Psychological Analysis of Caesar’s Battle Narratives

John Keegan’s, Face of Battle, has helped spark a relatively recent trend of seeking to understand the experience of the soldier in battle. While the work is of great importance, the arguments made within it are not infallible. One of the issues with the work, which has been noted by other academics, is the very simplified characterization of Caesar’s battle narratives. 

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Specifically, Keegan criticizes Caesar’s narrative of the battle of the Sambre as containing very little information about the motivation and psychological aspects acting on the Roman soldiers; in his critique he even styles them “automatons.” However, as Lendon notes, Caesar weaved his battle narratives using a combination of “tactics, animus [morale], and virtus [courage].” In fact, Caesar’s narratives should be understood as taking a more nuanced approach to psychological aspects, such as morale, than other ancient writers. It is in this vein of thought that, this paper will broadly seek to rebut the argument that, the account of the Battle of the Sambre contained nothing of note about the soldiers of Caesar’s army. 

Before delving into the analysis of the Battle of the Sambre, it is necessary to situate the argument within the most relevant historiography. There is of course a plethora of monographs and studies on Julius Caesar and the Roman army in the period. However, the primary concern of this section is the prior work on psychology and human aspects present in Caesar’s battle narratives. To begin, Kagan’s The Eye of Command, analyses Caesar’s account of the battle for, among other things, its sequential and casual nature. Also, the work includes a discussion of the psychological aspects acting on the soldiers and how they influence Caesar’s actions at the battle. However, this section omits several key considerations of the narrative including, the terrain, and it fails to fully identify the possible emergence of the role of “small group behavior” in Caesar’s army. Lendon’s, The Rhetoric of Combat, examined the way in which Caesar constructed his battle narratives and how he adapted the Greek tradition of doing so. While the work is exceptionally valuable for its nuanced approach to understanding how Caesar used psychological influences in his writing, it fails to identify key passages in the deployment “phase” and does not take a balanced approach to Caesar’s appearance in the battle.

The first aspect of the account that must be considered is Caesar’s inclusion of a discussion of the terrain of the site. While most discussions of this, center around Caesar’s description of the camp and battlefield, the psychological connotations in Caesar’s account begin slightly before this. Admittedly, this section’s connection to the morale of his men is sometimes less than explicitly spelled out. However, a discerning eye is able to see how these sections mesh with other passages of the Commentarii and have a bearing on the outcome of the battle, as Caesar acknowledges.

They would do this by cutting into trees and bending them down – because of the large number of branches sticking out horizontally, all tangled up with brambles and thorns, … Not only was it impossible to penetrate this barrier, it was even impossible to see through it.

This passage is interesting, as although Caesar does not directly assign psychological connotations to these hedges, their effect on the army can be plausibly argued. Also, Caesar often infused psychological concepts into his simplified descriptions of terrain, which allows a certain amount of reasonable conclusions to be made about the terrain at the Sambre. First, earlier in the text, Caesar noted that, his military tribunes began the spread of a great panic, because they feared the thick forest which laid ahead of them. On that occasion, Caesar chose to lead his army on a circuitous route so that, the march was made through open ground and not forest. However, on this occasion the fear of Caesar’s soldiers would be justified as this thick and treacherous terrain surrounding the area, ultimately held the entirety of an enemy force from view. The hedges and thickness of the forest also played a role in the battle itself. Caesar later noted that due to the thickness of the terrain, not only could reserves not be posted, but it was also impossible to see across the field of battle.

Also, of note about this passage is that, the Nervii have altered the environment; by this period the Romans had a well-established fear of the forest and this had to exacerbate it. Perhaps, this effecting upon the environment would have served to unsettle the Roman soldiers This alteration of the environment has parallels in the Battle of Burdigala. At this battle the army of Lucius Posthumious was ambushed while moving through a forest and he, himself, was killed. The Cimbri masterminded this defeat by falling trees on either side of the Roman army, causing a great amount of chaos. Certainly, the psychological effect of this phenomenon had as great an impact on the Romans, as the practical effect of the trees falling. That at least Caesar had some knowledge of previous battles in Gaul is shown by his reference to the defeat of Lucius Cassius in 107BC, a battle in which his father-in-law was slain.

