The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 2

Propaganda

The fundamental thing to grasp about Caesar’s Gallic Wars is that they were not at all what we think of as ‘history’. The Latin word he uses was commentarii which, apparently, means something like ‘report’. Each of the 7 ‘books’ whuch make up the Gallic Wars covers one of the years when he campaigned in Gaul and each one is like an end-of-term, or in this case, end-of-campaign-season report, back to his masters, the Senate and the people of Rome.

Thus they are written for a particular audience and are designed to achieve a certain effect. This is to justify Caesar’s behaviour. Legally, he had been tasked with simply administering 3 existing provinces: Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic) Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Transalpine Gaul (the area based round France’s Mediterranean coast, also known as ‘the Province’).

But he wanted glory and and so had his sights set on conquering further north into Gaul. But he couldn’t do this legally or on his own initiative. He had to wait till he had pretexts. This is why the seven commentarii are at such pains to emphasise that it was always the bad guys, the naughty Gaulish or Germanic tribes (the Helvetii, the Suebi, the Belgae) who moved first and to make it clear that Caesar was simply responding to aggression in order to maintain the peace and preserve the security of the Province.

But this interventionism was controversial and provided Caesar’s enemies back in Rome with plenty of ammunition to prosecute him for exceeding his authority. The Gallic Wars are a detailed attempt to head off those accusations and present his case, his justifications, to the widest possible audience.

They are the self-justifying propaganda of a conquering general seeking to influence his compatriots, and need to be read with this very much in mind.

Description of Gaul

First some basic facts: at 58 BC when Caesar was appointed governor, on the Italian side of the Alps, stretching from the mountains to the river Rubicon was the province the Romans called Cisalpine or Hither Gaul. On the other side of the Alps they controlled what they called Transalpine or Further Gaul, often simply referred to as The or Our Province. This covered the entire Mediterranean coast of France and extended inland a bit, up the river Rhone, and east up as far as Lake Geneva.

Beyond this lay what you could call ‘Free Gaul’ which Caesar famously describes as being divided into three parts, inhabited by 1) the Aquitani in the southwest 2) the Gauls of the biggest central part, who in their own language were called Celtae, and 3) the Belgae, in the north, extending from Paris to the Channel in the north and the Rhine in the east. (In the map below the Province is named Narbonensis, another alternative name for the Roman-controlled south of France).

Map with the approximate location of pre-Roman Belgic Gaul shortly before the Roman conquest, according to an interpretation of Caesar (source: Wikipedia)

Caesar deploys the familiar trope that Rome’s influence was n some way effeminising. He notes that the Belgae were:

the bravest, because they are furthest from the civilisation and refinement of the Province, and merchants least frequently resort to them, and import those things which tend to effeminate the mind; and they are the nearest to the Germans, who dwell beyond the Rhine, with whom they are continually waging war.

Caesar gives the names of lots of tribes and generalises about which are Gauls or Celts or German in origin, but pretty much all his terms and labels are contested by modern scholars because a) other ancient historians give different accounts of origins and languages and b) the modern evidence of linguistic studies and archaeology often contradict all of them. I.e. it is a complex and contested field of knowledge which is easy to get lost and perplexed in.

The Roman army

All the editions of the Gallic Wars contain an appendix on the Roman army. Since the reforms of Caius Marius around 100 BC, the army was divided into legions. Each legion contained 6,000 men, divided into 10 cohorts of 600 men, each divided into 3 maniples of 200 men, each made up of 2 centuries of 100 men, commanded by a centurion. Each legion had from 300 to 600 cavalry attached, but these were often foreign recruits and no general relied on them for their main battle plan. Caesar never does.

Tears

There’s a surprising amount of sentimental weeping. Men weeping. Rough, tough warriors and leaders weeping. Women weeping and wailing for their menfolk.

1. 20 With many tears Diviciacus embraced Caesar, and began to beseech him not to pass too severe a judgment upon his brother.

1.20 While he was making this petition at greater length, and with tears, Caesar took him by the hand and consoled him…

1.31 The petition was granted, and they all threw themselves in tears at Caesar’s feet…

Book 1 The expulsion of the intruders (58 BC)

[Note: the following chapter titles are not in the original. They appear to have been added by the translator of the Penguin edition, S.A. Handford. The numbers in round brackets refer to the chapters or sections which each book is divided into and which are numbered in the original.]

Chapter 1: Description of Gaul, its geography and inhabitants

As above.

Chapters 2 to 29: Campaign against the Helvetii

This was Caesar’s first campaign against a Gaulish tribe and, in a sense, the template for his entire subsequent involvement in Gaul.

