Summary and Analysis
Before leaving for Italy, Caesar orders the officers in charge of the legions to spend the winter repairing old ships and building new ones. The new ones, however, he explains, are to be built differently than the others; they will be lower and wider than usual so that cargo and animals can be more easily carried and unloaded. In addition, they will be fitted with oars as well as sails.
Finishing his work in Hither Gaul, Caesar goes to Illyricum, where the Pirustae have been raiding the province, and orders his troops to assemble. The Pirustae hear of his presence and send representatives, who explain that the raids were not the result of public decision. Caesar accepts their explanation, tells them to bring hostages, and appoints arbitrators to arrange for payment of both penalty and damages.
Returning then to Hither Gaul, the general rejoins his army and finds that by extraordinary effort his men have assembled about 600 ships and twenty men-of-war vessels. He instructs them to assemble at the Itian port nearest Britain, about thirty miles away, then takes four legions and 800 horsemen to the Treveri, who had not come to councils or obeyed his commands and who are reportedly stirring unrest among the Germans.
The Treveri possess more cavalry than all the other Gauls and also have a great number of ready infantry troops; unfortunately, they also have rival chieftains — Indutiomarus and Cingetorix.
Cingetorix, seizing an opportunity, comes to Caesar and professes friendship for Rome. But Indutiomarus does not remain idle while his rival attempts to reap Caesar's favors. He begins to assemble an army for war and hides in the forest those people who cannot fight. Still, however, Cingetorix seems likely to be favored by the Romans when several more chiefs of the Treveri ask for Caesar's aid in the name of Cingetorix. Indutiomarus, in panic, sends a message to Caesar saying that he intends to keep order among the groups under him and prevent the common people from succumbing to indirection. He is, he insists, the chief most fully in power and is willing to place himself and his state under Rome's protection.
Caesar cannot believe the man but, because he is anxious to get to Britain, he asks Indutiomarns to bring 200 hostages. On their arrival, he asks for the loyalty of Indutiomarus, then takes the precaution of winning the other chiefs of the Treveri over to Cingetorix. Indutiomarus realizes that he has suffered a slight from the empire and his resentment smolders.
At the port Caesar finds all of the expected ships, save the sixty which had been held back by bad weather. Joining him at the port are the Gallic chiefs and 4,000 cavalry. Caesar permits a few of the chiefs to stay in Gaul, but takes the rest with him as hostages.
One of the chiefs, Dumnorix of the Aedui, tries a variety of stories to try and persuade Caesar to leave him behind, but Caesar won't be swayed. Dumnorix then begins to worry the Gallic chiefs by telling them that Caesar intends to murder them when they reach Britain. This is more than even the usually lenient Caesar can tolerate and when, prior to sailing, Dumnorix escapes, Caesar sends his cavalry after the traitor with orders to kill him if necessary. The rebel Dumnorix is quickly tracked down and killed.
Finally departing, after a long period of waiting for fair weather, Caesar leaves Labienus on the continent with three legions and 2,000 horsemen to guard the port and to maintain the grain supply. He embarks with five legions and 2,000 horsemen, satisfied that another victory awaits him. He arrives on a deserted British coast. Probably, he decides, troops have been there, but they have no doubt been frightened by the sight of the massive Roman fleet. Landing is easily accomplished and Caesar leaves ten cohorts and 300 horsemen to guard the fleet. The rest of the army he takes to meet the Britons.
Caesar travels twelve miles before he sees any of the natives, and his first skirmish with them is rather curious. The tribesmen have fortified a forest for war and hide in it, rushing out in small groups to battle. Caesar is puzzled, then orders the Seventh Legion to form a "tortoise" formation and drive the enemy from the woods and into the open. The day grows late and, because they are on unfamiliar territory, Caesar decides against further pursuit, and orders the entrenchment of the camp.
Next morning, Caesar must once again change his tactics. Just as his men have sighted the enemy, Quintus Atrius sends word that a storm has damaged many of the ships, and Caesar commands the troops to defer attack. He returns to inspect the fleet and finds that forty ships have been totally destroyed; the others, he believes, can be repaired. He selects men in the legions who can do the repair work and sends to the continent for more, then writes Labienus to build as many ships as possible.
