The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 3

It is nearly always invisible dangers which are most terrifying. (VII.84)

This second half of the Gallic Wars is much more exciting than the first. In the previous four books the Romans steamrollered over everyone they encountered in a rather monotonous way. Here they experience the catastrophic loss of an entire legion and then the fierce siege of Quintus Cicero’s camp, i.e. for the first time you feel the contingency and risk involved in the entire project. And both events are carefully crafted to feature dramatic episodes of a kind not found in the first four.

Book 5: The second rebellion

The book title was supplied by the editors of the Penguin edition and refers to the revolt of the Belgic tribes.

1 to 8: Illyricum and Gaulish rebels

At the end of each campaigning season in Gaul, Caesar spends the winter in Cisalpine Gaul attending to administration. He also visits the third province he’s in charge of, Illyricum. Here he stamped on the Pirustrae tribe who had allegedly been raiding over the border into Roman territory. Representatives of the tribe met him to tell him it wasn’t them, and delivered hostages as he demanded.

By this point we’re getting used to certain things.

  1. This is a world made up of scores and scores of tribes who co-exist uneasily, continually liable to be invaded or go invading themselves.
  2. Raiding other tribes’ territories seems to be a common occurrence so presumably is a standard way of making a living, acquiring land or loot.
  3. Caesar has a standard methodology. Where possible, meet and threaten representatives of the erring tribe. If they persist in troubling the peace, attack and defeat them. Either way, you insist on them sending hostages to be kept as security against good behaviour.

This handful of options are repeated endlessly. In the spring Caesar returns to Gaul where he has to sort out the Treveri, a tribe living close to the Rhine whose leaders have failed to come to the annual conference of Gallic tribes. Turns out two rivals are vying for leadership, Caesar supports Cingetorix.

He rides on to Portus Itius, from where the invasion is to be launched. Tellingly, he takes leaders of most of the Gaulish tribes with him. The most dangerous of these is Dumnorix, ambitious leader of the Aedui. When Caesar insists he accompany him to Britain, Dumnorix begins spreading rumours to the other chiefs that they’ll all be killed in Britain. The sailing is delayed 4 weeks by a contrary wind, towards the end of which Dumnorix left the damp with some Aeduin cavalry. Caesar immediately delayed the sailing and sent troops to recapture Dumnorix, buy force if necessary. Dumnorix did indeed put up a fight, drew his sword and told his followers to protect him. So the Roman cavalry killed him. End of disruptive influence.

9 to 25: Second expedition to Britain

Caesar had ordered his troops over the winter to build a massive fleet eventually consisting of 600 troopships and 28 warships. He sets sail with five legions (about 25,000 soldiers) and 2,000 cavalry. Including private ships they hired, the Romans appeared over the horizon with 800 ships, an enormous force. No wonder the defending Britons decided to retire to higher ground.

They disembarked without event, set up a camp, then Caesar marched the majority 12 miles or so inland till they came to a Briton camp. The Seventh Legion stormed it and forced the Britons to flee but Caesar brought them back to work on the camp.

They set out again to confront the Britons but were informed of a large storms and when he returned Caesar saw it had damaged lots of boats. he drew them further up on the beach, ordered repairs made, sent orders to Titus Labienus back in Gaul to start building more.

He gives an overview of the British which is a bit random. He includes the plausible notion that the coastal areas have been settled by incomers from the continent with trivia such as, the natives think it wrong to eat of hare, fowl, and goose although it’s alright to keep for pastime or pleasure. He also makes the wildly inaccurate claim that the climate is more temperate than in Gaul, the cold seasons more moderate. I don’t think so.

He gives a wildly inaccurate description of the geography of Britain, making it out to be a huge triangular island off the west coast of France extending down to opposite Spain. It’s a great mystery how the Romans managed to conquer anywhere without decent maps.

He mentions that the British paint themselves with woad so have blue bodies. But then goes on to say they share wives between groups of ten or 12 men. This is the kind of wildly improbable legend that disfigures to much of the ostensibly ‘factual’ writing of the ancient world.

Back to the present, he describes a lightning British attack on the camp which takes them by surprise and causes casualties. The British fight well, making use of chariots and loose formations which replace each other ad lib.

Next day he sends legions foraging but once again the Britons attack in numbers. It’s hard fought but this time the legions turn them and chase. The Britons scatter and never again attack in such a unified way.

The Britons had united under the leadership of one chieftain, Cassivellaunus. He withdraws his forces north of the Thames which the Romans traverse and continue fighting, with Cassivellaunus hiding his chariots in the woods, till opportunities present for raids.

Envoys arrive from the Trinovantes. Their young leader Mandubracius had already crossed the Channel to seek Caesar’s protection after his father was killed by Cassivellaunus. Caesar demands from Mandubracius hostages and corn, but when these are brought, lets him go.

When other tribes see how fairly Mandubracius was treated, they send envoys seeking Caesar’s protection, being the Cenimagni, the Segontiaci, the Ancalites, the Bibroci and the Cassi. He learns that Cassivellaunus has retreated to famous stronghold built in a good defensive position. Caesar lays siege to it and storms it from its weakest side. Meanwhile Cassivellaunus had sent orders to four allied tribes to attack the Roman camp in Kent, but the Romans repel the attack, kill many attackers and capture a tribal leader.

Summer is nearly over and Caesar decides to return to Gaul. So while he was in the ascendent and the Britons demoralised, he demanded hostages and set an annual tribute for Cassivellaunus to pay Rome. And not to attack the British tribes which had allied with Rome. Then he marches the legions to the coast and into the ships and so back to Gaul.

Given the size of the invasion fleet (800 ships!) which indicated that it was a serious attempt to permanently conquer at least the southern part of Briton, you can’t help concluding the invasion – both the invasions – were a failure.

26 to 37: Revolt of Belgic tribes and massacre of the 7th Legion

Caesar distributes his legions and generals with various tribes. The Eburonians rebel and attack a Roman camp. Ambiorix tells the Romans that a Gaul-wide agreement has been made to launch a concerted attack on all the Roman forces and moreover a group of German mercenaries has crossed the Rhine. So he warns them to leave their camp and promises them safe passage through his territory.

The Romans are surprised but it makes sense that the Eburonians wouldn’t rebel on their own. So, what to do? Caesar gives a dramatic set piece debate among the two commanders, Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta who says stay put, and Quintus Titurius Sabinus who trusts Ambiorix and recommends that they leave (28 to 29).

Sabinus wins the argument and the legionaries are told to pack their most important belongings and set off. Catastrophe ensues. The Gauls wait till the legion has entered a deep narrow defile then bottles them up at either end and starts to massacre them. At one point Ambiorix asks the two Roman generals to a meeting. Cotta refuses to go but Sabinus leaves the fight to climb a hill and approach Ambiorix. He and his centurions are ordered to lay down their weapons, which they do. But as they approach Ambiorix they are surrounded and then killed. The Gauls raise a shout and fall on the remaining Romans with renewed fury. Cotta and most of the force are killed. The remnant make it back to the camp where, that night, seeing they are surrounded, they all commit suicide. A handful of survivors make it to Titus Atius Labienus’s camp to tell the story.

It is thought that some 6,000 legionaries died in this colossal blunder. The massacre happened at Atuatuca in modern Belgium.

38 to 58: Siege of Quintus Cicero

Emboldened, Ambiorix rallies allied Gaulish tribes, and led a ‘huge mass’ of the Eburones, the Nervii, the Aduatuci and their allies and dependents against the camp of Quintus Tullius Cicero. This was somewhere on the river Sambre and about 80 miles from the camp Caesar had made at Amiens. The Gauls made a surprise attack as the legionaries (as so often) were out gathering firewood etc, but they fought a fighting retreat back to the camp. This the Gauls surrounded and invested. They had with them defectors and Roman prisoners who showed them how to build the kind of siege towers and earthworks the Romans used, so these were built and turned against their inventors.

The Gauls called a parley and offered Cicero the same deal they’d offered Sabinus i.e. to lay down their arms and walk away in peace. But Cicero is not as foolish as Sabinus and makes a defiant reply, telling the Gauls that if they lay down their arms he will send to Caesar who will judge them for their rebellion. And so the siege continues. On the seventh day a fierce gale blows up and the Gauls shoot flaming arrows into the camp which burn down a lot of the huts.

Cicero sends a series of messengers to try and get through to Caesar, but all of them are caught and some of them tortured in view of the camp. Eventually a native Gaul makes it through the blockade and to Caesar’s camp, to whom the news of Cicero’s siege comes as a shock. He immediately sends a message to Marcus Licinius Crassus at his camp 24 miles away telling him to march to meet him. Same to Gaius Fabius and Labienus. Labienus writes back that the entire force of the Treveri were upon him and so, on balance, it was too risky for him to leave his camp. Caesar approves this decision and sets off with just two legions to raise the siege on Cicero’s camp.

By a series of forced marches Caesar quickly reaches Cicero’s camp and sends word through a native messenger that he is near. The Gauls lift the siege and turn their forces to face Caesar, some 60,000 warriors (49). Caesar has 7,000 men (49). With the enemy only 3 or so miles away Caesar orders the building of a camp, only smaller than usual, and instructs the soldiers to run around and given an air of panic and fear. This lures the Gauls out into the open and then up to this camp which they start besieging. But they had barely begun engaging when Caesar ordered his infantry to flood out by side gates and the cavalry to sally out and attack the flanks. Taken by surprise the Gauls fled and the Romans were able to cut them down.

Then he marches to relieve Cicero. He is astonished to see the size and number of siege engines the Gauls had built and then to discover that almost all the defenders had been wounded and fought bravely. He publicly congratulates Cicero and all his men, carefully speaking to individual centurions and tribunes to thank them. He addresses the disaster of the massacred legion and assures them it was down to Sabinus’s error, unlike the resolute leadership of their own Cicero.

Caesar’s victory goes some way to rallying the Romans and, more importantly, their Gaulish allies. But nonetheless the tribes are in a ferment, all sending each other messages discussing alliances and attacks. Caesar realises he must winter in Gaul to keep an eye on the situation. Caesar calls meetings with the heads of various tribes, partly by threats, partly by promises, keeps them peaceful. The Aedui and the Remi remain the staunchest allies.

But the Senones try to murder their king, Cavarinus, who had been friendly to the Romans. Indutiomarus leader of the Treveri is particularly rebellious. He sends messages to the German tribes across the Rhine enticing them to war with the Romans, but none sign up, replying that they’ve learned their lesson.

