PART VII: THE HAIRY MAN GOES TO WAR (1)
You've just completed one of the most contentious consulships in Roman history, checkmated your wealthy enemies in the Senate, and left a virtual criminal in Rome to maintain your policies with the threat of mob violence, terror and bloodshed! What do you do next?
"I'm going to Gallic-land!"
And that's precisely what he did in 58 B.C., setting off from Rome to take command of the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul. Caesar was in a precarious position politically. He was deep in debt from his political campaigns, and had made hundreds of powerful foes in Rome who were sharpening their knives. He had secured a provincial governorship (and immunity for prosecution) for an unprecedented five years, but would be at the mercy of his enemies the very moment it ended. Caesar had to use his time wisely if he was going to escape scot-free. But what could he possibly do to effect this?
Gaul was actually not the barbaric nation of stereotype, but was organized and civilized on relative par with Rome, down to cities, technology, trade and agriculture. However, it was divided along tribal lines, which made unity against a common threat difficult. Caesar recognized this, and used the Roman alliance with the Aedui as an excuse to cudgel tribe after tribe that presented a threat to them, certain that others would not come to their aid. He swathed his way back and forth across Gaul this way, conquering tribe after tribe and even warring against nations and kings that were friends to the Roman Senate. The historian Plutarch estimated that 2 million Gauls were killed or enslaved, numbers that today would rank Caesar as one of the bloodiest war criminals in history. Caesar's senatorial rivals concurred, although not out of any real concern for the Gauls, but fear of how bloody popular it was making him with the plebs! It goes without saying that the wealth Caesar raked in from his conquests and proscriptions was utterly staggering, and more than eliminated his debts from his consulship.
It can be argued that Caesar may very well have been operating in the interests of national security by attacking the Gauls (at least at first). However, several of the side campaigns he engaged in were little more than showboating for the crowd. He led a raid into Germany, literal terra incognita to the Romans, to punish the Suebi and other German tribes for interfering in Gaul, and built the first bridges across the Rhine. His campaigns led him to the shores of Europe, where he subdued the seafaring Veneti tribe in a protracted sea campaign. But his biggest daredevil coup was leaving the Continent entirely to invade the shadowy island of Britain in 55 and 54 B.C. To the Romans, Caesar might as well have launched an invasion of Mars. Never mind that it was very nearly a debacle and held no strategic importance whatsoever; it was exotic, and daring, and pushed Caesar's reputation to heights that threatened to eclipse Pompey the Great.
"Go big or go home" might have been Caesar's motto; he was a man who delighted in pushing the envelope, and it very nearly cost him his life on a number of occasions. In 57 B.C., his army was taken by surprise during a battle against the Belgae by the Nervii tribe, one of the fiercest warrior nations in Gaul. A massive force of them inflicted horrendous casualties on the Romans, killing most of Caesar's officers and threatening to envelop and annihilate them. It took Caesar picking up a shield and personally rallying the legions to give them the will to hold out until reinforcements arrived, whereupon they eventually repulsed and wiped out the Nervii force.
However, Caesar's ballsiest move in the Gallic Wars was during the siege of Alesia. The Gallic tribes, faced with utter defeat, finally united in a confederation under the chief Vercingetorix to repulse the Romans. Vercingetorix initially brought the fight to Rome in a big way, laying siege to Roman legions at Avaricum and actually defeating the Romans at Gergovia. However, Vercingetorix ultimately settled on a defensive strategy, fortifing and holding the strategic town of Alesia against the Romans and counting on reinforcements to break any attempted siege. Caesar did lay siege to Alesia, encircling it with a wooden wall. However, he also built a second wall around his own army to defend against a gigantic Gallic relief force. Outnumbered two-to-one and attacked from both sides, Caesar's army repulsed every assault, holding out even when the outer defenses were breached. In spite of the overwhelming odds of defeat, the Romans succeeded in breaking Vercingetorix's army, and effectively ending the war in Gaul. This launched Caesar's fame into the stratosphere and gave him a reputation of invincibility in battle.
Caesar owed a significant amount of his success to the fact that he was a better communicator than most of his rivals. His optimate enemies took pride in the fact that they were "superior" to the hoi polloi, and they dressed, spoke and behaved in the rarified manners that underscored this separation. Caesar understood that his power lay with the plebs, and he did not hesitate to speak directly to their level. As a result, he was able to convince them that, in his heart, he was "one of the people." This public relations genius extended to his messaging for the wars in Gaul. Caesar wrote his own historical account of the Gallic Wars (officially called "Commentaries" to avoid being taken to task for its many glaring historical mistakes and omissions) in the vernacular of the common people, with no rhetorical flights of fancy. Clean, straightforward and dynamic, Caesar's account remains one of the most readable and approachable Latin texts to this day. By controlling the message, Caesar was able to whitewash his defeats and his egregious crimes against Gallic civilians, once again hamstringing his critics and embellishing his image to near godlike proportions with the people.