Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Caesar in Gaul

Both Pagan and Christian writers, looking at the progress of the world, have often expressed their belief that men like Caesar, who have disturbed the whole course of history, were agents of some force outside themselves. So far-reaching are the consequences of their actions that they seem part of a wider plan than any which the conquerors or revolutionists themselves proposed. In the conquest of Gaul and the projected conquest of Britain, Caesar, working only for his own ends and those of Rome, laid the foundations of the civilization of two great nations. We are inclined to underestimate the direct influence of Rome on Britain, but it is impossible to overestimate the influence of Rome on Gaul and the later France, and through France on Britain.

The peoples of Gaul, mostly Celts, were, though living under the tribal system, far from being barbarians at Caesar's coming. They lived in large wooden houses with thatched roofs, and stone buildings were not unknown; these were grouped together in towns, some of them fortified, connected by roads and by bridges over the rivers. They traded with their fellow Celts in Britain, Ireland, and Spain, and even imported objects from the districts round the Danube and Baltic, while they had some scientific knowledge and much artistic skill. One may almost gather from Roman writers that the tribes were distinguished by tartans, and the chieftains wore finely-wrought armour, and gold ornaments on their necks and arms. They wore trousers and, in the north, had long hair. Caesar describes them as tall, fair-haired men with blue eyes, so different from the French people of the present time that some writers think that this must have applied only to the chieftains, with whom he would have most to do; but others are of opinion that the change may have come about with the increase of town life, for it seems agreed upon to-day that fair people tend to die out in towns. Probably we must not imagine all the Gauls of that time as fair-haired giants, but Caesar was certainly struck by the prevalence of that type. The country must have been very well populated even then—unlike Italy with its great solitudes. The southern portion, from the Alps to the Pyrenees, had been in Roman possession since 121 and was known as Narbonensis, or simply as the Province, whence its later name 'Provence'; it extended northward as far as Geneva. Farther north the country was almost unknown to the Romans.

The Gauls themselves had caused the Romans little anxiety for a century, and, especially those near the Roman Province, had begun to absorb Roman culture and lose their old love of war. The danger now came from the Germans beyond the Rhine who were threatening to swarm over their boundaries and thrust the Gauls out of their country and attack the Roman Province, and might then be expected in Italy itself. It was to protect the Province that Caesar had been commissioned, and many thought that he did an illegal thing in going beyond the Province, annexing Gaul and even carrying the war into Germany. He was justified to some extent by the invitation of some of the Gallic tribes.

Before Caesar's appearance there were in Gaul two chief factions, led by the tribes of Aedui and Arverni respectively. Both adjoined the Province, and the Romans had been glad to secure the alliance of the Aedui, to whom they granted the proud title of Allies and Friends of the Roman People. After many years' warfare with the Aedui, the Arverni (dwellers in what is now called Auvergne) and the Sequani, also neighbours of the Romans, had been rash enough to bribe the Germans across the Rhine to come to their aid. A large band of Germans answered their call, but, struck by the fertility and plenty of the land into which they had come, refused to depart; others followed, and now, it was reckoned, there were 120,000 Germans in the country. The Aedui, who in 61 sent to Rome to ask for help, had been reduced, but suffered far less than the tribes who had called the Germans in. Ariovistus, a famous German king, settled among the Sequani, whose lands were the richest in Gaul, and began to drive them out. At the same time German pressure was driving the Helvetii from their homes in modern Switzerland into Gaul in the neighbourhood of the Province. Cicero says that the whole talk of Rome early in the year 60 was of the Aeduan petition and the expected Helvetian migration.

