Summary and Analysis
Strictly speaking, there exists no Gallic nation. The country referred to as Gaul exists only in terms of a geographic label, for within its boundaries live three separate and warring peoples who differ in languages, customs, and laws. These are the Belgae, the Aquitani, and the Celtae (Gauls). Of these, the bravest are the Belgae, but even their warriors are no match for the courageous Helvetii, a tribe of the Celtae who, like the Belgae, are rugged frontiersmen and hardened by continual war with the Germans. Despite such continual warfare, however, the divergent inhabitants of Gaul usually remain in their respective territories. The Belgae, for example, headquarter in northern Gaul (opposite Britain) to the lower Rhine river; the Aquitani occupy southern Gaul from the Garonne river along the Atlantic coast south to the Spanish Pyrenees; and the Celtae live in the middle section of Gaul extending from the Atlantic Ocean east to the Rhone river and, in Helvetia, to the Rhine. To the north of the Gauls is the Belgae border, while to the south is the Garonne river with the Aquitani beyond it. The Roman Province is south, following the curve of the Mediterranean and bordering on Aquitania and Celtae territory, including Helvetia.
Orgetorix, a man whose ambition is to be king, is a prominent man of wealth and rank among the Helvetii and, not surprisingly, soon persuades some that they are superior warriors and must immediately prepare for war to gain more land. Furthermore, he predicts that they can (and should) conquer all Gaul eventually because their narrow country of 240 by 180 miles is restricted by natural barriers — too small for the population's needs. (The time is 61 B.C.: Rome is under the consulship of Marcus Messalla and Marcus Piso.) The Helvetii respond enthusiastically and set up a two-year plan of preparation for war. They buy cattle, expand crop production, and establish peaceful relations with neighboring tribes. Orgetorix persuades powerful chieftains, Casticus of the Sequani tribe, and Dumnorix of the Aedui to follow them. First, he says, they will seize the kingships of their respective tribes, then they will join tribal force and master all Gaul.
Informers, however, reveal this intrigue to the Helvetii and they take Orgetorix prisoner and demand that he stand trial in chains according to national custom. If he is officially condemned, he will burn at the stake. Orgetorix then summons his 10,000 slaves, numerous retainers, and debtors for the appointed trial day and, with their protection, he escapes. The magistrates prepare to capture and try him, but Orgetorix dies before he can be recaptured and, although knowledge is scanty, the Helvetii believe that his death was a suicide.
Nevertheless, the Helvetii complete war preparations. They burn their twelve strongholds, and about 400 villages, and march with a three-month supply of food, after burning all the grain they cannot carry with them. They then persuade neighboring tribes — the Rauraci, the Tulingi, and the Latobrigi — to join them.
Of the two adequate marching routes out of Helvetia, the route through the land of the Sequani, between the Rhone river and the Jura mountain range, where carts can travel only in single file along a narrow route passing under steep cliffs, is less desirable; here unfriendly observers in strategic locations can easily ambush. The other route — through Allobroges and Helvetia — is better, for it can be easily taken by fording the Rhone river or crossing by bridge. The Helvetii believe that the Allobroges, recently subjected by Rome, will grant passage or can be compelled to cooperate. Thus they set their date to assemble on the Rhone river bank for March 28,58 B.C.
In Rome, Caesar learns of the Helvetians' marching plans through conquered Allobroges and decides to quickly depart for Further Gaul. When he arrives near Geneva, he requisitions troops from the whole Province and, with no more than one legion, he orders the Geneva bridge destroyed. The Helvetii then send their leaders, Nammeius and Verucloetius, with instructions to state that they wish to march peacefully, with Caesar's permission. Caesar, however, remembers that the Helvetii (in 107 B.C.) killed Consul Lucius Cassius and routed and captured his army. So, to gain time for defense, Caesar tells the leaders to return later, on April 13, for his answer. He then orders his troops to construct, besides a long trench, a wall sixteen feet high extending nineteen miles from the lake of Geneva to the Jura range and, as a final measure of insurance, he stations small garrisons to protect the border separating the Helvetii and the Sequani.
When the Helvetian leaders return, Caesar announces that, according to Roman custom and precedent, he cannot grant permission to march through the Province; such a march, he says, will invite his armed resistance. The Helvetii make several attempts to cross the river by fording and with rafts, but are checked by Caesar's entrenchments and troops. The Helvetii then try the narrow, dangerous route through the Sequani territory but are refused permission there. After the rebuff, they contact a friend of the tribe, Dumnorix, a powerful Aeduan chieftain. He is friendly with the Sequani and promises to gain permission for the Helvetii. The terms, however, demand hostages as a guarantee that the Helvetii will march peacefully through the territory.
