The Lessons of Julius Caesar

Seldom, if ever, have we learned of a major war through the one man who brought it on, won it and then described it. Yet for that we are indebted to Julius Caesar, who was determined to conquer Gaul for Rome and then explain it in memoirs of battle and its aftermath that are unparalleled in military writings.

If only it was left like that. But somehow through the ages Caesar became another worldly figure, for some a demi-god, for others evil incarnate that overwhelmed the sturdy soldier beneath. Let his memoirs tell us what he was – an extremely skilled strategist and leader of men who pursued a clear goal on this earth with little reference to the gods or any other external forces. The war was his alone, to win or lose.

Writing of himself in the third person, Caesar becomes a part, if a crucial one, of the battle scene. There’s not a trace of undue pride except in the army he leads, and – no doubt to the astonishment of contemporary war gazers – he often respects the enemy he faces. He writes that one group of Gauls had “such an outstanding reputation for courage” he avoided giving battle until he decided his own troops could be even braver. He says the Gauls may be volatile and imprudent, but he doesn’t indulge the modern habit of name calling. There’s no moral posturing. The word “evil” is not in his vocabulary. He has his values – Rome – but the enemy has theirs.

Surrender by the Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix before Caesar

As a result, he is often parleying as much as fighting. Easier to talk an enemy into surrender or compromise than killing or being killed. Not that he would hesitate when the need arose. As he wrote in a rare personal description on the verge of an enemy attack, “Caesar had to see to everything at once. The flag must be unfurled, the trumpet sounded, the soldiers must be recalled from working on the defenses, and all those who had gone some way off in search of material for the earthworks had to be ordered back to camp. He must draw up the battle line, encourage the men, give the signal.” Battlefield victories followed.

Caesar was famous for fast forced marches that caught the enemy unawares and for rapid construction of imposing structures of assault by the enemy’s walls. On one occasion he writes that “never before had the Gauls seen or heard of such immense siege works, and they were so disturbed by the Romans’ speed of action that they sent envoys to Caesar to negotiate surrender.” In ten days with great effort he constructed a bridge to allow his army to cross the Rhine. After spending eighteen days intimidating the Germans on the other side to his “honor and advantage,” he returned to Gaul and tore down the bridge.

Early on, he faced rebellion within. His own troops were intimidated by the size and ferocity of the Germans they were about to face and panic set in. Rather than execute every tenth man Stalin-style, he gave a long reassuring speech in which he cited the weaknesses of the enemy and the firmness of purpose of the Romans. Besides, if they chose not to accept his lead, he would be willing to face the enemy with only those who remained loyal. In the event they all did and won a hard-fought battle.

In eight years Caesar achieved his goal of bringing all Gaul into the Roman polity, an area comprising present day France, Belgium and parts of Germany and the Netherlands. It was an extension that led to empire and the lasting reputation of the conqueror at the cost, to be sure, of untold lives and the occasional barbarity not unique to Caesar.

Instigators and enthusiasts of U.S. wars and proxy wars, by all means read “The Gallic War.”

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