XII

POLITICS AND WAR: THE CONFERENCE OF LUCA

‘Pompey replied to him in vehement terms, and made an unsubtle hint in Crassus’ direction, saying openly that he would be much better prepared to guard his own life than Africanus had been, who was murdered by C. Carbo.. . . Caius Cato is being supported by Crassus; Clodius is also being funded, and the pair encouraged by Crassus.’ - Cicero, 15 February 56 BC.1

‘I am in agreement with you, chosen fathers of the Senate . . . while you did not approve, then I was also not of one mind with him; yet now that his achievements have made you alter your opinion and feelings, then you see me not only sharing this view but praising it’ - Cicero, May 56 BC.2

Caesar had already been away for two years, and the time had not passed quietly in Rome. His consulship had been controversial, but in many ways was mild in comparison with the turbulent months that followed, when orchestrated mob violence became a regular feature of public life. In politics few things last forever, and this was especially true in the Roman Republic. Individual senators gained or lost influence, broke with old allies and found new ones, occasionally made up old quarrels, but more often gained new ones, and discovered that it was now in their interest to alter their views on certain issues. In 59 BC Cicero had openly criticised the triumvirate, prompting them to make his personal enemy Clodius a plebian and open his path to the tribunate. Two years later, Caesar’s public thanksgiving was awarded by a Senate voting on a motion that Cicero himself had proposed. In the intervening months the orator had been exiled - if not necessarily with Caesar’s actual co-operation, then certainly with his acceptance - and some time later recalled, this time only after Caesar had acquiesced. Although of huge personal importance, and recorded in emotional detail in his published correspondence, Cicero’s expulsion from Rome was a relatively minor episode in the political struggles of these years, when virtually nothing and no one seemed secure from attack. Caesar’s role in most of this was as an observer, but a deeply interested one, since although he could not himself go to Rome he could be deeply affected by events there. At best he hoped to influence the key players in the political game, for he certainly could not control them. There was no inevitability about the course events took, or how they were eventually resolved. In the end, his position was strengthened, at least for the moment, but this might not have happened, and it was for a while quite possible that his work as consul would be undermined, and his extraordinary command in Gaul prematurely terminated. That this did not happen owed something to the skill with which he used his connections and influence, as well as his imagination. As great, or even greater a role, was played by luck, and in Rome as on the battlefield, the goddess Fortuna continued to smile on Caesar.

In 59 BC the two wealthiest and most influential men in Rome had joined together to achieve their immediate aims, using Caesar as their tool to overcome opposition that until then had proved too solid. Pompey had secured his Eastern Settlement and provided land for his veterans, while Crassus had renegotiated the tax-farmers’ contracts. Both men were satisfied, as was Caesar with his land reform and military command, but only for the moment, and each of the triumvirs had further ambitions for the future. Ultimately, like all Roman politicians, their aims were personal and individual. It had suited each man’s purpose to combine their efforts for a while, permitting a degree of success that none could have managed on his own. Yet it was not an alliance built on deep roots of shared ideology or commitment to a cause, and would last only so long as each man felt himself to be better off remaining loyal to the other two rather than splitting from them. Caesar’s relations with both of the others were cordial, which is not to say that he or they would never contemplate turning against former allies. In spite of his recent successes in Gaul, he was still the junior partner and had most stake in a continued association with the other two, especially as they were still in Rome and he was not. Pompey and Crassus were never close since, in the end, they disliked each other intensely and the rivalry that had been such a feature of their lives was only ever just below the surface. Working together with a consul like Caesar as their agent, they had been able to get what they wanted, although not without a struggle. The consuls for 58 BC were favourably inclined towards the triumvirs, but neither man had Caesar’s ability or drive. No one else at Rome could match Pompey’s and Crassus’ wealth, fame and auctoritas, but these things gave a man influence more than power, and even in combination the two men could not permanently control every aspect of public life. Cato would not be muzzled, and he and other members of the ‘good’ (boni) or ‘best’ (optimates) men also had reputations, wealth and clients. So did many other ambitious men with aims of their own. How men felt towards the triumvirs as a group or as individuals was only one factor influencing their behaviour, and often it was a minor one. Office-holders, especially those able to preside over meetings of the Senate or assemblies, had the opportunity to act in a way always denied to other senators, no matter how eminent. In 70 BC Pompey and Crassus had restored full powers to the tribunes of the plebs. Now it was from this office most of all that challenges would come to their recent dominance.

