The gallic wars

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The continuation of Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar:

Up to this point we have watched Caesar’s actions before the Gallic Wars. After this, he seems to begin again and start a new life.

These wars proved that he was the greatest soldier and general who has ever lived. If we compare him with those who lived long before him and with those who lived near his own time; men like Sulla, Marius, or even Pompey himself - whose glory, it was said, went up to heaven for every excellence in war - we shall find Caesar exceeded them all.

The country where his victories were won was a difficult one. It was large, the number of enemies was great, and the tribes whom he joined together in peace were warlike. He showed great humanity to those he had beaten as well as to his soldiers. And he surpassed all generals in the number of the battles which he fought and the enemies whom he killed. In less than ten years he had captured more than 800 towns, beaten more than 300 tribes, and of the three millions of men who made up the total number of those he had fought, he had killed one million and had captured a second million.

He was such a good general that soldiers of his who were ordinary men in other battles showed the most amazing courage when they fought for Caesar. One of these was Acilius. In a sea battle, he had his right hand cut off with a sword, yet did not throw away his shield but struck the enemies in the face with it until he drove them away.

In Britain, when some of his best officers had gotten into a swamp full of water and were attacked by the enemy, a common soldier, while Caesar looked on, threw himself into the swamp, saved the officers, and drove off the barbarians. In doing this, the soldier lost his shield. Afterwards, Caesar and his officers went to thank him. The soldier was very sad. He began to cry and threw himself down at Caesar’s feet. He begged Caesar’s pardon for having lost his shield.

In Africa, one of Caesar’s ships was captured, and the enemy gave the other passengers as a prize to his soldiers, but thought it best to offer the captain of the ship his life. But the captain said it was not the custom of Caesar’s soldiers to accept mercy but to give it. Having said this, the captain killed himself.

This love of honor and passion to be outstanding were inspired in the soldiers by Caesar himself, who, by his generous distribution of money and honors, showed them that he did not pile up money for his own luxury but that all that he received was only to be used in rewarding the courage of his soldiers.

In addition, there was no danger which frightened him and which he did not experience personally. His bravery in battle did not amaze his soldiers that much because they knew how much he wanted to be honored. But his self-control and endurance always amazed them. For he was a thin man and had soft white skin. He suffered from epilepsy but he never made the weakness of his body a pretext for laziness. He used war as the best medicine against his weaknesses. By long journeys, a poor diet, sleeping in the field, and continual work, he struggled with his diseases and made his body strong.

Once a dish of asparagus was put before him on which his host had poured sugar instead of salt. Caesar ate it without any disgust and criticized his friends for saying it tasted bad. ‘It is bad enough’, he said, ‘not to eat what you do not like. But he who finds fault with the food another serves him, shows that he has more faults himself.’

Another time, while traveling, he was forced by a storm into a poor man’s cottage where there was only one room and that room was so small that only one person could sleep in it. He told his fellow travelers that places of honor would be given to the greatest men and that the weaker would have to do what was necessary. Therefore he ordered Oppius - who was sick - to sleep inside, while he and the rest slept outside.

Between 58 B.C. and 49 B.C., Julius Caesar had unlimited power in Gaul. In this ten year period, he conquered the entire area. The history of the conquest of Gaul was first written by Julius Caesar himself in a series of reports which he sent back, year by year, to the Senate. In this ten year period, he conquered all of what is now France, Belgium and Switzerland for Rome. He crossed the River Rhine into Germany and crossed the English Channel to England. The name of his book is The Gallic Wars. It is the first book that most students read when they study Latin.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars begins this way:

All Gaul is divided into three parts. One part is controlled by the Belgae, the other the Aquitani, and the third by a people who call themselves Celts - though we call them Gauls. All of these have different laws, languages and customs.

Of all of these peoples, the bravest are the Belgae, for they are farthest away from the civilization of Rome and are least often visited by merchants who import those things which produce weak minds. They are also nearest to the Germans who live across the Rhine with whom they are always fighting.