The Helvetii were not ready to set forth until 58, when they burned all their towns and all the corn which they could not carry with them, so that whatever happened the more timid should not think of returning home. Their numbers amounted to 368,000, including 92,000 warriors; and when Caesar, who had not yet set forth, heard that they intended to cross the Province, he started out at once, marched at the rate of ninety miles a day with only one legion, arrived at Geneva in eight days' time, and cut down the bridge over the Rhone before the arrival of the Helvetii. He built fortifications and prevented their crossing at this point; and as they changed their route to the Pas de 1'Ecluse, the narrow pass between Mount Jura and the Rhone, he dashed back into Italy, collected more troops, led them over the Alps, and arrived in the neighbourhood of Lyons before the whole body of the enemy had crossed over the Saone. Those who were left behind he slew, then bridged the Saone (probably with boats), and started in pursuit of the main body of homeless wanderers. They sent ambassadors to assure him that they would not enter Roman territory and would settle in any place he would appoint, but as nothing would please him except their return they bade him defiance.

With the assistance of the Aedui, not all of them too well pleased to see the Romans interfering in their affairs, he slowly followed the Helvetii down the Loire valley, but, turning north toward the Aeduan capital, Bibracte (on Mont Beuvray), for supplies, he was followed in his turn, and a great battle took place. If the accounts are correct, over 200,000 of the Helvetian force, including all the women and children, were slain by the Romans. The conquerors, after some delay caused by attending to their sick and dead, followed the fugitives toward the Vosges Mountains to the north. They sent in despair to offer surrender; but while negotiations were going on about 6000 of the boldest of them stole away from their camp and made for the Rhine, hoping to cross it before they could be overtaken.

Caesar heard of their flight and sent swift messengers with orders to the tribes through whose territory the fugitives would have to pass that they must arrest them if they wished to be free from blame in his eyes, and they were speedily brought back and slain. The rest he supplied with corn and sent back to Switzerland with orders to rebuild their towns, for he was afraid that the deserted site might tempt new immigrants from the right bank of the Rhine.

Ariovistus remained to be dealt with, and Caesar's task was complicated by the fact that he himself in his consulship had recognized him as a Friend of the Roman people, hoping that this would induce him to leave the Province alone until an army was ready to oppose him. Only the Rhone lay between the Sequani, among whom Ariovistus had established himself, and the Province, and Caesar, remembering the terrible Cimbri and Teutons of his childhood, now determined to send the Germans back to their country. He sent to order the barbarian King to leave the Aedui and their allies alone, to restore hostages he had taken from them and to bring no more Germans across the Rhine; but Ariovistus replied that he minded his own affairs and expected the Romans to mind theirs. He warned Caesar against venturing in a battle with him, since he had with him a host of veterans who had not slept under a roof for fourteen years. At the same time Caesar heard that a hundred cantons of the Germanic tribe of the Suebi were preparing to cross the Rhine. Fearful of their forces joining Ariovistus, he hastened by forced marches toward the King's camp. On the way he heard that Ariovistus meant to occupy Vesontio (Besancon), the capital of the Sequani, and to make it his base; but, journeying day and night, he seized it before the King could come up. Before he left this town a panic broke out in the Roman army. Tales of the immense stature of the Germans and of their marvelous skill and strength crept into the camp, and at last it came to be whispered that people fled at the sight of their faces and terrible, glittering eyes. The panic started with the young men of fashion, the 'carpet knights' as we should call them, whom Caesar, like other Roman generals, took out with him as officers with almost nominal duties. A few were restrained by shame, but nearly all of these young aristocrats began to ask for leave of absence on extraordinary excuses, while the rest could not muster up any appearance of cheerfulness and wept occasionally. They all made their wills, and Caesar, in his history of these wars, describes their condition of mind with amusement; but the matter became serious when his brave centurions and the common soldiers caught the alarm and began to murmur that the paths by which they would have to pass were perilously narrow and the woods fearsomely thick, while their food supply was dangerously small. At last some of the centurions actually told the general that when he ordered the camp to be raised and the standards carried onward no one would pay any heed to his orders.

