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Commentaries on the Gallic Wars
(Commentarii de Bello Gallico)
by Julius Caesar
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes


Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar - 1899 painting by Lionel Royer

(Rome, c48BCE)



This is the book which helped make Rome into an Empire, and is the source for much of what we know about the Britons and the Celts. It is also the book rammed-into generations of reluctant juvenile Latin-learners which has spawned parodies from Ronald Searle to Asterix.

Gaius Julius was a member of the three-fold 'triumvirate' leadership of the Roman Republic when he began his campaigns against what is now France, Belgium and Britain. As leaders do, he portrayed his invasions as a necessary defensive action, but almost certainly wanted to to advance his own career. He helped the reality along by providing the public with this, somewhat imaginative, tale of Roman, and his own, mightiness - it worked, Julius soon became sole ruler of the Roman Empire.
Based on the 1915 translation by by W. A. Macdevitt. Abridged: GH



Commentaries on the Gallic Wars


I: THE WAR IN GAUL

(Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres...)

Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgæ inhabit; the Aquitani another; those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls, the third. All these differ from each other in language, customs, and laws. Among the Gauls the Helvetii surpass the rest in valour, as they constantly contend in battle with the Germans. When Messala and Piso were consuls, Orgetorix, the most distinguished of the Helvetii, formed a conspiracy among the nobility, persuading them that, since they excelled all in valour, it would be very easy to acquire the supremacy of the whole of Gaul. They made great preparations for the expedition, but suddenly Orgetorix died, nor was suspicion lacking that he committed suicide.

After his death, the Helvetii nevertheless attempted the exodus from their territories. When it was reported to Caesar that they were attempting to make their route through our province, he gathered as great a force as possible, and by forced marches arrived at Geneva.

The Helvetii now sent ambassadors to Caesar, requesting permission to pass through the province, which he refused, inasmuch as he remembered that Lucius Cassius, the consul, had been slain and his army routed, and made to pass under the yoke by the Helvetii. Disappointed in their hope, the Helvetii attempted to force a passage across the Rhone, but, being resisted by the soldier, desisted.

After the war with the Helvetii was concluded, ambassadors from almost all parts of Gaul assembled to congratulate Caesar, and to declare that his victory had happened no less to the benefit of the land of Gaul than of the Roman people, because the Helvetii had quitted their country with the design of subduing the whole of Gaul.

When the assembly was dismissed, the chiefs' of the Aeudi and of the Sequani waited upon Caesar to complain that Ariovistus, the king of the Germans, had seized a third of their land, which was the best in Gaul, and was now ordering them to depart from another third part.

To ambassadors sent by Caesar, demanding an appointment of some spot for a conference, Ariovistus gave an insolent reply, which was repeated on a second overture. Hearing that the king of the Germans was threatening to seize Vesontio, the capital of the Sequani, Caesar, by a forced march, arrived there and took possession of the city. Apprised of this event, Ariovistus changed his attitude, and sent messengers intimating that he agreed to meet Caesar, as they were now nearer to each other, and could meet without danger.

The conference took place, but it led to no successful result, for Ariovistus demanded that the Romans should withdraw from Gaul and his conduct became afterwards so hostile that it led to war. A battle took place about fifty miles from the Rhine. The Germans were routed and fled to the river, across which many escaped, the rest being slain in pursuit. Caesar, having concluded two very important wars in one campaign, conducted his army into winter quarters.

II: THE BELGAE

While Caesar was in winter quarters in Hither Gaul frequent reports were brought to him that all the Belgæ were entering into a confederacy against the Roman people, because they feared that, after all Celtic Gaul was subdued, our army would be led against them. Caesar, alarmed, levied two new legions in Hither Gaul, and proceeded to the territory of the Belgæ. As he arrived there unexpectedly, and sooner than anyone anticipated, the Remi, who are the nearest of the Belgæ to Celtic Gaul, sent messages of submission and gave Caesar full information about the other Belgæ.

Caesar next learned that the Nervii, a savage and very brave people, whose territories bordered those just conquered, had upbraided the rest of the Belgæ who had surrendered themselves to the Roman people, and had declared that they themselves would neither send ambassadors nor accept any condition of peace. He was informed concerning them that they allowed no access of any merchants, and that they suffered no wine and other things tending to luxury to be imported, because they thought that by their use the mind is enervated and the courage impaired.

After he had made three days' march into their territory, Caesar discovered that all the Nervii had stationed themselves on the other side of the River Sambre, not more than ten miles from his camp, and that they had persuaded the Atrebates and the Veromandui to join with them, and that likewise the Aduatuci were expected by them, and were on the march. The Roman army proceeded to encamp in front of the river, on a site sloping towards it. Here they were fiercely attacked by the Nervii, the assault being so sudden that Caesar had to do all things at one time. The standard as the sign to run to arms had to be displayed, the soldiers were to be called from the works on the rampart, the order of battle was to be formed, and a great part of these arrangements was prevented by the shortness of time and the sudden charge of the enemy.

