Julius Caesar - Jacob Abbott

The Conquest of Gaul

In attaining to the consulship, Cæsar had reached the highest point of elevation which it was possible to reach as a mere citizen of Rome. His ambition was, however, of course, not satisfied. The only way to acquire higher distinction and to rise to higher power was to enter upon a career of foreign conquest. Cæsar therefore aspired now to be a soldier. He accordingly obtained the command of an army, and entered upon a course of military campaigns in the heart of Europe, which he continued for eight years. These eight years constitute one of the most important and strongly-marked periods of his life. He was triumphantly successful in his military career, and he made, accordingly, a vast accession to his celebrity and power, in his own day, by the results of his campaigns. He also wrote, himself, an account of his adventures during this period, in which the events are recorded in so lucid and in so eloquent a manner, that the narrations have continued to be read by every successive generation of scholars down to the present day, and they have had a great influence in extending and perpetuating his fame.

The principal scenes of the exploits which Cæsar performed during the period of this his first great military career, were the north of Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany, and England, a great tract of country, nearly all of which he overran and conquered. A large portion of this territory was called Gaul in those days; the part on the Italian side of the Alps being named Cisalpine Gaul, while that which lay beyond was designated as Transalpine. Transalpine Gaul was substantially what is now France. There was a part of Transalpine Gaul which had been already conquered and reduced to a Roman province. It was called The Province then, and has retained the name, with a slight change in orthography, to the present day. It is now known as Provence.

The countries which Cæsar went to invade were occupied by various nations and tribes, many of which were well organized and war-like, and some of them were considerably civilized and wealthy. They had extended tracts of cultivated land, the slopes of the hills and the mountain sides being formed into green pasturages, which were covered with flocks of goats, and sheep, and herds of cattle, while the smoother and more level tracts were adorned with smiling vineyards and broadly-extended fields of waving grain. They had cities, forts, ships, and armies. Their manners and customs would be considered somewhat rude by modern nations, and some of their usages of war were half barbarian. For example, in one of the nations which Cæsar encountered, he found, as he says in his narrative, a corps of cavalry, as a constituent part of the army, in which, to every horse, there were two  men, one the rider, and the other a sort of foot soldier and attendant. If the battle went against them, and the squadron were put to their speed in a retreat, these footmen would cling to the manes of the horses, and then, half running, half flying, they would be borne along over the field, thus keeping always at the side of their comrades, and escaping with them to a place of safety.

But, although the Romans were inclined to consider these nations as only half civilized, still there would be great glory, as Cæsar thought, in subduing them, and probably great treasure would be secured in the conquest, both by the plunder and confiscation of governmental property, and by the tribute which would be collected in taxes from the people of the countries subdued. Cæsar accordingly placed himself at the head of an army of three Roman legions, which he contrived, by means of a great deal of political maneuvering and management, to have raised and placed under his command. One of these legions, which was called the tenth legion, was his favorite corps, on account of the bravery and hardihood which they often displayed. At the head of these legions, Cæsar set out for Gaul. He was at this time not far from forty years of age.

Cæsar had no difficulty in finding pretexts for making war upon any of these various nations that he might desire to subdue. They were, of course, frequently at war with each other, and there were at all times standing topics of controversy and unsettled disputes among them. Cæsar had, therefore, only to draw near to the scene of contention, and then to take sides with one party or the other, it mattered little with which, for the affair almost always resulted, in the end, in his making himself master of both. The manner, however, in which this sort of operation was performed, can best be illustrated by an example, and we will take for the purpose the case of Ariovistus.

Ariovistus was a German king. He had been nominally a sort of ally of the Romans. He had extended his conquests across the Rhine into Gaul, and he held some nations there as his tributaries. Among these, the Æduans were a prominent party, and, to simplify the account, we will take their name as the representative of all who were concerned. When Cæsar came into the region of the Æduans, he entered into some negotiations with them, in which they, as he alleges, asked his assistance to enable them to throw off the dominion of their German enemy. It is probable, in fact, that there was some proposition of this kind from them, for Cæsar had abundant means of inducing them to make it, if he was disposed, and the receiving of such a communication furnished the most obvious and plausible pretext to authorize and justify his interposition.

