How does fiction bring history to life?
Below are three passages. The first is Julius Caesar’s description of Divico, an Helvetian chief, defying Caesar and the Roman people, from Book 1, Chapters 13 & 14 of de bello Gallico. The second is my reading of that passage in my forthcoming book, A Soldier’s Caesar. Finally, is my retelling of the scene in The Helvetian Affair.
The scene as “Caesar” wrote it,
 Hoc proelio facto, reliquas copias Helvetiorum ut consequi posset, pontem in Arari faciendum curat atque ita exercitum traducit. Helvetii repentino eius adventu commoti cum id quod ipsi diebus XX aegerrime confecerant, ut flumen transirent, illum uno die fecisse intellegerent, legatos ad eum mittunt; cuius legationis Divico princeps fuit, qui bello Cassiano dux Helvetiorum fuerat. Is ita cum Caesare egit: si pacem populus Romanus cum Helvetiis faceret, in eam partem ituros atque ibi futuros Helvetios ubi eos Caesar constituisset atque esse voluisset; sin bello persequi perseveraret, reminisceretur et veteris incommodi populi Romani et pristinae virtutis Helvetiorum. Quod improviso unum pagum adortus esset, cum ii qui flumen transissent suis auxilium ferre non possent, ne ob eam rem aut suae magnopere virtuti tribueret aut ipsos despiceret. Se ita a patribus maioribusque suis didicisse, ut magis virtute contenderent quam dolo aut insidiis niterentur. Quare ne committeret ut is locus ubi constitissent ex calamitate populi Romani et internecione exercitus nomen caperet aut memoriam proderet.
 His Caesar ita respondit: eo sibi minus dubitationis dari, quod eas res quas legati Helvetii commemorassent memoria teneret, atque eo gravius ferre quo minus merito populi Romani accidissent; qui si alicuius iniuriae sibi conscius fuisset, non fuisse difficile cavere; sed eo deceptum, quod neque commissum a se intellegeret quare timeret neque sine causa timendum putaret. Quod si veteris contumeliae oblivisci vellet, num etiam recentium iniuriarum, quod eo invito iter per provinciam per vim temptassent, quod Haeduos, quod Ambarros, quod Allobrogas vexassent, memoriam deponere posse? Quod sua victoria tam insolenter gloriarentur quodque tam diu se impune iniurias tulisse admirarentur, eodem pertinere. Consuesse enim deos immortales, quo gravius homines ex commutatione rerum doleant, quos pro scelere eorum ulcisci velint, his secundiores interdum res et diuturniorem impunitatem concedere. Cum ea ita sint, tamen, si obsides ab iis sibi dentur, uti ea quae polliceantur facturos intellegat, et si Haeduis de iniuriis quas ipsis sociisque eorum intulerint, item si Allobrogibus satis faciunt, sese cum iis pacem esse facturum. Divico respondit: ita Helvetios a maioribus suis institutos esse uti obsides accipere, non dare, consuerint; eius rei populum Romanum esse testem. Hoc responso dato discessit. (C. IVLI CAESARIS COMMENTARIORVM DE BELLO GALLICO LIBER PRIMVS. <<http://www.thelatinlibrary.com/caesar/gall1.shtml#13>>.)
The scene as ray gleason “read” it.
13. After the battle is over, Caesar throws a bridge across the Saone and leads his army across the river so that he can close with the remaining forces of the Helvetians. The Helvetians realize that Caesar crossed the river in one day when with great difficulty it took them twenty. They are stunned by his sudden arrival and send emissaries to him. At the head of this delegation is Divico, who had been the commander of the Helvetians in the war against Cassius. He says to Caesar that if Rome would make peace with the Helvetians, they would go wherever Caesar might require them and they would stay there. However, if Caesar should persist in attacking them, he ought to remember the ancient disgrace of the Roman nation and the long-established strength of the Helvetians. As far as his having destroyed one division of the tribe by surprise, when the rest of the tribe had already crossed the river and could not support their comrades, he should not attribute his success to his own courage or underestimate the Helvetians, who had learned from their fathers and ancestors to rely more on valor than on deceit and ambush. So, Caesar should be careful not to give the place where they were standing the reputation as a disaster for the Roman people or cause him to be remembered for the destruction of its army.
