When Julius Caesar marched his legions into Gaul in 58BC, he found a surprisingly coherent federation of barbarian tribes. They had a common religion – Druidism – and the sort of traditions and institutions that allowed vast armies to be marshalled at short notice. Two millenniums before the TGV (train à grande vitesse), the Gauls’ high-speed chariots and expressways were the envy of the civilised world. Fine wines and luxury goods were transported safely over vast distances, and a Latin-speaking merchant with a basic grasp of Gaulish could made himself understood from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.
Reading Robert Gildea’s sober, concise and masterly history of France from 1799 to the first world war, one is tempted to ask: where did it all go wrong? Or, to put it less frivolously, why, after 2,000 years, did so many educated Frenchmen look back wistfully on the good old days of Vercingetorix, when a patriotic army of handsome, hairy Gauls could inflict a crushing defeat on Caesar’s legions?
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