BMCR 2006.09.32

Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words

, Caesar in Gaul and Rome : war in words. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 271 pages) : illustrations, map. ISBN 9780292795792. $45.00.

Table of Contents and Introduction

Andrew Riggsby is especially good at remarking the often unspoken assumptions that animate Roman society and rhetoric,1 a feat he accomplishes once again in Caesar in Gaul and Rome. In this book he deftly explores many of the literary and social scripts that would have informed both the creation and the reception of Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. In the first half, Riggsby investigates more general conceptions such as space, ethnography, and the idea of virtus while, in the second half, he tackles the issue of Caesar’s self-presentation, including the choice of genre and whether the work would have been perceived by a Roman audience as apologetic. Thus the work as a whole is steeped in the ideas that have so long animated scholarly discussions about Caesarian Tendenz, but offers a more nuanced evaluation. By adopting the literary technique of reading intertexts, Riggsby does much to distinguish that which is uniquely Caesarian from that which is consonant with viewpoints held by the Roman elite in the first century BCE. Indeed, the work as a whole convincingly demonstrates that Caesar’s self-portrait is so compelling precisely because he calibrated his account with elite notions of what constituted success.

The introduction maps out the methodological approach of the book. Riggsby’s goal is to explore the work in intertextual terms, using other texts to illuminate unusual features of Caesar’s account. Riggsby is not attempting source criticism, but rather exploring broader generic elements and “discourses.” He defines “discourses” as “a way of talking about some subject matter” which may include, among other things, the “characteristic vocabulary, metaphors, [and] themes” (4) that are used to describe a given topic but are not necessarily tied to a specific genre. In chapter two, for instance, Riggsby outlines the presentation of the Gauls in other writers. Doing so allows him to delimit a regular way of speaking about the Gauls so as to note where Caesar’s descriptions diverge. The points where Caesar breaks from the outlines of a given discourse provide insights into Caesar’s persuasive strategies and goals.

“Naturalization” emerges in the introduction as an important concept. To the extent that “a text (or passage)…is written according to the standard rules of some recognized form [it] is more likely to gain at least provisional acceptance, since it will be at least formally plausible” (6). The exploration of the context of Caesar’s account is thus vitally important, as it can tell us both about what Caesar was drawing upon to craft his narrative and about his audience’s expectations. Although Riggsby believes that many of the unusual qualities that he discovers in De Bello Gallico were intended by Caesar, he wisely avoids the issue of tendentiousness until the end of the book, to focus instead upon the imperial and literary underpinnings of the written war. This emphasis on intertext rather than allusion allows Riggsby to demonstrate how the naturalized quality of the work as a whole – whether intended or not – would have made Caesar’s self-promotion more palatable to his Roman audience.

The first chapter discusses the conceptualization and depiction of space in De Bello Gallico. Boundaries, both in Caesar and in the surveying texts that Riggsby discusses, tend to be marked by natural features such as rivers and mountains. Beyond these borders lies hostile space. Interesting in this context is Frontinus’ Varronian etymology of the term ager arcifinius. It is land that has not been measured but is contained by natural boundaries, and the name is derived from the “warding off ( arcendis) of enemies” (35), an etymology that reflects a Roman sense of inside versus outside. Such a conception naturally led the Romans to expand their territory, since they were compelled to tame those who threatened the margins of the cultivated interior.

Largely drawing upon Rambaud’s essay “Space in Caesarian Narrative,” Riggsby defines three types of space.2 Natural borders enclose “geographic” spaces that are inhabited regions. An example is the opening tripartite description of Gaul. The next type of space is “strategic” space, which is characterized by roads and the movement of individuals through it. Strategic space is subject to the common Caesarian designations of forest, swamp, and defile,3 all of which specify some degree of difficulty for a Roman army on the march. The final type, “tactical” space, is indivisible, because it describes a single battlefield. Riggsby relates tactical space to Roman surveying. Both surveying and tactical ground require a relatively smooth topography and both are a way of controlling space that is considered “empty.” Indeed, the act of battle implies the sequel, the surveying and distribution of the conquered land. Once again, the underlying Roman view of space is found to reinforce imperial ambition.