When Caesar learns that the Helvetii will march through the lands of the Sequani and Aedui to Santoni territory, he is quick to realize the danger; the Helvetii will be dangerously near the Tolosates in a distant part of the Roman Province, which is unprotected and rich in crops. Caesar thus shifts the command of river fortifications to Lieutenant General Titus Labienus, hurries to Italy, and assembles an army of five legions. Seven days later, he has moved his troops over the Alps to Further Gaul and directs them through Allobroges and across the Rhone into the land of the Segusiavi, the first tribe outside of the Roman Province.
Meanwhile the Helvetii, who have traveled through Sequani territory, mount an attack on the Aedui, whom Dumnorix hopes to rule. The Aedui, along with other friends of Rome, the Aedui-Ambarri and Miobroges, beg Caesar for help before they have "nothing left save bare ground," and Caesar decides to pursue the Helvetii before they waste the entire resources of the Roman allies and invade Santoni land. After his decision is made, scouts report that three-quarters of the Helvetian troops have crossed the Arar (Saone) river and that the remaining quarter is ready to cross, heavily loaded with supplies.
Caesar wastes little time. Immediately he stages a surprise attack, kills many of the enemy and routs the rest. The preceding generation of the Tigurine Canton had captured a Roman army, and slain its leader and the grandfather of Caesar's father-in-law; thus, by this success, Caesar has avenged personal and national losses, and by accident or fate, the Helvetii, who had greatly damaged Rome, are the first to be punished.
After the action, moving with his celebrated celeritas, Caesar orders construction of a bridge and in a single day gets his army across a river that the Helvetii had taken twenty days to cross on rafts. Alarmed by such speed, the Helvetii send emissaries to discuss peace terms. Divico, former commander of the campaign against Cassius, says that the Helvetii are willing to retreat and live where Caesar specifies, but only if the Romans consent to make peace; otherwise the war will continue. Divico further reminds Caesar of Rome's earlier Helvetian defeats and suggests that Caesar's defeat of the canton was due to luck, not to valor. Before leaving, he boasts that Helvetian ability is based on courage rather than cunning strategy and advises Caesar not to court future military disasters for Rome.
Before stating his terms of peace, Caesar reviews the arguments: the Romans had not deserved the old battle with the Helvetii because the Romans did not understand that they had done anything to merit war. In addition, the Helvetian attack was unwarranted from the Roman view, and the Romans had no precautions against war because they assumed that they were dealing peacefully with the Helvetii. But, even if Caesar were to forget old outrages he cannot ignore recent events, such as the attempts to defy Roman will and march by force through the Province, or the Helvetian mistreatment of the Aedui, the Ambarri, and the Allobroges. Finally, he cannot ignore the Helvetian boasts of victory and their assumption that vile indiscretions will go unpunished.
All factors seem to indicate coming vengeance, but Caesar is reluctant to accelerate fate. It is the gods' way, he believes, to grant prosperity to miscreants whom they plan to punish; punishment, it is said, is more severely felt after a period of good fortune. Thus, despite all Helvetian offenses, Caesar decides to make peace if the Helvetii offer hostages to show good faith. He insists, however, that they give satisfaction to the Aedui, their allies, and also to the Allobroges. Divico rejects such terms, saying that a request for hostages violates ancestral practice; it is the Helvetian custom to receive, not to offer, hostages.
The next day the Helvetii move camp, but Caesar is alert and dispatches his entire cavalry of 4,000 to observe the enemy's marching direction. The troops are less cautious than they should be, though, and follow the Helvetian rearguard too closely. Eventually they find themselves in a battle and on unfavorable ground. They of course lose a few men, and Helvetian confidence is strengthened because 500 of their cavalry can now claim a defeat of 4,000 Roman cavalry. Thus they take a bolder stand and attempt, with their rearguard, to provoke future battles. Caesar carefully avoids more incidents, seemingly content to prevent the enemy from further plundering.
The Aedui, meanwhile, default on their promise to supply grain for the troops and offer such varied excuses as: it is being collected and, later, it is on the way. Caesar has cause to worry because he has freighted grain up the Saone river; but it is of little use because the Helvetian march has left the river route and Caesar feels it necessary to continue tracking them. After a long wait and no grain having arrived, Caesar calls a meeting with the Aeduan chiefs in camp and firmly berates them for failing to support the troops when the enemy was nearby and when grain cannot be purchased or taken from the fields. He complains loudly, reminding them that Rome undertook the war largely in response to their pleas for aid.
Among those assembled are the Aeduans' highest magistrates — Diviciacus and Liscus — known as Vergobret (dispensers of judgment), and, after Caesar finishes, Liscus reveals that certain persons of powerful personal influence with the common folk are preventing grain collection by threats. These subversive leaders, he says, preach that if the Aedui cannot enjoy primacy in Gaul, it is better to submit to the Gauls than to the Romans, who, they believe, will only deprive the Aedui of independence. Those same leaders, says Liscus, are informers and relay Roman camp news to the Helvetii. In self-defense for his silence, Liscus admits that he has held his tongue until now because he has feared reprisal.
