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June Books 23) The Conquest of Gaul

23) The Conquest of Gaul, by Julius Caesar

An interesting first-hand account of seven years of campaigning (essentially the summers of the years from 58 to 52 BC) by the Roman army in what is now France, with excursions to what is now Germany, Belgium and England. The Penguin edition is not bad at all, with decent footnotes drawing attention to where Caesar is nuancing the story to make himself look better (the book was published shortly after his return to Rome, engaged in the struggle which ended with him becoming Dictator in 49 BC). The maps are OK but as usual I wished they were more detailed. There must be scope for a coffee-table book with glossy photographs of landscapes and archaeological finds following his footsteps through France.

Apart from Caesar himself, the most interesting character is the Gaulish rebel leader Vercingetorix, who led the final revolt in 52 BC and was presumably a visible prisoner in Rome at the time the book first came out. Caesar puts in his mouth several set-piece speeches to his followers and allies, and gives him credit for a plan to kick the Romans out of Gaul which came close to success.

There are a few other names here that one knows from their later careers. One sub-commander in Caesar's victory over Vercingetorix, who had also commanded an innovative Roman naval campaign on the Atlantic coast a few years earlier, is "young Brutus". Another is Mark Antony, who otherwise only appears in the postscript, written by Caesar's friend Aulus Hirtius after the assassination (when of course Antony's fortunes were rising rapidly).

The most striking thing about the book is the detailed description of the waging of war in the first century BC: depending as much on psychology and local micro-politics as on military superiority. The Gauls never seem to have resorted to guerilla warfare, preferring to have large armies in the field under one or more warlords. (Perhaps guerrilla warfare requires an egalitarian political ideology?) I was struck also by Caesar's account of the battle of the first landing in Britain in 55 BC, as much as anything because the only other example I can remember of a contested landing of an invasion force on either side of the English Channel is D-Day, almost exactly 2000 years later.

Anyway, a fairly quick and not too taxing read, helped by the scholarly apparatus.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
chickenfeet2003
Jun. 15th, 2008 11:10 am (UTC)
(Perhaps guerrilla warfare requires an egalitarian political ideology?)

The French experience in Spain 1809-1814 would appear to disprove that hypothesis.
inuitmonster
Jun. 15th, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)
Though you often hear that it was Spanish liberals who did a lot of the running in organising the guerrilla war in Spain.

On the other hand, the earlier Vendée guerrilla war would have been straightforwardly undertaken in support of authoritarian political principles.
swisstone
Jun. 15th, 2008 12:25 pm (UTC)
There must be scope for a coffee-table book with glossy photographs of landscapes and archaeological finds following his footsteps through France.

Not in print any more, but what you are looking for is Anne & Peter Wiseman (tr.), Julius Caesar: The Battle for Gaul. A new illustrated translation. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980), with illustrations chosen by Barry Cunliffe. There are copies on Amazon Marketplace.
wyvernfriend
Jun. 15th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
I really should recover the school texts from my parents house and re-read them. Probably with the english text side-by-side

inuitmonster
Jun. 15th, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC)
One thing that is great about Julius Caesar's book is that he has a really clear writing style. If you ever learn Latin, you will find yourself translating bits of this book into English. It is really great to be able to get so close to one of the greatest figures of antiquity.

Did he write the book in one go after finishing in Gaul? I had the idea that he wrote in instalments while campaigning there, as a way or reminding everyone back home of all the great things he was doing.
leedy
Jun. 16th, 2008 03:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I remember reading bits of it in Latin in school - I remember having a great sense of "wow, we are reading what Actual Julius Caesar wrote in his Actual Words". Well, that and fear of Mrs. O'Neill giving out to me if I didn't have my translation prepared.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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