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Literature / Commentaries on the Gallic War

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Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres... ("All of Gaul is divided into three parts...")
The opening line, immortalised in Latin language classes.

Commentarii de Bello Gallico (variously translated into English as Commentaries on the Gallic War, The Conquest of Gaul, or simply The Gallic War) is the firsthand account of Julius Caesar's campaigns in Gaul (modern-day France), Germany, and Britain between 59 and 51 BC. During the eight years he served as governor of the Roman Gallic provinces, Caesar fought numerous campaigns against the Celtic and Germanic inhabitants of the area to keep the Roman colonies there secure and gain riches and glory for himself and his soldiers. To understand the text, you have to know that not all the things Caesar did were strictly legal under Roman law at the time (for instance provincial governors had no authority to wage offensive war by themselves), so the text was in large part written to justify his actions to the Roman audience and has to be read as such to make sense of it.

The Commentaries themselves are divided into eight books, seven by Caesar himself and one written by a supporter after his death, each covering a timespan of about one year. The books stand out from many of their contemporary works by virtue of Caesar's plain, straightforward style, which combined with the relatively exciting nature of the events Caesar recounts (Intrigue! Fighting! War!) makes them popular to this day as an introductory text for beginning students of the Latin Language.

Of note to wargamers: The Commentaries, along with the Anabasis of Xenophon (which serves much the same role in teaching Ancient Greek as the Commentaries do for teaching Latin, for much the same reasons, being written in an unusually clear style and relating a fairly exciting plot) serve together as the earliest classical prototypes of the After-Action Report genre.

As the work is in the public domain (by virtue of predating the concept of copyright by nearly two thousand years), the original text is freely available online. Those who don't read ancient dead languages might find this English translation a bit easier to follow.

The Commentaries provide examples of the following tropes:

  • Barbarian Tribe: Caesar paints a rather unflattering picture of the Celts as a group of savages that are constantly feuding and scheming against one another, faithless in their alliances, and savage in combat (you know, totally different from the Romans). He's much less kind about the Germanic tribes, who he describes as considerably more primitive than the Celts to the point where they only live for hunting and war and don't even have towns or agriculture.
  • Beige Prose: Caesar's writing style is considerably more straightforward and less poetic than other ancient works. It is for this reason that the book is often used when teaching Latin, as the simple style is easier for learners to understand than the more complex, florid styles of, for example, Ovid or Cicero.
  • Burning the Ships: When the Helvetii migrate from their homeland with the plan to conquer better and greater lands for themselves, they set fire to their old homes (according to Caesar: twelve towns, four hundred villages, and separate dwellings besides), and burn all the corn they do not carry with them. This is done so that "after destroying the hope of a return home, they might be the more ready for undergoing all dangers." They also persuade three minor neighbouring tribes to join them, and they too burn their own settlements. Later in the same year, the Helvetii and their allies are defeated by the Romans at Bibracte, and the survivors are forced to return to their old territory and rebuild their homes. Archaeology has never found evidence for the mass-burning of Helvetian settlements, meaning Caesar probably made this story up.
  • Human Sacrifice: In book VI (ch. 16), Caesar claims that the Gauls frequently sacrifice humans, especially in the face of war or disease. More specifically, some of them place their human offerings inside huge statues made from wicker which are then set on fire, burning the victims alive. We thus have to thank Julius Caesar for The Wicker Man (1973).
  • Infodump: Repeat after me: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres...English  Caesar's opening description of the geography and peoples of Gaul might be the most famous infodump in Western civilization.
  • The Migration: Book One begins with the Helvetii leaving for greener pastures as part of a power play by one of their leaders. They end up causing trouble for Rome and its allies in Gaul, prompting Caesar to respond with military force. Caesar being the only written source for this migration and it enabling him (awfully conveniently) to start a "defensive" war that resulted in him conquering Gaul, the actual facts of this may well have been different.
  • Playing Both Sides: Dumnorix of the Aedui worked as a licensed tax collector for the Romans, then used the money and influence he gained from the position to dissuade his countrymen from opposing the Helvetii while they fought the Romans.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Numerous instances, committed by both the Romans and their enemies. The Laws and Customs of War being different at the time, few people would have thought twice about it.
  • Rousing Speech: Caesar gives these to his troops frequently to spur them into action. Or so ''he'' says.
  • Third-Person Person: Caesar never refers to himself in the first person when writing about his exploits.
  • Virgin-Shaming: Averted. Caesar claims that the Germans give the most respect to those men who have remained chaste the longest, since it is considered to be strengthening for both body and soul. Also, sleeping with a woman under 21 years of age is considered to be one of the most disgraceful act imaginable to them. For background: Roman sexual morality was somewhat different from today's as well, regarding a man who was too passionate or showed love openly weird and unmanly. "Chastity" (not necessarily meaning the same it means to modern ears) was indeed a frequently extolled virtue in first century BCE Rome.
  • Written by the Winners: The Commentaries are a literal example. Our primary source of information about the Gallic Wars was written by the man himself who won them.

Alternative Title(s): Commentarii De Bello Gallico, The Gallic War