Vercingetorix before Caesar (by Henri Paul Motte, 1886)
As regards Julius Caesar‘s conquest of Gaul (and other actions of his) we will here just scratch the surface of a debate (among admirers mostly) on Caesar’s conduct, motives and achievements.
The debate among Caesar’s detractors will be the subject of the two upcoming posts (a list of all installments is at the foot of the page.)
Imperialism by ‘historical necessity’
We are dealing here with imperialism, it is clear, justified by some as ‘historical necessity’ (not the time now to get into philosophy of history.)
Luciano Canfora‘s judgement on Caesar is in truth multifaceted (Giulio Cesare, il dittatore democratico, Mondadori 2010, XV, pp. 137-8; English translation):
“Gaul was thus inserted by violence and genocide into the circuit of the Roman ‘civilization’ … Naturally, the romanization of Gaul is a phenomenon of such a historical amplitude as to impose the question of whether the accounting of the dead proposed with extreme clarity by Pliny the Elder (together with the harsh accusation that Caesar hid his figures) should not however give way, on the plane of historical assessment, to what can be considered the crucial event in the formation of medieval and later modern Europe.”
Gaul at the time of Caesar. Click for attribution
or conquest with a big vision?
As for “whether Caesar’s conquest was motivated by mere ambition” rather than by the design of opening a ‘new frontier’, Canfora observes:
“As if the two things could really be distinguished in the work of a great statesman.”
Theodor Mommsen too had argued (History of Rome, V,7. The Subjugation of the West):
“It is more than an error, it is an outrage upon the sacred spirit dominant in history, to regard Gaul solely as the parade ground on which Caesar exercised himself and his legions for the impending civil war.”
“Though the subjugation of the West was for Caesar so far a means to an end that he laid the foundations of his later height of power in the Transalpine wars, it is the especial privilege of a statesman of genius that his means themselves are ends in their turn. Caesar needed no doubt for his party aims a military power, but he did not conquer Gaul as a partisan.”
“There was a direct political necessity for Rome to meet the perpetually threatened invasion of the Germans thus early beyond the Alps, and to construct a rampart there which should secure the peace of the Roman world.”
Hermann Monument erected in New Ulm (Minnesota), a town founded by German immigrants in 1854. Wikimedia
Were German migrations
Rome’s big problem?
According to 19th century Mommsen, one of Caesar’s main merits was that of understanding who the big enemy of Rome actually was:
“Inasmuch as [Caesar] with sure glance perceived in the German tribes the rival antagonists of the Romano-Greek world;
inasmuch as with firm hand he established the new system of aggressive defense down even to its details, and taught men to protect the frontiers of the empire by rivers or artificial ramparts, to colonize the nearest barbarian tribes along the frontier with the view of warding off the more remote, and to recruit the Roman army by enlistment from the enemy’s country;
he gained for the Hellenico-Italian culture the interval necessary to civilize the West …”
Hermann chieftain of the Germanic Cherusci. His victory over a Roman army in the Teutoburg forest (9 AD) made him a symbol of German patriotism
Today’s views by historians are more complex. A number of factors (not only German mass migrations, seen mostly as gradual integration) are seen as causes of Rome’s fall (see a list of theories about why Rome fell).
Furthermore, Germania at the time of Caesar (1rst cent. BC; or of Augustus and Hermann, 1rst cent. AD) was backward compared to Germania in the 4th-5th centuries AD.
As Peter Heather put it (The Fall of the Roman Empire. A new History. I,2. Pan Books 2005):
“It could hardily be clearer that 19th-century visions of an ancient German nation were way off target … the inhabitants of first century Germania [Germans, Celts and another unidentified group, according to Heather] had no capacity to formulate and put into practice a sustained and unifying political agenda (p.55.)”
It was therefore not German military prowess – Heather continues, p.58 – to scare the Romans off Germania, but its poverty [different was the case of richer Gaul, MoR.]