Caesar returns to his army, still in the field, and finds that the Britons have assembled troops from over a broad area and have placed themselves under the command of Cassivellaunus. Where these troops come from and who they are Caesar explains next: inland Britain is inhabited by native tribes, and the coast is inhabited by tribes who have come from Belgium. The coastal farms are like those of the Gauls and they keep many cattle. They use gold and bronze coined pieces, and iron tallies. Tin is produced in the midland, and iron on the coast; bronze is imported. But, curiously, the natives do not take nearly the advantage of natural resources that they might. They do not, for example, eat rabbits, wild fowl, or even geese. These animals they keep as pets.
Caesar's details here make vividly clear to his readers the individual characteristics of his new enemy; he never fights a vague, unknown warring force. Next, the general describes the island's shape and the location of some islands in the channel and notes that the nights here seem shorter than on the continent. It is also here that he records one of the most amazing peculiarities of the natives of Britain: the tribesmen, he marvels, dye themselves a blue color, shave all their body save their head and upper lip, and have wives in common.
Returning to the narrative, Caesar relates the circumstances of a surprise attack. When the Romans are building camp and are off-guard, he writes, the enemy dashes from the woods and attacks the outposts. Caesar sends two experienced cohorts to support his troops, but the enemy breaks through and escapes. A tribune, Quintus Laberius Durus, is killed in the fighting.
The Romans arm themselves for fighting in close formation, but this proves ineffective against the British style of fighting. The Briton's method of using chariots — retreating, then fighting on foot — puts the Roman cavalry at a disadvantage. The enemy also refuses to fight closely, spreads out, and has small parties relieve one another as they grow tired.
Next day, small parties begin attack on the Roman horsemen. Later, Gains Trebonius, with three legions and the cavalry seeking forage, is attacked by the enemy. The Romans charge and the cavalry joins in. Many Britons are killed simply because there is no time for them to get out of their chariots. After this defeat, many of the tribes quit the defense of Britain and the enemy strength is greatly diminished.
Caesar moves to the territorial borders of Cassivellaunus at the river Thames because that river can be crossed on foot at one place only, and it is there that the enemy forces assemble. On the bank, Caesar finds, are many sharp stakes; others, he knows, are hidden in the water. He sends the cavalry in first and orders the legions to follow; the Roman advance proves to be so swift that the enemy scatters in terror.
Cassivellaunus' next move is to disband his army. He keeps only 4,000 charioteers and follows the Romans, harassing their foraging parties. Caesar, meanwhile, destroys as many fields and buildings as he can as he marches through the area.
The Trinobantes, the strongest state in the area, ask Caesar for protection and also plead with him to send them Mandubracius as ruler. The man they plead for had come to Caesar on the mainland and asked for protection after Cassivellaunus killed his father. Caesar has the Trinobantes send him hostages and grain and he grants their request.
Other tribes surrender to Caesar and inform him that Cassivellaunus is hidden not far away with many men and cattle. Caesar moves for the stronghold, a thick woodland with natural barriers in addition to those built by the enemy, and attacks from two sides. The enemy soldiers retreat and Caesar captures many cattle and also manages to kill many of the enemy.
Cassivellaunus next calls in forces from the other districts of Kent and attacks Caesar's naval camp, but is quickly put down by the Romans. He has now suffered many defeats, has had his lands destroyed and is currently having trouble with subjects beginning to revolt; therefore, he asks for peace. Caesar, anxious to return to the continent, asks for hostages and sets the yearly tribute that the tribes of Britain must pay Rome. He further orders Cassivellaunus to leave the tribe of Mandubracius in peace, then moves with his army and the hostages back to the sea. Because there are so many prisoners and soldiers, however, Caesar must make two trips. The first load leaves, but there is bad weather on the return trip to Britain and very few of the ships, including the new ones built by Labienus, make the rendezvous. After waiting, Caesar decides to make do with what he has on hand, crams the troops into the remaining ships, and manages to get safely across.
