Summary and Analysis
For many years, the Tencteri and the Usipetes, two German tribes, have been harassed by their warring neighbors, the Suebi. Homes have been burned, crops destroyed, and tribesmen and their families barbarously slaughtered. No defense seems possible. In desperation, in the winter of 55 B.C., they migrate across the Rhine searching for new land; hopefully, the Suebi will forget them and they can forget the Suebi.
The Suebi, however, are not merely barbaric plunderers; their social code is rigidly stoic and their vast numbers are tightly organized. The separate clans, for example, supply a thousand soldiers a year for the army and the other men remain at home working the land. The following year, the farmers and soldiers exchange places; in this way, there is never any shortage of either farmers or soldiers. Moreover, their land is not privately owned. All families farm collectively, subsisting mainly on communal milk and cattle, and on wild game. They are a strong and large people; they wear little clothing, bathe in rivers, and are therefore early accustomed to the outdoor rigors of winter wars. In addition, their cavalry does not use saddles. Even wine drinking is forbidden among the men because of their belief that it makes a man effeminate and weakens his capacity for endurance.
The Suebi like to keep the land beyond their borders uninhabited. On one side, there are no neighbors for 600 miles. On the other side are the quiet Ubii tribes. Earlier, the Suebi had tried to drive the Ubii away and failed, but managed at least to reduce the Ubii's importance and make them sufficiently respectful of the Suebian might.
When the German tribes reach the Rhine they greedily rejoice at the sight of fresh territory beyond and gird themselves for war against the Menapii natives. The Menapii at first prevent the Germans from crossing the Rhine, but the invaders only pretend to leave the area, and when the Menapii relax their guard, return suddenly, attack by surprise, and massacre the Menapii. They then claim all lands and properties of their victims.
Caesar, meanwhile, is disturbed by reports of this invasion. He knows that the Gauls are fickle and troublesome; he especially fears that they will begin making alliances with the Germans. Thus he sets out earlier in the year than usual and when he reaches his troops he finds that his assumption is correct: some of the Gauls have indeed made coalitions with the Germans. Caesar therefore confers with the Gallic chiefs and decides to make immediate war on the Germans. With his cavalry and their supplies, he begins the march. When he nears the enemy, however, he receives a message stating that the Germans have made no advances against the Romans and that they will not refuse to fight if they are attacked. They wish, they say, to be at peace with the Romans.
Caesar replies that there can be no basis for peace if they remain in Gaul; it is impossible, he says, to honor men who are unable to defend their own lands and thus seize the lands of other men. For them there is no territory in Gaul, and he suggests instead that they settle in the territory of the Ubii.
The German envoys ask for time to consider the offer and promise to report back in three days and plead further with Caesar not to move his army in the meantime. Caesar refuses for already he knows that they have dispatched a troop of cavalry across the Meuse to get booty and corn; he is sure the Germans are stalling until their cavalry returns from across the Meuse river.
Caesar then advances until he is about twelve miles from the enemy. The representatives return and ask him to advance no further. He refuses, and they ask that he send his cavalry in advance with orders not to initiate fighting, and that he give the Germans time to ask the Ubii if they may settle within their borders. Again they ask for three days to accomplish this. Caesar, however, still thinks they are merely begging for time until their cavalry returns, but he promises not to advance more than four miles in order to get water, and sends messages to the cavalry commanders not to provoke a fight but, if attacked, to hold until he and his men can reach them.
The enemy, with no more than 800 cavalry, see Caesar's troops approaching and begin attacking — and naturally enough the Roman horsemen panic and retaliate. The enemy horsemen suddenly dismount, and in a surprise tactic begin killing the Roman horses. At this the Roman troops become so confused that they flee, but not before seventy-four Romans are killed, including Piso of Aquitania, who had gone to help his brother and was himself killed; his brother, after seeing Piso fall, returned to the battle and was also killed.
Caesar now feels he should no longer discuss peace conditions with tribes which begin a war in treachery and he is now certain that it will be foolish to let the enemy wait for its horsemen to return. Moreover, he doesn't want to let the fickle Gauls have sufficient time to join the warfare. He tells his officers to lose no time preparing for battle.
Next day, the leading Germans come to his camp, supposedly to clear themselves of the previous day's treachery and to investigate the possibilities of a truce. Caesar orders them taken prisoner and marches out, putting the battle-worn cavalry in the rear. Before the Germans realize what is happening, he is upon them. The Germans, without leaders, are lost. A few try to fight, but most flee. Throwing away their flags and arms, they run until they reach the junction of the Meuse and Rhine rivers; there most of them are either slaughtered by Caesar's cavalry or are drowned. Miraculously, the Romans do not lose a man; only a few are wounded. They have overcome an enemy totaling 430,000. Caesar returns and gives the German leaders permission to leave, but they are afraid they will be punished by the Gauls, and so ask to remain with him. He agrees to keep them.