In this grave danger Caesar called together a council of all ranks, and sternly rebuked the centurions for venturing to express opinions on the conduct of the war. He hoped to come to terms with the Germans, but if not, what was there to fear? "Proof was made of this enemy in our fathers' time," he said in his cold, but stirring and impressive, way, "and when the Cimbri and Teutons were repulsed by Caius Marius not less honour was won by his soldiers than renown by their general. Those who pretend fear as to the supplies and the route act presumptuously in appearing to despond or offer advice in a matter which is the general's province. I have seen to it that the Sequani, Leuci, and Lingones supply us, and there is early grain in the fields; as to the nature of the route, you will soon be able to judge of it for yourselves. As to the statement made to me that no one will listen to the command to march or bear the standards forward, I pay not the slightest heed to it. . . . I am now going to do at once what I intended to delay a while, and shall raise the camp at three o'clock to-morrow morning, for I wish to find out which will win—shame and duty, or fear. And if no one else follows me I shall go on alone with the Tenth legion, which shall be in future my praetorian cohort."

With this threat to the young men of rank who formed his bodyguard he ceased, and studied the effect of his speech. He was eloquent, like most great leaders of men. Zeal and longing for war had seized on all, as if by magic, and when the Tenth legion, his favourite, heard what he had said of it, the soldiers, thrilled with pride, sent their tribunes to thank him, while the officers of all the other legions were instructed to tell the general that they would obey his commands and had never doubted or feared or dreamed of offering their opinion on the conduct of the war. Their excuses were accepted, and the army started for the Rhine by a circuitous route in order to avoid the woods which they so much dreaded, and on the seventh day they learned by scouts that Ariovistus was but twenty miles away.

A meeting took place between Caesar and Ariovistus, and the latter treacherously tried to slay him and his guard, for, as he told him, he knew that such a deed would be very well received by many in Rome. Negotiations were, of course, broken off, but it was some days before Caesar could force the King to a battle, and meanwhile the latter managed to cut him off from his supplies. The German chief meant to fight, but prophetesses in his camp had bidden him wait until the new moon. When Caesar learned this he marched forward in battle array and compelled Ariovistus to come out and meet him. So fierce an onslaught did the now eager Romans make when the signal was given, and so swiftly did the enemy rush forward, that there was not room to hurl the javelins. The Romans, therefore, dropped their javelins, drew their swords, leaped on the enemy's thick phalanx, and, often tearing the shields from the foe's hands, made fearful slaughter. The whole force soon turned in flight and did not stop until it had reached the Rhine, followed by the Roman cavalry. A very few, including the chief, found boats or swam across. The report of this defeat of Ariovistus and his terrible companions struck awe into the hearts of Gauls and Germans, and the hosts of Suebi arrayed on the other side of the stream at once returned to their homes.

Caesar had thus brought two great wars to an end in one summer, and he had created in his army a confidence which was to work miracles. It had become in one campaign a sword of almost magic powers in his hands. He sent it into winter quarters earlier than the season demanded and put his legate Labienus, soon to be famous, in charge. Then he retired to hold the courts and perform other duties of his office in Cisalpine Gaul until the spring of 57 made a new campaign possible.

The whole of the year 57 was spent in reducing the Belgae, the warlike people of northern Gaul; they were descendants of the Germans across the Rhine, and inhabitants of the districts we know as northern France and Belgium. They had been made uneasy by the Romans wintering in Gaul, and were arming to fight for the liberty of their country. The most southerly tribe of the Belgae, the Remi, whose capital is commemorated by Rheims, was too exposed to withstand the Romans, but certainly made a patriotic attempt to frighten them by accounts of the numbers and prowess of the host that they would have to face—300,000 warriors, they said. The other tribes were furious at their having any dealings with the Romans and began to burn down their hamlets as a punishment; and as Caesar felt that he could not trust them in these circumstances, and took their chief men as hostages, they fared badly at first. Caesar placed his camp on the River Aisne, where he could give them some protection, and soon lights and fires extending for about five miles told him that an army vast indeed was encamped close to him. For some time only cavalry skirmishes took place, but the Romans slew a large number of the enemy as they were trying to ford the river. This disheartened them, and as they were getting short of provisions they determined to return to their homes and face Caesar there. They were discussing the matter when news arrived that the Aedui had invaded their territory in order to make a diversion in Caesar's favour. Breaking up their camp in the careless manner of barbarians, they departed with a great noise and without any discipline, for all the world like a beaten force in flight. Caesar at first feared a plot, and remained in his camp until the following day, but then he learned the truth and started in pursuit. His cavalry, sent on in front, overtook the straggling host and slew multitudes of those in the rear, only being stopped by sunset, when, according to orders, they returned to their own quarters.

