Julius Caesar in Gaul

New York Public Library, Wikimedia Commons

Caesar created a new version of ‘Gaul’, expanding geographical boundaries and excluding some areas traditionally ascribed to it.


By Dr. Sarah Midford (left) and Dr. Rhiannon Evans (right)
Midford: Lecturer, School of Humanities
Evans: Senior Lecturer, Ancient Mediterranean Studies
La Trobe University

Where Was Gaul?

Map of Gallia tribes and towns in 1st century BCE / ‘MAP GALLIA TRIBES TOWNS’ BY FEITSCHERG FROM WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

While we might think of Gaul as the ‘ancient version’ of modern France, the Romans included modern Belgium, parts of the Netherlands and northern Italy in Gaul. Gallia Transalpina meant ‘Gaul beyond the Alps’, while Gallia Cisalpina meant ‘Gaul this side of the Alps’.Until Caesar altered the map in 48 BCE, Gallia Cisalpina was technically outside Italy, but it was still far more familiar to Romans than the region ‘beyond’. This terminology reflects how Romans thought of Gaul and how they conceptualised geographical regions according to proximity to Rome, which was at the geographical centre.

However, Caesar was not proconsul (governor) of all of ‘Gaul beyond the Alps’. He was officially proconsul of Gallia Transalpina and Illyricum,[1] and his governorship extended only to the Roman Province (Provincia Romana, equivalent to modern Provence). Caesar’s remit did not take him north or west of the Province, but he opens The Gallic War by ignoring his own province and drawing a map of everything that lay beyond:

All of Gaul is divided into three parts: the Belgae live in one part, the Aquitani the second and in the third a group called ‘Celts’ in their own language and ‘Gauls’ in ours. They all differ from one another in language, institutions and laws.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.1.1–2

RRC 448/2, Obverse (48 BCE): Bearded male bust right, draped; behind, Gallic shield. Border of dots. / ‘GALLIC MALE’ RRC 448/2 OBVERSE FROM GALE COLLECTION, MACQUARIE UNIVERSITY, AUSTRALIAN CENTRE FOR ANCIENT NUMISMATIC STUDIES (ACANS)

For there was a further division of Gaul here, between the Province, often known as Gallia Togata (‘Gaul which wears the toga’), and Gallia Comata (‘Longhaired Gaul’) to the north. In other words, there wasa distinction between Romanised Gaul and unconquered Gaul, which could be represented visually through personal appearance.The people ethnically defined as Gauls lived in the area mapped out between three major boundaries: the Roman Province, the Rhine, and Ocean. The first was protected by Rome, and its protection was Caesar’s pretext for taking action in Gaul. The second and third, a river and a sea, were features of the landscape and seemed to form a natural boundary. In fact, they were less than ideal boundaries for both could also operate as just the opposite – a conductor– and they could be bridged or sailed. They were also possible conduits to Germania and Britannia, which was exactly how Caesar used them.

The People: Gauls, Germani, and Britanni

The Gallic War, Caesar’s book on his campaign in Gaul, is our earliest detailed description of northern Europeans: the first description of druids, of Gallic human sacrifice and of the great strength, but brutish lifestyles, of the northern barbarians.[2]

In the course of the Gallic War, Caesar came into contact with three groups of barbarians:the Gauls themselves, the Germani and the Britanni.[3] According to Caesar, the Germani live on the other side of the Rhine from the Gauls, while the Britanni are found ‘over Ocean’. Tous, what the Romans called ‘Ocean’ is the English Channel, but to the Greco–Romans it was part of the sea that bounded the far ends of the earth. Caesar defines these people as quite distinct from one another by their behaviour, customs and way of life. For example, he claims that the Gauls are devoted to religious ritual, which is led by their educated priestly class, the druids.