The Ubii, the only Germans across the Rhine friendly to Caesar, ask for help against the Suebi. If Caesar can't do that, they say, perhaps he can at least station his army on their side of the Rhine in order to taunt the Suebi; Roman military prestige is especially high after the defeat of Ariovistus and, of course, after their most recent conquest. The Ubii promise many boats for his crossing. Caesar, however, thinks it unsafe and undignified to cross in boats, so he decides to build a bridge even though the construction will be difficult. The bridge is made in such a way that the rapid current makes it even stronger and poles are fixed so that the enemy cannot destroy the bridge by floating heavy logs against it from upstream.
After cutting down the grain and burning the Sugambri villages, Caesar moves into the territory of the Ubii and promises to help them if they are bothered by the Suebi. The Ubii tell him that the Suebi have moved all their people from the towns and that they have hidden the women and children in the woods. The men, they suspect, have gathered to await the Romans. Caesar reflects on the danger, but feels that he has already accomplished what he has set out to do: he has made the Germans fear and respect the Romans; he has taken vengeance on the Sugambri; and he has freed the Ubii from their blockade. Thus, having satisfied both honor and expediency, and having spent eighteen days in Germany, he returns to Gaul, destroying the bridge after his troops are across.
Although there is little of the summer left, Caesar now decides to start for Britain. Because the Britons have given much assistance to the Gauls in recent campaigns, he hopes to curb further cooperation. And, even if there is little time for campaigning, the trip will give him an opportunity to learn about the natives and the terrain — important matters to him, for neither he nor the Gauls know anything of Britain. Even traders who have sometimes visited the country have never gone inland; they can tell him nothing of the size of the island, the number of tribes, their population, or their manner of warfare.
Caesar sends Gains Volusenus in advance of the army to find out as much as he can about Britain. Then Caesar moves his troops to the territory of the Morini, closest to Britain, and sends for ships from the neighboring areas and from the fleet used in last year's battle against the Veneti. The Britons hear of Caesar's activity from traders, and send deputies from several of their states, promising to surrender to the Roman empire. Caesar, in return, promises them much and sends back with them one of his most loyal men, Commius, whom he had earlier made king over the Atrebates. Caesar instructs him to visit as much of the country as he can, inform the people of Caesar's plans and encourage them all to accept Rome's protection. Meanwhile, the scout, Volusenus, observes what he can from the ship because he knows that it is unsafe to disembark among strange tribes. In five days, he returns to Caesar with his report.
While the ships are being outfitted, Caesar receives representatives from the Morini, who apologize for their former hostility and promise to be peaceful and faithful. Caesar realizes the danger of having an enemy at his rear and knows that it is too late in the year to carry out a campaign against them, particularly since the Morini are unimportant compared to the Britons. He agrees to accept their request and orders them to submit a large number of hostages. When eighty transports arrive, Caesar distributes command of them among his officers. Eighteen ships have been delayed by wind and Caesar reserves those for the cavalry. The remainder of the army is put in charge of Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeins Cotta. They are sent against the Menapii and those parts of the Morini who did not send deputies. Publius Sulpicius Rufus is left with a garrison to hold the port.
Caesar reaches Dover during mid-morning. The cliffs are lined with the armed forces of the Britons, and the Romans decide to wait five hours until the rest of the fleet can assemble. Caesar, after calling a meeting of the commanders, tells them what he wants done, and what Volusenus, observes what he can from the ship because he knows that it is unsafe to disembark among strange tribes. In five days, he returns to Caesar with his report.
The enemy leaders send cavalry and chariots to the shore to try to prevent the Roman disembarkation. But getting ashore proves even more difficult than imagined. The large Roman ships cannot approach the graduated shelf of the shore and the soldiers are ignorant of the depths of the water. They must jump into the waves burdened with all their armor, then fight an enemy who is situated on dry land and who knows the area well. The Romans are confused and frightened and, as might be expected, do not fight with their usual effectiveness. The troops delay until the standard bearer of the Tenth Legion jumps into the water and encourages the others to follow. Embarrassed by his bravery, they quickly join him.
The fighting is fierce and the enemy, fighting on familiar ground, waits until a party of Romans gets off a ship, then attacks in a cluster. Others throw missiles at the Romans. Caesar sends in his small reserve boats to support the infantry and, as soon as the Romans reach dry land, the tide of the battle shifts and the enemy is put to flight. Had the cavalry arrived, the battle would have been a rapid and complete success.
The enemy asks for peace terms and send for Commius, who had been thrown into chains on his arrival. Caesar agrees to pardon the Britons, even though they have violated peace terms, but insists on having hostages. Some are given immediately, others are promised. The common people then return to their fields and the chiefs assemble to formally deliver their states to Caesar.
Four days later, the cavalry arrives, but they find that landing is impossible because the gentle wind which carried them across the channel has suddenly turned into a wild storm. They therefore must return to the continent. That night, high tides and floods wreck many ships and the Romans grow concerned about their having insufficient means to return to Gaul; they have not planned to spend the winter in Britain and have not brought much grain with them. The Britons, seeing that Caesar is without cavalry, ships, and grain, realize that if they can now defeat him that the Romans will never again dare to cross the channel. Secretly they assemble their armies.
Caesar hears nothing of such plans but notices that the balance of the promised hostages has not arrived and suspects that the Britons are readying a surprise attack. He orders his men to gird themselves and sends out troops to get grain. Others he sets to work repairing the damaged ships.