THE 'PATRICIAN' TRIBUNE OF THE PLEBS

Pompey and Caesar - presumably with Crassus’ approval - had arranged the transfer of Publius Clodius Pulcher from patrician to plebian status in 59 BC (see pp.176-7). It would be wrong then or later to see him as their man, just as it would be mistaken to view Caesar as Pompey’s or Crassus’ man. They had done him a favour and, by convention, he was expected to be grateful and willing to assist them in return, but by no stretch of the imagination could he be seen as under their control. In part this was simply because Roman politics was ultimately a question of individual success, but had even more to do with his fiercely independent character. No one else could ever really control Clodius, or for that matter Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, Cato, Cicero or any other leading senator. His family was one of the greatest patrician houses, which unlike the Julii had managed to remain at the heart of the Republic for generation after generation, producing a long succession of consuls and famous statesmen. The pride or arrogance of the Claudii was proverbial, reinforced by the tales of men like the Publius Claudius Pulcher who had led a Roman fleet to disaster during the First Punic War. Before the battle he had been annoyed when the sacred chickens had refused to eat up their meal in the approved manner, which would have demonstrated that the gods favoured the Romans and that their attack on the Carthaginian fleet would succeed. Publius had promptly picked the birds up and tossed them over the side of his flagship, declaring that ‘if they would not eat, then they would drink’. A few years later his sister was frustrated by the crowds that slowed her litter as she was carried through the streets of Rome and loudly wished that her brother would go and drown some more of the poor. Though the Claudii were not always especially liked, they were always important. Although he might have officially become a plebian, Clodius remained in everyone’s mind a Claudian and enjoyed the auctoritas of the name, and the solid support of clients and other connections built up by a great patrician house over the centuries.3

The Claudii promoted themselves just like any aristocratic family. Clodius’ father died when he was young and the family was headed by his oldest brother Appius Claudius Pulcher, who was obsessed with maintaining their prestige. Simply because of their name the Claudii could not be ignored, but the flamboyance of this generation made them a powerful force in the public life of the city. There was also strength in numbers. Clodius had another brother, Caius, as well as three sisters, each of whom had been married off to a husband from a prominent family. One of the three was immortalised as the Lesbia of Catullus’ poems, the lover with whom he shared a brief, passionate and adulterous affair, but whose subsequent rejection of him inspired some of his bitterest verses. Publius was the youngest of the six children, and perhaps the wildest, although all of them had a popular reputation both for unpredictable behaviour and for their scandalous sexual exploits. The Bona Dea scandal had shown Clodius’ contempt for sacred tradition, but his subsequent exoneration had shown that he was a survivor, and a man to be reckoned with. Apart from his adulterous liaisons, it was widely rumoured that he had enjoyed incestuous relationships with each of his sisters. This was publicly stated by one of their husbands, Marcus Lucullus, when he finally divorced her. It may have been no more than malicious rumour, a number of other prominent Romans were accused of the same thing, but both at the time and since it was very difficult to be sure of anything with Clodius and his siblings. There was bad blood between him and the brothers Lucullus from the time Clodius had served on Lucius Lucullus’ staff in Asia. It was perfectly normal for young aristocrats to gain military experience under the command of a relative or friend, but Clodius was never one to be bound by convention and chose to lead a mutiny against his brother-in-law. Shortly afterwards, he transferred to the staff of the husband of another sister, and seems to have managed to complete his service without falling out with this man.4

