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Book Title: Bellum Gallicum|
Format files: PDF
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The author of the book: Gaius Julius Caesar
Edition: van Goor Zonen
Date of issue: 1964
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Reader ratings: 4.8
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This is what I was brought to by a childhood of reading Asterix.
Unlike Asterix the injuries aren't restricted to black eyes and broken bones, nor is there a big feast at the end. The warfare is savage, and at the end Caesar tumbles into The Civil War that ends the Roman republic.
The fighting is savage on both sides. One of the Gaulish leaders, Vercingetorix, has the ears cut off or an eye gouged out of his own soldiers "even for a minor fault" (p157), Roman civilians are massacred on occasion while Caesar in his own account records the extermination of substantial proportions of entire peoples, sells the populations of captured towns in to slavery and in a moment of mercy has a hand of every man captured in one of his last campaigns chopped off to serve as a visual aid to clarify the folly of resisting Rome to the unenlightened. Though of course he could have been exaggerating to impress the people back home.
Part of the reason for the savagery is logistics. Tens of thousands of men roaming round Gaul needed food and fodder. It seems that an ad hoc supply network was created (p.174 and p.183) to meet Roman needs but in addition the soldiers regularly gathered in crops whenever they could and occasionally cattle. Vercingetorix, who led the big campaign against Caesar that involved most of the peoples of Gaul, is reported as realising this and advised that they should carry out a scorched earth defence, abandoning all towns that couldn't be defended against the Romans as well as starting fighting in winter.
What is striking about the Romans is their sheer bloodymindedness. In the face of overwhelming opposition they fight on. Soldiers ford the Thames and the Loire with water to their shoulders expecting to have to fight on the far bank (view spoiler)[ the Thames in the past was far wider and shallower than it is today (hide spoiler)] . They dig massive siege works - a ten mile ditch and rampart round Alesia and a fourteen mile ditch and rampart round that to defend themselves against any relieving force (view spoiler)[ this was apparently confirmed by excavations carried out in the reign of Napoleon III, although there has been some controversy if it was the right site or just another Gallic town surrounded by massive Roman siege works - this is also referred in Asterix (hide spoiler)]. Build bridges over the Rhine. Construct and repair ships. In short, join the army, it'll make a master builder of you.
Suetonius, admittedly writing The Twelve Caesars a good hundred and fifty years after the events wrote that Caesar lost no opportunity of picking quarrels - however flimsy the pretext - with allies as well as hostile and barbarous tribes, and marching against them; the danger of this policy never occurred to him. Understandably, Caesar's own account makes it all sound a little more reasonable than that, there is a fair attempt made to make it sound like an accidental bit of empire building. You know how it is, one day you are just marching against the Helvetii, the next thing you know ten years have passed and you seem to have inadvertently conquered all of Gaul, invaded Britain and Germany twice and written a set of memoirs putting the best light on your activities and lucky escapes from disaster.
From early on Gallic leaders seems suspicious of the extent of Caesar's ambitions, Ariovistus' (a warlord from beyond the Rhine) defence (pp.52-3) of his own role in northern Gaul seems to mirror Caesar's activities: I'm not the aggressor, I was called in by the locals to defend them, this big army I've got with me is purely for my own protection and not to threaten anyone...Gaul, however, was not big enough for the two of them.
Caesar starts out with little campaigns but is drawn in his own words further away from the Roman Province in southern France into greater offensive measures which provoke bigger resistance down to the massive effort of Vercingetorix and his confederates culminating with the defeat of said champion at the town of Alesia. There, besieged by the Romans he runs out of food, expels the town's population who are then trapped between Vercingetorix's and Caesar's lines with nothing to eat, only to see the relieving army defeated. After this there was another year or so of smaller scale campaigns before all Gaul was conquered. And everybody not dead presumably traumatised and in shock.
We get a picture of Gaul on the eve of conquest. A marked division between rich and poor. Larger states with annually elected officials and leaders in the south. Politics governed by clashes within and between important families for political power. It all sounds rather like the Rome of Caesar's own time but with a Gallic flavour.
