Bloodshed and Blossoming: The Gaul Caesar Made
A review of Bijan Omrani’s book “Caesar’s Footprints”
[Editor’s Note: This review first appeared in the February 2018 issue of The New Criterion.]
“They make a desert and call it peace.” So the Roman historian Tacitus, writing at the end of the first century A.D ., describes the devastating result of Roman imperial conquest. Tacitus assigns these words to the Briton chieftain Calgacus, who faced the inexorable advance of Roman legions in Britain. When he wrote these words, Tacitus was likely thinking of the devastation inflicted on Gaul a century before by Julius Caesar. By any measure, the carnage Caesar’s troops inflicted on Gaul was vast. During the eight-year campaign, Caesar’s armies are estimated to have killed over one million Gauls, the entire population of the city of Rome at its height. Yet this bloodshed, like many mass outpourings of organized violence in human history, laid a foundation for future prosperity and cultural blossoming, and had an undeniably civilizing effect on the known world for centuries to come. From the perspective of a millennium later, another historian of Rome, Edward Gibbon, would write that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus,” the very period in which Tacitus lived. The history of Rome and its legacy for the modern world is shot through with this tension between rapacious, violent conquest and the spread of peaceful civilization, the famous Pax Romana. The original “culture warriors,” the Romans spread their way of life across the globe, bringing order and stability, but often taking no prisoners in the process.
Bijan Omrani’s new book, Caesar’s Footprints, explores this dichotomy, while offering an educational and enjoyable tour of the ancient Gallic-Roman society that grew out of the ashes of Caesar’s conquest. Omrani, in addition to being an accomplished travel writer and journalist, teaches Latin at Westminster School in London. He states in the introduction that his inspiration for the book sprang from a desire to further his Latin students’ appreciation of Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the Roman general’s own account of his campaigns. Any Latin teacher can relate. When the College Board altered the AP Latin exam in 2012 to replace half of Vergil’s Aeneid with Caesar’s dry military narrative, a collective groan was heard in Latin classrooms across the land. That Caesar was a master Latin prose stylist, known in his own lifetime as one of Rome’s greatest orators, who even published a now-lost treatise on style called De Analogia, is more often than not lost on the thousands of American high school Latin students who are frogmarched through his verbal quagmire of ablative absolutes and indirect statements towards a desperate last stand on the AP exam in late May. Omrani provides some sorely needed enrichment for the experience of reading Caesar, contextualizing his narrative in the cultural, historical, and literary landscape of Gaul, yet never losing touch with Caesar’s text itself, as evidenced by the Latin quotations from the Gallic Wars that introduce each chapter’s theme.
Ancient Gaul was a fascinating, exotic place, and Omrani’s work immerses the reader in its sights and sounds. The story begins where the Romans did, in Provence, the original Roman provincia (whence the name in modern French), excavating and exploring the region’s ancient foundations. Ancient Massalia (today Marseille), originally a Greek colony established by the Phocians in 600 B.C. , was incorporated into the Roman province and became an important center of education later in the Roman empire. Before Arles’ starry nights became the fascination of Van Gogh’s manic brilliance, its Roman precursor Arelatum was a hub of central importance, as the enormous amphitheater in the center of town and the sprawling Roman necropolis on the outskirts will attest. The Occitan city of Nîmes, probably best known for its blue fabric that clads the world’s legs (denim is “de Nîmes”), was founded as ancient Naumasus by a group of Roman legionaries who fought on Julius Caesar’s Nile campaigns. Omrani also accompanies the reader north into less “civilized’’ regions of Gaul named for the barbaric customs of the natives, including Gallia Comata, “Long-haired Gaul,” and, even worse, Gallia Bracata, “Pants-wearing Gaul,” where the natives eschewed the toga, the Roman symbol of polite society, for Celtic trousers! Beneath the surface of Lyon, France’s second city and gastronomical capital, lies ancient Lugdunum , the eventual capital of Gaul and birthplace of the Roman Emperor Claudius. Amidst the bucolic hills of Burgundian wine country stands Autun, a jewel of a city with some of the best-preserved Roman walls in Europe. Nearby, nestled in the woods of a national forest, lie the remains of the Gallic settlement Bibracte, lavishly restored by the French government as a sort of Celtic Pompeii. This entire sojourn is expertly narrated by Omrani, blending the absorbing narrative technique of a travel writer — this is his fourth book, the first three focusing on the Middle East and Asia — with the quirky erudition of a Latin teacher, who might stop to decipher a Latin inscription on an otherwise incomprehensible stone or lintel.