The second chapter discusses ethnography. De Bello Gallico is complicated by having not one but two broadly defined groups of foreigners: the Germans and the Gauls. Riggsby sorts through the conflicting evidence provided by Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Posidonius (two of whom also use the term Gallatae) and notes that Caesar used the term “German” to designate tribes who lived on the far side of the Rhine. The comparanda describe both Germans and Gauls in the terms typically applied to northern nomads and familiar from Herodotus’ description of the Scythians. They too are drinkers of unmixed wine, given to strange customs and marked by “fluidity” of movement and character. Nevertheless, Caesar treats the Germans as more alien than the Gauls, depicting among other things the strange animals that roamed their measureless forests. Riggsby contends that “the Germans were marked by a lack of any stable distinctions” whereas the Gauls were marked by a society that was “perverse and even corrupt” (63-64). The impulse provided by the ethnographic narrative, then, is to correct Gallic society and to leave the Germans in their pathless state beyond the boundary of the Rhine.

Chapter three outlines Roman conceptions of virtue, particularly those tied to war. The first third of the chapter notes how the Gauls increasingly use war technologies as the work progresses, learning from the Romans and becoming ever more sophisticated and dangerous enemies. As their martial prowess improves, they require pacification and become a greater prize for the general who will conquer them. Whether or not the Gauls made actual military advances during the fifties, Riggsby correctly asserts that the narrative of De Bello Gallico makes this progression thematic.

The rest of the chapter ruminates on Caesar’s use of the word virtus and its relationship to hierarchy in Roman culture. Riggsby notes the many passages where Roman valor is enhanced by Caesar’s gaze. Although the Germans and Gauls can display virtus, theirs is not tied to obedience or broader social goals and so they fall short of the disciplined Romans. Riggsby suggests that Caesar shifts the traditional definition of the term over the course of the work to remove the more effeminate associations of submission. Although I agreed with many of Riggsby’s observations, I found his final tentative suggestion excessively Machiavellian; namely that Caesar might have been bent upon redefining virtue so that it would be compatible with his own future influence at Rome. In my view, the pragmatic concerns of an active commander sufficiently explain Caesar’s emphasis on obedience.

As a way of exploring Caesar’s perceptions of ethnic identity, the fourth chapter discusses the speech of Critognatus. Riggsby points out that it is the only example we have of a complete Caesarian oration. Despite being spoken by an enemy, it conforms to standard Roman rhetorical practices. This leads to an entertaining analysis of the Ciceronian techniques that Critognatus uses to finesse the “hard sell” of cannibalism. The oratorical sophistication of Critognatus and his appeals to libertas show a Gallic world within the walls of Alesia that strangely mirrors Roman values.

The appeal to Roman oratorical standards implies, of course, that Roman standards are the proper measure, and Caesar is certainly guilty of both ventriloquizing through the Gauls and judging them by a Roman yardstick. But having acknowledged this, Riggsby still finds Caesar’s writing of ethnicity unexpectedly sympathetic. Caesar’s way of writing the Gauls is, as he points out, innocent of most of the grosser tendencies of modern colonial writers. Caesar’s resistance to a binary system of evaluation is attributed to the crisis of Roman identity in the first century BCE as well as to Caesar’s own sense of self. If l’état c’est moi, then everyone else is everyone else whether Roman, Gaul, or Italian. Thus he finds Caesar both less imperial, in that he attributes humanity and culture to the Gauls, and more imperial, in that his brand of entitlement transferred so easily to his relationship with the Roman state, a point I found very convincing.

Chapter five takes up technical questions such as the possible title of the work, the nature of the commentarius genre, and the effect of the third person narrative style. To understand the constraints ruling the form, Riggsby examines the testimonia, noting that commentarii are striking for their wide variety of topics and authors. Despite this diversity, however, they appear to have been fairly narrow in their focus. This generic convention allowed Caesar to keep on the topic of the war in Gaul and to make no apology for writing a work that was by and large free from references to the political machinations that were ongoing in Rome. Riggsby goes on to make the attractive suggestion that the use of the third person narrator was probably a characteristic of the commentarius form during the Republican period and that first person narration likely appeared later when public and private roles became conflated in the person of the emperor. Whatever the case, he observes that the impersonal narrator in De Bello Gallico and the character voice of Caesar are in fact different, with the latter marked by greater moralism.

