[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

This webpage reproduces an article in the
English Historical Review
Vol. 18 (1903), pp332‑336

The text is in the public domain:
F. J. Haverfield died in 1919.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

Caesar's Conquest of Gaul. By T. Rice Holmes. (London: Macmillan. 1899.)

Vercingétorix. Par Camille Jullian. (Paris: Hachette. 1901.)

These are two excellent books, and I must begin my review of them with a profound apology for my lateness in reviewing them. Their excellence and my lateness are (as every reviewer will at once understand) quite closely connected, and I need not increase the delay by further explanation. Agreeing in excellence, the two books differ widely in object, size, and character. Mr. Holmes, whom I take first as the earlier writer, gives us a solid mass of 880 pages, divided into two unequal parts. Part I, 160 pages of large print, contains an historical narrative of Caesar's Gaulish campaigns; part II, the other four-fifths of the volume, contains appendices of the most various sort and kind, dealing with the most various topics. Among these topics are the manuscripts of the 'Gallic War,' Caesar's reasons for writing and his credibility, the ethnology of ancient Gaul, the geography and topography of the land, the Gaulish political and social system, the Roman army, and a number of miscellaneous items relating to the incidents of the war and to Caesar's account of it. The historical narrative is truly admirable — terse, lucid, vigorous. It ought some day to be detached from its environment and issued separately as a companion to its author's excellent account of the Indian Mutiny. Reinforced by a few additions and backed by a few selected notes, it would at once take rank as the standard English narrative of Caesar's greatest war. Part II is a very different matter. It p333testifies to immense industry: it is solid, valuable, and often interesting, but mole ruit sua. Its heterogeneous contents do not seem to be collected on any one plan. The first item in them, on the manuscripts, is quite short, filling hardly a page and a half. It does not really concern the reader of the rest of the volume and might have been omitted: or, if included, it might have been lengthened and account taken of the growing tendency of scholars to hold that Nipperdey was nearer the truth than Meusel or Kübler would allow. The next items are the reasons why Caesar wrote the Commentaries and their credibility. These take up nearly eighty pages, and those pages are devoted principally to a minute examination of numerous inferior writers who have dealt with the questions in a more or less inferior way. Their theories, based on private predilections and probabilities (or improbabilities), lie outside the sphere of logic. Long ago an eminent barrister observed of a baseless charge —

Quod Erucio accidebat in mala nugatoriaque accusatione, idem mihi usu venit in causa optima. Ille quo modo crimen commenticium confirmaret non inveniebat; ego res tam levis qua ratione infirmem ac diluam reperire non possum.

It was Mr. Holmes's unpleasant duty to read and estimate these theories, and he has done his duty manfully: to go on and discuss them in print serves no purpose in scholarship nor even (I think) in morals. But the reader who skips these rubbish-heaps will find in Mr. Holmes's pages most excellent matter. The topographical notes, in particular, are rich with useful facts and well-considered judgments which have often been formed on the spot or with a knowledge of the spot. The philological and ethnological notes, so far as I can judge of them, are perhaps less good, but that in the present state of our knowledge is inevitable. It is, however, puzzling to find a chapter on Celtic names and no account of such a question as the orthography of Divitiacus. Altogether these appendices, though obviously overloaded and sometimes uneven, demand the attention of every student of Caesar and the volume claims a place in every good classical library.

M. Jullian's book is very different. Barely one-fourth the size of the other, and equipped with only a few short appendices, it is a direct narrative of the crisis of Gaulish history. The writer extends his outlook just so far as to include all that is required to make the position and work of Vercingetorix intelligible to his readers. Thus he begins with a sketch of the country of his hero, the Auvergne, its physical features, its gods, its people, its previous rulers, and then briefly indicates the course of Caesar's campaigns down to the appearance of Vercingetorix as national leader. From this commencement he passes to describe fully and well the great campaign of 52 B.C., and concludes with some general reflexions on the character of Vercingetorix and on the future of Gaul after his defeat. The whole is excellently done. I confess that the body of the volume interests me more than the opening sketch of the Arverni and their land, and I am not wholly convinced by a theory, ingenious as it is, of early Gallic aspirations for unity. Certainly I find it hard to look on Orgetorix as a patriot or to accept the defeat of the Helvetii as p334'completing the ruin of the national party' (p74). But the succeeding narrative has all the merits of terse, lucid, and scholarly history, and should be in the hands of all who study the seventh book of the Commentaries. Neither editor nor schoolmaster should neglect it. It has been crowned by the French Academy, and it thoroughly deserves that high honour. If I may make one little criticism, it is that M. Jullian's modernisations of Gaulish names look sometimes a trifle odd. Comm, Gutuatr, Epathnact, Conconnetodumn are neither Latin nor Celtic forms: I am perhaps not qualified to judge whether they are French.

