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Julius Caesar against the Gauls

Wikimedia Commons: The Dying Gaul, Roman, circa 200 B.C. The sculpture preceded Julius Caesar by about 150 years and is based on earlier wars with the Celts.

Now that Fugue in Ursa Major has been sent out into the world to seek its fortune, I am already well into the research needed for the sequel. In the sequel, we will use some of the tools of science fiction to probe history, the better to understand how we got to this sorry state and to look for lost ideas that we might do well to recover.

A major turning point in Western Civilization, as I see it — if not the turning point in Western Civilization — was Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, a critical first step in bringing essentially all of western Europe (except for Ireland) under the control of Rome. This insured the near-extermination of the Celtic cultures and prepared the soil for the Roman imperial religion, Christianity. If one believes, as I do, that Western Civilization sucks in pretty much the same ways that imperial Rome sucked, then one must try to understand how we got to the state we’re in. Science fiction is a wonderful way to explore these themes. Good science fiction ought to be carefully grounded in its histories and in its science, and then it is free to ask, in plausible ways: What if?

I have dreaded the work, but one of the sources I needed to digest was written by Julius Caesar himself. It is hundreds of pages long, and it is mostly about boring military strategy. The book is The Gallic War. Caesar describes the conquest of Gaul in his own words. All the military stuff (at least to me) gets old really fast, so I speed-read through that to pick out the parts that contain other nuggets of history. One must be careful here, however, because Caesar was a propagandist. Part of his intention is to glorify himself, to glorify Rome, and to paint the conquered peoples as barbarians to help justify Rome’s treatment of them. The conquest of Gaul (the area of modern France, more or less) was almost a genocide. The language of Gaul became extinct within a couple of hundred years after Caesar’s military conquest. Latin morphed into French.

One thing that greatly impressed me was Caesar’s quoting a speech by a leader of the Celts, Critognatus, at great length. Caesar does this because he wants to show the speech’s “remarkable and abominable cruelty” (singularem et nefariam crudelitatem). Strangely enough, to me, the speech doesn’t sound cruel and abominable at all. It sounds pretty heroic, a cry for help and justice poignant enough to be heard and lamented two thousand years later. This is just an excerpt:

For wherein was that war like this? The Cimbri devastated Gaul, they brought great disaster upon us, yet they departed at length from our borders and sought other countries, leaving us our rights, laws, lands, liberty. But the Romans — what else do they seek or desire than to follow where envy leads, to settle in the lands and states of men whose noble report and martial strength they have learnt, and to bind upon them a perpetual slavery? ‘Tis in no other fashion they have waged wars. And if ye know not what is afoot among distance nations, look now on Gaul close at hand, which has been reduced to a province, with utter change of rights and laws, and crushed beneath the axes in everlasting slavery.”

I hear you, Critognatus.

Note: The translation is by H.J. Edwards and is from the 1917 Harvard edition.

Another note: Whenever I use the phrase, “Western Civilization,” I think of what Mohandas Gandhi said when he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.”


  1. Henry wrote:

    David, the history lesson was interesting. And I recall, I think you said at work a long time ago, that you were a Celt. Now I know what one is ;-). I am curious how you went about having your ancestral DNA tested. Will you elaborate?
    Thanks much

    Sunday, August 3, 2014 at 10:49 pm | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Henry… When I got the DNA test, Family Tree DNA was pretty much the only source. No doubt there are several companies doing DNA testing now. But to get started, have a look at:

    When you sign up, they will send you a little vial and a mouth swab. You mail that back, and then you get the results in two or three weeks.

    Tuesday, August 5, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

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