Caesar then dismisses the assembly so that he can further question Liscus, for he suspects that the powerful informer is Dumnorix, brother of Diviciacus, the Aeduan leader. His suspicions are confirmed. Reasons for the treason are these: Dumnorix hopes for revolution because his ambition is to become king of the Aedui. Thus he has amassed sufficiently publicized good deeds and has become famous for his generosity and has thereby acquired great influence among the common people. Boldly he has acquired power and managed ample sources for bribery and now, carefully, he has plotted his future by calculatedly suitable marriages. He has, for example, arranged his mother's marriage to an influential Bituriges; his own wife is a Helvetian, and he has married off other family members to citizens of other tribes. Dumnorix has a fierce hatred of Caesar — of all Romans, in fact, because their presence has reduced his power and restored his brother Diviciacus' honor and power among the Aedui. Now, Dumnorix champions Helvetian victory, hoping that through their assistance, he will gain his kingship over the Aedui.
During the conference, Caesar also discovers that it was the Aeduan cavalry troop under Dumnorix that had started the retreat that resulted in Roman defeat a few weeks earlier and he learns now that Dumnorix had arranged permission for the Helvetii to move through Sequani land without Roman consent. There is ample cause to punish Dumnorix. Yet Caesar refrains. Rather than embarrass the loyal support of Diviciacus, Caesar's friend, the general is lenient to the open traitor.
Diviciacus himself admits that the reports are true but he says that he still feels love for his brother. He also believes that he cannot ignore future public opinion because severe punishment by Caesar might imply to the public that Diviciacus agrees and seeks to ruin his brother. It is Diviciacus' loyalty which Caesar honors and he forgives Dumnorix in Diviciacus' presence, telling him that all is known and warning him to cease offensive activity. He is being pardoned only for his brother's sake. Dumnorix is then released but, as if on parole, he is watched.
Later that day, patrols report that the enemy is camping below a cliff eight miles away and Caesar orders a scouting party to the cliff, followed by Titus Labienus in charge of two legions to take the top of the cliff. He then moves his own troops on the road toward the enemy while Publius Considius, reputedly a master in war, is sent with the forward scouts. At daybreak, Labienus has positioned his company on the summit of the cliff. Caesar is one-and-a-half miles from the unsuspecting enemy, but new plans must soon be made. Considius arrives at full gallop to report that the hill is held by the enemy. Caesar withdraws to another hill to form a line of battle and Labienus, who has been told to wait until Caesar's troops near the enemy camp, waits out the day. Then, in late afternoon, another change of tactics is necessitated. Caesar's scouts report that it is the Romans who hold the advantage of the hill; Considius in panic has reported erroneously. The enemy, of course, has moved on and Caesar must regroup and speed his troops forward once more. This he accomplishes and camps that night three miles from the enemy.
Next day, he turns his attention to getting grain for his men. The best source of food, it is decided, is in Bibracte, the largest, best supplied Aeduan town, eighteen miles away. They turn and begin their march, but the enemy, thinking that they are retreating, pursue and begin parrying with the Roman rear guard.
Annoyed, Caesar moves his troops to the nearest hill and orders a cavalry attack. The newly recruited troops he places halfway up the hill and positions himself with the four experienced legions in triple line. The Helvetii follow, bringing their equipment with them and form a line that manages to withstand the Roman cavalry. This accomplished, they move against the Roman line.
Caesar then orders all horses removed that all might share an equal danger and so that no one can flee. He rallies his troops and fighting begins. The Romans on upper ground throw a raining volley of spears, draw swords, and begin their charge.
The enemy is soon hampered because their left hands are useless. Roman spears pierce their overlapping shields and pin them together like a massive chain. Finally they do manage to fling their left arms free of the spear-stitched shields, but now they must fight unprotected. And, soon exhausted, they retreat to a hill about a mile away. As the Romans continue pursuit, two rear-guard enemy tribes, 15,000 Boii and Tulingi, turn to attack the exposed Roman right flank. Soon other retreating enemy units regroup and begin fighting again. The Romans, against such tactics, are forced to split into two forces, one to continue against the Helvetii, the other to check the Boii-Tulingi flank attack.
At nightfall, after hard battling, the Romans capture the enemy's baggage and camp and, among the prisoners, are Orgetorix' daughter and one of his sons. Nighttime, however, proves to be a friend to the Gauls: some 130,000 enemy escape and after three days arrive at the border of the Lingones. They are not followed, though; the Romans delay pursuit so that they can tend their wounds and bury the dead. Besides, Caesar has already sent an advance message to the Lingones, warning them that to help or feed the Helvetii w 11 merit punishment.
The warning is observed and lack of provisions finally force the Helvetii to send representatives to meet with Caesar to discuss surrender. The Helvetian deputies travel to him with tearful pleas for peace and Caesar orders them to return and wait for an answer. Then, arriving in the camp, Caesar orders arms, hostages, and deserted slaves to be collected. But once again night offers itself to the enemy and 6,000 Helvetii escape to the Rhine river, the German border.