Across this Gallic landscape and beyond, encompassing its many peoples and cities, stretched the ambition of Gaius Julius Caesar, a young, aristocratic Roman with designs on power in the twilight of Republican Rome. Omrani’s training as an Oxford classicist is on full display in chapter two, where he narrates Caesar’s rise to power and the circumstances that led to his campaigns in Gaul. Through various political machinations in Rome, young Caesar had accumulated significant debts, and a decade of government-authorized pillaging in Gaul was the perfect way to pay them off. The proper Latin title of the Gallic Wars is Commentarii de Bello Gallico, or “Commentaries on the War in Gaul,” and this name points to Caesar’s real agenda that belies the seemingly objective military narrative. Though billed as Caesar’s field notes, the commentaries are actually the carefully crafted propaganda of a master orator and politician, portraying himself as a great leader of men fighting a just war against dangerous and savage enemies. Such rhetoric would prove useful when the Roman Senate recalled Caesar to face prosecution in 49 B.C. As is well known to history, Caesar declined this invitation, and instead made the fateful decision to cross the Rubicon with his armies, invading Italy and engaging in a bloody civil war that would make him Dictator for Life and set a cabal of Republican conspirators plotting the doom of this new populist tyrant. Omrani’s detailed and entertaining backstory shows how integral the Gallic campaigns were to Caesar’s overarching political ambitions and ultimate fate.
Thus the famous phrase that begins the Gallic Wars and echoes in the memory of many a former Latin student, Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres (“all of Gaul is divided into three parts”), is really more a statement of Caesar’s ambition than a representation of any contemporary political reality. Gaul was not a unified political entity in Caesar’s day, but rather a piebald agglomeration of different tribes and peoples, unified loosely by language and the mysterious and terrifying religion of druidism, which featured, among other strange rites, human sacrifice. The aspiration of controlling the “three Gauls” did not originate or die with Caesar. In the Gallic Wars, Caesar himself reports a speech given by his Gallic adversary, the young noble Vercingetorix, who in 52 B.C. attempted to unite the Gauls under his command to make a stand against the Romans at the Battle of Alesia. Alas, this was not to be. The Romans routed the Gauls at Alesia, and Vercingetorix met his end in the grisly spectacle of the Roman triumph, ritually executed six years later on Caesar’s orders before the temple of Jupiter in the capital.
Nevertheless, this elusive vision of the power of a unified Gaul lived on to inspire future Gallic leaders of men. In an odd mix, both Vercingetorix and his conqueror become models for later French commanders, most notably the French Emperors Napoleon I and his nephew, Napoleon III. The latter even erected a statue of Vercingetorix on the site of the Battle of Alesia, modern Alise Sainte-Reine, inscribed with a loose French translation of the words assigned to Vercingetorix by Caesar: La Gaule unie, formant une seule nation, animée d’un même esprit, peut défier l’univers, “a united Gaul, forming a single nation, and inspired by the same spirit, can defy the universe.” The mustachioed statue bears a striking resemblance to Napoleon himself. There is perhaps no better commemoration of the paradox of Caesar’s constitutive destruction. Almost two millennia later, France had become the imperialist colonizer, led by a man of Italian birth who filled the Louvre with Rome’s sacked treasures, and who memorialized himself with a statue of a vanquished Gallic resistance fighter in the language of the latter’s conqueror. Omrani appreciates this ironic complexity, and adds to its richness by exploring many other instances at which the legend of Vercingetorix and the Gauls have permeated French culture, even as they built on the infrastructure of Roman conquest, from late antiquity until the present day.
