Bijan Omrani introduces his new book "Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul"

Caesar s FootprintsI first decided to write about Julius Caesar and his conquest of Gaul when I was a Classics Teacher at Eton College.

 

As had been the tradition for many generations, I was using Caesar’s Gallic Wars, his own account of the Gallic conquest (58-50 BC) as the first proper Latin text to read with my A-level students. They hated it. It seemed to them nothing more than a confusing mess of legions marching this way, legates marching that way, and a tedious melange of battles with woad-painted chieftains. I tried to get them to see the text’s importance. Without Caesar’s conquest, the Latin and Roman culture of the Mediterranean would never have taken root in northern Europe. There would have been no French language, and no original template for a unified French nation. It would have been less likely that Christianity would have taken root. Latin literature, at the heart of the intellectual life of Europe and the Renaissance for centuries afterwards, would not have been studied. There would have been no Charlemagne, no Napoleon, and even no Asterix. We would have been reading the myths of Toutatis in that classroom, rather than Caesar.

 

My students remained unmoved, despite my eloquence. It was then I decided I would write something to show that they were wrong about refusing to be interested in the Gallic Wars.

 

I realised that there was a bigger job to do than convincing just my students. In the English-speaking world, Julius Caesar is much more associated with the city of Rome itself. Popular works, like those of the novelist Robert Harris, have glamorised the politics and ferocious jockeying for power in the city during Caesar’s time. Caesar’s power-play and his seduction of high-class senatorial wives in Rome is undoubtedly exciting, but it is in France that Caesar’s real legacy is to be found.

 

For those living in Provence and the Languedoc, that legacy is everywhere to be seen, an everyday and visible part of the region’s character and identity. However, it is remarkably little known in the English-speaking world. Tourists and students who wish to see the great ruins and artefacts of the classical world flock in vast numbers from Britain to Italy and Greece, but neglect the superb treasures on their doorstep in southern France.

 

My book, Caesar’s Footprints, aims to tell the story of the Roman impact on Gaul. It looks at what led Caesar and the Romans to invade, and how the Romans changed the country over five centuries of imperial rule.

 

Caesar s Footprints 2Some aspects of their legacy loom large in the Provencal landscape — the amphitheatres of Arles and Nîmes, the Maison Carrée, the Pont du Gard. Others are less visible but no less important. Rome revolutionised Gallic society. Around a million people died in the Roman conquest, and another million were enslaved. It put an end to endemic inter-tribal feuding and many Gallic customs. No longer did Gallic chiefs display their prestige by hanging the embalmed heads of their decapitated enemies on their doorposts. Instead, at Rome’s prompting, they learned Latin at new schools, enlisted in Roman armies, and rushed to compete for administrative posts in the growing empire. Prestige was now shown not by decapitated heads or grand retinues of warriors, but by being a priest of Augustus, or sitting on the local town council.

 

Elegant houses and baths — such as can still be seen at Vaison-la-Romaine, St-Romain-en-Gal or even Arles — were built in the towns, and extensive villas, some with statues and mosaics, in the countryside. Beautiful gardens were laid out, and the fields were divided into regular grids, many to be apportioned to new settlers.

 

The old order of druids was suppressed. However, the Romans not only brought their own gods to Gaul, but also worshipped those they found there. At Glanum near St-Rémy-de-Provence, just a few years after the murderous conquest, Roman centurions were dedicating altars at a healing spring sacred to the Glanic Mothers, a local divinity. In Nîmes, the emperor Augustus and the local Gallic god Nemausus were given similar reverence at the shrine which stood at the Jardin de la Fontaine.

 

The conquest did not only benefit the upper classes, but also the ordinary people. In the collection of the Nîmes Musée de la Romanité, due to open in Summer 2018, there is a small and moving gravestone with a simple Latin inscription: “Quartina, to the soul of her excellent brother, Vallus”. Below it, there is carved a picture of a pruning-hook for vines. Although Vallus was a humble vine-dresser, the Roman Empire gave him and his family sufficient wealth to commemorate him, not to mention the very idea that such a person was worthy of being remembered this way after his death — something, at the time, which was revolutionary.

 

This work is of more than antiquarian interest. The history of Roman Gaul offers many parallels with the modern world which I investigate: Caesar’s use of a migration crisis in 58 BC to justify his initial attack on Gaul; the question of how the Romans used culture to assimilate the Gallic "barbarians" into their empire; and why the Romans were able to maintain Gaul in their empire for over 500 years, when the EU is struggling for unity after a mere 50. A study of the history of the first European Union — under the Romans — is more than legates and woad-painted chieftains: it is a foretaste of the questions being asked about Europe today.

 

 

Caesar’s Footprints is published by Head of Zeus, and is available at all good bookshops Camili BOOKS & TEA, Avignon, Le Bookshop Montpellier and Online.