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  • James Houser

58 BC - Caesar's Invasion of Gaul

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 17 - 58 BC. Two commanders confront each other before a great battle. One of them is the Germanic King Ariovistus, the other is the Roman general Julius Caesar. Ariovistus has invaded the lands of a Roman ally, and Caesar has come to fight a just cause and a defensive war – or has he? The age of fake news, propaganda and media manipulation is not new – it was very real in Ancient Rome.

From 58 BC to 49 AD, the legions of Rome set out to conquer the vast territory of Gaul, a region that includes modern France, Switzerland, Belgium and western Germany. Their commander was Gaius Julius Caesar, a powerful politician and well-understood Great Man. It was not a war necessarily sanctioned or approved by the Roman Senate. Stripped of pretense and spin, the conquest of Gaul was an illegal war. That Caesar could get away with an illegal war that lasted a decade was an indicator of both his times and his political ability.

See, the main source we have for the Gallic Wars was written by none other than Julius Caesar. “De Bello Gallico,” in Latin, is one of the great war narratives of history. It has basically never been out of publication in the last two millennia. For many years, Caesar’s narrative of the Gallic Wars was used as a basic text for students learning Latin. This is due not only to its classic status, but also for its sparse, direct prose. Unlike many Latin works, which are flowery and lengthy, “De Bello Gallico” reads much like the man that wrote it – sharp, decisive, brief.

The quality of “De Bello Gallico” was recognized even in its time. The reason for its style – and the style was intentional – was also plainly apparent. Caesar’s narrative was not meant for the highest class of society, the Senators and merchants and nobles of Rome. It was meant for the masses: the laymen, the workers and builders and artisans that made up a powerful and feared bloc in the Republic. The plebeians, rather than the aristocracy, were Caesar’s power base. It was for them that “De Bello Gallico” was written, and it was written for a very specific purpose.

Caesar’s work of Latin excellence was a magnificent piece of war propaganda. It was the “Saving Private Ryan” or “American Sniper” of its time. “De Bellum Gallico” not only described the wars Caesar waged, it justified them. Told in the third person, the text portrays Caesar as the ideal Roman leader: decisive, brave, personally heroic, and honorable. All his dealings with the Gallic tribes are correct. With allies, he is courteous and loyal but protective of Roman interests. With enemies, he is fierce, but only to the point of their submission. With foes that have broken a treaty or betrayed him, Caesar is not just tough but genocidal. “De Bellum Gallico” describes tribes being destroyed, cities razed, and entire peoples being sold into slavery – and presents all of this as just desserts.

None of this was a coincidence. In 49 BC, Caesar was at the point of completely falling out with his political opposition in Rome. He was poised to invade Italy and start the civil war that would bring him to full dictatorial power and, eventually, his own death. Caesar released what would become one of the most important texts of the Classical Period - an immortal piece of military and historical literature studied by Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Napoleon and George Patton – as a way of shoring up his own political power with the Roman masses at a critical juncture in the political infighting of the late Roman Republic.

The Gallic Wars were not inevitable. The wilds of Gaul, a huge and rugged land full of Celtic and Germanic tribes, were a source of Roman nightmares. Very early in the history of the city, the Gallic chief Brennus had invaded Italy and sacked Rome. Only through stern leadership and iron will were its people able to rebuild. Ever since then, the Romans had a mortal fear of invaders from the north. Multiple threats had emerged across the Alps, the most famous being Hannibal in 218 BC. Within living memory, though, a large confederation of aggressive tribes known as the Cimbri and Teutons had invaded Italy. Only the organization and leadership of Gaius Marius had defeated them, but the very fact of the invasion chilled Rome to its core.

