Into the forest to find Ariovistus

That same student who became interested in Caesar’s de Bello Gallico, and read much of it on his own,* had been enthused when given a short extract at the age of 14, describing Caesar’s capture of Besançon and subsequent march east to confront Ariovistus. He was now reading it again in full, and drew my attention to this passage:

 dum paucos dies ad Vesontionem rei frumentariae commeatusque causa moratur, ex percontatione nostrorum vocibusque Gallorum ac mercatorum, qui ingenti magnitudine corporum Germanos, incredibili virtute atque exercitatione in armis esse praedicabant (saepe numero sese cum his congressos ne vultum quidem atque aciem oculorum dicebant ferre potuisse), tantus subito timor omnem exercitum occupavit ut non mediocriter omnium mentes animosque perturbaret.

hic primum ortus est a tribunis militum, praefectis, reliquisque qui ex urbe amicitiae causa Caesarem secuti non magnum in re militari usum habebant: quorum alius alia causa inlata, quam sibi ad proficiscendum necessariam esse diceret, petebat ut eius voluntate discedere liceret; non nulli pudore adducti, ut timoris suspicionem vitarent, remanebant.  hi neque vultum fingere neque interdum lacrimas tenere poterant: abditi in tabernaculis aut suum fatum querebantur aut cum familiaribus suis commune periculum miserabantur. Vulgo totis castris testamenta obsignabantur.

horum vocibus ac timore paulatim etiam ii qui magnum in castris usum habebant, milites centurionesque quique equitatui praeerant, perturbabantur.  qui se ex his minus timidos existimari volebant, non se hostem vereri, sed angustias itineris et magnitudinem silvarum quae intercederent inter ipsos atque Ariovistum…

¶  He had to wait for a few days at Besançon, to attend to the food supply and transport. Meanwhile our men were asking questions: and they heard comments from Gauls and from merchants, who declared that the Germans of were huge physical size, and had unbelievable courage and skill with weapons. Often, they said, on meeting them, they could not even bear the look on their faces or the gaze of their eyes.

Suddenly fear gripped the whole army, enough to disturb the minds and spirits of everyone. This first started with the military tribunes, the prefects, and the rest of those who as clients had followed Caesar from Rome, and did not have much experience of the military. These men produced various reasons why they had to depart, and they asked for his consent and permission to leave. Some remained, driven by shame, to avoid suspicion of cowardice. But these were not able to compose their features nor at times to hold back their tears: they hid in their tents and lamented their fate, or else commiserated with their friends over their common peril.  All across the camp, wills were being signed.

Their remarks and their fear gradually began to disturb even those with long experience of campaigning—the soldiers and centurions and the commanders of the cavalry. Those who wished to be thought less fearful said they were not afraid of the enemy, but of the hardships of the march, and the size of the forests that lay between themselves and Ariovistus…                 de Bello Gallico, I.39

Warned of possible mutiny, Caesar gave a speech the next morning that reversed the mood entirely; the army marched in high spirits, and after fruitless parleying, Caesar brought Ariovistus to battle, defeated him and expelled him from Gaul.

The student had a question: did the tribunes who left camp thereby forfeit their chances of a senatorial career?

To which I assume the answer is yes.


*  See earlier post: