Commentaries on the Gallic War

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Commentaries on the Gallic War

by Julius Caesar


Annual reports by Julius Caesar of his campaigns in Gaul and Britain between 58 and 52 bce, published in Latin in the 50s bce, plus a supplement for 51 and 50 bce by Caesar’s genera! Aulus Hirtius, published in the mid-40s bce.


Appointed governor of Rome’s ancient provinces of Gaul and Illyricum, Julius Caesar battles the tribes of Gaul, Germany, and Britain. Despite setbacks, Caesar establishes Roman dominion over the area that is modern-day France and the low countries (Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg).

Events in History at the Time of the Commentaries

The Commentaries in Focus

For More Information

For a modern audience the enduring reputation of Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 bce) is owed partly to his infamous portrayal in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and partly to his political and military domination of the Roman world during the 50s and 40s bce. Born on July 13, 100 bce into a noble family, Caesar benefited from his family connections, which included an uncle, Gaius Marius, who was a general and seven times occupied the office of consul (the highest ranking government official in Rome). Like most young noblemen in Rome, Caesar served a military apprenticeship. In 79 bce he won the Civic Crown (a military decoration of oak leaves woven into the shape of a crown) for saving the life of a Roman citizen, an indication of greater things to come. He also showed himself to be a rising star in the Roman law courts. His success as an orator led to political and social advancements, which by the late 60s bce had placed him among the most important men in the state.

Caesar’s fellow Romans understood that a considerable factor in his rise to power was his rhetorical and literary talent. According to his contemporary, the famous orator Cicero, Caesar spoke and wrote on a daily basis. In his youth he composed the poem Praises of Hercules, a tragedy called Oedipus, and a collection of sayings (apophthegms). Later works include his dispatches to the Senate, letters to Cicero and others, two speeches against the Roman statesman Cato the Younger (95-46 bce), and the poem The Journey. An interest in grammar and style resulted in On Analogy, a lost work in which Caesar advocated the lucid, pristine style used in his two surviving historical works: Commentaries on the Gallic War and Commentaries on the Civil War. The two works arise out of a chaotic period of self-styled military rulers, growing corruption of governmental processes, gang warfare, and civil war. Intended to do more than document events, the commentaries are the product of someone who understood the importance of propaganda to increase his power and to achieve his autocratic ambitions.

Events in History at the Time of the Commentaries

Politics in the Late Republic (146 bce-44 bce)

In theory, the governance of the Roman state was shared jointly by the Senate and the people of Rome (senatus populusque Romanus). In practice, power rested in the hands of a small landowning minority who controlled the Senate. Their complex systems of patronage and factional alliances allowed them to influence public assemblies, fix elections, and control access to the magistracies (political offices). As one historian remarks, “The Senate was a club, and club members decided whether or not a man had the social profile necessary for membership, whether or not he could add to the prestige of the group” (Veyne, p. 95). A politician’s self-worth, or dignitas, was closely associated with the glory (gloria) and honor (honos) he attained from military accomplishments and political offices. Such military and civic distinctions bestowed auctoritas, an authority that entailed the respectful admiration of one’s contemporaries. Each successive generation could augment the auctoritas earned by their ancestors and increase their own dignitas through the position, status, and wealth of their family. Access to the highest magistracies was restricted, even to nobles. Out of every eight praetors elected each year, only two could become consuls, and every year there were more ex-praetors competing for those top two positions. It was even harder for the lower classes and equestrians (businessmen with property worth at least 400,000 sesterces—Roman coins) who had neither the necessary dignitas nor auctoritas, although from time to time the nobles were willing to concede the consulship to a new man, or novus homo, who showed promise. Within the Republic, ancient eulogies and funerary inscriptions testify to a preoccupation among the oligarchy with magistracies and priest-hoods, public building works, military successes, and, above all, contests to prove themselves “first,” “best,” or “greatest.” The citizens of ancient Rome competed fiercely to gain access to the Senate, to ascend the cursus honorum (”ladder of honors”), and to become consul. In the last century or so of Republican life in Rome, “it mattered who was first and who was second” (Wiseman, p. 7).

Political offices of the Roman Republic

The leading citizens of Rome could hold a number of political positions as follows, from highest to lowest:

Dictator A six-month (or shorter) appointment held by one Roman citizen. His power superseded all other magistrates in a military (and occasionally domestic) crisis.

Censor Two censors were elected every five years from among the ex-consuls. In office for 18 months, they took the census, controlled public morals, and had the right to expel senators from the Senate.

Consul The two annually elected chief magistrates of Rome. They commanded the army, conducted the chief elections, presided over the Senate, and implemented Senate decisions.

Praetor At the time of the Gallic War, Rome elected eight praetors a year. The praetor urbanus (city praetor) was the supreme civil judge of Rome. The praetor peregrinus (alien praetor) dealt with lawsuits involving foreigners. The praetors oversaw the permanent law courts.

Aedile Each year four aediles were elected. They maintained the streets of Rome, regulated traffic and the city water supply, and were responsible for the upkeep of public buildings. They also oversaw markets and weights and measures as well as public festivals and games.

