Those Lit. Soc. members who had daringly crossed their personal Zoom Rubicon gathered in virtual conclave to hear Bijan Omrani discuss his recent book on Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. The swots who had done their pre-talk prep and read the book would indubitably have had their appetites for things Classical whetted by the fulsome front cover testimonial from the nation’s best known scholar in the field, Boris Johnson. Eton also lit the spark for our speaker’s opus as, like an embattled gladiator in the arena, he fought to avoid ensnarement in a net of languid ennui from his Lower Sixth Latin class who were signally failing to see the foundation stones of Western European culture in Book V of Caesar’s Gallic Commentaries, finding only “irrelevant linguistic roughage”.
With barely a pause for an Ecce Homo, Bijan plunged into his hero’s biography. Auspiciously born on the threshold of a new century in 100 BC into an impoverished blue-blooded clan and having had to assume the role of head of household at age 15, Julius Caesar focussed on his ascent of the political pyramid of the Roman Republic. Within a year he was nominated for the post of Flamen Dialis in the priesthood of Jupiter, drawing the unwelcome attention of Rome’s dominant military figure, Sulla, who pressed him to demit office and to divorce his wife. Caesar wisely granted himself a temporary exeat before returning to his cursus honorum and scrambling up the ladder of sequential state offices; the Roman Bar, quaestor in Spain, Curule Aedile, Pontifex Maximus, Praetor and eventually Governor of Spain. The acquisition of these offices entailed disbursing large sums in bribes and public entertainments, panem et circenses, which in turn necessitated lavish borrowing of money. Becoming a provincial governor created a situation which could be exploited for personal profit.
With the groundwork now laid for political power, it was time for the next step – general of an army. The Roman Republic’s army had given up its citizen-soldier format in favour of a professional outfit whose troops’ primary loyalty was to the general, like the condottiere bands which ranged across medieval Italy. Caesar had a role model in his uncle by marriage, Marius, who had risen from the ranks to lead an army which had defeated the Gauls before he became the leader of the patrician Populares faction in the Senate – antagonists of Sulla’s equally patrician Optimes faction. In emulation Caesar led his army into Gaul and fell on the Helvetii tribe as they moved in transit across southeast Gaul, killing thousands of them. These Gallic Wars continued for years culminating in the successful besieging of Alésia where the leader of the Gauls, Vercingetorix, surrendered - to be paraded in Caesar’s army’s triumphal procession into Rome. After 6 years incarceration he was garotted and his corpse flung in the Tiber in a fitting coda to a particularly bloody campaign.
In the course of the next century Gaul was incorporated into the empire and the natives were assimilated into a Gallo-Roman culture. Our speaker demonstrated the residual, archaeological legacy of this with examples like The Arch of Glanum, just south of St. Rémy-de-Provence, site of van Gogh’s creatively productive, voluntary confinement in the local asylum. The Arch, dating from the reign of Augustus Caesar, has side panels showing Gauls as Roman prisoners but also functions as part of a dam-aqueduct complex representing Roman dominance going hand in hand with life-enriching engineering skills. The impressive amphitheatres at Arles and Nîmes still offer eloquent testimony to the benefits of urbanisation under the Roman aegis and less than 10 miles from Arles the aqueduct of Barbegal with its 16 integrated water wheels which powered multiple flour mills is a reminder of the sophistication of Rome’s hydraulic engineering. At Autun the skeletal remains of the Temple of Janus constitute an imposing local landmark. Individuals could assimilate and flourish in the Gallo-Roman culture. Ausonius’ mastery of Rhetoric saw him made tutor to the Emperor’s son in the 4th century AD and build on these contacts to be made a consul.
Quod erat demonstrandum? Would Bijan’s Etonian Classics recidivists now see the light – the Roman Empire as the keystone of France’s cultural flowering? Was the spirit of the Gauls, like the good of Shakespeare’s Caesar, “oft interred with their bones”? Marcel Proust, on an unaccustomed foray from his habitually introspective narrative pathway, comments approvingly in “Swann’s Way” on the belief that the souls of France’s Celtic forebears can return to share his life, springing forth from centuries long imprisonment in objects and animals. These recalcitrant ghosts of a stubborn, unyielding France were to emerge in the flamboyant journalism of de Maupassant and Zola in the leading, late 19th century Parisian daily Le Gaulois, in the guise of the Gauloise cigarettes clamped between the lips of the resolute poilus defending Verdun – extrapolated in the inter-war years as a symbol of an unflinching France profonde -- and an aromatically smouldering baton passed to the hands of today’s gilets jaunes. Even hard done by Vercingetorix might draw a quantum of solace in the survival of his emblematic suffix in René Goscinny’s irrepressible cartoon Gaul, Asterix, who was sometimes interpreted as symbolising the less vertically-challenged Charles de Gaulle, resisting American domination rather than that of Caesar’s Rome.
And the Lit. Soc. audience was left to conclude that they had enjoyed a talk which like Caesar’s Gaul fell nicely into 3 parts; history, Classical culture and travelogue.