Cæsar accordingly sent a messenger across the Rhine to Ariovistus, saying that he wished to have an interview with him on business of importance, and asking him to name a time which would be convenient to him for the interview, and also to appoint some place in Gaul where he would attend.

To this Ariovistus replied, that if he had, himself, any business with Cæsar, he would have waited upon him to propose it; and, in the same manner, if Cæsar wished to see him, he must come into his own dominions. He said that it would not be safe for him to come into Gaul without an army, and that it was not convenient for him to raise and equip an army for such a purpose at that time.

Cæsar sent again to Ariovistus to say, that since he was so unmindful of his obligations to the Roman people as to refuse an interview with him on business of common interest, he would state the particulars that he required of him. The Æduans, he said, were now his allies, and under his protection; and Ariovistus must send back the hostages which he held from them, and bind himself henceforth not to send any more troops across the Rhine, nor make war upon the Æduans, or injure them in any way. If he complied with these terms, all would be well. If he did not, Cæsar said that he should not himself disregard the just complaints of his allies.

Ariovistus had no fear of Cæsar. Cæsar had, in fact, thus far, not begun to acquire the military renown to which he afterward attained. Ariovistus had, therefore, no particular cause to dread his power. He sent him back word that he did not understand why Cæsar should interfere between him and his conquered province. "The Æduans," said he, "tried the fortune of war with me, and were overcome; and they must abide the issue. The Romans manage their conquered provinces as they judge proper, without holding themselves accountable to any one. I shall do the same with mine. All that I can say is, that so long as the Æduans submit peaceably to my authority, and pay their tribute, I shall not molest them; as to your threat that you shall not disregard their complaints, you must know that no one has ever made war upon me but to his own destruction, and, if you wish to see how it will turn out in your case, you may make the experiment whenever you please."

Both parties immediately prepared for war. Ariovistus, instead of waiting to be attacked, assembled his army, crossed the Rhine, and advanced into the territories from which Cæsar had undertaken to exclude him.

As Cæsar, however, began to make his arrangements for putting his army in motion to meet his approaching enemy, there began to circulate throughout the camp such extraordinary stories of the terrible strength and courage of the German soldiery as to produce a very general panic. So great, at length, became the anxiety and alarm, that even the officers were wholly dejected and discouraged; and as for the men, they were on the very eve of mutiny.

When Cæsar understood this state of things, he called an assembly of the troops, and made an address to them. He told them that he was astonished to learn to what an extent an unworthy despondency and fear had taken possession of their minds, and how little confidence they reposed in him, their general. And then, after some further remarks about the duty of a soldier to be ready to go wherever his commander leads him, and presenting also some considerations in respect to the German troops with which they were going to contend, in order to show them that they had no cause to fear, he ended by saying that he had not been fully decided as to the time of marching, but that now he had concluded to give orders for setting out the next morning at three o'clock, that he might learn, as soon as possible, who were too cowardly to follow him. He would go himself, he said, if he was attended by the tenth legion alone. He was sure that they would not shrink from any undertaking in which he led the way.

The soldiers, moved partly by shame, partly by the decisive and commanding tone which their general assumed, and partly reassured by the courage and confidence which he seemed to feel, laid aside their fears, and vied with each other henceforth in energy and ardor. The armies approached each other. Ariovistus sent to Cæsar, saying that now, if he wished it, he was ready for an interview. Cæsar acceded to the suggestion, and the arrangements for a conference were made, each party, as usual in such cases, taking every precaution to guard against the treachery of the other.

Between the two camps there was a rising ground, in the middle of an open plain, where it was decided that the conference should be held. Ariovistus proposed that neither party should bring any foot soldiers to the place of meeting, but cavalry alone; and that these bodies of cavalry, brought by the respective generals, should remain at the foot of the eminence on either side, while Cæsar and Ariovistus themselves, attended each by only ten followers on horseback, should ascend it. This plan was acceded to by Cæsar, and a long conference was held in this way between the two generals, as they sat upon their horses, on the summit of the hill.

