The story of Julius Caesar’s military career is the story of the special relationship between a brilliant commander and an elite fighting force.
The legions of the Late Republic were superb instruments of war. Recruited from the citizen farmers of Italy and the more Romanised provinces of the fast-growing empire, they were largely formed of volunteers, and increasingly of long-service veterans choosing a military career.
Highly drilled, heavily armoured, and tightly disciplined, they had an exceptional esprit de corps. Their weapons system had been refined over three centuries of battle against Samnites, Greeks, Carthaginians, Gauls, and Celtiberians. It comprised three elements.
The scutum was a large oval or rectangular body-shield that could be used to form a defensive shield-wall, to give protection in attack, and as a weapon in its own right, when used to punch an enemy and knock him off balance.
The pilum was a heavy javelin comprising a wooden shaft, a long metal projection, and an armour-piercing triangular head. It could be hurled either in defence or, more typically, in attack, devastating and traumatising the enemy line before contact.
The gladius was the short, stabbing sword of the legionary, an ideal weapon in close-quarters action, where the aim was to keep up one’s guard, avoid exposing the body, and thrust forwards through gaps in the opponent’s defence so as to inflict deep, deadly wounds to abdomen and groin.
Regiments of free men, fighting in closepacked order, trained to manoeuvre, with superb morale, protected by first-class armour, and equipped with scutum, pilum, and gladius: these were the world-conquering legions of the 1st century BC.
And the greatest commander of the legions in Roman history was surely Julius Caesar.
He was both an imperialist – a conqueror of new provinces – and a civil-war generalissimo, the destroyer of the Republic and the creator of the Empire.
Not only that, he was a skilled politician before all else, whose desire for power was his most consistent, driving characteristic. Passing through a remote Alpine settlement, he is said to have remarked that he would rather be first man in a village than second at Rome.
The available sources suggest that Caesar exercised a ‘hands-on’, personal style of leadership. There is little evidence of the systematic use of written orders or of what we might recognise as specialised staff work.
In the search for useful intelligence, Caesar interrogated prisoners and deserters in person, and summoned councils of war when he saw fit. In combat, he moved around the field to assess the changing situation and to encourage his troops, his trademark scarlet cloak making him easily recognisable.
Perhaps Caesar’s most important quality was his boldness and speed in action. Contemporaries regarded this as the mark of a good leader. A notable example was his crushing of a major uprising of the tribes of north-east Gaul in 54 BC.
As with many successful commanders, Caesar did not owe his successes to striking tactical innovations, but to a remarkable ability to use the methods and resources to hand. His key qualities were his decisiveness, a readiness to cast caution aside, and his excellent relationship with his troops.
He was capable of great ruthlessness, though he was never wantonly sadistic. When he was cruel – for example, when he ordered the hands of the defenders of Uxellodunum to be cut off, after the capture of this Gallic town – he acted out of a desire to deter further resistance. As a rule, he preferred to win over his vanquished adversaries by a display of mercy.
As the Siege of Alesia showed, he was also a master of military engineering. Underlying all his successes was a keen understanding of human nature and an ability to grasp changing realities. In his own time, and indeed in the military history of the ancient world, he had few, if any, equals.
This is an extract from a 13-page special feature on Julius Caesar, published in the July 2019 issue of Military History Matters.