Back in Gaul a council is held at Samarobriva (Amiens). There, droughts have diminished the grain supply and Caesar is forced to distribute his legions over several states. Gaius Fabius takes a legion to the Morini, Quintus Cicero takes one to the Nervii, Lucius Roscius takes one to the Esubii, and Titus Labienus takes another to the Remi. Three more, under Marcus Crassus, Lucius Munatius Plancus and Gaius Trebonius are sent among the Belgae. One other, with five cohorts, is sent to the Eburones, a tribe ruled by Ambiorix and Catuvolcus; this legion is commanded by Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeins Cotta. All the legions are within 100 miles of one another. Caesar, meantime, waits in Gaul until he is sure the legions are safely entrenched.
The ruler of the Carnutes had been Tasgetius, a descendant of former kings and a man who helped Rome in the past; Caesar had declared him ruler, but after a two-year reign, he was killed by enemies within the state. Caesar learns of the assassination and fears revolt, so he orders Lucius Plancus to move his legion from the land of the Belgae to the land of the Carnutes for the winter. He asks specifically that the killers of the king be sent to him.
Two weeks later, disorder breaks out. Ambiorix and Catuvolcus, induced by Indutiomarus of the Treveri, attack a detachment of Romans who are gathering wood, then attack the main camp and are effective until the Roman cavalry arrives. The enemy forces then pull back and ask for one of the Romans to parley and settle the dispute.
Ambiorix tells the Roman representatives that he is much indebted to Caesar and does not wish to make war but that he has been forced to do so by the people of his state. His state wars, he says, because of Gallic pressure. He also says that the Gauls have agreed to simultaneously attack all Romans so that the legions will be unable to aid one another. He explains that he cannot refuse to follow his fellow Gauls, but now feels that he has fulfilled his responsibility to them. He then warns the Romans that many Germans have been hired and will arrive in Gaul in two days, but swears that he will give the Romans safe passage through his borders; thus is he able to fulfill both his obligations: he satisfies the Gauls by ridding them of the Romans and he satisfies the Romans by informing them of his and others' military plans.
Cotta and Sabinus are alarmed at the report brought to them. They are sure that the unimportant Eburones would not dare make war alone, but Cotta and several tribunes and centurions are also sure that they should not leave without an order from Caesar. But they know they can withstand the enemy from their entrenchment; this they have already demonstrated, and they have enough food and can send for aid, so their courage is bolstered. Still, however, they resent having their actions made defensive by the enemy.
Sabinus differs; he fears waiting because he thinks that soon too many enemy troops for them to handle will arrive, particularly when the German reinforcements gather. Since the other legions will be attacked, he says, they will not be able to offer aid. He is convinced that the enemy would not dare act as it does if Caesar had not gone to Italy. The Gauls and Germans, he feels, have various reasons for wanting to get even with Rome and if the Gauls and Germans are jointly armed, their best chance for victory is a quick move to the next legion. If he and his men, therefore, stay where they are, they might find themselves without food.
Cotta and the others oppose Sabinus, and Sabinus seemingly consents to their pressuring arguments, but tells them that if they are wrong that the troops will need an explanation. He will not be responsible. The council demands that the generals settle on one plan; danger, they insist, lies in disagreement and eventually it is Cotta who yields.
Sabinus' plan to march is accepted and it is announced that the troops will march at dawn. They move, then, feeling sure that Ambiorix has advised them as a friend, not as an enemy.
The enemy hears the sounds of preparations and sets up an ambush two miles away. When the long, cumbersome Roman column moves into a deep ravine, they are attacked from both sides and the rear-totally trapped. Sabinus, of course, has not expected this move and is quite unprepared and ineffective in the chaotic scene. Cotta, on the other hand, has been suspicious and so remains calm. The column proves too long to manage effectively, so he orders the troops to abandon the equipment and form a square. At this, the Romans are disheartened; they detest having to assume a defensive position. The enemy soldiers, naturally enough, are encouraged and, hoping mightily for booty, keep their position and fight with new courage. But they are caught by surprise when a Roman cohort charges and kills many of their soldiers. Ambiorix quickly tells his troops to keep at a safe distance in case of another Roman charge.
When the Romans change tactics and leave the square, the enemy pulls back quickly and attacks the exposed units with missiles. And when the Romans return, the enemy attacks on two sides. It is a disheartening situation, but the Romans stand firm, though many continue to be wounded.
The battle lasts from dawn until evening and when the causalities are counted, it is discovered that among them is Titus Balventius, chief centurion of his legion. Both his thighs are pierced. Quintus Lucanius, also a chief centurion, has been butchered while trying to save his son. Even Cotta, himself has been smashed in the face by a missile.