Quaestor Financial and administrative officials, the 20 quaestors at the time of the Gallic War maintained public records and oversaw the treasury. They acted as paymasters to generals on campaign and supervised the sale of war booty.

Tribune of the People (tribunus plebis) A one-year position held by 10 men, charged with defending the legal interests and property of plebeians (common people). Tribunes could veto Senate laws, and the election and actions of magistrates.

In Caesar’s day, senators typically belonged to one of two groups:

Optimates These senators followed the traditional senatorial routes to authority and political success, and were often seen as a less democratic and more conservative group.

Populares These senators used the people to achieve their political aims and objectives, and were often seen as a more democratic and radical groúp.

The Late Republic and the rise of Caesar

During the second century bce the traditional systems of the Roman Republic began to fracture in the face of protracted foreign wars, an influx of foreign slaves, and extraordinary opportunities for wealth and prestige to be amassed by generals and their legates (military commanders). Citizens often returned home to find their land allotments in ruin. Many had to sell them to wealthier landowners to avoid bankruptcy. The era saw the growth of enormous estates (the infamous latifundid), whose rise came at the expense of the smaller landowners. Unable to compete, they quit their holdings and flocked to Rome with other dispossessed citizens. The resultant urban problems led to genuine attempts at political and social reforms (in 133 and 123-122 bce), aimed at relieving the plight of Rome’s poorer classes. Yet in the struggle for personal auctoritas, it became clear that an ambitious politician could use the people to his advantage. The so-called popularis politician exploited the needs of the people to serve his own self-interested ends. None understood this more than Caesar’s uncle, Gaius Marius. Marius had first gained public recognition in 134 bce as a military tribune at Numantia in Spain. Later, as tribune of the people, he passed a measure limiting the influence of the nobility at elections. In 108 bce Marius campaigned for the consulship of 107 bce. His platform rested on the inability of nobles in the Senate to find either a diplomatic or military solution to the conflict in Numidia. After he was elected consul, Marius promptly en-rolled in his army numbers of the urban proletariat, the capite censi, those without the necessary property qualification. Working closely with the army, tribunes, and the people, Marius’s military successes in Numidia resulted in his election in absentia for the consulship of the Republic in 104 bce. Further successes against tribes from Gaul prompted the people to re-elect Marius consul every year until 100 bce. With the help of the tribunes of the people, he distributed cheap grain to the poor and guaranteed land to his veteran troops. The presence of Marius’s army veterans in the forum, Rome’s civic and commercial center, effectively silenced any opposition. For the first time the Roman army no longer owed allegiance to the state but to the general who could provide for them. The influence of Marius cannot be overestimated, either on Roman politics in the first century bce or on the young Caesar. Later on, in 68 bce Caesar was to win acclaim as the new champion of the populares when he proudly displayed images of Marius at his aunt’s funeral.


The cursus honorum, or “ladder of offices,” was the means by which a Roman official, or magistrate, advanced politically. Each office bestowed a certain amount of potestas (political authority) or imperium (military authority). The highest offices, praetors and consuls, had the right to wage war, to punish citizens, and to impose the death penalty. These officials had aides called lictors, who carried bundles of rods, known as fasces (for flogging) and (when the official was a consul) also carried axes (for executions),

A law of 180 bce, the lex Villia Annalis, prescribed a fixed order in which magistracies had to be held and also prescribed minimum age limits for each office, The conventional order was quaestor (28), praetor (39), consul (42), and potentially censor (which could only be held after the consulship), al-though a magistrate could also hold the tribunate or aedileship (the former traditionally held before, and the latter after the quaestorship). After their year of office in Rome, praetors and consuls sometimes governed outside Rome in a province, where they were known as propraetors or proconsuls. A dictatorship was a temporary six-month appointment made by the Senate only during times of war. By the time of the Gallic War, Rome had decreed that a ten-year interval was necessary between the holdings of the same office.

Caesar grew up during the bloody struggle between Sulla and Marius in the 80s bce. At the time, Sulla earned the dubious distinction of being the first Roman citizen to march an army on the city of Rome. Later he demonstrated how easy it was to pervert the traditional Republican constitution when he had himself declared dictator for the purpose of rewriting the constitution. Sulla subsequently tried to shore up the power of the optimates (those who believed in the traditional authority of the Senate) and to prevent popular agitation by muzzling the tribunes of the people. But his measures were short-lived as the actions of certain nobles undermined his constitutional reforms.

Men like Lepidus or Catiline, thwarted in their attempts to gain power or to pass social legislation, raised armies against the state in 78 and 63 bce respectively. Others such as Pompey the Great used their popular influence to gain extraordinary commands. At the age of 25, Pompey joined Sulla and campaigned in Italy, Sicily, and Africa, then refused to disband his army unless he was granted a triumph (a celebratory procession that wound its way through the streets of Rome to the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill). In 78 bce Pompey marched against Lepidus and in 77 bce demanded the power of proconsul to fight in Spain against the rebellious general Sertorius. In the two decades that followed, Pompey used his military successes against Rome’s enemies to persuade the Senate to give him a consulship and further commands. His actions resulted eventually in the annexation of the Near East and an ingenious settlement that took ac-count of the complex geographical and political factors of the region. Despite a magnificent third triumph, the Senate’s refusal to ratify Pompey’s eastern settlement led him to seek support from equally ambitious nobles.

