Julius Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul; Book Review


519fas41zwl-_sx322_bo1204203200_“The Conquest of Gaul” (Penguin Classics)
By Julius Caesar
with Jane P. Gardner (Editor, Introduction),
S. A. Handford (Translator)
The Conquest of Gaul (Penguin Classics)




One of the first books ever written (or in this case dictated) about that land we now know as modern France.

Julius Caesar’s “The Conquest of Gaul” was originally named in Latin “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” (Commentaries on the Gallic War).

Gaius Julius Caesar Born 13 July 100 B.C. – died 15 March 44 B.C.
Gaius Julius Caesar Born 13 July 100 B.C. – died 15 March 44 B.C.

The French language as we know know it is classified as a Romance language, that is a Roman Latin based language. Julius Caesar was the Roman that first brought the Latin language to Gaul.

Brennus demands his spoils of the battle, by Paul Jamin, 1893.
Brennus demands his spoils of the battle, by Paul Jamin, 1893.

To set the story up the Romans were terrified of the Gauls.  A number of Gallic tribes of very large and very fierce warriors had attacked and sacked Rome in 390 BC. These tribes were led by a chieftain named Brennus. This is according to the accounts of the Roman historian Livy (Titus Livius who lived 64 B.C. to 17 A.D.)

Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5)

These Gaulish invaders looted Rome and burned parts of the city to the ground. All Roman records before this date were destroyed. In fact in Livy’s own words he points out that the earlier stories of Rome, such as Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she wolf, were more legend than fact.* After the Gaulish invasion 390 BC official records were again kept. All the factual Roman history starts from this date.

* Trivia: I read that She-wolf was a nick name for a prostitute
This can be confirmed on Google Translate – She-wolf = lupa.
(‘lupa’ also translates as = whore, prostitute, she-wolf, harlot.)

After recovering from this almost catastrophic defeat Rome made preparations in case the Gauls ever returned. Money in the form of bars of silver and weapons were set aside should the Gauls ever attack Rome again. A Governor was sent North of the Alps with Roman soldiers to watch for signs of amassing armies marching towards Rome.

There is a story from the time when the Gauls where occupying Rome. The Gauls who were taller than the Romans also seemed fearless. When asked if there was anything that they were afraid of the reply was, “We fear only that the sky would fall on our heads.”

Asterix the Gaul
Asterix the Gaul

It’s hard to know what this meant exactly. Was this some sort of boastful banter? Or was this a real fear of lightning or some forgotten encounter with a meteor shower.

Those of you familiar with the French cartoon “Asterix the Gaul” by René Goscinny (stories) and Albert Uderzo will recall that the fearless Gauls in the comic strip are often afraid of the sky falling on their heads.

Asterix the Gaul: Album 1

In the cartoon series Asterix the Gaul lives in the time of Julius Caesar.

Fighting cocks depicted on an ancient Roman m
Fighting cocks depicted on an ancient Roman mosaic.

The word Gaul or Gallus in Latin translates as = cock, rooster, or Gaul.

The Gauls were often said to have strutted with pride like a rooster. Roosters are fierce animals who will hold there own against larger farm animals including dogs. Most Roman soldiers were farmers and would have known firsthand about the fighting prowess of roosters.

For two centuries the Roman’s fear that the Gauls would return sack Rome a second time.

"Marius the Great Amid the Ruins of Carthage" by John Vanderlyn
“Marius the Great Amid the Ruins of Carthage” by John Vanderlyn

It was Julius Caesar’s uncle, who was the famous Roman military and political leader known as Marius the Great (Gaius Marius 157 BC – January 13, 86 BC) that first realized that the Gauls could be defeated. Marius had helped to re-invent the new Roman army. Marius had plans not only to invade Gaul but to give the Gaulish lands to his soldiers when they retired. Thus forming new Roman colonies, expanding the size of Rome and securing its borders.

The politics in the Republic of Rome at this time were all about the power of family clans. This plan would have made the Marius family the most powerful clan in Rome, with all these new colonies owing Marius’s family their allegiance. Thus the idea of Roman colonies in Gaul was prevented by Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix 138 BC – 78 BC) the patriarch of a rival clan.

Civil war broke out and in Rome between Marius and Sulla. Sulla and Marius hated each other for years. They had served together as co-elected leaders of the Roman Republic and had bickered endlessly.

It was Sulla who won the Civil war and the Young Julius Caesar was forced to flee when Sulla marched his Roman legions on Rome. (Marching ones legions on Rome was a violation of one of Rome’s most sacred laws, and a law that Caesar would himself violate one day.)

Later when Sulla died Caesar was able to return to Rome and restart his political and military career.

The real Reason Rome invaded Gaul

Gaulish gold coin dating to the time of Caesar's invasion.
Gaulish gold coin dating to the time of Caesar’s invasion.

Oxford historian Terry Jones points out in his 2002 documentary series “The Surprising History of Rome” that there may have been another reason the Romans suddenly considered Gaul worth invading.

