Julius Caesar’s Gallic War

Julius Caesar needs little introduction.  By common consent, he occupies a high seat in the pantheon of Western historical figures.  But few can adequately explain why he was a great man.  A reading of Caesar’s most famous book, The Gallic War (De Bello Gallico), provides some answers and compelling lessons in the traits and attributes of a leader.  It is one of the clearest testaments of battle leadership and competent decision-making ever written.

In the spring of 58 B.C., Caesar assumed his duties as governor of Cisalpine and Narbonese Gaul (regions in northern Italy and southern France).  Soon after, many thousands of Germans under the leadership of an ambitious chieftain named  Ariovistus began to conduct incursions into Gaul at the request of one Gallic tribe seeking help from another.  It soon became clear that Ariovistus aspired to make himself ruler of all Gaul, and was strengthened in this ambition by the movement of some Germanic tribes all along the Rhine, all desiring to relocate to greener pastures in Gaul.  Meanwhile, over 300,000 Helvetii (a tribe centered in what is now Geneva) began migrating westward.  Caesar’s world became convulsed in ferment and turbulence, and he decided that unless decisive action were taken, Italy itself might be threatened.

Seeing these developments as profoundly threatening to Roman security, Caesar at his own expense raised and equipped a number of legions in addition to the ones already assigned to him.  Not bothering to get permission from a suspicious Senate (anticipating Hernando Cortes’s brilliantly unauthorized conquest of Mexico 1500 years later), he undertook the methodical pacification of all Gaul and later even the invasion of Britain.  His record of this campaign, On the Gallic War, is a collection of dispatches sent to Rome which were meant to describe his doings and achievements.

The book is written in a clear, masculine, terse style that shows Caesar to be a master of military tactics, political calculation, and negotiating skills.  It is one of the key texts in Latin literature.  Reading it, you feel you are with him on the march, as he crosses rivers, scales mountains, and plunges through dense forests.  You share his privation and those of his soldiers, as he is harassed and attacked from all sides by hostile tribes and the merciless vagaries of weather.  Not only did he survive everything thrown at him, but he actually conquered the entire country.


These are some of the qualities that enabled Caesar to triumph against odds that were almost always against him:

1.  He moved quickly and with decision.  Caesar never allowed his enemies to gain the advantage of speed over him.  Quick to pursue a defeated enemy, he always pressed his battlefield victories to finality by pursuing enemies until they were rendered helpless.  He was also always able to stay one step ahead of his opponents by being too nimble, too hard-working, and too cunning for them to cope with.  He knew his commanders and their abilities well, and was always able to provide the right mix of fatherly encouragement and cold-blooded ruthlessness in leading his men.

2.  He was merciful and gracious in victory.  In an age when brutality on the battlefield was commonplace, Caesar always treated a defeated enemy with magnanimity.  The benefit of this far-sighted policy was that he was able to win loyal friends and allies, and keep pacified areas from rebelling against him.

He succeeded so well in this respect that during the later civil war in Rome, when Gaul could have easily rebelled, not a single local ruler or tribe made any move to throw off Roman rule.  Gaul remained a Roman province for hundreds of years, becoming thoroughly Latin in speech and character.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that Caesar’s conquest planted the seeds of French civilization.  It is doubtful that Caesar ever saw the immense consequences of his conquest of Gaul, but the perspective of history has made it clear that his conquest set Gaul on the trajectory it would follow forever after.  His leniency foreshadowed his future greatness as a statesman.

3.  He was willing to gamble big when the situation called for it.  When necessary, he was not afraid to take huge risks.  He staked everything on a siege of Alesia, where a leader named Vercingetorix had amassed 30,000 men.  And he won.  He made a risky crossing of the English Channel into Britain to subdue some tribes there, at a time when the country was little known to the Romans.  With no prior experience in naval matters, he constructed a fleet of ships and ferried his armies across the Channel in a daring amphibious operation that could easily have come to ruin.  