Caesar orders the people to seek out and return the runaways or he will hold them responsible. His threat is heeded and the escapees are returned and treated as enemies; the remaining Helvetii are allowed to surrender. Caesar then tells the Helvetii, Tulingi, and Latobrigi to go home and orders that the Allobroges give the defeated enemy sufficient food, since they have no crops at home; he further orders the vanquished enemy to rebuild the towns and villages they have destroyed. Caesar then receives Helvetian camp records written in Greek, showing the total number of men on the enemy march. He orders that a new census be taken and discovers that 110,000 of the original 368,000 survive.
After the decisions concerning the Helvetii are made, the chief men of many other Gallic states visit Caesar to congratulate him and assure him that Rome has gained satisfaction for past injuries and that all Gaul benefited because the Helvetii had intended to conquer the entire territory. The representatives then ask permission to announce a convention of all Gaul to present certain requests to Caesar. Caesar agrees and the convention date is appointed, but all swear that the proceedings shall be kept secret unless all consent to make them public. Following the convention, the chiefs return to request a private conference that must be of utmost secrecy or great cruelty may befall them. Diviciacus, the Aeduan and Caesar's friend, as spokesman recounts past events. He says that the Gauls are divided into two parties; the Aedui and the Arverni. And, after a power struggle, lasting for many years, the Arverni with the Sequani at last resorted to hiring Germans as supplemental warriors. The first 15,000 Germans, they say, came to like the rich land and the standards of the Gauls so thoroughly that more Germans soon migrated. At present, they estimate that about 120,000 Germans are in the country.
The Aedui and supporting tribes have fought the Germans repeatedly with great disaster, including loss of all senate members, all knights, and all nobility. The victorious Germans have b6und the Aedui by oath to give hostages without requesting German hostages and to refuse to ask Rome for assistance. Furthermore, they are bound to accept eternal rule by the Sequani. Diviciacus, who would not take the oath and would not submit his children as hostages, fled the state and went to Rome, without success, for help.
The victorious Sequani, meanwhile, have suffered worse than the conquered Aedui. Ariovistus, the German king, has seized the best third of their lands and now demands another third to provide for 24,000 Harudes who are joining them. He is a ruthless, arrogant barbarian whose tyrannies cannot be endured. Diviciacus warns that should Ariovistus learn of these secret comments, severe punishment will befall the Aedui hostages. He entreats Caesar to use his influence or army to prevent more Germans from crossing the Rhine.
Caesar notices that the Sequani stand silent in the tearful group that begs for assistance and asks why they act this way. But the Sequani remain silent, Diviciacus explains that their plight is even more serious; they cannot risk comment because Ariovistus lives within their borders and controls all towns. Caesar then comforts them, saying that it would be a disgrace if Rome did not aid its troubled friends and, after dissolving the convention, he analyzes the situation. The Aedui, often cited by the Roman Senate as friends, are German slaves and also have given hostages to the Germans and Sequani. This, he considers a disgrace to himself and the greatness of Rome. Caesar notes, also, that the Germans are becoming used to crossing the Rhine and that infiltration is dangerous because Germans in Gaul might be a vast potential enemy of Rome. Their proximity to Roman borders might well result in invasion. In such case, it would be easy for the enemy to sweep down the length of Italy. Ariovistus, he decides, must be checked at once.
Caesar immediately sends deputies to Ariovistus, requesting him to set a halfway station for a parley regarding mutual problems, but Ariovistus replies that, since it is Caesar who wants something, Caesar must come to Ariovistus; the latter believes that he would be foolhardy to travel without his army's protection to the Roman-occupied area of Gaul. Moreover, what business does Caesar have in a territory that Ariovistus has secured by conquest?
Caesar's second emissaries remind Ariovistus that the Roman Senate earlier had granted him the title of "king" and "friend." Now, his refusal to meet with them requires an ultimatum: Ariovistus will cease bringing men into Gaul, restore the Aedui hostages, permit the Sequani their freedom, and refrain from war and from harassing the Aedui. If this can be done, Caesar and Rome will remain his friends -should he refuse, Caesar will take immediate action. As governor of the Province of Gaul, Caesar says that he is authorized to protect the Aedui and other friends of Rome.
Ariovistus replies that it is a right of war for victors to rule the vanquished; he insists that the Romans govern their conquered peoples according to their judgment and without need of third-party interference. He is entitled to the same right. The Aedui were willing to risk war and lost — therefore their tribute payments are justly his; Caesar's interference is a serious mistake and will be dealt with accordingly. Ariovistus obviously is not impressed by Caesar's threat; the Germans are undefeated, superbly trained, and have been in the unsheltered fields for fourteen years.