For this reason, the Helvetii are braver than the rest of the Celts for they fight almost daily with the Germans, either trying to keep them out of Switzerland or themselves when invading Germany.

The greatest man among the Helvetii in rank and wealth was Orgetorix. Led on by his desire to be a king, he organized a conspiracy of noblemen and persuaded his fellow citizens to leave their homes behind. He told them that they were the best fighters in Gaul and could easily conquer the whole country.

Considering their large population, their military glory and their reputation for courage, they believed that the territory they controlled was too small. Motivated by this feeling and the influence of Orgetorix, the Helvetii prepared to make war.

They set aside two years to prepare. Orgetorix was chosen to make these preparations. He persuaded a Sequanian named Casticus, whose father had been called a friend of the Roman People, to become a king in his own country, which his father had been before him. He also persuaded Dumnorix the Aeduan, who at that time was the chief magistrate of his tribe and was very popular, to make a similar attempt. Orgetorix gave Dumnorix his daughter in marriage. Orgetorix persuaded them that it would be very easy to control all of Gaul by telling them that he would soon be king of his own country, which he said was by far the most powerful in Gaul, and that he would use his wealth and military strength to ensure that all three were strong kings. His arguments proved effective. The three men swore an oath of loyalty hoping that once they had made themselves kings the great power of the warlike peoples they ruled would enable them to control all of Gaul.

Plutarch’s Life of Caesar continues as follows:

His second war was to defend Gaul from the Germans. The Germans were bad neighbors and were always eager to enter Gaul. When Caesar was preparing for this war, many of his officers were frightened. When Caesar heard of this, he told them to get out. He said that he would march against the barbarians without the 10th Legion. He said that he did not think that Germans were better soldiers than Gauls nor that he was a worse general than Marius. When he said this, the soldiers of the 10th Legion were so angry with their own officers that within a few days, they all followed Caesar.

The courage of the Germans weakened when the Romans came close for they had not expected to be attacked. When Caesar heard about this, he thought it was best to attack them right away. He won a great victory and chased them all the way to the Rhine River. All the space in between was covered with the bodies of the killed. The Germans crossed the Rhine with the small remains of an army, for it is said that the number of killed was 80,000.

After this action, Caesar left his army in winter quarters. He himself returned to Northern Italy, which was also a part of his province, up to the River Rubicon which divides Italian Gaul from the rest of Italy. There he did what he could to be popular and great numbers of people came to him. He always granted their requests and he never failed to do favors for anyone who came to him. During all this time, Pompey did not see that Caesar was using the power of Rome to win great battles and that he was making himself more popular than Pompey.

When Caesar heard that the Belgae, who were the most powerful of all Gauls, had revolted and had gotten together a great army, he marched there quickly and attacked his enemy. He soon defeated them, for though their numbers were great, they defended themselves poorly. Of those who revolted, all the tribes who lived near the ocean came over to Caesar’s side without fighting.

Next he led his army against the Nervii, who are the fiercest and most warlike people of all those places. These live in a country covered with woods, and having hidden their children and property in the depth of the forest, they attacked Caesar with a body of 60,000 men while he was making his camp and before he was prepared for them. They forced his cavalry to retreat, and having surrounded his 12th and 7th legions, they killed all the officers. If Caesar had not grabbed a shield and forced his way through his own men, or had not the 10th Legion, when they saw him in danger run from the hills to rescue him, it is probable that not a single Roman would have lived. But under the influence of Caesar’s example, they fought a battle, as the saying is, of more than human courage.

Caesar’s own description of this battle is in Book II of The Gallic Wars.

Caesar learned about the character and habits of the Nervii from some of their neighbors. He learned that they did not allow merchants into their country and would not allow the importation of wine or other luxuries because they thought that such things made men soft and took the edge off their courage. They were a fierce and warlike people who were angry at the other Belgae for surrendering to Rome and they swore that they would never ask for peace or accept it.

After a three day march through Nervian territory, Caesar learned from prisoners that there was a river about ten miles from the place where he was and that all the Nervian soldiers were on the other side of it waiting for the Romans. He was also told that they had been joined by two other tribes whom they had persuaded to fight alongside them and that the forces of a third tribe were on the way. They had hidden their women in the swamps.