As a young man, Julius Caesar served briefly in Asia between 80 and 78 bce before returning to Rome to make a name for himself in the law courts. He studied rhetoric and philosophy in Rhodes, after a brief delay en route when he was captured by pirates. On returning to Rome, Caesar was elected to the college of pontiffs (a priesthood with duties ranging from overseeing state sacrifices to serving as an advisory body on sacred law). Thereafter, he occupied a series of political offices: military tribune in 72 bce, quaestor in Spain in 69 bce, aedile in 65 bce. Meanwhile, he lent support to Pompey and earned popular favor as aedile through his lavish games. Undoubtedly Caesar’s skill as an orator was a powerful factor in his election in 63 bce to pontifex maximus, head of the college of pontiffs. Election to the office of praetor followed. Though an able orator, Caesar understood that true power at Rome was possible only through military success and a supportive army. To advance his ambitions, he joined forces with Pompey and Crassus in an unofficial political alliance known as “The First Triumvirate,” a pact that foreshadowed the end of the Republic.

The three allies engineered a consulship for Caesar in 59 bce, during which he oversaw the ratification of Pompey’s eastern settlement and supported the financial interests of Crassus in Egypt and the East. The coalition was cemented by the marriage of Pompey to Caesar’s daughter, Julia. At the end of the year the triumvirs conspired to award Caesar a five-year governorship of some Roman provinces in Europe—Illyricum and Nearer Gaul (or Cisalpine Gaul, Gaul on this side of the Alps). To this was soon added Farther Gaul (Transalpine Gaul). In Roman politics, alliances were always unstable because of external pressures and wavering ambitions, and this three-way coalition was no different. In 56 bce Caesar’s command in Gaul was extended for another five years, but the peace did not last long. In 54 Julia died and in 53 Crassus was killed in Parthia, seeking military glory. Meanwhile, the yearly reports from Gaul and Britain were adding to Caesar’s growing popularity. Caesar’s fearless style of generalship, marked by his famed celeritas (speed) was as impressive as his oratory. Exposing himself to the same risks as his troops, he won their confidence and trust. In Rome, the people celebrated. Twice Caesar had been granted unprecedented periods of public thanksgiving and prayers to the gods. All of this was enhanced by Caesar’s own reports to the Senate and his Commentaries on the Gallic War, which kept the Roman people abreast of his latest conquests.

Power became ever more polarized in the hands of Caesar and Pompey. To make matters worse, there was open gang warfare between their supporters in the streets of Rome, which pre-vented elections being held for 52 bce. Pompey was granted special authority to deal with the crisis. He tried to grant Caesar the special privilege of being eligible to stand for the consulship in absentia so that when he finished his Gallic command he could step directly from one office to the next without a year’s interlude that would have left him open to prosecution. A small group of powerful senators, however, continued to provoke a rift. A request that Caesar’s command in Gaul be extended from 51 through 49 bce was rejected. To add insult to injury, in 51 bce, one of the consuls, M. Marcellus, publicly flogged a senator from Novum Comum (a town in Gaul) to demonstrate that the town did not enjoy Roman citizenship. In 50 bce, the question of a successor to Caesar became a pressing issue. When the measure to remove Pompey and Caesar from their commands was vetoed, some senators re-quested that Pompey protect the Republic from the ambitions of Caesar. On January 10 and 11 of 49 bce, Caesar, his dignitas irreparably slighted, crossed the Rubicon, a stream separating Gaul from Italy. After several years of civil war from which Caesar emerged victorious, in 44 bce he had himself declared dictator in perpetuum (dictator for life), which demonstrated the obvious: the Republican system of government no longer worked. But the Roman world was not yet ready for a monarch. After Caesar’s assassination, it would take another 14 years of civil war for the emergence of an autocrat who was capable of unifying the Senate and the people of Rome.

Relationships with Gaul prior to 58 bce

In Caesar’s time the ancient region of Gaul (roughly equivalent to France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) was inhabited by disparate nations, or tribal groups. Along with the tribes of Britain, Germany, and the Danube region, these nations were known collectively as the Celts. The Romans had a deep-rooted fear of Celtic tribes because of past history. At the river Allia, on July 18, probably in 390 bce, a notorious “black” day (dies nefastus) in the Roman calendar, the Senones inflicted a crushing defeat on Rome’s legions and then sacked the city of Rome, destroying houses, temples, and public records. In the centuries that followed, Celtic tribes continued to encroach on Italian territory and to offer aid to Rome’s enemies. Rome annexed Nearer Gaul, but matters came to a head in the late second century bce, when two German tribes, the Cimbri and the Teutones, migrated there. In 113 bce they roundly defeated the Roman consul Cnaeus Papirius Carbo at Noricum (in Nearer Gaul). Fortunately for Rome the tribes moved westward toward Switzerland. They were joined on their march by another tribe known as the Tigurini. In 109 bce the Romans sent out a new army under the consul M. lunius Silanus to de-fend the new Roman province of Farther Gaul. Silanus was defeated. A new army and a new general, L. Cassius Longinus, advanced against the Tigurini. In 107 bce his army was defeated and forced to march under the yoke as if they were oxen, a terrible humiliation. In 105 bce at Arausio (modern Orange, France) the combined armies of the Cimbri and Teutones decisively routed the Roman legions of the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio and Cnaeus Mallius with the reported loss of 80,000 men. In 102 and 101 bce, under the command of Marius, the Romans defeated first the Teutones and then the Cimbri. This gave some relief to the Romans, ever mindful that the Gauls had once sacked Rome.