Caesar receives this message as the Aedui complain that the Harudes, recently brought to Gaul, are warring on their borders. Also, the Treveri report that a hundred clans of the Suebi tribe encamped across the Rhine are attempting to cross and are led by two brothers, Nasua and Cimberius. Caesar realizes that the Suebi joined with Ariovistus would make a formidable enemy, so immediately requests grain and starts the march toward Ariovistus' camp.
After three days of marching, Caesar learns that Ariovistus is about to attack Vesontio, the largest town of the Sequani, well fortified and rich in troop supplies. And, since it is a natural geographic stronghold and since Ariovistus is three more days of marching ahead, Caesar orders night and day forced marching to reach Vesontio. There he establishes his garrison without battle.
Roman troops visiting with Gauls and traders hear tales of incredible German skill, valor, and brutality, and panic spreads among the peoples. There are tears and lamentations and many wills are written and signed. Officers with slight experience begin offering excuses and beg to leave. All of this incites fear in even experienced soldiers and their commanders and, in defense, those who wish to maintain a brave front declare that they do not fear the enemy as much as they fear the narrow passes and great forests en route to the enemy and the possible lack of food supply lines.
Caesar convenes a council to severely reprimand the officers because they presume to question his intentions. He reviews the background of their situation. He wishes, he says, to try to reason once again with Ariovistus. But should such talks fail, he reminds his men that Rome has previously defeated the Germans: the Helvetii have defeated the Germans and the Romans have beaten the Helvetii. Ariovistus conquered Gauls who were exhausted by a long war, and his surprise attack was based on cunning strategy against inexperienced natives. For those who disguise fear with the excuse that there isn't enough food, Caesar says that he is having the matter corrected. When he is finished, he announces that the camp will move in the early morning hours and that even if no one else follows that he still intends to march with his faithful Tenth Legion.
The speech has dramatic effect on all ranks. The men of the Tenth Legion ask their tribunes to express to Caesar their appreciation for his trust and praise. Other troops tell their officers to inform Caesar that they support him and do not question his plans. Caesar then assigns the loyal Gaul, Diviciacus, to study the route and he accepts a suggested fifty-mile detour so as to travel through open country. The march begins and, on the seventh day, scouts report that Ariovistus is only twenty-four miles away.
Ariovistus has his own sharp-eyed scouts and when he learns of Caesar's approach, he sends a message, saying that he is ready to meet now that his troops are nearby for protection. Caesar accepts the proposal, as he is hopeful that Ariovistus has reconsidered the benefits of associating with Rome. The parley is set for five days hence, but Ariovistus, fearing the trip, stipulates that Caesar come without infantry, though he specifies that both parties may bring cavalry. Caesar doesn't care to trust his safety to the Gallic cavalry, so he mounts members of the devoted Tenth Legion infantry on Gallic horses.
The two generals meet on a hill surrounded by flat terrain, the horsemen of both leaders stopping two hundred paces behind. Ariovistus demands that they parley on horseback and that each shall bring ten horsemen with him. Caesar agrees. The two then convene their talk and Caesar recalls the benefits which result from Roman association, then restates the terms of his earlier ultimatum.
For his part, Ariovistus, after enumerating his own outstanding qualities, replies that he crossed the Rhine at the Gauls' request. The settlements and hostages were acquired by the Gauls' consent, and the tribute taken was a customary right of a conqueror. He had not warred with the Gauls. All of the Gallic states had joined forces against him and he had defeated them in a single action. If they wished to fight again he would again fight. Now, however, they must be content to pay the customary tribute. If tribute and hostage agreements are altered as a result of Rome, clearly Roman friendship is a hindrance, not a help, to him; the additional German emigrants, he explains, are only for his defensive protection. He has, he insists vehemently, occupied this section of Gaul, and the Romans are at fault, intruders objecting to a judgment other than their own, something they cannot tolerate.
Ariovistus further reminds Caesar that the Aedui have not always helped Caesar. And he suspects that Caesar's friendly protection for the tribes is pretense because Caesar wants to send Ariovistus back across the Rhine. Ariovistus wants undisturbed possession of Gaul and to gain that end he will reward Caesar as well as fight for him. To remain, however, invites war and Caesar's murder, Ariovistus declares, and says that he has been contacted by messengers of Roman nobles and leaders who would regard Caesar's death as a favor.
Caesar rejects Ariovistus' arguments and speaks at length that Rome does not abandon allies. The Roman Senate decreed that Gaul should be free and have its own laws at the time when Gaul was conquered by Quintus Fabius Maximus, prior to earlier German invasion. Rome's governing rights therefore precede German rights in Gaul.
During the parley, Caesar is told that Ariovistus' horsemen are nearing the hill and throwing darts and stones at the Romans. Caesar, therefore, interrupts his talk to return to his soldiers, forbidding them to return the enemy's fire. Caesar does not wish to give the enemy an opportunity of accusing him of breaking the peace pledge. The reports of the German cavalry's behavior and Ariovistus' demands become known in the Roman camp and the troops are naturally eager for battle.