In Gaul Indutiomarus is more successful in recruiting a large force from miscellaneous tribes, attracting to his standard exiles and criminals, training them, procuring horses and so on. Once he feels strong enough he calls an armed convention of the Gaulish tribes at which he a) outlaws Cingetorix, his son-in‑law and rival for leadership of the Treveri; and b) declares his intention to rally the Senones, the Carnutes and several other tribes, to march through the lands of the Remi and laying them waste, before going on to attack the camp of Labienus.

Indutiomarus with his massed forces approaches and invests Labienus’ camp. The latter feigns timidity and reluctance, all the while awaiting his opportunity. He recruits cavalry from nearby friendly tribes and keeps them all hidden in the camp, while Indutiomarus and his men ride up to the walls, yell and jeer and throw spears and abuse the Romans. At the end of a day like this, the Gauls are turning to ride away, with a false sense of security, when suddenly from two gates Labienus launched forth all his cavalry. Anticipating the enemy would scatter in confusion, Labienus carefully instructed his men to resist attacking anyone else but all of them to find and kill Indutiomarus. He put a big price on his head and sure enough some of his soldiers intercepted Indutiomarus at the ford of a river, killed him, cut off his head and brought it back to Labienus.

When they learned this, all his allies among the Eburones and Nervii flee, talk of rebellion is dowsed down and that winter found Gaul quiet.

Book 6: (53 BC)

1 to 8: Further revolt in Gaul

Caesar tasks three generals with raising new recruits and asks Pompey to send him the legion he recently raised in north Italy. He hears news of northern tribes conspiring to rebel and so makes a lightning attack on the Nervii, capturing cattle, prisoners and ravaging the countryside. When he convokes the annual conference of Gaulish leaders, the Senones, Carnuti and Senones refuse to attend, indicating their hostility. Caesar marches quickly on the Senones forcing their leader, Accio, to back down and hand over hostages.

Then he marches into the country of the Menapii in the far north, burning farms and villages and taking cattle and prisoners till their leaders were forced to sue for peace and hand over hostages in the usual way.

Meanwhile the Treveri, led by relatives of Indutiomarus, had gathered a large force of infantry and cavalry to attack Labienus. Labienus feigned fear and then pretended to leave the camp, luring the Treveri across the river onto flat ground this side. Once they were over he inspired his soldiers to turn and fight them, trapped by the river. Much killing. The Treveri submitted and the Germans they’d invited to come join them decided to stay on the other side of the Rhine.

9 to 10: Caesar crosses the Rhine, retreat of the Suebi

Another Rhine crossing:

  1. to punish the Germans who had sent the Treveri reinforcements
  2. to prevent Ambiorix finding asylum there

The Ubii swear it wasn’t them and he spares them. Investigation suggests it was the Suebi. The Suebi gather their men at a stronghold and await. Caesar’s men quickly build another bridge and he crosses it.

11 to 20: Description of the Gauls

Digression on the nature of Gaulish society. How the advent of the Romans reordered things to bring the Aedui and Remi into prominence. The Gauls fought every year among themselves. The Druids practised human sacrifice, sometimes in wickerwork giants which they set on fire (16).

When the father of a house, who is of distinguished birth, has died, his relatives assemble, and if there be anything suspicious about his death they make inquisition of his wives as they would of slaves, and if discovery is made they put them to death with fire and all manner of excruciating tortures.

Their funerals, considering the civilisation of Gaul, are magnificent and expensive. They cast into the fire everything, even living creatures, which they believe to have been dear to the departed during life, and but a short time before the present age, only a generation since, slaves and dependents known to have been beloved by their lords used to be burnt with them at the conclusion of the funeral formalities. (VI.19)

21 to 28: Description of the Germans

More primitive. Fewer gods, they only worship things they can see like sun, moon and fire. Sex in young men is frowned upon for stunting their growth. Land is redistributed each year to stop them becoming to land-bound and also to enforce a sort of equality. Obsession with war. When a chief proclaims a war anyone who resiles is shunned. They lay waste the land around each tribe.

The Gauls used to be more warlike than the Germans and at points crossed the Rhine and conquered. But being closer to Roman territory they’ve got used to trading and fine products unlike the Germans who remain more isolated and warlike.

He gives one of those characteristically ludicrous descriptions of the natural world, imputing to the great forest of Hyrcania a massive extent (true enough) and a number of fantastical animals.

The Penguin editor suggests that this long digression about Gauls and Germans was placed her to distract from the fact that Caesar’s second incursion across the Rhine, like the first one, achieved little tangible result. When the Germans retreat into the forest, Caesar doesn’t have the provisions to follow them and so, er, retreats back over the bridge, destroying the German end and placing a watchtower and guards on the Gaulish side.

29 to 44: Caesar returns to Gaul

Right up in the north, against the Rhine, is the territory of the Eburones led by Ambiorix. Caesar marches against them, sending ahead Gaius Volcacius Tullus with the cavalry. These go very fast and surprise Ambiorix off his guard with only a few men. However these hold off the Romans while Ambiorix saddles up and flees into the forest. He sends out messages telling every man for himself and many flee and hide.

The Segni and Condrusi come to Caesar and plead that not all Germans in Gaul are conspiring. They aren’t and give hostages and make peace.

Caesar makes his base at Atuatuca, then divides his forces in three and takes his force to ravage the land of the Eburones. Germans across the Rhine hear that there’s a free-for-all and cross the river 30 miles downstream of Caesar’s base, to join in. But prisoners tell them the Romans base is at Atuatuca, full of loot and poorly defended.

Cicero had been left in Atuatuca and initially kept the men penned up in case of attack. But after a week the frustrated men need to get out and the troops need corn so Cicero lets a detachment go collect some, and another detachment take out the animals for exercise. Inevitably it’s at this moment that the Germans appear, mounting a fierce attack, causing chaos. While a fierce fight goes on at the gates of the camp, the detachments sent to fetch food – raw recruits and servants – fell into a panic. Experienced centurions helped them form and wedge shape and make it back to the camp, but another detachment initially took to a nearby hill, then changed its mind and came back down into the flatlands where it was destroyed.

Failing to break in the Germans break off the engagement and ride back to the Rhine. Hysteria grips the Roman camp and rumours spread that Caesar and the other legions have been wiped out, until Caesar himself returns and restores order.

The Penguin edition notes that Cicero clearly deserved a bollocking but Caesar treats him very gently, listing all the extenuating circumstances he can think of. This is because his brother, the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, back in Rome, is still a political force who Caesar needs to keep onside.

This is reminiscent of the panic at Vesontio back in I.39. Caesar supervises widespread burning and ravaging of the country, with the deliberate intention of starving the inhabitants. An enquiry into the rebellion of the Senones and Carnutes concludes that it was instigated by Accio, who is executed in the traditional Roman manner i.e. scourged and hanged.

Penguin point out that by holding courts, judging and executing leaders like this Caesar was behaving like the governor of an accredited Roman province which Gaul very much was not. It was arrogant (and illegal) behaviour like this which raised so much opposition back in Rome.

Book 7: The rebellion of Vercingetorix (52 BC)

By far the longest book.

1 to 7: General conspiracy of the Gauls — Vercingetorix chosen as leader

The murder of Publius Clodius in January 52 BC led to increased political turbulence in Rome. The Gauls, hearing of this, took advantage to conspire to overthrow the invader and regain their liberty. The Carnutes lead the rebellion and sack the town of Cenabum, killing the knight Gaius Fufius Cita, in charge of managing trade.

This inspires the leader of the Arverni, far away in the south of free Gaul, abutting on the Roman Province, one Vercingetorix. Background to Vercingetorix, namely his father was at one point premier chieftain of all Gaul but was executed for seeking to be king. When Vercingetorix proclaims his ambition to kick out the Romans, his uncle and other chiefs expel him from their capital, Gergovia, but Vercingetorix takes to the road recruiting followers and building up a following. Eventually he returns to Gergovia, takes over his tribe and sends out messages for a major, allied rebellion. He enforces ferocious discipline on his recruits:

compelling waverers by severity of punishment. Indeed for the commission of a greater offence he put to death with fire and all manner of tortures; for a lesser case he sent a man home with his ears cut off or one eye gouged out, to point the moral to the rest and terrify others by the severity of the penalty.

In Italy Caesar hears of numerous tribes forming alliances constellated around Vercingetorix’s leadership. Vercingetorix moves his forces into the territory of the Bituriges.

8 to 14: Caesar moves suddenly against the Arverni

But Caesar surprises Vercingetorix by clearing the snow from a pass through the Cevennes and approaching him from an unexpected direction. He leaves Brutus in charge of his camp and makes a forced march to Vienne. He picks up two legions and marches in through the territory of the Aedui into that of the Lingones, where two legions were wintering. Hearing all this Vercingetorix returns to the country of the Bituriges, and from there heads to assault Gorgobina, a stronghold of the Boii.

This is the longest book of the 8 and is all like this, two leaders criss-crossing ancient Gaul, doing deals with, or being double crossed by, numerous tribes, sending out legions or detachments or squads of cavalry under lieutenants. The names of tribes and locations Caesar passes through, allies with or fights gets very confusing. In brief: Caesar takes three Gaulish towns, Vellaunodunum, Cenabum and Noviodunum.

15 to 31: Siege, defence, and capture of Avaricum

Vercingetorix had suffered 3 defeats in a row so holds a conference of his allies and persuades them to adopt a scorched earth strategy, withdrawing before the Romans and destroying all towns, villages, fields and crops in their paths, with a view to starving them. But the Bituriges went down on their knees and begged him not to burn Avaricum, their fairest town.

So Vercingetorix relents, but Caesar besieges it, for 25 days building an elaborate rampart wall and two huge siege towers. When the population of the town tries to sneak out one night, Caesar takes it, puts it to flame and massacres the 40,000 inhabitants.

Caesar adjudicates leadership contest between rival leaders of the Aedui. But the one he chooses betrays him, a week later telling his people that the Romans have massacred their army, so they have no choice but to go join Vercingetorix and fight for freedom.

34 to 53: Siege of Gergovia

The chief oppidum (fortified town) of the Arverni.— abandoned, after severe repulse. Impulsiveness of the troops who do not hear the recall, continue up the hill to storm the stronghold but are repulsed when the enemy muster with overwhelming numbers. — 46 centurions 700 men

This was the one and only military defeat Caesar suffered at the hands of the Gauls in 8 years. Caesar gives speech reprimanding men and insisting on discipline and then withdraws from Gergovia, marching back along then crossing the river Allier.