No one can have been too sure just what Clodius planned to do when his tribunate began in December 59 BC. It may be that he had not yet made up his mind whether or not to fulfil his threat, made some months before, to attack Caesar’s legislation, but more probably this had been intended to let the triumvirs know that he could not be taken for granted. His chief aim was personal, to confirm his existing popularity amongst the population of Rome, and especially the less well-off citizens. To do this, his most important piece of legislation involved the wholesale reorganisation of the supply of State-subsidised grain to Italy, including the provision that citizens actually living in Rome would receive a regular dole of free corn. He also removed the ban imposed in 64 BC on the collegia - guilds or associations based on trade or regions within the city Other reforms outlawed attempts to use unfavourable omens to block public business - a clear reference to Bibulus’ recent activity, although the law was not retrospective so did not actually overrule his declarations - and restricted the freedom of the censors to expel men from the Senate. All four bills were passed in early January 58 BC. The free grain was very popular with the urban plebs, and Clodius used the collegia to help organise his supporters. Having done a deal with the two new consuls to assist them in securing lucrative provinces - both men were in debt and needed a profitable command - he now decided to flex his muscles.5

Cicero was the first target, and soon discovered that all the assurances he had had from Pompey, and subsequently even from Clodius himself, were hollow. The execution of the conspirators in 63 BC was the chief charge against him. The attack began in early 58 BC, while Caesar was still just outside Rome - he could no longer enter the city since he had assumed his provincial command - watching events and defending himself against the attacks of two of the new praetors. A public meeting was held in the circus Flaminius, a stadium for chariot racing that lay outside the formal boundary of Rome, so that caesar could be present. However, his support for clodius was limited. caesar repeated his arguments from the debate over the fate of the conspirators, saying again that he did not feel that it was right for them to have been executed. However, he also added that it would be wrong to make retrospective legislation formally outlawing past actions in order to prosecute Cicero. Around the same time he repeated his offer for the orator to become one of his legates and so secure himself from prosecution. It would have been a considerable coup for Caesar if Cicero had accepted, for it would have placed the orator under a strong obligation to him. It would also have removed a powerful and potentially hostile voice from Rome. Cicero declined the offer, as well as the chance of an extraordinary legateship from the Senate to travel abroad on public business. His initial confidence then began to waver, as he realised that he could not count on Pompey’s support, nor on that of many leading senators whose loyalty he had expected.

Too many of the great men had some link or other with the Claudii and saw no reason to break with Clodius on behalf of a ‘new man’. In the middle of March - roughly the same time that Caesar set out for Gaul - Cicero fled the city to go into voluntary exile, and soon passed into deep depression, blaming everyone else for his plight and lamenting his own momentary cowardice. Clodius had a bill passed formalising the expulsion and confiscating his property. His house was burned down by a mob of the tribune’s supporters and a shrine to the goddess of liberty (Libertas) set up on the site. Clodius had given a demonstration of his power by removing a famous ex-consul, even if he was a rather boastful ‘new man’ without strong family connections. Cato was sidelined more subtly, as the tribune arranged for him to be sent to oversee the incorporation of Cyprus into Rome’s empire. This wealthy kingdom had been annexed in part to pay for the new corn dole, and it was felt that the temptations open to the man appointed to oversee the business were so great that Rome’s most famously moral citizen must be sent. Cato accepted the honour, which further augmented his stern reputation, even though he doubtless realised the true motives behind it. He also effectively admitted that it was right for a tribune of the people such as Clodius to interfere in foreign affairs rather than permitting the Senate its traditional control of this sphere.6

