Commentāriī dē Bellō Gallicō (English: Commentaries on the Gallic War), also Bellum Gallicum (English: Gallic War), is Julius Caesar's firsthand account of the Gallic Wars, written as a third-person narrative. In it Caesar describes the battles and intrigues that took place in the nine years he spent fighting the Germanic peoples and Celtic peoples in Gaul that opposed Roman conquest.
The "Gaul" that Caesar refers to is ambiguous, as the term had various connotations in Roman writing and discourse during Caesar's time. Generally, Gaul included all of the regions that Romans had not conquered or administered or which were primarily inhabited by Celts; except for the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis (modern-day Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon), which had already been conquered in Caesar's time, therefore encompassing the rest of modern France, Belgium, Western Germany, and parts of Switzerland. As the Roman Republic made inroads deeper into Celtic territory and conquered more land, the definition of "Gaul" shifted. Concurrently, "Gaul" was also used in common parlance as a synonym for "uncouth" or "unsophisticated" as Romans saw Celtic peoples as uncivilized compared with Rome.
The work has been a mainstay in Latin instruction because of its simple, direct prose. It begins with the frequently quoted phrase "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres", meaning "Gaul is a whole divided into three parts". The full work is split into eight sections, Book 1 to Book 8, varying in size from approximately 5,000 to 15,000 words. Book 8 was written by Aulus Hirtius, after Caesar's death.
The Latin title, Commentaries on the Gallic War, is often retained in English translations of the book, and the title is also translated to About the Gallic War, Of the Gallic War, On the Gallic War, The Conquest of Gaul, and The Gallic War.
The victories in Gaul won by Caesar had increased the alarm and hostility of his enemies at Rome, and his aristocratic enemies, the boni, were spreading rumors about his intentions once he returned from Gaul. The boni intended to prosecute Caesar for abuse of his authority upon his return, when he would lay down his imperium. Such prosecution would not only see Caesar stripped of his wealth and citizenship, but also negate all of the laws he enacted during his term as Consul and his dispositions as pro-consul of Gaul. To defend himself against these threats, Caesar knew he needed the support of the plebeians, particularly the Tribunes of the Plebs, on whom he chiefly relied for help in carrying out his agenda. The Commentaries were an effort by Caesar to directly communicate with the plebeians - thereby circumventing the usual channels of communication that passed through the Senate - to propagandize his activities as efforts to increase the glory and influence of Rome. By winning the support of the people, Caesar sought to make himself unassailable from the boni. The work is a paradigm of proper reporting and stylistic clarity.
Book 1 and Book 6 detail the importance of Diviciacus, a leader of the Haedui (Aedui), which lies mainly in the friendly relationship between Caesar and Diviciacus [Diviciaci] quod ex Gallis ei maximam fidem [Caesar] habebat (I, 18). His brother, Dumnorix had committed several acts against the Romans because he wanted to become king quod eorum adventu potentia eius deminuta et Diviciacus frater in antiquum locum gratiae atque honoris sit restitutus and summam in spem per Helvetios regni obtinendi venire (I, 41); thus Caesar was able to make his alliance with Diviciacus even stronger by sparing Dumnorix from punishment while also forcing Diviciacus to control his own brother. Diviciacus had, in tears, begged Caesar to spare the life of his brother, and Caesar saw an opportunity to not only fix his major problem with Dumnorix, but also to strengthen the relationship between Rome and one of its small allies. Another major action taken by Diviciacus was his imploring of Caesar to take action against the Germans and their leader, Ariovistus. His fear of Ariovistus and the general outcry from the Gallic people led Caesar to launch a campaign against the Germans, even though they had been considered friends of the Republic.
Vercingetorix, leader of the Arverni, united the Gallic tribes against Caesar during the winter of 53-52 BC. This appears in Book VII, chapters 1-13. Vercingetorix's father, Celtillus, was killed after attempting to seize power amongst the Arverni; for that reason, Vercingetorix was a social outcast and had much to gain from a rebellion. When it was clear that Caesar had defeated the Gallic rebellion, Vercingetorix offered to sacrifice himself, and put himself at the mercy of Caesar, in order to ensure that his kinsmen were spared. After the defeat, Vercingetorix was brought to Rome and imprisoned for six years before being brought out to adorn Caesar’s triumph over Gaul and then publicly executed. Today, Vercingetorix is seen in the same light as others who opposed Roman conquest; he is now considered a national hero in France and a model patriot.