The Gods of the Gauls

Epona, the Celtic goddess of horses and riding, lacked a direct Roman equivalent, and is therefore one of the most persistent distinctly Celtic deities. This image comes from Germany, about 200 CE / Photo by Rosemania, Historic Museum of  Bern, Wikimedia Commons

Caesar writes that, like the Romans, the Gauls worship anthropomorphic gods. He even uses the names of Roman gods to identify them – Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Jupiter and Minerva(Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.17.1–2) – thereby conflating Gallic and Roman religion. Like so many ethnographers, Caesar positions the peoples he writes about in relation to his own culture, and he seems to do so quite unselfconsciously. The Gauls did not call their gods by these ancient Italian names, of course, but, to the Roman observer, they were gods who carried out similar functions to those of the Roman gods. Caesar states that ‘Apollo’ is the god of medicine, ‘Mars’ is god of war, ‘Minerva’ is god of crafts and ‘Jupiter’ is the chief god who holds up the heavens.

To historians attempting to collect information about the ancient Gauls, Caesar can be a frustrating source. Historians might well ask how the Gallic gods differed from Roman gods(as they must have done), what myths the Gauls told about their gods and what powers these gods possessed, but unfortunately Caesar does not even tell us their Gallic names!

Caesar’s ‘Roman Interpretation’

Caesar is interpreting Gaul through his own culture’s eyes, a practice later called interpretatio Romana (Roman ‘interpretation’ or ‘translation’).[4] It is important to remember that The Gallic War is a Roman account of another people and that, as well as writing about the Gauls themselves,Caesar uses the Gauls to comment on Roman qualities from a different perspective.

In general, Caesar’s descriptions of the Gauls reveal the superiority of the Roman forces under his command; the Gauls are frequently amazed by the Romans’ speed and ingenuity.In Book 1, Caesar’s first Gallic enemy, the Helvetii, are surprised that the Romans have built a bridge and crossed a river in just one day – it had taken the Helvetii twenty days and a lot of effort to ford the river. They immediately send deputies to attempt to make a peace treaty with Caesar because they are so impressed with the way that he dominates the landscape.[5]

Showing superiority is a way of intimidating the enemy into capitulation, but it is also a type of cultural one-upmanship.

Comparative Ethnography

When he uses the Gauls in this way, Caesar practises what we now call comparative ethnography.However, he not only compares Gauls with Romans but also Gauls with Germani. While the differences between Gauls and Romans are implied – that is, they come out in the different ways that each group behaves – the differences between Gauls and Germani are made quite explicit. A formal ethnography in Book 6 (Chapters 11–28) follows Caesar’s narrative of the war, detailing the preparations of the Gauls and Germani for war against Caesar in the first ten chapters.

At this point in the book, some of the Gauls and Germani are joining together, although their alliance is hardly one based on shared beliefs – the Gauls tempt the Germani over the Rhine with bribes (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.2.1). Caesar begins his campaign early and builds a bridge over the Rhine. In fact, this is his second bridge, as he had built and crossed another bridge two years previously, in 55 BCE.[6] Each of these bridges shows the pre-eminence of Roman technology – the engineering and practical skills needed to achieve such a feat asserts Rome’s cultural dominance. Crossing the Rhine will demonstrate who is in charge and, effectively, who has the right to cross this major waterway: the message is that it should not be the Germani mercenaries but the Romans!

It is in this context that Caesar chooses to break the narrative with a 18-chapter excursus (about eight pages in the Penguin translation) on the ethnography of the Gauls and Germani. As he describes it: ‘[a]s this point has been reached, it seems not inappropriate to discuss the customs (mores) of Gaul and Germania and how their peoples differ from one another’(Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.11.1).

The Gauls’ Culture and Religion

A Gallic druid is using a mallet to remove a ring which hemmed in a globe inscribed “Gaul”; he is assisted by two Roman soldiers and surrounded by female allegorical figures, a sickle and fasces, while the Olympian gods look on from above; representing the opening of Gaul to the Roman Empire. / Wellcome Library, Wikimedia Commons

For Caesar, the ethnography of the Gauls covers political structures, religion, origins and family. He works down from the macro to the micro, and a major thread running through the description is that of control: apart from the ruling elite (principes) and the priest class (druides or druids), the rest of Gallic society is made up of the plebs (plebes), who are ‘practically slaves’ (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.13.1). Such a phrase would have been shocking to the Roman reader, for whom the difference between free and slave was the most significant social distinction, and one referred to in the oldest known Roman law code.[7]

The Gauls did have a slave class, although Caesar does not discuss them, but he does add that Gauls who are oppressed by debt might go into voluntary slavery. Debt slavery was not unknown in Rome’s history, but had been outlawed in the fourth century BCE, so this custom was archaic to Roman ears and made Gallic society look primitive by comparison. It also cast the Gauls as defeatist: to give in to slavery and voluntarily lose the most important attribute of a freeborn citizen would have seemed unimaginable in Rome.