4.  He never held his enemies in contempt or hatred.  Rather, he showed a healthy respect for the fighting skills of the Gauls and Germans.  There are many sections of his book where he describes in sympathetic detail the customs and mores of the Gallic tribes.  He never treats his adversaries with hatred, mockery, or contempt.  At the same time, he was canny enough to take hostages (obses) during negotiations, as human collateral to ensure performance of agreements.

The Gallic War is a classic of battle leadership and political maneuvering, written by an undeniable genius.  Caesar was the most complete man that antiquity ever produced:  he was successful as a military commander, a politician, an administrator, and a writer.  Later in his career, he would go on to propose universal suffrage for freedmen of the entire empire, a massive public works program, and just administration of the laws to alleviate the oppressive power of the aristocracy.  But all that was in his future.  We see in his book some clear foreshadowing of his latent talents as an administrator and statesman.  His transformation from the reckless, rakish lad of his 20s and 30s into one of the most just, wise, and enlightened rulers of history is nothing short of miraculous.

A suggestion:  if you decide to buy this book, I recommend the Loeb Classical Library edition.  It has the original Latin text with English translation on facing pages.  Also very useful are a number of illustrated scholarly appendices on Roman military tactics, siege engines, and engineering machines.


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32 thoughts on “Julius Caesar’s Gallic War”

    1. I beg to differ. Alexander the Great was the better General. Did more with less, spread Greek culture into the Middle East and left the ptolemies in charge of Egypt for centuries. He had all the characteristics of Julius Caeser with the addition of some very innovative military strategy.

      1. Good point, but I think it is debatable was to who did more with less. But without question Caesar was the more complete man. Alexander was all fire and energy, and never developed the maturity and seasoning that enabled Caesar to rise above being just another great general. Remember, Caesar was a statesman, a law giver, writer, and a reformer.
        Even assuming Alexander was temperamentally capable of maturing into a wise leader (and he was not), Alexander never lived long enough to see any of his projects to fruition. But I certainly agree that Alexander’s conquests had far reaching consequences for centuries. But France still speaks a Romance (Latin-based) language, and Greek has vanished from the Near East!

        1. Since he died so young it’s difficult to say. But he had accomplished more at age 33 than Caeser, which he himself admitted.
          I would suggest ‘Alexander of Macedon’ by Peter Green as your next read.

        2. I agree with you in one respect, Ceaser lived longer; Alexander was a terrible drunk.
          Had Alexander not died when he did, the Roman Empire may never of happened. When Alexander made it back to Babylon, he had heard of Julius Ceaser’s ancestors and their conquests. He would have attacked them with the same foresight Ceaser used.
          Ceaser was the more gifted statesman that is for sure, because Alexander died so young, he is merely the better military commander.
          However, Alexander’s magnanimity was the stuff of legend. He married foreign brides to consummate political pacts, and allowed the conquered to maintain their own way of life and religions.
          I suspect that Alexander’s methods were of heavy influence to Julius Ceaser and his train of thought.

      2. Alexander was good at conquering… not so good at actually maintaining. He pushed the boundaries of his ’empire’ way beyond what would have been sustainable and he gave no thought to implementing a stable government. Near the end of his campaign he had become delusional, aiming to conquer the entire world. Just that latter idea disqualifies him from being a better general than Caesar. A real general knows his own boundaries and the boundaries of the possible.

      3. IMO, the general who did the most with the least was Hannibal, and against a stronger and more determined enemy than Alexander. As much a genius as Alexander was, his nemesis was the notoriously cowardly and unimaginative Darius III, while Hannibal had to contend with brilliant Roman leaders like Fabius and Scipio, men who (very much unlike Darius) commanded the best troops of their day.
        Caesar, for his part, also faced enemies more resourceful than Alexander, and arguably had to fight out of more difficult positions than the Macedonian did (including the besieged streets of Alexandria, of all places).
        But the argument is all but academic. Those three, Alexander, Hannibal and Caesar, remain beyond doubt the three great military leaders of antiquity, each encapsulating if not defining different types of genius. Studying each one is absolutely essential, in my view.