Outposts, meanwhile, report to Caesar that they have seen a vast dust cloud where the troops have gone to harvest food. Caesar rightly suspects that the cloud is proof that the natives are skirmishing with his men and orders his troops to assemble and follow.
He finds the Seventh Legion under heavy attack. The enemy calculated Caesar's moves and planned an ambush to kill off the soldiers scattered in the fields without weapons. Their plan was cleverly executed in this way: first they attacked from all directions, then moved in among troops of cavalry and dismounted while the charioteers moved back from the immediate combat area and waited to assist troops which found themselves in difficulty. The plan combined the advantages of the foot soldier with the mobility of the cavalry, and the Britons' horses were particularly well trained for this work.
Caesar arrives and manages to save most of his men, but is not prepared to pursue so returns with his troops to camp. Bad weather prevents a renewal of fighting for the next few days, and the natives, now on the offensive, send messages to other tribes reporting the Roman difficulties. This, they say, is their chance to get booty and free themselves from Roman authority.
Caesar realizes, upon the war's renewal, that the Britons can easily retreat; the Roman cavalry is still in Gaul. But he decides to use the thirty horsemen who have accompanied Commius to pursue the Britons if they flee after a defeat. The battle conforms to his plans and the Romans follow the retreating troops, killing many and setting fire to all buildings they find.
The enemy, once again, sends deputies asking for peace terms. Caesar doubles the requested number of hostages and asks that they be brought to the continent; he hopes to leave Britain before the winter storms begin. Shortly thereafter, a spell of fair weather promises to last and the general moves his ships across the channel.
The Morini, who were at peace with the Romans when the British expedition began, surround the first 300 troops off the ships. The Romans try to defend themselves, hut soon 6,000 more Morini join the fight. Caesar sends for assistance from his cavalry but his soldiers are under heavy attack for four hours before the cavalry arrives. The enemy is then easily crushed and those that run are hunted down and killed.
Caesar sets up winter quarters in the Belgic territory and waits for the British hostages. Only two of the states send the promised men, but Rome is well pleased and the senate declares twenty days of public thanksgiving in honor of Caesar's achievements.
Too often we tend to forget that most of the tribes which Caesar battles are not nearly as civilized as the Romans. Consider, for instance, the Suebi. They are well-trained for war, but are a migrant tribe, settling nowhere for long, living out-of-doors in all extremes of weather and willing to build only temporary shelters. These men, though more rugged than other tribes, are basically no different from the Tencteri and the Usipetes, who make war for the most basic reason of all: conquest of other peoples' lands. In this case, the German tribes have been driven from their homes and justifiably feel wronged, but primitively and selfishly, feel that there is nothing wrong in their inflicting the same fate upon the Menapii.
Concerning the "treachery" of the enemy cavalry and Caesar's "truth" in reporting it, the story that a force of 800 cavalry would attack a force of 5,000 Romans sounds unlikely. And would all the German chiefs appear in the Roman camp if they had deliberately planned that attack? Caesar seems to think so, or perhaps only hopes we will think so. The Germans, because they are leaderless, are easily defeated, but we should observe that Caesar's conduct is not quite free from qualification.
There are two reasons for Caesar's being reluctant to cross the Rhine by boat. He knows how easily a fragmented army can be destroyed and he does not want to have his men split into three parts — some on one bank, some on the other, and some in boats — with no way of joining quickly in case of danger. Also, he finds crossing in small boats esthetically displeasing because it is disorderly by its very nature. Therefore he builds a bridge.
The principal event in this book is Caesar's excursion to Britain. Heretofore no Roman force has done this. Note especially that before embarking, Caesar accepts the surrender of the Morini, but seems suspicious of the ease of their surrender. Because of this it is not totally surprising that these tribes mount an attack when Caesar returns.
The Romans' difficulty in landing on the British coast is a condition that Caesar has usually avoided when he has fought on land — that is, a disorganized arrival. It takes some time for the various units to position themselves on an effective fighting front. The saving element for Caesar's disorganized troops proves to be their individual bravery, especially the gallant action of the standard-bearer whose leap shames his fellows into following him.
As usual Caesar pardons his enemies even though they have already demonstrated that they cannot be trusted. And, as usual, a few days later the enemy, this time the Britons, proves treacherous. Caesar, however, is rarely angered by this kind of revolt. The attacks are punished, but it seems that the enemy is entitled to take his chances at rebellion if the Romans appear to be weaker than usual. Note also that Caesar is clever enough to realize danger in the hostages' failing to report. But, other than doubling the number of hostages, he does not demand any greater penalties when he defeats the Britons again.
In contrast to Caesar's military brilliance, the Morini attack lacks foresight The entire force engages the isolated group of Romans who land first, and as the Roman cavalry arrives the battle quickly ends and Caesar is able to send Labienus to take charge of the disorder.
The twenty-day thanksgiving proclaimed by Rome honors Caesar for having established a significant Roman foothold in Britain. And, if we consider how fragile were the ships of those times and how inadequate the knowledge of foreign lands, Caesar's bravery is even more impressive today.