Consider the many things that would not exist without Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars: Asterix and Obelix; The Wicker Man; Gauloises cigarettes; the little Airfix Romans and Britons that many of us grew up with. Even today, Caesar’s legionaries and their colourful Gallic foes are bread and butter for companies that sell expensive toy soldiers to middle-aged schoolboys. One recent series of figurines featured the scourging of a Gallic prisoner, the crucifixion of a tribal chieftain, and a grim-faced centurion overseeing the punishment detail. If we leave aside the question of who precisely covets these sadistic tableaux, they get one thing right: Julius Caesar was the first génocidaire in European history.
He tells us so himself, in a brilliantly structured third-person narrative that makes mass slaughter and the enslavement of whole populations seem mundane. So successful is Caesar’s narrative strategy that readers have for centuries turned to the Gallic Wars – The War for Gaul, in this new translation by James O’Donnell – as a leadership manual and strategic primer, as well as a model of Latin prose. It was really only in the mid-20th century that doubts began to creep in: the seeming transparency of the language conceals as much as it discloses, the superficial verisimilitude is a déformation historique, and casual slaughter was at the centre of Caesar’s campaign in Gaul. The linguistic turn and the rise of critical theory accentuated these suspicious readings, and the advent of postcolonialism cemented them as the new normal. O’Donnell’s translation is the first truly to embrace this approach – he calls it ‘the best bad man’s book ever written’.
The Gaul through which Caesar hacked his way was not where he was meant to have been. He had been one of the two consuls – republican Rome’s highest magistrates – in what we call 59 BC (the Romans, who reckoned time according to their eponymous magistracies, called it the consulship of Caesar and Bibulus). After exercising their year’s duties, consuls were assigned provinces in which they would exercise command as proconsuls. The word provincia could mean a place, but it could also mean a sphere of activity – a particular war, for example, or supervision of the grain supply. It would be more than a hundred years before it came to mean what we mean by ‘province’. Caesar was assigned a five-year tenure of Gaul and Illyricum, which in this period meant the north Italian plain, from the Apennines to the Alps, a bit of Slovenia, the Croatian coastline, a sliver of Languedoc and all of Provence. But he spent much less time there than he did north of his province, ranging widely from the Cévennes to the Rhine and beyond, twice venturing across the Channel to Kent and Essex. He needed glory and he needed cash. The quickest route to glory was beating up barbarians; stealing their wealth and selling their bodies into slavery got him the cash. And, as had long been the Roman way, he would justify his rapacity as necessary to defend the Roman state – the first seven books of the Gallic Wars are a year by year record of that justification.
His audience was the Senate and the Roman people, and his two great rivals for power, Marcus Crassus, whose wealth far exceeded his, and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great), who had both immense wealth and unparalleled fame. Roman politics had always been cut-throat, elections a zero-sum game, but at its heart there was a fundamental equilibrium: individual careers might stall or end in failure, an ancient family might occasionally wither or die, but the oligarchy would always abide. By 59 BC, that equilibrium was a distant memory, destroyed by the fabulous riches plundered from the Greek east. This created hitherto unknown disparities within the oligarchy, and impoverished many citizen-soldiers, unable to keep up their Italian farms while serving long tours of duty overseas. When property restrictions on entry into military service were relaxed, the urban proletariat and the newly landless joined the legions and learned to save their loyalty not for the Roman state but for the commanders on whom their salary and discharge bonus depended. It had all culminated in civil war and murderous proscriptions when the brutality of foreign battlefields was unleashed on Italian soil in the 80s BC. The old equilibrium was never restored, not by the dictatorship of the victorious Sulla, or by a superficial return to politics as usual in the 70s. The 60s, too, were a wasted decade in Rome, though Pompey enjoyed a series of extraordinary commands and humbled the republic’s last serious eastern enemy, Mithridates of Pontus. All the while Pompey, Crassus and various lesser competitors were at work, buying the machinery of state and bending it to their own ends. One of those competitors was Caesar, who steadily progressed from an indebted and hustling hopeful to the senior consul of 59 BC. He secured his proconsular command through bribery and luck, and by getting the great orator Cicero on side. In Gaul, safe from creditors and legal vendettas, he was the head of four legions and had the right to appoint his own legates. This was his chance to make a name to match his ambitions and to win the kind of spoils he would need to rival Pompey.