Caesar claims the leader of the Helvetii, a tribe which lived on the Swiss plateau north of Lake Geneva, were being incited by one of their leaders, Orgetorix, to invade and conquer the rest of Gaul. Orgetorix conspired with leading men in two other tribes to overthrow their rulers, declare themselves kings, and carve up Gaul between them. Orgetorix was summoned to a trial by the seniors of his own people but avoided punishment by turning up with some 10,000 retainers and slaves. He got off, but at some later time perished, possibly by his own hand.

But he had inspired the other leaders with his plan and they burned their houses and crops and set off on a mass migration into Gaul.

Caesar repels the Helvetii going through the Province, forcing them to retreat back into their own territory, take the northern route up through the mountains and into the country of the Aedui. The Romans engaged them at the Battle of the Arar which led to negotiations with Liscus, Dumnorix and Diviciacus.

Second battle, near Bibrax. Retreat and surrender of the Helvetii.

30 to 54: Campaign against Ariovistus and the Suebi

Ariovistus was a leader of the Suebi and allied Germanic peoples. Ariovistus had led his people across the Rhine, fought and defeated the Aedui, seized a third of the Aeduan territory, settling 120,000 Germans there.

Caesar attends a general assembly of the Gauls where Diviciacus, head of the Aeduan government and spokesmen of the Gauls, complains to about Ariovistus’ conquests and the hundreds of Gaulish hostages he has taken. Unless Caesar does something the Aedui will be forced to migrate. Then, true to form, they all start crying.

When Diviciacus had delivered this speech all who were present began with loud weeping to seek assistance from Caesar.

So Caesar sees it as a) his duty to protect a Roman ally, the Aedui, but b) is well aware that confronting Ariovistus will also bring him glory and consolidate his hold over the army.

Caesar makes overtures to Ariovistus which are rebuffed. He marches to and takes the town of Vesontio but here some of the army is overcome by panic. The Gauls tell them the Germans are tall super-soldiers:

men of a mighty frame and an incredible valour and skill at arms; for they themselves [the Gauls] at meetings with the Germans had often been unable even to endure their look and the keenness of their eyes. So great was the panic, and so suddenly did it seize upon all the army that it affected in serious fashion the intelligence and the courage of all ranks… (1.39)

Caesar quells this potential mutiny with a long address concluding that he will march on the enemy with just the loyal Tenth Legion if necessary, with the result that his troops are roused and restored.

Caesar invites Ariovistus to a conference. He makes clear demands: that Ariovistus bring no more of his people across the Rhine, that he and his allies restore the hostages they had taken from the Aedui, and they undertake not to make war against them.

At the meeting with Ariovistus Caesar puts his proposals and Ariovistus haughtily rejects them. Ariovistus is given a powerful speech saying he never attacked the Aedui, Roman friendship is a sham and he’d make a lot of friends back in Rome if he were to kill Caesar on the spot. By this stage some of the Suebians are throwing stones and trying to provoke Caesar’s entourage so the latter withdrew. Next day Caesar sent Gaius Valerius Procillus for further parlay but, as they later discovered, he was immediately arrested and put in chains.

Ariovistus’ army moves off and Caesar tails him till both make camp barely 600 yards from each other. Ariovistus has a much larger force and Caesar realises he is surrounded. The Germans are reluctant to do more than skirmish and Caesar learns this is because their holy women are saying they shouldn’t engage in full battle before the next full moon. He gets some legions to build an advance camp then, next day, leads his legions against Ariovistus’s camp. This turned into the Battle of the Vosges, 58 BC.

The Germans advance towards them with such speed that the Romans don’t have time to use their pilums (spears) but are forced to plunge into hand to hand fighting. The Roman centre is being pushed back when Publius Licinius Crassus grasped what was happening and brings the infantry reserve into action in support of the Roman left. This developed into a general attack on the flank which broke the Germans who turned and ran for the river Rhine 15 miles away.

Many, including Ariovistus himself, managed to cross the river in boats or by swimming. The rest were cut down by Roman cavalry, including both of Ariovistus’s wives and one of his daughters. The ambassador Caesar had sent a few days earlier, Gaius Valerius Procillus, was rescued unharmed to Caesar’s great personal delight but described how his captors had cast lots three times, in his presence, to decided whether he should be burned to death now or later.

So the Suebi had retreated back over the Rhine and were broken as a military threat for the time being. Caesar claims that most of Ariovistus’ one-hundred and twenty thousand men were killed. Caesar winters his army in the land of the Sequani and returns to Hither Gaul to hold assizes. End of first campaigning season.