It is in Caesar’s ethnographic section that we find the two most famous pieces of information that Caesar transmits about the Gauls: the description of human sacrifice and the brief account of the ever-elusive druids. Caesar claims that Gauls promise to sacrifice human victims in order either to save someone who is very unwell or to placate the gods during a battle. They also have the custom of filling a huge wicker figure with living victims and burning them alive.[8]

Although the Romans had tales of human sacrifice in their own past, notably by burying victims alive when it seemed that they might lose their city through warfare,[9] such a practice was seen at best as extreme, at worst as the behaviour of barbari. However, the picture painted by Caesar is not entirely one of savagery, for the druids, who are responsible for all types of sacrifice (which must include human sacrifice), are tremendously learned and spend up to twenty years training for their post. This involves learning their sacred texts by heart, as the Gauls believe it is sacrilege to write them down, although they are able to write in Greek letters (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.13–14). The druids are also priests, judges and teachers with enormous authority.

Despite the account of human sacrifice, Caesar does not consider the Gauls to be barbarians because they clearly have a sophisticated religious culture with complex rituals and doctrine. In fact, Caesar’s information about Gallic religion is telling – the druidic institution connects the Gauls to the Britanni but separates them from the Germani. For the learning (disciplina) of the druids originated in Britannia and was later transferred to Gaul, and the Gallic people who want to learn the discipline well go to Britannia to learn from the source (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.13.11–12).

The Less Civilised Germani

Fighting Barbarians / Creative Commons

The Germani, on the other hand, had no druids and only the most primitive religion.Caesar deals with the Germani second in his formal ethnography, and more briefly, takingup only four chapters (21–24) compared to the Gauls’ ten chapters (11–20). The comparative nature of the exercise is absolutely clear, as Caesar begins with a series of negatives: the Germani have no druids, no enthusiasm for sacrificial ritual and no anthropomorphic gods.They recognise only what they can see as divine – the Sun, the Moon, fire – and have not even heard of the other gods (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.21). Such comparison clearly links the Romans and Gauls (and presumably the Britanni too), for they do have gods in human form. The presence of a divine pantheon of this kind raises the Romans and Gauls above the Germani in Caesar’s eyes: Romans and Gauls are clearly more civilised peoples than the Germani.

As if to compound this view, Caesar further comments that the Germani have very little agriculture and that their food consists mostly of milk and cheese. He is thereby claiming that they are pastoralists: they keep flocks but do not work the earth or make the long-term plans which are involved in waiting for the harvest and storing up grain for the winter.[10] Perhaps as a result of this, Caesar implies that the Germani do not have strong links with the land and have no private property; they appear to be semi-nomadic (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.22).Caesar’s account does not entirely add up, for he tells us elsewhere that the Suebi, a dominant Germanic people, alternate between battle and agriculture (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.1.5–6).

However, this claim that the Germani do not own land was entirely antithetical to Roman thought, for all status and authority in Roman society was based on the ownership of property. This is perhaps why Caesar feels the need to explain why the Germani refuse private ownership. He gives four reasons, three of which deal with Roman concerns about property and morality, namely:

  • that the attachment to the land might make the Germani replace their love of war with agriculture. This idea seemed rather strange as the ideal Roman was often seen rather nostalgically as a soldier–farmer; however, it does mark the Germani out as overly warlike• that the Germani might start to want more property and drive the poor off their own land.This had actually happened in Italy, where the rich had amassed huge estates, leaving the landless poor to congregate in the cities
  • that building with greater care would lead the Germani to avoid heat and cold, which at the moment they can bear easily. This refers to the Greco–Roman stereotype of northern barbarians as phenomenally tough, particularly in cold conditions as they live hardy,outdoor lives
  • that greed for money would lead to cliques and conflict. This is arguably exactly what was happening back in Rome as Caesar wrote; perhaps more accurately the desire for political supremacy would lead to the civil war, which Caesar fought against Pompey the Great after he left Gaul.

