The past days I developed a strange passion for Caesar, the writer, and the general. I can not, but be amazed by his wisdom to handle all the situations that he faces. That’s why I read the second book of the De Bello Gallico and once again I found interesting things related to the author, the general, and the war history of Rome.
Digging right in, we see from the beginning the fear that Roman troops caused among the Gallia’s people.
“While Caesar was in winter quarters in Hither Gaul, as we have shown above, frequent reports were brought to him, and he was also informed by letters from Labienus, that all the Belgae, who we have said are a third part of Gaul, were entering into a confederacy against the Roman people, and giving hostages to one another; that the reasons of the confederacy were these-first, because they feared that, after all [Celtic] Gaul was subdued, our army would be led against them; secondly, because they were instigated by several of the Gauls; some of whom as [on the one hand] they had been unwilling that the Germans should remain any longer in Gaul, so [on the other] they were dissatisfied that the army of the Roman people should pass the winter in it, and settle there;”
Next thing I find interesting and almost funny is that the Belgae were not as much Belgae as we might think.
“When Caesar inquired of them what states were in arms, how powerful they were, and what they could do, in war, he received the following information: that the greater part of the Belgae were sprung, from the Germans, and that having crossed the Rhine at an early period, they had settled there, on account of the fertility of the country, and had driven out the Gauls who inhabited those regions;”
It was the Germans… It’s always the Germans! It’s like it the destiny always was sending Caesar to fight against them, wherever he stepped. At this moment, a map would not hurt.
The Belgae are the people who lived in Belgica, in the north. You can see how close they were to Germania and it’s no wonder why it was one of the territories that an empire like the Germans conquered.
The fact that the Romans were so advanced in the art of war and in the engineering, sometimes, only by showing their skills made the enemy surrender and try to make the peace with them.
“Having attempted to take it by storm on his march, because he heard that it was destitute of [sufficient] defenders, he was not able to carry it by assault, on account of the breadth of the ditch and the height of the wall, though few were defending it. Therefore, having fortified the camp, he began to bring up the vineae, and to provide whatever things were necessary for the storm. In the mean time the whole body of the Suessiones, after their flight, came the next night into the town. The vineae having been quickly brought up against the town, a mound thrown up, and towers built, the Gauls, amazed by the greatness of the works, such as they had neither seen nor heard of before, and struck also by the dispatch of the Romans, send embassadors to Caesar respecting a surrender, and succeed in consequence of the Remi requesting that they [the Suessiones] might be spared.”
The same thing we see a few chapters later:
“When, vineae having been brought up and a mound raised, they observed that a tower also was being built at a distance, they at first began to mock the Romans from their wall, and to taunt them with the following speeches. “For what purpose was so vast a machine constructed at so great a distance? With what hands,” or “with what strength did they, especially [as they were] men of such very small stature” (for our shortness of stature, in comparison to the great size of their bodies, is generally a subject of much contempt to the men of Gaul) “trust to place against their walls a tower of such great weight.
But when they saw that it was being moved, and was approaching their walls, startled by the new and unaccustomed sight, they sent embassadors to Caesar [to treat] about peace; who spoke in the following manner: “That they did not believe the Romans waged war without divine aid, since they were able to move forward machines of such a height with so great speed, and thus fight from close quarters; that they resigned themselves and all their possessions to [Caesar’s] disposal.”
The vineae were a kind of moving towers that the Romans used to get their soldiers up on the walls of a city they were sieging.
Next, the Romans were about to meet one of the most courageous people from Gallia: the Nervii.
“When these were delivered, and all the arms in the town collected, he went from that place into the territories of the Ambiani, who, without delay, surrendered themselves and all their possessions. Upon their territories bordered the Nervii, concerning whose character and customs when Caesar inquired he received the following information:-That there was no access for merchants to them; that they suffered no wine and other things tending to luxury to be imported; because, they thought that by their use the mind is enervated and the courage-impaired: that they were a savage people and of great bravery: that they upbraided and condemned the rest of the Belgae who had surrendered themselves to the Roman people and thrown aside their national courage: that they openly declared they would neither send ambassadors, nor accept any condition of peace.”
Caesar goes against them with six legions and found himself fighting against enemies much stronger than what he believed, who would not think twice before attacking. So were they doing and put the Roman general in a crisis of time:
“Caesar had everything to do at one time: the standard to be displayed, which was the sign when it was necessary to run to arms; the signal to be given by the trumpet; the soldiers to be called off from the works; those who had proceeded some distance for the purpose of seeking materials for the rampart, to be summoned; the order of battle to be formed; the soldiers to be encouraged; the watchword to be given. A great part of these arrangements was prevented by the shortness of time and the sudden approach and charge of the enemy.”
Even if they were in trouble, they were in the end The Romans and had to work it out somehow.
Under these difficulties two things proved of advantage; [first] the skill and experience of the soldiers, because, having been trained by former engagements, they could suggest to themselves what ought to be done, as conveniently as receive information from others; and [secondly] that Caesar had forbidden his several lieutenants to depart from the works and their respective legions, before the camp was fortified. These, on account of the near approach and the speed of the enemy, did not then wait for any command from Caesar, but of themselves executed whatever appeared proper.
A thing that I observed during my study as a classicist is that every time there was a war somewhere, when the soldiers were well encouraged they get a strength that they didn’t know they have. Caesar was really good encouraging his soldiers. Here we have an example:
“Caesar, having given the necessary orders, hastened to and fro into whatever quarter fortune carried him, to animate the troops, and came to the tenth legion. Having encouraged the soldiers with no further speech than that “they should keep up the remembrance of their wonted valor, and not be confused in mind, but valiantly sustain the assault of the enemy ;” as the latter were not further from them than the distance to which a dart could be cast, he gave the signal for commencing battle.”
After a lot of losses on both sides, the Romans, thanks to the lieutenant Labienus put themselves together and won the battle. Caesar admires his enemy beyond measure and refers to them as good fighters.
“But the enemy, even in the last hope of safety, displayed such great courage, that when the foremost of them had fallen, the next stood upon them prostrate, and fought from their bodies; when these were overthrown, and their corpses heaped up together, those who survived cast their weapons against our men [thence], as from a mound, and returned our darts which had fallen short between [the armies]; so that it ought not to be concluded, that men of such great courage had injudiciously dared to pass a very broad river, ascend very high banks, and come up to a very disadvantageous place; since their greatness of spirit had rendered these actions easy, although in themselves very difficult.”
Another face of Caesar that we haven’t yet seen was that of a cold-hearted tyrant. In many occasions, we see that he forgives his enemies and lets them live, but in other situations, he treats the people he killed or sold as slaves just as a simple number, who doesn’t matter more than a speck of dust.
“…About 4,000 of the men having been slain, the rest were forced back into the town. The day after, Caesar, after breaking open the gates, which there was no one then to defend, and sending in our soldiers, sold the whole spoil of that town. The number of 53,000 persons was reported to him by those who had bought them.”