Classic Works

Julius Caesar, Commentarii de bello Gallico (mid-1st Century BC)

Great generals and statesmen are not always eminent men of letters, but the founder of monarchical Rome was such a man. He is so well regarded as a writer that for a time he was probably more known as a master of Latin prose, rather than the man who reshaped Western Civilization. Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), perhaps the most famous Roman of them all, was born a patrician. He rose to power by keenness of intellect as well as a healthy dose of democratic sympathies that made him one of the most popular politicians in Rome. Supposedly descended from Aeneas and Venus, as well as nephew to Gaius Marius, he did not lack an illustrious family. During Sulla’s ascendancy Caesar took the opportunity to gain military experience in Asia Minor, where he showed himself to be a conscientious officer. Caesar, like many Roman statesmen, used his military prowess and experience to his political advantage throughout his life, achieving the consulship in 59 BC. After his consulship he was chosen to be governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum, and Transalpine Gaul. Such extensive political responsibilities came with the command initially of four legions, probably between 15,000 and 20,000 heavy infantry. Caesar’s Commentarii de bello Gallico tells the story of how he used them.

Roman-Gallic relations had been strained, to say the least, ever since the Gauls sacked Rome in 390 B.C. The Gauls, or Celts, were a massive race that extended across Europe venturing at one point as far as Asia Minor. For the early Romans, Gallic tribes living in northern Italy were a fact of life. Before Rome could drive the Gauls from Italy, it had to develop a more effective military and deal with other strategic threats to the south, especially the Etruscans and the Samnite. After the victory over the Samnites, Rome turned its attention to the north, finally pushing the Gauls out of the Po Valley and then the rest of Italy. Eventually, the lands on either side of the Alps, Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul, became incorporated into Roman territories. When Caesar famously begins his book by dividing Gaul into three parts, he is dividing what was left of traditionally Gallic territory not actually part of the by now well-established Roman Empire. Caesar, following previous Roman practice, used the political disunity of the Gauls as a way of inserting Roman power into Gallic politics.Some tribes were formal allies of the Romans, others were clients, and still others were autonomous or actively hostile.  The alignments could shift, especially due to frequent intra- and inter-tribal conflicts, into which Rome was inevitably drawn. There was also the danger of a major uprising of the tribes against Roman authority, especially if Rome failed to manage tribal politics successfully, or suffered a major military defeat and seemed to be losing its grip on the Gallic lands.  For Caesar, the challenges and dangers of command in Gaul offered a splendid opportunity to redeem the large debts he had incurred during his political career and to achieve military glory by pacifying Gaul once and for all – and to position himself for the political battle for power and personal survival in Rome that would occur once his governorship ended.

Although the Romans probably no longer feared Gallic power at Caesar’s time as much as they had in the past, the fear of the Germans – tribal peoples on the far side of the Rhine – was very real and current. Indeed, Caesar’s uncle Marius was referred to as the third founder of Rome (according to Plutarch) after Romulus and Camillus. And while Romulus was the man who first built Roman walls, Camillus was the man who drove the Gauls out of Rome after they had sacked it. Confronting and defeating the Gauls and the Germans was thus constitutive of the Roman character. Caesar took this Roman character to new lengths with the final defeat and incorporation of the Gallic tribes and the creation of a firm boundary between Germanic and Roman territory.

There is some disagreement as to the character of De bello Gallico. Consisting of seven books by Caesar himself, it is completed in an eighth book by one of his generals, Aulus Hirtius. It has been suggested that they are something like battle-reports given to the Senate. Others have claimed that the books are nothing other than Caesar’s attempt to increase his popularity with the people. Either way, the collection is almost universally regarded as a propaganda piece, rather than an honest and factual account of the pacification of Gaul. I will take up this interpretation of the work later—a brief summary of De bello Gallico reveals the problematic character of “politically motivated” interpretation. I will spend more time laying out the events of Book I to reveal the complex nature of Caesar’s writing and his thoughts in politics.


