Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


It is not as the husband of so many women and the wife of so many men; as the conqueror of Pompey and the Scipios; as the satirist who turned Cato into ridicule; as the robber of the public treasury, who employed the money of the Romans to reduce the Romans to subjection; as he who, clement in his triumphs, pardoned the vanquished; as the man of learning, who reformed the calendar; as the tyrant and the father of his country, assassinated by his friends and his bastard son; that I shall here speak of Cæsar. I shall consider this extraordinary man only in my quality of descendant from the poor barbarians whom he subjugated.

You will not pass through a town in France, in Spain, on the banks of the Rhine, or on the English coast opposite to Calais, in which you will not find good people who boast of having had Cæsar there. Some of the townspeople of Dover are persuaded that Cæsar built their castle; and there are citizens of Paris who believe that the great châtelet is one of his fine works. Many a country squire in France shows you an old turret which serves him for a dovecote, and tells you that Cæsar provided a lodging for his pigeons. Each province disputes with its neighbor the honor of having been the first to which Cæsar applied the lash; it was not by that road, but by this, that he came to cut our throats, embrace our wives and daughters, impose laws upon us by interpreters, and take from us what little money we had.

The Indians are wiser. We have already seen that they have a confused knowledge that a great robber, named Alexander, came among them with other robbers; but they scarcely ever speak of him.

An Italian antiquarian, passing a few years ago through Vannes in Brittany, was quite astonished to hear the learned men of Vannes boast of Cæsar’s stay in their town. “No doubt,” said he, “you have monuments of that great man?” “Yes,” answered the most notable among them, “we will show you the place where that hero had the whole senate of our province hanged, to the number of six hundred.”

“Some ignorant fellows, who had found a hundred beams under ground, advanced in the journals in 1755 that they were the remains of a bridge built by Cæsar; but I proved to them in my dissertation of 1756 that they were the gallows on which that hero had our parliament tied up. What other town in Gaul can say as much? We have the testimony of the great Cæsar himself. He says in his ‘Commentaries’ that we ‘are fickle and prefer liberty to slavery.’ He charges us with having been so insolent as to take hostages of the Romans, to whom we had given hostages, and to be unwilling to return them unless our own were given up. He taught us good behavior.”

“He did well,” replied the virtuoso, “his right was incontestable. It was, however, disputed; for you know that when he vanquished the emigrant Swiss, to the number of three hundred and sixty-eight thousand, and there were not more than a hundred and ten thousand left, he had a conference in Alsace with a German king named Ariovistus, and Ariovistus said to him: ‘I come to plunder Gaul, and I will not suffer any one to plunder it but myself;’ after which these good Germans, who were come to lay waste the country, put into the hands of their witches two Roman knights, ambassadors from Cæsar; and these witches were on the point of burning them and offering them to their gods, when Cæsar came and delivered them by a victory. We must confess that the right on both sides was equal, and that Tacitus had good reason for bestowing so many praises on the manners of the ancient Germans.”

This conversation gave rise to a very warm dispute between the learned men of Vannes and the antiquarian. Several of the Bretons could not conceive what was the virtue of the Romans in deceiving one after another all the nations of Gaul, in making them by turns the instruments of their own ruin, in butchering one-fourth of the people, and reducing the other three-fourths to slavery.

“Oh! nothing can be finer,” returned the antiquarian. “I have in my pocket a medal representing Cæsar’s triumph at the Capitol; it is in the best preservation.” He showed the medal. A Breton, a little rude, took it and threw it into the river, exclaiming: “Oh! that I could so serve all who use their power and their skill to oppress their fellowmen! Rome deceived us, disunited us, butchered us, chained us; and at this day Rome still disposes of many of our benefices; and is it possible that we have so long and in so many ways been a country of slaves?”

To the conversation between the Italian antiquarian and the Breton I shall only add that Perrot d’Ablancourt, the translator of Cæsar’s “Commentaries,” in his dedication to the great Condé, makes use of these words: “Does it not seem to you, sir, as if you were reading the life of some Christian philosopher?” Cæsar a Christian philosopher! I wonder he has not been made a saint. Writers of dedications are remarkable for saying fine things and much to the purpose.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25