Two days later, Ariovistus asks to resume the interrupted talks with Caesar or one of his staff. Caesar doubts success and Ariovistus' ability to control his cavalry and, not wishing to risk danger to his key men, Caesar dispatches Gaius Valerius Procillus and Marcus Mettius. The German general, however, accuses them of spying and, without discussion, makes them prisoners. He then advances to a new camp about six miles from Caesar's troops and, next day, moves past Caesar and camps two miles beyond to interrupt Caesar's supplies from the Sequanian and Aeduan borders.
Seemingly, this would provoke total war between the two testy men, but only small cavalry skirmishes take place for five days. Caesar, however, keeps all troops in battle line, should Ariovistus mount attack. The Roman general then marches his troops in a triple line six hundred paces beyond Ariovistus' camp. The first two lines are defenders and the third line sets up an auxiliary camp to receive supplies. Ariovistus sends 16,000 troops and cavalry to annoy the entrenching troops and the two defending Roman lines fight while the third line finishes camp. Caesar then stations two legions and his auxiliary troops there and returns to the main camp with four legions.
The next day, Caesar brings troops out of both camps in battle formation, where they await attack until noon. Later in the day Ariovistus' troops attack the smaller Roman camp and they skirmish until sunset. Caesar then questions prisoners and discovers that Ariovistus will not fight a decisive battle before the new moon because the prophetic German matrons have forecast defeat until then. With the new moon, they have said, will come German victory.
The following day, Caesar, with his new knowledge of German superstition, stations small defense garrisons in each camp, then places all allied troops before the smaller camp to demonstrate his strength. He marches a triple line to the German camp, compelling Ariovistus to form battle lines. The Germans group according to their tribes and, to prevent retreat, place a barrier of supply wagons and carts along the rear of their entire battle line; in the carts are placed German women imploring their husbands to save them from Roman slavery.
When the fighting begins, the enemy and the Romans rush each other so quickly that javelins cannot be thrown; sword fighting begins immediately. The Germans quickly adopt their phalanx formation to withstand the assault, but the move is not wise. Many of the Roman troops leap on the Germans, seize their shields and stab them; The German left wing soon collapses, but their right wing, heavy with manpower, has the Roman left wing in difficulty until Publius Crassus of the cavalry sees the trouble and sends in a third Roman troop line for reinforcement.
The Romans triumph and the enemy's army breaks, fleeing nonstop fifteen miles to the Rhine river. A few Germans manage to cross, Ariovistus among them, but the rest are captured and killed. Caesar then frees Gaius Valerius Procillus, the emissary, who was being held in triple chains and, later, Marcus Mettius is also found and brought to Caesar.
The escaping Germans warn the advancing Suebi tribe across the Rhine of their defeat and convince the Suebi to return home. Rhineland tribes, however, thirsty for blood, see the Suebi panic, and chase and kill large numbers of them.
Caesar, having completed two major campaigns in one summer, now moves his troops — earlier than usual — into winter quarters in Sequani land and departs for northern Italy to preside over provincial courts and administer justice. He leaves Titus Labienus in command.
Caesar first gives facts as an aid to understanding his future battles. His description of the three major Gallic groups, their boundaries and locations and his estimates of bravery are vital information, for he is responsible for protecting the Roman Province from tribal invasions and he must be alert to assist neighboring and friendly tribes who may be threatened.
Caesar has previous knowledge of the Gauls from military history and knows, for example, that the major groups consist of numerous tribes, mostly war-minded and hungry for land. Their tribal leaders' ambitions, he feels, threaten security in the Roman Province.
In wars of conquest, Caesar tells us, the conqueror must be a statesman as well as a soldier if conquered peoples are to accept their new ruler peacefully. It is noteworthy, therefore, that Caesar frequently requests and uses reports concerning enemy customs and beliefs to gain cooperation or to win a battle.
Orgetorix' personal ambition for power has fired a restless and confined tribe to make war. The conspiracies indicate how thoroughly the personal ambitions of the powerful men in various tribes keep such tribes in turmoil. The bitter inter-rivalries have led many tribal leaders to join with German or Roman invaders on occasions and this bitterness ultimately has stunted the growth of a national Gallic unity.
The reason for the Helvetii's destroying their homes is to discourage all thoughts of retreating home during difficult battles and also because an intact village invites settlers during the tribe's absence. Further, their only food supply travels with them; there are no home supply lines. Tribal armies will buy, capture, or plunder for future needs.
When Caesar learns of the proposed Helvetian march, he reacts quickly to it. Such a march will take the Helvetii through conquered Allobroge territory and, because it lies on the northwestern border of the Roman Province, he is deeply concerned. This outpost protects Rome from invaders; here Roman battles with Gauls have been fought intermittently for two centuries. The reaction of Caesar, therefore, is of particular military importance and is a good example of the celeritas which has made him widely famous. Caesar pays careful and constant attention to all details and is swift to calculate, judge, and move to keep the initiative. A student of the Gallic Wars should watch for this quality throughout the books. The sections here particularly demonstrate Caesar's speed in a variety of actions, ranging from the assembling of an army to the staging of a surprise attack.
