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Julius Caesar’s Battle for Gaul: New Archaeological Perspectives

Julius Caesar’s Battle for Gaul: New Archaeological Perspectives

Edited by Andrew P. Fitzpatrick and Colin Haselgrove. Philadelphia: Oxbow 2019. Pp. xxvi + 309. $55. ISBN 978-1-78925-050-3 (paper).

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Caesar’s military operations in Gaul are primarily known from the narrative produced by Caesar himself. The Commentaries provide unusually rich literary context for associated archaeological sites and finds. As Christopher Krebs points out in the opening chapter the edited volume under review, if we lacked Caesar’s text, we would treat the coins minted by Vercingetorix as issues associated with a minor but otherwise unknown chieftain; only the text allows us to appreciate the historical importance of these artifacts. In the concluding chapter of the book, Laurent Olivier notes that prior to the excavations at Alesia sponsored by Napoleon III, mid 19th-century archaeologists had a wildly inaccurate chronology of Celtic material culture, believing that Caesar’s opponents had fought with bronze weapons that in fact dated to the previous millennium. Once the iron weapons recovered at Alesia could be decisively dated to 52 BCE, the stratified deposits at La Tène, which initially had been considered medieval, could now be mobilized to develop a new material chronology of the Iron Age.

There is, however, risk that the gravitational pull of Caesar’s text warps the interpretation of sites and finds, with the extreme leading to the dreaded “philological” archaeology, the fallacy of seeking material proof for received texts. Colin Haselgrove warns that the Gallic War has impacted the chronology of Gallic coins, as hoards found in Caesarian sites were interpreted as recent issues minted for military purposes, an assumption that compressed the overall chronology of Gallic issues into the early and mid first century BCE, when in fact many coin types were substantially older. Furthermore, while many statements in Caesar can be confirmed archaeologically, there are some glaring silences in the record (which, of course, disprove nothing); the late Gilbert Kaenel notes that there is no material evidence of the wall Caesar reported building to block the migration of the Helvetii (BGall. 1.8.1), nor even of a mass migration itself.

Overall, the contributors to this book integrate literary and material evidence with great dexterity. Nico Roymans discusses forensic evidence from human skeletal remains dredged from the Meuse River and carbon dated to roughly the first century BCE. Roymans plausibly associates the attested perimortem damage with Caesar’s massacre of the Usipetes and Tencteri. The chapter also synthesizes evidence from survey archaeology, which shows marked discontinuity of settlement in northeastern Gaul around the first century BCE, reinforced by literary sources that report different peoples occupying the upper Rhine during the Early Empire, suggesting a landscape purged of inhabitants and subsequently resettled.

Lionel Pernet examines the military equipment recovered from Celtic cemeteries looking for evidence of Gauls serving as Roman auxiliaries in the form of Roman military equipment in otherwise Celtic graves; the chapter considers what the archaeology of collaboration might look like.

Michel Reddé discusses the four major battle or siege sites for which we have significant archaeological evidence—Aisne, Alesia, Gergovia, and Uxellodunum—re-evaluating excavations under Napoleon III while integrating finds from more recent excavations undertaken in the 1990s. From the opposite angle, Sophie Krausz provides an excellent discussion of Gallic fortifications, including the famous murus Gallicus construction method, involving a rampart reinforced by an interior lattice of wooden beams and faced with stone, as well as the massive dump rampart, in which the earth excavated from a fronting ditch was carefully compiled into a monumental barrier, often erected over a preexisting murus Gallicus.

Andrew Fitzpatrick discusses Caesar’s landing sites in Britain, examining old topographic debates in light of the recently excavated Roman military camp at Ebbsfleet (near Ramsgate in Kent), which was likely constructed during the second invasion of 54 BCE, therefore positioning Caesar’s landing site at Pegwell Bay. He suggests the landings of 55 BCE took place at a nearby but still unidentified location, probably north of Dover.

Philip de Jersey discusses the Le Câtillon II hoard, a huge cache of 70,000 Gallic coins discovered near Grouville in Jersey in 2012 and subject to laboratory-controlled excavation. While analysis is ongoing, de Jersey suggests that the hoard was likely transported from Armorica to Jersey for safekeeping during the Gallic War, and buried several decades later (allowing for a small number of later issues to enter the hoard), possibly when the Romans finally occupied the island.

Sabine Hornung discusses the excavation of a fort at Hermeskeil, probably constructed during Titus Labienus’ campaign against the Treveri in 53 or 51 BCE. Analyzing evidence for Roman economic contacts in the area, Hornung suggests that the fort was built in a part of Treveran territory with fewer trade links to the Mediterranean, positing that these communities, less likely to benefit economically from a new Roman order, were the locus of the revolt.

Two chapters deal with archaeology of Spain; Ángel Morillo and Feliciana Sala-Sellés discuss sites linked to the Sertorian War (82–72 BCE), while Àngels Pujol et al. discuss evidence for the violent destruction of the site of Puig Ciutat, positing that it was assaulted by the Caesarian vanguard prior to the Ilerda campaign in 49 BCE. The Spanish chapters are somewhat off topic for a book ostensibly focused on the Gallic Wars, but Spain is such a rich source for the archaeology of the Republican-era Roman army that it is difficult to ignore.

While it is not possible to discuss every contribution in the space allotted, it is enough to warmly recommend this collection. Having an impressive array of international scholars publish on recent developments in a single volume, in English, offers anglophone readers easy access to a smorgasbord of fresh archaeological insights.

Michael J. Taylor
University at Albany
State University of New York

Book Review of Julius Caesar’s Battle for Gaul: New Archaeological Perspectivest, edited by Andrew P. Fitzpatrick and Colin Haselgrove (eds)
Reviewed by Michael J. Taylor
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Taylor

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