Julius Caesar needs little introduction. By common consent, he occupies a high seat in the pantheon of Western historical figures. But few can adequately explain why he was a great man. A reading of Caesar’s most famous book, The Gallic War (De Bello Gallico), provides some answers and compelling lessons in the traits and attributes of a leader. It is one of the clearest testaments of battle leadership and competent decision-making ever written.
In the spring of 58 B.C., Caesar assumed his duties as governor of Cisalpine and Narbonese Gaul (regions in northern Italy and southern France). Soon after, many thousands of Germans under the leadership of an ambitious chieftain named Ariovistus began to conduct incursions into Gaul at the request of one Gallic tribe seeking help from another. It soon became clear that Ariovistus aspired to make himself ruler of all Gaul, and was strengthened in this ambition by the movement of some Germanic tribes all along the Rhine, all desiring to relocate to greener pastures in Gaul. Meanwhile, over 300,000 Helvetii (a tribe centered in what is now Geneva) began migrating westward. Caesar’s world became convulsed in ferment and turbulence, and he decided that unless decisive action were taken, Italy itself might be threatened.
Seeing these developments as profoundly threatening to Roman security, Caesar at his own expense raised and equipped a number of legions in addition to the ones already assigned to him. Not bothering to get permission from a suspicious Senate (anticipating Hernando Cortes’s brilliantly unauthorized conquest of Mexico 1500 years later), he undertook the methodical pacification of all Gaul and later even the invasion of Britain. His record of this campaign, On the Gallic War, is a collection of dispatches sent to Rome which were meant to describe his doings and achievements.
The book is written in a clear, masculine, terse style that shows Caesar to be a master of military tactics, political calculation, and negotiating skills. It is one of the key texts in Latin literature. Reading it, you feel you are with him on the march, as he crosses rivers, scales mountains, and plunges through dense forests. You share his privation and those of his soldiers, as he is harassed and attacked from all sides by hostile tribes and the merciless vagaries of weather. Not only did he survive everything thrown at him, but he actually conquered the entire country.
These are some of the qualities that enabled Caesar to triumph against odds that were almost always against him:
1. He moved quickly and with decision. Caesar never allowed his enemies to gain the advantage of speed over him. Quick to pursue a defeated enemy, he always pressed his battlefield victories to finality by pursuing enemies until they were rendered helpless. He was also always able to stay one step ahead of his opponents by being too nimble, too hard-working, and too cunning for them to cope with. He knew his commanders and their abilities well, and was always able to provide the right mix of fatherly encouragement and cold-blooded ruthlessness in leading his men.
2. He was merciful and gracious in victory. In an age when brutality on the battlefield was commonplace, Caesar always treated a defeated enemy with magnanimity. The benefit of this far-sighted policy was that he was able to win loyal friends and allies, and keep pacified areas from rebelling against him.
He succeeded so well in this respect that during the later civil war in Rome, when Gaul could have easily rebelled, not a single local ruler or tribe made any move to throw off Roman rule. Gaul remained a Roman province for hundreds of years, becoming thoroughly Latin in speech and character. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Caesar’s conquest planted the seeds of French civilization. It is doubtful that Caesar ever saw the immense consequences of his conquest of Gaul, but the perspective of history has made it clear that his conquest set Gaul on the trajectory it would follow forever after. His leniency foreshadowed his future greatness as a statesman.
3. He was willing to gamble big when the situation called for it. When necessary, he was not afraid to take huge risks. He staked everything on a siege of Alesia, where a leader named Vercingetorix had amassed 30,000 men. And he won. He made a risky crossing of the English Channel into Britain to subdue some tribes there, at a time when the country was little known to the Romans. With no prior experience in naval matters, he constructed a fleet of ships and ferried his armies across the Channel in a daring amphibious operation that could easily have come to ruin.
4. He never held his enemies in contempt or hatred. Rather, he showed a healthy respect for the fighting skills of the Gauls and Germans. There are many sections of his book where he describes in sympathetic detail the customs and mores of the Gallic tribes. He never treats his adversaries with hatred, mockery, or contempt. At the same time, he was canny enough to take hostages (obses) during negotiations, as human collateral to ensure performance of agreements.
The Gallic War is a classic of battle leadership and political maneuvering, written by an undeniable genius. Caesar was the most complete man that antiquity ever produced: he was successful as a military commander, a politician, an administrator, and a writer. Later in his career, he would go on to propose universal suffrage for freedmen of the entire empire, a massive public works program, and just administration of the laws to alleviate the oppressive power of the aristocracy. But all that was in his future. We see in his book some clear foreshadowing of his latent talents as an administrator and statesman. His transformation from the reckless, rakish lad of his 20s and 30s into one of the most just, wise, and enlightened rulers of history is nothing short of miraculous.
A suggestion: if you decide to buy this book, I recommend the Loeb Classical Library edition. It has the original Latin text with English translation on facing pages. Also very useful are a number of illustrated scholarly appendices on Roman military tactics, siege engines, and engineering machines.
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