The Cyprus business was something of an insult to Pompey, for it altered some of the settlement that he had imposed on the East. A far greater humiliation came when Clodius arranged the escape of the son of the King of Armenia, held as a hostage in Pompey’s household. The tribune also turned his gangs on the consul Gabinius, beating him up and smashing his fasces, simply because he had taken Pompey’s side in the dispute. By the summer of 58 BC Clodius began openly questioning the validity of Caesar’s legislation as consul, calling Bibulus as a witness in a public meeting to testify against his former colleague. It was a remarkable return to his position in April of the previous year, and cheerfully ignored the question mark this would then raise over his own plebian status and right to hold the office of tribune. In June Pompey encouraged the Senate to vote for the recall of Cicero, but the motion was vetoed. In August Clodius arranged for one of his slaves to let fall a dagger at a public meeting and under interrogation he claimed to have been sent to murder Pompey. The latter was a brave man on the battlefield but had a deep-rooted terror of assassination, which was perhaps unsurprising given the events he had witnessed in his youth. He retired to his house and stayed there for several months. Clodius lost some of his power when his term of office as tribune expired, and this encouraged a revival of efforts to recall Cicero. He still had his gangs of followers based on the collegia, and these were frequently used to threaten his opponents or break up meetings. Pompey replied by backing two of the new tribunes, Titus Annius Milo and Publius Sestius, who formed their own groups of thugs with which to combat Clodius’ men. Both sides included many gladiators amongst their bands and at times there were large-scale battles with killed and wounded on both sides. These disturbances were more frequent, on a larger scale and far more violent than the struggles during Caesar’s consulship. Pompey also toured Italy, visiting his many clients and urging them to come to Rome and support a law to recall Cicero. In the summer of 57 BC the Senate passed a decree to this effect, with only Clodius voting against the motion, and the decision was promptly ratified by the People.7

After some initial reluctance Caesar had followed Pompey’s example and urged his clients by letter to support the move. From the start he had not especially desired Cicero’s exile, although he had wanted to prevent the orator from continuing to lend his weight to the attacks on the legislation he had pushed through as consul. Now there was a chance to put Cicero under obligation to him by backing his cause, and Caesar characteristically seized on it. His initial hesitation - Publius Sestius travelled to his province at one point to convince him - may well have been intended to make sure that Cicero was aware of the debt that he would owe. Moving the vote of thanksgiving in the Senate and other public statements were proof that this had worked. There was an even greater debt to Pompey - though never quite enough to erase the memory of his failure to protect him in the first place

- and Cicero had already had an opportunity of repaying some of this. Grain imports to Italy were erratic, and the new system of state-controlled supply set up by Clodius was not yet functioning well. He proposed a motion to give Pompey an extraordinary command to sort out the problem. In its eventual form the command was for five years, although there was an unsuccessful attempt by a tribune - probably with Pompey’s tacit backing

- to give him imperium throughout the empire, which was superior to every other governor, as well as control of substantial military and naval forces. Pompey had power again, and although this meant that he theoretically had to stay outside Rome the Senate was happy either to grant him a special dispensation from this rule or to meet outside the formal boundary of the city. Later disturbances in Egypt led to manoeuvring to secure him a further command to restore the situation there, but others were ambitious for this as well, and in the end it came to nothing.8

As 56 BC opened Pompey had a formal position, but so did Clodius once again for he had been elected aedile. He prosecuted Milo for political violence, but the latter was defended by Pompey and Cicero, and each side had brought along a mob of supporters to shout down and threaten their opponents. Cicero subsequently described the scene to his brother Quintus:

Pompey spoke, or at least tried to; but when he stood up, Clodius’ gang began yelling, and he had to put up with this for the whole time he was speaking, getting interrupted not just by shouts, but jeers and insults. When he had finished - he showed great determination given the situation, never flinching, he said all that he meant to say, some of it even in silence coming from his force of character - but anyway when he stopped up sprang Clodius. He was greeted by yells from our supporters - we were pleased to return the compliment - and lost control of his spirit, voice and expression. This went on from the sixth hour, when Pompey finished speaking, to the eighth hour, with all sorts of abuse and foul verses about Clodius and Clodia. Enraged and white with anger he called out questions to his gang - and he was heard clearly above the shouting - who was it who starved the people? ‘Pompey!’ his cronies replied. Who wanted to go to Alexandria? ‘Pompey!’ they called. Who do YOU want to go? ‘Crassus!’ they replied. The latter was there, but without any goodwill towards Milo.9