In De Bello Gallico 6.21-28, Julius Caesar provides his audience with a picture of Germanic lifestyle and culture. He depicts the Germans as primitive hunter gatherers with diets mostly consisting of meat and dairy products who only celebrate earthly gods such as the sun, fire, and the moon (6.21-22). German women reportedly wear small cloaks of deer hides and bathe in the river naked with their fellow men, yet their culture celebrates men who abstain from sex for as long as possible (6.21). Caesar concludes in chapters 25-28 by describing the Germans living in the almost-mythological Hercynian forest full of ox with horns in the middle of their foreheads, elks without joints or ligatures, and uri who kill every man they come across.
However, the distinguishing characteristic of the Germans for Caesar, as described in chapters 23 and 24, is their warring nature, which they believe is a sign of true valour (hoc proprium virtutis existimant, 6.23). The Germans have no neighbors, because they have driven everyone out from their surrounding territory (civitatibus maxima laus est quam latissime circum se vastatis finibus solitudines habere, 6.23). Their greatest political power resides in the wartime magistrates, who have power over life and death (vitae necisque habeant potestatem, 6.23). While Caesar certainly respects the warring instincts of the Germans, he wants his readers to see that their cultures are simply too barbaric, especially when contrasted with the high-class Gallic Druids described at the beginning of chapter six. For example, Caesar writes that robberies committed outside of the state are legalized in hopes of teaching young people discipline and caution, an idea nearly offensive to the judicial practices of the Romans (ea iuventutis exercendae ac desidiae minuendae causa fieri praedicant, 6.23). Caesar’s generalizations, alongside the writings of Tacitus, form the barbaric identity of the Germans for the ancient world. The name “Germani” is even of Roman origins, showing how the identity of the Germans is tilted by Roman perceptions and prejudices.
Caesar’s account of the Druids and the "superstitions" of the Gallic nations are documented in book six chapters 13, 14 and 16-18 in De Bello Gallico. In chapter 13 he mentions the importance of Druids in the culture and social structure of Gaul at the time of his conquest. Chapter 14 addresses the education of the Druids and the high social standing that comes with their position. He first comments on the role of sacrificial practices in their daily lives in chapter 16. Caesar highlights the sacrificial practices of the Druids containing innocent people and the large sacrificial ceremony where hundreds of people were burnt alive at one time to protect the whole from famine, plague, and war (DBG 6.16). Chapter 17 and 18 focuses on the divinities the Gauls believed in and Dis, the god which they claim they were descended from. This account of the Druids highlights Caesar’s interest in the order and importance of the Druids in Gaul.
Caesar spent a great amount of time in Gaul and is one of the best preserved accounts of the Druids from an author who was in Gaul. However, it is important to remember that although Caesar provides what is seemingly a first-hand account, much of his knowledge of the Druids is not from personal experience, but rather the hearsay of others and is regarded as anachronistic. Caesar based some of his account after that of Posidonius, who wrote a clear and well-known account of the Druids in Gaul. Caesar provides his account of the Druids as a means of sharing his knowledge and educating the Roman people on the foreign conquests.
There is no doubt that the Druids offered sacrifices to their god. However, scholars are still uncertain about what they would offer. Caesar, along with other Roman authors, assert that the Druids would offer human sacrifices on numerous occasions for relief from disease and famine or for a successful war campaign. Caesar provides a detailed account of the manner in which the supposed human sacrifices occurred in chapter 16, claiming that “they have images of immense size, the limbs of which are framed with twisted twigs and filled with living persons. These being set on fire, those within are encompassed by the flames” (DBG 6.16).
Caesar, however, also observes and mentions a civil Druid culture. In chapter 13, he claims that they select a single leader who ruled until his death, and a successor would be chosen by a vote or through violence. Also, in chapter 13, the famed Roman also mentions that the druids observed “the stars and their movements, the size of the cosmos and the earth, the world of nature, and the powers of deities," signifying to the Roman people that the druids were also versed in astrology, cosmology, and theology. Although Caesar is one of the few primary sources on the druids, many believe that he had used his influence to portray the druids to the Roman people as both barbaric, as they perform human sacrifices, and civilized in order to depict the Druids as a society worth assimilating to Rome (DBG 6.16).
Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo were two centurions in the garrison of Quintus Tullius Cicero, brother of Marcus Tullius Cicero, and are mentioned in Book 5.44 of De Bello Gallico. They were bitter rivals who both sought to achieve the greatest honors “and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity” [omnibusque annis de locis summis simultatibus contendebant] (DBG 5.44). Their garrison had come under siege during a rebellion by the tribes of the Belgae led by Ambiorix. They showed their prowess during this siege by jumping from the wall and directly into the enemy despite being completely outnumbered. During the fighting, they both find themselves in difficult positions and are forced to save each other, first Vorenus saving Pullo and then Pullo saving Vorenus. Through great bravery they are both able to make it back alive slaying many enemies in the process. They return to the camp showered in praise and honors by their fellow soldiers. The phrase, Sic fortuna in contentione et certamine utrumque versavit, ut alter alteri inimicus auxilio salutique esset, neque diiudicari posset, uter utri virtute anteferendus videretur, is used to emphasize that though they started out in competition, they both showed themselves to be worthy of the highest praise and equal to each other in bravery (DBG 5.44).