Time was lacking even for putting on helmets and uncovering shields. In such an unfavorable state of affairs, various events of fortune followed. The soldiers of the ninth and tenth legions speedily drove back the Atrebates, who were breathless with running and fatigue. Many of them were slain. In like manner the Veromandui were routed by the eighth and eleventh legions; but as part of the camp was very exposed, the Nervii hastened in a very close body, under Boduagnatus, their leader, to rush against that quarter. Our horsemen and light-armed infantry were by the first assault routed, and the enemy, rushing into our camp in great numbers, pressed hard on the legions. But Caesar, seizing a shield and encouraging the soldiers, many of whose centurions had been slain, ordering them to extend their companies that they might more freely use their swords.

So great a change was soon effected that, though the enemy displayed great courage, the battle was ended so disastrously for them that the Nervii were almost annihilated. Scarcely five hundred were left who could bear arms. Their old men sent ambassadors to Caesar by the consent of all who remained, surrendering themselves. The Aduatuci, before mentioned, who were coming to the help of the Nervii, returned home when they heard of this battle.

All Gaul being now subdued, so high an opinion of this war was spread among the barbarians that ambassadors were sent to Caesar by those nations that dwelt beyond the Rhine, to promise that they would give hostages and execute his commands. He ordered these embassies to return to him at the beginning of the following summer, because he was hastening into Italy and Illyricum. Having led his legions into winter quarters among the Carnutes, the Andes, and the Turones, which states were close to those in which he had waged war, he set out for Italy, and a public thanksgiving of fifteen days was decreed for these achievements, an honour which before that time had been conferred on none.

III: WAR BY LAND AND SEA

When Caesar was setting out for Italy, he sent Servius Galba with the twelfth legion and part of the cavalry against the Nantuates, the Veragri, and the Seduni, who extend from the territories of the Allobroges and the Lake of Geneva and the River Rhone to the top of the Alps. The reason for sending him was that he desired that the pass along the Alps, through which the Roman merchants had been accustomed to travel with great danger, should be opened.

Galba fought several successful battles, stormed some of their forts, and concluded a peace. He then determined to winter in a village of the Veragri, which is called Octodurus. But before the winter camp could be completed the tops of the mountains were seen to be crowded with armed men, and soon these rushed down from all parts and discharged stones and darts on the ramparts.

The fierce battle that followed lasted for more than six hours. During the fight more than a third part of the army of 30,000 men of the Seduni and the Veragri were slain, and the rest were put to flight, panic-stricken. Then Galba, unwilling to tempt fortune again, after having burned all the buildings in that village, hastened to return into the province, urged chiefly by the want of corn and provision. As no enemy opposed his march, he brought his forces safely into the country of the Allobroges, and there wintered.

These things being achieved, Caesar, who was visiting Illyricum to gain a knowledge of that country, had every reason to suppose that Gaul was reduced to a state of tranquillity. For the Belgæ had been overcome, the Germans had been expelled, and the Seduni and the Veragri among the Alps defeated. But a sudden war sprang up in Gaul.

The occasion of that war was this. P. Crassus, a young man, had taken up his winter quarters with the seventh legion among the Andes, who border on the Atlantic Ocean. As corn was scarce, he sent out officers among the neighbouring states for the purpose of procuring supplies. The most considerable of these states was the Veneti, who have a very great number of ships with which they have been accustomed to sail into Britain, and thus they excel the rest of the states in nautical affairs. With them arose the beginning of the revolt.

The Veneti detained Silius and Velanius, who had been sent among them, for they thought they should recover by their means the hostages which they had given Crassus. The neighbouring people, the Essui and the Curiosolitæ, led on by the influence of the Veneti (as the measures of the Gauls are sudden and hasty) detained other officers for the same motive. All the sea-coast being quickly brought over to the sentiments of these states, they sent a common embassy to P. Crassus to say "If he wished to receive back his officers, let him send back to them their hostages."

Caesar, being informed of these things, since he was himself so far distant, ordered ships of war to be built on the River Loire; rowers to be raised from the province; sailors and pilots to be provided. These matters being quickly executed, he hastened to the army as soon as the season of the year admitted.

Caesar at once ordered his army, divided into several detachments, to attack the towns of the enemy in different districts. Many were stormed, yet much of the warfare was vain and much labour was lost, because the Veneti, having numerous ships specially adapted for such a purpose, their keels being flatter than those of our ships, could easily navigate the shallows and estuaries, and thus their flight hither and thither could not be prevented.