In the years that followed Marius’s victory, the inhabitants of Farther Gaul were heavily taxed and closely monitored. In 63 bce, a Gallic tribe, the Allobroges, who had long been faithful to the Roman cause, rebelled when their appeal for debt relief fell on deaf ears. At Rome it must have seemed that the threat posed by the tribes of Gaul would never be averted. A few years later, when the Senate added Farther Gaul to Nearer Gaul as one of Caesar’s territories, he redirected his attention toward the unruly tribes of Gaul.

The Commentaries in Focus

Contents summary

Seven “books,” which are in fact parts of a single book, make up Commentaries on the Gallic War. The books are further subdivided into chapters, or subsections. Beginning with 58 bce, each book narrates one year of campaigning. An additional book by Caesar’s general, Aulus Hirtius (consul 43 bce), relates events of 51 and 50 bce.

The events in Caesar’s commentaries unfold in chronological order, always by year and sub-divided by summers and winters, resembling the method characteristic of Roman historiography. Beginnings of books are often marked off with threats to the peace of Gaul, which continue to justify Caesar’s presence in the territory. Endings are signaled by a return to winter quarters (books 1, 3, 5, and 6) or the more climactic reference to public thanksgivings in Caesar’s honor (2, 4, and 7).

Book One (58 bce)

“As a whole Gaul is divided into three parts…” (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…) (Caesar, C. lulii Caesaris Com-mentarii rerum gestarum, book 1, chapter 1; trans. A. Nice). Instead of a conventional prologue, Caesar begins with a description of Gaul and its inhabitants. His troops’ first action is against the Helvetii (chapters 2-29), who have been inspired by their chieftain Orgetorix to migrate from their homeland (in modern-day Switzerland) to Gaul through Roman territory. Moving swiftly, Caesar prevents them from crossing the Rhine River. When they threaten two Gallic tribes—the Aedui and Allobroges—that are Roman allies, Caesar pursues the Helvetii to the town of Bibracte, where his troops defeat them.

In the second part of the book Caesar responds to a request from the tribes of Gaul for aid against a German chieftain named Ariovistus (chapters 30-59). Reports of incursions by two Germanic peoples (the Harudes and the Suebi) inspire Caesar to march north to prevent Ariovistus from capturing a major town of Gaul—Vesontio. Here Caesar confronts the first threat to his command when his inexperienced military tribunes and other high officials search for reasons to avoid combat. The “mutiny” spreads and Caesar is compelled to call a council of war. In a remarkable speech, he shames the remainder of the army into action. There ensues a battle in which Caesar’s legions rout the army of Ariovistus. Leaving his lieutenant Titus Labienus in winter quarters among the Sequani, Caesar returns to Nearer Gaul to conduct the administrative duties of a governor.

Book Two (57 bce)

In light of a reported conspiracy by the Belgae, a group of tribes in North-eastern Gaul, Caesar raises two new legions and marches on their territory. He crosses the river Axona (now called Aisne) to aid the town of Bibrax. Routing the enemy, he presses forward into the territory of other Belgic peoples. He advances on the Bellovaci, who surrender themselves to the Romans. At the river Sabis (now Sambre) the ferocity and courage of the Nervii tribe proves a worthy match for Caesar’s legions. The tide is turned by the arrival of Rome’s Tenth Legion and the Romans are victorious. Caesar draws attention to the significance of the victory and takes the opportunity to display his famous dementia (clemency):

So ended this battle, by which the tribe of the Nervii was almost annihilated and their name almost blotted out from the face of the earth. On hearing the news of it, their old men … sent envoys to Caesar and surrendered.... Caesar, wishing to let it be seen that he showed mercy to the unfortunate suppliants, took great care to protect them from harm, confirmed them in possession of their territories and towns, and commanded their neighbours to refrain from injuring their persons or property.

(Gallic War, 2.28; trans. S. A. Handford)

Only the Aduatuci tribe now withstands Rome’s might. Caesar agrees to spare the people but only if they lay down their weapons. At-tempting to deceive Caesar, the Aduatuci appear to comply but then attack the Romans by night. Caesar’s response is savage. All 53,000 Aduatuci are sold into slavery.

Meanwhile, on the Atlantic coast, Publius Crassus, the son of the triumvir, secures the submission of the maritime tribes. By the end of the year Gaul is at peace, and Caesar is rewarded an unprecedented honor—a 15-day period of thanksgiving to the immortal gods.

Book Three (56 bce)

With the armies settled in winter quarters, Caesar’s lieutenant Servius Galba attempts to open up a secure trade route across the Alps. The peace of just a few weeks earlier is shattered by an unexpected onslaught on Galba’s camp. Galba shows initiative and the Romans counterattack from the gates of the camp:

It was a complete reversal of fortune: the Gauls who had counted on capturing the camp were surrounded and cut off. Of the forces that had taken part in the attack—known to number over 30,000—more than a third were killed; the rest fled in terror and were not allowed to halt even on the mountain heights.