With his political future at stake, Caesar had every reason to pick fights with Gallic peoples both friendly and hostile, to manufacture threats where none existed, and to allege the treachery of Rome’s allies. He had every reason to exaggerate the Gauls’ bellicosity, accentuate their savagery, and choose targets to maximise his revenues. He also had every reason to maximise Gallic casualties, whether dead or enslaved, because even with ten thousand legionaries at his command, he could only control so vast a landmass by massacring those most able to resist. There was, that is to say, a logic to his genocide. And the nature of a Roman army made the slaughter much worse.
The Mediterranean world had known effective, well-disciplined armies before Rome, but nothing like the legions of the late republic. The legion was a versatile and flexible thing, with roughly 4500 fighting men divided into ten cohorts. These were in turn divided into six centuries of about eighty men, each under an experienced NCO, the centurion. (In modern terms, a legion was a battalion, a cohort a company, and a century a platoon, while the eight legionaries who shared a tent were the equivalent of a squad.) A legion was large enough to defend itself in winter quarters, small enough to feed itself off the land in a pinch. The legionaries could do their own engineering, which obviated the need for a specialist corps, and non-citizen cavalry and archers gave them auxiliary support. The cohort in particular was an efficient tactical unit, capable of operating independently on the battlefield and mobile enough to reinforce weak points in the line swiftly, or to step between the files and into the place of another cohort that was tiring.
We must add to this already formidable picture a quirk of military technology. Unlike most ancient swords, the legionary shortsword, or gladius Hispaniensis, was designed for stabbing, not slashing. While longswords and sabres create horrific, often deadly wounds, even an inch of steel can deliver a lethal puncture – especially given the limits of ancient medicine. Yet as combat instructors know, stabbing another human being at close quarters is much harder than cutting them: we have a psychological block against penetrating others’ bodies in that way, a visceral aversion that must be overcome by stern, psychologically brutalising discipline. Roman legionaries were taught to hurl their spears at the enemy line, then advance with shields held close, plunging their gladii in and out of the men arrayed against them. Units that could stomach this gruelling work against heavily armoured fellow citizens were simply killing machines against the less disciplined and lightly armoured Gauls.
Even so, the scale of the slaughter on display in the Gallic Wars remains breathtaking. In 58 BC, Caesar campaigned north of the Alps and down along the lower Rhine, in 57 and 56 in what is now Belgium, Normandy and Brittany. In 55 BC he crossed into Germany, building a complicated wooden bridge – entirely unnecessary but for the spectacle it made – across the Rhine. He then launched a fleet across the Channel to reconnoitre and returned to fight in earnest the following year. At every turn he left thousands dead on the battlefield and shipped many thousands more back to the slave markets of the south. The winter of 54 BC saw a major revolt among the northernmost of the conquered nations: Caesar lost one whole legion and the better part of another. He devoted 53 BC to raising new troops south of the Alps and to bloody police actions.
Then, also in 53 BC, a great pan-Gallic revolt erupted, led by Vercingetorix of the Arverni. This forms the climax of Caesar’s narrative in the last book of the Gallic Wars that he wrote himself. It is epic, built around three great battles: at Avaricum (near modern Bourges), a sanguinary Roman victory; at Gergovia (near modern Clermont-Ferrand), where even Caesar’s carefully curated narrative cannot disguise just how lucky he was to escape a fatal defeat; and at Alesia (25 miles north-west of Dijon), where he built two elaborate siegeworks, each a dozen miles long, one to isolate the Gallic fortress, the other to protect his men from a gigantic Gallic army sent to relieve the defenders. The Gauls suffered a crushing defeat and Vercingetorix surrendered. He endured several squalid years as a captive in the victor’s baggage train, before serving as the centrepiece of Caesar’s great triumphal parade in Rome, after which he was executed out of sight, in the usual Roman fashion.