Caesar uses this anecdote to illustrate the courage and bravery of his soldiers. Since his forces had already been humiliated and defeated in previous engagements, he needed to report a success story to Rome that would lift the spirits of the people. Furthermore, the tale of unity on the battlefield between two personal rivals is in direct opposition to the disunity of Sabinus and Cotta, which resulted in the destruction of an entire legion. He relates this particular account to illustrate that despite the losses against Ambiorix and his army Rome is still able to trust in the valor of its soldiers. Thus, Caesar turns a horrifying military blunder into a positive propaganda story.
In the first two books of De bello Gallico, there are seven examples of hostage exchanges. First, the Helveti exchange hostages with the Sequani as a promise that the Sequani will let the Helveti pass and that the Helveti will not cause mischief (1.9 and 1.19). The Helveti also give Caesar hostages to ensure that the Helveti keep their promises (1.14). Then the Aedui gave hostages to the Sequani, during the Sequani’s rise to power (1.31). In book two, the Belgae were exchanging hostages to create an alliance against Rome (2.1) and the Remi offered Caesar hostages in their surrender (2.3, 2.5). Later in the book Caesar receives 600 hostages from the Aedui (2.15) and other hostages from most of Gaul (2.35). This practice of exchanging hostages continues to be used throughout Caesar’s campaigns in diplomacy and foreign policy.
Today the term hostage has a different connotation than it did for the Ancient Romans, which is shown in the examples above. Where the Romans did take prisoners of war, hostages could also be given or exchanged in times of peace. The taking of hostages as collateral during political arrangements was a common practice in ancient Rome. The idea of the practice was that important people from each side were given to ensure that both sides kept their word; a type of contract. Two examples of this is when Caesar demands the children of chieftains (2.5) and accepted the two sons of King Galba (2.13). However, as seen by Caesar, sometimes it was only a one-way exchange, with Caesar taking hostages but not giving any.
There is evidence though, particularly in Caesar’s De bello Gallico, indicating that the practice wasn’t always effective. In other words, cities often moved to revolt against Rome, even though hostages were in Roman custody. Occasionally, hostages would be entrusted to a neutral or mediating party during a revolt, such as the time one hundred hostages surrendered by the Senones were placed in the custody of the Aedui who helped negotiate between the revolters and Caesar. Some sources say there isn’t much evidence that hostages were even harmed, at least severely, in retribution of the broken agreements.Actually, in many cases there isn’t much evidence telling what happened to the hostages at all. It is commonly noted that Caesar never mentions penalties being dealt to hostages. Taking hostages did benefit Rome in one particular way, though: since hostages were commonly the sons of political figures and would typically be under Roman watch for a year or more, Romans had ample time to introduce those hostages to the Roman customs in hopes that when they were freed, they would go on to become influential political leaders themselves and favor Rome in subsequent foreign relations.
It is often lauded for its polished, clear Latin. This book is traditionally the first authentic text assigned to students of Latin, as Xenophon's Anabasis is for students of Ancient Greek; they are both autobiographical tales of military adventure told in the third person. It contains many details and employs many stylistic devices to promote Caesar's political interests.
The books are valuable for the many geographical and historical claims that can be retrieved from the work. Notable chapters describe Gaulish custom (VI, 13), their religion (VI, 17), and a comparison between Gauls and Germanic peoples (VI, 24).
Since Caesar is one of the characters in the Astérix and Obélix albums, René Goscinny included gags for French schoolchildren who had the Commentarii as a textbook, even though Latin was then disappearing from French schools. One example is having Caesar talk about himself in the third person as in the book.
Most English editions of Asterix begin with the prelude: "The year is 50 BC. Gaul is entirely occupied by the Romans. Well not entirely! One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders." In the 36th book of the Asterix series, Asterix and the Missing Scroll, a fictitious and supposedly censored chapter from Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War forms the basis for the story.
In Book 5, Chapter 44 the Commentarii de Bello Gallico notably mentions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, two Roman centurions of the 11th Legion. The 2005 television series Rome gives a fictionalized account of Caesar's rise and fall, featuring Kevin McKidd as the character of Lucius Vorenus and Ray Stevenson as the character of Titus Pullo of the 13th Legion.
During World War I the French composer Vincent d'Indy wrote his Third Symphony, which bears the title De Bello Gallico. D'Indy was adapting Caesar's title to the situation of the current struggle in France against the German army, in which he had a son and nephew fighting, and which the music illustrates to some extent.
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