54 to 57: Caesar moves against the Aedui.

58 to 62: Labienus, successful against the Parisii, joins him.

63 to 74: General revolt of the Gauls under Vercingetorix.

They attack Caesar, but are defeated, not least because of Caesar’s German cavalry, and retire to Alesia, a town of the Mandubii. Caesar leaves two legions to guard his baggage and swiftly pursues Vercingetorix, killing 3,000 of his rearguard. Three Aeduin traitors are brought to Caesar.

68 to 89: The siege of Alesia

The Gauls retreat inside this stronghold. Caesar orders his troops to construct massive siege-works eleven miles in length, featuring 11 camps and 23 forts. After a confused fight between the opposing cavalries, Vercingetorix adopts the following strategy: he orders his cavalry to leave in the dead of night from a gate which isn’t yet covered by the Roman siegeworks, and to ride to their respective tribes and to raise all men of military age and bring them back, all in the name of a Final Battle which will achieve National Liberation. Meanwhile, all grain is confiscated and Vercingetorix adopts a daily ration for his 80,000 men, which should last a month or so of siege, until the reinforcements from the tribes arrive.

Details of Caesar’s astonishingly complex and thorough siegeworks which face both in and out.

Schematic side view of the Roman siege works at Alesia, 52 BC

The Gauls hold a national convention at which the tribes allot armed forces to send to Alesia, with various factions resiling and bickering. Eventually an astonishing force of 260,000 sets off, but by this stage Alesia’s food supplies have run out.

Caesar describes a meeting of the leaders inside Alesia and gives a speech – presumably entirely fictional – to Critognatus, a noble Avernian who, after a long prologue, recommends cannibalism (77)! It is also notable as belonging to that genre of speeches which Roman authors attributed to their enemies, in which the enemy eloquently describes the crushing servitude and slavery imposed by the Romans.

The weak and old and wives and children are expelled from Alesia and trek over to the Romans to beg them for food. But the Romans barely have enough to feed themselves and refuse the refugees food or permission to pass. So they are caught in no man’s land to starve.

The Gaulish hoard arrives, much to the joy of the besieged who throng the barricades to watch the battle. Caesar places all his infantry around the 11 mile siegeworks then sends his cavalry against the Gaulish cavalry. The Romans suffer casualties before an attack by German cavalry breaks the Gauls and chases them back to their main camp.

A day later a co-ordinated attack from the relieving force triggers a sortie by the besieged and the Romans find themselves hard pressed. But they are defeated by the Romans firing from their strong defences, and fall into the complex web of trenches, booby traps filled with spiked poles and so on. They are forced to withdraw while the besieged are still trying to fill in the first trench of the inner siegeworks, so the latter retreat back into the town, too.

The Gauls then mount an attack on the one Roman camp which isn’t integrated into their defensive circuit, while the besieged again sally forth. (The complexity of the siegeworks and the peril and anxiety of the repeated attacks remind me of the atmosphere at another famous French siege, Dien Bien Phu in French Indo-China, March to May 1954.)

Caesar sends Labienus with reinforcements to the hilltop camp, sends Brutus with reinforcements to the strongest point of the sallying army, then leads reinforcements in person. The forces attacking the hilltop hesitate, then Labienus sallies forth with the cohorts he had picked up. Caught between these cohorts and Caesar’s cavalry, the Gauls panic, break ranks and are slaughtered.

Sedulius, commander and chief of the Lemovices, was killed; Vercassivellaunus the Arvernian was captured alive in the rout; seventy-four war‑standards were brought in to Caesar; of the vast host few returned safe to camp.

Vercingetorix conceded defeat to the tribal leaders inside Alesia. Kill him or surrender him alive, as they wish. The leaders go under flag of truce to Caesar, who sits in front of his fortifications. Vercingetorix is handed over, all the chiefs lay down their arms. Caesar puts the Aeduin and Arvernian prisoners to one side to use as bargaining chips with their tribes, then distributes all the captures Gauls to his army as loot, one Gaul to one Roman.

(I think what this means is each Roman soldier then gets his prisoner to contact his family and demands a ransom for their safe return. So equivalent to cash.)

Caesar then receives the submission of all the tribes, and carefully allots legions and commanders in the territories of the main tribes for the winter. When news of this comprehensive victory reaches Rome, a public thanksgiving of twenty days was granted.

Book 8

This final book was not written by Caesar but by his lieutenant Aulus Hirtius. He was a legate of Caesar’s army of Gaul from 58, and crossed the Rubicon with him in January 49. He fought for Caesar during the civil war, and was appointed governor of Transalpine Gaul in 45. In other words a senior figure.

Preface

Hirtius addresses his friend Lucius Cornelius Balbus, another friend of Caesar’s, serving under him as chief engineer (praefectus fabrum) in Gaul. Balbus was said to have attended the very select dinner Caesar hosted, along with Sallust, Hirtius, Oppius and Sulpicus Rufus on the evening of the day when he crossed the Rubicon.

He explains to Balbus that he is continuing the Commentaries because they don’t link up with Caesar’s own account of the Civil; War. He says he has finished the third of the latter books, set in Alexandria, and has now set to filling the blank between book 7 and the outbreak of civil war by supplying a book 8. But it has been hard work to match Caesar’s clear elegant style and also the speed and alacrity with which he wrote.

1 to 48: (51 BC) End of the revolt in Gaul

Winter of 52 to 51 Caesar hears that the Gauls are plotting again. Alesia proves they cannot defeat the Romans when the latter’s forces are united, but might be able to pick off the legions scattered around the country in different tribal regions.

At the end of December Caesar set out on a lightning march and caught the Bituriges in the fields (it’s not actually likely they would be tilling their fields in the depths of winter, is it? Is this a stock literary convention of this genre?) Anyway, Caesar captures thousands but then lets them go and, when they see him being similarly merciful to nearby allied tribes, the Bitiruges decide to submit and give hostages.

Carnutes dispersed, Bellovaci defeated. Dumnacus besieges Lemonum, but without success. The Armoric states subdued. Drappes captured. Uxellodunum besieged and taken by Caesar. Exemplary punishment, the captured have their right hands chopped off. Labienus’ successful operations against the Treveri. Commius subdued.

49 to 55: (50 BC) Caesar and the Senate

Caesar’s triumphal reception by cities and colonies. He returns to the army in Gaul. A description of his opponents in the Senate. Caesar returns to Italy.


Thoughts

Political consequences

1. Caesar’s Gallic Wars were fought to a) clear his debts b) bring him glory and political power.

2. But in doing so he went far beyond his brief as proconsul – dealing with the leaders of free Gaul as if he was governor of a conquered province, invading Britain (twice) and crossing the Rhine, far exceeding his authority. This prompted growing criticism in Rome throughout his eight-year command. And it was this which created the mounting political crisis about whether he would ever be prepared to lay down his command and return to Rome as a normal citizen – the ultimate result being that he was too scared to do so and, instead, crossed the Rubicon into Italy with his army thus triggering five years or ruinous civil war

The war itself

1. Interesting to learn how universal the exchange of hostages was – the standard procedure to ensure peace, not only with the Romans but among the Gaulish tribes themselves.

2. The relentless Roman victories of the first four books get a bit boring. Book 5 is far more dramatic and exciting, when the massacre of Sabinus’ legion and the siege of Quintus Cicero for the first time introduce a real sense of risk and uncertainty and pave the way for the epic account of the struggle against Vercingetorix in book 7.

3. The invasion of England cost a huge amount of time and money and resources and, in the end, seems completely futile. He took away hostages from southern tribes but, presumably that lapsed when Caesar returned to Rome a few years later. Nowhere was settled, no bases or camps, no trading. Seems like an expensive folly.

Anti-imperialism

One of the interesting things about the text is the way it contains its own anti-argument. Caesar’s entire account takes it for granted that rule by Rome is best for the Gauls. And yet fairly regularly he puts into the mouths of Gaulish leaders as direct speech, or attributes to them in indirect description, the wish to be free men in their own land, living under their own laws.

It’s not an unreasonable wish. And every time you read it, you think, ‘Just what right did Caesar think he had to ravage, burn, pillage, and endlessly fight all these peoples?’ Maybe he thought he was bringing ‘peace’ to a territory plagued by endless internecine violence but it’s hard to see how the endless campaigning and fighting and burning and selling into slavery which the Romans brought was an improvement. It consistently feels worse.

Slavery

Interesting when one of the chiefs, Ambiorix, complains that hostages given by his family were being treated ‘like slaves’ and put in chains (V.27). And, of Gaul in general:

Throughout Gaul there are two classes of persons of definite account and dignity. As for the common folk, they are treated almost as slaves, venturing naught of themselves, never taken into counsel. The more part of them, oppressed as they are either by debt, or by the heavy weight of tribute, or by the wrongdoing of the more powerful men, commit themselves in slavery to the nobles, who have, in fact, the same rights over them as masters over slaves. (VI.13)

At numerous other towns the inhabitants were captured and sold into slavery. But then so were some the captured Romans. Caesar says Britain is famous for half a dozen exports to the continent, among which are slaves.

In other words, slavery was current throughout Gaul, Britain and the land of the Germans, so well beyond ancient Greece or Rome. Was there any part of the known world where slavery wasn’t practised two thousand years ago? Was slavery universal?

Eternal war

The Gauls fought among themselves every year. The Britons fought among themselves until Caesar’s incursion temporarily united them. The Germans lived for war. The Italians went on aggressive campaigns every year and spent half their time fighting each other. In Africa Jugurtha, in Asia Mithridates and the Parthians, in Egypt civil war. War everywhere, every year, all the time, forever.

The stupidity of war

Men fighting, I get. It’s what we do, what we’ve always done. But some incidents highlight the sheer brainless stupidity of war and the terrible, futile, stupid cost to civilian victims, women and children. The height of lunacy is reached in book 7 when Vercingetorix persuades the Averni, to burn down their own towns and destroy their own crops all in the name of freedom and victory. Reminiscent of General Westmoreland’s famous quote during the Vietnam War, that the Americans had to destroy the village in order to ‘save’ it. Or Vladimir Putin’s determination to ‘save’ eastern Ukraine by utterly devastating it.

War crimes

In descriptions of other Roman campaigns I’ve wondered whether what the Romans did amounted to war crimes. Yes, is the short answer. Massacring the populations of entire towns, including women and children, is a war crime.

