September 30, 2007

Cavalry learned from Caesar

VERMONT ESSAYS:  Volume OneJulius Caesar's "Commentaries on the Gallic Wars," a remarkable piece of military writing from the first century B.C., chronicled the domination of the advancing but still Neolithic Gaulish tribes by the well organized and efficient Roman Legions. Skirmish and war after war, Caesar always wins, even against a resolute and clever adversary like Orgetorix or Vercingetorix, the model for Sitting Bull of the American campaigns. Clearly "Civilized Man" must win out. Caesar was never taught in European schools, but the Commentaries were introduced as the prime Latin text in America by 1730. Here is the lesson drummed into every schoolboy from the 18th century on, who did his Latin paragraph by paragraph in American one-room school houses. These boys became the soldiers, the officers and the politicians who waged the Indian Wars of the Colonial Period, which were continued for economic and territorial reasons up to the very end of the 19th century, and continued for another century in the search for silver, gold and uranium ore.

We try very hard to see the bright side of the ancient world as enlightening, humane and a model for modern thinking. But there is a dark side which cannot be ignored. Athenian prosperity started with the slaves in the silver mines of Laurium, it fostered forced trade arrangements which brought in heavy taxes from the whole Aegean world. The Romans show us a world in which slaves did the work of building an infrastructure of remarkable proportions, they were the real working backbone of a prosperous society, and we moderns took that as advice to develop our lower working class with the slave trade from Africa. Caesar's triumph over the indigenous peoples of Gaul gave us a clear idea of how to treat our Native Americans, and the Classics enforced this message in every classroom throughout the country where Latin was taught--theoretically as literature, incidentally as political propaganda.

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