.
The Late Roman Republic
During the first century BC, Rome at its core was still the old-fashioned aristocratic city state that it had been ever since its foundation. Because of the massive gains of lands through conquests in the third and second centuries BC, however, Rome had grown into an empire. The population grew as well and the common people, the plebeians, grew increasingly resentful of the priviliged position of the aristocratic families, the patricians. Many patricians saw the dissatisfied masses as a threat, but some of them recognized the opportunity of gaining political power through popular support. These patricians were called the populares. They were opposed by the more conservative patricians, the optimates, who did not want to give up their priviliges and feared that some patricians would use plebeian support to rise above their former equals. During the late second and early first century BC, the populares and the optimates vied for power, with Marius and Sulla being their most important representatives. Both used their political power to eradicate their opponents.
Marius, the leader of the populares, enacted an army reform in 107 BC that enabled even the poorest plebeians to join the army. Before these reforms, soldiers were drafted from among the population in times of war, but only those who could afford to buy their own weapons and armor were allowed to participate. This excluded a large percentage of the population, so Marius had good strategic reasons for this reform. With the Marian reforms a standing army was created in which anyone could particate. Their weapons, armor and daily needs would be provided by the state, but they had to enlist for at least 16 years. The Marian reforms attracted many poor plebeians who had no other way to earn an income. These plebeians were therefore very dedicated to their general, as well as being more experienced through their long service.
Now on to Caesar himself. Gaius Julius Caesar belonged to a patrician family of mediocre standing. He supported the populares party and was very ambitious from a young age onward. This may have been due to the fact that he and his family had been forced to flee the tyranny of optimates dictator Sulla. It is said that Caesar, in his early thirties, stumbled upon a statue of Alexander the Great and started crying because he had not accomplished anything significant in life, whereas Alexander had the world at his feet at the same age. Whether or not his anecdote is reliable is up to debate, but Caesar did spent a lot of his family fortune on his political career, which indicates that he must have had great ambitions. Perhaps Caesar was indeed inspired by the ideal of kingship represented by Alexander the Great: that of a world conquering hero. The ideal of the king as a world conquering hero had been embodied by the Persian, Babylonian and Assyrian kings before Alexander, all the way back to Sargon of Akkad. Caesar may thus have been inspired by oriental ideals of kingship.
The First Triumvirate
In 60 BC Caesar managed to become one of the two consuls. He was an extravagant leader who easily overshadowed his colleague, Marcus Bibulus. Caesar was supported by two powerful politicians: the rich Crassus and the seasoned war veteran Pompey. These three politician formed a secret alliance known as the First Triumvirate to support each other in gaining political power. Although conservative politicans like Cato the Younger and Cicero were alarmed by their actions, there was little they could do. By the end of his consulship, Caesar was awarded the proconsulship of Illyria (the Croatian coast), Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy) and Transalipine Gaul (southeastern France) and given control over four legions. Pompey became proconsul in Spain and Crassus went to Syria. Thus they had informally divided the empire among themselves. Nevertheless, all three of them probably knew that this situation couldn’t last.
The Gallic Wars
Now that Caesar had four legions at his disposal and part of the empire to rule as his own domain, it was finally time to live his dream of becoming a world conquering hero. Besides, he had to earn some extra income since he had spent all his family fortunes on his political career. Using the migration of the Helvetii through the territory of the Aedui – allies of Rome – as an excuse, he set out on a campaign to subjugate all of Gaul. The fact that Caesar started behaving like a world conquering hero alarmed the patricians even more, because they feared that Caesar would crown himself king and abolish the aristocracy. Great orators like Cicero and Cato the Younger warned the people and the senate for the threat that Caesar posed. In order to defend himself against these allegations and to win popularity among the people of Rome, Caesar wrote yearly reports on his campaigns in Gaul. Caesar’s target audience were the plebeians, who couldn’t care less about the fall of the aristocratic republic and who were interested in a strong leader who fought for their interests. Perhaps Caesar’s accessible writing style may be attributed to this.
Caesar himself wrote seven books between 58 and 51 BC; one book for each year. Hirtius, one of his generals, later added an eighth one.
- Book 1 deals with Caesar’s war against the Helvetii, who wanted to cross the territory of the Aedui, a tribe allied to Rome, in their migration from the Alps to the Atlantic Coast. Caesar claims that the Gauls initially lauded him for defending them against these invaders. Later on Caesar defeats the invading Suebi under king Ariovistus. These two invasions by Germanic peoples might hint at a greater migration pattern of Germanic tribes towards Gaul during the 50s BC.
- Book 2 deals with Caesar’s campaign against the Belgae, in the far north of Gaul. Caesar describes the Belgae as the strongest of the Gallic peoples, because they lived so far away from the luxuries of civilization. This depiction of the Belgae as noble savages must have appealed to Caesar’s Roman audience, who were impressed by his victories against such a strong and mysterious people. Although Caesar states that the Belgae had entered into a coalition against Rome, the real reason that Caesar went all the way north probably was because of his ambitions of being a world conquering hero.
- Book 3 deals with Caesar’s subjugation of the Atlantic Coast. Apparently, Caesar tried to conquer Gaul by conquering the outlying parts first, thus surrounding the core. Among ordinary Romans the Atlantic Ocean was not well known. They saw the Ocean as a mysterious salty river at the edge of the world. By campaigning at the ‘ends of the world’, Caesar again strengthened his reputation as a world conqueror.
- Book 4 deals with Caesar’s invasions of Britannia and Germania, two distant and mysterious countries to the average Roman. Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel and the Rhine river, although they were of little strategic importance, had a great symbolic value.
- Book 5 deals mostly with Caesar’s second invasion of Britannia.
- Book 6 deals mostly with Caesar’s second invasion of Germania.
- Book 7 deals with Vercingetorix’s revolt against Roman rule. Vercingetorix managed to unite the Gallic tribes who had until then been divided and founded a tribal federation that may have posed a significant threat to Rome if they hadn’t been defeated by Caesar.
- Book 8 was written by Caesar’s general Hirtius and deals with the aftermath of the defeat of Vercingetorix.
The opinions on the reliability of Caesar’s work are divided, because there is something to say for both sides. Arguments for Caesar’s reliability are that he writes in a way that appears to be mostly objective, focussing on the situation at hand without explicitly expressing his own thoughts about it. He is also known for writing about himself in the third person; something that has been percieved as a sign of his arrogance, but in reality is nothing more than a way to fit the genre of report writing. Other authors before him, most noticeably Xenophon, did so as well. Arguments against his reliability are that he had obvious political interests, that he described the Gauls, Britons and Germans in a stereotypical way and that he may have twisted some of the facts, most noticeably the number of the people he killed. Of course these caveats should be taken into account while reading the text. Nevertheless, regardless of the reliability of the text, the fact that we have a detailed, contemporary, first hand account of Caesar’s campaigns is very rare. This alone makes Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars worth the read.