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Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War describes the campaigns of Caesar in Gaul, and the different tribes of people he encountered there. There were seven books in all, describing six campaigns (the sixth book describing the Gauls and the Germans), and each was probably forwarded to Rome the winter following the campaign to keep Caesar's name in the minds of the Roman people and the Senate. Ronald Mellor writes, "The purpose of the work was, of course, political--Caesar did very little in his mature life that was not politically motivated." (Mellor, Ronald, 175) Naturally, this calls into question its validity as military history. An examination of the aspects that make good military history reveals that Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War serve superficially as excellent military history, but a closer look into the work reveals serious deficiencies which are generally caused by the author's motives in writing the accounts.

If there is one thing Caesar excels at in writing military history, it is the description of topography and defense structures. Every site of a battle, or even of a meeting, is carefully described. He appraises every city he travels to for its defenses, for instance describing Vesontio, the largest town of the Sequani, he writes: "A wall thrown around it makes a citadel of this mountain, and connects it with the town." (Caesar, Julius, 130) He always lists rivers around locations and even provides estimates of distances so that the reader is presented with a clear image of a region's geography. The description of terrain is essential to military history; even today, the environment remains a deciding factor in many conflicts. However, this is where his ability as a military historian stops.

Caesar's descriptions also always include strategies and tactics. Written in a sharp, concise style, he pays strict attention to the tactics of both the Romans and the enemy. In his words, Caesar's tactics always seem fair and gallant, compared to the enemy. He never does anything underhanded, or takes the easy way out of a situation. Faced with an eminent battle with Ariovistus, "according to his custom, Caesar led out his forces from both camps, and having advanced a little from the larger one, drew up his line of battle and gave the enemy an opportunity of fighting." (Caesar, 138) Whether or not this is what actually occurred, Caesar makes certain that the reader knows whose custom it was to give the enemy proper warning and opportunity: his. When Ariovistus responds, later in the day, he attacks "the lesser camp," (Caesar, 138) implying both that he is deceitful, by refusing to meet Caesar on open ground, and also that he is afraid to meet the larger force and chooses to attack those weaker instead.

Caesar's descriptions of tactics also serve the purpose of building up the enemy and giving them superhuman powers, to make his victories over them seem extraordinary. Portraying the Germans as swift, fierce warriors, he describes the method by which footmen accompany the cavalry so that if the latter should have their horse cut out from under them or fall of their horse the former can immediately rush forward. He writes that, "so great, from practice, was their {the footmen's} swiftness, that, supported by the manes of the horses, they could keep pace with their speed." (Caesar, 137) To a modern reader, and probably to readers contemporary to Caesar as well, it seems hard to believe that the German footmen could really run that quickly, but it still serves the purpose of making the Roman legions, commanded by Caesar, seem very brave for fighting such enemies.

Caesar's treatment of noncombatants is almost non-existent. Although he is always careful to describe the acquisition of supplies for his men and the logistical details of supply lines, like most writers in antiquity he ignores the human element behind those supplies. Writing, "Caesar kept daily importuning the Aedui for the corn which they had promised in the name of their state; for in consequence of the coldness, ...not only was the corn in the fields not ripe, but there was not in store a sufficiently large quantity even of fodder," (Caesar, 121) he displays the typical attitude of generals towards non-combatants throughout the pre-modern age: they are unimportant, barely even noticeable to him except as tools. He allows his troops to take all the corn they want without caring for the needs of those who grow it. Likewise, when he describes the German women, he only considers them as they relate to war, performing rituals before battle and "who, with disheveled hair and in tears, entreated the soldiers, as they went forward to battle, not to deliver them into slavery to the Romans." (Caesar, 138) His description of the Gauls and Germans in Book VI likewise serves one purpose--to contrast the easily conquerable and resource-wealthy Gauls with the 'barbarian' Germans, explaining by way of subtlety why Caesar did not continue into Germanic territory and take that as well. (Mellor, 262) His continual assertions that hardship leads to military prowess and the luxuries of civilization erode that agree with this theory. (Caesar, 114 and 145)

Tied into Caesar's selective description of non-combatants is his treatment of the social and economic consequences of war. In this respect, he follows his famous phrase, "I came, I saw, I conquered," exactly. If one relies strictly on his account, there is nothing after conquest except the triumph. The effect of warfare on the landscape and ordinary people who have to make a living from it is only mentioned to demonize the enemy, as when the Aedui, "as they could not defend themselves and their possessions against {the Helvetii}," come before Caesar pleading for help, for, "their fields ought not to have been laid waste, their children carried off into slavery, their towns stormed." (Caesar, 119) Once the great battle against Ariovistus is over, there is no mention of rebuilding or reparations. Caesar conquered, and then he moved on to his winter camp. The meaning of victory or defeat is ignored.