Four-Way Cultural Critique

While the Germani are being positioned as both strange and savage, we should note that Caesar uses their strangeness to reflect on the problems which might afflict more developed societies. This habit of using ethnography as a way of critiquing one’s own society became increasingly common in Roman literature, most notably in the work of Tacitus. Although Caesar is very far from representing the Germani as ‘noble savages’, he does use them to hint at the causes of Rome’s own problems.

So, rather than giving us a neutral ‘presentation of facts’ about other peoples, Caesar is performing a four-way ethnography. Although he concentrates on the Gauls and Germani, he positions them in a framework alongside the Britanni and the Romans: each is compared to the Gauls, and arguably all four are placed on a continuum of civilisation, from sophisticated Romans down to the distinctly unrefined Germani. The Gauls are the most similar to the Romans – and this is precisely what makes them so suitable for conquest.

Gaul as a ‘Developing Nation’?

Map showing the relative position of the Volcae and Tectosages / World Imaging, Wikimedia Commons

Caesar does not represent the Gauls as a static group in terms of culture and civilisation. In fact, he claims that they were once braver than the Germani and that they used to send colonies over the Rhine. But, in Caesar’s eyes, they are now a pale reflection of the warriors they once were because they have given way to luxury and easy living. This is largely because they have adopted a new lifestyle from the Romans in Provincia (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.24). The Gauls who did cross into Germania and set up home there, a group called the Volcae Tectosages, have managed to maintain the toughness which most Gauls have lost:

The Volcae Tectosages hold the land and live there [over the Rhine] … they are known for their very great justice and the most glory in war. These days they remain in the same poverty, need and adversity as the Germani, and they eat the same food and wear the same clothes as them.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.24.3–4

Caesar implies that, since they adopt the hard Germanic lifestyle, their fame in warfare continues. However, they also retain more civilised Gallic traditions, such as ‘their very great justice’. In this way they seem to combine the best of both worlds.

Evolving Society versus Environmental Determinism

So, in Caesar’s eyes, an ethnic group can change and develop through proximity to another culture or through changed physical circumstances, in a particular location. This is quite different from the view expressed by many ancient writers for whom there was a much simpler model: that location and living conditions absolutely predetermined character.

The most extreme Roman expression of this comes down to us from Vitruvius, who claimed that warmer climates drained moisture from the skin, which not only determined the appearance of southern peoples but also gives them ‘thin blood’, which is directly linked to cowardice in battle. Northerners, according to Vitruvius, are unable to endure heat, but their ‘full blood’ means that they ‘resist the sword without fear’ (Vitruvius, On Architecture, 6.1.3–4). This is a clear expression of what was later termed ‘environmental determinism’, a nineteenth-century concept which was later discredited because of its potential links to ideas of racial superiority.

Caesar’s reading of Gauls, Britanni and Germani does not entirely break from this concept,as all of these northerners have the potential to be intimidating warriors – a fact that Caesar is keen to promote in order to make his victories over them appear all the greater. However,there is the potential for change in Caesar’s model of ethnicity, and perhaps there is an indication that the Gauls evolve throughout the seven-year period of Caesar’s Gallic War.

Caesar does not often use the word barbarus to refer to Gauls in the work – much more commonly it indicates Germani or Britanni – but there are a scattering of references to Gallic barbari in Books 1–6. However, the word does not occur at all in Book 7 (written around 52 BCE), a book entirely taken up with the last great rebellion of a Gallic alliance under Vercingetorix. This is in some ways surprising, for it is in this book alone, at the siege of Alesia, that Caesar reports that a Gaul, Critognatus, contemplates an act of cannibalism in order to survive the siege (Caesar, The Gallic War, 7.77–78). He never clarifies whether they do resort to this extremity, and it is possible that Caesar is actually attempting to show the low point to which Vercingetorix’s rebellion has brought the Gauls and how much better it would have been for them to have simply accepted the inevitable and surrendered to Caesar from the outset.


