A crisis in Gaul sparks a war between civilizations a millenia in the making.
Hello and welcome back. I hope you enjoyed our special episodes, but now it’s time to jump back into the main narrative. This and the next 8-10 episodes will cover the Gallic Wars. This cataclysmic war was an incredibly important event for everyone involved and it’s effects would ripple throughout history. The Gallic Wars brought Gaul under the control of Rome and ensured that a Latin language, a Roman culture, and a Roman political and legal system would dominate Gaul long after Rome fell. And speaking of Rome, the Gallic Wars played an essential part in Rome’s transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. It was during these wars that the most famous Roman of all time, Gaius Julius Caesar, became the hero of Rome and it was the wealth and armed forces from Gaul that allowed Caesar to launch his conquest of Rome.
Furthermore, the Gallic Wars were of remarkable importance to European and world history for a number of reasons. They violently brought together the Atlantic and the Mediterranean worlds and the surviving history “The Commentary on the Gallic Wars” served as a blueprint for imperialistic conquest through its divide and conquer tactics. This would be copied by empires for the next 2,000 years, most famously Britain, which fully utilized the divide and conquer tactics in Africa.
While it is clear that the Gallic Wars are important I struggled over the last few weeks over how to accurately portray them. On the one hand, this period had profound effects across space and time, and it is easy to read into them as a world-changing event. On the other hand, when one actually studies the Gallic Wars it is incredible to find that many of the events occurred for petty, ignoble reasons. It is for that reason that I resorted to historical theory to better grasp the Janus-faced nature of the wars. Now if anyone got a nervous jolt when I said ‘historical theory’ and thought, “Oh no, this is when Gary turns into a boring tenured professor rambling about nothing,” let me just say that theory is, in my opinion, the most fascinating part of history. The philosophical processes that we use to decode the past are the most exciting part of historical study. Epic sagas of war, heroism, betrayal and conquest are that much sweeter when they come with an understanding of what these all mean. So, let me briefly set up some of the theory I am going to use to examine this period, and thankfully we never even have to leave France to do this, since French historians are among the most influential in all history.
All the theory I’m using essentially revolved around one big question: Is history driven by gradual change, or by cataclysmic events? It’s a simple enough question but it is one that has puzzled people for millenia. For thousands of years up until the 19th century, histories mostly argued for cataclysmic events. This was based on an old theory called ‘Great Man Theory.’ This theory held that ‘history is merely the biography of great men’ and yes, specifically men, as up until the 18th century, women were disparaged as incapable of bringing about revolutionary change. This theory dominated in large part because histories were often commissioned by great rulers as propaganda. Examples of this would be Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great rewriting history to make Macedon an extended part of Greece and themselves descendants of Zeus. Another example was Justinian the Great of Byzantium who commissioned histories that depicted him as remaking the Roman Empire and defender of Christendom. Of course, in between the two is Julius Caesar’s Commentary on the Wars in Gaul, which he himself wrote to propagandize to the people of Rome. Because histories were written for and by great rulers history itself inevitably depicted powerful men as the driving force of history.
This view was challenged during the European Enlightenment, as philosophers argued that much written history was propaganda meant to dupe the common people and deprive them of agency. The Enlightenment led to the Age of Revolutions, during which the common people asserted their place as a part of societies, most visibly in France when the Third Estate abolished the power of the nobility and the clergy. In the 1840s Karl Marx theorized that the masses would bring an end to all history when they violently overthrew every political and religious structure, asserting all power to themselves. Thus, the popular view that history was largely static and moved when great figures pushed history forward was replaced by Enlightenment liberals and Marxist historians who held that history was pushed forward gradually by the masses, and that so-called great people merely claimed to push history forward in order to propagate themselves.