The next aspect of the account that must be considered is the hastened deployment, specifically for the allusions Caesar makes to the human and emotional aspects of it. This section is the first that clearly alludes to the humanness of Caesar’s army and the human emotions present in the rapid attack of the Gauls. First, Caesar and his men’s surprise and panic as the enemy rushes towards their lines is shown as Caesar describes the rapidity of the Gallic advance. Caesar wrote concerning the suddenness of the attack,

The enemy then ran at astonishing speed down to the river, and so seemed – almost at one and the same moment – to be near the woods, then in the river, and now already upon us.

The above passage is representative of both the rapidity of the attack and alludes to the panic in which the army is thrown. Caesar then lists all of his responsibilities prior to battle, several of which he cannot properly fulfil given the time constraints. The first statement showing Caesar has an understanding that his army are humans and not “automatons” is that, one of the factors making this rapid deployment easier is the experience of his soldiers. He notes that, because his soldiers had grown accustomed to their pre-battle responsibilities, they are able to aid in this process. The second is that Caesar ordered his legates to remain near their men during the fortification process. In this passage Caesar is conveying the complexity of the deployment process. It informs the reader that, while his men are experienced, they are not machines and they are going to need some orders and structuring to accomplish this. The deployment process in many battles may have taken hours and involved a long stand-off period. Whereas, in this battle some of his forces may have begun fighting in as little as five minutes, after they caught sight of the enemy.

Possibly one of the more important references Caesar makes to the human qualities of his men, in the deployment phase, is hidden in the passage where he discusses that the soldiers were unable to form into their normal units.

To whatever part by chance he came from the works, and whatever first standards he first saw, at these he stood, so that in seeking his own he did not lose time for fighting.

The above passage certainly reinforces the panicked nature of the deployment, but it also seems to imply the fact that soldiers would have preferred to form up in their usual companies. It is clear that, the exigency of the situation did not allow soldiers to seek out their own standard and by extension their comrades and friends. This could be taken as possible evidence for the existence of small-group behavior within Caesar’s army, as Goldsworthy noted. It certainly seems to parallel Caesar’s account of the amphibious assault in Britain, when soldiers could not form within their proper ranks and faced great difficulty. At any rate, it denotes Caesar’s awareness of his troops and the fact that they would have preferred and possibly fought better had they been able to form into their own centuries. Also, it is one example of a factor of motivation other than the standards, which Keegan implied was the only one Caesar placed in the narrative.

Another aspect of the narrative which must be tentatively considered to exemplify Caesar’s understanding of the humanness of his army is, the passage noting that Caesar’s men were not able to properly equip themselves.

There had been so little time, and the enemy had been so keen to fight it out, that our men had had no chance to put on their helmets or take the covers from their shields, let alone put on badges and decorations.

Most basically, the passage shows Caesar is aware of the happenings of his men and has instilled some of these into the account. The soldiers had taken off their helmets and set down their pila, and other kit, as they began fortifying the camp and fulfilling various tasks. That some of the soldiers had not been able to put on their helmets would have been blatantly obvious to Caesar and certainly would have affected his men. Goldsworthy has argued a large percentage (possibly 75%) of the army fought primarily to stay alive, certainly, fighting without a helmet would have disheartened them and made them exceptionally vulnerable to missiles or other blows. The rest of the passage is more controversial.

In fact, by implementing a textual analysis of Caesar’s account, supported by modern secondary works on the Roman army, one is able to see that, Caesar’s narrative is replete with information about his army and its motivations. Furthermore, Caesar recognized on several occasions that his soldiers were not all uniform and that, his soldiers were facing and reacting differently to varying situations. While the account certainly omits much that would be of note to the military historian, a critical and discerning approach to the text can reveal a plethora of valuable information that may otherwise be glossed over. 

01 August 2022

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