Caesar’s sustained eight year campaign of destroying towns, massacring their inhabitants or sending them off into slavery, have caused many moderns to compare his actions as a genocide. If a genocide is defined as the systematic attempt to wipe out a particular ethnic group, then no, he just wanted every tribe in Gaul to submit, not to exterminate them.

On the other hand, when tribes or towns did hold out, it appears, from his often very casual references, that he did consciously raze towns to the ground and either massacre or enslave entire populations, most notably at the town of Avaricum, and then at Uxellodunum (VIII.44). Or:

Caesar thought that the next best way of obtaining the satisfaction that his honour demanded was to strip the country of inhabitants, cattle and buildings so thoroughly that any of the Eburones who had the good fortune to escape would loathe Ambiorix for bringing such calamities upon them and never allow him to return. Detachments of legionary or auxiliary troops went all over the country killing or capturing large numbers of the natives, burning the homesteads, and carrying off plunder, until it was completely devastated. (VIII.25)

There’s a revealing moment early in book 8 when Hirtius mentions that the population of the Carnutes are still living in makeshift tents and shacks, as all the towns in their territory have been razed to the ground (VIII.5).

At moments like this you see a vast landscape where all the towns, villages, fields and crops have been destroyed, leaving the survivors to scrape a living in pathetic shelters beside burned-out fields, and you realise this is what the Romans meant when they said they brought ‘peace’.

The scarlet cloak

Caesar always wore the scarlet cloak (paludamentum) of a commander-in‑chief (VII.88).

Video

A useful video summary.


Related link

Roman reviews

Prehistoric timelines

Texts about prehistory are liable to use three different timelines or naming systems interchangeably so it’s as well to be absolutely clear about them. What follows isn’t definitive, it’s the opposite. It’s my attempt to make sense of the timelines and period-related terminology used in the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. As far as I can tell there are three systems:

  1. the geological eras
  2. the sequence of ice ages
  3. the archaeological periods relating to human culture

1. Geological eras

The geologic time scale is the very high level division of earth history into units called — in descending order of duration — eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages. We are interested in just two epochs:

a) The Pleistocene epoch: 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago

This long period includes all the earth’s most recent periods of glaciations. It ends with the end of the most recent ice age and general climate warming.

b) The Holocene epoch: 11,650 to now

The Holocene is said to have started about 11,650 years ago, at the end of the most recent maximal glaciation or ice age, and we are still living in it today (although see the note at the end about the possible creation of a new epoch, Anthropocene).

Human figurines carved from yew wood with quartzite eyes from Roos Carr, East Yorkshire, 1000 to 500 BC © Hull Museums

2. Ice ages

The Quaternary glaciation: 2,588,00 YA to the present

The Quaternary glaciation started around 2,588,000 years ago (YA) and is ongoing. The dating of its start is based on the formation of the Arctic ice cap. The Quaternary glaciation itself consists of a sequence of glacial and interglacial periods and we are living in the most recent of its interglacial periods i.e. a warm spell between ice ages.

The Last Glacial Period (LGP): 115,000 to 12,000 YA

The Last Glacial Period (LGP), known colloquially as the last ice age, covers the period 115,000 to 12,000 years ago. The LGP is just part of the larger sequence of glacial and interglacial periods known as the Quaternary glaciation (see above). During this last glacial period there have been alternating episodes of glacier advance and retreat.

Last Glacial Maximum (LGM): 33,000 to 12,000 YA

The most recent period of glacier advance, when ice reached its furthest extent, is called the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM). Ice sheets covered much of North America and Northern Europe leading to a large drop in sea levels. The ice sheets began to grow 33,000 years ago and maximum coverage was reached between 26,500 and 20,000 years ago. At this point all of Scotland, most of Ireland and Wales and England north of a line from the Wash to the Bristol Channel was under ice. South of the ice the land was covered by permafrost with scattered glaciers and ice sheets at high points further south.

During the last glacial maximum, 26,500 and 20,000 years ago, the sea level was about 125 meters (about 410 feet) lower than it is today. After about 20,000 years ago deglaciation commenced in the Northern Hemisphere, and the ice cap began to retreat north, causing sea levels to rise.

The Holocene: 11,650 YA to the present day

Relevant both as a geological epoch and in the timeline of glaciation, the Holocene is the most recent geological epoch and the one we’re all still living in today. In Britain it correlates to the withdrawal of the ice sheets from the entire country.

As the ice sheets withdrew, Britain continued to be part of the continent of Europe, joined by an extensive area referred to as Doggerland. With the withdrawal of the ice and the rise of sea levels, Doggerland was flooded, creating what we now call the North Sea and the English Channel, a process which was complete by about 8,000 years ago.

Bone-bead necklace, part of the finds from Skara Brae, c. 3100 to 2500 BC Skara Brae, Orkney, Scotland © The Trustees of the British Museum

3. Human culture timelines

Human archaeology and ethnography uses what is called the ‘three age’ system, dividing the prehistory of humans into three broad categories – stone age, bronze age, iron age – according to the type of tools found in find sites.

It’s surprising to learn that this schema is 200 years old. It was developed by Christian Thomsen, director of the Royal Museum of Nordic Antiquities in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1820s. Thomsen wanted to categorise objects in his collection chronologically according to the main medium used for tool making in each era, and his collection suggested that stone tools came first, then bronze, then iron.

In 1865 the British archaeologist and ethnographer John Lubbock sub-divided the stone age into two, the old stone age or paleolithic (from the Greek paleo meaning old and lithos meaning stone) and the new stone age or neolithic (from the Greek neo meaning new and lithos). Almost immediately the British archaeologist Hodder Westropp suggested an intermediary stage, the middle stone age or mesolithic (from the Greek meso meaning middle and lithos meaning stone), which is still used but is a little more controversial.

Finally, it was realised that the huge extent of the so-called ‘paleolithic’ itself needed to be subdivided, eventually into 3 stages, the lower, middle and upper, which were proposed in the 1880s. And so we find ourselves with the following schema:

  1. Stone Age: 
    • Paleolithic 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA
      • Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago
      • Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago
      • Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 YA
    • Mesolithic: 15,000 to 5,000 years ago
    • Neolithic: 5,000 to
  2. Bronze Age 5300 years ago to 3200 YA
  3. Iron Age to (depends on region)

Two reservations

1. It’s worth emphasising that this entire system works well in Europe and some parts of Asia but doesn’t far at all with human developments in Africa, the Americas or far Asia. In many parts of the world there was no Iron Age at all, for example in Pre-Columbian America and the prehistory of Australia.

2. The term Megalithic does not refer to a period of time, but only describes the use of large stones by ancient peoples from any period.

Now let’s look at the ages in a bit more detail:

Fine jadeitite axe-head made from material quarried in the high Italian Alps, c. 4500 to 3500 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

Paleolithic or Old Stone Age: 3.3 million years ago to 15,000 YA

Paleolithic indicates the fact that from the dawn of the first proto-humans who used any kinds of tools through to the discovery of metal smelting, all human species used tools made from stone, particularly flint blades and axes. The paleolithic covers a vast period of time, from the earliest known use of stone tools by hominids c. 3.3 million years ago to the start of the Holocene era, about 12,000 years ago. It covers 99% of the period of human technological prehistory. For that entire period humans appear to have been roaming bands of hunter-gatherers living off the land.

As mentioned, as long ago as the 1880s it was found necessary to subdivide the Paleolithic into three:

Lower Paleolithic: 3 million to 300,000 years ago

The Lower Paleolithic is the earliest subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. It spans the period from around 3 million years ago when the first evidence for stone tool production and use by hominids appears in the archaeological record until around 300,000 years ago.

I was a bit puzzled by use of lower and upper until I equated this with the physical location of the finds with the older findings being literally lower down in the earth, and more recent findings being less deep or uppermost.

Middle Paleolithic: 300,000 to 30,000 years ago

The Middle Paleolithic is the second subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age as it is understood in Europe, Africa and Asia. Anatomically modern humans (i.e. Homo sapiens) are believed to have emerged in Africa around 300,000 years ago. Around 125,000 years ago they began migrating out of Africa and slowly replaced earlier pre-existent Homo species such as the Neanderthals and Homo erectus.

The use of fire became widespread for the first time in human prehistory during the Middle Paleolithic and humans began to cook their food about 250,000 years ago.

The later part of the period saw the development of a range of new tools: about 90,000 years ago harpoons were invented which brought fish into human diets. Microliths or small stone tools or points were invented around 70,000 to 65,000 YA and were essential to the invention of bows and spear throwers.

Upper Paleolithic 50,000 to 12,000 years ago

The Upper Paleolithic or Late Stone Age is the third and last subdivision of the Paleolithic or Old Stone Age. About 50,000 years ago there was a marked increase in the diversity of artifacts. In Africa, bone artifacts and the first art appear in the archaeological record.

The early modern humans who migrated out of Africa and into Europe about 50,000 years ago, commonly referred to as the Cro-Magnons, left sophisticated stone tools, carved and engraved pieces on bone, ivory and antler, cave paintings and Venus figurines.

The distinct species Homo neanderthalensis, which had first emerged in the fossil record 400,000 years ago and lived widely across Europe and Asia, continued to live for a very long time – as long as 10,000 years – alongside the new incomers Homo sapiens. Then, abruptly, Neanderthals disappear completely from the fossil record 40,000 years ago, leaving archaeologists to speculate about the reasons for their sudden disappearance to this day.

This upper paleolithic revolution which kicked off 50,000 years ago saw many innovations. It witnessed the first evidence of human fishing. New implements were invented: for example, the spear thrower (30,000 years ago), the net (around 29,000 YA), the bolas, the bow and arrow (30,000 to 25,000 YA). From this period date the oldest examples of ceramic art, for example, the Venus of Dolní Věstonice (about 29,000 YA). Members of the European early Upper Paleolithic culture known as the Aurignacian had even developed lunar calendars by 30,000 YA.

Human populations

A really important fact to grasp is that human populations during this period were tiny. The entire population of Europe between 40,000 and 16,000 years ago was probably somewhere 4,000 and 6,000 individuals.

Bronze Age sun pendant, 1000 to 800 BC © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Mesolithic (in Britain): 12,000 to 6,000 years ago

The Paleolithic is said to end with the end of the last ice age and the spread back into Europe of human communities which developed new tools and techniques. The period from the end of the ice age to the arrival of metal smelting 4,500 years ago was initially simply referred to as the Neolithic or new stone age because of the proliferation of new techniques.