It was therefore an extremely popular mission for a Roman general to take on: pacify the mist-shrouded, threatening lands beyond the Alps. Julius Caesar had performed a variety of political maneuvers and backroom negotiations to ensure his command of Rome’s northern provinces. Essential to this plan was a complex alliance with Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man, and Pompey Magnus, Rome’s greatest war hero. Caesar was the populist candidate, the handsome Casanova and a military genius – an unholy combination of Bernie Sanders, John F. Kennedy and Jim Mattis. By securing popular support for Crassus and Pompey’s programs, they helped him secure the military command he desired. With a five-year governorship over Rome’s northern border, Caesar could launch the war he desired.

And Caesar wanted a war. A war was his ticket to wealth, glory and power. He already had the support of the masses, and with it the suspicion of the aristocracy. If Caesar could build a great military reputation and a loyal following of soldiers, he would be unassailable. Successful Roman generals in wartime had gained considerable wealth, influence, and outright power, with Pompey Magnus being the outstanding example for his conquests in the east. Caesar would follow the same route by manufacturing victorious wars in Gaul.

There was another, more negative reason for Caesar’s martial ambitions. In his political career, Caesar had incurred a great financial debt and made a lot of enemies. Under Roman law, as long as Caesar held a military command he could not be tried in the courts, but this immunity would end when his command did. Caesar had to justify his retention in command, at least until he could pay his debts and disarm his political opponents with a successful military career – and that meant getting into a war.

Caesar took command of his province in 58 BC. His available forces included four legions scattered throughout northern Italy and the Adriatic coast. The new proconsul began to look north for opportunities – an excuse to lead his forces deep into Gaul and assert Roman dominance. Essentially, he had just gotten to prison, and was looking for the biggest and toughest guy in the yard to beat up. Failing that, he needed to knock *someone’s* head off the bat, or he would lose valuable time and momentum.

The situation in Gaul was troublesome. Rome was allied with several tribes, among them the Aedui, situated around where modern-day Lyon is in France. The Aedui had been under attack from a large mass of Germanic invaders that had crossed the Rhine a few years beforehand under their King Ariovistus. If that wasn’t bad enough, the Helvetii – a confederation of Gallic tribes in modern-day Switzerland – had been feeling pressure from Ariovistus’s Germans and was preparing to migrate west across Aedui territory. When Caesar took command of his province, he was soon beset by calls from the Aedui to come relieve them from these threats.

Caesar, already across the Alps, took one legion and moved rapidly to intercept the Helvetii. The migrating confederation had sent emissaries asking for safe passage across Roman and Aedui territory, but Caesar had placed pressure on the Aedui to refuse these requests. In the version of events from “De Bello Gallico,” Caesar is moved by a genuine desire to protect the Aedui and prevent the upheaval from a Helvetii migration. He notably fails to explain why he was already on the foreign side of the Alps, and why he reacted immediately with military force rather than diplomatic overtures. The best guess is that Caesar went looking for a nice war and put together justifications later.

Caesar’s legion blocked the Helvetii in the Alpine passes, near the site of modern Geneva. After several attempts to break though his lines, the Helvetii changed course and plunged into the lands of the allied Aedui, trying to make their way west. Caesar describes in great detail the plunder and ravaging that they inflicted on the Aedui’s territory – a little too well, in fact. He brought up reinforcements from Italy and drove north to confront the Aedui.

Caesar caught the Helvetii crossing the Saone River, surprising and defeating the migrants in a bloody battle as they were divided by the rushing waters. The bulk of the Helvetii fled west, and Caesar managed to intercept them. At the Battle of Bibracte, Caesar and his legions waged an all-day fight against the vastly larger Helvetic force, with the Romans eventually gaining victory. The Helvetii surrendered, and Caesar ordered them to return to their original home.

Caesar tells of his campaign against the Helvetii in dashing style, describing their greed and destructiveness in lurid terms and heroizing himself and his men. There is a different angle one can take on it, of course. In the Helvetii camp, Caesar claimed to have discovered a census that described 368,000 Helvetii (with 92,000 able-bodied men) leaving their Alpine home, but only 110,000 survivors returning. By the most generous estimate, that is genocide. “De Bello Gallico” treats this as a great Roman triumph over a vastly superior force, but when one considers that the vast majority of the migrants were the infirm, women, and children, the picture is far darker.