  1. im impressed that you make time to read these books. after reading this review, i am tempted to grab a copy of this book.

    1. It’s actually not as hard as you might think, Seth. It’s just a matter of prioritizing and pruning out things in your life that don’t add much value to you. If you decide to purchase, it really helps to get a good annotated edition that explains things in detail with footnotes, introductions, and appendices. You really need this sort of critical apparatus, because some of the place names and references will not be familiar to modern readers. That’s why I recommended the Loeb series. It’s an older translation, but very accurate and erudite.
      If you like “The Gallic War”, you may also like Caesar’s other book, “On the Civil War”. The “Civil War” is emotionally written and describes Caesar’s role in his drawn-out duel with Pompey for mastery of Rome. It was fought all over the Mediterranean.

  2. Is there a way to adapt Caesar’s strategies to corporate world as Sun Tzu strategies were adapted? How both strategies would be compared, the brilliant western master of war and the brilliant chinese master of war? And as curiosity, is there any piece of strategy of war from persian/arabic world that survived till our days?

    1. The medieval historian Ibn Khaldun had some interesting ideas on war and empire, which are summarized in Malik Mufti’s article “Jihad as Statecraft: Ibn Khaldun on the Conduct of War and Empire” in the journal History of Political Thought, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2009). Here is the link:
      To study theories of war from the Ottoman, Arabic, or Persian worlds, it is best to study the histories of those nations and the great generals from each culture (e.g., Saladin, Muhammad Ali, Shah Abbas the Great, Mehmet the Conqueror, etc.). Dive in, man.

  3. Yes. I’m currently in the process of trying to write a book about what I think are the 100 most decisive battles in history, and Alesia is probably top 30 or 25. It completely changed the course of Western European civilization in terms of language, law, the arts, and so many other things.
    One thing I think you forgot to add is that Caesar was also an absolutely masterful speaker. Even Cicero himself said that there was no one better. Clearly the man had an enormous amount of charisma, and he was determined that nothing would stop him from getting what he wanted. In fact I would think that if there was a “Profile of an Alpha” series he would be a great place to start.
    Well-written entry.

    1. Yes, it’s a shame that none of his speeches or letters have survived. We do have Commentarii de bello gallico, the Commentarii de bello civile, and the dubious books on the Spanish wars.
      I think it was his big plans as a reformer that got him assassinated. He basically wanted to enfranchise freedmen of all Italy and later the empire, something that threatened the power of Rome’s wealthy. He had big plans to change things for the betterment of all the people. As we’ve seen in modern America, the rich don’t like it when their power is threatened.

      1. The wealthy aristocrats assassinated him for his plans threatened their power and affluent easy life. And they said it was in the named of liberty and freedom.
        Sounds sort of familiar.

  4. I enjoyed this article very much, being a student of the ancients (had four years of Latin myself in school). I also appreciated the article on Latin studies. How about something about Marcus Aurelius, and the stoic virtues of manhood? If I may request.

    1. Duly noted, Roby. Like you, I read Caesar’s Commentarii in the original and it is a very cool experience reading it in Latin. Something is always lost in translation…but I guess you could say that about any work of literature.
      Regarding Stoicism, it was of course a very influential philosophy for a long time. I have to admit I’m not a big fan of it (I find it depressing), but it does have a certain dignity to it.

      1. One thing to note in this context is that Marcus Aurelius wrote his greatest philosophical work (usually called the Meditations) in Greek, not in Latin.

        1. That’s right, he did. Not a bad feat of erudition for an emperor on campaign.

  5. one could argue that he did no one any favors, and the germanic and nordic countries have ultimately proved to have had better brain power and be better organised…..

