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Katherine Hochstetter
Intermediate Latin
Professor Friedland
24 Nov, 2014
Political Ethnography: Caesars De Bello Gallico
Andrew Riggsbys Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words examines Caesars portrayal
of the Gauls and Germans within the context of extant Romans accounts of European continental
barbarians. In Caesars ethnography the Other is .... described in terms of their lack of various
(implicitly Roman vices) (Riggsby 66), and in De Bello Gallico, historical reality is often
distorted through the lens of political motives. In this sense, Caesars writings are clearly
ethnographic like the others Riggsby discusses, but with a crucial distinction that Caesar
had clear political objectives: to portray the barbarians as Others and to reinforce Roman
identity. By juxtaposing the Romans and the Gauls, Caesar casts them as litotes, affirming
Roman identity through the negatives of the Other. In learning what Gaul is, his readers are
reminded what Rome is not. Caesar employs his political rhetorical purpose of de-civilizing and
un-Romanizing the Gallic barbarians, underscoring their status as outsiders and enemies.
Contrary to the Germans, whose conquering, as Riggsby points out, would be extremely
difficult, the Gauls are, in Caesar's view, the primary threat. Caesars Gauls do display a
semblance of what Romans would recognize as a society, however, what society they do display,
is backwards, perverse and even corrupt. (Riggsby 64) In book 1, the brash and
unsophisticated war tactics of the Gauls are highlighted, and Romans (particularly Caesar) are
glorified. Caesar takes great pains to describe the warfare-based society of the Gauls as
threatening to Rome, while simultaneously his judiciousness as a mediator in this dispute

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(even though he is attacked anyway). Despite Caesars formal denial in 1.8, the Gauls push into
the province regardless, ignoring his denial of access:
Helvetii ea spe deiecti navibus iunctis ratibusque compluribus factis, alii vadis
Rhodani si perrumpere possent conati (Caesar 1.8)
(The Helvetii, disappointed by this hope, tried if they were able to break through, some
by means of a bridge of boats and many rafts having been constructed for the purpose)
In contrast, the multitude of fortified efforts of the Gauls, in Caesars memory, fall easily to the
Roman forces, simply citing the strength of their works, their concourse of soldiers and spears
(operis munitione et militum concursu et telis repulsi. [Caesar 1.8]) While Book 1 is primarily a
generals war report, the violence described is only a preluding to Caesars even more politicalbased portrayal in book 6. The flames that blaze through the towns in chapter five, as Gauls set
fire to them (oppida su omna...incendunt [Caesar 1.5]), foreshadow to those flamma (Caesar
6.16) which burn their own men in book 6. Throughout these descriptions Caesar maintains his
rhetorical division: the Other has what might pass in the Roman mind as social and religious
codes, but lack a codified and unified system of laws long the pride of Roman citizens.
This sentiment is furthermore intensified in the lurid descriptions of Gallic religion, in
which human sacrifice (sometimes arbitrary) plays a central role. Laden with infernal imagery,
Caesars description of the rituals is painted as hellish and primal: men are burned alive,
surrounded by flames (as likewise, physically, is the word surrounded in Caesars phrase:
succenis circumventi flamma [6.16.5]), their own membra (6.16.4) indistinguishable amongst the
flame from those of the giant likeness they burn inside. However, even without regarding the
actual practice of the events, Caesar suggests that their motive alone is enough to appall. Such
sacrifices are firstly religiously ordained:

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quod, pro vita hominis nisi hominis vita reddatur, non posse dorum immortalium
numen placari (Caesar 6.16.3-4)
(Because they think that unless the life of a man be surrendered for the life of a man, the
mind of the immortal gods are not able to be appeased)
The perfect mirror-image structure of the language Caesar employs, vita hominis nisi hominis
vita, itself evokes the images of a strictly balanced scale, enforcing the implications of a
dehumanized transaction: a cold divine balance to be maintained, hominis for hominis. For
Roman, this language would reinforce the idea that like the Gauls themselves, their gods too are
unsophisticated, barbaric, unyielding and merciless, lacking any enlightenment of human nature
that Roman gods possess. Moreover, sacrifices are not merely religious, but much to Caesars
and certainly any Romans disgust, politically sanctioned: publiceque euisdem generis habent
institua sacrificia (Caesar 6.16.4) (They have sacrifices of the same kind instituted in public.)
The Druids are not only asked to, but employed (Caesar chooses the Latin utantur) to perform
sacrifices. The fact that such primitive acts would be condoned, but literally publicly sanctioned
(institua sacrificia [Caesar 6.16.4]), to a Roman, accustomed to such an act being only carried
out in unsanctioned secrecy, would be utterly un-civilized, and by extension, un-Roman.
Caesars portrayal of the Gauls effectively describes them as not only the backwards,
mystifying other, but a natural enemy. The Gallic society, as Riggsby points out, has a specific
tendency to wage war and is prone to fighting both individually and collectively (69). In 6.15,
Caesar describes the order of the knights, those of the Gauls who engage in these battles. Even
the choice of the Roman word equitum (Caesar 6.151) is politically charged. As Caesar
prescribes Roman attributes to un-Roman concepts, he reinforces the aforementioned structure of
Gallic society, but also draws parallels between Roman and Gallic tradition. Connecting this

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direct a parallel is effective for our politician Caesar. In the most superficial ways the societies
may resemble each other but Caesar is emphasizing a subtle difference-- the equitum of Gauls is
brash, belligerent and pugnacious; of the class, omines in bello versantur (Caesar 6.15.2) (all
are engaged in war). Caesar recognizes that although the Gauls have a civil structure, their
nature makes it even more threatening than the randomness (Riggsby 69) of nomads like the
Germans. The fact that the Gauls waged almost systematized warfare (prior to Caesars arrival,
naturally,) (quod fere ante Caesaris adventum quot annis accidere solebat [Caesar 6.15.1])
meant they posed a special kind of threat (Riggsby 69), which justified the urgency of their
conquering. As their perverse similarity to the Romans grows, the threat will only increase.
(Riggsby 69)
By definition, any account (especially one titled De Bello Gallico, in Caesars case) that
emphasizes the otherness of an outsider ethos simultaneously produces a reaffirmation of
ones own cultural identity. Caesar's rhetorical purposes are different from those of a standard
ethnography; he requires little subtlety when addressing the differences between the different
tribes and cultures. Ultimately, Caesars political rhetoric requires a simple binary comparison:
Romans and non-romans, citizens and enemies, us and them. He morphs all of the barbarians
together with common attributes: they are barbaric, rash and volatile (62) but most
importantly, they are not Roman. Thus, as Riggsby points out, even if there are in one sense
many different tribes, they are in another sense all more or less the same, since they can be given
a uniform description (70): the other, the enemy.

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Works Cited
Caesar, Julius. De Bello Gallico VI. Ed. H. E. Gould. London: Bristol Classical, 2004. Print.
Caesar, Julius. De Bello Gallico I. Ed. H. E. Gould. London: Bristol Classical, 2004. Print.
Riggsby, Andrew M., 2006, Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words, Chpt. 2, "The 'Other' and
the Other 'Other,'" pp. 47-71.