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CAESAR, Julius



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… it were enough not to eat what you don't like; but he who finds fault with ill-breeding like this is ill-bred himself.

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The Conquest of Gaul

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When Caesar, who had addressed the tenth legion, reached the right wing, he found his troops under severe pressure and, because all the standards of the twelfth had had been collected into one cramped space, the soldiers packed so close together that they got in each other's way as they fought, while all the centurions of the fourth cohort had been killed - together with the standard bearer: the standard was lost - and those of the other cohorts as well, including the very brave senior centurion, Publius Sextius Baculus, who had so many terrible wounds that he could no longer stand, and when Caesar saw that the rest of the men were slowing down, and some in the rear ranks had given up fighting and were intent on getting out of range of the enemy, while the enemy in front kept pouring up the hill and were pressing us on both flanks, he recognized that this was a crisis because there were no reserves available, so he snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear ranks - Caesar had no shield with him - and went forward to the front line, where he called out to all the centurions by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the men, whom he ordered to advance and to open out their ranks so that they could use their swords more effectively.

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Accordingly tree trunks or very stout boughs were cut and their tops stripped of bark and sharpened; they were then fixed in long trenches dug five feet deep, with their lower ends made fast to one another to prevent their being pulled up and the branches projecting. There were five rows in each trench, touching one another and interlaced, and anyone who went among them was likely to impale himself on the sharp points. The soldiers called them boundary posts. In front of them, arranged in diagonal rows forming quincunxes, were pits three feet deep, tapering gradually towards the bottom, in which were embedded smooth logs as thick as a man’s thigh, with the ends sharpened and charred, and projecting only three inches above ground. To keep the logs firmly in position, earth was thrown into the pits and trodden down to a depth of one foot, the rest of the cavity being filled with twigs and brushwood to hide the trap. These were planted in groups, each containing eight rows three feet apart, and they were nicknamed lilies from their resemblance to that flower. In front of these again were blocks of wood a foot long with iron hooks fixed in them, called goads by the soldiers. These were sunk right into the ground and strewn thickly everywhere.

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The ground in front of his camp was ideal for deploying the army for action. The low hill on which the camp stood was of just the right width, on the side facing the enemy, for the legions to occupy in battle formation; on each flank it descended steeply to the plain, while in front it formed a slight ridge and then sloped gently down. On either side of the hill Caesar had a trench dug, running for about six hundred and fifty yards at right angles to the line along which the troops would be drawn up, and placed redoubts and artillery at both ends of each trench, to prevent the enemy from using their numerical superiority to envelop his men from the flanks while they were fighting. He left the two newly enrolled legions in camp, to be used as reinforcements wherever they were needed, and drew up the other six in front in line of battle. The enemy also had marched out and deployed for action.

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Being informed that it was not garrisoned, he tried to storm it directly he arrived, but the width of the moat and the height of the wall enabled the few defenders to repel his assault. After constructing a camp, therefore, he formed a line of mantlets and set about the usual preparations for a siege. But the next night, before his preparations were completed, the whole fugitive army of the Suessiones came crowding into the place. When they saw the mantlets rushed up to the wall, earth shovelled into the moat, and siege towers erected, they were alarmed by the impressive size of this apparatus, which had never before been seen or heard of in Gaul, and by the speed with which the Romans worked.

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The Gauls’ own ships were built and rigged in a different manner from ours. They were made with much flatter bottoms, to help them to ride shallow water caused by shoals or ebb-tides. Exceptionally high bows and sterns fitted them for use in heavy seas and violent gales, and the hulls were made entirely of oak, to enable them to stand any amount of shocks and rough usage. The cross-timbers, which consisted of beams a foot wide, were fastened with iron bolts as thick as a man’s thumb. The anchors were secured with iron chains instead of ropes. They used sails made of raw hides or thin leather, either because they had no flax and were ignorant of its use, or more probably because they thought that ordinary sails would not stand the violent storms and squalls of the Atlantic and were not suitable for such heavy vessels. In meeting them the only advantage our ships possessed was that they were faster and could be propelled by oars; in other respects the enemy’s were much better adapted for sailing such treacherous and stormy waters. We could not injure them by ramming because they were so solidly built, and their height made it difficult to reach them with missiles or board them with grappling-irons. Moreover, when it began to blow hard and they were running before the wind, they weathered the storm more easily; they could bring in to shallow water with greater safety, and when left aground by the tide had nothing to fear from reefs or pointed rocks – whereas to our ships all these risks were formidable”