Vercingetorix statue by Frédéric Bartholdi, on Place de Jaude, in Clermont-Ferrand, France / Photo by Fabien1309, Wikimedia Commons

Vercingetorix is arguably the most significant Gallic leader Caesar faced during the war in Gaul. His uprising in 52 BCE was the last viable attempt by the Gauls to overthrow Roman power during Caesar’s lifetime, and is presented by Caesar as a rare instance of Gallic unity.Most of what we know about Vercingetorix comes from Book 7 of The Gallic War.

Caesar tells us that Vercingetorix was an influential young man from Arvernia in Central Gaul, and the son of Celtilus, a powerful leader who had ‘sought the kingship’ of Gaul and had been executed for that very reason. Vercingetorix succeeded in binding many other Gauls into a pact against Rome, but Caesar stresses that he did this partly through extreme cruelty– mutilating, torturing and burning to death any waverers or traitors – and also by demanding that the Gauls call him ‘king’ (Caesar, The Gallic War, 7.4).

Caesar thus depicts Vercingetorix as a tyrant, but also as a charismatic leader and a clever strategist, who temporarily undermines Caesar’s campaign by effectively managing to block the Romans’ food supply. But this success comes at great cost to Vercingetorix’s own people,as it involves destroying the crops and cities of the Gauls. Vercingetorix is also depicted as inconsistent, a flaw which Romans regularly attribute to Gauls.

In the end, Vercingetorix is holed up in the town of Alesia waiting for Gallic reinforcements.When starvation finally drives him out to face Caesar, the result is ‘enormous slaughter’ of the Gallic side (Caesar, The Gallic War, 7.88) forcing Vercingetorix to an ignominious surrender. Six years later he was marched in Caesar’s triumphal parade and then executed in Rome.

Mapping Gaul

The map comes from Vidal-Lablache, Atlas général d’histoire et de géographie (1894). It shows Gaul in 561 CE / Wikimedia Commons

Caesar famously begins his work by constructing and then immediately dividing Gaul. It is worth noting that he initially divides Gaul not by the land itself, but by the people who inhabit it. He then reinforces these divisions, by artfully repeating them, this time on the basis of geography, with rivers as boundaries:

The River Garumna (Garonne) divides the Gauls from the Aquitani and the Matrona (Marne) and Sequana (Seine) divide them from the Belgae.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.1.2

Soon after, he reconstitutes Gaul with an account of its internal and external boundaries:

The part which the Gauls occupy begins at the River Rhodanus (Rhône); it is enclosed by the River Garumna, by Ocean, by the borders of the Belgae; the part occupied by the Sequani and Helvetii also goes to the River Rhenus (Rhine); it faces north. The Belgae rise up from the furthest borders of Gallia and extend to the lower section of the River Rhenus; they face towards the north and east. Aquitania stretches from the River Garumna to the Pyrenees; it faces west and north.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.1.5–7

Because ancient texts were copied and recopied by hand, and the most recent manuscripts we have are from centuries later (in Caesar’s case, the oldest manuscript dates to 1469), modern classical scholars often decide that manuscripts contain mistakes, or that scribes have inserted passages; perhaps, carried away by their own brilliance, they decide that they can improve on Caesar! So some editors of Caesar’s text have removed this section from his first chapter;presumably they found it too repetitive, as it rewrites a lot of the information quoted above from The Gallic War (1.1.2). But we should think about what this remapping of Gaul adds to the text: the extract not only subdivides Gaul, but it also clarifies that Gaul has nothing to do with Gallia Cisalpina or with the Province, but is equal in size to the area north-west of this.[11]