The two generals, in their discussion, only repeated in substance what they had said in their embassages before, and made no progress toward coming to an understanding. At length Cæsar closed the conference and withdrew. Some days afterward Ariovistus sent a request to Cæsar, asking that he would appoint another interview, or else that he would depute one of his officers to proceed to Ariovistus's camp and receive a communication which he wished to make to him. Cæsar concluded not to grant another interview, and he did not think it prudent to send any one of his principal officers as an embassador, for fear that he might be treacherously seized and held as a hostage. He accordingly sent an ordinary messenger, accompanied by one or two men. These men were all seized and put in irons as soon as they reached the camp of Ariovistus, and Cæsar now prepared in earnest for giving his enemy battle.

He proved himself as skillful and efficient in arranging and managing the combat as he had been sagacious and adroit in the negotiations which preceded it. Several days were spent in maneuvers and movements, by which each party endeavored to gain some advantage over the other in respect to their position in the approaching struggle. When at length the combat came, Cæsar and his legions were entirely and triumphantly successful. The Germans were put totally to flight. Their baggage and stores were all seized, and the troops themselves fled in dismay by all the roads which led back to the Rhine; and there those who succeeded in escaping death from the Romans, who pursued them all the way, embarked in boats and upon rafts, and returned to their homes. Ariovistus himself found a small boat, in which, with one or two followers, he succeeded in getting across the stream.

As Cæsar, at the head of a body of his troops, was pursuing the enemy in this their flight, he overtook one party who had a prisoner with them confined by iron chains fastened to his limbs, and whom they were hurrying rapidly along. This prisoner proved to be the messenger that Cæsar had sent to Ariovistus's camp, and whom he had, as Cæsar alleges, treacherously detained. Of course, he was overjoyed to be recaptured and set at liberty. The man said that three times they had drawn lots to see whether they should burn him alive then, or reserve the pleasure for a future occasion, and that every time the lot had resulted in his favor.

The consequence of this victory was, that Cæsar's authority was established triumphantly over all that part of Gaul which he had thus freed from Ariovistus's sway. Other parts of the country, too, were pervaded by the fame of his exploits, and the people every where began to consider what action it would be incumbent on them to take, in respect to the new military power which had appeared so suddenly among them. Some nations determined to submit without resistance, and to seek the conqueror's alliance and protection. Others, more bold, or more confident of their strength, began to form combinations and to arrange plans for resisting him. But, whatever they did, the result in the end was the same. Cæsar's ascendency was every where and always gaining ground. Of course, it is impossible in the compass of a single chapter, which is all that can be devoted to the subject in this volume, to give any regular narrative of the events of the eight years of Cæsar's military career in Gaul. Marches, negotiations, battles, and victories mingled with and followed each other in a long succession, the particulars of which it would require a volume to detail, every thing resulting most successfully for the increase of Cæsar's power and the extension of his fame.

Cæsar gives, in his narrative, very extraordinary accounts of the customs and modes of life of some of the people that he encountered. There was one country, for example, in which all the lands were common, and the whole structure of society was based on the plan of forming the community into one great martial band. The nation was divided into a hundred cantons, each containing two thousand men capable of bearing arms. If these were all mustered into service together, they would form, of course, an army of two hundred thousand men. It was customary, however, to organize only one half of them into an army, while the rest remained at home to till the ground and tend the flocks and herds. These two great divisions interchanged their work every year, the soldiers becoming husbandmen, and the husbandmen soldiers. Thus they all became equally inured to the hardships and dangers of the camp, and to the more continuous but safer labors of agricultural toil. Their fields were devoted to pasturage more than to tillage, for flocks and herds could be driven from place to place, and thus more easily preserved from the depredations of enemies than fields of grain. The children grew up almost perfectly wild from infancy, and hardened themselves by bathing in cold streams, wearing very little clothing, and making long hunting excursions among the mountains. The people had abundance of excellent horses, which the young men were accustomed, from their earliest years, to ride without saddle or bridle, the horses being trained to obey implicitly every command. So admirably disciplined were they, that sometimes, in battle, the mounted men would leap from their horses and advance as foot soldiers to aid the other infantry, leaving the horses to stand until they returned. The horses would not move from the spot; the men, when the object for which they had dismounted was accomplished, would come back, spring to their seats again, and once more become a squadron of cavalry.

