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Who Were Caesar's Gauls and Germans?

Updated on May 25, 2017
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Daniel has a bachelor's degree in history and likes to focus his research on military history as well as Ancient Rome and Greece.

Introduction

In 58 BC, Julius Caesar’s year as consul had come to an end, and he was appointed proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul, a place whose history is a much-debated topic among historians both modern and ancient; a place which some argue did not exist until Caesar’s arrival. Gallic [1] tribes have been in the region referred to as Gaul for as long as historians have recorded the history of the area, and even before, however the source of contention and scholastic hardship in researching this subject is more concerned with the ethnography of Europe in ancient times. Historians are left with Julius Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum as the main primary source on the Gauls and the Germans. However, it is laced with biases and political intentions. The flaws in Caesar’s accounts leave historians with an incomplete picture of the people of Western Europe as each historian writes their history with varying degrees of trust in Caesar, which lead to an increased use of other ancient sources that provide less than complete descriptions, as well as historical methodologies that influence each work of history to be different than the last.

Modern day France is where Caesar conquered and named the area Gaul, but why did he not continue into Germany?
Modern day France is where Caesar conquered and named the area Gaul, but why did he not continue into Germany? | Source

Caesar's Descriptions

Many are familiar with Caesar’s opening lines of Bellum Gallicum, “All Gaul is divided into three parts… [that] differ from each other in language, customs, and laws” [2]. He then goes on to describe the geographic area of Gaul by the people there inhabited, mainly the Belgae, the Aquitani, and the Gauls. Right away historians are confronted with a problem; Caesar describes the tribes and land of Gaul mainly by the ethnography of the people rather than the actual geography of the area. For example, he states that the Belgae extend from the frontier of Gaul, the close to the border of Italy and Gaul, and extend to the lower Rhine. He also claims that the Belgae are the bravest and best fighters since they have had less contact with Rome and her merchants and therefore are the less civilized of the Gauls. In book six Caesar describes the differences between the Germans who east of the Rhine, and the Gauls. Caesar describes both the Gauls and Germans as violent people. However, the Germans are incapable of civilization and present a threat to Rome [3]. This description is most likely an attempt to justify Caesar’s two brief expeditions across the Rhine in which he did not engage in combat yet declares that he intimidated the Germans from crossing the Rhine. This observation of Caesar’s description is made based on previous similar arguments made by some historians who claim that Caesar’s description of Gaul was to justify his campaigns and conquests.

Modern Descriptions

Erin Osborne Martin references the age old adage that the dominant society, the conquerors or the victors, write the history [4]. Historian Andrew Riggsby writes his book Caesar in Gaul and Rome following this notion. Riggsby’s account of the Gauls very much follows Caesar’s account by outlining Gallic territory in the same way Caesar did in Bellum Gallicum; by separating the tribes and people by ethnic and geographical boundaries, both of which are interchangeable to both Caesar and Riggsby. He also uses a few Greek sources such as Strabo and Posidonius to make a connection between the ways the two ancient civilizations saw the Gauls. Both the Greeks and Romans describe the Gauls as tall, having blond or red hair, and fierce fighters, although their customs are rather savage and barbaric [5]. Riggsby also bases his distinctions between Gaul and Germania and the people in these territories using the “facts” that Caesar provided, which are simply that the Germans were east of the Rhine River and were more violent and therefore less civilized [6]. Caesar’s description of the Gauls begins by describing the ethnic differences of the Gauls alongside the geographic boundaries, such as “the Rhine arises from the Lepontii who live in the Alps” [7]., yet when he describes the Germans he stops mentioning specific geographic features and solely focuses on the fact that the Germans are savage and unable to be civilized [8]. In a further examination of the ethnography of the Germans, Riggsby quotes Tacitus in saying that the Germans were originally a tribal name that grew to encompass European natives east of the Rhine [9]. The rest of the chapter goes on to use this reference to make the connection that the Germans were ethnically created to oppose the Gauls.