When Caesar heard this, he sent a group of soldiers ahead to choose a good place to camp. A large number of Gauls (including some of the Belgae who had surrendered and had joined Caesar) were marching with his soldiers. Some of these were spies and at night they would go to the Nervii and tell them how we were marching and that it would be quite easy to attack our baggage wagons while our soldiers were carrying their packs.

The Nervii have no cavalry but long ago they discovered a way to stop the cavalry of their enemies from raiding their land. They cut off the tops of trees and bend them over. They then plant thorns and briar bushes between them so as to make walls. These give so much protection that you cannot even see through them. These obstacles hindered our march. They decided to try what the traitors suggested.

The place the Romans chose for their camp was near a hill which sloped down towards the river. Opposite it, on the other side of the river was another hill, on which there were about 300 yards of open ground while the upper part of the hill was covered by trees which it was not easy to see into. In this forest the main part of the enemy’s soldiers were hidden while on the open ground along the river, a few soldiers could be seen. The depth of the river was about three feet.

Caesar had sent his cavalry a little ahead and was following with the rest of his soldiers. But our soldiers were arranged in a way different from how the Belgian traitors had described it to the Nervii. As he always did when coming close to an enemy, Caesar marched at the head of the column with six legions who were not carrying packs. Then came the baggage of the entire army protected by the two newly enlisted legions which brought up the rear.

First of all, our cavalry crossed the river with bowmen and began to fight the enemy in the open. These kept retreating into the forest (where the rest of their army was) and then charging down and attacking our soldiers who did not dare to chase them beyond the end of the open ground.

Meanwhile, the six legions that were first to arrive measured out the ground and began to construct the camp. The Gauls hidden in the forest had already formed their battle line and were waiting full of confidence. As soon as they saw the first baggage wagon - the moment they had decided was the best one to begin the battle - they suddenly charged out in full force and attacked our cavalry which they easily forced to retreat. Then they ran down to the river at such an incredible speed that almost at the same instant they seemed to be at the edge of the wood, in the water, and already attacking us. With equal speed they climbed the hill towards our camp to attack the men who were busy building it.

Caesar had everything to do at once: hoist the flag - which was the signal for running to arms, to recall the men from their work on the camp, to call back those who had gone looking for wood, to form the battle line, to speak to the men, and to sound the trumpet signal for going into battle. Much of this could not be done in the short time left by the enemy’s speedy attack. But the situation was saved by two things. First, there was the great knowledge and experience of the soldiers, whose training in earlier battles allowed them to decide for themselves what needed to be done without waiting to be told, and secondly, the order which Caesar had given to all his generals: not to leave the work but to stay with his own legion until the camp had been fortified. As the enemy was so close and coming so quickly, the generals did not wait for more orders but acted as they thought best.

After giving the minimum of necessary orders, Caesar rushed down to the battlefield to speak to the soldiers. He happened to come first to the Tenth Legion, to which he made only a short speech urging them to live up to their tradition of bravery and keep their nerve and to meet the enemy’s attack with courage. Because the Nervii were within range, he gave the signal for battle. Upon going to the other side of the field to speak to the soldiers there, he found them already fighting. The soldiers were so short of time because of the enemy’s speed that they could not even take the covers off their shields or put on helmets. Each man on coming down from his work at the camp went into battle under the first standard he happened to see so as not to waste time searching for his own unit. The battlefront was not formed according to the rules of military strategy but as required by the emergency and the sloping ground of the hill.

The Legions were facing different ways and fighting separate battles and the thick hedges blocked their vision. The result was that Caesar could not see the best places to throw in reserves or foresee what would be needed in each part of the battlefield. Unity of command was impossible.