(Gallic War 3.6; trans. S. A. Handford)

After repulsing the enemy, Galba retires to the Roman province, where he winters amid the Allobroges.

In 56 bce, assuming peace, Caesar heads for Illyricum. His back is not long turned before the Veneti, a tribe of seafarers, reveal themselves to be unwilling subjects. They capture some Roman officials and demand the return of their own hostages. Caesar hastens back to the province. Doing battle, his Roman fleet proves itself superior to the enemy in oarsmanship, speed, and tactics. The Veneti Senate is executed by sword, and the remaining adult males are sold as slaves. In other arenas his lieutenants quell some unruly tribes, including rebels in the territory of Aquitania (in today’s southwest France). With winter approaching, Caesar plunders territory of two Belgic peoples in the North—the Morini and the Menapii.

Book Four (55 bce)

Book Four reminds us of the ever-present German threat to peace in Gaul. The Usipetes and the Tencteri cross into Gaul under pressure from the Suebi, who are the largest and most warlike of the German nations.

It is said that they have a hundred cantons, each of which provides annually a thousand armed men for service in foreign wars. Those who are left at home have to support the men in the army as well as themselves, and the next year take their turn of service, while the others stay at home.

(Gallic War, 4.1; trans. S. A. Handford)

With typical celeritas, or speed, Caesar marches against the German tribes, defeating them in two separate engagements. In a demonstration of Roman might, Caesar crosses into Germany in order to deter further German incursions into the new Roman province and to encourage another Germanic group, the Ubii, to resist the Sheba. Just ten days later, a 400-yard Roman-built bridge spans the Rhine. After 18 days of maneuvers and raids, his point made, Caesar withdraws to Gaul.

Now late in the summer, Caesar directs his attention toward Britain. He offers reasons for campaigning outside his province: the Britons have been helping the tribes of Gaul fight the Ro-mans and Rome will gain knowledge of Britain’s land and peoples. Unnerved by the unusual spectacle of charioteers in Britain and by the British weather, the Romans survive an ambush and an attack on their camp. Despite their success, the Britons petition for peace and promise to return hostages. Fearing the approach of winter, Caesar departs for Gaul. Once there, he sends his men against the Morin and Kenai, who have renewed hostilities. In honor of his achievements, the Senate grants Caesar 20 days of public thanksgiving.

Book Five (54 bce)

Caesar orders the construction of new ships to facilitate a full-scale invasion of Britain. Setting out for Britain from Ports Etuis (perhaps today’s Bologna), he leads an army of 2,000 cavalry and five legions (approximately 25,000 infantry soldiers). His movement inland is temporarily checked when news arrives that a storm has destroyed 40 ships. After ordering new ships built, Caesar continues his ad-Vance and encounters Cassivellaunus, lord of the land north of the Thames River. Though the Britons keep bothering his men on the march, Caesar eventually reaches the Thames. There he receives the surrender of the Trinobantes and other tribes and attacks the stronghold of Cassivellaunus. Cassivellaunus attempts to divert Caesar’s attention by urging tribes in Kent to at-tack Caesar’s naval camp. When this attack fails, the Britons sue for peace. Cassivellaunus promises hostages and a yearly tribute, after which Caesar returns to Gaul and settles his troops in winter quarters.

Suddenly a revolt breaks out incited by a member of the Treveri tribe, a Gallic tribe that provided Caesar with cavalry. The Roman winter camps are assaulted by the Gauls. The first blow is struck by Ambiorix, chieftain of the Eburones, a Belgic tribe. The Nervii then besiege the camp of Quintus Cicero. When his slave brings word to Caesar, Caesar advances swiftly to break the blockade of Cicero’s camp. Report of the victory causes the rebellious Treveri to call off another planned attack, but they continue to incite rebellion and taunt the Romans. Eventually the Romans launch a counterattack, their cavalry pursuing and beheading the Treveri leader, Indutiomarus. The forces of the Eburones and Nervii disperse. The book ends laconically: “After this deed Caesar found Gaul somewhat quieter” (Commentarii rerum gestarum, 5.58; trans. A. Nice).


These are the tactics of chariot warfare. First they drive in all directions hurling spears. Generally they succeed in throwing the ranks of their opponents into confusion just with the terror caused by their galloping horses and the din of their wheels. They make their way through the squadrons of their own cavalry, then jump down from their chariots and fight on foot, Meanwhile the chariot-drivers withdraw a little way from the fighting and position the chariots in such a way that if their masters are hard pressed by the enemy’s numbers, they have an easy means of retreat to their own lines.