The Belgae suffered such losses in this march, and Caesar appeared in such force before their chief towns, that the Suessiones (whose name remains in Soissons), the Bellovaci, the most powerful of all the tribes, and the Ambiani (whose name remains in Amiens) all submitted and gave him large numbers of hostages; but he had a desperate and memorable conflict with the Nervii on the banks of the River Sambre.

Scouts sent on before had chosen for the site of his camp a hill sloping down to the left bank of the Sambre; on the opposite bank rose a hill which had an open space below it and half-way up its sides, but was covered with impenetrable woodland, suitable for an ambush, above. Many of the defeated Belgae and other Gauls had attached themselves to the Roman army, and some of them now departed by night to give the Nervii information as to Caesar's movements. When a battle was not expected, the Roman army usually marched with a quantity of baggage following each legion, and the informers instructed the Nervii to attack the first legion as it came up and seize the baggage, for then, they said, the other legions would not dare to remain to fight. The Nervii therefore hid a large force in the woods on the hill on the right bank of the Sambre opposite the Roman camp, distributed a few cavalry pickets on the plain below to tempt the Romans on, and waited for their appearance.

The Nervii were a remarkable tribe, by far the most warlike with which Caesar had yet come into conflict. They allowed no merchants to enter their territories, and would not permit wine to be brought in, or anything else which might lead to self-indulgence and love of ease. They chid the other tribes for making their peace with the Romans, and declared angrily that they would never do so themselves. As they were poor cavalry soldiers, they covered their territory with thick, wall-like hedges, which impeded the enemy's horse and provided excellent cover for themselves. It was fortunate for Caesar in the conflict which was approaching that he had altered his order of march before he came up with this valiant and wily foe. As usual when he approached an enemy, he led the larger part of the army in front, unhampered by any baggage; then the baggage followed, and the two legions composed of the latest levies brought up the rear.

The Roman cavalry, sent on as usual, with the stingers and archers, crossed the stream and started to fight with the cavalry pickets of the Nervii; but these retreated into cover, dashing out again unexpectedly, and the Romans dared not follow. Then the first six legions arrived and began to fortify the Roman camp. This was the signal for which the concealed Nervii were waiting, drawn up in battle array, in the woods. They dashed out and scattered the Roman cavalry in one charge, swarmed with incredible swiftness across the stream and up the opposite hill and began to attack the soldiers busy on the camp. The enemy seemed in one moment to appear everywhere, and, impeded by their presence and by the thickset hedges, Caesar had to prepare for battle with the utmost rapidity. He sent to recall the soldiers who had gone to a distance to search for material for the rampart of the camp, set out the standard which was the signal for attack, and bade the trumpet be blown. The Romans at home, who did not realize what guerilla warfare meant, marveled at his rapidity of action in the Civil War of later years. Now the training which he had already given to his soldiers came to his aid; he had directed his 'legates' (lieutenants, or generals of division, we may call them) to stay with the legions until the camp was finished, and so they were on the spot; and they knew exactly what ought to be done and waited for no order from him in this crisis. He had not time to address all the troops before he was forced to give the signal for battle, and the soldiers had no time to remove the coverings from their shields or the ornaments from their helmets. Some of them were without their helmets. Those who came up late joined wherever they might, losing no time in seeking their own places; the army was drawn up in a very irregular way, and on account of the irregular character of the ground and the hedges Caesar could not direct its movements in every part at once. Thus it came about that the Ninth and Tenth legions, under Labienus on the left, won a speedy victory over the force opposed to them, marched across the stream, and were slaughtering quite independently, and the Eighth and Eleventh legions were doing the same, while the rest of the army was in great straits.

