Caesar's battle-descriptions and the defeat of Ariovistus

Julius CaesarCaesar’s battle-descriptions and the defeat of Ariovistus

By Christopher B. R. Pelling

Latomus, Vol. 40 (1981)

Introduction: Caesar’s military descriptions mark him out among ancient writers. He paints them in them in the firmest lines: he is uniquely able to communicate to his audience the important strands in the strategy of a campaign, or the tactics of a battle. This tends to inspire modern scholars with an unfortunate confidence. We have a clear and definite picture of the course of events: we expect it to be an easy matter to fit Caesar’s narrative to the terrain and to determine the exact theatre of the campaigns and battle which he describes. Most of the modern topographical discussions of his campaigns are confident and precise. And yet our expectations have proved delusive. Archaeology alone has been genuinely successful in deciding topographical issues, as (it may be argued) at Gergovia and Alesia. Where archaeological evidence is not to hand, scarcely one of Caesar’s battlefields has been determined in such a manner as to quell dispute.

It is time to stop considering topographical questions in isolation, and to adopt a new approach. Caesar painted his pictures firmly; but how concerned was he to give accurate and precise detail? He was writing for an audience at Rome. That audience had no more than the vaguest notion of the geography of Gaul, and that audience had no useful maps. ‘Every day’, Caesar’s success brought new names of races, tribes, locations to Roman ears; ‘no writing, report, or rumour; had ever celebrated the regionswhich Caesar now conquered for Rome. Who really knew anything of the Nervii, where their country lay, how far removed from Italy anf Rome.

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