|Up: PHiLES Romans, Gauls and Germans|
Caesar shaping Europe
Prehistory of Capitalist Cultures
Caesars Gallic War (De Bello Gallico)
Contents: How Julius Caesar created France and Germany Act I: Geneva Wall Act II: Pumping and closing the Leaks Caesar on culture differences Gauls are capricious Germans are ethnically limited Agricultural gods, cattle-breeding gods, and empiricism Horses Women Strange animals Writing Ethics Who are the "French" and the "Italians"?
An understanding of the present composition of the populations of France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany as resulting from the immigration of tribes is a complicated affair, but it is easy to say what caused the existence of France, Germany and Switserland as we know it today. That is done by one man: Julius Caesar. He logged his actions in his book Gallic War (De Bello Gallico).
At the start of his interference with Gallic affairs, Caesar faced a pretty stable distribution of Northern people that pleased him. His key concern was the Roman "province", vital source of grain for Rome. To its West the Roman province had the Aquitani. To the North, up to the Rhine a large number of Gaul tribes, dominated by the Aedui and Sequani. In earlier centuries these Gauls while moving in, had pushed bravery to its very limits, but life had changed, so we shall denote them here as the flabby Gauls. North-West of the Rhine were Germans. That was about it, with one dangerous exception: the Helvetii. Helvetii were Gauls but they were in a special position: In their South they had high Alps, in the East the Jura mountains. Their country laid open only to the Germans in the North, which provided ample opportunity to keep up a lively fighting spirit. So the Helvetii still were old fashioned Gauls.
All this pleased Caesar. The flabby Gauls formed the buffer to the Germans in the direction where the Rhine gains momentum and forms a considerable barrier, and the directly to the north of Italy there was a buffer of, first, high Alps, and next, a good treat of old fashioned Gauls.
But the continuing pressure of German tribes threatened both these buffers to collapse: some tribes of flabby Gauls sought to promote their interests against other flabby Gauls by calling the Germans for help, much to their own dismay after a while, but then it was to late: entire flabby Gaul noble families were taken hostage by Germans and send back roasted to their pater familias if grain supply was judged to be below the proper level.
The creation of France, Act I: the Geneva Wall
Though this was worrying, it was nothing compared to the terror that struck Caesar when he was visited, in Rome, by old fashioned Gaul messengers, asking permission, on behalf of their king, to pass, between Jura and Alps, along Geneva to the flabby Gaul territory with their entire population! (By the way, in itself not an easy plan to accomplish.) Apparently, the old fashioned Gaul leadership had got tired of the Germans and decided it was easier to just walk over the flabby Gauls and establish leadership there.
Contemporary France owes its existence to this course of thought at the Helvetian court, and Caesars understanding of its consequences for the security of the Roman province. If we believe his report in his book The Gallic War, it took him little time indeed to come to conclusions. Neither did he have much, if he wished, as he did, to refuse the request.
Caesar asks for a month in order to consider the request, sends legions and hurries himself to Geneva to build a 5.2 metre high wall behind a deep trench over the total length of 20 kilometres between Geneva and the foot of the Jura mountains. It is finished when the Helvetian messengers return to ask Caesar about the results of his contemplating the request. The answer is no.
The creation of France, Act II: Pumping and closing the leaks
The Helvetii, having failed to pass along Geneva, having burnt all they had
to leave behind, saw no alternative to the option of crossing the Jura
mountains. And this was not only an army that was to go a mile up and down, this
was a complete population migrating with all they thought wise to take in this
The Jura, Caesar does not deal with that, must have taken its toll, while at the other side, Caesar engaged in extensive negotiation with the complex system of flabby Gauls, engaged as it was in mutual rivalries, having sought support from Germans and from the approaching old fashioned Helvetian Gauls against each other. He got them behind an effort to jointly fight the Helvetian Gauls and the Germans. That is a cunning thing to achieve for a Roman, because the German leader Ariovistus already had acquired almost absolute power by kidnapping the children of flabby Gaul nobility, and the Helvetii acquired loyalty both on the basis of being fellow Gaul, and being old-fashioned.
But Caesar got the flabby Gauls together against the Germans and the Helvetii under the leadership of one of their dominant tribes, the Aedui, and chased the Helvetii back into the valleys East of the Jura and North of the Alps. Then, he had them counted. Their numbers had decreased from 300 000 to 100 000.
As a Roman, you fight only in summer, but the summer was not over yet. There was time left do deal with Ariovistus and his Germans. Caesar's soldiers needed some convincing that Germans were not, as was generally believed, invincible and that they were going to survive this, but then they cleared most of the Rhine West bank of Germans.