The hostility between the two old rivals seemed to be brewing again, and Pompey told Cicero that he believed Crassus was supporting Clodius and Caius Cato, the youth who had accused him of dictatorship in 59 BC and was now tribune. He even claimed that Crassus was plotting to murder him, and once again relapsed into morbid fears and sent for extra bodyguards from his rural clients. Mistrustful of Crassus, there were indications that Pompey was also beginning to wonder whether or not he still needed Caesar. The problems of maintaining the grain supply did not yield to an easy or swift solution, and were made worse because the Treasury was seriously short of funds. Cato had not yet returned with the wealth of Cyprus to swell the coffers. Since 59 BC the Republic had lost a major source of revenue through the distribution of the public land in Campania. Cicero and others now advocated repealing Caesar’s law to return this important source of income to the State. Cicero does not seem to have believed that Pompey was firmly opposed to such a move. Caesar’s legislation was under threat, and so from different quarters was his command. A tribune seems to have proposed his immediate recall, while one of the favoured candidates for the consulship for 55 BC was openly eager to replace Caesar after his own year of office. This was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, descendant of the man who had ridden on an elephant and helped to settle Transalpine Gaul, and his family connection to the region helped his case. It was not his first attack on Caesar, for he had been one of the praetors who in early 58 BC had questioned the validity of Caesar’s acts as consul. Cicero described him as a man for whom the consulship was practically his birthright. This time Caesar was in some ways the victim of his own success, since it could be argued that the public thanksgiving he had received after his great victories showed that the war had been won, and therefore that there was no need for him to remain for the full five years of his command. Once again, Pompey was not believed to be wholly averse to this, while Crassus simply said nothing. His recent support for Clodius, which was widely perceived even if never open, had been a reminder that he was still powerful and that Pompey could not afford to ignore him. The latter had his new command, had just been voted a substantial budget by the Senate to fund his activities and seemed to be considering whether it was worthwhile maintaining the alliance. The triumvirate seemed on the point of crumbling.10

In later years what followed was seen as a fairly public summit meeting, where the triumvirs agreed to carve up the Roman world to their mutual advantage. Suetonius says that: ‘Caesar made Pompey and Crassus come to Luca, a city in his province, where he persuaded them to seek a second consulship, thwart Domitius, and secure for him a five year extension to his provincial command.’11 Appian and Plutarch talk of 200 senators trudging north to Luca with their entourages - he claims that no less than 120 lictors were counted - to wait outside while the three great men hammered out their deal. The story evidently grew with the telling, and the few accounts written nearer to the time suggest less organisation and much last-minute improvisation. Crassus became worried about Pompey’s new strength sometime in the spring of 56 BC and hurried north to Ravenna, just inside Caesar’s province, for a meeting about Cicero’s fresh attempt to revive the question of the Campanian land. Pompey was due to leave Rome on 11 April, going first to Sardinia and then to Africa as part of his responsibilities for overseeing the corn supply. Cicero claims that he at least had no inkling of this, but before embarking on his official trip Pompey diverted to Luca, on the west coast of Cisalpine Gaul, to see Caesar. In Cicero’s account the natural inference would be that Crassus was not present and that Caesar represented his interests, but this is by no means certain. The outcome of the meetings was, as the later sources maintained, a pact for Pompey and Crassus to stand for the consulship in 55 BC, and a five-year extension of Caesar’s command. In this way, since after their consulship Pompey and Crassus could expect major provincial commands, all three men would have armies and formal imperium for the next few years.

The deal suggests that Caesar was less of a junior partner in the association than had been the case when the triumvirate was formed, and it is tempting to see him as the prime mover in arranging it. His personal charm was doubtless a major asset in calming the hostility and suspicion between Pompey and Crassus. Perhaps he devised the compromise, but the secret of this, just like the original alliance, was that each man realised that the association would be to his own personal advantage. As consuls, and then proconsuls with armies, Pompey and Crassus would have personal security and the ability to act. It also gave them the option of seeking new military adventures, something that seems now to have had particular appeal to Crassus, who was beginning to feel overshadowed by the martial achievements not just of Pompey, but also of Caesar. Pompey was also satisfied. More than either of the others he had appeared in recent months to have been drifting away, but in the end he would not have been as well off if the triumvirate had been broken. Even if he turned against Caesar, he would still not have become acceptable to many leading nobles in the Senate, and would have continued to face the criticism of Cato and the hostility of Clodius. It is significant that he had not accepted the suggestion of a friend some months before that he divorce Julia. Love may have been part of the reason, but it is also likely that he felt that for the moment a connection with Caesar remained a major asset. At its most basic level, it remained a useful thing to have his son-in-law in command of an army stationed in northern Italy, especially until he had troops of his own to command. In many ways all three triumvirs gained more from the agreement in 56 BC than their original association.12

