Analysis of Caesar’s discussion of geopolitical borders among the Gallic Tribes

Posted on November 9, 2013 by


Kevin Kuonqui is a student at Mountain View High School and a student of Dr. Jaime Claymore

In Commentarii De Bello Gallico, Caesar discusses the geopolitical divisions between the various people of Gaul at the time of his pro-consulship in Gaul in great detail, which gives the audience much to learn about the Gallic people. Caesar immediately indicates that the people of Gaul are divided from each other by starting the commentaries with the statement “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…quarum unam incolunt Belgae…” Also from the beginning, Caesar clearly states that the people in Gaul are separate and distinct from each other rather than stating that they are all the same, which is evident in the statement “Hi omnes lingua, institutis, legibus inter se different.” It’s quite significant for him to make this emphasis because it shows that he’s trying to make a point of their separateness, whereas most other generals would classify the people in one area as the same for the sake of simplification [or ignorance], so it is logical to say that Caesar has some motive for including this information, which will be discussed later on, as well as his other motives for mentioning the geopolitical divisions of Gaul. The constant descriptions of geopolitical factors helps give the audience a better idea of the organization of the people of Gaul and are frequently mentioned within Chapters 1-7 of Book I.

In Chapter 1 of Book 1, Caesar introduces the main idea that rivers serve as the main geographical divisions between the Gallic people. For example, Caesar writes that “Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen, a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit,” explicitly establishing the fact that the Garonne, Marne, and Seine rivers divide the Gauls from the other two tribes [Aquitanis and Sequani] respectively. Furthermore, Caesar makes further specification to the degree by which the Germans are situated from the Belgs, as evident in the statement “Germanis, qui trans Rhenum incolunt…”.  The fact that Caesar talks about borders extensively, such as in the lines “cum aut suis finibus eos prohibent, aut ipsi in eorum finibus bellum gerunt” indicates how the inhabitants of Gaul were protective of their borders, and therefore highly divided from their neighbors. Most of the borders between the Gauls are rivers, which is further established by the fact that the territory of the Gauls starts from the Rhone, is bordered by the Garonne, the Ocean, and even the Rhine, as seen when Caesar says “[Agrum Galliorum] initium capit a flumine Rhodano, continetur Garumna flumine, Oceano…etiam ab Sequanis et Helvetiis flumen Rhenum.” In Chapter 1, Caesar also establishes the borders of each Gallic tribe in regards to rivers, as seen in the examples above. These geographic divisions also serve as the political divisions because each of the Gallic tribe leaders hold domain within these established borders.

In Chapter 2, Caesar continues to make it a habit to extensively describe the borders of the Helvetians. Orgetorix, according to Caesar, even discusses the borders of the Helvetians in order to persuade them to leave from their lands due to the fact that the borders are so confining, which is conveyed by the statement “His rebus fiebat ut et minus late vagarentur et minus facile finitimis bellum inferre possent.” Prior to that statement, Orgetorix continues to mention how they are contained by the Rhine River on one side when he says “una ex parte Flumine Rheno latissimo atque altissimo”. It is important to note that this further supports the idea that rivers are the main geopolitical division between the Gallic people, as it is mentioned first in the above statement, and last in the statement “tertia lacu Lemanno et flumine Rhodano, qui provinciam nostram ab Helvetiis dividit.”  These also indicate that these borders are frustrating to some of the Gallic tribes, which sheds light on the common desire of Gauls for land. These are the main descriptions of geopolitical borders and divisions of the Helvetii, although it is significant to note that Caesar also mentions that Mount Jura also separates and contains the Helvetians from the other tribes in the statement “altera ex parte monte Iuro altissimo qui est inter Sequanos et Helvetios”. This establishes another geopolitical division by which the Gallic people are physically and politically separate.

In Chapters 3,4, and 5, Caesar doesn’t always explicitly mention any geopolitical borders, but a few of the lines can imply such existences. Political divisions, which are caused by geographical divisions between the various Gallic people, make it necessary for Orgetorix to serve as an ambassador for the Helvetians as they set out from their lands, as evident in the line “Is sibi legationem ad civitates suscipit.” This line implies that the Helvetians are separate from all of the other tribes because of the physical borders that exist between them, which are mentioned in previous chapters, thus further illustrating the idea that geopolitical borders to indeed exist between the Helvetians and the other tribes. Also, the fact that Caesar tries to persuade Casticus, a Sequanus, and Dumnorix, and Aeduan, to join him in conquering all of Gaul shows that the Gauls are divided and that he wants to join political forces of other tribes to accomplish his goals, which is evident in the statement “[Orgetorix] persuadet Castico (Sequano)…itemque Dumnorigi (Haeduo)…ut idem conatur [obtinere  regnum in civitate suae].” This is practically the only real hint towards existing geopolitical divisions in Chapter 3. In Chapter 4, there are no mentions of geopolitical borders between the Gallic tribes, but there are indications of the divisions between the Helvetians, as some wish to punish him for his conspiracy, while others (although probably bound by obligation) are willing to support Orgetorix. This is evident in the lines that say “Orgetorix ad iudicium coegit omnem suam familiam, ad hominum milia decem undique et omnes clienties obaeratosque suos, quorum magnum numerum habebat.”  This further magnifies the idea that Caesar is trying to show that divisions exist between and within the Gallic people. Additionally, it sheds light that the Gallic people have the common desire to conquer other people just for the sake of conquering, thereby establishing as quasi-savages to the Romans. In Chapter 5, however, Caesar does make direct mention of geopolitical borders, as he states that the Helvetii consider the Boii from across the Rhine, as allies, which is evident in the statement “Boiosque, qui trans Rhenum incoluerant…noreiamque oppugnabant, receptos ad se socios sibi adsciscunt”. This also contributes to the idea that rivers again divide the Gallic tribes. Interestingly, it also illustrates the political divisions between the Boii and Noreians since the Boii were separate from the Noreians enough to feel the need to attack them, which also sets up the violent nature of the relationships between different Gauls (which is not of central importance to this essay for elaboration, but is important to note).

In Chapter 6, Caesar more frequently revisits the idea of geopolitical divisions between the Gallic people. When Caesar says “unum [iter] per sequanos, angustum et difficile, inter montem iuram et flumen rhodanum…mons autem altissiumus impendebat,” he illustrates the great geographical divisions caused by Mount Jura that must be crossed between the Gallic people. The fact that Caesar establishes that the Rhone River lies between the Helvetians’ and Allobroges’ territories illustrates the existence of geographic (rivers being the main barrier), and therefore political divisions between the two tribes. Additionally, the fact that the Helvetians must either compel (via peace or force) the Allobroges to allow them to cross their land shows that there is a staunch division between the lands of each tribe that cannot be freely crossed, furthering illustrating the concept of geopolitical divisions in Gaul, as evident in “Allobrogibus sese persuasuros…existamabant vel vi coacturos ut per suos fines eos ire paterentur”.

In Chapter 7, Caesar once again mentions geopolitical borders as he becomes aware of the fact that the Helvetii are approaching Roman Gaul’s borders. He establishes that they are heading toward the Roman geopolitical borders by stating “eos [Helvetii] per provinciam nostram iter facere conari”. This shows that the Romans keep a close eye on the division between their lands and the lands of the other tribes, further emphasizing the importance of distinct divisions between the people. The fact that there are legions spread out over Gaul shows how the people are divided and how the Roman army must be divided accordingly to help keep the people in check, which is stated in the line “erat omnino in Gallia ulterior legio una”. The fact that the Helvetii are trying to cross the bridge that eventually leads to the land of the Romans indicates that a river likely divides the two people, further illustrating the existence of geopolitical divisions. This is evident in the statement “pontem qui erat ad Genevam, iubet rescindi” in which Caesar orders the destruction of the bridge in order to prevent the Helvetians from crossing over. These lines show the existence of borders and the tensions that arise between two people when borders are going to be crossed, since they are intentionally meant to keep foreign people out. Also, it gives the reader insight as to how the Gallic people must travel across different structures (i.e. bridges) to get where they want to go because of their geographical borders and divisions.

Throughout these Chapters, Caesar definitely goes out of his way to describe the various geopolitical borders and distinctions between the different people inhabiting Gaul at the time. To the modern day audience, it is peculiar that he would go into so much great detail about these distinctions when many of these facts are menial and forgettable in nature. It seems, however, that Caesar had important motives for including such extraneous details about the Gallic lands. One possible reason is that Caesar wanted to demonstrate his expertise on the lands that were under his authority. This is a plausible explanation because it would seem very impressive that a governor of a province would know the land and people so well because it demonstrates their ability to know occurring in their province and that they’re actively involved in the province’s affairs. Caesar would want to portray himself in such manner because he wants the Roman people to admire his skills as an administrator, which was very important to the Roman people at the time. Also, the fact Caesar portrays the events from an indirect, almost passive, way shows that he wants to be seen as unbiased or not partaking in any events until he is needed in the end. The depiction of the disdainful actions of the Helvetii (while Caesar does nothing until chapter 7) further paints the Helvetii as violent savages, further strengthening Caesar’s cause to intervene and eventually fight the Helvetii. As a whole, Caesar gives the impression that the Gallic tribes are highly belligerent and eager to gain land and other benefits at the expense of other people. Furthermore, Caesar depicts that the political organization of the Gallic people, especially that of the Helvetii, is quite shady since the leaders execute duties in a “non-Roman” manner, such as taking oaths in secret. All of these implications combined show that he acted with poise and thought, which is also something that the Romans admired. Essentially, the way that he writes this justifies his knowledge of the situation and therefore subsequent actions that he takes. Caesar talks about the borders extensively to set up the idea that the problems that arose were from the violation of borders, which gives him reason to act with a military cause. In short, Caesar is trying to make himself look good and he wants to seem like an innocent pacifist that had to step in to prevent madness among the barbarian tribes from ensuing within Gaul.

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