In this vein, Caesar continued in the subsequent years to create a stable flabby Gaul society under Roman strategic leadership, who naturally considered it to be their own interest to solve their internal disagreements without allowing the Germans to meddle in them, to keep the Germans out, and who believed, with help of the Roman Rhine legions, that it could be done. And it could, for the centuries to come.
Caesar on Culture Differences
It is highly interesting to read what Caesar has to say about culture and culture differences between peoples that, many centuries later, were to partly converge in their transitions to capitalist societies. His insight proves itself in his success in actually building an organised federation of the flabby Gauls by making them look for each other and the Romans rather than the Germans and the old fashioned Gauls for the building of lobbies to promote their daily interests. That quickly resulted in the "Roman" Rhine legions. Those legions largely consisted of Gauls, who got versed there in Roman procedures of decision making and command. Gaul culture, society and government got "Romanised". To illustrate the change: in their direct personal dealing, Caesar and German despot Ariovistus spoke Aeduan Celtic, which both of them had taken pains to learn, but some years later Latin established itself as the intertribal Gaul language. Caesar must be a man to be taken serious in his understanding of the cultures of the peoples involved.
Gauls are capricious
Gauls, Caesar writes, are certainly willing to cooperate with him when they
consider it to be their advantage, but as soon as they think it is to their
advantage to side with the enemy, they will do so. Gauls are always asking
around for news on intertribal affairs in order to quickly change to the side
thought to be the best. They thoroughly question every traveller, and
what's worse, they believe too quickly what they are told, thus often making
wrong decisions concerning their interests, being sorry for that later on. This
is troublesome to Caesar, but to the local Gaul rulers as well, who, in
response, had totally forbidden to talk politics outside the official tribal
meetings. But nevertheless Gauls, even their rulers, loved to listen to promises
made by Germans, who often succeed to lure Celtic tribes to start fighting at
the German side (where life usually turns out to be considerably worse than
expected, as a result of which they turn back to Caesar).
Caesar's response to this, after gaining control over Gaul, is to have an organisation controlling the German propaganda in Gaul, and to counter it with Roman propaganda. But his bottom line is this: can he convince (by promises, threats and hostages taken) a defeated flabby Gaul tribe to join the Gallo-Roman side, then they are allowed to live as a buffer against the Germans. Caesar will "accept their surrender", as he puts it. Do they retain their Celtic capriciousness, than, after defeating them militarily, he will not "accept the surrender". That means genocide: able bodied men are killed, the rest of the captured are sold as slaves (a group of slave traders was permanently following Caesars legions), whoever succeeds to flee dies of hunger or joins a related tribe.
In this, Caesar is following the general trend in the European intertribal relations of the time: Gauls and Germans acted the same in case of military victory. Fighting irritant neighbouring tribes, especially racially different ones, was like killing rats. Taking defeated people as slaves was like stealing cattle. Caesar was not special in this, and, more general, the contemporary popular view of the big difference in civilisation between classic Gauls, Germans and Romans is unjustified: probably the housing of the Roman elite was somewhat more sophisticated than that of Gauls. Germans simply had different moral views on housing: to Germans comfortable housing was viewed as decadence and actively discouraged by rulers by means of yearly forced migration policies. To elites of all races and tribes, life was good (except for the daily danger to get killed by sharp metal or poison), and to the common people it ranged from quite bearable in good, to starvation in bad times.
The Gauls had inherited an extremely good reputation of fighting from their
ancestors two centuries earlier. They had burnt Rome. They had occupied the
entire area between what is now called Northern Turkey and middle England. They
did not have a centralised government structure though. Their society looked
like the Roman in being based on agriculture (rather than cattle), with, by
consequence, a small rich nobility defining its power base in terms of land, and
a large mass of politically powerless poor (slaves and common people). The
poor were supposed to grow crop and be glad if after most of it had been
taken away in autumn, there was enough left to pass the winter without hunger,
or be hired as a soldier. Nobility were those who fight for their
power, taking crop from the farmer of the land they "protect". They fight
against 1) each other, 2) other Gaul tribes, 3) tribes of other races (Romans,
Germans). They extort food and other goods from their "subjects", from traders
and if possible from other noblemen's subjects in a game of distorting and
restoring balance of power. The third class in Gaul were the druids, a
class of priests with considerable authority. At their hey days, all druids,
from Northern Turkey to middle England, had an annual meeting where Gaul
nobility engaged in insolvable quarrels went for arbitrage. Druids had the power
to refuse sacraments and to deny the right to sacrifice to the Gods. Once that
was done to a Gaul nobleman he got shunned like the plague. Literally, because
the cursed were believed to cause the spreading of disease.