The Structure of the Gallic War

Caesar begins Book I by discussing the origins of his labors in Gaul, namely the migration of the Helvetii, a confederation of Gallic tribes that lived on the Swiss plateau. Caesar’s style is laconic, but he does not spare details about why the Helvetii came to blows with Rome. They were famous for their courage (fortissimi) and glory in war, and so excelled in the military arts that they kept even the ferocious Germans at bay. The defensible nature of their territory was an aid in their success against the Germans. So easy was the defense that the Helvetii “felt much sorrow, for they were men who lusted for war.” It was not hard for a nobleman of the Helvetii, Orgetorix, to persuade his people to raze their cities and migrate into Gaul and compete for leadership there (continual pressure from the German tribes undoubtedly contributed to this decision).

Caesar regarded the Helvetii as fortissimi, and it is worth considering why. As Caesar tells it, their struggle against the Germans had much to do with the need for the martial virtues. But the Helvetii were also the farthest away from “culture” (cultu)[1] and “humanity” (humanitate)[2], as well as receiving only the rare visit from merchants, thus limiting their exposure to “those thing which make the soul soft (effeminandos animos).”[3] Later in his work, Caesar again will link this commerce and “humanity” to a decline in the fighting abilities of most Gauls. Caesar thus identifies civilization and prosperity as causes of the incapacity for political independence and ruling over others. Making this connection is not unique to Caesar, but as a Roman he had the benefit of being a citizen in a civilized polity that was remarkably prosperous—De bello Gallico is a product of cultus and humanitatatis. Likewise Roman soldiers, although perhaps not as well-educated as Caesar, were men who had lived in the conditions expressly avoided by the Helvetii for fear of losing their endurance and becoming soft. Romans, Germans, and Gauls could be described as civilized, barbaric, and semi-civilized. The question is how can the fully civilized not be susceptible to the vices of the semi-civilized, the Gauls? The implicit answer is that enjoying the benefits of civilization is not the same thing as carrying the weight of civilization against those who wish to plunder and destroy it. Furthermore, the fact of enjoying prosperity in a mercantile setting and the fruits of a relatively peaceful existence does not automatically make a people incapable of achieving virtue. Possession of virtue is due to human choice, and does not automatically flow from rustic living.

Caesar himself does not show up in Book I until seven paragraphs in, after he has set up the wars in Gaul as a clash between the semi-civilized and the barbaric. Concerned by a migration of peoples overrunning the territory of allied Gallic tribes, Caesar takes his one legion on hand and constructs a nineteen-mile fence to slow the Helvetii down. Refusing to give the ambassadors of Helvetii a definitive answer, he delays until he has enough forces to decide the issue.

Before Caesar has a chance to meet the Helvetii in battle, delicate diplomacy is in order to sort out why his allies are not supplying his men with grain. This episode reveals the difficulties as well as the opportunities faced by Rome in the conquest of Gaul. Two brothers, Dumnorix and Diviticacus of the Aedui, a tribe allied with Rome, were at odds, though not openly, over what Aedui policy toward Rome should be. Divitiacus, a druid and thus a man of great authority, wished for the tribe to remain loyal to Rome and in general seems to have done his best to serve Rome well as an ally. It is worth noting that the Aedui were in a position of some authority over other tribes, and ruled many different clans, due to the influence of Rome in Gallic affairs. Divitiacus seems to have been aware that the Aedui owed much to the Romans, and tried to live up to that debt. His brother, however, was aware that Roman generosity had put him in a position of power over the Aedui. He used that knowledge to his own benefit, cultivating loyalty toward himself through gift-giving and marriage alliances. Dumnorix had convinced some of his fellow Aedui to delay the Roman grain supply. Later, he caused the Helvetii to win a minor cavalry skirmish.