Rhiannon Evans writes her history of ethnography in Rome and her description of Gaul and Germany in somewhat of a more modern view that goes away from Riggsby’s more traditional view. Evans argues that Caesar’s description was more or less politically motivated; there was no actual Gaul [10] before Caesar, instead Caesar created the idea of a unified, if incredibly loosely, people and grouped them all under the name Gaul and in the territory known as Gaul [11]. While there are some historians who argue the idea that the Gauls are completely fictitious and were simply the result of a major society acting in Western Europe [12], Evans, along with others, tries to disprove this notion and bring some kind of credibility to the Gauls. Evans begins her chapter on Caesar’s ethnography of the Gauls by saying that he lumped the various tribes and people into categories and tribes based on ethnics, culture, and virtues. His “creation” of the Gauls was to create something and someone to conquer, and the Rhine divided the Gauls from the Germans so that Caesar could claim that he conquered all of Gaul. His description of the Germans as being savage and incapable of civilization served to the purpose that he did not have to conquer them, whereas the Gauls had made attempts to and had the possibility of becoming civilized [13]. She also states that Caesar’s creation of the Belgae was to serve as a buffer zone between Germany and Gaul, even though the Belgae displayed many of the same characteristics as the Germans, yet they remain Gauls. Evans makes subtle notions towards Maryon McDonald’s article “The Construction of Difference: An Anthropological Approach to Stereotypes” in which McDonald argues that the Gauls were not simply invented, nor were they necessarily more violent than the Romans, but the Roman idea of the Gauls was the result of one culture viewing another while not understanding the difference in their society [14]. This difference causes the dominant culture, the Romans, to view the Gauls as dangerous, savage, outsider, and most of all, different.


The common description of the tall, blonde, savage Gauls, or even worse the vicious Germans. Notice the pants, how barbaric!
The common description of the tall, blonde, savage Gauls, or even worse the vicious Germans. Notice the pants, how barbaric! | Source

How Barbaric were the Barbarians?

Although there are many different interpretations and descriptions of the Gauls both by modern and most ancient historians, one aspect seems to be more commonly accepted; the government of the Gallic tribes. Strabo mentions that “most of their governments were aristocratic, and they chose one leader annually” [15] and that they follow a similar style of government as the Romans. Cary and Scullard write a similar view of the majority of Gallic tribes by stating that they were “essentially aristocratic” and that the common person had some kind of place in politics, although some kingship still remained in Belgae at the time of Caesar’s campaigns while the rest of the Gallic tribes moved away from kings by 100BC. However, Cary and Scullard take a somewhat of a middle ground stance on the unity of the Gallic tribes; rather than agreeing with Evans and other historians that there was no real unity among Gaul, A History of Rome states that there was some unity among the Gauls, however it was never more than small confederations among a few tribes that faced political instability due to violent nobles from other tribes fighting nobles who focus more on domestic issues rather than territorial expansion [16]. The description of the Gaul’s forms of governments by many historians shows a connection between their society and the Roman’s society as they both have similar aristocratic and somewhat democratic forms [17] of government.

While A History of Rome attempts to provide a middle ground on the description of the Gauls, Cary and Scullard take a more common approach to the description of the Germanic people of the time of Caesar’s Gallic campaigns; they simply do not mention them except brief passing in which they use a very Caesarian description. As previously shown the Germans are not mentioned nearly to the extent as the Gauls are, with the exception of Tacitus, and when they are they are merely described as aggressors across the Rhine who occasionally intrude on Gallic territory and have threatened to push west. Cary and Scullard are no exception as they do not mention the Germans or try to describe them as they do with the Gauls, with the exception of a brief mentioning that they had been intruding and invading Gallic tribes since 100BC [18]. However, this mentioning of Germanic aggression aids in their attempt to explain Caesar’s motives in his campaigns and writing his Bellum Gallicum; that Caesar’s campaigns and conquests were motivated by equal parts personal glory and necessity to the safety of the Rome, as they argue that Caesar held in memory the Cimbric invasions and strived to prevent another such encounter with a hostile Germanic, or even Gallic, tribe.

In 46BC Caesar offically conquers Gaul when he defeats Vercingetorix and the Romans new "barbarian" enemies become the Germans. However notice how "civilized" Vercingetorix is depicted versus the other Gauls.
In 46BC Caesar offically conquers Gaul when he defeats Vercingetorix and the Romans new "barbarian" enemies become the Germans. However notice how "civilized" Vercingetorix is depicted versus the other Gauls. | Source

Conclusion

In conclusion, historians both ancient and modern have an interesting and somewhat contentious historiography surrounding the ethnography of the Gauls and the Germans, which is mostly based on Caesar’s descriptions in Bellum Gallicum. Caesar’s descriptions are filled with biases that many modern historians acknowledge, which leads them to either consult other sources, which are scarce, or interpret the Gauls on their own. More modern historians treat the descriptions and ethnography of the Gauls along the basis of McDonald’s works that argue that the Roman’s views were the result of one society viewing a foreign culture with little understanding of their customs thus creating the perception of a strange and violent culture. Historians have tended to move away from the idea that the Gauls were an entirely fictitious creation of the Romans as argued by Chapman, and have turned to Greek sources or archelogy [19] to both prove some Roman descriptions but also fill in the gaps or correct the flaws presented in the ancient descriptions, mainly in Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum. Although there are differences in the ethnography of the Gauls among historians, most if not all historians agree that Caesar’s descriptions were motivated by either politics or personal glory. Caesar created the idea of a unified Gallic people to justify his campaigns, claim that he conquered all of Gaul, and create a buffer and border against the “violent and savage” Germans. Caesar described the Gauls as a mostly unified people based on their “language, customs, and laws” and created borders by ethnic differences and virtues such as bravery [20] rather than geographic features or existing tribal boundaries. Modern historians have been able to address this flaw in Caesar’s accounts by consulting other sources as well as archelogy to write their histories and ethnographies of the Gauls, however there remains differences in their ethnographies and with no certainty of one description being more accurate than another, those researching the Gauls and Caesar’s campaigns are left to form their opinions in their attempt to write history.