Chapter six explores Roman conceptions of bellum iustum, focusing not on the term but on what the Romans believed justified aggression. Riggsby draws upon Cicero’s philosophical discussions as well as the juristic definition of iniuria.4 This last is relevant because interstate relationships were negotiated by many of the same ethical and legal concepts that were in place within the state. Earlier scholars have emphasized that, because of the foreign nature of the enemy, Caesar did not need to justify his activities in Gaul. This has been stated with particular force by Collins and was in part his response to Rambaud’s claims that Caesar warped the truth in his account.5 Coming at it from a slightly different direction allows Riggsby to show that Caesar was sensitive to the Roman desire that all their wars be just. Caesar presents Gallic provocations in ways consonant with Roman views of what constituted injury. Victory, with its implied demonstration of divine favor, was the ultimate arbiter of the rightness of his actions.

The final chapter serves as a conclusion of sorts and discusses Caesar in terms of the “grammar” of self-presentation used by other Roman generals. His celebratory impulses are consistent with the fragmentary remnants of inscriptions, paintings, and triumphal claims made by earlier Roman commanders. Caesar, as written by Caesar, “succeeds in ways typical of Roman aristocrats…by being uniquely outstanding in terms of extremely conventional categories” (207). De Bello Gallico is not, therefore, crudely propagandistic in the traditional sense of the term; but, because it is steeped in the worldview of Caesar’s first century readers, it is a remarkably persuasive text about the worthiness of its author.

Indeed, if I have a criticism to offer on the final chapter, it is that Riggsby feels compelled in the final few pages to enter into the debate on propaganda and ideology in Caesar’s writing. Although this is to some degree unavoidable given the history of Caesarian scholarship, the accusation of an agenda feels flat. Riggsby endorses the label “propaganda,” but only after defining it with broad strokes:6 “Suppose we define propaganda as any communication, regardless of truth value, that tends to shape the beliefs and values of its audience” (210). By such a definition almost any text of weight is burdened by this pejorative term. This closing discussion does not, in my opinion, do credit to the perceptive readings throughout the rest of the book. That Caesar is “artful” in how he tells things is by now a given.7 Riggsby’s contribution is a very intelligent and convincing reading of how Caesar persuades by both employing and sharing the normative values of his audience.8 Further, though he does not stress this, Riggsby sheds additional light on how the “collective self-image” (213) of the Romans in turn helped to birth and to suckle imperial ambitions.

This is a densely written and densely argued book and these summaries merely give a taste of the topics and ideas contained within these chapters. For instance, I have largely neglected the recurring topic of the Gallic discourse on libertas, though I hope I have conveyed the range and style of argument favored by the author. Scholars of Caesar will find that Riggsby synthesizes earlier scholarship in a balanced manner while also illuminating it in new ways by the systematic application of intertexts from a wide variety of sources. Indeed, given the wealth of materials that the author employs, one feels the want of an index locorum. Riggsby does include two appendices: one juxtaposes the Greek view of the “barbarian” with that of the Romans and another provides a helpful collation of the inscriptional evidence he references in the final chapter. Without guidance, Caesar in Gaul and Rome would be a challenging read for an undergraduate. For graduate students and for those who want to bring new ideas to their teaching of this text, it is a valuable resource, full of insightful observations on both the text and its cultural backdrop.


1. E.g. Crime and Community in Ciceronian Rome. Austin, 1999 and “The Rhetoric of Character in the Roman Courts,” in Cicero the Advocate. Oxford, 2004.

2. M. Rambaud. “L’espace dans le récit césarien.” Chevallier 1974: 111-129.

3. The terms silva, palus, and angustiae respectively.

4. Gaius Inst. 3.220.

5. M. Rambaud. L’art de la déformation historique dans les Commentaires de César. 2nd edition, Paris, 1966 and J. Collins. “Caesar as Political Propagandist.” ANRW 1.1, 1972: 922-66.

6. Riggsby adopts elements from Althusser’s definition of “ideology” and from J. Ellul ( Propagandes. Paris, 1962).

7. K. Welch and A. Powell eds. Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter. London, 1998.

8. Lendon, in pushing beyond issues of propaganda, states: “Perhaps Caesar’s battle descriptions are tendentious, but to tell lies Caesar must have a grammar of battle description from which to build the lies” (p. 281 in “The Rhetoric of Combat.” Cl. Ant. 18, 1999: 273-329). The book under review can be seen as an analysis of the grammar underlying Caesar’s account of his Gallic conquest.