Caesar, careful not to offend Diviaticus and the Gauls by punishing Dumnorix, places the recalcitrant Gaul under surveillance.  Knowing who was responsible for causing his men hardship but prudently refusing to do much about it reveals the difficulty with which Caesar will grapple throughout the rest of his conquest of Gaul. The first part of the difficulty is that, as noted above, the Gallic tribes, let alone the whole of Gaul, were not monolithic political communities—indeed it is not clear that it would be appropriate to call them “political” at all. They were more like extended families, and subject to the disputes, blurred lines of authority, and factions that often plague extended families. This meant that although there were many Gallic allies, the disposition of these allies to Rome was an extremely changeable thing, depending on who happened to be ruling and in what capacity he ruled. The strategic situation in Gaul was unstable at best, and required much in the way of personal diplomacy and relationships between Caesar and the leading men of Gaul.

The second difficulty has to do with the intersection of strategy and moral responsibility. Caesar is notable for his generally merciful and clement behavior. He was no Sulla or Marius—his “nature” was inclined toward mercy, according to Hirtius. But being benefited by a Roman was a short step removed from slavery, as far as many Gauls were concerned. Dumnorix revealed that personal connections forged by generosity and gratitude, the weapons of Caesar, could be used against him. This personal aspect of Gallic politics, reflected by Caesar’s policy of mercy rather than cruelty, laid the groundwork for instability and chaos over the next decade, but ultimately led to victory and the complete pacification of Gaul. Patience and the long view are necessary for Caesar-style conquest.

Defeating the Helvetii in battle, Caesar turns his attention to a major tribal rival of the Aedui, the Sequani. The Sequani, also allies of Rome, had recently defeated the Aedui in battle but had done so by enlisting the aid of Germans from across the Rhine. Led by their king Ariovistus, the Germans had upset the balance of power between the Aedui and the Sequani, securing the victory for the Sequani. Ariovistus, like the Aedui and Sequani, was yet another ally to Rome. But after participating in the Gallic dispute, he rewarded himself and his German troops with a sizable portion of Sequani territory. This was not tolerable turn of events for either the Gauls or the Romans, and so Caesar moved against Ariovistus, no small task. Indeed, Caesar’s men nearly mutiny over the prospect of fighting the Germans, who had near a mythical reputation for fighting prowess. He shames them into battle by holding up the famed Tenth Legion as superior to the rest in virtue.

Caesar tells us that he was determined to expel the Germans for two reasons. The first is that the subjection of the Aedui and Sequanito foreign rule was an affront to honor of the Roman people. We see that as far as Caesar was concerned, allies must be treated almost like Romans themselves. The word and honor of Rome must mean something, and peoples must be persuaded of the worth of aligning themselves with Rome rather than some other power. The other reason was a fear of Germans crossing over the Rhine too easily. The Rhine remained a kind of unofficial border between Roman imperium and the barbarism outside it, although both Germans and Romans would cross it from time to time, keeping the other on its toes. German invasion is a specter throughout Caesar’s writings. Caesar defeats Ariovistus, striking fear in the German world.

In Book II he turns his attention toward the Belgae, a large confederation of tribes living in northern Gaul between the English Channel and the west bank of the Rhine. Caesar is responding to aggression by the Belgae against a Roman ally and by their reported formation of a large anti-Roman coalition. Caesar reports that the causes of the coalition were a mixture of fear of Roman domination along with a desire for power. He also notes that there were those who possessed “mobile and light souls” and yearned for novelty[4] in the Gallic political situation. The causes of this alliance opposed to Rome were both rational and irrational—some people simply like the chaos of war and the change it brings to the status quo. Caesar marches very quickly toward the Belgic peoples with his characteristic speed, detaching the Remi tribe from the other Belgic peoples and adding them as allies. Defeating and then sparing the Bellovaci, Caesar moves on to confront the Nervii, a tribe that refused to drink wine for fear that it would dampen their ability to wage war. Weathering a surprise attack by the Nervii and their allies, Caesar again displays his mercy by forgiving the much weakened tribe. The conquest of the Belgic peoples boosts Caesar’s fame in the area. Even the Germans across the Rhine voluntarily give him political hostages, securing their future obedience to Rome.

