“That the race and name of that people may be annihilated”

Caesar’s genocide. Today, at least we use euphemisms.

I spoke too loosely in describing the extirpation of the Albigenses as the first genocide in European history.   It would have been more precise to say “post-Classical European history,” as a Jeff Weintraub points out:

One passage in Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars has always struck me as particularly chilling.  In Book 6 Caesar describes how he defeated a string of revolts, culminating in the great revolt led by Vercingetorix.  One of those was the revolt of the Eburones, a Belgic tribe, led by a certain Ambiorix.  They managed to ambush and either wipe out or devastate several units of Roman soldiers.  When Caesar arrived with his main army, looking for revenge, Ambiorix fled across the Rhine, and the rest of the Eburones scattered into the forests for safety.  Caesar writes:

There was, as we have above observed, no regular army, nor a town, nor a garrison which could defend itself by arms; but the people were scattered in all directions. Where either a hidden valley, or a woody spot, or a difficult morass furnished any hope of protection or of security to any one, there he had fixed himself. These places were known to those who dwelt in the neighborhood, and the matter demanded great attention, not so much in protecting the main body of the army (for no peril could occur to them altogether from those alarmed and scattered troops), as in preserving individual soldiers; which in some measure tended to the safety of the army.  […..]

Caesar dispatches messengers to the neighboring peoples [civitates]; by the hope of booty he invites all to him, for the purpose of plundering the Eburones, in order that the life of the Gauls might be hazarded in the woods rather than the legionary soldiers; at the same time, in order that a large force being drawn around them, the race and name of that people may be annihilated [stirps ac nomen civitatis tollatur] for such a crime. A large number from all quarters speedily assembles. […..]

We still have the name of the Eburones, thanks to Caesar.  But as for the Eburones themselves, my impression is that as a people they were indeed effectively destroyed, and their territory was taken over by other neighboring tribes.  (Or perhaps Caesar was boasting about a genocidal mass murder he didn’t fully accomplish?  Either way, as I said, I’ve always found that passage a bit chilling.)

We should note that this particular episode had nothing to do with religion.  Caesar was mostly trying to make a point.

Also note that De Bello Gallico was not just an historical account.  It was also a public-relations document highlighting Caesar’s military triumphs on behalf of the republic.  It might even be called a campaign document, since top figures in the Roman political elite were, effectively, involved in a never-ending “campaign.”  In that context, the matter-of-fact tone in which Caesar announces his intention that “the race and name of that people may be annihilated” is especially striking.  There is no trace of embarrassment, euphemism, or circumlocution about it.

So it’s fair to say that there has been some moral progress in 2000 years.  At least, modern advocates of genocide tend to use euphemisms.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

6 thoughts on ““That the race and name of that people may be annihilated””

  1. since top figures in the Roman political elite were, effectively, involved in a never-ending “campaign.”

    Chalk one up for term limits. The Roman regular magistracies were all for one year, save the censors' 18 months.

  2. One of the things that cracked me up about the Commentary was Caesar's discussion of his punitive raids against the Germans. If memory serves, he wrote that he felt as though he left after teaching the Germans a lesson after a mere couple of days across the Rhine; I have since wondered whether that really meant that he left because he wasn't teaching the Germans a lesson.

  3. Josh, I think the gist is that Caesar was politician enough to see the need for a symbolic retaliation, and general enough not to get sucked into the forests across the Rhine. Compare Varus.

  4. Anderson says:

    "Josh, I think the gist is that Caesar was politician enough to see the need for a symbolic retaliation, and general enough not to get sucked into the forests across the Rhine. Compare Varus."

    An excellent point, particularly if large areas of Gaul were only secure so long as there was a large Roman army in there (i.e., a defeat in a battle against the Germans might have triggered some Gaullic revolts, and then the once-defeated Roman army would find that they're trapped between hostile forces, and in Varus-level trouble).

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