Celts: Cicero on Gauls and the link between imperial conquest and negative stereotypes (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Celts: Cicero on Gauls and the link between imperial conquest and negative stereotypes (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified August 21, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=10065.

Ancient author: Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the Consular Provinces 32-35 (link).

Comments: Although the concern to make sense of other peoples was widespread in various social settings beyond the Roman imperial elites, the focus on who people were, what they were like, how they differed from “us” (whoever us was), and what was supposedly bad about such people was particularly pertinent to those interested in the success of Roman conquest and empire, or the legimation of the subjection of foreign peoples.

Marcus Tullius Cicero’s speech (as a Roman senator to the other senators in April, 56 BCE) in favour of keeping Julius Caesar as the commander of the two provinces of Gaul (rather than the consuls taking charge) illustrates very well the intimate connection between Roman imperial expansionism; the delineation and circumscription of peoples and their territories; and, the expression of negative stereotypes about conquered or potentially conquered peoples. While the method may differ, the connections are similar when someone like the military commander Julius Caesar himself writes ethnographic and geographic descriptions of the peoples and places he hopes to subdue (link on Celts; link on “Germans”).

Works consulted: Andrew C. Johnston, “Rewriting Caesar: Cassius Dio and an Alternative Ethnography of the North,” Histos 13 (2019) 53-77 (link).

Source of the translation: C. D. Yonge, The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, 4 volumes (London: Bell and Sons, 1913-17), public domain, adapted by Harland.


[Debate among Roman senators on whether the provinces of Gaul should be taken from Julius Caesar’s command and instead become consular provinces]

[Gaius Pomptinus’ previous success against the Allobrogians]

[32] The war with Gaul, chosen fathers [i.e. the conscripted senators], has been carried on actively since Gaius Caesar has been our commander-in-chief. Previously, we were content to act on the defensive, and to repel attacks. For our generals at all times thought it was better to limit themselves to repulsing those peoples (nationes), than to provoke their hostility by any attack of our own. Even that great man, Gaius Marius, whose godlike and amazing valour came to the assistance of the Roman People in many of its distresses and disasters, was content to check the enormous multitudes of Gauls who were forcing their way into Italy, without endeavouring to penetrate himself into their cities and dwelling-places. And lately, that partner of my labours, dangers, and counsels, Gaius Pomptinus, that most powerful man, crushed in battle a war of the Allobrogians (Allobroges) which rose up suddenly against us [ca. 61 BCE] and which was inspired by that impious conspiracy. He defeated those who had provoked us, and then he remained quiet, contented with the victory by which be had delivered the republic from fear.

[Julius Caesar’s accomplishments for the Roman empire against the Gauls]

But I see that the counsels of Gaius Caesar are widely different. For he thought it was his duty not only to fight against those men whom he saw already in arms against the Roman People, but to reduce the whole of Gaul under our rule. (33) Therefore, he fought with the greatest success against those most valiant and powerful peoples, the Germans and Helvetians. Caesar also alarmed, drove back, defeated and accustomed the other peoples to yield to the supremacy of the Roman People. The result is that those districts and those peoples which were previously known to us neither by any one’s letters, nor by the personal account of any one, nor even by vague report, have now been overrun and thoroughly examined by our own general, by our own army, and by the arms of the Roman People.

[Characterization of the peoples of Gaul: savage, barbarian and war-like]

Up until now, chosen fathers, we have only known the road into Gaul. All other parts of it were possessed by peoples which were either hostile to this empire, or treacherous, or unknown to us. In any event, they were savage, barbarian, and war-like. These are peoples which anyone who has ever existed would want to break and subdue: nor has any one, from the very first rise of this empire, ever carefully deliberated about our republic, who has not thought Gaul the chief object of apprehension to this empire. But still, on account of the power and vast population of those peoples, we never before have had a war with all of them. We have always been content to resist them when attacked. Now, at last, it has been brought about that there should be one and the same boundary to our empire and to those peoples.

[Need for good military command to control of the Gauls with Julius Caesar in mind]

(34) Nature had previously used the Alps to protect Italy, not without the favour of heaven in providing us with such an obstacle. For if that road had been open to the savage disposition and vast numbers of the Gauls, this city would never have been the home and chosen seat of the empire of the world. Now, indeed, the Alps are free to sink down if they want, because there is nothing beyond those lofty heights as far as the ocean itself which can be any object of fear to Italy. But still it will be the work of one or two summers finally to bind the whole of Gaul in everlasting chains either by fear, hope, punishment or reward, arms, or laws. And if our affairs in Gaul are left in an unfinished state while there is still some bitterness of feeling remaining, although the enemy may be pruned back severely for the present, they will still raise their heads again some time or other, and come forth with recruited strength to renew the war.

(35) So let Gaul be left in the guardianship of that man to whose valour, good faith, and good fortune it has already been entrusted [i.e. Julius Caesar]. Truly, if, after being distinguished by the special favours of Fortune, he were unwilling to risk the favour of that fickle goddess too often; if he were anxious himself to return to his country, to his household gods, to that dignity which he sees in store for him in this city, to his most charming children, and to his most illustrious son-in-law; if he were impatient to be carried in triumph as a conqueror to the Capitol, crowned with the illustrious laurel of victory; if, in short, he were apprehensive about some potential disaster, since no event can now add so much glory to him as a mishap might take away — still it would be your [the senators] duty to insist on all those affairs being brought to a close by the same man who has begun them so successfully. But when he has not yet satisfied his own desire for glory and for the safety of the republic, and as he prefers coming at a later period to reap the rewards of his toils rather than not discharging to the full the duty which the republic has committed to him; then certainly, we, for our part, should not recall a general who is so eager to conduct the affairs of the republic gloriously. Nor should we throw into confusion and hinder his plans for the whole Gallic war, plans which are now almost matured and accomplished.

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