Thus when they fight they have the mobility for cavalry and the staying power of infantry; and with daily training and practice they have become so efficient that even on steep slopes they can control their horses at full gallop, check and turn them in a moment, run along the pole, stand on the yoke and get back into the chariot with incredible speed,

(Gallic War 433; trans. A, Wiseman and P. Wiseman)

Chariots had not been encountered by a Roman army in over 150 years. In this passage, Caesar, who tended to avoid “the unusual word as a sailor avoids a rock,” captures their novelty by his introduction of the nouns essedum (”chariot”) and essadarius (“charioteer”) into the Latin language. His vivid description of the British charioteers soon gripped the Roman imagination. For not long after the conquest of Gaul, the unusual antics of the essedarii made them a regular feature m the Roman amphitheater,

Book Six (53 bce)

After amassing fresh troops to counter the threat of war, Caesar finds him-self occupied in the North, again in Menapian territory. After Caesar’s lieutenant Labienus routs the Treveri, his force and Caesar’s set out once more for Germany. Over one-third of the book is then taken up with a lengthy digression on the differences between the societies of Gaul and Germany. Finally, failing to engage the Suebi, Caesar returns to Gaul, leaving part of the Roman-built bridge standing as a warning to the Germans. In the territory of the Eburones, Caesar sets up camp, appointing Cicero to guard the baggage. The Romans launch simultaneous attacks against the restless northern peoples—the Menapii, Aduatuci, and the Treveri. In the absence of Caesar, the cavalry of a west Germanic group, the Sugambri, attack Cicero’s camp. Cicero’s band, foraging away from the camp, is caught off guard. Only through instances of individual valor do the Romans retain the camp. The Sugambri retire across the Rhine. Caesar’s arrival soon after revives morale. He ends the year harassing the enemy, searching for Ambiorix, chief of the Eburones, a Belgic tribe, and conducting an enquiry into a conspiracy by two Gallic tribes (the Senones and Carnutes). The ring-leader, Acco, is flogged to death in accordance with Roman custom, and Caesar heads back to Italy.

Book Seven (52 bce)

The first words of Caesar’s climactic seventh book: Quieta Gallia (”Peaceful Gaul”) could not have been more precisely chosen. They are ironic in view of the tumultuous events then happening in Rome (Caesar notes that he had learned of the murder of a leading Roman political figure, Clodius [Gallic War, 7.1]), and the events about to unfold in Gaul itself.

Book seven is the story of Vercingetorix, a young nobleman of another Celtic tribe, the Arvernians, who becomes the leader of the resistance movement in Gaul. The narrative paints Vercingetorix as a suitably intelligent and resourceful opponent to the Roman commander. After he fails to relieve the town of Avaricum (today’s Bourges), it falls to Caesar, whose troops have besieged it. Caesar withdraws to settle a dynastic squabble among the Aedui people. When they join forces with Vercingetorix, he turns to the Germanic peoples for aid.

The climax of the work is the siege of Alesia. Encircling the ramparts of the enemy, the forces of Gaul are successively beaten back. Caesar arrives, resplendent in the scarlet cloak of a general (Gallic War, 7.88), and ends the resistance of the Gallic tribes. The leading rebel, Vercingetorix, submits nobly to Caesar. His brief speech to his own people is a moving demonstration of self-sacrifice:

The next day Vercingetorix addressed an assembly. “I did not undertake the war,” he said, “for private ends, but in the cause of national liberty. And since I must now accept my fate, I place myself at your disposal. Make amends to the Romans by killing me or surrender me alive as you think best.”

(Gallic War, 7.89; trans. S. A. Handford)

Vercingetorix was given over to Caesar. Six years later, after being displayed in Caesar’s triumph, he was executed.

Caesar also recovers the loyalty of the Aedui and of the Arverni, stations Roman officials and troops throughout Gaul, and personally winters at Bibracte. Caesar’s work ends on the positive and self-congratulatory note: “When these messages were made known at Rome a public thanks-giving of twenty days was granted” (Gallic War, 7.90; trans. A. Nice).

Book Eight (51-50 bce)

After an apologetic preface, Hirtius, Caesar’s general, opens with a verbal reference to books one and seven of the Gallic War: “The whole of Gaul was defeated.” (omni Gallia devictd) (Gallic War, 8.1; trans. A. Nice). As with Caesar’s exaggerated claims, it is not true. In the subsequent sections Caesar and his legates reduce the remnants of Gallic resistance. The final sections shift the focus to the challenges to Caesar’s authority at Rome. The final word of the incomplete manuscript “contendit…” (He strove …) (Gallic War, 8.55; trans. A. Nice) suspends the narrative indefinitely on the brink of civil war. It is perhaps an appropriate, if less than satisfying, conclusion.

The rhetoric of conquest

When Aulus Hirtius remarked in his preface to book eight that “Caesar possessed not only the greatest skill and elegance in writing, but also the surest ability to ex-plain his own plans” (Gallic War 8, Preface, section 7; trans. A. Nice), he acknowledges that Caesar had exceeded the limits of his command. As Caesar’s opponents knew very well, his campaigns in Gaul, Britain, and Germany were illegal. He had operated outside the limits of his provinces without senatorial authority and, by rights, should have been prosecuted. The year-by-year publication of the Gallic War was necessary to justify Caesar’s actions to his adoring public and to promote his calculated subjugation of areas outside Roman control.

