Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul by Bijan Omrani - review by Daisy Dunn

Daisy Dunn

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Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul


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Some of the most colourful passages of Greek and Latin literature describe the people of Gaul. There are haughty, bellicose Gauls, drunk Gauls, Gauls who sleep on straw like animals, Gauls who make severed heads into necklaces for horses or store them in cedar oil to bring out on special days. And then, ‘living beyond the deep sea and quite cut off from the world’, are the huge and ‘terrifying’ Britons. All in all, a horrible bunch.

One of the effects of the Gallic War, which Julius Caesar waged between 58 and 51 BC, was to draw what Bijan Omrani calls ‘an impenetrable veil over centuries of indigenous Gallic culture’. The campaign, which Caesar initially undertook to pay off his debts and outshine his political rivals, helped the Romans to rewrite Gallic history. Conquered tribes left little trace of their former ways of life. Caesar, meanwhile, left his extensive Commentaries on the Gallic War.

The text is Omrani’s guide as he travels across France, Belgium and Switzerland in search of the conflict it describes – and the history it doesn’t. A former classics teacher, Omrani rambles along dung-strewn lanes and muddy tracks, and through medieval villages named after ancient villas (the Latin name endings –acum and –anus became –ac, –at, –as, –y, –é, and –ay in French). In places, his book evokes Richard Holmes’s pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson through France in his marvellous Footsteps, though Omrani’s own personality is comparatively self-contained. For all the mud, his own footprints are rather fainter on his pages than those of Caesar and the Gauls he stalks.

He finds some of the deepest footprints at Marseilles (ancient Massalia). Founded by migrants from the Greek city of Phocaea in around 600 BC, Massalia was, Omrani says, ‘a cousin to Rome’. There are myths of marriages between the migrants and natives at the time of Massalia’s foundation. Classical authors looked on approvingly because the settlers were Greek; for the first time, Gaul had been tamed. No sooner had the Massalians mastered the arts of Greek writing, potting and building than they spawned civilised colonies at Nice, Antibes and Monaco.

The Romans assumed that their conquest of Gaul in the first century BC was just as civilising, and in some ways it was. Omrani draws up a fascinating list of professions in Arles following Caesar’s victory. It runs from carpenters, jewellers and rag-traders to utricularii (men who transported goods on rafts buoyed by animal hides or bladders) and lenuncularii (specialist oarsmen). Elegant, Roman-style villas sprung up at Nîmes and Lyons and all along the Rhône. The Roman general Agricola could not help but scoff at Britons adopting baths and banquets following Caesar’s invasions in 55 and 54 BC. ‘This in their ignorance they called civilisation’, he wrote, ‘when it was but part of their servitude.’

But the Romans underestimated the Gauls. They weren’t all simply savage head-hunters and inebriated oafs. Omrani finds himself particularly captivated by Vercingetorix, a noble-born Gallic chief who put up considerable resistance to the Roman campaign. Caesar cast him as a brute who had the eyes of any of his men who fell out of line gouged out and their ears severed. But Vercingetorix was clearly a masterful strategist, assembling an army of ‘beggars and outcasts’ to seize Gergovia (modern Gergovie) before being hailed king.

As far as the Romans were concerned, the sooner this shameful episode was forgotten, the better. And so it was. For centuries, Gergovia was known simply as Merdogne – ‘shit-hole’. For Omrani and other historians, this ‘flat wasteland’ perfectly encapsulates the struggle in modern France between admiration for Caesar’s heroism on the one hand and praise of Vercingetorix’s dogged determination on the other. In the 1860s, Napoleon III visited Gergovie and erected a statue of the Gallic leader on Mont Auxois. Omrani is not the first person to see in Vercingetorix’s face a reflection of Napoleon III himself. More recently, he recalls, François Mitterrand, Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen have spoken fondly of Vercingetorix, whom Caesar eventually defeated and executed.

Caesar could never have gained the upper hand had Gaul been wasteland in the first century BC. He relied on its fertility to feed his troops. Caesar’s portrayal of bloodthirsty, shambolic Gauls is particularly difficult to square with that of a people so enamoured of vegetables. The Gauls feasted on cauliflower and celeriac, apples and onions, asparagus, cucumber, carrots, black bryony and the now little-eaten plant known as Alexanders. They were as clean as they were clean-eating, too, credited with the invention of sapo, which was less an early form of soap, notes Omrani, than a pomade that brightened the hair.

If the Romans were inclined to overlook these signs of civilisation, they at least had the decency to recognise the Gauls’ enthusiasm for teaching. Omrani’s book is delightfully saturated in this. One of the reasons that Caesar’s Commentaries remains a staple of school Latin lessons, he tells us, is the fact that it contains little more than 1,300 different words. We get a real sense of Omrani as a teacher in the parentheses and asides he slips into his narrative, some of which are charming, others mildly irritating. It is fun to encounter the following in a section on Roman houses: ‘The Latin word villa [is] often the first word to be learnt in Latin as an example of a first declension noun’; less so to trip up over all the ‘about which more in due course’ and ‘dealt with in another chapter’ assurances.

One of the most rewarding parts of the book is a long but well-crafted digression on the fourth-century AD teacher and poet Ausonius. His maternal uncle was a tutor in the household of Constantine. One of his aunts, ‘hating her own sex’, lived as a man and worked as a doctor. Ausonius himself turned his back on a career in law to become a tutor to the future emperor Gratian. He was so evangelical about his chosen path that he wrote a cycle of poems commemorating the teachers of his native Bordeaux.

Omrani is rightly hesitant about drawing too many parallels between the struggle to hold Europe together today and efforts to integrate Gaul into the Roman Empire. But his focus on education is apposite. His book is less a travelogue of blisters and failed campfires than a sensitively written history of Gallo-Roman civilisation and learning in these ancient landscapes. The precursors of Bordeaux and Marseilles became important seats of education. Gaul’s teachers were held in such high esteem that they were celebrated not only in poetry, but in memorial inscriptions as well (Omrani finds a number preserved in Limoges, Trier, Vienne, Strasbourg and Narbonne). Rome’s support of Gaul’s schools was clearly instrumental in aiding social cohesion. Not only did Romans begin to send their children to Gaul rather than Athens for their education – it was closer, cooler and ‘the fiercest guardian of strictness’ – but educated Gauls also forged political careers in Rome. Who would have thought those savage tribes capable of such propriety?

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