In Book III Caesar and his troops are under attack once again by the temperamental Gallic tribes. Fortunately, the local commander is more than up to the task of quelling the Gallic temper. But the Veneti, a seafaring Gallic tribe from northeastern Gaul, soon revolt as well. They announced their revolt by detaining two Roman envoys, a breach of the ius gentium. Caesar observes that although the Gauls in particular desire “new things,” it is the case that “all men long for freedom by nature and despise the condition of servitude,” a rare general observation that he makes in conjunction with the Veneti. Caesar notes that the human desire for freedom is similar to yet distinct from the Gallic desire for “new things.” Both are connected to injustice and breaking the laws of war and the ius gentium. After suffering some initial setbacks, Caesar defeats the Veneti and executes the leading men while selling the rest of the people into slavery for breaking diplomatic custom. Harshness, for Caesar, must serve a very specific purpose and should always be attached to justice, especially when combating human nature itself, which has an indiscriminate yearning for liberty from rule, including the rule of law.

Book IV deals with the Suebi, some of the most fearsome Germans. It is here that Caesar first mentions the German custom of devastating the land around their villages to prevent unfriendly neighbors from settling near them. The Suebi are particularly good at keeping other tribes at a distance, to the point of pushing some of the weaker Germans over the Rhine into Gaul. Caesar’s men, apparently no longer afraid of supposed German prowess, easily defeat their opponents. Caesar, in a gesture of Roman superiority and fearlessness, constructs a bridge and crosses the Rhine. He spends enough time there to intimidate the Germans into respecting the Rhine as a kind of informal boundary between the Roman and Germanic worlds. In this incursion, Caesar does not actually confront the Suebi, but forces them to withdraw from their settlements and prepare for battle. More importantly, he proves the ability of Rome to project power even into areas not under the Roman imperium. Caesar continues to show Roman power by crossing the English Channel and briefly invading Britain. Although this invasion had few permanent results in terms of material benefits for Rome, his arrival there made it clear that the Britons were not to deal with the Gauls independently. Gaul was under Roman control, which meant the Britons had to deal with the Romans on Roman terms.

Caesar continues his Britannic affairs in Book V and once again deals with the intransigent Gauls.  Although the Britons initially all band together to face the common threat of the Romans, slowly but surely various Briton tribes end up allying themselves to Rome, much as happened in Gaul. After returning to northern Gaul to winter there, a shortage of food forces Caesar to scatter his troops all over Gaul. This invites the Eburones, a rebellious Belgic tribe led by the ambitious Ambiorix, to attack the Romans encamped near them, presumably because the Romans were taking a large portion of scarce food. Ambiorix parleys with the Roman commanders, Cotta and Sabinus, and lies, saying the whole of Gaul is in rebellion when it is not, and tells them that their best hope for safety is in marching out and linking up with other Roman garrisons. The Romans believe him and are subsequently ambushed and destroyed by the Eburones. Ambiorix, with new Belgic allies, attempts to repeat the ruse, this time with Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of the more famous Marcus. Cicero refuses to follow Ambiorix’s “advice” and resists while secretly sending word to Caesar. Despite having only a handful of men relative to the Belgic coalition, Caesar is able to defeat them and relieve Cicero. It is here that Caesar recounts the story of Pullo and Vorenus, two centurions and “real men” (viri, as distinct from the more common homines) who wished to be the most preeminent of all the Romans. This brief vignette reveals that Roman success in battle was not due to superior tactics and techniques, but with a kind of concern for virtue. Competing with each other in virtue, each centurion saves the other’s lives. Meanwhile, Caesar’s resourceful general Labienus deals with a rebellion of the Treveri facing him by having his cavalry assassinate their leader, Indutiomarus.

Book VI begins with Caesar replacing his lost men by holding a levy in Gaul. The Treveri, who were giving sanctuary to Ambiorix, sought revenge for the death of Indutiomarus by organizing another anti-Roman coalition. Devastating great swathes of territory in response to the coalition and the treachery of Ambiorix, Caesar attempts—for a great deal of time—to catch the Belgian rebel. It is also in Book VI that Caesar gives a long consideration of Gallic and Germanic customs, paying particular attention to the differences in how property was held and religious customs. The books ends with Caesar ravaging the land of the Eburones, avenging the deaths of Cotta and Sabinus.