Caesar presents real or imagined threats to ex-plain away his intervention in Gaul. For example, Caesar claims that the Helvetii threaten the Roman province and promote anti-Roman sentiment. Four times he recalls their annihilation of the Roman army of L. Cassius Longinus in 107 bce. Also his reports always portray the enemy as the aggressor, even when his troops plunder Gallic lands or he sells a population into slavery. Caesar compares and contrasts the civilized ways of Rome to the barbarism of those he conquers. He portrays the Gauls as deserving to be subjected because they lack Roman qualities. They are fickle and undetermined, rash and frenzied, greedy and lazy. Caesar’s men defend their nation with discipline, hard work, and traditional virtue.

Digressions on the characteristics of the Gauls and Germans are essential to Caesar’s account. They justify his conquests by encouraging the reader to draw comparisons between Roman ideals of nationhood and the ways of these foreign nations. Although the Gauls have some degree of a social class structure, they fight one another and the Germans. They are less developed than the civilized Romans: they make human sacrifices; they treat the common people like slaves; they do not have democracy.

Among the Gallic peoples, Vercingetorix is the Gallic equivalent of Caesar: a capable orator, strategist, and warrior. His nobility is apparent from the beginning of book seven to the moment that he surrenders willingly to the decision of his own people and to Caesar. Generally, though, Caesar sets up a framework of Roman versus barbarian, portraying the region as a threat to the survival of Roman civilization itself.

Despite the use of the third person for his account, Caesar himself is ever present. Often he appears suddenly and dramatically: to save the Seventh Legion in Britain, to rescue Quintus Cicero, at the forefront of the battle, robed in his general’s red cloak at the siege of Alesia. As appropriate, Caesar metes out pardon or punishment. He takes care to mention individual officers, centurions, and even slaves. In the account and through the account, Caesar emerges as a model of Roman virtue par excellence. He is the diplomat, general, warrior. As Lindsay Hall remarks:

He ponders things, acts in accordance with pre-arranged plans or principled habit, explains his reasons for strategic or tactical decisions and his other consilia or policies; he…anticipate [s] political or military movements on the part of potential enemies, or the results of actions that have come to an end; he regularly foresees … eventualities, or…carefully excuses failure to do so.

(Hall in Welch and Powell, p. 21)

Caesar’s narrative is a masterpiece of rhetorical or persuasive composition. He encourages his Roman audience to believe in his actions and in himself. It is perhaps no wonder that just two years later his Roman troops were ready to follow him to the bitterest of encounters—civil war.

Sources and literary context

The full title on surviving manuscripts of Caesar’s single, continuing set of accounts on the Gallic and Civil Wars is C. lulii Caesaris Commentarii rerum gestarum (The Commentaries of C. Julius Caesar on His Achievements). The commentarius was a genre that had its origins in the Greek hypomemnata (or ‘memoranda’), such as public legal records and accounting expenses, or private notes for speeches and personal diaries. At Rome the form developed in the writings of the priestly colleges or of the leading magistrates, in senatorial dispatches and reports, and in the diaries of army generals and provincial governors. In general, commentarii were not for publication, but were intended as raw material for the historian.

It was customary for Romans to celebrate the resgestae (“things done”) of their ancestors in speeches of praise at funerals and in funerary inscriptions. It was also common to praise one’s own achievements when dedicating a monument or writing memoirs. As time passed, generals and politicians recognized that by publishing their commentarii or res gestae they could justify their actions and promote themselves in Rome. They now intended for their works to be publicly disseminated. The memoirs of P. Rutilius Rufus, the autobiography of M. Aemilius Scaurus, or Cicero’s account of his consulship are worthy predecessors to Caesar’s commentaries. But the most obvious inspiration is the dictator Sulla’s lost Commentarii rerum gestarum, on his life and achievements.

Caesar’s narrative, written in the third person, lays claim to a more impersonal and objective approach. The annual structure, geographic and ethnographic digressions on the Gauls and Ger-mans, rousing speeches by the Celts and Romans, records of his own and his generals’ achievements, the results of his campaigns—all these suggest the writing of history rather than autobiography. In ancient Rome, history was above all a rhetorical and literary genre. The ideal form focused on the doubtful and varying fortunes of an outstanding individual and would contain contrasting emotions of surprise and suspense, joy and distress, hope and fear. Ancient and modern readers would be hard pressed to find a purer example of historical writing that is tailored to the views and desires of its central figure than Caesar’s Gallic War. In addition to the influences of genres, one can detect the impact of Caesar’s teachers, the orator Apollonius Molon of Rhodes, and the grammarian Antonius Gnipho. The former advocated an austere style of oratory. The latter


In the modern world, Caesar’s accomplishments have rarely gripped the popular imagination. Although there have been a plethora of excellent TV and film adaptations of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, there have been few that deal with the historical Caesar, Occasionally Caesar has been the subject of the historical novel, most notably in the recent works of Colleen McCullough, Allen Massie, or Steven Saylor but none have achieved anything similar to the phenomenal success of the comic book series created by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Situated in 50 bce, each book begins as follows:

The year is 50 B.C. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well, not entirely…One small village of the indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the Roman legionaries who garrison the fortified camps of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium …

(Uderzo, p. iii)

Their unlikely hero is a very small Gallic man named Asterix, who is accompanied by his faithful companion, an oversized man named Obelix, and his pet hound, Dogmatix. Asterix’s small village fends off the Roman invaders with a little help from a magic potion prepared by a Druid named Getafix.