For a long time, the Marxists dominated history, most notably in France, where in the 1930s-1950s the single most important historic school emerged, ‘The Annales’ school, which was organized around the journal of the same name. It was from this school that a number of genius-level historians emerged, such as Marc Bloch and Georges LeFebvre who argued that history occurred gradually over centuries. This viewpoint reached a head in the 1960s with Fernand Braudel. If you’re not a historian chances are you haven’t heard of Braudel, but if you are a historian you pretty much have to know him. Fernand Braudel revolutionized the way history was done when he changed his dissertation topic from a history of Phillip II and the Mediterranean to an examination of the Mediterranean and its effects on Phillip II. Braudel’s two-volume magnum opus is as brilliant as it is in-depth. In it, Braudel studied virtually every aspect of the Mediterranean and how the natural environment was essential to the making of the region and its people. It was in this work he popularized the term ‘longue durée’ literally the long duration, as he believed historical change occurred over centuries. Perhaps my favorite example he provided is why the Muslim Moors of North Africa failed to conquer France while the Muslim Turks successfully conquered Anatolia. By studying the camels used by these two peoples he found that the Moors were using camels specifically bred for the desert, who were unused to France’s cold climate, whereas the Turks had bred camels taken from Arabia over hundreds of years until they could withstand the cold. This allowed the Turks to chase Christian armies up into the mountains, whereas the Moorish camels couldn’t. This little observation is brilliant because it shows how humans are not purely the drivers of history and that the environment and animals are themselves sometimes responsible for the rise and fall of nations; but it’s also important because by studying weather patterns, currents in the Mediterranean, and how long it took to breed animals for different climates that Braudel concluded that history changed over centuries. In Braudel’s mind, Napoleon Bonaparte did not cause a cataclysmic shift in history as the pre-existing conditions that brought him to power and the culture that produced him were already in place. For Braudel, if Napoleon didn’t exist, someone else would have taken his place.
While the early Annalistes held that history took place over centuries, the next generation of Annalistes countered that there were such things as catalysts, and important people who did have an impact on history. It was this generation that argued that while the longue durée produced Napoleon the general and created the conditions for his rise, Napoleon himself certainly caused a huge shift in history. If Napoleon hadn’t existed, then someone may have taken his place, but that someone would have been killed in Italy by the Austrians and the French Empire would have never come into being, Spain would never have been conquered, meaning the Spanish Empire wouldn’t have collapsed as early as it did, which meant the United States wouldn’t have been able to easily dominate the divided nations of South America, and thus history would look completely different.
This fourth generation of Annalistes essentially created the viewpoint that most historians take. By abandoning both Great Man Theory and Marxist determinism, today’s historians now accept that there are long-term historical currents and cataclysmic events which move history forward. On the one hand, it took centuries for the Turks to breed camels and learn the arts of war to conquer desert and mountainous terrain, but it was Osman I who used these to create the Ottoman Empire. A modern example of this would be the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York City. The tensions between the United States and much of the Muslim world go back hundreds of years, but that one day changed the fundamental nature of world geopolitics.
So, why is all this important? Why did I just summarize historical theory on long-term events versus catalysts? Because after reading up on the Gallic Wars I think that no other period in history provides a better example of the intermixing of the longue durée and catalysts. Let’s look at the long-term, epic historical trends that caused the war, before turning to the immediate and often petty causes of this conflict.
The first long-term cause of the war, is the fact that the natural geography of Europe had created two separate worlds. North of the Alps there was an Atlantic World, dominated by the Celts. This Atlantic World included northern Iberia, Gaul, and the British Isles. I call this a world, because the different Celtic tribes of these regions traded with each other, spoke similar languages, were part of a larger Celtic ethnic group, shared many religious practices and often engaged in warfare with each other. Trade routes stretched from northwestern Iberia, up through western Gaul and into Britannia, as peoples, goods and ideas moved from one Celtic region to another. But this Celtic World was largely cut off by the Alps and the Pyrenees from the Mediterranean World. This Mediterranean World was an interconnected space centered around sea-trade, as people, goods, ideas and political power was traded across the coastal regions of the Mediterranean. While the people of the Mediterranean were not all one, they did see themselves as having a largely connected culture, and it’s why Rome could easily incorporate Latins, Etruscans, and Greeks, as they all had a shared heritage.
