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Planning the Invasion of Gaul

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres . . .

Thus begins the first chapter of Comentarii de Bello Galllico, written by General Julius Caesar c.58-49 B.C.  This is a line that most veterans of Latin studies know by heart for it has long been the traditional “first book” for young students graduating from grammatical studies into original readings. The work is chosen for its excellent prose, whose arrangment is fairly easy for novice readers to follow.  That is once you become adept at recognizing ablative absolutes and extensive relative clauses and very long stints of indirect discourse.  The work certainly cannot be read without great attention to the author, Julius Caesar, his military endeavors and his political ambitions.  This work can also be enjoyed as a study in ancient geography as Caesar begins the very first chapter by laying out the geographical composition of Greater Gaul in the manner of a chartographer.

This is an approach that lends itself well to students who benefit from visual and tactile learning styles.  The key to success is finding a good map to serve as a guide, preferably with the Latin designations for territories, cities, and geographical features (rivers, mountains, et cetera).  Many such maps can be found online.  A small version is included in chapter 9 of Latin Alive Book 3 alongside the first chapter of de Bello Gallico.  My favorite map is featured in the pictures below.  A good friend found this treasure in a garage sale.  When unfolded the map reveals the terrain of Gaul as described by Caesar the chartographer in Book I.  The keys also show the various hiberna [winter camps] as described in Book V, and the battle movements as narrated by Caesar throughout his work.

Planning the Invasion of Gaul


It is not uncommon for students reading portions of de Bello Gallico to lose the larger narrative of the story as they become lost in detailed descriptions of overwhelming battles found in later chapters. Those descriptions serve a purpose as Caesar conveys the reality of soldiers under yet another onslaught, ambushed by the relentless hoard of Gallic warriors.  For our armchair quarterbacks, however, it helps to zoom out from the individual battles to survey the larger field of play and remember the where and when of the battle as well as the how and why.  By regularly incorporating map readings and even brief map references into the journey, we help the students keep a directional compass as they read.

Here is how such a class might work:

Begin with the very first chapter of Book I of de Bello Gallico.  The writing is easy to follow here, the descriptions of Gaul clearly laid out.  Teachers may choose to have students prepare the reading beforehand, or sight read the passage as you look at the map. Either way, I would encourage teachers to only use the Latin passage, and not have an English translation present.  The Latin text should be read aloud (by teacher or student) one phrase at a time.  Divide sentences into smaller phrases that describe a particular feature.  As the sentence is read point to the region/area being described.

exempli gratia:

  • quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

As each phrase is read, point first to the area of the map marked as inhabited by the Belgae, Aquitani, et Celtae.

  • Gallos ab Aquitanis Garumna flumen,

As this phrase is read ask students to find the Garonne River. Ask them if they see where it divides the Celts from the Aquitani.

  • a Belgis Matrona et Sequana dividit.

Do the same for these two rivers.  Ask students to clarify from which people-group do these rivers separate the Belgians.  The correct answer is the Gauls/Celts.  However, because the object “Gallos” is not repeated, novice readers are sometimes confused as to which two groups are separated by these rivers.  This is a moment where the visual map helps to clarify a potential error in understanding the text.  The map also helps to clarify the situtation described as to how these two rivers separate one region from the next.  They are not two separate rivers as some students imagine when the read this phrase. They are in fact two connected rivers, which can be clearly seen on a good map.  Some maps will not label the name of every river.  However, students can use the clues provided by Caesar to find and label the rivers.

Chapter 1 continues  “horum omnium fortissimi sunt Belgae . . .” and goes on to describe the various reasons why the Belgians were a particularly fierce group.  All the reasons have to do with geography: their distance from “civilization,” limited trade with merchants, and their proximity to the Germans just across the Rhine.  These physical geographical features shaped the culture and character of this ancient people.  As students look at a map and connect images to Caesar’s descriptions, they more clearly understand (and retain understanding of) Caesar’s written work.  Students also highly benefit from an interdisciplinary study in geography, which is becoming a lost discipline.  In this age of instant GPS at your fingertips, young people are losing the value in map-reading.  The greater implication is losing the big picture of how countries and cultures are laid out both physically and hisorically.  It helps to recognize our place in the world.

Additional Lesson Suggestions:

  • Oral Latin:  Map exercises provide an excellent opportunity to practice spoken Latin in the classroom.  The teacher can facilitate such discussion by asking simple questions such as

Ubi est Matrona?

Qui hic/illic inhabitant?

Cur Belgae sunt fortissimi?

Demonstra Garumna flumen.   (Occasionally use an imperative instead of an interrogative just to change things up a bit.)

  • Composition: Having read the opening chapter of de Bello Gallico, ask students to create their own Latin composition in which they describe their school campus, neighborhood, or interpret the map of a specific area.  Require them to use some of Caesar’s style and arrangement.

AP Latin Tip:

A wonderful set of online maps specific to Caesar’s Gallic Wars may be found at Dickinson’s College Commentaries.  Among the resources provided here are interactive maps that provide visual cues as an audio reading of de Bello Gallico plays, highlighting Caesar’s geographical descriptions.  This site provides all the passages listed on the AP Syllabus along with vocabulary assistance and copious notes for readers.



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