The shock to the Roman reader might have been that Gaul ends at the Rhine. Caesar is the first person we know of to divide the Gauls off from the Germani – he may have invented Germania – he is certainly the one who made concrete the strong ethnic difference between the Gauls and the Germani. The conquerable area that Caesar is left with is ‘Gallia’– this is the area he did conquer – between the already long-conquered Provincia and the previously uncharted Germania, an area which Caesar implies is not worth conquering.[12]

The fact that Caesar starts out by drawing us a ‘textual map’ of the territory that became the new Roman Province also has implications for the debate on when Caesar wrote his text.Some scholars argue that The Gallic War was published sequentially – one book at the end of each year of combat – as a kind of annual report and reminder to the Roman people that he was still active on their behalf. This would have been important in his propaganda war with Pompey, his future opponent in the civil wars of 49–45 BCE. But the map of the Province in Book 1 might point to the whole work having been published together, as it marks out the boundaries of Caesar’s imperial conquest up-front.

Crossing Boundaries in Caesar’s Gallic War

Map of the Roman province Maxima Sequanorum (c. 300 AD), which comprised the territories of the Helvetii, Sequani and several smaller tribes. / Wikimedia Commons

Mapping is much more than the geographical background to the action in this work. It also explains the action. Caesar’s first intervention beyond his province is caused by the Helvetii (in eastern Gaul or modern Switzerland), who step outside their boundaries because they are restricted by their landscape:

… on every side the Helvetii are constrained by the limits of their location: on one side the Rhine, which is extremely broad and deep, separates Helvetian from Germanic land; on the second side they are hemmed in by the Jura Mountains,which is between the Sequani and the Helvetii; and on the third, Lake Lemanus (Lake Geneva) and the River Rhodanus (the Rhône), which separates our province from the Helvetiis.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.2.2–3

In Book 1, Caesar establishes the sphere of Roman control, which increases as the book goes on. The Helvetii might march through the Roman Province, so Caesar is compelled to restrain them before they have an opportunity to do so.

After defeating the Helvetii, and literally putting them back in their place (Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.2–30), the next challenge comes from across the Rhine. Waves of Germani have crossed to the more fertile land of Gaul, led by their king, the tyrant Ariovistus, whom Caesar warns off. This leads to an angry exchange, in which, again, geography plays a part. Ariovistus maintains that he is in ‘his own Gaul’, while the Germani have not touched ‘the part which Caesar possesses’ – that is, the Province (Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.34.3–4). Ariovistus limits Caesar to the Province, much as Caesar’s own official remit does; but Caesar tells Ariovistus that the Germani belong beyond the Rhine (Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.35.3). By extension, he claims that all of Gaul is Caesar’s business now.

Pushing the Germani back across the Rhine, which takes the rest of Book 1, is a strong statement of Caesar’s authority over the textual map he had crafted at the beginning of the book: this is now the space he occupies, the new limit of Roman power. Caesar’s ability to cross both the Rhine and ‘Ocean’ at will marks him out as someone who can dominate geography: he is not constrained by the boundaries that he himself sets up.

The Rhine: The Gaul-Germani Border

Creative Commons

Caesar establishes early on that the Rhine is the boundary marker between the Gauls and the Germani: in the very first paragraph, when he is laying out the territory occupied by each of the Gallic subgroups, the Germani are described as ‘those who live on the other side of the Rhine’. The word here translated as ‘on the other side of ’ is trans, the same word that is contained in Gallia Transalpina to indicate ‘Gaul the other side of the Alps’ (Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.1.4). So trans is a word common to boundary definition in Latin, although the Alps are a more imposing barrier than the Rhine is, and the Romans saw them as such: for example, Cato the Elder had called them ‘the wall of Italy’.[13]

The Germani Threat

Caesar manages to bridge the Rhine twice, once in 55 BCE (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.16–18)and again in 53 BCE (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.9–10, 6.29), both times to deal with a perceived threat from the Germani. This text is punctuated by that threat – the Germani appear in Books 1, 4 and 6. In Book 1 (58 BCE), Caesar does not cross the river – instead the Germani under Ariovistus come into Gaul. In Books 4 and 6, Caesar himself makes the crossing. Thus, the level of Roman incursion into Germania is ramped up as the war (and the text) progresses, and each time we find out a little more about the Germani.