It took time for the extent and full implication of the deal to be realised. Cicero seems to have been genuinely shocked, but quickly accepted the reality of the situation and came to terms with it. At the beginning of April he had won a personal victory over Clodius and his family when he successfully defended the young aristocrat Marcus Caelius Rufus. The latter was accused of orchestrating political violence, murder and the attempted murder of Clodius’ sister Clodia. Cicero’s speech was a skilful and highly vicious character assassination of the pair, raking up the old allegations of incest along with many other things, speaking of ‘that woman’s husband - I’m sorry I mean her brother’. This personal revenge may well have made the subsequent renewal of the triumvirate easier to bear. Cicero’s brother Quintus was one of Pompey’s legates on the grain commission and was given a blunt reminder to pass on that Pompey and Caesar had not supported his recall to have him criticise either of them. Probably at the beginning of May, Cicero delivered a speech in the Senate arguing against the moves to remove Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul from Caesar’s control and send out a new governor. His praise of Caesar was fulsome, and, so he claimed, justified by the victories won in Gaul whatever their past differences:13

Under the command of Caius Caesar, we have fought a war inside Gaul; in the past we have merely repelled attacks. Our generals always felt that these people needed to be driven back in by war .... Even Caius Marius himself whose divine and matchless courage protected the Roman people after dreadful disasters and casualties and who drove back hordes of Gauls who were flooding into Italy, did not attack them in their towns and lairs. . . . I see that Caius Caesar’s thinking has been very different. For he did not feel it sufficient to fight only against those already in arms against the Roman people, but felt that all of Gaul should be brought under our dominion. Therefore he has, with stunning good fortune, smashed in battle the greatest and fiercest tribes of Germans and Helvetii, and terrified the other peoples, checked them and brought under our domination and power of the Roman people; our general, our soldiers, and the arms of the Roman people have now made their way through regions and nations which till now have not even been known by story or written account.14

Backed by Cicero’s eloquence, and the combined weight of Pompey and Crassus, Caesar’s command was confirmed and later extended. The Senate also voted to accept responsibility for funding the extra legions Caesar had recruited, not, as Cicero declared, because he lacked resources from his provinces, but because it was unseemly to appear stingy with such a distinguished servant of the Republic. Caesar was secure in his command, but it required rather more effort to ensure that Crassus and Pompey would be the consuls for 55 BC. Disturbances orchestrated by the tribune Caius Cato, and apparently backed by Clodius, prevented elections being held in the last months of 56 BC. Both men had evidently been persuaded to work with the renewed triumvirate. The decision was a pragmatic one, but Crassus may also have persuaded them, since he was widely believed to have been backing them in recent years. Pompey and Crassus had not declared their candidature until after the legal date, and the consul due to preside over the elections, Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus, refused to exempt them from this rule. Therefore the elections were not held until January 55 BC, after Marcellinus had laid down his office, and so were conducted under a temporary official known as an interrex, who permitted them to stand. The other candidates had largely fallen away, but Ahenobarbus was never a man to back down and refused to give up his ambitions.