I proceed to discuss one or two points raised by the two writers whose works I have attempted to praise in general. And first a topographical problem handled by Mr. Holmes. It is an old problem — the place where Caesar embarked for Britain. Mr. Holmes discusses the site of Portus Itius in an excursus of ten pages. He omits, as not pertaining to the conquest of Gaul, the corresponding question of where Caesar landed in Britain — an omission which to some extent affects the argument from distances. I will give his summary of his views in his own words.

Prolonged study of the question has gradually led scholars to the conviction that the choice lies between Wissant and Boulogne. I believe that Boulogne is not the Portus Itius, because there is no evidence that it was ever called by that name, while it is certain that it was called Gesoriacum; because Caesar would not have increased the length of his voyage by nine miles without strong reason; because he could have had no such reason, except the alleged convenience of the harbour at Boulogne; because his own narrative shows that he did not require that convenience, but as a rule simply beached his ships; and because the chief advocate of Boulogne rightly admits that his choice was wrong unless the Itian promontory was the Cap d'Alprech, whereas there is hardly any doubt but that it was Cape Grisnez. I believe that Wissant is the Portus Itius, because there appears to be direct evidence — the evidence of Strabo — that it was called by that name; because, alone among all the harbours in the country of the Morini, it was called by that name in the middle ages; because in the middle ages it was a frequented port; because, assuming that Caesar's ships could have assembled and remained there for a few weeks in safety, it was the most convenient port from which he could have started; because this assumption is justified by his narrative as well as by the strong probability that, in his time, the port of Wissant was a spacious harbour in the true sense of the word, and by the certainty that it was sheltered by two great flanking promontories, that the beach was convenient, and that there was abundant fresh water near; because Wissant was the nearest port to Britain, and because the promontory under the shelter of which it lay was called Cape Itius.

These reasons are not convincing. Let me begin with the case for Wissant. (1) How Strabo's evidence proves Wissant to have been called Portus Itius I do not understand, since Strabo does not employ the term Portus Itius, nor (naturally) the term Wissant. (2) Nor is anything material proved by the fact that William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers call Wissant Portus Itius, for these writers (as is well known) were genuine antiquaries, theoretical and inventive. Moreover it is incredible that the name of a some time inhabited site should emerge once in 54 B.C., vanish for a millennium, and then reappear just once again. Had there been a genuine tradition, it would have survived elsewhere than in the two Williams mentioned above. (3) Nor, again, is it fair to p335call medieval Wissant 'a frequented port,' or to assume that in Caesar's time it was a spacious and genuine harbour with abundant fresh water near it. Wissant was, of course, used in the middle ages, principally from about A.D. 900 to 1346. But a twelfth-century writer calls it exigua valde, and an eleventh-century writer emphasises loci ariditatem: it was never fortified, it never grew (like Calais) into an independent parish, and it had no proper harbour or accommodation for numerous vessels. Men used it as nearest to Britain, but they did not call it commodious or comfortable, and they were often weatherbound there and grumbled considerably. In the middle ages it was probably much what it is to‑day, an open, sandy, wind-swept beach — though the winter stream which still trickles through its dunes may have provided a tiny creek, and (according to one suggestion) an outlying sandbank may have lent some scanty shelter. In Roman times it may well have been the same. At any rate no vestiges of an ancient port have been found beneath its sands, and (despite Dr. Guest) no evidence exists to show either that it was 'a spacious harbour' with 'abundant fresh water' or that Caesar's ships could have 'met and remained there for a few weeks in safety.' Nor, lastly, will it avail to say that the two capes, Gris and Blanc Nez, then projected much further out and sheltered Wissant from various winds. They may have done so, but the soundings do not indicate real loss of land — certainly not one-quarter enough to prove Mr. Holmes's case — and in any case it is rash to appeal to a 'might have been.' Antiquaries often use the ocean to dissolve their Gordian knots, but the results are always disappointing.