There are some ethnographic snippets, a couple of pages on the Druids (possibly the most surviving about them that was written in antiquity), the use of hedges in warfare among the Belgians, that the Germans live off meat and milk (despite which when the Romans cross the Rhine they set about gathering in the crops that the Germans grow), that the ancient Britons paint themselves blue shave their bodies apart from their upper lip (perhaps this is why there was no British equivalent of Cleopatra) and had marriages between many men and one woman. Since Caesar presumably was too busy conquering to spend time skulking about the huts of natives observing their marital customs I have to wonder if his leg was being pulled here by his informants as it was about the elk, which he tells us is a beast with no knees that can only sleep by leaning against trees and is completely helpless should it fall over.
There's some interesting body language - while the Romans are trying to capture Gergovia the townswomen bare their breasts when appealing to the Romans for mercy but appear with loosened hair when encouraging their menfolk to fight more fiercely. Presumably they would have lost heart completely and instantly surrendered if their wives had their hair in buns or pinned up in elaborate hairstyles.
Something which comes to mind is that there are two contrasting narratives going on - one is familiar, the Britons and the Germans are 'other' they have weird clothes and habits, they are not like us, they are frightening enemies therefore Caesar's 'success' in over-coming them is all the greater, however in Gaul the narrative is different - they are like us, (well like the Romans) and not 'other' they have elected consuls, they have military discipline, they have engineering skills, in short Caesar portrays them as Romanised, however the two narratives converge - both groups are subject to Roman rule and can be subdued by Roman military and political talent. Rome recognises no limits to its rule, neither the Rhine nor the Ocean shall hold the Roman back.
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Read information about the authorGaius Julius Caesar (13 July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC), known as Julius Caesar, was a Roman politician, general, and notable author of Latin prose. He played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire.
In 60 BC, Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey formed a political alliance that dominated Roman politics for several years. Their attempts to amass power as Populares were opposed by the Optimates within the Roman Senate, among them Cato the Younger with the frequent support of Cicero. Caesar's victories in the Gallic Wars, completed by 51 BC, extended Rome's territory to the English Channel and the Rhine. Caesar became the first Roman general to cross both the Channel and the Rhine, when he built a bridge across the Rhine and crossed the Channel to invade Britain.
These achievements granted him unmatched military power and threatened to eclipse the standing of Pompey, who had realigned himself with the Senate after the death of Crassus in 53 BC. With the Gallic Wars concluded, the Senate ordered Caesar to step down from his military command and return to Rome. Caesar refused the order, and instead marked his defiance in 49 BC by crossing the Rubicon with the 13th Legion, leaving his province and illegally entering Roman Italy under arms. Civil war resulted, and Caesar's victory in the war put him in an unrivalled position of power and influence.
After assuming control of government, Caesar began a programme of social and governmental reforms, including the creation of the Julian calendar. He centralised the bureaucracy of the Republic and was eventually proclaimed "dictator in perpetuity", giving him additional authority. But the underlying political conflicts had not been resolved, and on the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated by a group of rebellious senators led by Marcus Junius Brutus. A new series of civil wars broke out, and the constitutional government of the Republic was never fully restored. Caesar's adopted heir Octavian, later known as Augustus, rose to sole power after defeating his opponents in the civil war. Octavian set about solidifying his power, and the era of the Roman Empire began.
Much of Caesar's life is known from his own accounts of his military campaigns, and from other contemporary sources, mainly the letters and speeches of Cicero and the historical writings of Sallust. The later biographies of Caesar by Suetonius and Plutarch are also major sources. Caesar is considered by many historians to be one of the greatest military commanders in history.
During his lifetime, Caesar was regarded as one of the best orators and prose authors in Latin — even Cicero spoke highly of Caesar's rhetoric and style. Only Caesar's war commentaries have survived. A few sentences from other works are quoted by other authors. Among his lost works are his funeral oration for his paternal aunt Julia and his Anticato, a document written to defame Cato in response to Cicero's published praise. Poems by Julius Caesar are also mentioned in ancient sources.
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