Yes, it’s one of those cheerful blogs.
I was twittering away, conversing with a friend, when I happened to mention Julius Caesar once massacred almost half a million Germanian tribesmen.
And so the idea for this blog was born. Unlike almost every other figure from classical history, people do generally know a bit about Julius Caesar. Some of it is tosh. The ‘veni, vidi, vici’ quote isn’t from when he invaded Britain (and failed), it’s from when he crushed Pharnaces II, the ruler of Pontus. Similarly, he wasn’t born by Caesarian section (we know this because although Romans could practice it, the procedure always killed the mother and we know that Caesar’s mum survived birthing him).
Other bits of common knowledge are true. He did conquer Gaul (mostly. Gallia Narbonensis had been conquered some time earlier). He did cross the Rubicon and cause a cold war to become a hot one. And he was murdered in the Senate by some of his former friends.
Part of this history is written by Caesar himself. The Gallic War entirely, and the first quarter or so of The Civil War (the rest being written by a few contemporary authors). His adopted son, who took the name Augustus, also had reasons to embellish the propaganda around Julius Caesar’s conduct. After all, nobody wants to say their adoptive dad was a lunatic, do they?
But there are certain things about Caesar which are not common knowledge today. In his lifetime he acquired (and detested) the nickname the Queen of Bithynia. This was because he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia (small kingdom in Asia Minor, if memory serves) and was so fond of the king he stayed on longer than planned.
A loathed nickname being expunged, mostly, from history is understandable when you become dictator for life and your adopted son becomes the first emperor of Rome. There is a more troubling act of Caesar’s that remains obscured from general knowledge, though.
He murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent people.
A Germanian tribe, reportedly 430,000 strong (even allowing for exaggeration, the number will be vast), was negotiating peacefully with the Romans, led by Caesar. Or so they thought. In the middle of negotiation, Caesar had them all slaughtered.
This was not an army, it was a tribe of men, women and children. And he butchered them, citing duplicity on their part as the justification. In his biography (simply entitled Caesar), TA Dodge used the term ‘holocaust’ to describe the act (the history pre-dates WWII by some decades).
This was not the first time such an action was attempted. Decades earlier, the Cimbri (a tribe seeking to settle peacefully on Roman territory if possible, and to migrate west by passing through Roman territory if not) was similarly attacked. Unfortunately for the Romans, who initiated the battle, the Cimbri won. This was repeated, farcically, several times. In one such battle, Arausio, partly due to mutual loathing of Roman leaders Caepio and Maximus, the Romans suffered a defeat to rank alongside Cannae. Eventually the Cimbri were defeated by Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle.
Roman belligerence towards barbarian tribes, therefore, was nothing new. Indeed, in Rome and Italy (by Livy), there’s an approving passage written of Roman action to kill a huge number of fighting age men of the enemy.
And yet this genocide of Caesar is little known. I do wonder whether, at the time, the reason was very different to that of his nickname becoming little known. It might just be that in the 1st century BC, wiping out a tribe of barbarians was seen as a good thing, but not significant enough to be worth remembering.
It’s tempting to think of the Romans only in terms of civilising influence (roads, rule of law, the Pax Romana, what have the Romans ever done for us? Etc). They weren’t above exterminating tribes of people who wanted peace. But it was deemed ok. Because the hundreds of thousands they murdered were savages.