Because of this, there were naturally ups and downs of chance. The Ninth and Tenth Legions were on the left, and threw a volley of spears at the Gauls who were facing them. Reckless and tired from running, and many of them now wounded, this group of Gauls was quickly driven back to the river. When they tried to cross it, our soldiers attacked them and destroyed a large number of them. Crossing the river themselves without hesitation, and pushing forward up the steep slope, they beat back the enemy when they began to resist and forced them to run.

Meanwhile, in another part of the battlefield, the Eleventh and Eighth Legions were fighting another group and drove them down the hill and were now fighting right on the river bank. By this time, however, the Roman camp was exposed in front and on the left. The Twelfth and Seventh Legions, which were posted close together on the right, were attacked by the whole force of the Nervii led in a solid mass by their commander. Some of them began to surround the Legions on their right flank while the rest ran to the hilltop where the camp was.

At the same time, the Roman cavalry and bowmen who had been forced to retreat in the first attack were about to enter the camp when they found themselves face to face with the Nervii and once again they began to run. The servants, who had seen our victorious troops cross the river, had gone out to plunder, but when they looked back and saw the enemy in the camp, they ran for their lives. Meanwhile, shouting arose from the baggage drivers who were frightened out of their wits and ran in every direction.

In the army were some cavalry men sent by the Trevori, a people with a great reputation for courage among the Gauls. When these horsemen saw the Roman camp full of the enemy, the Legions almost surrounded, and the baggage men, cavalry and archers scattered in every direction, they decided that we were beaten and rode home in terror, reporting that the Romans were completely defeated and their camp and baggage captured.

After speaking to the Tenth Legion, Caesar had gone to the right wing where he found the troops in a difficult situation. The cohorts of the Twelfth Legion were packed together so closely that the men were in one another’s way and could not fight well. All of the Centurions of the fourth cohort were killed and the standard was lost. Nearly all of the Centurians of the other cohorts were either killed or wounded, including the chief Centurion Publius Sextius Baculus, a man of very great courage, who was so disabled by a number of serious wounds that he could no longer stand.

The men’s movements were slow, and some in the rear thought that they had been left behind, and were trying to get away from the enemy.

Meanwhile the enemy kept the pressure up in front and was surrounding our soldiers on both flanks. As the situation was critical and no reserves were available, Caesar grabbed a shield from a soldier in the rear (he did not have his own shield with him) and advanced into the front line. He spoke to each Centurion by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the troops ordering them to push forward and open their ranks so that they could use their swords more easily. His arrival gave them fresh heart - each man wanted to do his best under the eyes of his commander-in-chief however great the danger - and the enemy’s attack was slowed down a little.

Noticing that the Seventh Legion, which stood close by, was also having a hard time, Caesar told the Military Tribunes to join the two legions together and form a square formation so that they could advance against the enemy in any direction. By this, the soldiers were able to support one another and were no longer afraid of being surrounded from behind, which encouraged them to fight more bravely.

Meanwhile, the two legions which had been guarding the baggage at the rear of the column had received news of the battle and had quickened their march. Now they could see them. Labienus, who had captured the enemy’s camp, could see from the high ground on which it stood what was going on in ours, sent the Tenth Legion to the rescue. The men of the Tenth could tell from the retreat of the cavalry and the baggage-men how serious things were and what danger threatened their camp. These legions and their commander did everything they could to come as quickly as possible. Their arrival so completely changed the situation that even some of the Roman soldiers who were lying down, exhausted by wounds, got up and began to fight again, leaning on their shields. The baggage men, seeing that their enemy had become scared, stood up to their attack unarmed as they were, and the cavalry, eager to wipe out the disgrace of having run away, spread themselves over the whole battlefield and tried to exceed the legionaires in bravery. But the enemy - even in this serious situation - showed such bravery, that when their front ranks had fallen, those behind stood on the bodies of their friends to fight, and when these fell also, and the corpses were piled high, the survivors still kept throwing spears as though from the top of a hill. Such courage explains the great things they had done already. Only heroes could have crossed a wide river, run up a steep bank and thrown themselves into such a difficult position.