Book VII tells the perhaps the most famous story of Caesar in Gaul: the rising of the whole of Gaul under the leadership of Vercingetorix and the siege of Alesia. There is little doubt that Vercingetorix is Caesar’s greatest challenge in De bello Gallico. He avoids direct confrontation with Caesar, quite aware that Gauls have difficulty fighting pitched battles against the Roman heavy infantry. He instead tells the Gauls that they must destroy their own villages and burn their own crops to deny forage and shelter to the Romans. When the Romans besiege Avaricum (the inhabitants having refused to take Vercingetorix’s advice) the Gallic general picks off Caesar’s foraging parties and keeps the Romans on the brink of starvation, while also working to detach the longtime Roman allies, the Aedui, from Caesar. Avaricum falls to the Romans as Vercingetorix predicted, but he then defeats Caesar at the town of Gergovia. When Vercingetorix retires to Alesia, Caesar constructs a circumvallation, and when Gallic reinforcements arrive, a contravallation. The combined attacks of the besieged Gauls and the relieving Gauls against the Romans comes close to success. Caesar personally leads reserves and prevents a Gallic breakout. This leads to the surrender of Vercingetorix.

Aulus Hirtius added Book VIII as a way of keeping the narrative unity of Caesar’s life intact—he notes that he can now add a part to Caesar’s work with the added benefit of Caesar being dead. The whole of Gaul is subdued by Caesar’s labor, no doubt because the rising of Vercingetorix had involved nearly the whole of Gaul, and the tribes were exhausted from the perpetual turmoil that engulfed Gaul over the last decade. Nonetheless, Caesar takes no chances and proceeds to march against the tribes best organized to mount resistance to Roman occupation, the Bituriges. After driving them from their homeland, Caesar offers his, by now familiar, clement friendship to the Bituriges. They, along with many other minor tribes in the area, promptly accept. The only major challenge left comes from the famed Bellovaci, who had not taken part in Vercingetorix’s general rising because they wished to defeat the Roman on their own. After a prolonged campaign in which the Bellovaci commander kept Caesar guessing at his intentions and used guerilla-style tactics rather than a pitched battle, Caesar learns from an interrogation where the Bellovaci commander would be, and has him ambushed. Caesar’s lieutenants are meanwhile doing their own part in mopping up the last of Gallic resistance, with his most trusted subordinate Labienus punishing the Treveri for their role in the general rising. The final episode Hirtius relates to us regarding the pacification of Gaul is the obstinate village of Uxellodunum, a holdout against Roman authority. The numbers within the village are not dangerous, but rather what the resistance signifies—that Gaul had not fully accepted the reality of Roman imperium. After Caesar cuts off the water supply, the village capitulates. Caesar marks the conclusion of his Gallic campaigns by an act of uncharacteristic cruelty. Unlike his normal practice of selling captives into slavery, he sets them free after cutting off the hands of all the villagers who had borne arms against him, to signify that they were free men who could never bear arms against Rome again. Judging Gaul to be sufficiently pacified, Caesar makes his way to the Rubicon and the future civil war. 



And indeed Gaul was pacified, accepting Roman rule from then on with only the rare revolt. It is worth pointing out that the Gauls were not ruled like a colonized people, distinct from the ruling class. Roman citizenship was extended to Gauls, and in a surprisingly short amount of time, men of Gallic descent were holding positions of political authority within the Roman Empire. The Romans, at least the later Romans, were not terribly concerned about origins or ethnicity as criteria for participating in politics. Accepting Roman law and having the capacity for excellence was enough. In this respect the Roman conquest of Gaul was considerably more humane than previous conquests where the population was simply annihilated or reduced to the status of perpetual slaves. This is not to say everything Gallic was preserved. Human sacrifice was abolished, the practice of head hunting was suppressed, and in general the more barbaric parts of Gallic life was suppressed. This included the druids, who were apparently quite attached to the practice of human sacrifice, which had no place in the Roman Empire. In this respect, although Caesar was envious of Alexander’s youthful conquests, one could argue that Julius Caesar was more successful in creating a blend between Roman and Gaul than Alexander was in creating a blend between Greek and Persian.

