Saturday, September 03, 2016

Reading classics of ancient Greece and Rome III: Julius Caesar: The Gallic War


Outbreak of the Gallic War. West Point. United States Military Academy. Department of History. Atlas for Ancient Warfare. One of 13 maps of the Gallic Wars. Please click to enlarge the map.

Map of Roman Gaul detailing Gallic tribes. MacQuarie University, Sydney, Australia. Please click to enlarge the map.

Map of the Gallic Wars. Wikipedia. Please click to enlarge the map.

Lionel Royer: Vercingetorix jette ses armes aux pieds de Jules César (Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar) [52 BC]. [Percheron horses did not exist in Gaul at the time. In reality Gauls rode bareback. Shields were mostly oval]. 1899. Image and remarks from Wikipedia. Musée Crozatier du Puy-en-Velay. Please click to enlarge the image.

Julius Caesar: Commentarii de Bello Gallico
The Gallic War / Commentaries on the Gallic War / Bellum Gallicum. Written in the Roman Republic during the Gallic war campaign. Written in 51 BC. Written in classical Latin. Divided into seven books. Originally published in the scroll format (in tomes / volumines). Read in Finnish:
Gaius Julius Caesar: Gallian sota. Translated into Finnish by Hannes Korpi-Anttila. Introduction by Edwin Linkomies. Series: Antiikin klassikot. 244 p. Helsinki / Porvoo: WSOY, 1961

The Gallic War has been required reading for students of classical Latin for millennia. I have now read it for the first time, in my native Finnish, but the great style of Julius Caesar is evident also in translation. Experts of the language value it as a model of Golden Age Latin. The writing is simple and forceful and always forward moving. There are digressions (for instance on bizarre animals skulking in the deep forest of Germania, including a species of moose without joints in its legs) but not very many.

In my project of reading classics of antiquity I have Thucydides fresh in the memory, and for me Thucydides remains the greater master of style, surpassing Caesar. Probably Thucydides had been among Caesar's models, and Xenophon, as well. All three share the feature of writing an account of their own experiences, and all three write of themselves in the third person. (A feature satirized by Goscinny and Uderzo in Asterix comics).

Thucydides wrote about the tragic Peloponnesian wars where Spartans and Atheneans slaughtered each other. It was a battle between equals.

Xenophon told about the daredevil adventures of his soldiers of fortune tangled in the power struggle for the kingship of Persia. Ten thousand fighters agains millions.

My favourite historian of antiquity is Herodotus because his is an account of the incredible victory of the little and divided Hellas for its freedom against the ten times more powerful army of Persia (in battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, Plataea... ).

The Gallic War is Caesar's callous, imperialistic account of how he crushes brutally three million freedom-loving warriors splintered into 300 tribes. 800 cities were destroyed, one million Gauls killed, and another million enslaved. Reading this book I rooted for the Gauls. And Helvetians, Germans, and Britons.

Caesar never belittles his adversaries. On the contrary, he prizes their skill and bravado.

The Gallic wars were a historical turning-point, as a result of which Romanic languages are today spoken in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. They were a big step in the formation of Europe. Caesar's book is the sole account of the wars and the single source of many aspects of the 300 tribes involved.

Random observations. Caesar sees Gauls as born rebels (at least in the interpretation in this Finnish translation, Book Four). In Book Six there is an important account of the druids, the spiritual leaders of the Gauls. It even contains the earliest remarks on traditions made memorable to filmgoers by The Wicker Man.

An interesting remark for a cinephile: "Multum ad terrendos nostros valet clamor, qui post tergum pugnantibus exstitit, quod suum periculum in aliena vident salute constare: omnia enim plerumque quae absunt vehementius hominum mentes perturbant." ("The shouts which were raised by the combatants in their rear had a great tendency to intimidate our men, because they perceived that their danger rested on the valour of others: for generally all evils which are distant most powerfully alarm men's minds."). ("Pelottava vaikutus meikäläisiin oli myös sillä huudolla, jonka he taistellessaan kuulivat selkänsä takaa, koska he oivalsivat, että heidän oma vaaransa oli riippuvainen toisten taistelusuorituksista. Ihmisessähän tavallisesti herättääkin suurempaa levottomuutta kaikki sellainen, mikä on poissa näkyvistä."). The essence of Jacques Tourneur's l'effet-bus in Cat People.

Book Seven contains the horrendous tales of the massacres of Avaricum and Alesia. Caesar's story ends with the surrender of Vercingetorix (see image above).

I was also thinking that forty years after Caesar's death Jesus Christ was born, and his life was a rebellion against the very mentality reflected in The Gallic War.

What the druids knew they learned by heart. There was a ban of writing among them. Which is why we do not have alternative histories of the Gallic wars from their viewpoint.

No comments: