Comments on Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars

While Casting Lots tells some of the story of Gaius Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, his singular military achievement, in toto, was beyond the net of the novel. Nonetheless, no one can write a blog about Rome and not speak of the greatest general of Rome: Gaius Julius Caesar, and his most famous literary work.

So did Caesar write the Commentaries? According to Suetonius (Suet.Lives.Julius.56), Gaius Julius Caesar wrote the first seven books of The Gallic War, whereas the 8th book of the Gallic War was written by (Aulus) Hirtius. Caesar did not, according to Suetonius, write about the Alexandrian, African and Spanish wars, so their authorship is not certain.

Briefly, The Gallic War is a detailed description of the military campaigns of Caesar in Gaul starting from 58 BC. It opens with the war against the Helvetians, continues with the campaign against Germanic tribes, proceeds with an account of the Belgae, then the invasions of Britain, and Germany, then the second invasion of Britain, followed by the second invasion of Germany and fighting along the Meuse River, and finally culminates with the rebellion of Vercingetorix, the failure of Caesar’s attack at Gergovia, the successful the siege of Alesia, and the surrender of Vercingetorix.

Caesar never leaves the reader in doubt as to who the main actor and main hero is. Somehow, Caesar always manages to show up at the crucial moment and it is Caesar, and Caesar alone, who saves the day. The following is the longest single sentence of the Gallic Wars, which not only encapsulates his writing style, which is dynamic, flowing, evocative, and factual, but also demonstrates how the focus is always on Caesar:

“When Caesar, who had addressed the tenth legion, reached the right wing, he found his troops under severe pressure and, because all the standards of the twelfth had been collected into one cramped place, the soldiers packed so close together that they got in each other’s way as they fought, while all the centurions of the fourth cohort had been killed-together with the standard bearer: the standard was lost-and those of the other cohorts as well, including the very brave senior centurion Publius Sextius Baculus, who had so many terrible wounds that he could no longer stand, and when Caesar saw that the rest of the men were slowing down, and some in the rear ranks had given up fighting and were intent on getting out of range of the enemy, while the enemy in front kept pouring up the hill and were pressing us on both flanks, he recognized that this was a crisis because there were no  reserves available, so he snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear ranks-Caesar had no shield with him-and went forward to the front line, where he called out to all centurions by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the men, whom he ordered to advance and to open out their ranks so that they could use their swords more effectively.” Gallic War 2.25.1

The Gallic War is a detailed factual report, prepared year by year, of the events. Having said that, it is by no means an unbiased report, as noted above, Caesar always shines. The Gallic War was written to enhance Caesar’s reputation in Rome and was also written to justify his acts, which some felt were beyond Roman law and for which they wanted to try him. Further, Caesar presents Caesar as a much better, more balanced, more humane, and more just leader than do either Suetonius or Plutarch.

What did Caesar call his book, which we know as The Gallic War? We do not know. Caesar referred to his writing as res gestae ‘deeds/things done’ and commentarii ‘commentaries’, suggesting discussion of historical events. Certainly The Gallic War is not a particularly descriptive title, because The Gallic War covers the two invasions of Britannia and the two invasions of Germany.


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