Although Cæsar was very energetic and decided in the government of his army, he was extremely popular with his soldiers in all these campaigns. He exposed his men, of course, to a great many privations and hardships, but then he evinced, in many cases, such a willingness to bear his share of them, that the men were very little inclined to complain. He moved at the head of the column when his troops were advancing on a march, generally on horseback, but often on foot; and Suetonius says that he used to go bareheaded on such occasions, whatever was the state of the weather, though it is difficult to see what the motive of this apparently needless exposure could be, unless it was for effect, on some special or unusual occasion. Cæsar would ford or swim rivers with his men whenever there was no other mode of transit, sometimes supported, it was said, by bags inflated with air, and placed under his arms. At one time he built a bridge across the Rhine, to enable his army to cross that river. This bridge was built with piles driven down into the sand, which supported a flooring of timbers. Cæsar, considering it quite an exploit thus to bridge the Rhine, wrote a minute account of the manner in which the work was constructed, and the description is almost exactly in accordance with the principles and usages of modern carpentry.

After the countries which were the scene of these conquests were pretty well subdued, Cæsar established on some of the great routes of travel a system of posts, that is, he stationed supplies of horses at intervals of from ten to twenty miles along the way, so that he himself, or the officers of his army, or any couriers whom he might have occasion to send with dispatches could travel with great speed by finding a fresh horse ready at every stage. By this means he sometimes traveled himself a hundred miles in a day. This system, thus adopted for military purposes in Cæsar's time, has been continued in almost all countries of Europe to the present age, and is applied to traveling in carriages as well as on horseback. A family party purchase a carriage, and arranging within it all the comforts and conveniences which they will require on the journey, they set out, taking these post horses, fresh at each village, to draw them to the next. Thus they can go at any rate of speed which they desire, instead of being limited in their movements by the powers of endurance of one set of animals, as they would be compelled to be if they were to travel with their own. This plan has, for some reason, never been introduced into America, and it is now probable that it never will be, as the railway system will doubtless supersede it.

One of the most remarkable of the enterprises which Cæsar undertook during the period of these campaigns was his excursion into Great Britain. The real motive of this expedition was probably a love of romantic adventure, and a desire to secure for himself at Rome the glory of having penetrated into remote regions which Roman armies had never reached before. The pretext, however, which he made to justify his invading the territories of the Britons was, that the people of the island were accustomed to come across the Channel and aid the Gauls in their wars.

In forming his arrangements for going into England, the first thing was, to obtain all the information which was accessible in Gaul in respect to the country. There were, in those days, great numbers of traveling merchants, who went from one nation to another to purchase and sell, taking with them such goods as were most easy of transportation. These merchants, of course, were generally possessed of a great deal of information in respect to the countries which they had visited, and Cæsar called together as many of them as he could find, when he had reached the northern shores of France, to inquire about the modes of crossing the Channel, the harbors on the English side, the geographical conformation of the country, and the military resources of the people. He found, however, that the merchants could give him very little information. They knew that Britain was an island, but they did not know its extent or its boundaries; and they could tell him very little of the character or customs of the people. They said that they had only been accustomed to land upon the southern shore, and to transact all their business there, without penetrating at all into the interior of the country.

Cæsar then, who, though undaunted and bold in emergencies requiring prompt and decisive action, was extremely cautious and wary at all other times, fitted up a single ship, and, putting one of his officers on board with a proper crew, directed him to cross the Channel to the English coast, and then to cruise along the land for some miles in each direction, to observe where were the best harbors and places for landing, and to examine generally the appearance of the shore. This vessel was a galley, manned with numerous oarsmen, well selected and strong, so that it could retreat with great speed from any sudden appearance of danger. The name of the officer who had the command of it was Volusenus. Volusenus set sail, the army watching his vessel with great interest as it moved slowly away from the shore. He was gone five days, and then returned, bringing Cæsar an account of his discoveries.