Caesar's treatment of the individual in battle is nearly nonexistent, unless that individual is himself. Reading the Commentaries, one gains a general impression of masses of soldiers acting in solidarity, always obeying Caesar's orders. They all gain or lose morale at exactly the same pace and time; they are all moved to great acts of bravery by Caesar's speeches. Michael Howard writes that, "Military historians... have to create order out of chaos; and the tidy accounts they give of battles, with generals imposing their will on the battlefield, with neat little blocks and arrows moving in a rational and orderly way... are an almost blasphemous travesty of the chaotic truth." (Howard, Michael, 193) Only one instance involves an individual common soldier, and there he is overtly praising Caesar, saying "'That Caesar did more for them than he has promised'" (Caesar, 134). This deficiency gives the narrative a sterile feeling; war, for Caesar, is gloriously violent and lacking in the blood, fear, and pain that the common soldier must have experienced. Perhaps Caesar, enamored of combat, simply couldn't understand these anonymous men marching under him, but more likely he wanted to focus on the triumph of victory rather than the terribleness of fighting. Sentences like, "Throwing aside therefore their javelins, they fought with swords hand to hand," and "There were found very many of our soldiers who leaped upon the phalanx, and with their hands tore away the shields, and wounded the enemy from above," only hint at the violence. Considering his audience was the people of Rome, many of whom had family members fighting in Gaul, he probably wrote only words of action, willfully neglecting adjectives, to portray only the triumph of victory and none of the brutality of war.

The star of the Commentaries is, of course, Caesar himself, and in describing the qualities of leadership he is always ready to pile accolades on himself. However, he makes an attempt to disguise this by narrating in the third person, and it works to some extent. Christian Meier writes that, "Caesar's book on the Gallic War was in the tradition of reports by Roman military commanders, but at the same time quite novel in that it was composed in a style that matched the highest literary standards. Though ostensibly a campaign report, it is also a highly idiosyncratic expression of the author's personality." (Meier, Christian, 254) Thus, whenever the men's morale falls, Caesar appears to make a dramatic speech. Whenever the enemy does something treacherous, Caesar is his virtuous foil. Caesar also humbly assumes the role of voice of Rome, as when he speaks to Ariovistus, saying, "'who then could endure that what they had brought with them to the friendship of the Roman people should be torn from them?'" (Caesar, 135) He acts as the sole force in diplomacy, politics, and military action throughout the work--and he does this all through orders. His diplomacy is practically non-existent; in fact, he is often overtly threatening. Negotiating with Ariovistus, he says, "'that if he Caesar does not obtain his desires that he {by the power the Senate and people of Rome granted him}, will not overlook the wrongs of the Aedui.'" (Caesar, 130) He orders the different tribes to give him support; in war, he is the supreme commander. Also, if his narrative is to be believed, then he was the perfect commander, never experiencing doubt or fear. Meier states, that, "A special feature of Caesar's account is the almost total exclusion of emotion... Caesar is seemingly immune to it." (Meier, 262) This is simply not realistic; although he sought to portray himself as superhuman, he was not.

Howard writes that, "Eyewitnesses are in no psychological condition to give reliable accounts of their experiences." (Howard, 192) Caesar, in the front lines of battle by his account, has written an insufficient military history of the Gallic campaigns. The clear self-promotion and political maneuvering destroys much of its credibility. However, they served their purpose as promotional material for Caesar, keeping him in the public eye for seven years of absence, building his reputation in anticipation of his dictatorship.


Works Cited

Caesar, Julius. "Commentaries on the Gallic War". The Historians of Ancient Rome. Ed. Ronald Mellor. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Howard, Michael. The Causes of Wars. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993.

Meier, Christian. Caesar. Trans. David McLintock. New York: Basic Books, 1995.

Mellor, Ronald. The Roman Historians. New York: Routledge, 1999.

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