Julius Caesar in Geneva

18 February 2008
Julius Caesar in Geneva

Geneva, governor of the Roman provinces on both sides of the Alps

Julius Caesar came to Geneva in 58 B.C., when, at the age of 42, he became governor of the Roman provinces on both sides of the Alps—known as Cisalpine Gaul and Transalpine Gaul. Since 125 B.C., the northern limit of the Roman Empire had been marked by the Alps and the left bank of the River Rhone. There was a bridge in Geneva to the north of which lay the “uncivilized” world.

Having, over the previous ten years, brilliantly manoeuvred his way to the top of Roman politics, Caesar was now to set in motion a series of events that was to leave its mark on history for the next 500 years. By the time he relinquished his governorship in 49 B.C., Gaul had become a Roman province—covering the whole of modern France and extending all the way up the left bank of the River Rhine to the North Sea. He had also led two punitive forays into Great Britain and one into Germany.

But when he first arrived in Geneva in 58 B.C. his ambition was to make a name for himself through the conduct of a successful military campaign. This would ensure his popularity with the voters in Rome and guarantee his political future. As luck would have it, a golden opportunity presented itself immediately; in fact, even before he was ready.

The tribe that lived in (what is now) central Switzerland—the Helvetii—had sworn an oath that they would move to south-western France with the intention of settling—by force if necessary—on the more fertile land that they believed they deserved. In the previous years they stored up a supply of grain to feed themselves while on the move and on 28 March of the year 58 B.C. they loaded their wagons, burned their farms, towns and villages, and set off. There were 368,000 of them.

Caesar had two very good reasons for opposing them. First, according to him, they would devastate everything in their path, including the lives and property of people who were loyal to Rome. If he stopped the migration, all the tribes that lay between Geneva and the Atlantic Ocean would be indebted to him, not least those whose land would be taken over by force when the Helvetii arrived. The second reason was that they intended installing themselves in the region of Toulouse, and the prospect of having a hostile tribe located on the edge of the Roman province in an area without any natural borders was not appealing. Furthermore, this tribe had some fifty years earlier annihilated a legion of Roman soldiers. Here was an ideal opportunity to exact revenge on a tribe that was no friend of Rome. It would also go down well with the voters.

The Helvetii came to Geneva and their envoys asked permission to cross the city’s bridge peacefully and then traverse the Roman province as far as the Rhone valley. Caesar refused, had the bridge destroyed and started to build a trench and rampart from Geneva to the foot of the Jura Mountains—some twenty kilometres away. After some delay, the Helvetii decided to go round the north side of the Jura.

Caesar decided that it was his task to stop them and began to assemble his forces. Eventually the Helvetii column reached the River Soane—and this proved to be their undoing. It took them twenty days to build a bridge of boats and for their wagons, their horses, cattle and themselves to cross the river. That gave time for Caesar’s reinforcements to arrive and he began harassing the enemy. When three-quarters of them had crossed the river, Caesar pounced upon the quarter that remained on the eastern bank and dispersed them. His soldiers then, in one day, built a bridge across the river. These two events caused great alarm and the migrating tribe began to panic. A series of skirmishes were fought over the following two weeks ending with a full-scale battle during which the Helvetii warriors became separated from their baggage train and were forced to surrender.

Caesar commanded the survivors to return from whence they came and arranged for them to be fed. One group of migrants was, however, granted a piece of land by a local tribe and allowed to settle. Caesar ordered a census—there were only 110,000 of them who eventually returned home. He was very keen for them to do so since, although no friends of Rome, the Helvetii were preferable to some of the tribes who would rush in to fill the void.

The only account we have of these events is Caesar’s memoirs, and it is evident that he manipulated the information to his advantage—glossing over the reversals and embellishing the triumphs—in other words, propaganda. Nevertheless, his gripping first-hand account has fascinated readers for more than 2000 years. Caesar is one of history’s most interesting characters. As a politician, administrator and general his achievements amount to genius, while he was also no stranger in the minor arts of gangsterism—intimidation, hostage-taking and bribery. His energy, both physical and intellectual, was truly amazing. Even by Roman standards, his sexual escapades were out of the ordinary.

However, when Caesar’s troops won battles it was thanks not only to his strategic audacity but to the utmost brutality of his soldiers. Men, women and children were slaughtered indiscriminately—indeed, the Roman populace relished these gory details. There were no war crimes tribunals in those days, although the consciences of some Roman senators were so horrified by his actions that they threatened to bring Caesar to trial. The events in Gaul are described candidly by Caesar in his terse, dry memoirs and they can be shocking to our modern consciences. Are we any different from the human beings who lived then? Recent conflicts, from Bosnia to East Timor to Sierra Leone, indicate that the brute still lurks within us. Let us educate our children in tolerance and pray that we—and they—are never put to the test.



By 52 B.C. Caesar, as governor of Transalpine Gaul, had been gradually drawn into a series of military campaigns and alliances. It was obvious that he would end up by imposing Roman rule on the whole of Gaul. In the late winter of that year there was a general revolt among the Gauls led by Vercingetorix, who was a skilful commander. Vercingetorix proposed that, rather than fighting the Roman legions in pitched battles, the Gauls should concentrate on cutting the Romans off from their supplies and forcing them back to their bases. This would be achieved mainly by the cavalry, of which the Gauls possessed some 15,000. The Gauls then set fire to towns and villages where the Romans might find food and shelter. In the late spring, Caesar tried to surround Vecingetorix at the town of Gergovia (Clermont-Ferrand), but the Roman army was driven off. The revolt spread. Later, in August, Vercingetorix tried to annihilate Caesar’s army by cutting it off from Geneva. After a series of skirmishes, a fierce cavalry battle took place and, in a reversal of the situation for which Caesar was famous, the Roman cavalry triumphed! Vercingetorix and his 80,000 infantry retreated to the town of Alesia and Caesar quickly besieged it, with ramparts facing both inwards and outwards. A quarter of a million Gauls came to raise the siege but, although outnumbered ten to one, the Roman soldiers beat them off and Vercingetorix’s starving army was obliged to surrender. Nowadays, no-one is sure exactly where Alesia lies.