The Gallic War, by Julius Caesar

Friday, April 22, 2016

Caesar’s commentaries describe his campaign to pacify Gaul––modern France, Belgium, and parts of Switzerland––that took place from 58-50 B.C. Caesar’s work is an important resource for historians of Roman military tactics and imperial expansion, as well as for those investigating the tribes and geography of Western Europe. In terms of warfare in general, however, Caesar’s Commentaries (Commentarii De Bello Gallico or The Gallic War) are instructive for students of war beyond the “blood and guts” of battle.

Two examples of many bear mention in particular. First, Caesar illustrates Sun Tzu’s famous dictum, “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” His “anthropology” of the tribal culture and mentality of the Gauls and the Germans––their superstitions, “feudal” social hierarchies, clan loyalty, endemic inter-tribal warfare, proclivity for treachery and transient allegiances, and fear of strength and contempt for weakness––all at various times influence both strategy and tactics. He understands, as did Napoleon, that morale is to the material as three to one, that the “shock and awe” of superior Roman technology, whether warships, siege equipment and defenses, or rapidly constructed bridges, can turn the tide when the outcome is in doubt by intimidating the enemy.

Second, Caesar subtly describes in his own actions the qualities necessary for a general in the field. Time after time, at critical moments he rapidly surveys the field, identifies the breakdown in discipline or tactics, discerns the first signs of defeatism in his troops, and then quickly orders the necessary measures. Critical to this generalship are being physically present and leading from the front, calling on the centurions by name, and invoking the martial honor of his men, who are confident that achievement before the eyes of the imperator will lead to advancement and tangible rewards. It is Caesar’s singular leadership that made his veteran legions the most lethal––and feared––in the last days of the Republic.