The Guy Who Brought You French Wine

Have you ever enjoyed French wine or German Rhine wine? You have one person to thank. This same person is the only Roman pontiff, except St. Peter, that Jesus referred to by name.

His name also forms the root of the Russian “tsar” and the German “kaiser” and, if you’re still in the dark, he gave his name to a surgical procedure by which my own darling daugher was born.

Of course I’m talking about Julius Caesar, a splendid Roman, probably the most splendid of them all, with due deference given to his nephew and namesake Augustus, a fairly splendid individual in his own right, who realized his uncle’s vision and brought peace and prosperity to the Mediterranean World for many centuries.

But the original Caesar left to the world a narrative of his military successes and no one with an interest in military history could possitly fail to read it. Never mind that generation after generation of schoolboys have had to translate Caesar’s Gallic Wars; it’s an amazingly informative work about the Celtic people and about the winning ways of the Roman military.

My friend Ed says Caesar’s account is all lies, starting with the migration of the Helvetii, but I say even if Caesar, or the guy he had writing this stuff for him, lied about everything that it was in their interest to lie about, there is an enormous amount of valuable historical material in these narratives that we can probably rely on because there was no reason for Caesar or his scriptor to lie.

For example, I don’t think Caesar made up any tribes out of thin air. So if we take the number of tribes that he mentions and average it out, we find that the average Gallic tribe controlled about as much acreage as a New England county.

And Caesar always knew not only who was king of each tribe, but also whom that guy had slain to become king and which sons and heirs of the slain king were available to side with the Romans.

He also illustrates how the Roman army would try to force a battle on favorable ground, and then, when the Gauls took refuge in a fortified position, would deprive them of water, if possible, or food, if possible, and of forage for their horses.

And then, if none of that worked, they would build seige engines and wheel them up to the walls, or dig under the walls, or whatever. The upshot is that the Roman army won a lot more victories with the shovel then they did with the sword.

In the climax of the Gallic Wars, Caesar has built seigeworks around Alesia, where his enemy Vercingetorix has holed up with his army. Then a relieving army arrives and Caesar has to have his men dig an outer wall to hold them off, so that Caesar’s entire holding in Gaul is in the shape of a doughnut around Alesia.

It all works out great for Caesar, but what could one expect. This is the guy who had to make his way to Italy, through Pompey’s blockading fleet, and told the boatman,”Be bold and fear nothing, for Caesar’s fate is in your hands.”

That’s a good motto, I think, “Be bold and fear nothing,” as long as you’re as crafty and as well-informed as Caesar.