In Book 1, the Germani are more or less summed up in the person of their king, Ariovistus. Early in Book 4, we find a brief Suebian ethnography, which defines them as warmongering,semi-nomadic, tough and isolationist (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.1–3). In Book 6, Caesar gives us the full, formal ethnography (discussed in the previous chapter) right in the middle of the Rhine narrative. This last example is probably the least significant of Caesar’s encounters with the Germani. The particular Germanic tribe, the Suebi, are not attacking Gaul on their own behalf. Instead they have sent over auxiliaries to help the Treveri against Caesar, who fears that the Treveri’s leader will escape to Germania.

Caesar has a bridge built close to the location of the first (now destroyed) bridge, emphasising how easy it is to conquer the Rhine a second time (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.9.4). As a result, the Suebi withdraw to remote woodland at the furthest edge of their territory and wait for the Romans to arrive (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.10.5). Again, Roman engineering intimidates the enemy, but the Germani choose seclusion over diplomacy, which fits with the general picture Caesar creates of them.

At this point, as if to build up tension, Caesar inserts his ethnography of the Gauls and Germani (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.11–28). Yet, when he returns to the narrative, it is over rather quickly because the Suebi have retreated to the forest. Because the all-important grain supply is low, Caesar decides not to pursue the Suebi but to return to the Gallic side of the river. He destroys two hundred feet of the bridge on the Gallic side, leaving the relic of the broken-off bridge as a reminder to the Germani that he might come back, in his own words,‘so that the fear of his return would remain’ (Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.29).

This exercise is a good example of what crossing a major feature of the landscape like the Rhine really means. Caesar does not cross over to Germania to defeat the Germani on ‘homeground’. Rather, he simply proves that he can cross the Rhine, which should frighten off the Germani because it is a major feat of courage, ingenuity and technical success. Crossing the river defines the Romans as a people of superior intellect and fortitude, and Caesar leaves a reminder of this virtual conquest in the remnant of the Rhine bridge.

It is, however, arguable that Caesar is also conquered by the landscape of Germania in this episode, for the forest in which the Suebi hide also forms a type of boundary, one which potentially prevents the Romans’ progress. But Caesar cleverly obscures the fact that he himself might be hindered by the landscape; instead he states that it acts as a defensive barrier between the Suebi and a neighbouring tribe:

… there is a forest there of enormous size, which is called ‘Bacenis’.[14] This stretches far into the land and stands in the way as a natural wall which keeps safe the Cherusci from the raids and attacks of the Suebi and the Suebi from the Cherusci.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 6.10.5

The ethnography of the Gauls and Germani conveniently follows this, so that when Caesar resumes his narrative and relates the withdrawal of Roman troops, the forest itself is not mentioned as the insurmountable barrier which it probably formed.

Although not all Gauls and Germani strictly observe the Rhine as their ethnic boundary,those who do not are very much painted as the exceptions. However, the presence of Germani in Gaul, and of Gauls in Germania, shows that Caesar’s boundaries are porous – in fact, the Germani cross the river quite frequently. Some Germani have come over to live in Gaul,attracted by the richer lifestyle there:

The Germani were summoned by the Arverni and the Sequani (two Gallic peoples)for a price. At first around 15,000 of them crossed the Rhine; then, when those wild and savage men had become enamoured of the farmland, the civilisation and the wealth of the Gauls, more were brought over, and at present time there are about 120,000 of them in Gaul.

Caesar, The Gallic War, 1.31

The Germani do not lose their ferocity once in Gaul, and their usurpation of Gallic land causes havoc, making Caesar’s presence in Gaul necessary (or so he claims!). The easy life does not tame the Germani – another interesting case study in what makes ethnic characteristics.In this particular case, landscape does not alter ethnic make-up and the Germani are still ‘wild and savage’. One striking feature of this passage is that it is voiced by Diviciacus the Aeduan. Thus, the words ‘wild and savage’ are actually put into the mouth of a Gallic chief,though ironically he is himself a barbarian in Roman eyes. Caesar’s ventriloquism could be interpreted as providing a spectrum of barbarianism, with the Gauls above the Germani; or it could be seen as a projection of Roman value systems onto other peoples. The latter interpretation would deconstruct the notion of the barbarian – it is all a matter of perspective – the word disappearing in a series of reflections.

