As surprising as it may sound, Julius Caesar’s firsthand account of conquering Gaul (what is now modern day France) is a thrilling read. 1
Caesar captures not just the cunning strategies he devised for conquering the Gallic tribes, but describes moments of individual heroism among his troops — and those of his enemies, to be fair.
The huge majority of Roman citizens entered military service; while for some this was no doubt due to a calling for soldiery, for most this was out of a fear of social sanction. In those times, one’s career would rarely progress far without having demonstrated courage on the field of battle.
Caesar’s relish as he relates the minutiae of war indicates how warrior-ship and selfless bravery were considered essential qualities of a Roman citizen. That he glosses over the reality of suffering makes his work an early piece of political propaganda, no doubt convenient for fuelling support for his war in the Roman senate back home.
On the seventh day of the siege a great gale sprang up, and the Gauls began slinging moulded bullets of red-hot clay and hurling incendiary darts at the huts in the camp, which, as is usual in Gaul, were thatched. The huts quickly caught fire, and the strong wind spread the flames throughout the camp. The enemy raised a loud cheer, as if victory were now a certainty …
[But] the Roman soldiers showed the greatest courage and coolness. They were surrounded by scorching heat and pelted with a hail of missiles, and they knew that their baggage and everything they possessed was being burned … the Gauls were crowded in a tightly packed mass at the very foot of the Roman fortifications.
In the legion were two very brave centurions named Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, both of them nearly qualified for the first grade. They were always disputing which was the better soldier, and every year the competition for promotion set them quarrelling. When the fighting at the entrenchment was at its height, Pullo cried: “Why hesitate, Vorenus? What better opportunity do you want to prove your courage? Today shall decide between us.”
With these words he advanced outside the fortification, and rushed in to the thickest place he could see in the enemy’s line. This brought Vorenus too over the rampart, hastening after his rival for fear of what everyone would think if he lagged behind. Pullo stopped a short way from the Gauls, hurled his spear, and transfixed one of them who was running forward from the ranks. The man fainted from the wound, and his comrades covered him with their shields, at the same time showering missiles upon Pullo and preventing him from advancing further. His shield was pierced by a javelin, which stuck in his sword-belt; and as the blow knocked his scabbard out of place, he could not get his hand quickly to his sword when he tried to draw it, and was surrounded by the enemy while unable to defend himself.
His rival Vorenus ran up to rescue him in his distress, and all the Gauls immediately left Pullo, who they thought mortally wounded by the javelin, and turned upon Vorenus. Vorenus drew his sword, and fighting hand to hand killed one of his assailants and drove the rest back a little; but pressing on too eagerly he stumbled down a steep slope and fell. It was now his turn to be surrounded.
But Pullo came to his aid; both of them escaped unhurt, and after killing a number of the enemy returned to camp covered with glory. Thus Fortune played with them in their struggle for pre-eminence: bitter rivals though they were, each helped and saved the other, so that it could not be decided which was more deserving of the prize of valour.
Who knew that Caesar was not only a military genius, a cunning politician and orator but also a gifted author?
I have the Penguin Classics 1951 translation from the Latin, now out of print, but you can get the 1983 edition at Amazon↩