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Romans Under the Yoke – an Art Study for Caesar


 Caesar, quod memoria tenebat L. Cassium c?nsulem occisum exercitumque eius ab Helvetiis pulsum et sub iugum missum, concedendum non putabat

Art study is a wonderful way to bring ancient texts to life.  Artists such as Gleyre were inspired by the words of Caesar and other classical authors.  As they read the Latin texts, images began to take shape and were then transferred to canvas.  The subject below is not an actual scene from the Gallic War, but rather the memory of a scene described by Caesar: the humiliating defeat of a Roman legion at the hands of a Helvetian Army.  For Gleyre and his Swiss countrymen, it is a reminder that their ancestors were able to once humble mighty Rome.

Romans Under the Yoke by Charles Gleyre (1808-1874)

This painting portrays an event of humiliation for the Romans referenced by Caesar in Book 1.7 and 12 of de Bello Gallico.

quod memoria tenebat L. Cassium consulem occisum exercitumque eius ab Helvetiis pulsum et sub iugum missum

– de Bello Gallico I.7

Charles Gleyre (1808 – 1874) was known as the original painter of light for the manner in which he used light to draw attention to the focus of his subject.  His work hovers between the romantic period (with an emphasis on nature) and that of impressionism.  Gleyre was an instructor for many famous artists of the Impressionist movement, including Renoir and Monet.  A native of Switzerland, he displays here his pride in the Helvetian heritage.

The yoke itself is a great lesson for ancient military custom.  It was not uncommon for a defeated enemy to be forced to march under the yoke.  This forces them to bow before their enemy in a posture of humiliation.  Here the Roman soldiers, stripped of the dignity of their armor, are forced to bow before the Helvetian general Divico and their trampled standards.
Questions for Study:
Note the lines in the painting.  To where/whom do they direct your attention?
  • Note where the light and shadows fall.  What does this contrast highlight?
  • Note the white oxen to the right of the bound soldiers.  What is around their neck?  What is above the soldiers?  What comparison might be made here?
  • Where do the eyes of the Roman soldiers fall?  Why might this be significant?
  • What is the central figure in the painting?  What is the significance of this in Druid worship?
  • What do the behavior of the other figures around this central element seem to suggest?  Relate this back to the juxtaposition of the bound soldiers and the yoked cattle.

AP Latin Tip: Book I chapter 7 of de Bello Gallico is on the AP syllabus.  In this chapter Caesar briefly references the humiliation of the Romans sent under the yoke.  Chapter 12 of Book I is not on the AP syllabus, but would make a wonderful sight passage in reference to chapter 7 and this painting.  Chapter 12 is a very short chapter and not difficult to read.  It is in this chapter that Caesar provides further insight as to why this particular defeat is of a rather personal nature to him.

Qua in re Caesar non solum publicas, sed etiam privatas iniurias ultus est, quod eius soceri L. Pisonis avum, L. Pisonem legatum, Tigurini eodem proelio quo Cassium interfecerant.

 “In which matter Caesar not only avenged public, but also private injuries, because the Tigurini had killed the grandfather of his father-in-law Lucius [Calpurnius] Piso, lieutenant Lucius Piso, in the same battle as [they had killed] Cassius.”  id est – The grandfather of Caesar’s father-in-law was one of the officers killed alongside Cassius in the very incident mentioned in Chapter 7.  It would appear that the two heads posted upon spears could be leaders or officers since they are crowned with laurel wreaths.  Perhaps these are the very heads of Cassius and of Piso.  The laurel wreaths, normally a symbol of victory, may be a play of mockery here as was the crown of thorns pressed upon the head of Jesus Christ during his crucifixion.

The full text for Commentarii de Bello Gallico may be found on

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