So these druids could handle a row. Caesar clearly needed their co-operation, but does not say how he got it. May be he left that diplomacy to the Gaul courts.
Party formation, Caesar writes, was raised to an art in Gaul. Everywhere, even within your own family, you seem to have had to belong to a "party". There were parties of parties, and so forth, ending up in two super-parties, the strongest under leadership of the Aedui, and a weaker one under the Sequani. The Sequani, needing alliances against the Aedui, had called in the Germans. The chief of the Aedui saw his charm offensive toward Rome rewarded with honorary citizenship. So the affairs of the flabby Gauls gradually got determined by the Roman and the Germans.
Germans are ethnically limited
Caesar had to win the Gauls for himself with a sword in one hand and honey in the other. With those Germans, honey was of no use.
His strategy was to forge unity among the Gauls, chase the Germans back over the Rhine, and then keep them there with a multicultural Rhine army of Gaul and Roman legionaries in which everyone features his strength. Gauls: cavalry. Romans: infantry.
What prevented the Germans to adopt a roughly similar strategy of uniting the flabby Gauls, but under German leadership? Ethnical narrow-mindedness, Caesar holds.
Gauls were divided and the weakest party under the Sequani had already invoked the Germans against the strong party under the Aedui. So the way to Gaul was open to the Germans. They advised the Sequani, according to their own German customs, to kidnap noble Aedui wives and children. After that was done, the Germans kidnapped the wives and children of the Sequani nobility, informing them that they would be killed in case the Sequani returned the Aedui children to their parents. Free grain supplies from Aedui to Sequani, and from there to the Germans began. But this involuntary "alliance" with the Germans was hardly thought by Gauls to be in their interest.
The German principle, Caesar writes, is that with a non-German you can do what you want. The Germans youth trains its bravery in highway robbery and plunder and everybody at home enjoys it, as long as they do not do it to Germans.
The Germans were unable to view upon Gaul as a garden to be kept and arranged in the right order, as Caesar did. Germans were not interested in "security". They felt they did not need any and trusted on their fighting strength. To display their pride and confidence, Caesar writes mockingly, they kept a large ring of arable land around theirs unused, keeping farmers out. But that is not a good strategy against Caesar: firstly, you forgo taxes from the people who would live there otherwise, secondly, empty land makes a fast crossing of a foreign army quite easy.
Agricultural gods, cattle-breeding gods, and empiricism
The Gauls, Caesar writes, have the same gods as the Romans, though they have different sympathies to them. Though the gods have Celtic names, Caesar simply calls them by the well known Roman names: Mars (war), Apollo (health), Jupiter, king of gods, etc. Gauls feel remarkably close to Mercury (trade, traveller safety).
How come Gauls "have the same gods"? Modern observers would think of copying or conversion in either of the two directions, which would make it unlikely that during the process they get entirely new "endigenous" names. Gods, however, are the focal point of clusters of concerns that people in a culture have, and what is basic to this striking analogy between the Celtic and Roman house of gods is the analogy in the way such concerns and fears are organised in the two cultures, both based on agriculture. German society, based on cattle-breeding, has "different gods", according to Caesar. Germans, he explains, believe only in visible features of nature that can be clearly observed to have a beneficial effect on their endeavours. His examples are: sun, moon and fire. Germans scorn the habits of Romans and Celts to maintain priests and make sacrifices. When they sacrifice, in the sense of suffering for a cause, like when they hunt down an animal, or fight the enemy, this is done for honour and not a service to gods. German religion is remarkably empirical: whether or not sun, moon or fire are helping you to achieve your goals is always clearly visible.
Romans and Gauls live essentially on grain, Germans on meat and dairy products.
Germans do not have sexual intercourse before twenty, despite the fact that boys and girls are scantily dressed in all seasons and swim together in the lakes and rivers (in all seasons). Freikrperkultur. Gauls and Romans drink wine, Germans drink beer. Caesar does not attribute this to the bad growth of grapes North of the Alps, how could he, he had already claimed that growing the corn needed for beer was not the German's typical way of living. No: Germans held that wine stimulated the female properties in man.
German leadership actively prevented attachment
of their people to a plot of land. This was doen by redistributing land every year. That
prevented excessive luxury of the houses built, which would lead to flabbiness
and the evil of ... extensive agriculture! All that was thought to be decadent
and leading to inequality: the smart and strong would deprive the simple and
weak from their acres or bind and extort them in other ways. This, the rulers
thought, would all end up in inequality, greed and factitious intrigues.