Despite the civilizing effects of Rome, and the relatively humane mode of conquest practiced by the Romans, we should not think that there was no cruelty. Indeed, one of the notable omissions in Caesar’s writing is the immense suffering that the Gauls endured during his campaigns. He does note, however, that the strategy of Vercingetorix deprived most of the Gauls of the necessary supports to get through the winter; many Gauls died. Later writers suggested that one third of Gaul’s population was killed or died during Caesars’ campaign, and another third was sold into slavery. Part of the reason Gaul was pacified was because the tribes lost a vicious war of attrition, and war was no longer an option for them. The cruelty of ancient warfare and conquest took its toll on the Gauls as every other people at that time.

This serves as a healthy reminder of what war and politics were like before the advent of medieval Europe and the beginnings of the classical international legal order. This order was only possible, of course, due to the work of Caesar and the rise of Christianity.  And indeed, Caesar sees his work as extending civilization (humanitas) and offering the benefits of civilization to the Gauls from the Atlantic Coast to the Rhine. None of it would have been possible without the leadership, vision, and labor of Caesar.

The Gauls seemed to have acquiesced to that vision partly because they were exhausted, but also because Caesar worked to develop personal relationships with the Gauls and persuaded them to accept Roman rule. The Gallic wars took a decade to complete, and that decade was full of Caesar’s unremitting work. The conquest of a territory like Gaul is something not easily accomplished, and demands someone who is both stubborn and a bit restless. Caesar had both characteristics, although his spare prose conceals the immense amount of work he is undertaking. Indeed, he wrote a theoretical work of grammar in the midst of conquering Gaul. He was not the sort to rest content with what he had been given, but rather a true man of action. Although we might think that the most important acts took place on the battlefield, he and Hirtius both imply that what was far more important was Caesar’s unceasing courting of various Gallic chieftains and petty princes, creating an alliance network that became the basis of political integration between Rome and Gaul.

Another reason for Caesar’s success was the combination of military and political control he exercised when conquering Gaul. There is little evidence of him ever taking orders from Rome, regarding either strategic or diplomatic questions. This unity of strategic-diplomatic conduct allowed Caesar to shape events in Gaul according to his vision and will. There was no political struggle over what should happen during the conquest. When he went to eject the migrating Helvetii, and subsequently the Germans under Ariovistus, he could cement Roman control over the area by protecting allies against Belgians and Germans. Indeed, when one reads De bello Gallico, Caesar’s actions can come across as almost random due to the speed with which he makes decisions and then acts on those decisions. The reader is forced to catch up with Caesar’s thoughts and deeds.

The unity of strategic-diplomatic conduct and decision-making in Caesar allowed him to pick and choose allies, defend those allies against aggressors, and then incorporate those allies into his new Romanized Gaul. He was far more vicious toward Gallic enemies, such as the Helvetii and the Germans, than to the Gauls themselves. He treated Roman allies generously, especially the Aedui. As the Aedui ruled over many minor tribes, Roman beneficence was felt across Gaul and no doubt prepared the way for Gallic incorporation into Rome. He also intervened in domestic politics, favoring some leaders over others to advance his and Rome’s interests.

Beyond Caesar’s deft diplomatic touch, he also had a strong connection with his men. This was not something unique about Caesar—nearly all great war leaders were able to accomplish great deeds because of friendship and trust between the leader and the men he led. But this kind of connection allows for armies to become more like private associations, acting for the sake of the political community only nominally. Although legionaries received a steady wage, it was not a good wage. The reluctance of the Senate to rectify this fairly obvious injustice led to generals offering small fortunes to their soldiers through conquest, and much tighter bonds between military leaders and their soldiers than between soldiers and the civil leaders. Once Caesar proved his strategic skills to his soldiers, they could be confident in his ability to provide for them. The remarkable defense at Alesia is a testament to the trust Caesar’s soldiers put in their general.