And now Boulogne. Mr. Holmes's objections are, in sum, two — that (1) the name is different, and (2) Caesar needed no special harbour. The name, of course, is different. Boulogne was called Gessoriacum by Pliny and others, and afterwards Bononia. But it may easily have been called by Caesar portus Itius. That phrase, on any theory, is Caesar's coinage, minted to describe intelligently to Roman readers a harbour near the Itian cape. It might mean Wissant or Boulogne or Ambleteuse, or any similar spot. All these had doubtless their own Celtic names: whichever he meant of them, Caesar either did not know the name or did not care to employ so obscure an appellation. The phrase, in fact, proves nothing for or against; only, if portus be pressed, it suits Boulogne better than Wissant. Nor can Mr. Holmes really get much support from Strabo's words τὸ Ἴτιον (ἄκρον) ᾧ ναυστάθμῳ ἐχρήσατο Καῖσαρ. For ναύσταθμον here as in Thucyd. III.6, VI.49, &c.) does not mean 'roadstead,' but something more like 'naval base:' it does not denote one special site or strip of sand, but the whole region of the Itian highland, in which Caesar had his portus Itius and his ulterior portus, &c. (2) Mr. Holmes's other objection I do not fully understand. He says that Caesar 'beached his ships' (subductis navibus) on returning from Britain, and therefore did not disembark in an estuary, like the mouth of the Liane at Boulogne: 'he did not require the convenience of a harbour.' If so, why emphasise the alleged 'spacious harbour' at Wissant? But indeed it is not clear why he should not use the phrase subductis navibus of the harbour at Boulogne. That harbor before 1803 was very different from what it now is. Apparently it was a wide, shallow, sandy estuary, possibly (as Haigneréº suggests) with a rather larger river than to‑day, fed by larger forests in p336the interior. It must have had room enough for Caesar's fleet: it must have been considerably more convenient than Wissant, for it is far better sheltered from the wind, and it must have been far more of a portus. It may indeed claim to have been then, as in general later, the only harbour 'in the true sense of the word' between Cape Blancnez and Etaples. If Caesar, or his naval advisers, wanted a Gaulish port to which they could be sure of getting back, then Boulogne and not Wissant must have been that port.

I pass to another famous question — the Druids. It is an old puzzle that Caesar once describes the Druids as singularly powerful, and never again alludes to them or to the exercise of their power, except perhaps in the passage where he notes the abnormal appointment of Convictolitavis, per sacerdotes. Mr. Holmes hardly faces the problem. Why, he asks, should Caesar have mentioned the Druids oftener than once? The reply is obvious. A singularly powerful priesthood, numbering political leaders, like Divitiacus, among its ranks, might be expected in a national crisis to take some definite line, requiring notice in the Commentaries. Yet omit two chapters, and so far as the Commentaries go, the Druids might never have existed. M. Jullian appreciates the difficulty and faces it boldly. Caesar, he says, a laïcisé à outrance l'esprit et l'histoire de la Gaule. Il a, sinon dénaturé, du moins dénudé cette histoire. Nul ne croira que la Gaule n'ait pas appelé prêtres et dieux à son secours. But what motive had Caesar for this? And if he thus laicised on one topic, how shall we maintain his good faith on any? However, not Caesar only but all ancient literature is on trial. Throughout, the Druids are described as holy men endowed with secret wisdom, and especially secret scientific knowledge, which they teach to pupils; as magicians and soothsayers, and much else. But temporal power and political activity are not assigned to them. True, they perhaps elected Convictolitavis, but the act is called abnormal, and it is also unique. They are mentioned as interfering in wars, but neither as advisers or dissuaders of it, nor as preachers of patriotism: they interfere purely as mediators. Once they stand in the battle line, on the shores of Anglesey, but they stand as magicians, cursing the Romans for their very existence. I have been shown a photograph of that scene — medicine men on a North Pacific shore. Lastly, when they are proscribed by the imperial government, it is because of magic and barbarous rites, not because they were politically dangerous; else were the order of Augustus foolish which prohibited Druidism only among citizens. Two analogies occur to these powerful non-political priests. One may be found in the medicine-man, who is, as a rule, influential, but excluded from an open participation in politics and from the tribal council, who declares omens, practises magic, curses the enemy Balaamwise, but does not preach a holy war. The other is provided by various priestly collegia at Rome, which include political leaders, but which in their augural or other capacity take no political action. The second is the better analogy, as such, but either may help to explain the nature of the holy and powerful Druids who, as Druids, uttered no word against Caesar or for him.

F. Haverfield.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 8 Oct 07