In the mean time, Cæsar had collected a large number of sailing vessels from the whole line of the French shore, by means of which he proposed to transport his army across the Channel. He had two legions to take into Britain, the remainder of his forces having been stationed as garrisons in various parts of Gaul. It was necessary, too, to leave a considerable force at his post of debarkation, in order to secure a safe retreat in case of any disaster on the British side. The number of transport ships provided for the foot soldiers which were to be taken over was eighty. There were, besides these, eighteen more, which were appointed to convey a squadron of horse. This cavalry force was to embark at a separate port, about eighty miles distant from the one from which the infantry were to sail.

At length a suitable day for the embarkation arrived; the troops were put on board the ships, and orders were given to sail. The day could not be fixed beforehand, as the time for attempting to make the passage must necessarily depend upon the state of the wind and weather. Accordingly, when the favorable opportunity arrived, and the main body of the army began to embark it took some time to send the orders to the port where the cavalry had rendezvoused; and there were, besides, other causes of delay which occurred to detain this corps, so that it turned out, as we shall presently see, that the foot soldiers had to act alone in the first attempt at landing on the British shore.

It was one o'clock in the morning when the fleet set sail. The Britons had, in the mean time, obtained intelligence of Cæsar's threatened invasion, and they had assembled in great force, with troops, and horsemen, and carriages of war, and were all ready to guard the shore. The coast, at the point where Cæsar was approaching, consists of a line of chalky cliffs, with valley-like openings here and there between them, communicating with the shore, and sometimes narrow beaches below. When the Roman fleet approached the land, Cæsar found the cliffs every where lined with troops of Britons, and every accessible point below carefully guarded. It was now about ten o'clock in the morning, and Cæsar, finding the prospect so unfavorable in respect to the practicability of effecting a landing here, brought his fleet to anchor near the shore, but far enough from it to be safe from the missiles of the enemy.

Here he remained for several hours, to give time for all the vessels to join him. Some of them had been delayed in the embarkation, or had made slower progress than the rest in crossing the Channel. He called a council, too, of the superior officers of the army on board his own galley, and explained to them the plan which he now adopted for the landing. About three o'clock in the afternoon he sent these officers back to their respective ships, and gave orders to make sail along the shore. The anchors were raised and the fleet moved on, borne by the united impulse of the wind and the tide. The Britons, perceiving this movement, put themselves in motion on the land, following the motions of the fleet so as to be ready to meet their enemy wherever they might ultimately undertake to land. Their horsemen and carriages went on in advance, and the foot soldiers followed, all pressing eagerly forward to keep up with the motion of the fleet, and to prevent Cæsar's army from having time to land before they should arrive at the spot and be ready to oppose them.

The fleet moved on until, at length, after sailing about eight miles, they came to a part of the coast where there was a tract of comparatively level ground, which seemed to be easily accessible from the shore. Here Cæsar determined to attempt to land; and drawing up his vessel, accordingly, as near as possible to the beach, he ordered the men to leap over into the water, with their weapons in their hands. The Britons were all here to oppose them, and a dreadful struggle ensued, the combatants dyeing the waters with their blood as they fought, half submerged in the surf which rolled in upon the sand. Some galleys rowed up at the same time near to the shore, and the men on board of them attacked the Britons from the decks, by the darts and arrows which they shot to the land. Cæsar at last prevailed; the Britons were driven away, and the Roman army established themselves in quiet possession of the shore.



Cæsar had afterward a great variety of adventures, and many narrow escapes from imminent dangers in Britain, and, though he gained considerable glory by thus penetrating into such remote and unknown regions, there was very little else to be acquired. The glory, however, was itself of great value to Cæsar. During the whole period of his campaigns in Gaul, Rome, and all Italy in fact, had been filled with the fame of his exploits, and the expedition into Britain added not a little to his renown. The populace of the city were greatly gratified to hear of the continued success of their former favorite. They decreed to him triumph after triumph, and were prepared to welcome him, whenever he should return, with greater honors and more extended and higher powers than he had ever enjoyed before.

Cæsar's exploits in these campaigns were, in fact, in a military point of view, of the most magnificent character. Plutarch, in summing up the results of them, says that he took eight hundred cities, conquered three hundred nations, fought pitched battles at separate times with three millions of men, took one million of prisoners, and killed another million on the field. What a vast work of destruction was this for a man to spend eight years of his life in performing upon his fellow-creatures, merely to gratify his insane love of dominion.