But, as we’ve seen, archaeologists almost immediately felt the need to define an interim period between the end of the Old Stone Age and the final period of innovation – hence the creation of the term mesolithic, which refers to the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures in Europe and Western Asia, between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the Neolithic Revolution. In Europe it spans roughly 15,000 to 5,000 years ago.

Precise dating of the Mesolithic varies between areas because they were impacted by a) deglaciation and the creation of newly habitable land and b) the arrival of the agricultural revolution, at widely varying times. Thus the mesolithic is said to start in warm Greece around 15,000 years ago but in chilly Britain only around 12,000 YA.

Broadly speaking the Mesolithic is associated with a decline in the group hunting of large animals in favour of a broader hunter-gatherer way of life, and the development of more sophisticated and typically smaller lithic tools and weapons than the heavy-chipped equivalents typical of the Paleolithic.

The Neolithic (in Britain): 6,000 to 4,500 years ago (2,500 BC)

The Neolithic is now used to refer to the period after the ice age when human society was transformed by the advent of agriculture with its enormous cultural, social and economic consequences, but most tools continued to be made of stone, albeit of high levels of sophistication.

The advent of agriculture is sometimes referred to as the Neolithic Revolution. It saw the wide-scale transition of many human cultures from a lifestyle of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, with the domestication and breeding of edible grasses and farm animals. With settlement came villages and then towns. We have religious records which point to polytheism.

Some archaeologists refer to a ‘Neolithic package’ in which they include farming, herding, polished stone axes, timber longhouses and pottery. Farming formed the basis for centralised administrations and political structures, hierarchical ideologies, depersonalised systems of knowledge (that’s to say, writing), densely populated settlements, specialisation and division of labour, more trade, the development of non-portable art and architecture and greater property ownership.

The agricultural revolution spread from its origins in the Middle East, through Turkey, across Greece and slowly into central and western Europe. Different sites in the Middle East point to different dates for the domestication of different plants or animals but the process was underway by as long ago as 12,000 years ago.

The diffusion across Europe, from the Fertile Crescent through Anatolia, across the Aegean and central Europe to Britain, took some 3,000 years (9500 to 6000 years ago). It is calculated to have spread at a speed of about 1 kilometre a year, but it was patchy, spreading to some (fertile) areas, moving round mountains, stalling, then suddenly jumping again.

Interestingly, there is evidence of some communities keeping to the mesolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle for very long periods after the neolithic package arrived, for as long as a thousand years! Archaeologists call such societies are called ‘subneolithic’, the ‘sub’ just meaning hanging on after the main era had ended.

One of the mind-blowing aspects of the neolithic revolution is that all the evidence suggests it made human beings measurably worse off! Many of the cultivated crops (wheat, barley, maize) are deficient in vitamins and minerals and relying on them and cow or goat milk to the exclusion of other elements in a diet can be very harmful. All the archaeological evidence suggests that the Neolithic Revolution led to much more limited diets and poorer nutrition. Human height decreased by an average of 5 inches! Apparently human height didn’t return to pre-neolithic levels until the 20th century.

In addition, close habitation with animals led infectious diseases to jump the species boundary. Smallpox and influenza are just two diseases we got from animals. And higher population densities, living with poor sanitation led to tainted water supplies and the usual diseases of diarrhoea and dysentery, typhoid and cholera.

Jared Diamond suggests that the status of women declined with the adoption of agriculture because women in farming societies typically have more pregnancies and are expected to do more demanding work than women in hunter-gatherer societies.

Having read widely about it, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Neolithic Revolution was a catastrophe for most humans.

The Bronze Age (in Britain): 2,500 BC to 800 BC

Bronze is produced by smelting copper and alloying it with tin, arsenic, or other metals to strengthen it i.e. use it to make stronger, more durable tools or weapons.

In Eurasia the development of bronze tools definitely follows the final refinement of stone ones, and supersedes them. When exactly this happened varies largely from region to region and even from site to site within regions.

In Britain the advent of the Bronze Age is generally agreed to be marked by the arrival of the so-called Beaker culture, so named for the sudden appearance of beaker- or bell-shaped bowls in graves. In Britain the Bronze Age is subdivided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 700 BC).

The Beaker people appear to have known how to smelt copper from their first arrival but it is only around 2150 BC that there is evidence of them smelting copper with other metals (generally tin) to make bronze.

A 2017 study suggests that the Beaker People almost completely replaced the island’s earlier inhabitants, with an estimated 90% of Britain’s neolithic gene pool being replaced! That’s to say, the people who built Stonehenge were substantially wiped out and superseded.

Primarily the Bronze Age is characterised by the widespread use of bronze tools and implements. It is usually accompanied by most of the traits of ‘civilisation’, including craft, urban centres, crafting of precious objects, widespread trade. In the Middle East and Greece we know it was accompanied by the worship of ethnic gods.

Devon and Cornwall were major sources of tin for much of western Europe and the earliest Greek and Roman historians refer to trade with these remote islands which brought the ore to the Mediterranean heartlands.

Bronze twin horse-snake hybrid from hoard, 1200 to 1000 BC. Kallerup, Thy, Jutland, Denmark © National Museum of Denmark

The Iron Age (in Britain): 800 BC to 43 AD

The Iron Age in Britain is dated by the first finds of iron tools in burial sites (around 800 BC) to the arrival of the Romans (43 AD).

The Iron Age is characterised by substantial population growth which allowed increasing social specialisation in societies living in large settlements. In Britain there was a proliferation of large hill forts. There is sophisticated social organisation, for example a class system overseen by a king and the implementation of taxation. There is extensive trade, nationally and internationally, leading to burial sites rich in high value goods, sometimes transported across great distances.

Also a good deal of immigration with entire tribes moving into and settling territories. Whether this involved conquest or peaceful ‘diffusion’ is debated to this day. When the Romans arrived they found a land divided among tribes with a highly developed sense of identity, regional allegiance, names and kings.

The Iron Age is said to end when writing begins. Even though the same kinds of tools are used, a culture has clearly entered a new phase when it enters the historical record. But obviously this happened at different times in different regions.

Thus in the Ancient Near East the Iron Age is taken to end with the start of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, as it enters history in the writings of the Greek historian Herodotus. In Western Europe the Iron Age is ended by the Roman conquest, which was established by 100 AD. By contrast in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe that the Romans did not reach, the Iron Age is said to have continued until the start of the Viking Age in about 800 AD.

As the Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum strongly indicates, the later Iron Age was characterised by increasing warfare and social strife. Skeletons show signs of multiple injuries. Average life expectancy at birth was around 25. Into this culture arrived the Romans with their writing, education, towns, roads and laws.

P.S. A new geological era – the Anthropocene?

Remember how I said we’re only interested in two geological epochs, the Pleistocene and the Holocene. Well, there is a new, third category: many scientists are pushing for the scientific community to recognise that the Holocene has ended and we have entered a new epoch, to be named the Anthropocene.

The idea is that this new era should be dated to mark the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. With widespread acceptance that manmade global warming is having (and will continue to have) a significant effect on the world’s ecosystems, you can see the logic of arguing that we live in an entirely unprecedented era. But to date, none of the official bodies which recognise the geological eras have accepted the anthropocene and there is ongoing debate about when  it should be said to have started.

The problem with our over-documented, over-determined time is that too much has happened. Since Hiroshima we live in The Atomic Age. And since the end of the Second World War we are also all living in an age of rapid technological and social change, which some historians call the Great Acceleration.

Or should we be going further back, should the start of the anthropocene be lined up with the start of the Industrial Revolution in 1710 or 1770 (depending on which precise technical discoveries you prioritise)?

Or, in a massive leap, should we go right back to the start of the neolithic revolution described above, which is when human beings first began to have a measurable impact on their environment? Which would make it identical the current term, the Holocene?

The debate is ongoing and there’s no shortage of candidates but if we stick to permanent markers which are being laid down now and which geologists will find in a million years time, then apparently radioactivity from the nuclear tests is now embedded in ice cores and a thin layer of microplastics has been laid down on the ocean beds, the kind of thing which 100% fulfil the geological criteria.

Personally I think it should be the 1780s and the invention of new, more efficient steam engines, as it was this breakthrough – more than agriculture itself – which set us on the course of greater and greater reliance on energy, first coal, then oil and gas whose use, we all now know, has led to our runaway proliferation, our destruction of every ecosystem we come into contact with, and what looks likely to be massive and irreversible effects on the entire global climate.

Will Stonehenge, built as a result of the neolithic agricultural revolution, survive long enough to see the world transformed by the manmade global warming which is that revolution’s long-term legacy? (Photo © English Heritage)


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A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher (1965)

Christopher Samuel Youd

John Christopher was just one of the half dozen noms de plume of Christopher Samuel Youd (1922 to 2012), who was a prolific English writer of science fiction novels for adults and children, as well as writing in other genres under his numerous other noms de plume, including several cricketing novels. In all Youd wrote a staggering 57 books. His breakthrough came with his second science fiction novel, The Death of Grass in 1956, after which he published two or three novels a year for decades.

Probably a) his sheer volume of output and b) the fact that he wrote under so many names and c) that he wrote both adult and teen fiction, explain why he never establishing a clear brand and became a ‘big name’, unlike his better-known drinking buddies at the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke.

A Wrinkle In The Skin

A Wrinkle In The Skin was Youd’s ninth novel writing as John Christopher and follows the same narrative pattern as two of his most popular previous novels, 1956’s Death of Grass and 1962’s The World In Winter, in that he imagines a massive worldwide disaster and then works through its impact on a small group of middle-class English people.

The disaster in this case is an epidemic of earthquakes which ripple right round the planet, from New Zealand to California, China, Russia and Europe.

As in the other novels, the opening scenes depict some characteristically nice, middle-class characters enjoying a fine dinner washed down with classic wine and discussing the latest quakes which have been reported in some remote part of the world. Just as in The Death Of Grass, they think it could never happen here. One character describes the catastrophic quakes which have hit the Far East as like the small wrinkles on the skin of an orange, to which another character replies:

‘Well, as long as our bit of orange doesn’t wrinkle. It would be awful if it did.’
(Sylvia Carwardine, page 11)

Matthew Cotter

Notable among the middle-class characters is Matthew Cotter who grows tomatoes under greenhouses on Guernsey. Matthew used to be a journalist which explains his middle-class education and inquisitive and factual frame of mind. He is divorced from his wife, Felicity (page 13) and his grown-up daughter Jane has gone to study at university on the mainland.