14. Caesar answers that he certainly understood what Divico was talking about because he well remembers those events to which the Helvetian envoys had alluded. For him, it is most offensive to be reminded of this because the Roman nation did not deserve what was done to them. Had Rome been aware of any animosity toward itself, it would not have been difficult to avoid disaster. But, Rome had been deceived! Rome had not been aware of anything that it had done which would cause it to be distrusted by the Helvetians. Rome should not have felt the need to be wary of the Helvetians without having given cause. But, even if Caesar were willing to forget past grievances, should he also be willing to put aside recent grievances—the Helvetians testing him by forcing their way across the province against his will and their attacking the Aedui, the Ambarri, and the Allobroges? Caesar sees no difference between Helvetians’ incessant and insolent boasting of their victory and their bluster that they have been able to get away with these atrocities so long without punishment. At times the immortal gods are accustomed to grant favor and long-lasting impunity to those whose crimes they wish to punish, so that they suffer more grievously from their change of fate. Although these things may be so, if the Helvetians give him hostages to assure him that they will do as they promised, and if they make restitution to the Aedui and the Allobroges for the outrages that they have inflicted on them and on their allies, he will make peace with them. Divico answers that from the time of their ancestors, the Helvetians are accustomed to take, not give, hostages. Of this, the Roman nation serves as a witness. Having answered thus, Divico departs (Ray Gleason, A Soldier’s Caesar. pp 16-8).
 One must wonder whether this is another example of Caesar’s quasi-historic theater or whether the Helvetians could be so arrogant and absolutely insensible to how Caesar, and the Roman nation, would react to such a provocation. In Caesar’s defense, it was common practice to dramatize history by having characters make stirring or provoking speeches that were never actually made. Certainly, Caesar is presenting Divico as the arch-villain of those savage and dangerous, Helvetians in his drama. But, the reader, having just been told by Caesar that his victory over the Tigurini may in fact have been the result of a divine plan to avenge the massacre of Cassius’ army and the injury to Caesar’s own family, must wonder at the Helvetians’ choice as a spokesman to negotiate a treaty, the very leader who massacred the Roman army and killed a Roman consul, and then his reminding Caesar of the fact. This would be nothing short of an irresistible provocation of the Roman people. And, perhaps that’s exactly how Caesar wanted it to play.
The scene as Ray Gleason envisions it in The Helvetian Affair.
Labienus nodded, then said, “We detected a small band of them heading back in our direction. We think it’s some sort of delegation.”
Caesar looked at me questioningly.
“If they want to talk, they’ll be carrying the truce wands like the others,” I told him.
Caesar looked over to Labienus, who just shrugged. “We didn’t get that close, Imperator,” he said.
Caesar just grunted in response. “I can’t see any other option, Titus,” he said to Labienus. “Perhaps we can finish this thing here and now the way we convinced the Tigurini to return to the Rhenus. When they arrive, lead them to a spot where they can see what we are doing here… there’s a small hillock between the castra of the 10th and the 7th legions… that would be perfect… I will meet their delegation there… perhaps the sight of Roman might and competence will convince them to return to their homeland.”
The Helvetii delegation arrived at the ninth hour. This time, Caesar remained mounted waiting for them on the hillock overlooking his legions on the west side of the river, the bridges over the Arar and, beyond the river, the remnants of the defeated Tigurini. The message was clear, “In one day we defeated one of your tribes and accomplished a river crossing that took you almost three weeks.”
The leader of the Helvetian delegation was a giant of a man on a black stallion. His long, flowing grey-hair hung freely from his bare head; his long gray, chin-length mustachios seemed to bristle pride and defiance. As he waved his wand of negotiation negligently in our direction, the sun glinted off the golden armbands that circled his bulging biceps.
He rode directly at Caesar. At two paces away, he pulled his horse’s head abruptly to the right, so the animal reared a bit and exposed the warrior’s long Gallic sword in a gold-wired scabbard hanging down his left side. He stilled his mount and stared directly at Caesar with cold, piercing blue eyes for a few heartbeats.
It was then I realized that over his chainmail lorica, his chest was festooned with Roman phalerae – gold and silver sculpted disks awarded to Centurions and rankers for acts of valor. No legionary would willingly surrender such treasures. They were trophies taken from Roman dead.
“So, Roman, you are the one called Caesar,” he said in Latin!
Caesar remained silent, perfectly still.
“Are you surprised I speak your language,” the warrior continued? “I learned it from my slaves who were once soldiers in the army you sent against us many years ago when we killed your chief, the one you called ‘consul’.”
I heard Labienus suck in his breath, when the warrior said that. This was not a negotiation, I realized. This man had come to challenge Caesar, to provoke him into combat.
“I am Dewi Map Coel… Divico to you Romans… know that it was I who was orgorix of the Helvetii the day we slaughtered the Romans and took ten thousand heads…”
“Orgorix,” Labienus whispered to me?
“Slaughter-King,” I translated for him, “War Chief.”
“Cunnus,” Labienus hissed and spit on the ground.
“…the whitened skulls of Roman dead decorate our feasting halls and lodges to this day… and now you have the temerity to attack us? Know you, Roman, the fact that you were able to ambush and slaughter one of our minor clans while they were trapped against a river and burdened with women and children does not impress us… Roman deception and cruelty has been known to us for many generations… we will offer you this… the valleys of the Rhodanus are wide and fertile… we will accept any of these and settle there… know you, Roman, the Helvetii have learned from their ancestors to rely on valor and strength, not on deceit and ambush… unless you want to make of this ground on which we stand another monument to Roman defeat and shame, you will give us the land we demand and withdraw your soldiers across the Rhodanus… then there will be peace between our nations.”
“Quite an oration,” Labienus hissed. “He couldn’t provoke Caesar more if he tried.”
I looked over toward Caesar. His face was as white as a candidate’s toga. His lower jaw was set slightly forward and his thin lips were drawn tightly across his face like a knife scar. I later learned that this was the only telltale sign of his rage. Caesar was too controlled ever to demonstrate it, especially when facing an adversary.
Finally, Caesar spoke, “Well do I remember that of which you speak. No Roman will ever forget the tragedy that befell the Roman nation and the army of Lucius Cassius Longinus… many families still mourn that day… many men desire blood vengeance to appease the restless lemures of their murdered ancestors… you say that the Helvetii are a people of valor and courage… I tell you that you are a liar… you only defeated Longinus by deceit and ambush… you feigned friendship with the Roman people and delivered treachery at the end of a spear… know you, Divico of the Helvetii, that, although members of my own familia shed their blood, lost their lives on that fateful day, I, Gaius Iulius Caesar, Proconsul of the Roman people, commander of this army, offer you these terms for peace… first, you will return to the lands you abandoned on the Rhenus… second, you will give restitution to the allies of the Roman people whose lands you have pillaged and destroyed… third, you will surrender hostages to me to ensure your submission and good behavior… only then am I willing to let the Helvetii leave this place in peace… and also know this, Divico of the Helvetii… the gods despise hubris… they do seem at times to grant their favor but only to heighten despair when they withdraw it. What is your answer, Divico?”
Divico’s eyes glared at Caesar like piercing blue embers. “Roman! Since the time of our ancestors, the Helvetii are accustomed to taking hostages, not surrendering them!” He held up the wand of negotiation, broke it in two, spit on the pieces and threw them at the feet of Caesar’s horse. He pulled back on his reins causing his black stallion to rear and turn, then galloped off the hillock followed by his entourage.
Caesar calmly watched Divico ride off. Then he turned to Labienus and said, “It appears that our negotiation with the Helvetii is ended. Come with me. We have work to do.” Then he rode off toward the castrum of the 10th Legion.
Caesar had established his Praetorium with the 10th. When we arrived at the headquarters tent, Caesar said, “Accompany me, Insubrecus.”
We entered Caesar’s operations area; the maps were already hung and soldiers were busy making notations. I could easily see the location of our army on the left side a squiggly blue line that ran down from the top the map; the Arar, I assumed. It led downward to another, thicker blue line that seemed to plunge toward the bottom left corner of the map; the Rhodanus. About a cubitus to the left of our location was a large, red marker; the Helvetii.
While Caesar’s body-slave was helping him out of his armor, he was talking to Labienus. “That was the best theater I’ve seen since I left Rome! Divico! He could easily upstage Plautus’ braggart. Did you see the size of that sword? How does the man walk without tripping?”
Labienus, his helmet under his arm, answered, “Could he have really been the Helvetian commander when they ambushed Longinus? What would that make him what… sixty? No one could look like that at sixty.”
“What did you think of that act, Insubrecus,” Caesar asked me?
“He was trying to provoke you, Patrone,” I said stiffly.
“Of course he was,” Caesar answered. “I sometimes forget how young you are, Gaius… you haven’t had time to develop a sense of irony yet.”
I too was beginning to forget how young I was.
Caesar stood staring at the situation map. “I feel a bit like that boy in the children’s story, who thinks he’s captured a lion because he has ahold of its tail,” he was saying. “I can neither let go nor continue to hold on.”
I’ll be back after the holiday… Happy Thanksgiving!
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