As true proto-Stalinists the German kings was combated evil by chasing the German population around over the Germanic region. Men did military service every other year, to keep up their skills and hardness. Coming out of service, you had to ask the whereabouts of you family this year. German society was not split into a rich nobility and a large number of poor, like the Roman and the Celtic.
Trade, a widespread, well known activity of a tiny, lowly reputed class of Roman and Celtic society, was neither desired nor even understood by Germans. At times when their war left them a booty, Celtic and Roman traders could come to buy it. Germans would not start selling themselves. A Germanic tribe was a unity with a strong sense of community and highly kept values, little cheating among tribesmen, no usurpation, and distrust of private property and trade. If they fought, or stole anything among one another, it was women. Such acts were performed under strict rules and considered honourable.
Horses and Culture
Cavalry was not the Roman's strong point. Gauls and Germans were much better
in dealing with horses and the Romans, seeing the necessity of fast raids, hired
Gauls for the purpose. The horse was the fighter-jet of the military in the
To a Roman, fighting from a horse was vulgar. Once Caesar needed to have a private conversation with the German leader Ariovistus on the plane between both armies. He put himself on a horseback and ordered his bodyguards to do the same. Their readiness to do so, under great laughter, was seen as an ultimate deed of loyalty to Caesar. Something like a president finding, in an extraordinary situation, his minister of foreign affairs willing to act as his driver.
Germans are proud to drive horses but despise the saddle. Caesar scorns the quality of their horses. But the Germans have a different opinion and do not breed Celtic ones, better according to Caesar. In pursuit, Germans jump from their horse to kill someone off who flees in bushes or between stones or trees. The horse is trained to wait were it was left.
Gauls often had with each horse not only a rider a rider but also a runner. The runner could assist in defence. In deep and fast raids the runner held the horses manes. This allowed the trio to attain unbelievable speed. The horse was trained to understand the speed limit during this type of raid and not to loose the runner.
In passing Caesar writes about the "women" (plural) of a deceased Gaul, who in case of really orthodox Gauls in Caesar's time still were burnt with the body of the deceased, with his favourite servants, dogs, horses and everything else the man had been attached to. So there was polygamy, but apparently with the Romans too, because otherwise Caesar's dealing with the subject would have shown more surprise or at least would have displayed an explanation to the Roman. But this conclusion of Roman polygamy runs counter popular belief among historians.
Though the Germans press at all borders, they had, in Caesar's time, not yet succeeded to chase the Gauls out of the Bohemian woods, Caesar writes. This is such a large wood that no one knows the other end. It houses all kinds of unknown animals, such as the Alces. They are like goats, but bigger, with blunt horns and without leg-joints. Once they have fallen they are unable to rise. They sleep by putting themselves against a tree, and people catch them by cutting the tree until it just keeps standing. When the Alces leans against it, the tree falls and you can just go there and take them, as in Shakespeare's drama Julius Caesar:
"...for he loves to hear
that unicorns may be betrayed with trees"
Gauls write in the Greek alphabet. They learned it from the people of the Marseilles, a Greek colony until well after Caesar's period. But the most important knowledge, that of the druids, was not written down, because writing leads to weakening of knowledge and memory.
German appeal to ethics in international relations
When Ariovistus, just before beaten out of Gaul, is asked by Caesar to
convene with him, the answer of this redoubtable German warrior is based on
ethical and juridical considerations in a most interesting way. Ariovistus
answers: if you need me, why don't you come to me? When I need you, I come to
you, and I do not come. What is your business in my part of Gaul? It is the law
of war that conquerors determine what will happen with the conquered; that is
exactly how you Romans act too. Just as I do not tell the Romans what they
should do in the exertion of their rights, so the Romans should not tell me what
to do in the exertion of mine..and if you decide differently then just try to
approach us. You will feel the force of Germans who did not sleep under a roof
for fourteen years.
Who are the "French" and the "Italians"?
The spreading of Celtic genes over modern Westerns Europe is greatly
Romans, due to the vast expansion of their empire and the need to have a loyal core of citizens and soldiers, sprinkled Roman citizenship liberally over the surrounding peoples. Northern Italy was ethnically Gaul, as was the Roman province. Vast amounts of Gauls, among them the family of Tacitus and many others risen to fame, became "Romans". Modern Northern Italy is probably essentially Gaul from the DNA point of view.
So is France. Its name suggests a "Frankish" population, but it was only a tiny part of the Franks that threw itself, as a small Germanic elite over the Celtic population, not driving them out, nor being able to change much of their Roman type of governmental administration or even the prevalent language: a kind of Latin with Gaelic accent that developed to what today is called "Francophone" and has little trace of the real Frankish German language.