Matthew’s friends, the Carwardines, are always trying to fix him up with eligible widows or divorcees, as, indeed, they do on the evening of the pleasant dinner party which opens the novel. At the end of the evening Matthew drives home and goes to bed in his comfortable tomato-grower’s farmhouse. In the middle of the night he’s woken by squawking from his chicken run and goes outside armed with his shotgun to frighten off the dog or fox or whatever is worrying his chickens.

He’s half way down the garden path when a massive earthquake strikes. More than one quake, it is a series of vast convulsions and the earth doesn’t just shift, it rises, buckles, shakes and throws him into the air and across the garden. He manages to brace himself in the structure of canes which support his tomatoes and is flexible enough, now, in the chaos of the endless quaking, to act as a kind of shock absorber. In the middle of yet another huge shock he is aware of a vast roaring sound nearby and assumes it is the blood in his ears or impending death.

Survivor

When he regains consciousness, Matthew is greeted with a scene of utter devastation. His house is a pile of rubble from which it is difficult to extract any of his former belongings. He sets off to find other survivors but for quite a while it seems as if there are none. The earth has been lifted and reshaped, familiar landmarks no longer exist and every human dwelling has been razed to the ground. He sees plenty of dead people mashed to bits in heaps of masonry before he discovers a donkey up at the old donkey sanctuary kept by Miss Lucie (page 24) which is still alive by virtue of having been flung into the branches of a tree. Lonely and stricken by sympathy for another living being, Matthew labours hard to rescue the donkey, before continuing his trek across the ruined landscape.

These first chapters establish the sense of utter ruination and Matthew’s complete isolation and loneliness as the scale of the disaster starts to sink in, as he wanders across the ruined landscape in search of survivors and finds only dead bodies mangled in destroyed buildings.

The English Channel has become a drained dry stretch of land

He comes to a clifftop and experiences one of the great shocks of the book – the English Channel has disappeared. That roar he heard amid the huge earth-shaking? The entire land level has been lifted and the sound he heard was a vast tsunami as all the water in the entire English Channel poured westward, decanting off the raised land and leaving the seabed high and dry in the daylight, a vast expanse of seaweed, sand and shingle and deep dark slime.

Billy Tullis aged 11

Still processing this stunning revelation, Matthew eventually hears a voice coming from a wrecked house and digs a boy out of rubble, going on to establish that his parents and sister have all been crushed to death. The boy tells him his name is Billy Tullis (page 34) and he will become Matthew’s inseparable companion until the end of the novel.

Billy has broken his arm. Matthew remembers enough from the army to set it and make splints from sections of wood he cuts from a tree and then ties to Billy’s arm with ripped fabric. He feeds and waters Billy, they reclaim such tinned food as they can find in ruined shops and houses, then make their way into open country and make the best shelter they can against the elements. This is the first of many, many, many descriptions of what it is like to sleep rough, in the open, in England, where it rains and the cold wind blows and the temperature drops at night.

Living through these bleak, shelterless experiences with the book’s characters makes you appreciate why civilisation arose in hot climates around the Mediterranean and what a lot of energy – coal, gas and oil – it takes to make our rainy windswept islands inhabitable.

St Peter Port has been utterly swept away by the tsunami

Next day Matthew takes them to St Peter Port hoping to find rich pickings for the foragers they have become but is staggered to discover that the entire town was washed away by the Channel tsunami. The land has been swept clean leaving roads going down into an empty canyon. He looks over what was once the sea and is now drying seabed, gazing out across the rocky outcrops of what were once the islands of Herm and Sark, while he tries to get his head round the scale of the destruction.

They meet a survivor, a man who has been utterly traumatised and quotes bits of the Bible because he sees the entire thing as a result of God’s anger. Initially heartened at finding another survivor, Matthew and Billy quickly want to get rid of him.

Joe Miller’s gang

Then they meet a small gang of survivors who quickly become the focus of this first part of the novel. Three females (mad Mother Lutron in her 60s, 20-something blonde slattern Shirley, and an 11 or so year old girl) and four men (Harry, de Porthos, Andy with a broken leg and ‘simple’ Ashton). This little band is led by Joe Miller (page 52).

Miller is educated up to a point. He’s smart enough to grasp the new situation, to have established himself as leader, he can see the need for planning. But Christopher carefully distinguishes Miller from Matthew –a very decent middle-class chap – by his accent, his selfishness and, above all, by his attitude towards women. Miller makes it crystal clear that the slatternly blonde young woman, Shirley, is his. Matthew says, fine, fine and finds himself being assimilated into the gang. Makes sense to stick together.

Over the next few days there is a lot more foraging and we get to know the other characters in Miller’s gang and to explore his hold over them. He treats the shambling men in his gang harshly, punching and kicking them if they fall short, and slaps Shirley if she doesn’t do what he says. But he is practical and clear-headed, he has a plan and clear priorities – create a new community, find as much food and drink as possible, establish a base and assert his unquestioned authority.

The reader is invited to assess, along with Matthew, whether Miller is a brute or a shrewd man who has fully grasped the nature of the new situation they’re all going to have to survive in.

They find a youngish woman in a wrecked building, screaming and dying in agony. They find some aspirin to grind up and feed her mixed into gin until she dies. They find another middle-aged man named Mullivant standing stupidly outside the utter wreckage of his house which contains the bodies of his wife and two children (page 58). In other words we meet a selection of the types of survivor you might expect from a disaster like this.

The dynamic between Miller and Matthew is explored. Miller immediately knows Matthew is intelligent and an asset to the group, is open to frank discussion with him but makes sure his say prevails. The two men have quiet conversations in the evenings about what must have happened on the mainland – if no rescue planes have flown over or helicopters come, it must mean it’s as bad there as here on Guernsey. Matthew realises Miller is being lining him up as his lieutenant and confidante, a role he is happy to acquiesce in, for the time being.

Irene and Hilda are added to Miller’s gang

They find a cow that needs to be milked. They realise the madman for St Peter Port is following them. They find two young women who had been sleeping in a basement flat. The women need digging out but are essentially alright. Matthew immediately sees that Irene will look very attractive once she’s cleaned up, and indeed she is.

Irene was a very good-looking girl…Shirley was a very ordinary little slut against either of them… (page 76)

This creates tensions immediately among the menfolk and it is fascinating to see this described through a 1960s mentality. Miller asks Irene to come with him for a chat – she refuses and so he asks Matthew to come along too – but his point is not to rape her (as, we discover later, many men have been simply raping the women they encounter), it is to discuss arrangements in the camp.

Basically, he tells Irene that he is going to tell the other men that she is now his woman. It doesn’t matter whether she is or not, but they must believe she is. This will make her off-limits and prevent competition over her developing into fights. This is what he’s worried about; that the group will be weakened if the men fall to fighting over the most attractive women. He explains all this to Irene and that it doesn’t mean she has to be ‘his woman’, but it will also offer her protection from unwanted attentions.

Matthew, as ever, is impressed by Miller’s shrewdness, but he also realises Irene is no pushover. She is educated and clever too. After pausing to consider it, Irene agrees. Miller is visibly relieved. He isn’t in control of the situation, but he is definitely the nearest thing the little gang have to a leader.

Five days after the quake the weather breaks and it starts to rain, giving us plentiful descriptions of how utterly miserable it is spending nights out in the cold and the wind and the rain. One night at the campfire a stranger appears. He is named Le Perré and has walked the nine miles across the ocean floor to Guernsey. Later Matthew takes him aside and asks him what the ocean floor is like to walk on. Patchy, is the answer, some sand, some shingle, some weeds, some gloopy mud. But he made it.

Throughout all the preceding passages Matthew has periodically thought of his daughter, Jane, at uni in Sussex, hoping longingly that she is alive. When he mentions his intention of walking across the sea floor to the mainland, Matty thinks he’s mad then becomes threatening. Their little band needs every good worker they can get. He refuses to let Matthew leave. From now onwards Matthew starts making a secret stash of provisions.

Walking across the dry seabed

A few days later Matthew is woken by one of the countless minor tremors and shocks they are continuing to experience, in the makeshift ‘tent’ he shares with Billy. He quickly dresses, slips on his shoes, takes his shotgun, takes his haversack and jerrycan filled with water and slips out of the base.

He makes his way to the coastal cliffs and by slippery paths down to the beach and across and out into what used to be the English Channel. Thus begins his surreal journey across the dry seabed. As the sun comes up and he sees the wide dry ocean floor stretching out in all directions, he discovers the worst enemy is anxiety, his sense of nagging unease, as if this is so against nature, so unnatural. His unconscious expects the sea to come rushing back at any moment.

Thus it’s a relief when Matthew hears a voice calling and returns its calls. It takes a while for him to realise that it’s Billy. His departure had woken Billy who watched him leave, then slipped into his own shoes and clothes and has followed him. Matthew knows the future can only hold uncertainty and danger and tries his best to send Billy back. But Billy was rescued, had his arm set in a splint, and fed by Matthew. He is now, in effect, his father.

Alderney is riven in two

Matthew navigates by the sun to guide them towards Alderney, hoping there might be food, a spring of freshwater and even survivors. But as it comes into view he and Billy see it has been struck by an even more severe calamity – the entire island has been lifted up and split in two, is now divided by an immense fissure starting in the ocean floor and quite splitting the island in half.

The container ship with the mad captain

Matthew knows he ought to take Billy back to the safety of Miller and the little community on Guernsey but he is driven on by his obsession with finding his daughter. After spending the night near ruined Alderney they head off north again. They see shipwrecks on the ocean floor, maybe Elizabethan galleons.

Then they are stupefied to come across a vast modern container ship, which somehow got stuck in the V of some reefs and so is sitting on the ocean bed completely upright. Mystifyingly there is a rope ladder down from the deck near the control tower. They climb it and discover the ship is in excellent condition throughout. They are staggered to find the corridors and cabins are fully lit and then discover the kitchen, which contains fresh bread and working fridges and freezers packed with food, and set about gorging themselves.

They are interrupted by a ‘short, fat, swarthy man’ in a gold-braided peak cap who introduces himself as Captain Skiopos (page 116). Skiopos is hospitality itself, forcing more food and drink on them, giving them a tour of the entire ship and explaining how it was his first command. Slowly they realise he is deranged. Every day he gets up early, shaves and dresses, makes all the beds, scrubs the floor in the kitchen and keeps the ship shipshape. When Matthew points out that eventually the oil will run out and the generator will stop working, Skiopos blinks and shakes his head to shake away the thought. ‘Nothing to worry about, everything will be fine,’ he insists.