Book 2 Conquest of the Belgic tribes (57 BC)

Chapters 1 to 33: The Belgae

Caesar hears rumours that the Belgae are hatching a plot against the Roman people. He takes the two legions of Cisalpine Gaul and heads north. Delegates of the Remi, the Belgic people closest to Gaul, come to Caesar, declare their loyalty, but explain the rest of the Belgae’s plans. The Belgae were an originally Germanic people who crossed the Rhine and settled. When the Cimbri and Teutoni were migrating south the Belgae fought them off and gained a reputation for fierceness.

The Remi delegates give a summary of the different Belgic tribes, their numbers and leaders. Soon after this the Belgic horde besieges a Remi town called Bibrax. Caesar sends Numidian and Cretan archers and Balearic slingers to help relieve the siege and the Belgae abandon it.

The two camps line up opposite each other. The Belgae go to try and cross the river Aisne and storm a Roman outpost, but get bogged down and the Romans massacre them. The majority of the Belgae decide to retreat and return to their separate tribal homelands but their withdrawal turns into a rout and the Romans massacre the rearguard.

Caesar besieges Noviodunum, main town of the Suessiones. Overawed by the Romans’ siege engines, they surrender and hand over hostages, including sons of their king, Galba.

Caesar then marches on Bratuspantium, the main town of the Bellovaci, whose inhabitants quickly come out to surrender. The Aedui intercede on the Bellovaci’s behalf, saying they had been duped into rebellion and asking Caesar to show his customary clemency. Caesar does so, accepting 600 hostages and all their weapons. Then he marches on to the territory of the Ambiani who also immediately surrender.

The Nervii, however, under their leader Bogduonatus, resolved to fight and recruited allies including the Atrebates and Viromandui. Caesar marches into their territory and learns their plans. He starts making a camp on a plain by the river Sambre (modern scholars identify this with the river Selle). With great speed the Nervii attacked the Romans making camp and almost overwhelmed them, leaving them no time to properly arm. The battle was on a knife edge.

Caesar grabbed a shield, made his way to the front line and quickly organised his forces while the commander of the Tenth Legion attacked the Nervian camp. Then the two legions who ‘d been guarding the Roman baggage train arrived and helped to turn the tide of the battle. The Nervii are almost completely wiped out, reduced from a fighting force of 60,000 to 500 (28).

The Nervii’s allies, the Aduatuci, had been en route to join them. If they’d arrived in time they probably would have secured a Roman defeat. But hearing of the Nervii defeat they turned round and marched back to their own territory, concentrating their population in one town which they fortified. Caesar besieges it. When they see the siege towers being moved towards the town the Aduatuci decide the Romans must be aided by divine powers to build and move such juggernauts and so beg for clemency and agree to hand over all their weapons.

However, they had treacherously kept a third of their weapons and that night sallied forth and attacked the Roman camp. The Romans rallied and killed about 4,000 Aduatuci after which they retreated back into the town. Next morning the Romans broke down the town gates and took the town, selling the entire population of 53,000 into slavery.

34: Suppression of the ocean states

Caesar had sent Publius Crassus against the tribes which lived alongside the great Ocean i.e. the Atlantic, being the Veneti, Venelli, Osismi, Curiosolitae, Esubii, Aulerci and Redones, and Crassus now reported that they had all been brought into subjection to the power of Rome.

35: Fifteen days’ thanksgiving in Rome for Caesar’s achievements

The end of the campaign season. Caesar’s victories being peace to all Gaul and are known to tribes beyond the Rhine who sue for peace, sending hostages and promising to obey. As he does at the end of each campaign season, Caesar puts his troops into winter quarters and returns to see to his other provinces, namely Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum.

Book 3 The first rebellion (57 BC)

1 to 6: Servius Galba

This is at the tail end of 57, after the campaign season had ended. Caesar deputes Servius Galba to secure a pass over the Alps. Galba signs peace treaties with neighbouring tribes and with just two cohorts set about building a camp at a high settlement named Octodorus. The Seduni and Veragri treacherously attack. They take the Romans by surprise and there is fierce fighting until a brave centurion Caesar picks out by name suggests a sally and the Romans run out the sides of their fort and attack the enemy flanks, routing them. Maybe a third of the enemy were killed, 10,000. Worried about supplies, Galba decided to strike camp and marched his forces down into the safe territory of the Allobroges.

7 to 16: Campaign against the Veneti 56 BC

Suddenly revolt breaks out among the Veneti. They lived in Brittany, had a good fleet and imposed taxes on anyone using their waters. Roman legates had been dispatched to liaise with the Veneti and surrounding tribes and these were all now taken hostage.

