Wednesday, September 6, 2000

Caesar’s Gallic Wars, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170


Like Alus Hirtius, Caesar’s officer who wrote a prefatory letter and posthumous final Book after Caesar’s death, I too preface this report with an apologia as I found myself reading for historical and anthropological facts rather than focusing on Caesar’s use of story elements. I fear I’m rusty and it wasn’t until the end of the commentaries that I had an insight: the epistolary process. Forgive my digressions as I search for a form.

Caesar writes elegant commentaries of field reports imbued with war inspired rhetoric to please his audience, the Senate, old men whose battle days are long since done, in order to explain and justify his campaigns (more land, grain, tribute, slaves for Rome), and to raise more funding for the next war season.

His yearly Books are written in 2 - 5 parts, but 3 is the favored form which suggests they were quarterly reports—as he was in the field with his troops, wintering in Gaul. I imagine that he did not read his letters to the Senate as they were written in a 3rd person narrative, but easy to identify with (tho I cheated with Rex Warner’s 1st person translation). 

His writing is elegant and erudite, the propaganda well couched with self-aware lines aimed to enlarge Senatorial beneficence, and he makes his own flaws seem coolly rational (Hellenistic). His style is confident, superior and aloof, verging on omnipotence, yet he admires his enemy. 

He can empathize with the Gauls’ desire for independence. Romancing the Aedui in a close client relationship is his own pet project within his larger endeavor to tame Gaul. But when the Aedui bite the hand that feeds them, he is disturbed, wrathful, an angry god. Caesar tends to lose skirmishes in the woods & marshes, uncivilized terrain for proper warfare. He admires Gaulish tenacity and inventiveness but enough is enough. Even the patience of the most kind and rational of Caesars has its limits. A shift in tone occurs where he realizes the only way to put down the continued revolt is by extermination. He practices on the Germans first.

His ethnographic inserts about the Germans and Celts are reminiscent of earlier Greek writing— possibly someone else’s reports that he rewrote: a letter within a letter?). He seems confused as to who is Celtic, naming several Celtic sounding tribes as German. In fact, he knows so little about the Germans, he recycles Celtic information. 

I suspect him of paving the way for another relationship with the Senate for future campaign funding (seeding the field), and forcing their hand to further fund his Gaulish campaigns. (If you think these big Celts are bad, you should see the even bigger Germans across the river!) 

His battle descriptions become more and more elaborate. He’s killed more Gauls than is probable; I counted over 100 tribes; and some 285,000 assembled Gauls in the final battle at Alesia! 

By Book Seven, he quotes entire speeches of Vercingetorix as if he were there witnessing the event, though he’s really using 2nd and 3rd hand accounts. But Vercingetorix’ surrender is almost an anticlimax. 

Book Eight, written by Hirtius, with its epistolary letter of the death of Caesar takes us out of the narrative and into the realm of historical perspective; it’s hard to re-enter the arena and harder still to stomach the final defeat of Uxellodunum. Hirtius concludes with Caesar’s fall from senatorial grace, with an epilogue and segue/preview of the Civil Wars that followed — a war strategist’s equivalent to a bodice ripper.

I’m left with a question: why didn’t Caesar write the final chapter of the Gauls? Was he a politician to the end, his accountability no longer necessary now that Gaul was beaten? Did he really cut off the hands of the warriors (it is a 2nd-hand report, pardon the pun). Is this the beginning of his fall from grace, where he crosses the invisible line? His personal Rubicon?

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