Rather surprisingly, the Gallic rebellion died with barely a sputter and there were few significant flare-ups thereafter. Caesar had exterminated a full generation of men of fighting age – and the action had pacified the natives. A hundred years later, the descendants of the hostile chieftains were entertaining in villas rather than longhouses, cooking with olive oil rather than butter, serving wine and not beer. A few of them had become respectable provincial citizens, and soon all of them would. We have no way of knowing what they remembered, or whether they would have considered a million or so dead compatriots a price worth paying for their present comfort. (The actual number of casualties Caesar left in his wake is of course unknowable. But a million, give or take, would not be hyperbolic.)
The proconsul’s last years in Gaul were relatively quiet. He never found the time to recount them himself, and the eighth book of the Gallic Wars was written after his death by Aulus Hirtius, one of his officers. Hirtius is pedestrian where Caesar is sublime, which renders the final book all the more anticlimactic. Caesar had lingered in Gaul so long by extending his proconsulate, thanks to a three-way alliance formed with Pompey and Crassus in 56 BC. That faltered after Crassus died in battle against the Parthians in 53 BC. The ins and outs of politics in the later 50s resist summary, but Pompey slowly and somewhat reluctantly drew away from Caesar and towards an aristocratic faction in the Senate bent on ending Caesar’s career. Tensions grew and grew in the year 50 BC: Caesar was faced with a choice between laying down his command and facing prosecution, and defiance. He chose defiance. In January 49 BC, he crossed the Rubicon, the tiny river between Ravenna and Rimini, leaving his province and igniting a new civil war. As he tells us in De Bello Civili, also unfinished, he won and kept on winning, often against great odds. Pompey was treacherously murdered while escaping to regroup in Egypt, and Caesar mopped up those who continued to resist. In the end, victorious, he took on a new role as dictator, which is to say sole magistrate of the Republic – first for a year, then for ten years, eventually for life. For a very short period, he controlled a Roman world at peace. His greatest legacy, apart from his writings, was to reform the calendar. Aside from some tinkering in the Renaissance, Caesar’s calendar is the one we use today.
It couldn’t last. Caesar’s failure even to feign respect for the Senate’s traditions, coupled with his decision to rule indefinitely, stoked resentment as well as real fear, triggering the oligarchy’s atavistic hatred of monarchy. The conspiracy that killed him was inevitable, and one could argue that he courted death: certainly he refused all precautions. He was stabbed to death in the Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BC, at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Some of the finest officers from his years in Gaul were among those wielding the daggers. Others, not least his chief lieutenant, Mark Antony, remained loyal, and prosecuted a still more vicious civil war against Caesar’s assassins. At the time, no one could have imagined that the teenage Gaius Octavius, Caesar’s great-nephew and adoptive son, would emerge victorious and, thirty years later, create an imperial autocracy under the guise of a restored republic.
Caesar’s story would be striking whoever the writer, but the real fascination lies in reading his own words. Both his Gallic and his civil war books are works of propaganda, lots of action balanced by careful vignettes and digressions, like the story of the druids and their human sacrifices incinerated in wicker cages. But he leaves much unsaid, mostly about Roman politics, and even the military goings on are hard to follow without a substantial apparatus of maps, notes and reminders. The modestly attentive reader will register the Haedui and the Arverni, and perhaps a couple of other Gallic nations, but other unfamiliar names wash right through the mind, and keeping track of who is who, and where, taxes even a tutored memory. Then there is Caesar’s style: clipped, paratactic, short on the connective tissue of cause and effect. Much is ambiguous, and much has to be filled in by the imagination. Caesar is easy to translate into very bad basic English – that’s partly why he has served so long in the classroom – but translating him well is difficult. All translations require choices, but with Caesar they can be very stark: which in a series of short stand-alone clauses goes with which, and in what relation do they stand? A messy textual tradition makes things worse. (The Gallic Wars isn’t as bad as the rest of the Caesarian corpus, but even so, critical editions print different texts.) As a result, most translations add a great deal to the words Caesar wrote, not just through copious explanatory apparatus, but by what amounts to intratextual glossing.
O’Donnell does no such thing. His presentation is positively ascetic: a smattering of footnotes, mostly in dispraise of Caesar’s honesty; a single, austere map with very rough locations for the various Gallic peoples; and a steadfast refusal to add interpretative verbiage where Caesar is spare or ambiguous. He gives us just three pages or so of introduction to events in Rome before each book. Cross-references are notably absent. All this is intentional and aims to replicate the sensation Caesar’s original audience would have had, lacking maps and knowing next to nothing about Gaul. It all seems so exciting, but also terribly confusing.