Caesar's speed also concerns itself at times with massive construction and, concerning that construction, a reader will do well to keep in mind that Caesar comments frequently on many details of construction in all his books. This is because building skill is an important ingredient in his renowned speed and his ability to conquer. Reflect, for instance, on the length and height of the wall that the Roman army builds in less than a month. Caesar's troops have the impressive ability to build roads, warships, transports, bridges, forts, and siege works of an amazingly durable quality with both speed and accuracy. Note that immediately after the Romans conquer a region they begin road construction, assuring fast communication and movement of troops and supplies. Some authorities have estimated that nearly 14,000 miles of roads were built in Gaul alone and some of these same stone roads and bridges are still in use. Furthermore, many modern European highways are built on old Roman roadways because Roman roads were straight, cutting through hills rather than going around them.
For the most part, the summary sections are self-explanatory, although occasionally one should note the contemporary sound to the politics of Caesar's day. Divico, for instance, arrogantly attempts to bluff Caesar in order to gain more favorable peace terms. He cites the Helvetii's past triumph over Rome and advises Caesar that the Romans were lucky, rather than valiant, in their capture of the isolated Tigerine Canton. Also note Divico's demeaning comment about Roman use of strategy. The tribal concept of valiant fighting was one of strength and bravery in head-on battle formations. Roman strategies were foreign to their tribal standards and they regarded such actions as cowardly devices, unworthy of real warriors.
Besides being a military genius and statesman, Caesar has a sure shrewdness as a psychologist. Consider his statement of various grievances. This method of emphasizing offenses is offered so that the proposed terms might seem tame by comparison and perhaps acceptable because the penalty might have been worse Caesar then requests hostages and ignores the offer to relocate the Helvetians because relocation would simply require constant Roman watchfulness; gaining Helvetian hostages will deplete their field strength and virtually guarantee less of an urge to fight, a realistic form of peace in an era when victory in battle usually was based on superior numbers of men.
Later, during the secret assembly, more psychology and politics are employed. The assembly provides an opportunity for discussion of the immediate problem and Caesar has an opportunity to listen for clues as to the real reasons for the delayed grain shipments. It is often true that what is not said is more telling than what is said, and here Caesar is able to pick up clues to the truth and turn to the real source of trouble, which is, of course, local politics. The general, however is not interested in playing cops and robbers with assorted local tribes indefinitely and he knows that, in addition to the obvious reasons for peace continual warfare will deplete military strength and divert tribal efforts from needed crop production. Thus the Romans appear to be sophisticated conquerors, preferring to conquer once, and establishing equitable living regulations for the vanquished. Their goal is peace with a minimum of supervision so that their troops are free for other projects.
By pardoning Dumnorix before his brother, Caesar effects six things: (1) both brothers owe gratitude to Caesar; (2) Dumnorix knows his plans are transparent and he must subdue his ambitions if only momentarily and that (3) will simplify the Roman battle problems; (4) Diviciacus knows that Caesar values his judgment and returns his loyalty; (5) Diviciacus is safe from reprisal by Dumnorix, who would be suspect should anything happen; and (6) with local intrigue under temporary control, Caesar can turn his efforts toward conquering the Helvetians.
In Sections 21 and 22 of Book I, Caesar receives valuable information and acts immediately to gain a favorable battle position. This episode might have resulted in a telling victory. Instead, it illustrates how panic and subjective reporting on the part of only one person can turn the fortunes of war, though in this instance the consequences, luckily, were not serious. However, an opportunity was lost for what may well have been a decisive battle or even the end of the campaign. Section 24 is noteworthy because it is here that we learn that Caesar keeps his green recruits in reserve by placing them halfway up the hill while the experienced warriors baffle. The hill is a good observation point for the recruits to learn and the location also saves them from needless losses resulting from their inexperience.
Note also that, in Section 28, Caesar explains his reason for ordering the enemy to rebuild destroyed towns and villages. He does not want the empty, abandoned country to tempt the Germans across the Rhine to migrate and thus become neighbors of either the Roman Province or of the Allobroges. Recall, too, that in Section 1, Caesar noted that the Germans engage in continual warfare with the Belgae and Gauls; he therefore wants to be certain that the Germans stay isolated on the other side of the Rhine, deterred by the river boundary so that war in the territory under his control is less of a temptation.