References

Ancient Sources

Caesar, Julius. Bellum Gallicum. Translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. The Internet Classic Archives. http://classics.mit.edu/index.html.

Strabo. The Geographies. Translation by H. L. Jones: Harvard University Press, 1917.

Tacitus. Germania. Translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb. Edited by Moses Hadas. New York: Random House, 1942.

Modern Sources

Cary, M. and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome. New York: Palgrave, 1975

Chapman, Malcolm. “Semantics and the Celts” Semantic Anthropology. 1982.

Erickson, Brice. "Falling Masts, Rising Masters: The Ethnography of Virtue in Caesar's Account of the Veneti." The American Journal of Philology 123, no. 4 (2002): 601-22.

Evans, Rhiannon. Forma Orbis: Geography, Ethnography and Shaping the Roman Empire. (University of Southern California, 1999).

Martin, Erin Osborne. 2002. “Understanding Caesar's Ethnography: A Contextual Approach to Protohistory”. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council. 3, no. 1: 39.

McDonald, Maryon. “The Construction of Difference: An Anthropological Approach to Stereotypes” Inside European Identities. Ethnography in Western Europe. 1993.

Riggsby, Andrew M. Caesar in Gaul and Rome. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Notes

[1] While it is generally accepted among modern historians that the terms Gaul and Celt can be used interchangeably as the latter is the Greek word for the former, however some historians argue a difference that usually addresses an ethnic problem within their topic. For example Erin Osborne Martin uses the term Gaul to refer to native inhabitants of modern day France while she uses Celt to refer to connected peoples during the Iron Age in Europe. Erin Osborne Martin. 2002. “Understanding Caesar's Ethnography: A Contextual Approach to Protohistory”. Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council. 3, no. 1: 39.

[2] Caesar. Bellum Gallicum. I.1

[3] Caesar. BG. VI. 11-28

[4] Martin. “Understanding Caesar’s Ethnography”. 40.

[5] Strabo. Geography. IV and Livy XXXVIII. 17

[6] Andrew M. Riggsby. Caesar in Gaul and Rome. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006). 60-61.

[7] Caesar. BG. IX.10.

[8] Caesar. BG. XI.11-28.

[9] Tacitus. Germania. II.5.

[10] The use of the word Gaul here is not to suggest that Gaul as a land did not exist, rather Evans uses the term Gaul in the same way it is here present to refer to a united confederation of Gallic tribes and people.

[11] Rhiannon Evans. Forma Orbis: Geography, Ethnography and Shaping the Roman Empire. (University of Southern California, 1999). 41-45.

[12] Malcolm Chapman. “Semantics and the Celts” Semantic Anthropology. 1982. 124

[13] Evans. Forma Orbis. 41-50.

[14] Maryon McDonald. “The Construction of Difference: An Anthropological Approach to Stereotypes” Inside European Identities. Ethnography in Western Europe. (1993)

[15] Strabo. Geographies. IV. 4

[16] M. Cary and H. H. Scullard. A History of Rome. (New York: Palgrave, 1975). 259.

[17] Strabo observes that many of the Gallic tribes are aristocratic, however with the mention that they annually elect a political leader shows a very similar political system to the Roman republic that claims to be and has many aspects of the republican form of democracy, yet by this time it can be strongly argued that their political system is an elected aristocracy.

[18] Cary and Scullard. A History of Rome. 259.

[19] Martin’s “Understanding Caesar’s Ethnography” looks at the archeological research thought Western Europe to prove that the Roman descriptions of the Gauls were distorted in that archeologists have found evidence that shows that the Gallic tribes were much closer to the modern definition of civilization than the Romans described.

[20] Caesar describes the Belgae as the bravest and the Helvetti the second, making these two tribes the closest to civilization. Caesar. BG. I. 1-3. Also, Erickson’s article "Falling Masts, Rising Masters: The Ethnography of Virtue in Caesar's Account of the Veneti." Argues a very Caesarian narrative that the Veneti were defeated not because of a lack of military expertise or technological advantages, but rather due to a lack of virtus.

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      Louise Powles 3 months ago from Norfolk, England

      That was really interesting to read. I love history, and found this very informative. Thankyou.