In history when two people of different ethnicities, religions, political institutions and cultures live side by side, conflict is natural. The Atlantic World and the Mediterranean World were divided by thousands of years of separation, and when Rome began to move into southern Gaul these two worlds were approaching an apocalyptic clash.
The second long-term trend was the emergence of the Gauls as the bogeyman of Rome. In 390 BCE, the Gauls burned much of Rome to the ground and nearly wiped it out entirely. This scarred the Roman people, and the Gallic barbarian became a common theme in their early myths and stories. When Hannibal tried to conquer Rome in the Second Punic War the Gauls sided with him, and again nearly destroyed the Roman Republic. When the Germanic Cimbri descended into Italy the Gauls joined them and for a third time threatened to destroy Rome. Three times over three centuries the Gauls nearly destroyed Rome. They were the natural enemy of Rome and a constant source of insecurity for them. As long as Gaul remained free, Rome was always in danger.
The third long-term trend that brought about the Gallic Wars was the rise of an entirely new people on the Eastern side of the Rhine: the Germans. The Germans were a seemingly numberless group of savages that terrified both the Gauls and Rome. The Germans were always threatening to invade Gaul, and the Gauls used the Rhine as a dam to hold back a potentially unending flood of Germans that would overwhelm them. The hordes of Germans put pressure on the Gallic kingdoms as on the one hand the Gauls knew that the German hordes could turn the tide against Rome, while on the other hand they feared that once Rome was defeated the Celts would be conquered by the incoming Germans. Caught between the rising Roman nation and the Germanic multitudes, the middle ground that the Gauls occupied was disappearing, as soon they would have to pick a side.
One final long-term cause was that the Romans were developing a highly-efficient system of incorporating conquered peoples into their own political entity. They had already brought Italy, Iberia, Greece and North Africa under their control when they conquered Southern Gaul, turning it into the province of Narbonensis. Narbonensis showed that Rome could turn a Gallic people into their own citizenry, wiping out the Gallic language and identity, subsuming it within a Roman one. Rome was creating a national identity based on citizenship rather than a tribal one based on ethnolinguistic heritage. This ability to turn captured peoples into Romans made Rome believe in the superiority of its own culture and justified its missions of conquest, while terrifying the Gauls who feared for their own independence.
These were the long-term causes of the conflict, some stretching back literally thousands of years, as geography and human migration split Europe between these two peoples. But just as there were epic long-term trends, there were also short term causes that weren’t about ethnic conflict, national honor, and a death struggle between civilizations. Some of these short term causes were purely realpolitik solutions to immediate problems, and could even be incredibly petty.
Before we get to the list of immediate causes of the Gallic Wars it is time to introduce the main character of our events, and one of the most fascinating figures in history, Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar was born 100BCE. His family was moderately influential, as Caesar’s father served as the governor of western Anatolia and his aunt Julia married Gaius Marius, then the most important person in the Roman Republic. But things took a turn against Caesar. During the civil war between Marius and Sulla, Sulla won and purged most of his enemies. Caesar became a target since, with the early death of his father, he was the head of the Julian clan and he was married to the daughter of Cinna, Marius’ second-in-command. Caesar was put on the list of people destined for execution but his mother and the Vestal Virgins pleaded for him, and Sulla spared him though he stripped him of his inheritance and his wife’s dowry. While Caesar kept his life, he was without means, and so Sulla believed Caesar could never be a prominent Roman. In 80BCE Caesar went to Western Anatolia to pursue a military career in case Sulla changed his mind and decided to kill him. Caesar was an exemplary soldier and won many honors, including the laurel wreath, meaning that all Romans regardless of status had to stand when he entered a room during festival times.
In 78BCE Sulla died and Caesar returned to Rome, and pursued a legal career and found he was a great orator and quickly became popular. Now he was both a great soldier and a great politician, a powerful combination. Caesar was incredibly ambitious and he took on enormous debts to both fund public works and bribe politicians to support him, both of which made him incredibly popular. But he was always afraid his creditors would imprison or even murder him, as he owed incredible sums of money for all of his political kickbacks. But he found a way out. In 62 BCE, Caesar got himself appointed to govern Hispania Ulterior. As governor he was freed from legal retribution for his tenure, allowing him to briefly escape his creditors. While there he invaded the silver mines of western Hispania to pay off his debts. While there he learned administration and large-scale military coordination, alongside the value to be gained from raiding native populations of their wealth, something which he carried with him for the rest of his days.