They are astonished to discover the ship has its own private projection room, in effect a cinema, but disconcerted when Skiopos insists on playing a succession of films regardless of our guys’ protests that they’re exhausted, and by the way the captain talks to the figures upon the screen.

Next morning Skiopos is a different man, uncommunicative, in fact he ignores them as they go about making breakfast. Billy is scared but Matthew realises he is what he defines as a ‘psychotic’. Our guys select food from the fridge (half a roast chicken etc) load it into their bags, along with drinks and exit the crew area and walk across the deck to the rope ladder.

They are disconcerted when they see Skiopos approaching it, still ignoring them. Matthew makes the big, big mistake of volunteering to tell the captain that they are taking some of his food, he hopes he doesn’t mind. Oh but he does. The captain flies into an insensate rage and insists they give it all back which Matthew, reluctantly does. Once satisfied Skiopos bundles up the chicken etc, ignores our guys and walks back towards the bridge.

Keen to get away, Matthew bundles Billy over the bulwark, down the rope ladder, onto to the ocean floor and away.

Arriving in ruined England

Four days later they sight the coast of England. Matthew figures they are where Bournemouth should be but the entire town was scoured and washed away by the Channel tsunami leaving blank rocks and mudslides. On the ocean floor they come across all kinds of seaside wreckage. They clamber ashore into ‘a wrecked and meaningless world’ (page 136). Rubble and wreckage everywhere. They find some abandoned fires, realise most of the buildings have been foraged already, so there are at least some survivors.

One misty morning they see New Forest ponies loom out of the mist. They spot two women who turn and flee when they shout to them. They carry on along a road Matthew thinks is the A31.

Lawrence and April’s group

A little later they see a different kind of woman, calm, stationary, self-possessed watching them. As with Irene and Hilda, Matthew’s first reaction is to her physical attractiveness.

She was in her middle thirties, he judged, of medium height and with a good figure… [in her face] intelligence and courage but not beauty. (page 143)

She introduces herself as April and is astonished and angry when Matthew tells her they’ve come from the Channel Islands. Quite quickly she makes clear that life on the mainland is much more dangerous. She is acting as lookout to her group who she now takes them to. This consists of Lawrence, a 50-something doctor, George, Archie and Charlie, a young girl Cathie, and Sybil. Matthew/the narrator assess Sybil in the sexualised way we’ve come to expect:

Sybil was about twenty-eight, a cowed-looking, not very attractive girl, hiding a thin figure under badly fitting blue overall trousers… (page 145)

Several things emerge. April used to live in the big house whose ruined garden the group now use as a base. Her husband and two children were killed in the quake. She dug them out and buried them herself. She is tough. She encountered Lawrence who was the local doctor and who, having grasped the scale of the apocalypse, was on the verge of killing himself with an overdose when he heard her calling. He is kindly, intelligent and weak. These are the two representatives of the ‘educated’ class; the others are working class (page 148).

April and Lawrence tell Matthew that the countryside is overrun with what they call the ‘yobbos’, the uneducated, chavs, gangs who steal whatever April’s group have foraged and found. Don’t kill them or hurt them, just steal everything. Hence April standing as lookout. They take Matthew and Billy back to their base.

Here Lawrence expounds on the kind of neat little theory the educated like to come up with, which he has called the Anthill Syndrome (page 153). This is that, if you disturb or destroy an anthill up to a certain point, the ants will rally round their queen and rebuild it, no matter what it takes. But if the destruction goes beyond a certain threshold the ants will descend into chaos, running round with no plan or goals, attacking each other and undermining the colony’s very survival.

At their ‘base’ – April’s ruined house with its formal gardens, vegetable garden and fields – they show Matthew the secret stash they’ve created in a cellar whose entrance they carefully cover with a huge heavy table and then wreckage. It contains not only the usual tins but such medicines as Lawrence has salvaged and some bottles of fine wine and brandy. They tell him they’ve spotted a bull, which would make an excellent meal. Matthew has his gun.

Next morning Matthew goes to wash at the nearby stream they’ve shown him and comes across April naked from the waist up (pages 162 to 163). He had noticed the shapeliness of her body from the first moment. Now his mouth dries out with desire. Not just that. Beauty. He’s forgotten what beauty was like in a world of ugliness and death. Eventually she notices him but doesn’t mind. Unashamedly towels herself down and walks over to talk with him.

Later that morning all the men bar Ashton set out on the bullock hunt. They succeed in cornering the bull and Matthew shoots it, blasting away half the animal’s face. Disgusted, he goes away while the others saw up the body. But on returning to the base they hear cries and screams. Sneaking up carefully they discover their base has been discovered by a small group of five yobbos, who have tied Archie up, pulled down his trousers and are torturing him with a wax taper. Those were the screams. They are torturing him to find out where the group’s stash is.

Blinded by anger Matthew leaps out from the bushes where he’d been hiding and blasts a shot at the two men holding Archie, which appears to catch both of them, and turns to get the apparent leader of the group, a tall, strong, bronzed, blonde man who makes a lunge at him but Matthew shoots him at virtually point blank range, obliterating his chest and face.

Two of the five have scarpered. Now April goes up to the other two wounded men and tells them to hop it. When they don’t she hits one with the shotgun butt and kicks the other viciously. They limp off bleeding, probably to die.

Matthew twisted his ankle turning to shoot at the leader of the yobbos. Now April bandages it calmly and professionally. She says she is proud of him. Matthew finds his heart bursting with desire and love. The others tend to poor sobbing Archie, then build a fire and begin to cook the hand-carved steaks. Billy asks Matthew if they can stay. He likes Cathie and Lawrence has promised to show him how to be a doctor. Remember Billy is only 11.

The group discuss plans.

  1. April says the yobbos had tortured Archie because they couldn’t believe they didn’t have a stash. Therefore what they should do is create a diversionary stash which they can admit to under duress and so satisfy the next band of yobbos.
  2. The shotgun cartridges will run out. Matthew notices some lengths of steel in the cellar. He speculates that they could try making bows and arrows.
  3. Most momentously, he, April and Lawrence discuss heading for the hills. It’ll be easier to create a fortified encampment, maybe farm animals have survived in the hills, it’ll be easier to pen and farm them.

Rape and rapists

Next day, with lookouts posted and no immediate threat, Matthew goes strolling and comes across April in the grounds of her ruined house. They walk across fields to an old oak tree. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, she tells him her boys used to love climbing this old oak tree. He feels very close to her and heavy with love/lust/emotion. She puts her hand on his sleeve, he thinks he’s going to explode with desire.

However, this idyllic lovers’ walk takes a disastrous turn for the worse when they start talking about the incursion of the yobbos the day before and Matthew lets slips remarks which imply he’s relieved that nothing worse happened to the women in the group i.e. April herself, Sybil and young Cathy.

April withdraws her hand and is disbelieving, then angry. Is he so thick that he doesn’t realise that she was raped, her three times, and Sybil twice, before the menfolk arrived back. And that she has been raped again and again by gangs of yobbos since the catastrophe, and that even 11-year-old Cathy has been raped? Didn’t he realise that’s why she kicked and hit the wounded men? Because they raped her!

Matthew’s face reveals his horror and also, despite himself, his disgust, so she goes on to tell him about the man who spat in her face while he was still ‘inside’ her. How Lawrence comforted her after the first time it happened but, more practically, inserted ‘coils’ into the three women to prevent them getting pregnant, though she wonders if any of them have contracted venereal disease. And then Lawrence so obviously, pitifully wanted to have comfort sex that she let him sleep with her. And Charley too, the young man in the group.

Now it all comes tumbling out, her contempt for men, her cold fury, her disgust… and her disgust with him (pages 192 ff.)

‘Sex and motherhood are the centres of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear. (page 195)

The conversation has wandered right out of control and now she says she doesn’t want him to stay. If he wants to pursue his stupid, foolish fantasy quest to look for his daughter Jane, then by all means go. If he doesn’t leave, she’ll have to, he has reminded her too much of everything she lost.

It’s a brilliant passage, the reader had been lulled into the false sense of security just like Matthew, so April’s revelations are genuinely shocking. But also the way their lovers’ walk is so close to falling in love and then he wrecks it beyond repair by a small remark which reveals the gulf in understanding which separates them. Christopher’s books are problematic in many ways but he has this knack for getting inside (middle class) relationship, as witness the lengthy description of the middle class affairs which open The World In Winter.

Quest for Jane

And so Matthew and Billy load up with provisions and water and embark on the next stage of their quest, heading East along the coast to find Matthew’s daughter. There follows a long, gruelling description of their horrible trek along the ruined coast, past what used to be Portsmouth, amid ruins and detritus. At one point a man waves at them from the shore and comes bounding towards them, turning out to be a harmless religious nut who is convinced the disaster is the work of God and quotes liberally from the Bible but is genuinely kindly, takes them back to the shack he’s built, gives them hot food and shelter for the night.

After this pleasant interlude they struggle on to the East. They pass the ruins of what Matthew thinks must have been Littlehampton. Here, for a moment the narrative becomes Ballardian. They see a sports car standing upright, its bonnet gripped in the earth which had opened and clasped it, with the skeletons of two bright young things rotting in it. At the same time Christopher was writing his apocalypse novels i.e. the start of the 1960s, so was J.G. Ballard. Suffice to say the reason Ballard’s are known and Christophers’ a lot less so is because:

  1. Ballard’s books convey the real psychological damage the collapse of civilisation would cause in a brilliant and completely original way, illuminated by countless weird and disorientating tableaux.
  2. Line for line, as a writer, Ballard’s sentences are full of vivid and exciting analogies, similes and metaphors; reading them is like taking acid – Christopher’s scenarios and sights are often vivid and shocking but the prose he describes them in is very workaday and practical.

The trek goes on for days. Billy falls ill with a fever, which gets steadily worse. He goes off his food. He has feverish dreams. Matthew feels guilty for taking him away from the safety of Guernsey, or Lawrence’s happy group. He imagines he can hear April’s voice accusing him of stupid, vainglorious fantasies of finding his daughter. Billy gets more and more ill but doggedly insists on going on. They advance up a long, long, long slope towards the horizon. As they finally get to the top, expecting to look out over the Sussex landscape Matthew is stunned to find himself looking out over… the sea! So this is where the sea went. The south-east of England has sunk deep enough to drain the English Channel and create a new sea. It is all under water. Nothing could have survived.

And at this moment he hears April’s voice in his head accusing him of obsession in following his fantasy of a Happy Ending.In his feverish mind they argue. Matthew says April had the chance to bury her dead, but he hasn’t. He had to do everything he could to find her. But now the scales have fallen from his eyes. It is over.