It is well to remember while reading the Commentaries that Caesar is writing them to be read by Roman citizens far removed from the local Gallic problems and, for that reason, they are often full of repetition of what is seemingly the obvious. Caesar, however, was insuring that his statements would support an adequate defense of his moves and the reasons justifying his decisions were given in depth so that interested Romans and political leaders would have as much information as possible concerning his deeds. Remember, too, that it is still common for today's heroes to write their memoirs or commentaries on situations, particularly prior to election time when they are seeking office. Caesar was a highly successful field leader and he had to rely on written reports, first to fulfill his responsibility of reporting to the Roman Senate, and also to keep his own name prominent with the Roman citizens.
The skirmish with Ariovistus in Section 24 has an interesting background: Caesar knows something of Ariovistus from previous experience. During his consulship in 59 B.C., Ariovistus applied for Roman recognition and Caesar had advised the senate to conclude a formal friendship with him, recognizing his conquests in Gaul. At that time Caesar had not been assigned to protect Transalpine Gaul. Some authorities, therefore, believe that Caesar may have thought it wise to keep Ariovistus neutral by extending Roman friendship, or perhaps that Caesar did not realize how dangerous Ariovistus might be to Gaul. These sections are particularly interesting for their diplomacy. Ariovistus obviously is a successful conqueror, as is Caesar, and is proud of his successes, conscious of his rank, and believes that Caesar owes him the courtesy of coming to him. Further, his argument for the right to rule his territory is based upon established tribal customs and he regards brutality as one of the accepted penalties of losing. He is trying to better the fortunes of his countrymen by expansion of territory and, in accordance with his background and war customs, Caesar is the interloper without authority.
Sections 38 through 41 should be carefully read for examples of Caesar's specific, concise, and vigorous writing style. Here, he turns his attention to human relations and describes vividly and briefly the demoralizing effects of fear. Also one should note his address to his centurions, for there is a glimpse of Caesar the orator; his ability to arouse enthusiasm is quite evident as he rallies courage for action. He uses simple, direct language and rhythmical phrasing and many historians rank him, as an orator, second only to Cicero. Unfortunately, Caesar's orations have perished, but the address here is one of the few remaining and masterful examples of his oratorical skill.
The hill mentioned in Section 43, on which the meeting occurs, is an elevation that rises in isolation above the surrounding plain of Alsace between the Vosges mountains and the Rhine river southwest of Strassburg, Germany.
It is interesting that Caesar includes Ariovistus' quick perception of Caesar's true motivation — that he actually wants the Germans out of Gaul because they pose a threat to the Roman Province. It is to Caesar's credit that he documents both sides of the discussion and includes the historical background. A lesser figure wishing to gain glory by dispatching the Germans across the Rhine might have distorted the German viewpoint and used such an excuse as a cause for battle.
It is noteworthy that Caesar has cause to cease negotiations when the German troops violate the truce but, more important, that he tries another avenue for peace by sending emissaries who are known to Ariovistus and who can speak Gallic as fluently as Ariovistus. With this tactic, he hopes to establish a feeling of confidence and thus reduce the language barrier so that important matters will not suffer in translation. But Caesar is only cautiously generous; he believes that his own presence may tempt the Germans to foul play. It is for this reason that he removes himself from further meetings.
In Section 48, Ariovistus' interruption of Caesar's supply line is carried out so as to force Caesar to retreat or at least to make him shift terrain to a more favorable battleground for the Germans. This maneuver is successful and Ariovistus continues harassing the Romans as they build their auxiliary camp.
When Caesar is at last in a favorable position, note that he invites attack and, upon discovering the German superstition concerning defeat prior to a new moon, he seeks full-scale battle. Here is an example of Caesar's attention to local customs and, in this instance, he takes advantage of the information immediately. Psychologically, the Germans feel defeated before they begin because they are battling contrary to the German matrons' predictions. To avert possible German troop panic, their leaders use the baggage as a barrier to prevent retreat and to raise battle valor. They also rouse emotions by using the women to prevail upon the troops to save them.
Caesar's usual triple-line formation consists of the first line using four cohorts of each legion. The second line, comprising three cohorts, stands about 160 feet behind line one. The third line represents reserve strength and is posted farther back and composed of the remaining three cohorts of the legion.
A cohort numbers about 360 men and there are ten cohorts to a legion; in the Gallic War a legion totaled about 3,600 men. Such information is important if one is to grasp the large scale of these long-ago battles. Other details dealing with the battle itself are equally important. The German phalanx formation, for example, mentioned in Section 52, is a variation of a Macedonian plan and used a closely packed troop pattern, strong in depth. The warriors usually were armed with long pikes or spears so that the enemy had first to penetrate a forest of spear-heads. Both the Germans and the Gauls used men holding shields in front of their bodies so that the shields formed an overlapping, continuous front-line armament.
Caesar, fighting two campaigns in one season, with a total of only 35,000 soldiers subdued two enemy populations totaling several hundred thousand people. Most historians regard the feat as a brilliant triumph of military organization, leadership, and discipline over brute strength and barbaric courage. Little wonder that in its own day it was valued so highly.