So ended this battle by which the tribe of the Nervii was almost destroyed, and their name almost blotted from the face of the earth. On hearing the news of it, their old men, who had been sent away with the women and children intc the swamps, decided that nothing could stop the Romans or protect their beaten tribe. With the agreement of all the survivors, they sent ambassadors to Caesar and surrendered.

In describing the disaster that they had experienced, they said that they had only three Senators left out of six hundred and only five hundred men still able to fight out of sixty thousand. Caesar, who wanted to seem merciful to unfortunate people, took care to protect them from harm. He gave them back their territory and towns and commanded their neighbors not to injure them or their property.

Plutarch’s Life of Caesar continues as follows:

When the Roman Senate got news of this victory, they voted for a festival to the Gods which would last for fifteen days, a longer festival than ever before. They considered the Gauls very dangerous. The People’s love of Caesar made what he had done ever more popular.

Having done everything he could in Gaul, Caesar again came back that winter and spent it in Italian Gaul. All the candidates for office were helped by him and were given money by him to corrupt the People and buy their votes. In return, they did everything they could to make Caesar more powerful. What was most amazing was the number of great men from Rome who came to visit him at Lucca. Pompey and Crassus came and many others. There were more than two hundred Senators there. It was decided in Lucca that (1) Pompey and Crassus should be Consuls again for the following year, (2) that Caesar should have a fresh supply of money, and (3) that his command should be renewed for five more years.

It seemed amazing to all thinking men that those who had been bribed by Caesar should persuade the Senate to give him more, as if he needed it. The truth is that they were not persuaded but forced. Cato was away. Those who copied Cato found they could do nothing against Caesar. Many supported Crassus and Pompey. The rest loved Caesar.

After this, Caesar returned to Gaul and he found that the Germans had again crossed the Rhine. Caesar used this as an excuse to invade Germany. He was eager to be the first man to cross the Rhine with an army. He built a bridge across it, though it was very wide, in only ten days. When his army crossed, it met no opposition. Even the most warlike Germans hid in the forests. When he had burned the enemy’s country, he went back into Gaul after a stay of eighteen days in Germany.

Caesar’s trip into Britain was the most famous evidence of his courage. He was the first who brought a navy into the western ocean or who sailed into the Atlantic with an army to make war. By invading an island the size of which no one knew, he might be said to have carried the Roman Empire beyond the limits of the known world. He went into Britain twice from that part of Gaul which is opposite it and in several battles he did more harm to the enemy than good for himself, for the people of the island were very poor and had nothing worth stealing.

When he returned to Gaul, he found letters from his friends in Rome telling them that his daughter had died giving birth to Pompey’s child. Both Caesar and Pompey were very sad because of her death and so were their friends because they thought that their alliance would now be broken. They could see that it was this alliance which had given peace to the Republic. Soon, the baby died too.

By this time, Caesar’s army had grown very large so that he stationed its soldiers in different places during the winter. When he went back to Italy, as he usually did, there was a great revolt throughout all of Gaul. The strongest group of the rebels surrounded a large group of Romans while another force of 60,000 attacked the legion commanded by Quintus Cicero and almost destroyed it. But Caesar, who was at a great distance, got the news and rushed quickly with 7,000 men to help Cicero. When the Gauls heard that they were being attacked by so small a force, they marched against Caesar with great confidence. Caesar avoided a fight until he found a good place for a battle. He commanded his soldiers to build a high wall to make the enemy think they were weak. Soon they attacked and it was then that Caesar suddenly rushed his own troops out of the camp and forced the enemy to retreat.

During this winter, Caesar visited every part of Gaul and showed great vigilance against the revolution. He had been given three more legions to make up for the men he had lost. Two of these were given to Caesar by Pompey. But the seeds of revolt which had been planted among these angry tribes grew into a dangerous war; dangerous because of the large number of men, the great amount of money they had, the strength of their towns, and the difficulty of the country. It was winter, the rivers were frozen, and the woods were covered with snow. All of this made it difficult for Caesar to fight against the rebels. Many tribes had joined together and the general who had supreme command in war was Vercingetorix, whose father the Gauls had put to death on suspicion of his aiming at monarchy. Vercingetorix had heard that Caesar was running into trouble back in Rome and for this reason he organized all of Gaul to revolt. If he had done this just a little while later while Caesar was busy with the civil wars, he would have brought great danger to Rome. But Caesar was very skilful in war, especially in seizing the right moment, and as soon as he heard of the revolt, he rushed to the spot and showed the barbarians - by his quickness in such bad weather - that his army could not be beaten. For the short a time that you would have thought it was amazing for a single horseman to ride with a message, he would arrive with his whole army.