At length, in a naval fight, our fleet, being fully assembled, gained a victory so signal that, by that one battle, the war with the Veneti and the whole sea-coast was finished. Caesar thought that severe punishment should be inflicted, in order that for the future the rights of ambassadors should be respected by barbarians; he therefore put to death all their senate, and sold the rest for slaves.

About the same time P. Crassus arrived in Aquitania, which, as was already said, is, both from its extent and its number of population, a third part of Gaul. Here, a few years before, L. Valerius Præconius, the lieutenant, had been killed and his army routed, so that Crassus understood no ordinary care must be used. On his arrival being known, the Sotiates assembled great forces, and the battle that followed was long and vigorously contested. The Sotiates being routed, they retired to their principal stronghold, but it was stormed, and they submitted. Crassus then marched into the territories of the Vocates and the Tarusites, who raised a great host of men to carry on the war, but suffered total defeat, after which the greater part of Aquitania of its own accord surrendered to the Romans, sending hostages of their own accord from different tribes. A few only - and those remote nations - relying on the time of year, neglected to do this.

IV: BRITAIN

The following winter, this being the year in which Cn. Pompey and M. Crassus were consuls, the Germans, called the Usipetes, and likewise the Tenchtheri, with a great number of men, crossed the Rhine, not far from the place at which that river falls into the sea. The motive was to escape from the Suevi, the largest and strongest nation in Germany, by whom they had been for several years harassed and hindered from agricultural pursuits.

The Suevi are said to possess a hundred cantons, from each of which they send forth for war a thousand armed men yearly, the others remaining at home, and going forth in their turn in other years.

Caesar, hearing that various messages had been sent to them by the Gauls (whose fickle disposition he knew) asking them to come forward from the Rhine, and promising them all that they needed, set forward for the army earlier in the year than usual. When he had arrived in the region, he discovered that those things which he had suspected would occur, had taken place, and that, allured by the hopes held out to them, the Germans were then making excursions to greater distances, and had advanced to the territories of the Euburones and the Condrusi, who are under the protection of the Treviri. After summoning the chiefs of Gaul, Caesar thought proper to pretend ignorance of the things which he had discovered, and, having conciliated and confirmed their minds, and ordered some cavalry to be raised, resolved to make war against the Germans.

When he had advanced some distance, the Germans sent ambassadors, begging him not to advance further, as they had come hither reluctantly, having been expelled from their country. But Caesar, knowing that they wished for delay only to make further secret preparations, refused the overtures. Marshalling his army in three lines, and marching eight miles, he took them by surprise, and the Romans rushed their camp. Many of the enemy were slain, the rest being either scattered or drowned in attempting to escape by crossing the Meuse in the flight.

The conflict with the Germans being finished, Caesar thought it expedient to cross the Rhine. Since the Germans were so easily urged to go into Gaul, he desired they should have fears for their own territories. Therefore, notwithstanding the difficulty of constructing a bridge, owing to the breadth, rapidity, and depth of the river, he devised and built one of timber and of great strength, piles being first driven in on which to erect it.

The army was led over into Germany, advanced some distance, and burnt some villages of the hostile Sigambri, who had concealed themselves in the woods after conveying away all their possessions. Then Caesar, having done enough to strike fear into the Germans and to serve both honour and interest, after a stay of eighteen days across the Rhine, returned into Gaul and cut down the bridge.

During the short part of the summer which remained he resolved to proceed into Britain, because succours had been constantly furnished to the Gauls from that country. He thought it expedient, if he only entered the island, to see into the character of the people, and to gain knowledge of their localities, harbours, and landing-places. Having collected about eighty transport ships, he set sail with two legions in fair weather, and the soldiers were attacked instantly on landing by the cavalry and charioteers of the barbarians. The enemy were vanquished, but could not be pursued, because the Roman horse had not been able to maintain their course at sea and to reach the island. This alone was wanting to Caesar's accustomed success.

V: ON THE THAMES

During the winter Caesar commanded as many ships as possible to be constructed, and the old repaired. About six hundred transports and twenty ships of war were built, and, after settling some disputes in Gaul among the chiefs, Caesar went to Port Itius with the legions. He took with him several of the leading chiefs of the Gauls, determined to retain them as hostages and to keep them with him during his next expedition to Britain, lest a commotion should arise in Gaul during his absence.

Caesar, having crossed to the shore of Britain and disembarked his army at a convenient spot advanced about twelve miles and repelled all attacks of the cavalry and charioteers of the enemy. Then he led his forces into the territories of Cassivellaunus to the River Thames, which river can be forded in one place only. Here an engagement took place which resulted in the flight of the Britons. But Cassivellaunus had sent messengers to the four kings who reigned over Kent and the districts by the sea, Cingetorix, Carvilius, Taximaquilus, and Segonax, commanding them to collect all their forces and assail the naval camp.