Sharp-eyed Sabinus sees Ambiorix and sends out his interpreter, Gnaeus Pompeins, to ask for mercy. Ambiorix says that Sabinus can parley with him and that he would like to keep the Rornans alive. Further, he assures Sabinus that no harm will come to him and Sabinus, in turn, asks Cotta if he will agree to stop fighting and parley. Cotta, however, refuses. Sabinus then orders the tribunes and senior centurions to follow him. When they near Ambiorix, they are told to put down their arms and while Ambiorix discusses peace with Sabinus, they are all surrounded and killed. The enemy then charges the remaining body of the Romans. Cotta is killed, along with most of his troops. The remainder limp back inside the camp, and Lucius Petrosidius, the standard bearer, manages to throw his flag inside the camp before he is killed. The survivors kill each other during the night to avoid being brutally murdered by the enemy. A few manage to get away from the battle and reach the camp of Titus Labienus and tell him all that has happened.
Ambiorix is elated with his victory and sets out with his cavalry to arouse the Aduatuci and Nervii. He tells them that finally they have a chance to rid themselves of the Romans. Already, he boasts, he has killed two legion commanders and has destroyed a large part of the Roman army. He tells the Nervii that it will be easy to attack the legion wintering with Cicero. The Nervii agree and send messages to the tribes under them asking for troops. Then, without warning, they attack Cicero's camp. Cicero is astonished; he has not even heard of the defeat of Sabinus' legion. He sends messengers to Caesar, but none manages to get through enemy lines. Ignorant of the real seriousness of his plight, he defends his position as best he can, first repairing weak spots in the walls and setting up 120 defense towers during the night Next morning his troops face large enemy forces and in the days following they continue the resistance. Finally, some of the Nervii who are growing weary of battle suggest a parley with Cicero and, when agreed to, tell Cicero the same story which Ambiorix has told Sahinus — that all Gaul is under arms and that the Germans are joining them. They explain that what they want is Cicero's departure; they cannot abide Roman troops in the area during the winter. Cicero declares firmly that Romans do not accept terms from an armed enemy. He suggests that the envoys put down their weapons; then, perhaps, they might get what they desire but first Caesar must be consulted.
Their parley unsuccessful, the Nervii surround the Roman camp with a rampart nine feet high and a trench fifteen feet wide, a technique they have learned from the Romans. And, in spite of their having no tools, they manage to dig, with their swords, an entrenchment fifteen miles in circumference.
A strong wind whips at the Romans on the seventh day and the enemy takes advantage of it, hurling hot clay pellets and burning darts. The Gallic-type huts inside are straw-roofed and quickly catch fire. The enemy then move in as if victory were already in their hands; the Romans, however, keep their heads, ignore the flames and continue fighting. The enemy soldiers brazenly advance until they meet the Roman rampart and there many are killed — mainly because so many of their own troops are behind them that they cannot withdraw. Centurions of the third cohort dare the enemy to enter camp, but the enemy is wary and answers with such a mass of missiles that the centurions are forced to fall back. Finally the tower catches fire.
Two of the centurions, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, are confirmed rivals and have long competed with each other during the fight. Pullo dashes outside and Vorenus, not wanting to be outdone, joins him. Pullo is then surrounded and Vorenus is forced to come to his aid. Then, fate turns: the enemy attacks Vorenus, and Pullo, whom they think is dead, has his chance to aid Vorenus. Together they kill several enemy soldiers, then hurry back inside their lines.
Each day fewer defenders are left. More messages, meanwhile, continue to be sent to Caesar, but the bearers continue to be captured, tortured, and killed within sight of the camp. At this point, a Nervian soldier persuades a slave, by promising him his freedom, to try and reach Caesar. In disguise this slave, it is hoped, will be able to pass as one of the Gauls and carry a message to Caesar concealed in a spear shaft. The mission is successful; Caesar does receive the message late in the day and in turn sends a quick message to Crassus, twenty-five miles away, instructing him to start at midnight and join Caesar's troops. He also instructs Gaius Fabius to bring his legion into the borders of the Atrebates and commands Labienus to bring his troops to the Nervii if it can so be arranged.