Caesar met the rebels in a great battle and defeated them. The rest of them retreated into the town of Alesia which Caesar surrounded. It was difficult to capture the city because it was filled with the bravest men of Gaul. There were more than 170,000 men in the city and 300,000 more came to help them when they heard that Caesar was attacking. Soon Caesar was surrounded by two enemy forces: one surrounded in the city, the other attacking him from outside. He knew that if these two forces could join, he would be destroyed. Caesar showed his great courage and finally these men were beaten too and Vercingetorix the King was led in Triumph by Caesar.

Caesar had decided long before to overthrow Pompey, and indeed Pompey had planned for a long time to get rid of Caesar. Crassus, who had up to this time kept them from fighting against one another because they were afraid of his great power, had now been killed in Parthia. If either one of these men wished to make himself the greatest power in Rome, he only had to get rid of the other. If he wished to prevent his own falling, he had to beat his opponent to the punch.

At first Pompey underestimated Caesar. He thought it would be easy for him to defeat a young man whom he had made great. But Caesar had been planning from the beginning to get rid of his rivals. Like an expert wrestler, he had gone into training to prepare himself for the fight. He made the Gallic wars his exercise ground. Here he made his soldiers great and brought glory to himself. Soon he saw himself and was seen by others as the equal of Pompey.

He did not lose any of the advantages which were given to him by Pompey and the times. During this period, Rome was badly governed. All the candidates bribed the people and the elections were not just decided by a show of hands but by force. The place of election was stained with blood many times. Soon the city was really without any government. It was like a ship without a captain to steer it. Those who had any wisdom could only be thankful if the ship - in such a terrible storm - would end up in nothing worse than monarchy. Some said openly that the Republic could not be cured except by monarchy. They said that they ought to take their medicine from the gentlest doctor - meaning Pompey - who, even though he said he was not, was aiming to be Dictator.

Cato saw Pompey’s plan and worked with the Senate to make him single Consul, to satisfy him by a legal kind of monarchy so that he would not want to be Dictator. They also voted to extend his command in Spain and Africa.

When Caesar heard this, he sent to Rome to ask for the Consulship and to be allowed to continue to control his provinces. At first Pompey made no move, but other men in the city opposed this request because they hated Caesar, and now they did everything that might disgrace him. After the Consulship of Marcellus, Out of the money he had won in Gaul, Caesar gave great gifts to the public men. He paid the debts of Curio, the Tribune, and gave Paulus, who was then Consul, a great sum of money with which he built a new law court in the Forum. Pompey was frightened by these things and he took steps to have a replacement for Caesar appointed to command in Gaul. He also asked for the two legions which he had given to Caesar earlier in the war. Caesar gave them back and made each soldier a present of a large sum of money. The officer who brought them home to Pompey told him that Caesar’s army was weak. This is what Pompey wanted to hear. He told Pompey that Caesar’s army was angry at him and that they were tired of Caesar and his wars and suspicious that he was aiming at monarchy. This news made Pompey lazy and he did not prepare for war. He feared no danger, and used no other weapons against Caesar except speeches and votes for which Caesar cared nothing.

Caesar sent one of his officers to Rome. This officer was in the Senate House one day and was told that the Senate would not give Caesar a longer time in government. The officer touched his sword and said, “But this will”. The demands which Caesar made seemed to be fair, for he proposed to give up his army if Pompey did the same and that both should become private citizens and be given a reward by the public. He said that those who proposed to take away his army but leave Pompey with one were giving one man a tyranny because they thought another man was aiming at it
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