The Development of Gaul

In estimating distant historical events, one is often the victim of an error of perspective; that is, one is disposed to consider as the outcome of a pre-established plan of human wisdom what is the final result, quite unforeseen, of causes that acted beyond the foresight of contemporaries. At the distance of centuries, turning back to consider the past, we can easily find out that the efforts of one or two generations have produced certain effects on the actual condition of the world; and then we conclude that those generations meant to reach that result. On the contrary, men almost always face the future proposing to themselves impossible ends; notwithstanding which, their efforts, accumulating, destroying, interweaving, bring into being consequences that no one had foreseen or planned, the novelty or importance of which often only future generations realise. Columbus, who, fixed in the idea of reaching India by sailing west, finds America on his way and does not recognise it at once but is persuaded that he has landed in India, symbolises the lot of man in history.

Of this phenomenon, which is to me a fundamental law of history, there is a classic example in the story of Rome: the conquest of Gaul. Without doubt, one of the greatest works of Rome was the conquest and Romanisation of Gaul: indeed that conquest and Romanisation of Gaul is the beginning of European civilisation; for before the Graeco-Latin civilisation reached the Rhine over the ways opened by the Roman sword, the continent of Europe had centres of civilisation on the coast or in its projecting extremities, like Italy, Baetica, Narbonensis; but the interior was still entirely in the power of a turbulent and restless barbarism, like the African continent to-day. Moreover, what Rome created in Asia and Africa was almost entirely destroyed by ages following; on the contrary, Rome yet lives in France, to which it gave its language, its spirit, and the traditions of its thought. Exactly for this reason it is particularly important to explain how such an outcome was brought about, and by what historic forces. From the propensity to consider every great historical event as wholly a masterpiece of human genius, many historians have attributed also this accomplishment to a prodigious, well-nigh divine wisdom on the part of the Romans, and Julius Caesar is regarded as a demigod who had fixed his gaze upon the far, far distant future. However, it is not difficult, studying the ancient documents with critical spirit, to persuade oneself that even if Caesar was a man of genius, he was not a god; that from beginning to end, the real story of the conquest of Gaul is very different from the commonly accepted version.

I hope to demonstrate that Caesar threw himself into the midst of Gallic affairs, impelled by slight incidents of internal politics, not only without giving any thought whatever to the future destiny of Gaul, but without even knowing well the conditions existing there. Gaul was then for all Romans a barbarous region, poor, gloomy, full of swamps and forests in which there would be much fighting and little booty: no one was thinking then of having Roman territory cross the Alps; everyone was infatuated by the story of Alexander the Great, dreaming only of conquering like him all the rich and civilised Orient; everyone, even Caesar. Only a sequence of political accidents pushed him in spite of himself into Gaul.

In 62 B.C., Pompey had returned from the Orient, where he had finished the conquest of Pontus, begun by Lucullus, and annexed Syria. On his return, the conservative party, irritated against him because he had gone over to the opposite side, and having been given something to think of by the prestige that the policy of expansion was winning for the popular party, had succeeded by many intrigues in keeping the Senate from ratifying what he had done in the East. This internal struggle closed the Orient for several years to the adventurous initiatives of the political imperialists; for as long as the administration of Pompey remained unapproved, it was impossible to think of undertaking new enterprises or conquests in Asia and Africa; and therefore, of necessity, Roman politics, burning for conquest and adventure, had to turn to another part of Europe.

The letters of Cicero prove to us that Caesar was not the first to think that Rome, having its hands tied for the moment in the East, ought to interfere in the affairs of Gaul. The man who first had the idea of a Gallic policy was Quintus Metellus Celerus, husband of the famous Clodia, and consul the year before Caesar. Taking advantage of certain disturbances arisen in Gaul from the constant wars between the differing parts, Metellus had persuaded the Senate to authorise him to make war on the Helvetians. At the beginning of the year 59, that is, the year in which Caesar was consul, Metellus was already preparing to depart for the war in Gaul, when suddenly he died; and then Caesar, profiting by the interest in Rome for Gallic affairs, had the mission previously entrusted to Metellus given to himself and took up both Metellus's office and his plan. Here you see at the beginning of this story the first accident, - the death of Metellus. An historian curious of nice and unanswerable questions might ask himself what would have been the history of the world if Metellus had not died. Certainly Rome would have been occupied with Gallic concerns a year sooner and by a different man; Caesar would probably have had to seek elsewhere a brilliant proconsulship and things Gallic would have for ever escaped his energy.