The rest of the army is too far away to help in time, so Caesar decides to use 400 horsemen from the nearest cantonments. That day he is able to move twenty miles and at sundown further plans are made: Crassus is left with a legion to take care of Samarobriva, the baggage, hostages, documents, and winter food supply. Caesar then learns that Labienus thinks it too dangerous to leave his cantonments with the horsemen and footmen of the Treveni stationed within three miles from his camp. Caesar, of course, is disappointed to have only two legions instead of three, but he cautions Labienus to remain in position and, with great speed, he and his forces move into the territory of the Nervii. There, Caesar learns firsthand of the crisis at Cicero's camp.
One of the Gallic troopers immediately leaves with a message to Cicero. The message, written in Greek, says that Caesar is on the way and to continue the resistance. The Gaul, as he has been told, ties his message to a spear and throws it into Cicero's camp. Unfortunately, however, the spear pierces one of the towers and is not discovered until three days later. There is joy, though, as Cicero reads the message and he rouses his troops to new courage. Soon they see smoke from burning villages and fields and know that the general is coming. Caesar will save them from slaughter.
The Gauls, about 60,000 strong, turn to meet the Romans, and Cicero dispatches a lightning swift lad to Caesar, warning him that the enemy has turned in a great tide and is rushing toward him. Next morning Caesar sees the enemy for himself and, thankful that Cicero is no longer critically threatened, plans his new moves. First he slows his march and entrenches a camp. He makes it as small as possible, hoping that the enemy will be so rash that their moves will be careless and prove fatal for them.
The cavalry of both sides skirmish a bit, but finally the Romans, according to plan, retreat into camp, where they pretend to be confused and afraid. Caesar's maneuver succeeds: seeing no Romans on the rampart, the enemy advance and fire missiles, then announce that anyone who comes over to their side before the final hour may do so without danger, but that after that time, there will be no mercy.
Caesar strikes, ordering his men to charge out from all gates, cavalry first. Totally surprised, the enemy turns and tries to run but are killed. Those who do escape are not pursued; because they go into the marshes and woods, Caesar thinks it foolish to follow, and moves out his forces to join Cicero. He is impressed by the towers and fortifications the enemy has erected but is shocked and saddened to find that nine-tenths of Cicero's troops are wounded. He gives high praise to the legion and especially to Cicero for his bravery; next day, he tells them of all that has happened, including the fate of Sabinus and Cotta, but the courage of their legions, he says, has made up for Sabinus' foolhardiness.
The Remi are quick to inform Labienus of Caesar's victory even though he is sixty miles away, and the Romans there are elated at the news. When Indutiomarus, however, learns of the general's feat, he abandons his plan of attack and moves his forces.
Caesar sends Fabius and his legion back to their cantonment and decides to spend the winter in Gaul.
After hearing of Sabinus' defeat, almost all of the Gallic states begin to plan for war and, throughout the winter, Caesar receives reports of the brewing rebellion. Lucius Roscius, for example, in command of the Thirteenth Legion, tells him that a large force of Gauls from the Amoric states intend to attack him, but finally give up the idea when they hear of Caesar's most recent victory.
Caesar then calls together the various chiefs and frightens some of them by revealing his knowledge of their plans. Others he woos as friends. In this way he keeps some of Gaul in peace.
There continue to be civil wars, however. The Senones try to murder the king whom Caesar has appointed, but luckily the king hears of their plans and manages to escape. The Senones make excuses to Caesar for their actions but fail to obey his order to send their senate as hostages. Thus, except for the Aedui and Remi, Caesar remains suspicious of almost all the Gallic states.
The Treveri and Indutiomarus try to bargain with the Germans to cross the Rhine and fight with them against Caesar, but the Germans refuse, saying they have twice been defeated by Roman armies. Indutiomarus, however, continues to augment his forces, getting various exiles and condemned persons in Gaul to join him. Slowly, he grows stronger and soon various states are asking to join with him. He then proclaims an armed convention, marking the beginning of war. He proclaims Cingetorix, his son-in-law who had refused to desert Caesar, an enemy and confiscates his goods. He says he has been summoned by various Gallic states and that they will march through the land of the Remi, destroying as they go, and that they will attack Labienus' camp.
