After a long and crazy joyride in overshoot, enormous bills are coming due. Industrial civilization is sliding toward foreclosure. Capitalism gets the blame, but the roots of the madness go far deeper, older than ancient empires. Many public buildings in America imitate the architecture of the Roman Empire, with their rows of tall stone columns. Like ancient empires, our economic tentacles reach far into distant provinces, sucking up the wealth. Like them, we are obsessed with perpetual growth, by any means necessary, to avoid being absorbed by competing empires.
Empires must constantly resist competitors. Empires behave like alpha male chimps defending their harems. Alphas live amidst numerous horny alpha wannabes, who carefully wait for the moment when the big boy stumbles. Julius Caesar was a famous alpha, and The Gallic Wars is the story of his glory days, when he turned hundreds of thousands of folks into wolf chow and compost. His book gives us a glimpse of life in Western Europe more than 2,000 years ago (51 B.C.).
Chimps fight for dominance with fists, feet, teeth, and teamwork. Killing is not the objective. Caesar’s troops were professional killers, well equipped with state of the art swords, spears, helmets, armor. Fighting was face-to-face. Warriors had to “come to grips” with their foes, and get splashed with blood and sweat. Those who were aggressive, strong, experienced, and lucky were more likely to see another day. Today, we fight more with technology — triggers, pushbuttons, and mouse clicks.
In a nutshell, this book is a play-by-play description of Caesar’s efforts to conquer the world. He immodestly boasts about his brilliant victories, conquering the Celtic tribes of Gaul (France) and Belgae (Belgium). The Gallic tribes had agriculture and cities, which chained them to a place they had to defend. Roman trade networks gave them access to luxurious status trinkets. The Belgae lived farther from empire, and were more scruffy and dangerous. (MAP)
There were two groups in Gaul’s upper class, Druidic priests and warriors. The priests provided spiritual guidance, resolved conflicts, and oversaw sacrifices. Their training, which took up to 20 years, required them to memorize a large collection of verses. Druids shunned writing, because it weakened memory, a crippling handicap. Consequently, we know almost nothing about them today. Caesar noted that human sacrifices were common, an excellent way to reward criminals. Men were sometimes burned alive in wicker baskets.
Gallic warriors had no fear of death, because souls never die, they move to other bodies. Their tribes clashed like Los Angeles street gangs. If the Gallic tribes had been unified, they could have turned the Romans into wolf chow, but they figured this out too late in the game. They eventually merged their armies together under Vercingetorix, and 40,000 Gauls attacked Caesar. At the end of the battle, only 800 Gauls survived (according to Caesar).
When Caesar conquered a tribe, they were forced to pay tribute to Rome. They also had to provide conscripts for the Roman legions. The legions largely consisted of lads from the provinces, not indigenous Romans. In Rome, the citizens enjoyed many luxuries, thanks to the massive wealth extracted from the provinces. Military expansion generated many prisoners, who were either executed or sold into slavery. Around 30 to 40 percent of the residents of Rome were slaves (similar to low wage workers today). They were often treated brutally. Today, our school children are taught that Rome was cool, a role model for a great nation.
Caesar took his troops to England. Along the southern coast, there were colonies of Belgae farmers, who lived much like the Gauls. North of the coast lived the indigenous Britons, who were skilled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare. They would swarm out of the forest, kill disorganized troops, and return to the forest, where Romans dared not follow.
Few Britons grew grain. They were herders and hunters who lived on milk and flesh. They were clothed in animal skins, and the men had long hair and moustaches. Warriors applied woad to turn their skin blue, causing opponents to wet their pants with fear. The effort to conquer England failed when most of the Roman ships were destroyed by a powerful storm. Caesar was almost defeated, and barely managed to escape.
German tribes were the scariest opponents. Most of them lived east of the Rhine River, but some had crossed the river, and conquered portions of Gaul. This was a serious threat to empire turf. Caesar attacked the 120,000 German intruders, transforming most of them to wolf chow.
He then built a wooden bridge across the Rhine, spent 18 days molesting Germans, returned to Gaul, and destroyed the bridge. Roman legions did not haul tons of food with them on their campaigns. They acquired food along the way, snatching it from farms and towns. This didn’t work in Germany, where little grain was grown and stored. Also, wilderness warfare gave the Germans a huge advantage. Protected by the mighty river, they were lucky to remain wild and free longer than other regions.
In those days, Germany was a land of vast forests and wetlands. Caesar jabbered about the numerous stags and elk. The aurochs (wild cattle) astonished him. He said they were a bit smaller than elephants, and impossible to tame. “Their strength and speed are extraordinary; they spare neither man nor wild beast which they have espied.” The “wild and savage” Germans “were men of huge stature, of incredible valor and practice in arms.” They were hunters, herders, and warriors. Their diet majored in milk, cheese, and flesh. They wore deerskin cloaks that left much of their bodies exposed, even in cold weather.
Chieftains assigned parcels of land to clans and families every year. Everyone had to move annually, so nobody constructed McMansions (cool idea!). The best parcels never stayed in the same hands, and this wisely prevented some from getting richer than others. Equality breeds contentment and cooperation. On the other hand, robbing others was OK. Raiding outsiders was a good way to improve useful skills, grab booty, and cure boredom.
Conquest was also OK. It pushed back folks who might raid your livestock. Life was more secure when outsiders lived nowhere close. The best neighbors were those who lived far away, and were never seen. The Suevi tribe was the largest, most warlike, and most feared. On one side of their territory, there was an uninhabited region that was 600 miles long. Smart people didn’t mess with them.
As discussed in my review of Germania, tribes that became dependent on agriculture and/or herding increased the carrying capacity of the land. Thus, population increased, as did social tensions. Livestock were valuable status trinkets that presented an irresistible temptation for rustlers. Raiding and tribal warfare were common in this era. The same pattern emerged in the American west (and everywhere else) when tribes acquired domesticated horses and livestock. Anthropology reports that nomadic hunter-gatherers avoided much craziness by owning very little. They were egalitarian — the opposite of empire.
Anyway, everyone in Rome was amazed by Caesar’s astonishing success in war. Then, when he returned to Rome, he was assassinated by nobles. The end.
Caesar, Julius, The Gallic Wars, London MacMillan, London, 1908. Translated by T. R. Holmes.