But even as he paid off his old debts, he ran up new ones as he continued to fund massive public works and bribe more people to give him even more power. At this time Rome was dominated by two of Sulla’s former generals, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius, better known as Pompey. Crassus was the richest man in Rome, but that’s about all he had going for him, as Pompey was by far the more popular and respected politician. Caesar and Crassus worked out a deal, wherein Crassus paid off some of Caesar’s debts and guaranteed others in exchange for his support to counterbalance Pompey. While Pompey and Crassus were at odds, Caesar appealed to both of them to further his own aims. He cemented this alliance by marrying his daughter Julia to Pompey. Thus the First Triumvirate was born out of a combination of Pompey’s support among the Optimate elite, Caesar’s support among the Populares and Crassus’ money. While the Senate wasn’t neutered yet, it was clear that these three men ruled Rome. But Caesar still had some very serious problems to deal with; he was horrendously in debt, and kept going further into debt as he borrowed more money to use for patronage and bribes.
Meanwhile, events up in Gaul soon provided Rome with a potential excuse to launch a war. As I mentioned in episode 9, the Arverni tribe was tired of being under the control of the Aedui, and this led them to do the unthinkable. They invited the German king Ariovistus to join with them to overthrow the Aedui, which they did. This was a cause for alarm in Rome, as the last time the Celts and Germans allied it was during the Cimbri invasion, and many Roman politicians knew that no more Germans could be allowed to cross the Rhine if Rome was to be safe. For the time, Rome did nothing, but this Germanic invasion was the first short-term cause of the Gallic Wars.
The second and most immediate cause of war, was that Caesar was poorer than a college student majoring in creative writing with a minor in philosophy. In 59 BCE, Caesar got himself appointed governor of Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul, along with Illyricum, with a plan to conquer Gaul, both to promote himself politically and to plunder its wealth to pay off its debtors.
This is what makes Julius Caesar so fascinating for me. Perhaps more than any other human being in history, Caesar combined grand destiny with immediate political opportunism. On the one hand, Caesar was about to fight a war thousands of years in the making that would bring together the two halves of Europe and determine the fate of Western civilization. On the other hand, he was launching a war that would kill millions because he couldn’t pay off his bills and didn’t want to run out of credit the next time he had to fund a circus. On the one hand Caesar was undoing nearly four hundred years of Gallic terror and posing himself as the salvation of the Roman people, avenging them for the near-destruction of their city and ending 10 generations of terror by bringing the barbarians to heel. On the other, he was invading a foreign land because it would help him win his next election. More than Charlemagne, Napoleon, or any other figure I can imagine, Caesar was the fulfillment of long-term historical shifts and the catalyst for immediate world-rending changes. One major reason why this was the case was that Caesar literally wrote the history of the Gallic Wars, and it is in these histories that Caesar blurred beyond recognition the line between legend and propaganda. Sometimes Fate offered Caesar a small chance to seize incredible glory, and he never missed an opportunity to seize it. Other times, Caesar would force Fate’s hand, winning seemingly unimportant victories over unknown tribes, and later claim that he was avenging ancient Romans against ancient enemies. No other human being in actions and words, so deftly combined destiny and opportunity as Julius Caesar, and as we will see the Gallic Wars was both an epic clash of civilizations and Caesar’s own personal PR campaign to help him conquer Rome against his rival Pompey.
Next week we will dive into the first year of the Gallic Wars. Each future episode will deal with roughly one year of campaigning, with one special episode between Year 5 and 6 to talk about important events across Rome that will impact our story. I hope you’re ready for something truly incredible as next week we begin Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul.
Commentary on the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar
Various historical critiques of the Commentary on the Gallic Wars.