In the battle which ensued the Romans were victorious, and when Cassivellaunus heard of this disaster he sent ambassadors to Caesar to treat about a surrender. Caesar, since he had resolved to pass the winter on the continent, on account of sudden revolts in Gaul, demanded hostages and prescribed what tribute Britain should pay each year to the Roman people. Caesar, expecting for many reasons greater commotion in Gaul, levied additional forces. He saw that war was being prepared on all sides, that the Nervii, Aduatuci, and Menapii, with the addition of all the Germans on this side of the Rhine, were under arms; that the Senones did not assemble according to his command, and were concerting measures with Carnutes and the neighbouring states; and that the Germans were importuned by the Treviri in frequent embassies. Therefore he thought that he ought to take prompt measures for the war.

Accordingly, before the winter was ended, he marched with four legions unexpectedly into the territories of the Nervii, captured many men and much cattle, wasted their lands, and forced them to surrender and give hostages. He followed up his success by worsting the Senones, Carnutes, and Menapii, while Labienus defeated the Treviri.

VI: ON THE MANNERS OF MEN

Now it is proper to give an account of the manners of Gaul and Germany.

Throughout all Gaul there are two orders of men who are of rank and dignity, for the commoners are held almost as slaves, one is the Druids, the other the knights. The Druids are engaged in things sacred, conduct the public and the private sacrifices, instruct the young and are held in great honour. They determine respecting almost all controversies, public, private and of crimes, and are under one Druid who possesses supreme authority. This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of it generally proceed thither. The Druids do not go to war, and learn by heart a great number of verses, such that some remain in training twenty years. Nor do they regard it lawful to commit these to writing, though in other matters they use Greek characters. That practice they seem to me to have adopted because they do not desire their doctrines to be divulged among the mass of the people.

All the Gauls are extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and employ the Druids as the performers of sacrifices. They think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of a man, the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious. Thus, they have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames.

They worship as their divinity, Mercury in particular, and Apollo, and Mars, and Jupiter, and Minerva. In many states you may see piles of things heaped up in consecrated spots; nor does any man dare take away those things for the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed. All the Gauls assert that they are descended from the god Dis, which tradition has been handed down by the Druids.

Husbands have power of life and death over their wives and their children. Their funerals, considering the state of civilization among the Gauls, are magnificent and costly; and they cast into the fire all things, including living creatures, which they suppose to have been dear to them when alive; and, a little before this period, slaves and dependants, who were ascertained to have been beloved by them, were burnt together with them.

The Germans have neither Druids, nor do they pay great regard to sacrifices. They rank as gods; the sun, fire, and the moon; and have not heard of the other deities even by report. Their whole life is occupied in hunting and the military arts; and they hold in highest regard those who have remained chaste for the longest time. They do not pay much attention to agriculture, and a large portion of their food consists in milk, cheese, and flesh

The Hercynian forest is in breadth a journey of nine days, and has many kinds of wild beasts not seen in other parts; There is an ox of the shape of a stag, with great horns. There are animals called elks, much like roes, but of greater size, which never do they lie down for the purpose of rest, nor, if they have been thrown down by any accident, can they raise themselves up. There is a third animal which is called uri. These are a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull. Their strength and speed are extraordinary; and these the Germans take with much pains in pits and kill them, anxious for their horns, which they bind at the tips with silver, and use as cups at their most sumptuous entertainments.

Gaul being tranquil, Caesar, as he had determined, set out for Italy to hold the provincial assizes. There he was informed of the decree of the senate that all the youth of Italy should take the military oath, and he determined to hold a levy throughout the entire province. The Gauls, animated by the opportunity afforded through his absence, and indignant that they were reduced beneath the dominion of Rome, began to organise their plans for war openly.

Many of the nations confederated and selected as their commander Vercingetorix, a young Avernian. On hearing what had happened, Caesar set out from Italy for Transalpine Gaul, and began the campaign by marching into the country of the Helvii, although it was the severest time of the year, and the country was covered with deep snow.

The armies met, and Vercingetorix sustained a series of losses at Vellaunodunum, Genabum, and Noviodunum. The Gauls then threw a strong garrison into Avaricum, which Caesar besieged, and at length Caesar's soldiers took it by storm. All the Gauls, with few exceptions, joined in the revolt; and the united forces, under Vercingetorix, attacked the Roman army while it was marching into the country of the Sequani, but they suffered complete defeat. After struggling vainly to continue the war, Vercingetorix surrendered, and the Gallic chieftains laid down their arms. Caesar demanded a great number of hostages, sent his lieutenants with various legions to different stations in Gaul, and determined himself to winter at Bibracte. A supplication of twenty days was decreed at Rome by the senate on hearing of these successes.






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