Ingenious storylines paint a caricatured portrait of overbearing and stuffy Romans and of boorish and guileless Gauls. Cleverly the authors exaggerate themes of Roman and barbarian found in Caesar’s Commentaries, although in their version the barbarians always have the last word. Since 1959 Goscinny and Uderzo’s 32 books have been translated into over 100 languages (including ancient Greek and Latin), used as educational materials, and adapted for animation and motion picture (Asterix and Obelix vs. Caesar [1999]; Asterix and Obefix: Mission Cleopatra [2002], starring Christian Clavier as Asterix and Gerard Depardieu as Qbefix),

had a special interest in word forms. Caésar’s style in the Commentaries is smooth and concise. He avoids coining new words and standardizes the use of vocabulary and grammatical structures.

Publication and reception

The standard position is that Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War were a synthesis of his earlier campaign reports, and that he wrote and published them after the successful completion of business in Gaul in 52-51 bce. A slightly different stance suggests that Caesar wrote the Commentaries in stages but published them all at the same time. A third view argues that the books were produced and published at stages during the campaign, probably yearly. Publishing a section of Commentaries on the Gallic War annually at the end of a military campaign season would have enabled Caesar to promote himself to the Roman public and to enhance his immediate political ambitions.

During his own lifetime and the century that followed, Caesar’s Commentaries received high praise for their uncomplicated style. Cicero, the foremost rhetorician of the era, wrote in 46 bce: “They [the Commentaries] are greatly to be approved. For they are unadorned, direct and graceful, stripped of every oratorical ornament as though divested of clothing” (Cicero, Brutus, chapter 292).

The Commentaries on the Gallic War had a wide-spread impact on later ancient biographers and historians. The subject matter provided raw material for Livy’s From the Founding of the City, for Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and for Suetonius’ The Lives of The Twelve Caesars (all also in Classical Literature and Its Times). More generally, Caesar’s descriptions of the Celtic tribes helped shape later Roman views of the “barbarian,” including those of historians, such as Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus, and Orosius.

The Commentaries on the Gallic War influenced writers and thinkers in Britain, France, and Germany. The English scholar Francis Bacon (1561-1626) thought that the Commentaries revealed Caesar to be the most complete and unique figure to emerge from antiquity. In eighteenth-century France, the value of the Commentaries as a military handbook was not lost on Napoleon Bonaparte, who wanted the work to be part of the education of every general and wrote his own Summary of the Wars of Caesar (Precis des Guerres de Cesar, 1836). The German historian Theodor Mommsen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1902, regarded Caesar as the only creative genius produced by Rome and the last produced by the ancient world.

Nonetheless, there are traces of a tradition hostile to the content of Caesar’s Commentaries. Asinius Pollio, who had fought with Caesar, thought they had been composed carelessly and with too little regard to the truth. Pollio believed that Caesar gave a false account, either purposely or because of a faulty memory (Suetonius, Caesar 56.4). It was impossible for Caesar to have fully falsified his account since it would have been competing with his own reports to the Senate, with his correspondence and the letters of his officers to Rome, and with other literary compositions by the men under his command. However, Caesar had an agenda he wished to promote. As one historian suggests, he was “presenting him-self in contemporary terms to his fellow Romans as the greatest and most worthy of them, striving beyond all else to outdo his most significant rival, Pompey the Great” (Welch and Powell, p. ix).

As a historical document, the Commentaries on the Gallic War remain enormously valuable as the memoir of a Roman commander in provinces of the empire. The extent to which Caesar may have exceeded the truth of history should be considered in relation not just to the historical events or circumstances that shaped the work. Rather the Commentaries on the Gallic War should be regarded as a key to understanding the sophisticated linguistic, rhetorical, and historical processes of one of ancient Rome’s most dynamic politicians and foremost thinkers.

—Alex Nice

For More Information

Bradley, P. Ancient Rome: Using Evidence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Caesar, Julius. The Battle for Gaul [Commentaries on the Gallic War]. Trans. A. Wiseman and P. Wiseman. Boston: David R. Godine, 1980.

_____. C. lulii Caesaris Commentarii rerum gestarum [Caius Julius Caesar, Commentaries on His Achievements]. Ed. O. Seel. Leipzig: Teubner, 1968.

_____The Conquest of Gaul [Commentaries on the Gallic War] Trans. S. A. Handford. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1951.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Brutus. Trans. G. L. Hendrickson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Meier, Christian. Caesar. Trans. D. McLintock. London: HarperCollins, 1995.

Mommsen, Theodor. A History of Rome. London: Routledge, 1996.

Parenti, M. The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome. New York: New Press, 2003.

Suetonius. Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Trans. R. Graves. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1957.

Uderzo, Albert. Asterix and the Secret Weapon. Trans. Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. London: Orion, 2002.

Veyne, Paul, ed. From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. In A History of Private Life. Vol. 1. Trans. A. Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Welch, Kathryn, and Anton Powell, eds. Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter. Swansea: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 1998.

Wiseman, T. P., ed. Roman Political Life 90 BC-AD 69. Exeter: Exeter University Press, 1985.

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Commentaries on the Gallic War

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