Labienus' camp is well-fortified and he feels no danger, but when he learns from Cingetorix of Indutiomarus' speech at the convention, he sends messengers to neighboring states with orders to supply him cavalry. Each day Indutiomarus and his horsemen move closer to the Roman camp, sometimes to talk, always to hurl missiles, but Labienus keeps his troops inside so that the enemy will think they are afraid. Then, one night Labienus brings the cavalry he had summoned inside, but has the camp guarded so there will be no way for Indutiomarus to discover his reserve. Next day Indutiomarus, as usual, advances to the camp and his horsemen shower the settlement with missiles, shouting to the Romans, but, oddly, get no answer. That evening, the Gauls begin to depart in no particular order, and, at a signal, Labienus dispatches his cavalry out the two gates with orders, that, when the enemy panics and runs, they should first make for Indutiomarus and kill him. Quickly, then, the enemy leader is killed and beheaded and the cavalry pursues and kills as many soldiers as possible. The Eburones and the Nervii, hearing of this defeat, turn and head for home. Once more, Gaul is peaceful.
Remembering his ships' difficulties during the campaigns against the Veneti and the landing in Britain, Caesar decides to make his new ships of shallower draft than the older ones so that they can maneuver closer to shore. In addition, he provides that they be propelled both by oars and sails.
Before leaving, loose ends must be tied: Caesar must pacify the Treveri by settling their political difficulties and, too, he must make sure that Indutiomarus, who is hostile to Rome, has insufficient strength to rebel during the troops' absence. As a final safety measure he disposes of the troublesome Dumnrix.
While reading the Commentaries, it is well to note the vast numbers involved. Notice, for example, the great size of Caesar's fleet. Also note the multitude of soldiers involved in the battle between the Britons and Trebonius' foraging crew. The conflict is more than a skirmish; it is of major proportions, for Trebonius has three legions, plus his cavalry with him — in all 15,000 to 17,000 men.
The reason for the destruction of Sabinus and Cotta's legions is this: the two men do not follow the long-established procedures for saving besieged legions; both are responsible for the disaster. Cotta is against Sabinus' plan, but he does not contest it sufficiently and Sabinus foolishly leads the troops out of their camp, careless about the formation of the march. He seems finally to do everything possible to make the enemy's ambush a success. The Romans are in trouble immediately and Sabinus panics. Cotta, it is true, tries to save the fate of his legion — he at least seems to consider consequences — but, unfortunately, he cannot control the critical turn of events. Sadly, Sabinus proves to be even more of a fool: after having Ambiorix demonstrate that he is a liar, he is still willing to entrust his life to the enemy by going with little protection to a conference in the middle of the enemy camp. He, of course, is murdered.
The contrast between the brave hut cautious Cotta and the foolhardy Sabinus is intentional; one acts like a fool, the other like a soldier. But this seems a parallel for another kind of contrast in the book — the contrast between Sabinus and Cicero. Cicero is confronted by the same story Ambiorix presented Sabinus, but he refuses to talk to an enemy under arms. He has more reason than to consider talking as Sabinus did; he is in a situation of disadvantage but sticks to an intelligent plan and refuses to leave his camp. He replies that logically they should take their request to Caesar; that answer naturally reveals the enemy's treachery.
The short anecdotes concerning the competitive bravery of Pullo and Vorenus and the gallant gesture by Petrosidius are the sort of thing Caesar inserts from time to time to remind us that, though leaders make the plans, it is the officers and men of the line who actually fight the battles and whose individual bravery often makes the difference between failure and success.
There is an abundance of clever strategy in the Commentaries, but in this book is Caesar's most famed maneuver. outnumbered almost nine to one, with the enemy having 60,000 troops to his 7,000, Caesar feigns fright as his foes press close to his camp. He then sends his cavalry and foot soldiers out in a sudden charge. When the enemy disperses, he joins Cicero.
The defeat destroys Indutiomarus' plans but Caesar wants to make sure that the enemy does not reorganize. It is Labienus who finishes Indutiomarns' defeat. Indutiomarus, it is true, after the battle with Caesar, assembles another army and attempts to take Labienus' camp, but Labienus uses Caesar's gambit of appearing afraid and, in addition, assembles a cavalry force so that his surprise is of double strength. The Gauls straggle away, careless and overconfident, and the Roman charge catches them off guard.