Omrani is clearly well read, and does not fail to showcase similar tensions in French literature from all periods. Chapter nine includes a delightful interlude exploring the work of the poet Ausonius, who wrote in the fourth century A.D., at a time when Gaul had been firmly established as a part of the Roman Empire. Ausonius’s oeuvre also reverberates with this tension between Roman civilization and barbarian other, yet Ausonius, a young member of the Gallo-Roman elite, now sees himself in the former camp. Omrani translates one fragment of a love poem Ausonius wrote for Bissula, a Germanic slave he received as a war prize for fighting in a Roman campaign against the Germans:
Born and bred beyond the chilly Danube, Bissula . . . a captive maid but made free, she queens it as the pet of him whose spoil of war she was . . . not so changed by Roman blessings but that she remains German in features, blue of eyes and fair of hair. A girl of either race, now speech, now looks present her: the last declare her a daughter of the Rhine, the first a child of Rome.
Now that Gaul had become fully Romanized, the barbarian terror had migrated across the Rhine into Germany. As Ausonius expresses his admiration of Bissula’s charming mixture of Germanic and Roman features, perhaps the irony escapes him that only a few generations ago a similar sentiment could easily have been expressed about one of his countrymen. Or perhaps he is all too conscious of this, and this awareness stokes his poetic inspiration. Ausonius is only one of numerous Gallo-Roman authors Omrani explores in the work, ranging widely across centuries and genres, and taking account of both pagan and Christian sources. Some of this might be a bit much as light extracurricular reading for Omrani’s high school Latin students, but an educated reader whose appetite is a match for Omrani’s erudition will be rewarded with a wealth of rich new material in his pages.
Of course, once the Napoleons’ imperial ambitions had receded, it would be the Germans’ turn, goose-stepping across the French border under imperial Reichsadlers forged in the image of Roman military standards. Even a cursory glance at European history will turn up scores of ill-conceived attempts to civilize the known world in Rome’s image, from Mussolini, Il Duce (derived from the Roman military title of dux , “commander”), to the Slavic Czars of Russia and Bulgaria (“Czar” is an honorific title derived from Caesar’s very name). On one hand, Omrani’s book is a grim reminder that the garden of Western Civilization has been often watered by the blood of the conquered, and pruned in the brutal form of Rome’s imperial image. On the other hand, the rich and complex society he explores also reminds us that this unwilling union of cultures can have beautiful and enduring results. This makes the work particularly relevant in an era of European political conflict centering on immigration that threatens Europe’s unity and traditional cultural self-definition.
Caesar’s Footprints opens with the arresting image of an Arab migrant crouched in an alley in Marseille, peeling rubber off a wire with a crude knife. Anyone who has spent time in modern France, or paid attention to its politics, knows that the presence of this cultural other in French society has sparked contentious debate. Admittedly, a few of Omrani’s attempts to map ancient migratory movements onto this modern paradigm felt a little jarring. Were the ancient Phocian Greek founders of Marseille really “migrants” in this context, or is the more traditional appellation of “colonists” more accurate? Applying today’s standards to the past can be a tricky business, especially to make a political point, and things rarely line up perfectly. Nevertheless, by looking back thousands of years at one of the foundational conflicts in European culture, Omrani succeeds at evoking the glory and complexity of the society it birthed and reminds his readers that the bitterness of clashing cultures inevitably also produces sweet moments of sublime humanity, as a bite of baklava at the Mosquée de Paris can serve to distract the mind from current political preoccupations. When sampling these morsels that are the byproducts of such bitter human discord, we are tempted to one-up Tacitus and marvel at the indefatigable human ability to “make a dessert, and call it peace” or to take heart against all odds with Vercingetorix, that what unites us will always be more powerful than what divides us. This reminder of the continuing relevance of the exploits of Rome’s greatest general, and of the omnipresent cultural web that connects our society to his actions millenia ago, is, for this reviewer, the most important achievement of Omrani’s entertaining and edifying work.
Caesar’s Footprints: A Cultural Excursion to Ancient France: Journeys Through Roman Gaul, by Bijan Omrani. New York: Pegasus Books, 2017. Hardcover: $28.