The chief force of the Nervii divided, and while part of them surrounded the Twelfth and Seventh legions, the rest stormed the Roman camp, whence the camp slaves at once fled, while the soldiers, who now approached with the baggage, scattered when they saw their camp in the enemy's hands. Caesar, with little scope for his gifts as general, rushed to light like a centurion in the ranks of the Twelfth legion. He found it beset on all sides, crowded together so that the men could hardly fight and were utterly dispirited; many of their centurions were slain or wounded and standard-bearers and standards fallen. Seizing a shield from one of the soldiers in the rear, he hastened to the front, called on the surviving centurions by name and ordered the standards to be carried forward and the maniples to spread out so as to give room for sword-play. He then called to the tribunes of the Seventh legion to place it at the back of the Twelfth and face the enemy in the rear. The soldiers, no longer fearing that they were going to be cut down from behind, fought with a better spirit, and as usual they strove to distinguish themselves under Caesar's eye. The two legions placed in the rear of the baggage arrived on the field, and, word of Caesar's extremity being borne to Labienus, he sent his force to speed to the rescue.

These reinforcements caused such a change that those who had sunk down overcome with their wounds got up and started to fight again; the cavalry, watching from a distance, came back and strove to wipe out its disgrace by special heroism, and even the slaves returned. It was the turn of the Nervii to despair, but they fought bravely on, pressed on all sides, speeding their missiles from the top of a pile of corpses and seizing the javelins directed against them by the Romans and hurling them back. They never submitted, and soon the tribe and name of the Nervii were nearly extinct. After this terrible battle of the Sambre Caesar discovered that their old men, children, and women were hidden in the woods and marshes, and he accepted their submission, forbidding, in pity, he tells us, any farther injury to them or their territories.

He then proceeded against their allies, the Aduatuci, who dwelt on the left bank of the Meuse, took their chief town and sold the 53,000 inhabitants who escaped the sword into slavery, as they had broken out again after submitting to him. It seems hard to call the conduct of these desperate patriots 'treachery,' but Caesar called it so and punished it as such.

During this time young Crassus, son of the Triumvir, had been reducing Armorica (Brittany of later times) for Caesar, who had already won such renown that ambassadors came even from the Germans to offer hostages and obedience. His troops were again left to winter in Gaul, while he himself went back to Cisalpine Gaul to get once more into touch with affairs in Rome. To the town of Luca in Cisalpine Gaul came in the spring of 56 B.C. Pompey, Crassus, and many another prominent Roman to agree with the successful general as to the measures that must be forced on the Roman Government. Caesar demanded for himself that his command in Gaul should be extended for another five years after its expiration. Conquered Gaul was seething with discontent, and Caesar spent most of the summer of 56 in reducing the Veneti, who inhabited the south shore of the Breton peninsula as far as the Loire. They were a tribe of skillful sailors and fishermen, and their towns were mostly built on low promontories, surrounded by the sea at high tide and yet not to be approached by ships at the ebb. It was not until Caesar had collected a fleet and Decimus Brutus, one of his officers, had defeated the Gallic navy, probably in the bay of Quiberon, that these towns could be taken. Then the Veneti, who had seized some accredited Roman officials, were punished for offending the law of nations; their chief men were slain and the rest sold into slavery.

The Venelli of the Cotentin peninsula had been reduced meanwhile in the most crafty manner by Sabinus, and young Crassus had had a brilliant campaign in Aquitaine, where he had defeated some of the old soldiers of Sertorius.

Although the summer was nearly over Caesar felt himself bound to march over four hundred miles to the territories of the Morini (from modern Boulogne to the Scheldt) and the Menapii (from the Scheldt to the lower Meuse), and he found their subjection no easy matter. They hid in their woods and marshes, and would issue forth from every quarter and attack the Romans unaware, retiring to their impenetrable lairs in the thick forests, and, as the winter storms began to rage and heavy rains to soak through the soldiers' coverings, they were left unsubdued. Wasting and burning their fields and villages, Caesar led his army back over the Seine to winter in Brittany.