He looked, and knew himself, and understood… He had taken his fantasy to the bitter end and seen it drown… (page 215)

The journey back

So they turn right round and go back. Billy is very ill, Matthew begins to think he’ll die. There’s no medicines and no shelter. Sometimes they sleep in blankets in the pelting rain. Matthew beds Billy down in a hay barn and goes to pick some half-ripe potatoes but when he gets back a gang of foragers have found Billy and his haversack. Matthew makes up a story on the spot about having a plague which has killed off two of their companions, but the tall Northerner leading the gang takes Matthew’s much-travelled shotgun and delivers Matthew a mighty punch into the bargain.

Matthew keeps Billy’s spirits up by telling him they’ll find the religious man with the shack around Portsmouth and then press on to reunite with Lawrence and his people and go to the hills with them. But when he finally rounds some rocks and looks for the religious man’s hut, he sees at a glance that it’s been burned down. It starts to rain and Matthew tries to make Billy comfortable in the remains of the burned and vandalised hut. He goes foraging inland and discovers the preacher man’s body. Looks like he threw himself at one of the foragers and had managed to strangle him before he was himself pole-axed by an axe (page 228).

Lawrence and April have gone

Matthew is beyond desolate now. Everything is destroyed, everyone is dying. He makes a kind of rack and straps Billy’s wasted feverish body to it and then staggers on westwards. If only he can make it back to Lawrence. Half deliriously he has conversations in his mind with April, saying he has learned his lesson, and he wants to learn more from her. His progress becomes ever more painful and slow. They cease for the night and rest in a ditch in the seabed. It rains. Billy moans and fevers. Matthew is overcome by a vast sense of loneliness and failure (page 231).

Next day he staggers on bearing the rack with Billy’s wasted body tied to it. They encounter a small group who see how wasted he is and simply ignore him, laughing at his request for condensed milk for Billy. Finally, he reaches the main road he stumbled along all those weeks before and then the mound where he first saw April, staggers through the woods and comes to the stream where he saw April bathing and then on to the wrecked house where they’d made their base.

They’re not there. No sign of April, Lawrence, Cathy, Archy et al. Silence. He tries to keep Billy’s fever down with stream water and tells him the others will soon be back. He visits the graves in the rose garden which April dug for her husband and sons and notices someone has carefully placed a rose on each one.

After an enormous effort Matthew manages to budge the huge oak dining table just enough to squeeze down into the cellar where, once his eyes become accustomed… He realises they’ve taken everything practical and portable. They’ve gone to the hills as they had discussed. He will never find them. He is doomed.

He tends to Billy who is having fever dreams all the time. He gives him aspirin crushed into milk, then later in the night Billy fights hard to get up and escape. Matthew knows he’s dying now. He cuddles the skinny, feverish boy to him for warmth and falls asleep under a ragged blanket. The reader is convinced he will die, too. Where else can it go?

When he wakes the next morning Billy is quite still and Matthew is convinced he’s dead. But he touches his pale gaunt skin and discovers he isn’t. He wakes up and talks rationally. The fever has broken and he is well. He can’t remember how he got here or any of the nightmare journey. Matthew explains the others must have headed for the hills and greater safety. He starts to prepare, resting up, eating properly, sheltering them both from the rain, gathering supplies. He tries grinding the steel rods to make arrows but gives up. He loads the rucksack with provisions.

He walks the route he took with April what seems like months earlier and hears her voice mocking him. She says his plan to head for ‘the hills’ in order to find her and Lawrence is yet another quixotic fantasy. How much longer will he drag poor Billy round with him? Till they both drop dead?

Next morning they wake and Billy asks if it’s the day they’re going to set off for the hills. No, Matthew says. They are going back to Guernsey. It will be safe. He realises now he should never have left.

Back to the Channel and a happy discovery

The last chapter cuts to them walking across the dry channel seabed. They are both much rested and recovered, Matthew had time to repair their shoes and find new clothes. They skirt the vast container ship and wonder what’s become of Captain Skiopos. They won’t head for Alderney, knowing it is ruined. They make camp for the night and Matthew holds the boy in his arms. He hears April’s voice in his head but no longer mocking him. She is distant. Her and his hopes for them are in the past. Miller will be pleased to see him back and to hear news of how lucky they are to be on Guernsey.

Next morning it is thick fog. Matthew gets Billy to climb to the top of some reefs. From there he thinks he sees water, a lot of water. For a moment I thought the sea was slowly returning. But they’ve come a different route from their outward passage and so have discovered a large salty lake. It’s three quarters of a mile across, too far to swim, and they and the food and blankets would get wet, anyway, so they have to go round it.

It is a long detour, maybe ten miles before they reach the head of the lake and round it to resume their trudge south. And there to their utter amazement, they hear a familiar voice and come across Archie, Archie from the Lawrence-April group, happily fishing. In his simple-minded way Archie tells them the group decided against the hills and, inspired by Matthew’s tales of the security of Guernsey, had set out for the islands themselves.

They had come to Alderney and, Archie tells them, the island has chickens, there are fish down in this small sea, there are no yobbos, they are enjoying a healthy diet. Matthew can’t express what he is feeling, after all this time, after the agonised imaginary relationship with April. And now here she is, along with the gentle old doctor. ‘Reckon they’ll be glad to see you,’ says Archie. Not as glad as Matthew will be to see them.

And so, after 250 gruelling pages, feeling thoroughly exhausted by the relentless physical assault of the elements, the starving, the violence and the emotional extremes, with the rest of the world in ruins, somehow, the book manages to have a happy ending.


Themes

Obviously the over-riding theme is what happens when civilised society is completely destroyed and a handful of survivors are thrown back on their own resources – which is that they resort to Dark Age barbarism, only with tinned food and shotguns. But within the overarching idea, several other themes stood out for me.

Class

One was how very clear the narrator is about the distinction between ‘the educated’ and ‘the yobbos’.

The educated, such as Lawrence the doctor, can immediately be recognised by their accent (their ‘recognition of someone who talks the same language’, page 157), and will invariably be polite, well mannered, cultured, curious and respectful.

The yobbos, on the other hand, can be expected to be stupid (although often characterised by low cunning), violent to women (key sign of yobbishness) and often rapists. The educated talk, like talking, enjoy conversation, have lots of ideas and perceptions to talk about. The yobbos look after number one, constantly tell people to shut up and obey their peremptory orders. They live in their bodies, enjoying eating, getting drunk, sex and demonstrating their violent prowess.

Repeatedly, throughout the book, you wonder how much English society, deep down, has changed from this bleak duality.

Gender

Inevitably, most of the women are converted by the collapse of civilised society into sex objects and breeders. This is how Miller regards every fertile woman who joins his band, although he at least has a plan, namely to father a new generation, which entails protecting women for their function as mothers. Pure ‘yobbos’, in line with their lack of long-term thinking and slaves to immediate physical appetites, just rape women and abandon them. This may be objectionable to most female readers, but appears to reflect the real world. As soon as war breaks out anywhere and social norms are abandoned, rape becomes common. It appears to be the basic state of Homo sapiens unless moderated by social forces, conventions and authority.

Anyway, the narrating voice uncomfortably reinforces this objectifying tendency by assessing every new female character by their attractiveness. After a while I found this a bit creepy and oppressive. Shirley, Miller’s initial girlfriend, is referred to not only by Miller but by Matthew and the narrator as a ‘slut’, content ‘in her sluttish way’, and so on and so on.

But, to balance this, it also needs to be emphasised that Christopher goes out of his way create strong female characters. Quite quickly Irene steps up to become Miller’s number two, asserting her authority without really having to, and cows Miller himself. Just as April emerges as a very strong, tough-minded woman who has survived the death of the rest of her family and repeated rapes to become an unillusioned survivor, stronger than Lawrence.

The difference between John Wyndham and John Christopher

They were friends and colleagues and both wrote apocalypse, end-of-the-world science fiction stories but their works leave a very different taste in the mouth. Basically, Christopher’s books are a lot more cynical and violent, and feature really gruelling physical trials.

I’m very influenced by reading Amy Binns’s excellent 2019 biography of John Wyndham in which she brings out the way the succession of shrewd, clever, resourceful, strong women in his novels and stories are all versions of his lifelong beloved, Oxford graduate, teacher and left-wing activist, Grace Wilson. Having read that biography I understand better why Wyndham’s novels, even at their bleakest, are nonetheless anchored or underpinned by a fundamental sense of decency. The male narrators or protagonists ultimately feel safe because there is a strong woman sharing their ordeals. This contributes to the strange sense of comfort or reassurance they have, even in the bleakest moments.

Whereas in Christopher’s novels, although there are strong female characters (Carol in World In Winter, April in Wrinkle) the relations of men and women are much more troubled. Couples get divorced, fall in love but then break up, argue, realise they are incompatible. This leaves them feeling profoundly alone and isolated. Characters in a Christopher novel fall more easily into utter despair than in any Wyndham novel, as Andrew Leedon finds himself weeping uncontrollably on a Nigerian beach for the world he has lost in World In Winter and Matthew at several points feel overwhelmed with utter despair and ‘hopeless misery’ (page 99).

He was conscious only of their wretchedness, their vulnerability. (page 108)

And the reader experiences that despair for themselves. I think it’s this much harsher emotional climate of Christopher’s novels which makes them a much grittier, often more unpleasant read, than Wyndham’s.

Triffids is easily Wyndham’s bleakest novel but even there, by a quarter of the way through the story, the protagonist has met the lovely Josella who becomes his lover, his friend and support, offering the male protagonist (and the reader) a sense of feminine consolation. And Wyndham’s other three big novels all have strong women underpinning and supporting the male protagonist (Phyllis in Kraken, Rosalind in Chrysalids, the narrator’s wife Janet and Ferrelyn Zellaby in Midwich Cuckoos). What makes Wyndham’s apocalypse novels ‘cosy’ is the warm emotional climate which suffuses them; even at their most scary and bleak there is always a strong woman there, or in the protagonist’s thoughts, to help and support him (and, by extension, the reader).

There isn’t in Christopher’s novels. There are just as many female protagonists but they are, themselves, as imperilled, as compromised, as lost, as the male leads, which contributes to his novels’ sense of cold, gritty, unforgiving brutality. Maybe this is one reason for Christopher’s lack of popularity and relative obscurity.


Credit

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1965. All references are to the 2000 First Cosmos paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

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