Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul

51a+KnRzneL._SX329_BO1 204 203 200_Daisy Dunn at Literary Review:

Some of the most colourful passages of Greek and Latin literature describe the people of Gaul. There are haughty, bellicose Gauls, drunk Gauls, Gauls who sleep on straw like animals, Gauls who make severed heads into necklaces for horses or store them in cedar oil to bring out on special days. And then, ‘living beyond the deep sea and quite cut off from the world’, are the huge and ‘terrifying’ Britons. All in all, a horrible bunch.

One of the effects of the Gallic War, which Julius Caesar waged between 58 and 51 BC, was to draw what Bijan Omrani calls ‘an impenetrable veil over centuries of indigenous Gallic culture’. The campaign, which Caesar initially undertook to pay off his debts and outshine his political rivals, helped the Romans to rewrite Gallic history. Conquered tribes left little trace of their former ways of life. Caesar, meanwhile, left his extensive Commentaries on the Gallic War.

The text is Omrani’s guide as he travels across France, Belgium and Switzerland in search of the conflict it describes – and the history it doesn’t. A former classics teacher, Omrani rambles along dung-strewn lanes and muddy tracks, and through medieval villages named after ancient villas (the Latin name endings –acum and –anus became –ac, –at, –as, –y, –é, and –ay in French). In places, his book evokes Richard Holmes’s pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson through France in his marvellous Footsteps, though Omrani’s own personality is comparatively self-contained. For all the mud, his own footprints are rather fainter on his pages than those of Caesar and the Gauls he stalks.

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