Crassus’ son Publius had lately returned from Gaul, and brought with him a large number of soldiers given special leave to take part in the elections. Some were officers - centurions perhaps, and certainly tribunes and prefects - but others were probably just burly members of the rank and file. The election day was marked by huge violence in which Ahenobarbus was wounded and one of his attendants killed, before Crassus and Pompey were declared the victors. The triumvirate was once again firmly in control of Rome, although it had taken far more brute force than on the first occasion. Intimidation prevented Cato the Younger from winning the praetorship. At the election of the curule aediles the fighting was so widespread and brutal that even Pompey ended up spattered by someone else’s blood. With Pompey and Crassus as consuls it would be difficult for anyone to attack them, but after their year of office was over things might change, especially if one or both set out for provincial commands. Clodius was still there and it was hard to judge what he would do in the future, while men like Ahenobarbus and Cato were even more bitterly opposed to the triumvirs than they had been in the past. In Rome power was never permanent, but for the moment the triumvirate were riding high.15

TO THE ATLANTIC

Although there was to be considerable military activity in Gaul in 56 BC, the operations were on a significantly smaller scale than in the previous years. With the Helvetii, Ariovistus and the Belgic confederation defeated, it was with some justification that Caesar felt that ‘Gaul was at peace’. He did not have a major campaign planned for the summer, which meant that it was easier for him to loiter in Cisalpine Gaul until well into April and arrange matters at Luca. There was no obvious opponent left in Gaul and it may well be that he was once again considering diverting his attentions to the Balkans. In the following year he would lead an expedition to Britain, and it is highly likely that this possibility was already in his mind. Up until the meeting at Luca political concerns occupied most of his attention, and afterwards he had the security of an additional five years of command, which meant that he was not pressed for time and so could afford to let the year pass without a grand offensive. Detachments of his army under the command of legates had anyway been active in a number of operations that were too small in scale to require the commander and his main force. In the autumn of 57 BC the Twelfth Legion under the command of Sulpicius Galba had attempted to occupy the Great St Bernard Pass, so keeping this route over the Alps secure for military convoys and commerce. The attempt failed and Galba was forced to withdraw. Other parts of the army spent the winter deep in Gallia Comata. Publius Crassus with the Seventh Legion was in the west, amongst tribes who had submitted to him late in the previous summer. The tribal leaders had obeyed the standard Roman request for hostages and everything seemed calm.16

At some point in the spring or early summer of 56 BC the mood of these western tribes changed. Roman officers despatched to the tribal centres to arrange for grain to be supplied to the army were seized and a message sent to crassus saying that they would only be released when their own hostages were returned. It may simply have been that the locals had not at first appreciated that the Romans expected to stay and make continued demands for food, and that realisation swiftly turned to resentment. The first tribe to act were the Veneti, living in what is now southern Brittany They were a maritime people, deeply involved in trade along the Atlantic coast. Dio claims that they had heard rumours of Caesar’s planned expedition to Britain and feared that this would disrupt their trade with the island, or throw open the markets there to competitors. To Caesar, and doubtless to his Roman audience, this was a rebellion, the tribes breaking the treaty that they had so recently accepted and taking his officers - several of whom were equestrians - as hostages. He gave orders for a fleet to be constructed on the Loire, before hurrying to the area. The rebellion had spread rapidly and he was afraid that other tribes might be tempted to join if they judged that the Romans were weak. This was because the Gauls as a race were ‘inclined to revolution and could readily be stirred to war’. He also acknowledged that like all mankind, they ‘deeply loved freedom and hated slavery’. Therefore he split his army into several independent columns. Labienus was left to watch over the Belgic tribes defeated in the previous year, while Crassus took twelve cohorts - probably the Seventh Legion reinforced with some additional troops - into Aquitania. A larger force of three legions under the command of Sabinus was sent to Normandy.17

Caesar himself led the remainder against the Veneti, striking at what he perceived to be the heart of the rebellion. The tribe was reluctant to form an army and face the legions in the open, so the Romans targeted their towns, many of which were built on coastal promontories. Although several of these were stormed, in each case the inhabitants escaped in ships, along with most of their possessions. The main strength of the tribe was its fleet, numbering some 280 ships according to Caesar, and only when the newly built Roman navy arrived was it possible to confront this. The Gallic vessels were big sailing ships, designed for trade more than war, but they still proved difficult propositions for the oared galleys that the Romans employed. The standard methods of naval fighting in the Mediterranean world were ramming and boarding. The first was ineffective against the thick timbered hulls of the Veneti’s ships, while the second was made extremely difficult by their high sides. The Roman fleet was led by Decimus Brutus, and through ingenuity and good fortune it managed to destroy the enemy navy in a single encounter. Devices similar to those used in sieges were made to cut through and pull down the enemy sails and rigging, but it was a sudden drop in the wind that left the Veneti becalmed and vulnerable, for their ships had no oars. Caesar and the bulk of the army were mere spectators to the action, watching from the shoreline. Without their fleet, and unable to resist Roman assaults on their towns and villages, the Veneti had no choice but to surrender.

