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American Journal of Philology 123.4 (2002) 601-622

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Falling Masts, Rising Masters:
The Ethnography of Virtue in Caesar's Account of the Veneti

Brice Erickson


CAESAR'S ACCOUNT OF THE REVOLT of the Veneti and neighboring tribes along the northwest coast of Gaul (BGall. 3.8-15) contains a clear assertion of Rome's superiority in virtus over her foes. While the account of the Veneti has sparked considerable debate over Caesar's political motivations and Venetic topography, 1 the passage's literary themes merit study in their own right. This paper examines the respective roles of technology and virtus in Caesar's presentation of the Venetic defeat. The first section establishes that Caesar conceived of the sea battle fought against the Veneti as a contest about virtus. The next section argues that the technology of enemy boat design detailed in an ethnographic passage is represented by Caesar as a source of Venetic strength in place of true fighting spirit. This naval ethnography, dismissed by several commentators as an afterthought awkwardly inserted into the text, 2 is, on the contrary, the cornerstone of a sophisticated exposition on the theme of native technological strength failing to compensate for a lack of virtus. Caesar's presentation of the final defeat of the Veneti at sea, the subject of the third section, exposes native weakness in a remarkable scene wherein falling masts and sudden calm metaphorically cast enemy failure within a gendered opposition of hard and soft. [End Page 601]

The Presentation of the Sea Battle as a Contest about Virtus

At the beginning of the account, the Veneti prove to be formidable adversaries despite their apparent reluctance to face the Romans in battle. The unusual position of their strongholds, on the tips of spits or promontories, shelters the Veneti from sea-borne attack. As Caesar points out, the violent swelling of the tide (aestus) characteristic of these northern regions and the presence of dangerous shoals make approaching the headlands by sea difficult (3.12.2-3). A further Roman disadvantage is their inadequate knowledge of the region's shoals, ports, and islands where the fighting will have to be waged. 3 Even when the Romans manage to besiege enemy positions, the Veneti's possession of a superior fleet allows them to abandon compromised strongholds and fortify new ones. Faced with an enemy skilled at tactical retreat, the Romans must delay a decisive resolution of the campaign until they finish assembling a fleet of their own. 4

The Veneti stand in contrast to other tribes Caesar has fought, at least among those described in any detail. They lack the fighting virtues of masculine fortitude and courage in battle. Caesar ascribes Venetic power to three factors: a great number of ships, control over ports and trade with Britain, and a combination of knowledge (scientia) and experience (usus) in naval matters. 5 He credits the Veneti with being a coastal power, respected by their neighbors and preeminent in auctoritas. 6 This term is commonly paired with other words that reflect the courage of the Gauls, such as fortissimus, acerrimus, or occasionally even virtus. But Caesar's entire account of the Veneti is noticeably lacking in any explicit description of enemy fighting spirit. 7 In contrast, the Bellovaci at Bellum [End Page 602] Gallicum 2.4.5 are said to reign over their neighbors (inter eos) both in auctoritas and virtus. The term virtus itself covers a wide range of meanings. At its core are the concepts of masculine fortitude and courageous action. 8 Caesar describes another Gallic tribe, the Senones, in similar terms: civitas in primis firma et magnae inter Gallos auctoritatis (BGall. 5.54.2), where firma is paired with auctoritas.Fortis and acer occasionally serve as crude adjectival equivalents of virtus, as evidenced by an example at Bellum Gallicum 5.43.4, in which Caesar equates virtus with fighting in a manner acerrime fortissimeque in the case of Roman legionaries. A distinction exists between these terms and audacia and ferox, which convey the...


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