  6. Indeed, there’s a reason this man’s name has for 2000 years been synonymous with greatness and glory. His ingenuity and drive were nothing short of miraculous.
    To add to point 2, there was a limit to Caesar’s mercy, and if he felt he’d been double-crossed his vengeance could be frighteningly severe. For instance, he slaughtered the Veneti wholesale after they took Roman ambassadors hostage. He was also hardly magnanimous towards Vercingetorix and his allies, and one of the major reasons that Gaul didn’t rise up during the Roman Civil War was because they were simply exhausted and depleted so thoroughly. Anyway, it’s an excellent point the author makes, Caesar’s combination of strength and authority with wisdom and mercy was one of his most valuable assets as a leader (something his adopted son would emulate).
    What’s also quite incredible is that Caesar was never raised to be a general: he was a politician first and foremost, and a very gifted one at that. It makes his successes in Gaul all the more astounding.

  7. No. 2: mericiful and gracious in victory. I guess if your only source on the Gallic Wars are the writings of Caesar himself, then, yeah, you’ll come away praising his mercifulness and graciousness (gee, Caesar describes himself in a positive light when writing of his exploits, go figure).
    Read writings of historians, both modern and those that followed Caesar but were not contemporaries, and you’ll see different terms than “merciful” and “gracious” used. Terms like “genocide’ and “slaughter” come up more often when historians describe Caesar’s conduct of the Gallic War. Heck, even many of Caesar’s contemporaries commented on the brutal ways with which Caesar fought the Gallic tribes.

    1. Yes, Caesar had an interest in portraying himself in a positive light. But we need to remember that everything is relative, man. I am not saying that Caesar was a 20th century humanitarian. Without doubt, when necessary he knew how to bring out the sword. But it was only when absolutely necessary, But in comparison to his often vindictive contemporaries, e.g., Sulla, Mark Antony, kings of the eastern Mediterranean) Caesar’s entire career shows a remarkable ability to win over former enemies with terms that were usually magnanimous. This applies to his personal quarrels with political notables like Cicero, whom he reconciled with right after the Civil War. Frankly, I think his leniency was one of the things that got him killed. He never resorted to proscriptions (i.e., kill lists) to deal with political enemies, and his treatment of subject populations speaks for itself. Gaul never rebelled, period.

      1. The Suebi tribe from Germania, who tried to take over Gaul, Caesar defeated them. When they retreated, he constructed a bridge across Rhine, crossed into Germania with his troops and went “Tywin Lannister” on the entire tribe of 400,000+. None survived. No other Germanic tribe dared intervene in the Gallic wars after that. The message had sunk.
        Lets face it, Caesar was a ruthless pragmatist above all. He showed mercy only when HE THOUGHT it suited or atleast did not hamper his agendas or Rome’s welfare. Sure he seems to have tried to minimize the slaughter when it came it Romans.
        But he was no angel. And neither do you want an angel as head of state.

  8. Thanks for a refreshing well-written article about a subject, Julius Caesar, that we have heard so much and has become so well entrenched in our historical and cultural fabric, we almost forget who we was and the question almost is lost, as to why he was “great.” Certainly we have learned from other great leaders in history and even in management on a micro-level, being ruthless on the battlefield has its benefits, but getting the hearts of one’s subjects truly makes leadership great. This is interested to know and I agree with the other comment, that this article makes one want to read the book. So much of history is written in a way that makes it work to read it, but this brings both the book and Caesar’s life back to life.

  9. > merciful and gracious in victory
    My understanding is he was a cruel mass murderer. Did the book skip over the vignette where he orders the hands chopped off some 20,000 men in a rebellious province of gaul?

    1. To confuse Caesar as good and gracious man is a mistake.
      He was good at what he did. As an administrator, general and politician with the responsibility of an entire country in his hands.
      You want a man like Caesar to be your head of state, especially when you live in times like that. But you certainly don’t want to cross him, unless you know that you have him. Cross him, and the next thing you know, your entire tribe is being crucified unless they are useful to him in some way or are Romans.

  10. If ever there was a complete man, it was him, maybe one other, good article.

  11. brother QC: i’m flying to rome later this week for the first time, and i am taking the Loeb classical library edition of this work! thanks again for the review

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