Following Caesar’s victory over the Helvetii, the Gallic tribes met him in a general assembly. There, led by the Aedui, they asked Rome’s protection from the Germans of Ariovistus. Ariovistus and his Suebi Germans had crossed the Rhine some years before and menaced the Gaul ever since. Caesar, of course, saw opportunity in this crisis. Far from just helping his allies, he saw the Germanic threat as a means of uniting the Gallic tribes under his authority, expanding Roman borders, and strengthening the loyalty of his army.

Caesar issued an order to Ariovistus, reminded him of a long Roman doctrine that no German cross the Rhine. He demanded the return of Aedui hostages and a truce with Rome’s new Gallic friends. In “De Bello Gallico,” of course, Caesar is just a loyal ally protecting friends of Rome. In actuality, of course, Caesar was subverting the Gallic tribes into Roman subjects, and using Ariovistus as a bogeyman to scare them into compliance. To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to.

Caesar confronted Ariovistus in the uplands of the Vosges Mountains, in modern-day Alpine France near Dijon. Before they joined battle, however, something strange happened. Ariovistus requested a personal conference, and Caesar agreed. It is probable that Caesar did this to ensure the loyalty of his forces, who were somewhat scared of the fierce Germans and would appreciate that Caesar tried to avoid fighting if it was unnecessary. Caesar had every intention of fighting if it looked like a good idea, but probably thought that if he scared Ariovistus off, it would accomplish his purposes without much fighting.

In their conversation – lovingly described in “De Bello Gallico” – Ariovistus essentially told Caesar exactly what he thought of him. While the Roman stuck rigidly to Roman policy and diplomatic niceties, Ariovistus dismissed these as pretensions. The Germanic King described how he had been invited by the Gauls himself, and had taken hostages and demanded tribute after they betrayed him. Finally he got down to brass tacks.

De Bello Gallico, 1.44:

“Never before had the army of the Roman people moved outside the boundaries. What did Caesar want with him? Why was Caesar coming into his territory? This part of Gaul war Ariovistus’ province, just as the other part was ours…”

Ariovistus then pointed out that Caesar had not responded to earlier attacks on the Aedui, but only to the threat Ariovistus presented – that is, a convenient one. He further reminded his foe that Caesar had a lot of enemies back home, and he might gain their friendship by killing Caesar. Finally, he appealed to him as one conqueror to another. Essentially, we both know we’re here for the same reasons. Why pretend anything different? Let’s settle this and divide up the place.

Ariovistus’s frankness is surprising enough on its own, but what’s even more surprising is that Caesar recorded this conversation and put it into his propaganda piece. It doesn’t make Caesar look good to us; in fact, it makes him look like a cynical manipulator, a Henry Kissinger or a Dick Cheney. Ariovistus’s criticisms of Caesar are entirely too accurate and hold too much truth to belong in your usual propaganda piece, and yet here they are.

Caesar kicked Ariovistus’s ass, of course, and after the German flees across the Rhine we hear no more of him in “De Bello Gallico.” The amount of time given to Ariovistus’ speech in that text, though, is unusual, since no other figure besides Caesar himself ever speaks so much in the work. Was this how Caesar saw himself? Did he depict himself as a villain, or at least something like Ariovistus’ equal, and was reveling in it? After the slaughter that had already come, and before the slaughter yet to come as Caesar conquered Gaul, did he have his own second thoughts about his ambitious expedition? Did he look into the face of his Germanic foe and see himself?

Interesting questions, but they did not slow Caesar down. He wrote a long account of his wars, his massacres, his invasions and slaughters, and it only made the Romans admire him more. He became one of history’s most famous names based on these events. He detailed every terrible act of his wars, and defended those acts to the hilt – except for that little conversation, where a barbarian king told Caesar exactly who he was. And Caesar kept it in the work that was supposed to justify his deeds.

Guilty conscience, perhaps?

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