The issue of Parthia
The Parthian (Persian) empire a few years after Caesar’s time. According to many historians Persia was Rome’s main antagonist. Wikipedia
Getting back to Caesar’s motives for conquering Gaul, he was surely aware of the German danger (L. Canfora). That he wrote this in the Commentarii as justification for his wars doesn’t though prove much.
Caesar’s literary work was political. Caesar’s bloody conquest had outraged many of his adversaries. The roman general needed to indicate his conquest as preemptive.
The Cimbri‘s and Teutones‘ dreadful raids in Gaul and Italy – occurred 50 years earlier – could have nonetheless brought serious problems to Rome had Gaius Marius, Caesar’s uncle, not stopped them.
Caesar was therefore aware of the danger even before facing Ariovistus. That Germani were considered by him Rome’s big problem is doubtful though. It is more likely that the Romans, in the various phases of their empire, feared more the much stronger and civilized power of the Parthians in the East [Heather, p.48 et. al.; see also Roman-Parthian wars.]
Parthian horseman. Palazzo Madama, Torino, Italy. Wikipedia
Some evidence shows this may have also been Caesar’s view.
Crassus, Caesar’s amicus, had been defeated in 55 BC at Carrhae by the Parthians of his time (Crassus had been killed and 7 legions annihilated). All this had happened during Caesar’s Gallic wars.
So Caesar, as Mommsen wrote, “taught men to protect the frontiers of the empire” toward Germania but did not plan any conquest of Germania beyond the Rhine. In the last period of his life he was instead preparing a military expedition against the Parthians which he could not carry out because he was murdered in 44 BC.
[the two paragraphs above reflect MoR's opinion]
“Reorganization of the State,
more than Gaul, was crucial”
The weakness of the declining Roman aristocracy, according to Mommsen, meant danger to Rome.
“It hardly admits of a doubt – he argued – that if the rule of the senate had prolonged its semblance of life … the Italian civilization would not have become naturalized either in Gaul, or on the Danube, or in Africa and Spain.”
Irish Ciarán Hinds as Julius Caesar in ‘Rome’, a British-American-Italian historical drama TV series
The British historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889 – 1975; Julius Caesar current Britannica’s entry) downplays the importance of the conquest of Gaul by Caesar. To him the reorganization of the state and the removal of an oligarchy no longer à la hauteur was more crucial.
“Great though this achievement was, its relative importance in Caesar’s career and in Roman history has been overestimated … In Caesar’s mind his conquest of Gaul was probably carried out only as a means to his ultimate end. He was acquiring the military manpower, the plunder, and the prestige that he needed to secure a free hand for the prosecution of the task of reorganizing the Roman state and the rest of the Greco-Roman world. This final achievement of Caesar’s looms much larger than his conquest of Gaul, when it is viewed in the wider setting of world history.”
Caesar vs Shih Huang Ti
A.J. Toynbee here sings praises to Caesar’s overall achievements.
“This cool-headed man of genius with an erratic vein of sexual exuberance undoubtedly changed the course of history at the Western end of the Old World.”
“By liquidating the scandalous and bankrupt rule of the Roman nobility, he gave the Roman state —and with it the Greco-Roman civilization— a reprieve that lasted for more than 600 years in the East and for more than 400 years in the relatively backward West. [...] The prolongation of the life of the Greco-Roman civilization had important historical effects.”
“Caesar’s political achievement was limited. Its effects were confined to the Western end of the Old World and were comparatively short-lived by Chinese or ancient Egyptian standards. The Chinese state founded by Shih Huang Ti in the 3rd century BC still stands, and its future may be still greater than its past.
Yet, even if Caesar were to prove to have been of lesser stature than this Chinese colossus, he would still remain a giant by comparison with the common run of human beings.”
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)
“Caesar was like the wind. Can we condemn the wind? And yet what scourge can it bring forth!” (3)
The ‘Black Book’ Of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Campaign (4)
France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome
Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow