Julius Caesar (Part 3)
Julius Caesar Part 3
- HELLO and welcome to How to Take Over the World. This is Ben Wilson. This episode is Part 3 of the life of Julius Caesar. Before we get started I just want to remind you that you can reach me at Ben@httotw.com. Feel free to send me questions, comments, feedback, any requests for types of episodes you would like to hear, etc.
- Okay before we dive in, let’s summarize where we are at in the life of Caesar. He was born in Rome to a family that was upper-class but somewhat poor. As a boy he was gifted and precious, he was one of the only people to stand up to the dictator Cinna and live to tell the tale. He gets a great education, serves bravely and capably in the Roman army, and eventually has a long and distinguished political career. This career is fueled by a massive amount of debt, most of it issued by an unbelievably rich Roman named Crassus. Caesar is the governor of Spain, where he puts down some rebellious tribesmen and proves to be a very capable general. He comes back to Rome where he resumes his political career, and becomes consul, which is the top position in Roman politics. His year as consul is very strange and marked by legal irregularities, but he is able to accomplish a lot by partnering with the other two most powerful men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus, in an informal alliance known as the first triumvirate. After his year as consul, Caesar leaves to become the governor of Gaul, an area roughly corresponding to modern day France. Upon arriving in Gaul, Caesar finds himself quickly embroiled in war, first with a tribe called the Helvetii, then with a tribe of Germans, and finally with a collection of Gallic tribes called the Belgae. Caesar is nearly defeated, but manages to rally his troops, defeat the Belgae, and establish control over even more territory in Gaul. And that is where we left off.
- The next year, in 54 BC, there are some rebellions in the north of Gaul, which Caesar manages to put down. They thought they could escape Roman rule because they were seafaring Gauls. They just figured when Caesar marches up with his big army, we will sail out into the English channel in our ships and they won’t be able to do anything. Caesar has to build a fleet made up of an entirely new type of ship to fight naval battles with these rebels. The Romans historically built ships for the Mediterranean, which is very different from the English Channel, which is windier and has choppier water. But Caesar develops and builds this new type of ship and uses them to put down this rebellion.
- The year after that, in 55 BC, Caesar has another issue pop up when he has some more Germans come over the Rhine. Remember the Rhine was the unofficial dividing line between Gaul and Germany and the Romans did not like the Germans. So this is a problem for Caesar that Germans are moving closer to Rome through Gaul. So he charges over with his army, takes their leadership hostage, defeats these Germanic tribes, sends them running, and then he decides he wants to send a message. He is concerned that these Germans feel too safe over on the other side of the Rhine. So he wants to punish them.
- Caesar marches his army to the Rhine river, this natural border between Gaul and Germany. Now because the Rhine is such a massive, swift-moving river, no bridge had ever been built over it at this point in history. It was just too big. It is way bigger than any river in Italy. So the Gauls, who are very happy that Caesar has just driven off this tribe of Germans, offer to ferry his army across the Rhine on rafts.
- But Caesar declines their offer. He wants to send a message that the Germans won’t forget any time soon. So he builds the world’s first bridge over the Rhine. This is a major production. Don’t think just because it was 2,000 years ago that this is some skimpy primitive bridge. They have trained engineers and they use cranes and other pretty sophisticated technology, this is a real bridge. And they build it in only 10 days. After 10 days they march onto the other side of the river to find that the Germans are all gone. From the German perspective, the bridge that Caesar just built would be the most sophisticated piece of engineering that they had ever seen in their entire lives. This really freaks them out so they abandon their villages and flee to the interior of the country. Caesar doesn’t have the time to chase them all the way into the interior of Germany, he needs to be present in Gaul especially with minor rebellions popping up every year, so he burns some nearby German villages, then turns around and marches back across the Rhine into Gaul, and destroys the bridge behind him, as if to say “This wasn’t even hard for us.”
- This is a big statement that no, you are not safe from Caesar just because you are on the other side of the Rhine. It is very effective, the Germans won’t cross the Rhine in any major way for years afterward.
- It is also great PR back home. As we have established, the Romans hated Germans, so the fact that he took the fight to their side of the Rhine really plays well back home.
- In 55 BC, Caesar was not done with publicity stunts. He decides to invade Britain.
- His stated reason for doing it was to punish some of the Gauls who had rebelled and then retreated across the English Channel to Britain to escape punishment.
- But let’s be honest, everything Caesar did, he did with an eye toward his political career in Rome. This whole operation was impressive in part not only because he was gaining a fortune, winning battles, and bringing new territory under Roman control, but he was also going where no Roman soldier had ever gone before. He was kind of like the Roman Indiana Jones. That was impressive and sexy in Gaul, but it was even more so in Britain. For the Romans, Britain was like Skull Island from King Kong.
- There were rumors that giants lived there, legends of huge monstrous beasts, untold fortunes of precious metals and pearls. Some people didn’t even think it really existed. So for Caesar to take an army there, he would really seem like Indiana Jones. Even if he didn’t conquer anything, going to Britain would give him a big boost back in Rome.
- Caesar builds a fleet for part of his army, and they set out. And the first place they come is the cliffs of Dover. The Cliffs of Dover are bright white and 300 feet tall. And to top off the scene, the tribes in Britain had heard that Caesar was coming, so tribal warriors are standing at the top of the cliffs, painted blue with war paint, as was their custom. Can you imagine what a sight that must have been? You are setting sail for Skull Island at the end of the world and you sail up to it and the first thing you see are enormous bright white cliffs with tall blue people standing at the top of them for as far as they eye can see in both directions.
- And it did freak out Caesar’s soldiers. When they land they are attacked by the English tribesmen and the Roman soldiers don’t want to get out of their ships. But after some cajoling and encouragement they do, and the Romans establish a beachhead and a base camp in England.
- The invasion itself is a little anticlimactic. They fight some skirmishes and one decent sized battle, which the Romans win. But it isn’t enough to establish any real control. When autumn comes they have to get back across the channel to settle into winter camp in Gaul. Caesar does have ambitions to do more in Britain, so he has his men build a new and improved fleet to cross the channel while they are in winter camp. In the mean time, Caesar heads back to his headquarters in northern Italy for the winter.
- In the spring of 54 BC, Caesar writes a book called On Analogy. It is basically a style guide for Latin that recommends simple, straight-forward speech over highly ornamental speech. Unfortunately, that work is now lost, though we do have fragments. At one point he says to “Avoid strange and unfamiliar words as a sailor avoids rocks at sea.” The book was very well received by the political and literary establishments of the day. So in addition to being the Dwight Eisenhower, Indiana Jones, and John F Kennedy of his day, Caesar is also sort of ancient Rome’s Ernest Hemingway.
- It is interesting that he would dedicate so much time to a style guide on writing at a time when he was so dedicated to war. And yet it’s not surprising. We have seen that all of the most powerful men in history have been exceptional communicators and have devoted significant amounts of time to perfecting the art of effective communication. Caesar was no different.
- After publishing the book Caesar heads up to Northern Gaul where he prepares for his second invasion of Gaul. But there is a hiccup. The Romans did not have great cavalry, so for cavalry they relied on men from allied tribes in Gaul and Germany. So as Caesar gets ready for his second invasion of Britain, he calls for allied cavalry from all over Gaul to come join him.
- Besides the obvious strategic benefits of having effective cavalry, there is another reason Caesar does this. The cavalry was made up of the ruling class of Gaul. Regular peasants fought on foot but nobles had the money to afford a horse and they fought on horseback. So when Caesar takes his cavalry with him, he’s taking almost the entire nobility of Gaul, which gives them a lot less of a chance to hatch plots and schemes behind his back in Gaul.
- There is one noble by the name of Dumnorix who doesn’t want to get on the boats for Britain. He has all these excuses for why he doesn’t want to go. First he says he’s deathly afraid of sailing. Then he says he’s feeling sick and not up to it. And then finally he says he has religious obligations back home. But Caesar knows what is really going on. This guy is ambitious. His name, Dumnorix, literally means king of the world, a goal that we fully support here at How to Take Over the World. And he had made trouble before, so Caesar knows Dumnorix is just waiting to try to make himself king behind Caesar’s back. So he tells Dumnorix you are getting on the boat with me whether you like it or not.
- Rather than get on the boat, Dumnorix runs away. Caesar sends some cavalry after him and tells them to bring him back, dead or alive. They catch Dumnorix and surround him but he refuses to surrender. So they charge him. As he is about to be killed, he yells “I AM A FREE MAN OF A FREE PEOPLE.” Dumnorix dies, but that war cry would come back to haunt Caesar.
- The second invasion of Britain is not much better than the first. There are some bigger battles, and Caesar establishes a little bit larger of a Roman presence, but he has to cut off the invasion early because things have started to go haywire, both in Rome and in Gaul. So he and his armies sail back to Gaul, and no Roman army would return to Britain for a hundred years.
- Back in Gaul, people were up in arms because of a bad harvest. Caesar blames this on an unusually hot summer, although it might also have had something to do with him bringing a massive amount of warfare to the region over the previous five years.
- That winter, some tribes in central Gaul who were allied to the Romans, decide that Caesar’s attention is elsewhere and this is a good time to rise up and rebel. They betray the Roman legion in the area and slaughter them all; They leave virtually no survivors.
- Caesar is embarrassed and pissed off by this turn of events. So he plans a punitive campaign for the next year.
- Early in the spring of 53 BC with snow still on the ground he takes the rest of his legions and blitzes the rebels and starts winning battle after battle. They are unprepared for how early and fast his campaign is. The tribe at the heart of this rebellion, the ones who had slaughtered his troops, were called the Eburones. (I’m probably pronouncing that wrong) Eventually they decide they have had enough of getting kicked around by Caesar, so they come up with a new strategy. They run and hide from Caesar wherever he goes. He’s marching back and forth through their territory but remember, this is not a very settled or urban civilization. They can just pull up stakes and move around to keep from getting attacked by his troops.
- So after a while of not being able to actually attack, Caesar comes up with a new strategy. He calls together all the other tribes in Gaul and basically declares a yard sale in Eburones territory. He declares it open season to kill, plunder, and steal whatever they want with no repercussions. In fact, the Roman legions will protect them as much as possible as they do this. This creates utter devastation. I mean imagine a Walmart saying anyone can take whatever they want for free. How many people would come and how crazy would the chaos be? This is like that x100. Remember, Gauls love to raid, that was what their civilization was built around. Most of these tribes had no special hatred for the Eburones, but free raiding? They can’t pass up on that! And furthermore this announcement induces panic among the tribes. They are afraid if they don’t get to the Eburones first, someone else will get all the free stuff. This strategy is far more devastating than a formal war could have been. The tribe is completely wiped off the map. Within a few months there no longer is such a thing as the Eburones tribe.
- This goes to show how powerful incentives are. You can try to force people to do something and set up tons of systems and monitoring programs and everything you can do to try to change their behavior. But it will be really expensive and at the end of the day it still might not work that well. Then you set up an incentive program and suddenly you get exactly what you were looking for in no time at all. Caesar understood the power of incentives and he put them to deadly use against the Eburones.
- Once that is all wrapped up, Caesar again heads to his HQ in Northern Italy for the winter of 53 BC, and things have gotten even worse. Crassus, one third of the triumvirate, had died. This compounded the fact that Caesar’s daughter, Julia, the wife of Pompey, had died in child birth the previous year. The death of Julia was heart-breaking for both Caesar, who was a doting father, and Pompey, who had a happy and loving marriage with her. On a political level, the marriage was the last thing tying Pompey to Caesar. So with Crassus dead and Pompey and Caesar no longer bound by marriage, the first triumvirate, the alliance that held nearly complete political control in Rome, was in tatters.
- This created instability and chaos back in Rome. The senate building was burned to the ground. There was regular political violence on the streets of Rome. Things were bad.
- Caesar is in northern Italy trying his best to manage it all. He legally couldn’t return to Rome, his command was in Gaul, but he was staying as close as he could to try to keep in some contact. Caesar is in a desperate situation. Crassus is dead and Pompey no longer feels any loyalty to him. So instead of being a part of a triumvirate controlling Rome, he has to watch from afar as Pompey becomes the dominant political force in Rome. Again he’s doing as much as he can to avoid this and stay relevant but there is only so much you can do with letter writing when Pompey is actually there in Rome taking control.
- The Gauls are aware of all of this. And they start to think Caesar might be distracted and vulnerable. They were also just now starting to become aware of how much things had changed. It had been more than 6 years since Caesar had first marched in with his troops and they’re realizing, oh wow, we are really not in charge anymore, Caesar is. They don’t like the taxes. They don’t like the fact that they were not able to raid, which is a major problem since their whole society was built around raiding. And they don’t like the fact that Caesar thinks he can execute whomever he would like, which he did with that guy Dumnorix as well as another prominent noble. They start thinking back to the words of Dumnorix “I AM A FREE MAN OF A FREE PEOPLE,” and they start asking themselves if they are still a free people.
- So they decide, okay Caesar is distracted by all this turmoil back home, he might not even be able to come back, it’s now or never if we are going to throw off Roman rule. So all the nobles from all over Gaul get together and make a rebellion pact.
- They put in charge a Gallic noble named Vercingetorix. He is from southern Gaul in an area that was right next to Transalpine Gaul, Roman Gaul, so he had a lot of exposure to Rome and the classical world. And he brings a much more Roman style of warfare to the Gauls. Vercingetorix was organized, he demanded Roman-like discipline from his troops, and he placed heavy emphasis on supply lines and provisioning his army. For once, Caesar was going to be fighting a somewhat disciplined, coordinated army in Gaul.
- Vercingetorix does some really smart things, he organizes a small invasion of transalpine Gaul to keep Caesar occupied and then cuts him off from his armies in the north. Caesar has a problem, he has very few forces with him, but in order for his forces to reach him, they would have to fight their way through Gaul without his leadership. The one place the Gauls haven’t cut off is the mountains of the Massif Central. But they’re covered in six feet of snow. But Caesar with his typical determination decides that his armies need him and he arranges a journey through the mountains of Massif Central.
- No traveler had ever gone through them in winter, and it catches Vercingetorix by surprise. Caesar pulls it off and meets up with his armies in central Gaul, where they start pillaging and burning.
- Vercingetorix watches this grimly and decides on a counter-plan: Slash and burn. The Romans basically have no Gallic allies left at this point, nobody left to supply them. Vercingetorix realizes they haven’t been able to beat them in open warfare up to this point, so he decides to burn any and all villages, supplies, and crops near Caesar and retreat. The idea is to leave Caesar’s troops stranded and starve them. Of course the tribes of central Gaul who are going to actually have to burn their crops and villages are not necessarily thrilled with this plan. But Vercingetorix manages to convince them. Here is what Caesar quotes Vercingetorix as saying in his commentaries. Quote: “If this plan seems drastic or cruel to you, consider that it will be worse if instead your wives and children are dragged away into slavery while you are slaughtered – for that is the fate of the conquered.”
- The other tribal leaders listen to Vercingetorix but they want to spare just one city. The city is called Avaricum, and it is full of food stores and supplies but they think it is so well fortified, no one could possibly conquer it. So what is the point of destroying it? Vercingetorix says no, we need to burn all the cities. But the other tribal leaders insist that Avaricum be spared, and eventually Vercingetorix relents.
- Vercingetorix’s strategy of slashing and burning works really well, and Caesar’s army starts to run out of food. It is starting to look desperate, so they have to go besiege the one city left in their vicinity, the supposedly impenetrable Avaricum. Well Caesar quickly realizes why they thought it would be okay to leave this city. This city is set on a hill with cliffs on almost every side, and rivers at the bottom of the cliffs. The city truly is nearly impossible to storm. But Caesar sets about solving this problem in a very Roman way.
- There is a quote from a British general in World War 2, who said “Americans don’t solve their problems, they overwhelm them.” and you could easily say the same thing about the Romans. And the way they do so here Is they just level the ground. They work day and night for 25 days to build a massive ramp, three hundred feet wide and eighty feet tall. The soldiers have run out of food and they are starving as they work on the thing, but Caesar, being the great general that he is, is able to keep them hard at work.
- Finally at the end of 25 days they finish this huge ramp. So men can just run up a gentle incline to the top of the walls around the city and attack. The Roman soldiers quickly storm the defenses and conquer the city.
- I love this idea of overwhelming your problems. Not every problem has an elegant, smart, inexpensive solution. Sometimes you just have to build a 300 foot ramp. And Caesar did this repeatedly, from building a fleet with a new kind of boat that he had just engineered to building a bridge over the Rhine river. I think there is a specific mindset that skips over the idea of impossible, and Caesar had that.
- When Caesar conquers Avaricum, it is a major setback for the Gauls because Caesar’s army now have enough supplies to get wherever they want. Neverthless, this actually increases the authority of Vercingetorix, who now looks like a genius, because he was the one who said not to spare Avaricum.
- Caesar can strike anywhere in Gaul next, but he decides to make a statement: He attacks Vercingetorix’s hometown of Gergovia. Caesar besieges the town, and at first it’s going well, but at one point he sends his men on an attack that goes wrong and over 700 men are killed. This is a big defeat and it forces Caesar to retreat from the city. Not necessarily because of the number of men he lost but because such a big defeat destroyed the confidence of his men. Remember how important morale was to Caesar. So he pulls his forces back from Gergovia and starts marching away.
- At this point Vercingetorix mistakenly believes that the Romans are broken and in an all-out retreat. So he follows them and tries to attack them in open country. This is a mistake, the Romans were marching in good order and are able to beat back the Gallic attack and score a major victory.
- Most Gallic armies would just split up and melt away after they were defeated, but Vercingetorix manages to organize a retreat and moves his troops to a well-fortified town called Alesia. Caesar follows them and besieges this city.
- This battle at Alesia ends up going down with Canae, Hastings, Stalingrad, and Waterloo as one of the greatest battles in history. And one of the most fascinating and unique.
- To start, Caesar has his forces builds a siege wall all the way around Alesia. It is this massive construction project, the wall was eleven miles long and had 24 towers. Just before the wall closes around Alesia, Vercingetorix sends his cavalry out of the city. They won’t do much good in a siege anyway, and he tells them to all go back to their home tribes and raise as big of an army as they can. And then Vercingetorix and his army sit and wait.
- These cavalrymen who go back to their tribes find their countrymen ready to fight. So they return to Alesia with what is described as the largest army of Gauls ever assembled. When Caesar hears that this army has been raised, he has his army turn around and build another wall facing the opposite direction to protect them. So basically they have built this giant camp with a wall facing in to besiege Vercingetorix in Alesia, and a wall facing out to defend against the relief army.
- These fortifications are crazy. It’s not just a wall with some towers. On each side they build what I can only describe as deadly obstacles courses. They dig two trenches, fill one with water, and place sharpened stakes under the water to impale anyone who might jump in. At the top of the other trench there are sharpened stakes to slow their climb. Outside the trenches they make these primitive land mines by digging holes and putting sharpened stakes at the bottom, and then covering the holes with branches and dirt to make them completely hidden. Inside all of this, they have walls that are twelve feet high with a screen of sharpened stakes at the top to make them more difficult to climb.
- And it’s a good thing he built all of these fortifications because when the relief army shows up it contains an estimated 250,000 men. They show up just in the nick of time, when Vercingetorix’s forces were about to starve.
- The relief army launches an all-out attack on the Roman defenses. Vercingetorix waits to see where they attack, and then he attacks on the opposite side, on the inward side of the wall. And despite these awesome defensive fortifications, the Romans are just so heavily outnumbered that it is looking pretty close for a while. But in the end they are able to hold their fort, and the first Gallic attack fails.
- So the Gauls go back and they reevaluate the situation and they notice a weak part of the Roman fortifications. It is at the bottom of a hill, and so it doesn’t have quite as many trenches and moats and booby traps and will be a little easier to assault. So they give one last desperate last assault. They send as many men as they can to attack it from both sides.
- This area of the fortifications is at the bottom of a hill, but it is still in a position that is more elevated than the rest of the Roman fort, so everyone on the battle field can see this attack and they are watching it and cheering, like it’s a really high stakes football game. If some Gallic warriors start to make some progress on top of the Roman walls, all the Gauls start to cheer, and then if the Romans counter-attack and throw them off the walls, all the Romans cheer.
- Caesar keeps feeding in fresh troops to protect this key battle area, and eventually, he leads some forces himself. Caesar wears this very conspicuous crimson cloak so everyone knows it is him showing up and he is fighting side by side with men. This galvanizes both sides. The Romans are fighting even more furiously for their commander, and the Gauls are fighting more furiously because they realize okay, Caesar is here, this must be the climactic moment of the battle, it’s all going to be decided here. And not just the battle, but the whole war is going to be decided here. Before coming to fight, Caesar had sent out some cavalry to go loop around the main Gallic assault force. And just when it is looking like the Roman defense might collapse, this group of Cavalry shows up behind the Gauls and breaks them. The Gallic relief army is crushed and scatters.
- The next day, Vercingetorix puts on his nicest armor, grabs his finest weapons, and rides out of the city gates to where Caesar is sitting. He throws down his arms and offers himself up to Caesar, basically as a sacrifice, hoping that Caesar will show as much clemency and mercy toward his men as possible. The Gallic rebellion was over, and after 8 years of warfare, Caesar had finally established control over all of Gaul.
- Tacitus would later say “The Romans created a desert and called it peace.” It is hard to say exactly how many were killed, but Caesar estimated a million. Even if it wasn’t that many, and it probably wasn’t, the war in Gaul was absolutely devastating for the locals.
- But even devastated, Gaul was a huge tax windfall for Caesar and the Roman Republic. With one war, Caesar had gone from Rome’s biggest debtor to one of its wealthiest men. With his newfound wealth he built huge public works in Rome and across the Roman world to celebrate his victories and himself.
- With the war in Gaul over, Caesar returned to his HQ in Cisalpine Gaul, and diverted his focus toward Rome. Unfortunately things were not looking quite as good for him there.
- The Optimates who hated Caesar so much, now looked to be in a much stronger position. They were able to use Pompey, who was no longer allied with Caesar, against him. They made it clear that the second Caesar came back to Rome, he would be prosecuted for corruption and war crimes. On a certain level, Caesar was certainly guilty of these things, but no more so than basically everyone else in Roman politics.
- Caesar is furious about this. From his perspective, he just single-handedly created Rome’s biggest foreign territory and generated a ton of revenue for the Roman state. Over the last 8 years he had done nothing but bring glory and material gain to Rome. And now he is going to come home, not only to less power than he started with, but to be treated like a criminal?
- He wanted to have his term in Gaul extended until he was eligible to run for consul again. Remember, as governor of Gaul he could not be prosecuted and as consul he could not be prosecuted, so he was trying to make sure that there was no gap time.
- The Optimates in the senate manage to sink any proposal to have his term in Gaul extended. They force Caesar to make a choice: Submit himself to prosecution and potentially conviction and exile or be declared a rebel of the state.
- As the last hopes of a peaceful compromise break down, people get ready for a civil war. The odds were stacked against Caesar: His army was numerically much smaller than the one controlled by Pompey. Plus Pompey is Pompey. He was considered the greatest Roman general of all time. Caesar’s victories in Gaul were impressive but no one seriously thought he was as great a general as Pompey.
- Everyone assumed one of two things would happen. Either Caesar would keep his troops in Gaul and try to fight a defensive war against Pompey in order to even the odds, or he would realize that his position was completely hopeless and surrender to the senate at the last minute.
- Instead, Caesar decided on a move that was bold, bordering on suicidal: He would take a single legion and attack Rome itself.
- The Rubicon river is a small river in northern Italy. At the time, it was the official marker that divided Caesar’s region of Cisalpine Gaul from Italy proper. If he crossed the Rubicon with an army at his back he would be considered in rebellion and he would be at war with the Roman Senate. Once he crossed the Rubicon there was no going back.
- As he led his army south, he paused at the Rubicon river. He walked along the river and thought silently. Even now, he could still make peace with the Pompey and the Senate. At this point he would almost certainly be convicted of crimes against Rome, but he would be sent into comfortable exile in Marseilles where he could keep his life and his vast fortune. Even in exile he would be able to use his money and his reputation to have an outsized influence on Roman politics. Furthermore, the lives of thousands of Roman soldiers and civilians would be saved. He could have all this, if he decided to not cross the Rubicon. But he would have to give up his dream of being the first man in Rome.
- He walked back to his men, “Let the die be cast.” He said, and with that he crossed the Rubicon and continued his march toward Rome.
Julius Caesar wraps up his conquest of Gaul and is forced to make the most crucial decision of his life.
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