It cannot be overthrown without destroying you: the Gallic empire and Brexit

It’s over a year since I last posted here: I’ve been working on a longer project (well, a book) about my journey from studying Classics in academic libraries to experiencing European affairs in Brussels (via Oxford, Paris and Romania), and I’ve also been writing articles for the forthcoming Tacitus Encyclopedia. One of the topics assigned to me by the editor, possibly because she saw my postal address, was ‘Belgica’: the Roman province of Gallia Belgica, Belgian Gaul. Its initial inhabitants, the Belgae, were first mentioned by Julius Caesar, who famously called them the bravest of all the Gauls (not least because they lived furthest from the enervating influence of Roman civilisation and closest to the savage Germans). Under Augustus and subsequent emperors in the first century AD, the Gallic provinces were organised and reorganised, and the inhabitants got used to being subjects of Rome, despite a rebellion during Tiberius’ reign mentioned by Tacitus (and, probably, others that go unreported) – until the year 69.

It is at this point – in history, and in my 750-word encyclopedia article – that things get more complicated. After Nero’s death in 68, the throne was claimed by successive emperors with about as much longevity as the average Brexit Secretary: Galba, Otho, Vitellius and finally Vespasian, who did manage to stay in place and in fact establish a small dynasty. Tacitus describes what happened in his work the Histories. Vitellius was governor of the province of Lower Germany, and he marched south to meet his rival Otho in battle in northern Italy. On hand to take advantage of the chaos was Julius Civilis, a high-ranking member of the Batavians, a Germanic tribe, who had also served in the Roman army and (as his name suggests) become a Roman citizen. Initially in alliance with Vitellius, he then unleashed a major revolt against Rome.

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Vetera, a legionary camp overrun by Civilis’ troops

Civilis is not the only anti-Roman rebel in Tacitus’ works with strong links to Rome – Arminius (later known as Hermann, a hero to German nationalists), who destroyed three legions in the Teutoburg Forest in AD 9, is revealed as a Latin speaker who had also served with Roman troops. There are further examples. Tacitus is clearly fascinated by what happens when foreigners who know how the Romans act and – more importantly – fight prove highly effective in battle against them. Civilis’ portrayal is in fact even more complex. He wins support by stressing the value of freedom and the hardships of Roman rule over Gaul: taxation, conscription, abuse. But we are also told that what he really wanted was power for himself.

In my book, I want to write more on what characters like Civilis can show about populists and their rhetoric in Europe today. But today I am focusing on Belgica, and a revolt within a revolt. Civilis’ actions sparked the interest of leaders of the Treveri, a tribe in Gallia Belgica, who were then serving with Roman forces (these men were, similarly, Roman citizens with the first name ‘Julius’ – Tacitus’ text is indeed full of Julii, suggesting that Roman influence is deeply rooted, despite all the interest in Gallic independence). They betray their Roman colleagues and join the rebellion. They also go further than Civilis, calling on their supporters not only to rise up against their Roman oppressors and regain the liberty they enjoyed in the good old days, but to swear loyalty to a new ‘Gallic empire’. The apocalyptic news that Vespasian’s troops had burned down Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline hill in Rome (although the narrative structure of the Histories means we already know it has been restored) and the febrile prophecies of druids spur them to believe that Rome’s time is over and now tribes like them will rule the world. Many years of Roman influence and connections in Gaul – to say nothing of the rest of the empire – are as nothing.

The Gallic empire proves a disaster. Other tribes resist the movement, pointing out Rome’s strength and the benefits of peace. The Gallic rebels remain highly disorganised. They are split by rivalries and quarrels over such not yet relevant matters as where their new capital will be. Some of their leaders relax, as if they have already won. In the meantime the Romans rally under a newly arrived commander, Petilius Cerialis, who defeats most of the Gauls (Civilis continues to hold out). Afterwards he addresses the Treveri and their allies.

As with almost every speech in Tacitus’ works, the exact relationship between the words in the text and what may actually have been said on the day is not clear, but this one combines specious justification and cold logic. In an echo of Julius Caesar’s own claims about his Gallic wars in the 50s BC, he ‘reminds’ his audience that the Romans occupied Gaul not in their own interests, but to protect it from the marauding Germans across the Rhine. Since then, they have extracted only the contributions need to pay for troops to police the area, and in fact the Gallic tribes are lucky in that they escape the excesses of Rome’s worst emperors which, like bad weather, are interspersed with sunnier times that benefit everyone. Moreover, Rome’s empire has existed for so long that destroying it would unleash chaos: ‘it cannot be overthrown without destroying you who overthrow it’. He ends by pointing out that if a Gallic empire were somehow established, it would mean similar levels of oppression and taxation as before. Both these points are surely correct.

I am fascinated by how Tacitus presents Cerialis (who is an interesting figure generally – his military skills are later almost negated by his weakness for women) as both a smug propagandist of empire and an insightful critic of the Gauls’ overblown ambitions. More than perhaps any other passage in Tacitus’ works, this one reminds me of the most simplistic debates over Brexit, with lofty and sometimes exaggerated claims about the (not too dysfunctional) status quo on one side, and on the other nostalgia, fantasy and insistence on freedom at all costs. Neither side has the complete moral high ground, but Cerialis’ pragmatic perspective, coupled with the Gauls’ utter failure to do what must be done to make their wild dreams come true, must prevail. The opinions of the ordinary people of Gaul, who lived through all this strife and turmoil for, in the end, nothing, are not recorded.

n.b. that an actual Gallic empire did briefly exist – but only 200 years after the events described by Tacitus.

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