Jones (who was also a former member of Monty Python) points out that Gaul was full of gold. Gaulish coins from this period where made from gold while Roman coins were all minted from cheaper metals.

Caesar’s Book

“The Conquest of Gaul” was written towards the end of Caesar’s life. In fact the last chapter had to be finished by someone else after Caesar was murdered.

The story of the Conquest of Gaul takes place in the years after Caesar came back out of hiding and worked his way up the social and political ladder to where he himself was elected Consul of Rome. After a year in the top job Caesar was offered the Governorship of Gaul in 57 BC. Caesar was around the age of 43.

In 57 BC the Gauls were not yet a conquered people. So Caesars main job was to keep an eye on the natives and make sure that they didn’t amass into an army that could march on Rome.

Caesar had under his command three Roman legions. (A typical legion of this period had 5,120 legionaries). These were some of the best trained and best disciplined soldiers in the world at that time.

Map showing the unknown land of Gaul as compared to the location of Rome. 57 B.C.
Map showing the unknown land of Gaul as compared to the location of Rome. 57 B.C.

This is where the book “The Conquest of Gaul” begins. Caesar has just become the Roman Governor of Gaul. Caesar sees a large number of Gauls, from a tribe known as the Helvetii, immigrating to other lands. Caesar uses this amassing of the Helvetii as a provocation to attack.

Caesar won a quick victory. Caesar, as all generals of his day he was quick to send news of his victory back to Rome. Caesar’s whole life has wanted to be known as a great general.

Pompey the Great
Pompey the Great

In his youth his hero was Alexander the Great. His mentor was his uncle Marius the Great. Because of Caesar’s family being on the losing side of the Civil war military rank had long been denied him and he watched his friend and rival Pompey become known as Pompey the great (Gnaeus Pompeius 106 BC – 48 BC).

Caesar later befriended Pompey the Great and Pompey married his daughter. Pompey was considered to the the greatest general that Roman had ever had. But now suddenly Caesar had won a military victory against Rome’s most feared enemies, the Gauls.

Caesar had tasted military victory he wanted more. Caesar begins to pick fights with the many different tribes throughout central Europe, in what is now France, Belgium, Germany, and even Britain. Some of the friendlier tribes Caesar hired as auxiliaries. Also traveling with Caesar’s army was a group of slaver merchants whom Caesar sold prisoners of war, including women and children, to.

War was a great business, Caesar not only maked money from slaves but the towns that he conquered were looted for gold. Often whole towns were burned to the ground and the population exterminated by Caesar and his men. When the news spread to the other villages in Gaul towns paid Caesar tribute to avoid a battle.

Caesar and the Parisii

Paris, the Island of the city as it would have looked to Julius Caesar.
Paris, the Island of the city as it would have looked to Julius Caesar.

Caesar’s conquest even took him to Paris which in those days (52 B.C.). Paris was known then as “Lutetia Parisiorum”, (Lutetia of the Parisii ) The Parisii being the original tribal name of the people in the area. Now called the ‘Parisians’.

Luteitia in 52 B.C. consisted only of the area in Paris now known as  “Ile de la Cité”, (Island of the City) which is the island in the Seine where Notre Dame is now located.

Caesar made his camp on the left bank overlooking the Ile De la Cité, the area that would later become to be known as the Latin quarter.**

**(The Latin quarter got its name during the Middle Ages from the fact that it was the location of many different universities of higher learning where Latin was spoken).

Caesar’s conquest of Gaul was very simply written and in such pure and elegant Latin. The book still remains in print today more than two thousand years later. It is used both as a text book in Latin language training and as a book of military strategy.

There have been many different translations of Caesars conquest of Gaul into English over the years. The book is a must read for anyone wanting to start at the beginning of the history of France.

“The Conquest of Gaul” is followed by a second book by Caesar. “The Civil War” by Julius Caesar. Originally called  “Commentarii de Bello Civili” (Commentaries on The Civil War).

The Civil War is Caesar’s chronicle of the war between himself and Pompey the Great over the control of Rome.

Caesar was killed before finishing the last chapter of “The Civil War” and the work was completed by one of his friend Aulus Hirtius.
(Aulus Hirtius c. 90 – 43 BC, was a general under Caesar)

In Caesars day paper was expensive so notes were often written on wooden tables covered with bees wax. Shorthand notes were scribbled into the wax with a sharp metal stylus. It was with one of these stylus that Caesar was killed on the 15th of March 44 B.C.

Caesar’s invasion of Gaul was a brutal event. Costing the lives of thousands of people and causing thousands of others to be sold into slavery. But it was a brutal world. Before and after Caesar there where many warlords that acted even more brutally as Caesar. Caesar was just one of the very few to make a record of his conquests and war crimes.

Caesar’s conquests brought the Latin language into central Europe. The Romance languages; French Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian only really came into existence in their modern Latin based form because of the Roman conquests of over 2000 year ago.

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