Ocean: Crossing to Britannia

Oceanus as depicted on the Trevi Fountain / ‘TREVI FOUNTAIN’ JUSTIN ENNIS FROM FLICKR USED UNDER CC BY 2.0

Just as Caesar crosses the Rhine into Germania twice, he also crosses the English Channel to the island of Britannia on two occasions, in 55 and 54 BCE (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.20–36 and 5.8–23). The passages narrating these crossings are much longer than those that tell of crossing the Rhine, reflecting the relative distance and magnitude of the respective journeys.For the Romans, the English Channel was part of ‘Ocean’ (Oceanus), which encircled the earth and represented the furthest extent of exploration and conquest.

The island of Britannia (modern Great Britain) was therefore over Ocean and understood to be the furthest known land. Caesar’s contemporary, the poet Catullus, called it ultima Britannia – ‘Britannia right at the furthest edge’ (Catullus, Poems, 29.4). This poem lacerates one of Caesar’s officers, the chief engineer Mamurra, who may have designed the bridges across the Rhine. Catullus accuses Mamurra of extorting vast amounts of money from Gaul and Britannia (Catullus, Poems, 29.2–3) as well as of perverse sexual practices (elsewhere the poet gives him the nickname Mentula, slang for penis; Catullus, Poems, 94).

In fact, the accusation of corruption in Britannia is clearly exaggeration: Mamurra had scant opportunity for this,as both of Caesar’s incursions into Britannia were short-lived and did not expand Rome’s empire over Ocean. The first trip, in particular, was beset with difficulties as it was begun late in the summer. It included a disastrous crossing,in which several ships were destroyed (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.29), and a failed attempt to land near Dover, where the Britanni drove off the Roman invaders by throwing missiles from the white cliffs (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.24).

Symbolic Conquest

Nevertheless, Caesar presents his expedition to Britannia as a success, and writes that the Roman Senate recognised his achievement with a supplicatio of twenty days (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.38). Such acclamation only makes sense in context – it is not Caesar’s success as a military leader or empire builder that is being commemorated here (as they were after other military campaigns), but the symbolic conquest of a near mythical natural barrier: Ocean.

While Caesar does not conquer territory on either trip to Britannia, he does acquire information about the Britanni and about Britannia (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.33 and especially 5.12–14). He claims this information is difficult to obtain as the few Gauls who make the crossing are traders who know nothing of the interior (Caesar, The Gallic War, 4.20). Thus, Caesar depicts Britannia as a mysterious land that is opened up by his investigation.

The problems with the crossing, rather than representing failure, might have impressed Caesar’s audience back in Rome because the danger involved highlighted the great fortitude and determination Caesar and his troops exhibited in undertaking such a daring mission. Activity in Britannia continued to mark out generals and emperors throughout the imperial period. The emperor Caligula is said to have planned a campaign to Britannia, although the shambles which resulted indicates to Roman historians the emperor’s lack of discipline, and possibly sanity (Suetonius, Caligula, 46). The conquest of southern Britannia and the creation of a province in 43 CE (Common Era) was considered the main imperial achievement of the much-maligned reign of the emperor Claudius – one he commemorated by calling his son Britannicus (Suetonius, Claudius, 17, 27).

The historian Tacitus casts his father-in-law, Agricola, as a rare hero in an age of cowardice when he confirms that Britannia is an island by sending out a ship to circumnavigate it in 83 CE (Tacitus, Agricola 38). But Caesar holds the claim of being the first Roman to cross into Britannia, and it is a victory over nature, rather than an enemy, which he claims.

In Roman terms, he has transcended the final, geographical frontier.

From Caesar’s Triumphs over Gaul and Rome, published by La Trobe University under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license.