It is the complete antithesis of the Landmark Julius Caesar that appeared just three years ago. That eight-hundred-page tome (with an additional three hundred pages of downloadable essays to accompany it) includes the whole Caesarian corpus, as well as hundreds of maps and illustrations. In contrast to O’Donnell’s unadorned text, it has a dozen meaty footnotes on every page, with a running chronology and summary glosses in the margin. One could teach its schematic battle plans at West Point. And the translation dramatically bulks out Caesar’s own words. The following exercise would work just about anywhere in the text, but I have taken 7.50.3-6, the Boy’s Own scene in which the brave centurion Marcus Petronius sacrifices himself in the disastrous battle at Gergovia.
First, the Landmark edition:
Marcus Petronius, a centurion of the same legion, was trying to hack out a gate when a large number of fighters overwhelmed him. He had no hope of escape and was already wounded many times. So he shouted to the men of his maniple, who had followed him, ‘I cannot save both you and myself, but at least I can see that you get out alive since, so eager for glory, I brought you into this danger. Use the opportunity I am giving you and make sure to take care of yourselves!’ Instantly he dashed into the centre of the group of enemies, killed two, and drove the rest a little away from the gate. His men tried to bring him help, but he said, ‘It is no good trying to save my life – I have lost too much blood and my strength is giving out. So get away while you can and retreat to the legion.’ He saved his men this way and fell fighting very shortly afterwards.
This is O’Donnell:
Marcus Petronius, a centurion of the same legion, trying to hack open the gate, was overwhelmed by a mob. Despairing for himself and taking many wounds, he said to the soldiers following him, ‘Since I cannot save myself and you, I will certainly look out for your lives, since I led you into danger in my desire for glory. When you get the chance, look out for yourselves.’ At once he rushed among the enemy, killing two and driving the rest a little back from the gate. When his men tried to help, he said, ‘It’s useless to try to save my life, as blood and strength now fail me. So go while there’s a chance and get to your legion.’ Fighting on, he soon fell, saving his men.
The Latin has 95 words, O’Donnell 129, the Landmark a whopping 169; elsewhere, particularly in descriptions of tactics, the contrast is even more extreme. There is no way that English can be quite as terse as Latin, what with its articles and many obligatory pronouns, but translators must decide just how copiously to draw out what is implicit in a Latin text. Here, for instance, the end of Marcus’ first direct speech reads in the Latin ‘vos data facultate vobis consulite,’ literally ‘the means having been given, you look to yourselves.’ O’Donnell’s rendering captures the clipped voice of a Latin command in just ten crisp syllables that mimic the rhythm of the original. The Landmark feels flabby and over-egged by comparison. In the second speech, O’Donnell’s ‘blood and strength now fail me’ is again much closer to the Latin – ‘iam sanguis viresque deficiunt’ – but here the Landmark draws out the full implication of those words.
Which effect one prefers is to some degree a matter of taste. O’Donnell’s text is too often rebarbative, the Landmark frequently bathetic. But there is also a philosophical question: how much in the way of intratextual gloss, explanatory notes, and maps and battle plans in particular – all of which alienate the ancient text from itself – is needed to make the text accessible to modern readers? Do we do Caesar, and indeed the Roman means of conceptualising space, an injustice when we map his account onto Mercator projections? The Landmark and O’Donnell sit at two extremes. Personally, I’m ambivalent. We can’t truly imagine ourselves into a world without modern maps, so we might as well use them, cautiously. But I think tactical plans go too far, rationalising battle narratives into a wargamer’s fantasy version. As to glossing while translating, I’d give the Landmark to a student or a history buff, but otherwise I rather like O’Donnell’s asceticism. He sent me back to the original for the first time in decades and drove home how rarely we approach these old warhorses with fresh eyes. His text might best serve as a crib, much superior to the hundred-year-old Loeb, for those who want to give the original a try. And he will convince you that Caesar was a very bad man indeed.