The unity of political and military power possessed by Caesar meant that strategy was always perfectly subordinated to diplomatic considerations and political aims. It is also this unity that, perhaps ironically, has been the object lesson in the importance of keeping civil and military authority distinct, and more importantly, the subordination of military authority to civil authority. The unity of authority found in Caesar was inextricably linked with his ability to seize power in Rome itself and set the stage for the de facto destruction of the Roman regime and the institution of tyrannical government. Of course, Rome had laws against bringing armies near its territory for precisely these reasons, but the personal connection between Caesar and his men, or indeed most Roman generals at that time and the soldiers they commanded, made it difficult for civilian leadership to control effectively its military men.

The fear of men like Caesar has shaped many of our political institutions and makes it unlikely that we will ever see a man match Caesar’s accomplishments. The unity of strategy and diplomacy makes for the most effective foreign policy possible, but such effective foreign policy is also the very thing most Western polities see as supremely dangerous.


Reception of De bello Gallico

Most modern readers and commentators of Caesar’s writing emphasize the political angle of Caesar’s writing. Although there is some disagreement about the intended audience, everyone agrees that the primary purpose of De bello Gallico was to cement Caesar’s political situation back in Rome. If this was the goal, then Caesar was a failure. He was branded an outlaw and relied on force to cement his rule, hardly suggesting that De bello Gallico was successful in persuading the Senate or the plebeians of Caesar’s virtues. If anything, it probably achieved the opposite. But whether or not modern commentators are correct in their assessments of Caesars’ ulterior purposes, their various theses do not tell us more about De bello Gallico than the words on the page.

Caesar’s contemporaries did not make much of political objectives underlying the commentaries, or at least did not say much about it. Aulus Hirtius indicates that the purpose of the commentaries was to provide historians with material, although he doubts that any historian would be superior to Caesar. Cicero thought highly of Caesar’s literary ability, even though he was quire publically opposed to Caesar politically, an assessment shared by many teachers of the Latin language. Both these assessments indicate that Caesar’s contemporaries thought that the commentaries were a possession for all time, a work of perennial worth rather than something for the masses to chew upon.

The influence of Caesar through history provides evidence that his contemporaries were more correct than later commentators. Great political and military men, at least those who were liberally educated, saw Caesar as the gold standard of leadership and strategy. The list of the particular men influenced by Caesar would be far too long and would simply be a repetition of the great political and strategic minds that came out of the Romanized world. Napoleon Bonaparte and George Patton show the variety, but also a certain similarity, that obtains in men who admired and learned from Julius Caesar. It is fair to say with Hirtius that De bello Gallico was ultimately written for men like Julius Caesar, whenever and wherever they might be, rather than to serve an immediate political purpose. Caesar’s soul was too capacious and his vision too wide-ranging for such parochialism. He meant to assure his place beside Alexander and to teach those who came after him, guaranteeing that he did not rule only Gaul and Rome, but Western history.


[1] A very difficult word to translate. It has the connotation of farming expertise, being tied to the soil, as well as religious devotion, and possessing liberal education. Return to Text.

[2] Another difficult translation. Similar to the Greek notion of paideia, a set of virtues necessary for the attainment of political excellence. Return to Text.

[3] Effeminacy means dislike of virtue, especially the endurance associated with moderation and courage, because of the necessary abstinence from some pleasures, or hatred of the good because it is difficult. Return to Text.

[4] Rerum novarum. Return to Text.



For Further Reading

Julius Caesar. The Gallic War. Translated by H. J. Edwards.  Loeb Classical Library, 1930.

Appian. Roman History.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. Letters to Atticus.

Dio, Cassius. Roman History.

Gelzer, Mattias. Caesar. Translated by Peter Needham. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. Caesar: Life of a Colossus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.

—. “Julius Caesar and the General as State” in The Makers of Ancient Strategy, edited by Victor Davis Hanson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Holmes, T. Rice. Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911.

Meier, Christian. Caesar. Translated by D. McLintock. New York: Basic Books, 1996.

Plutarch, Julius Caesar

—. Pompey

—. Cato the Younger

—. Sulla

—. Marius

Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars

Welch, Kathryn and Anton Powell, editors. Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The War Commentaries as Political Instruments. London: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 1998.