No tribe allied to Rome seems to have come forward to plead their case and Caesar decided that his punishment would be harsh. Their entire ruling council - probably numbering several hundred - were beheaded, and the rest of the population of the tribe sold as slaves. It is doubtful that the entire region was depopulated, and the sheer practicalities of rounding up large numbers of people make it unlikely that all were found and dealt with in this way. It may only have been those men of military age who had been captured or surrendered who were sold. Nevertheless, it was clearly an appalling blow to the Veneti, removing all of their leaders and elders, along with a substantial chunk of the rest of the tribe. This can only have caused massive social and political dislocation. Caesar justified this terrible punishment by claiming that it was necessary to show that representatives or ambassadors ought to be accorded proper respect. Some scholars have rightly pointed out that officers sent to collect grain would not normally be classed as ambassadors. Yet Caesar’s attitude would have probably been shared by most contemporary Romans. His officers had been seized while visiting peoples who were supposed to be allied to Rome - he makes no mention of the men’s fate and whether or not any or all of them were recovered. The severe punishment meted out to the Veneti was a warning that no Romans - particularly senior officers and equestrians - could be mistreated without risking appalling consequences. Taking hostages from the tribes was an important way for Caesar to retain their loyalty, which was something demanded both of the communities who welcomed Rome and those who were defeated. The attempt to overturn the system by taking Roman prisoners could not be allowed to succeed. Therefore the punishment of the Veneti was deliberately appalling as a warning to others. The Roman attitude to such brutal measures was entirely pragmatic. Cruelty for its own sake was condemned, but atrocities that brought practical advantage to Rome’s position - and were inflicted on foreigners - were acceptable. An extreme example had been Crassus’ mass crucifixion of Spartacus’ followers in 71 BC. Whenever he felt that it was in his interest, Caesar was utterly ruthless.18

Labienus’ presence had ensured that there was no attempt to renew the war in that area. Both Crassus and Sabinus won victories in Aquitania and Normandy respectively. At the end of the summer Caesar personally led a force against the Menapii and Morini who lived along the coast of what is now the Pas de Calais and Belgium. The attack was prompted because they had never sent envoys to Caesar and acknowledged his and Rome’s power by seeking his friendship. Both tribes were believed to have contributed warriors to the great Belgic army that had taken the field in the previous year. They had no large towns and lived in scattered settlements. Even these were abandoned when the Romans advanced, and the population took their cattle, flocks and movable possessions and hid in the deep woodland and marshy areas of their country. It was difficult terrain for the Romans to operate in, and the legions had no fixed target to fight. They burned the villages and farms that they found, but this did not make the enemy give in. Then the legionaries began clearing areas of woodland and managed to capture some parties of the enemy along with their animals, but they also suffered losses in ambushes. It was a different type of warfare to the campaigns waged up to this point and little was achieved in the few weeks left of the campaigning season. As the weather closed in, Caesar withdrew leaving both tribes still undefeated. It was a failure, but not a major or irredeemable one. On balance the year had gone reasonably well, both in Gaul and especially with the resolution of affairs in Rome. Secure in his command, Caesar was free to plan major enterprises for the next summer. This was another reason for his harsh treatment of the Veneti. He may well already have selected Britain as his next target, but it is possible that he once again had pondered turning his attentions to the Illyricum frontier. Either way, he needed to ensure that warfare would not erupt in Gaul while he and the bulk of the army were elsewhere. The savage punishment of a single rebellious tribe was a reminder that Caesar’s wrath was to be feared.19

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