Caesar divides his forces, sending them to different parts of Gaul to ensure peace with conquered tribes, then takes the main force west against the rebels. Advantages for the Veneti: their towns are right on the coast, often separated from the land at high tide; they are excellent seafarers and can navigate better than the Romans. Caesar gives a description of Veneti ships, their advantages over Roman ships.

Nonetheless the Roman fleet defeats the Veneti fleet of about 200 ships by the use of grappling hooks on poles to break the enemy rigging and leave their ships defenceless.

This engagement finished the campaign against the Veneti and the whole sea‑coast…they surrendered themselves and all they had to Caesar. He decided that their punishment must be the more severe in order that the privilege of deputies might be more carefully preserved by the natives for the future. He therefore put the whole of their senate to the sword, and sold the rest of the men as slaves. (3.16)

17 to 19: Operations of Titurius Sabinus against the Venelli

The Venelli rebelled against Rome, led by Viridovix who had lured the Aulerci, Eburovices and the Lexovii to put their ‘senates’ to death and join him. The Venelli surround the camp of Quintus Titurius Sabinus and try to tempt him out for a fight but he stalls. Then he briefs a Gaul to pretend to be a deserter and go to the camp of the Venelli and tell them Caesar is in trouble in the West and so Sabinus will try to sneak out of the camp that night to go help him.

Based on this false intelligence the Venelli march en masse up to Sabinus’s camp but he surprises them by sortying from the sides and setting his cavalry on them before they’re ready. Tired after their forced march and confused by the Roman tactics, the Venelli are massacred.

20 to 27: Operations of Publius Crassus in Aquitania

Publius Crassus leads a legion into Aquitania to take on the Sontiates. He engages in open battle then besieges their town which, when it looks like it will fall, the Aquitani surrender. A brotherhood of elite fighters led by Adiatunnus attempt a sortie but are fought back and surrender.

Crassus then tackles the Vocates and the Tarusates. He takes a town within days of besieging it and this so alarms the natives they send for help over the Pyrenees and veterans of Quintus Sertorius’s campaigns come to help. (See my summary of Plutarch’s Life of Sertorius.)

Alarmed at the rise in enemy numbers and that they would soon control the roads and corn supply, Crassus came out of the town next day to fight. The enemy refuse to engage so Crassus marches up to their camp and starts investing it, building ramps up the walls, throwing weapons. Then the cavalry report that the rear gate is inadequately secured and the Romans storm it. The enemy fought free into open country where the Roman cavalry followed and slaughtered them.

As a result of this victory over the strongest force the Aquitani could muster, Crassus received the surrender of the Tarbelli, Bigerriones, Ptianii, Vocates, Tarusates, Elusates, Gates, Ausci, Garumni, Sibuzates and Cocosates.

28 to 29: Operations of Caesar against the Morini and Menapii

The Morini and Menapii were the only unconquered peoples left in all Gaul. Caesar decided to mop them up before winter. But they adopted tactics unusual for the Gauls and retreated into their marshlands. Caesar ordered the construction of a camp nearby but, not for the first time, the natives rushed out and attacked while the Romans were building it.

The Romans fought them off and during the next days Caesar ordered them to fell all the trees and create a mighty rampart. The enemy retreated into the forest but it began to rain continuously and Caesar’s own army needed shelter, so he ordered them to burn the enemy’s fields and villages and buildings and then led them to winter quarters.

Book 4 Invasions of Germany and Britain (55 BC)

1 to 4: Description of the Suebi, Ubii, Usipetes and Tencteri

This was the year of the consulship of Pompey and Crassus as arranged at the conference of the Triumvirate at Luca.

The Usipetes and Tencteri cross the Rhine into Gaul with many men. They explain they have been pushed out of their own land by the Suebi, the most powerful of the German tribes. The Suebi wear the barest of clothes, bathe in cold rivers, have no agriculture but live by hunting, have tremendous freedom, scorn riding horses with saddles, ban merchants who bring wine and other womanish products.

5 to 15: Operations of Caesar against the Usipetes and Tencteri

Caesar hastens to the area and discovers the Usipetes and Tencteri have pushed aside the local Gauls, destabilising the area. Negotiations with their leaders, who bullishly say they don’t want to attack but will defend themselves if necessary. A few days later they send another deputation talking peace but, as they withdraw, 600 or so of the German cavalry attack the Romans. This surprise attack sees a number of Roman casualties and demoralisation before the main force of the infantry appears and the Germans withdraw.

This treacherous attack gives Caesar the moral advantage and when another deputation comes a few days later he promptly detains them (13) and marches double fast the 8 miles to the German camp which he immediately storms. The warriors are taken by surprise, mixed up with the women and children and all begin to flee back towards the Rhine. Here they are caught in the junction of the Rhine and Moselle and large numbers are killed. The remainder put themselves under Caesar’s protection. In other words, a crushing victory.

[The detaining of the envoys was clearly against the rules of war and Caesar’s enemies fiercely criticised it. A note in the Penguin edition tells us that Cato the Younger called for Caesar to be stripped of his command and handed over to the Germans for punishment. There was no chance of this extreme view being carried out but it is symptomatic of the extremely embattled political situation back in Rome which Caesar’s reports were designed to influence.]

16 to 19: Caesar crosses the Rhine

Caesar is careful to give reasons for crossing the Rhine since he, arguably, shouldn’t have been in Gaul at all and certainly not crossing the Rhine into new country. These are:

  1. To make German tribes less inclined to invade Gaul by making them afraid of the threat in their own lands.
  2. German tribes he’d sent envoys to had cockily said the Rhine was the limit of Roman sovereignty: he wanted to prove them wrong and worry them.
  3. The Ubii, the only German tribe who had made peace with Rome and given hostages, begged him to come over and free them from the oppression of the Suebi.

Detailed description of the engineering involved in building a bridge over the Rhine (17). It takes 10 days from starting to collect the wood to the army crossing over into the territory of the Sugambri. The Sugambri have fled into the forest. Caesar burns all their villages, farms and crops.

He marches into the territory of the Ubii to reconfirm their friendship. The Ubii tell him the Suebi have gathered all their fighting men into a central position in their territory and are awaiting battle. But Caesar’s aim was not to conquer more territory but simply to warn the Germans what was possible to act as a deterrent from them crossing into Gaul. So after 18 days he crossed back over the bridge and had it destroyed behind him.

20 to 36: First expedition to Britain

In invading Britain Caesar was, again, exceeding his authority and so his text emphasises his justifications:

  1. In all campaigns against the Gauls they had received help from the Britons (this seems extremely unlikely and a blatant excuse).
  2. He wanted to spy out the lie of the land, the size of the island, its harbours and resources etc.

Caesar marches into the territory of the Morini, closest to Britain. He sends a ship under Volusenus to do a reconnaissance and, having heard the rumours, the first British tribes send envoys to him offering submission. The Morini themselves send envoys and hostages and submit.

Caesar assembles 80 transports and warships for the infantry and a further 18 for the cavalry. The remainder of the army was to mount operations against the Manippi and resistant factions of the Morini.

The landing was hard. The first place they came to they could see the enemy lining the cliffs and able to throw spears down onto a narrow beach. So they put out again and drifted seven miles or so further down the Channel before beaching again (23).

The Roman army faced real difficulties, for they had to leap off the ships while still in quite deep water, weighed down with heavy arms, get a footing and fight uphill through water. The enemy by contrast was on horses used to the terrain and water, fighting downhill into the struggling Romans.

Caesar ordered the lighter warships to be firmly beached on the right flank of the battle and soldiers use slings, bows and artillery on the enemy flank. This succeeded. While the battle hung in the balance the man holding the eagle of the Tenth Legion declared he was going to do his duty by his general and leapt into the water, thus rallying the others. The battle was scattered and confused but eventually his troops got a foothold and were able to reassert discipline. However, the cavalry ships had not yet set out from Gaul and without his cavalry Caesar wasn’t able to convert repelling the enemy into a victory.

But, the Romans having established a beachhead, the Britons send envoys suing for peace. They admit that when the man Cesar chose as envoy, Commius of the Atrebates, first arrived they had arrested him and put him in chains. Now they humbly apologise for their mistake and promise to send hostages.

Four days later the 18 transports carrying the cavalry set out but are caught in a storm so some turn back, some get lost, some keep out to sea to avoid being shipwrecked. Later that night a storm hits the transports which are anchored. ‘Several ships went to pieces; and the others, by loss of cordage, anchors, and the rest of their tackle, were rendered useless for sailing.’ 12 ships were lost.

Seeing this and calculating that the Romans won’t be able to get reinforcements, the Britons decide to renege on their deal with Caesar and revert to war. Meanwhile Caesar ordered the remaining ships to be repaired with spare parts from the 12 which were wrecked and equipment brought over from Gaul to do this.

Elements of the Seventh Legion were out collecting corn when they were attacked. Caesar took the rest of his troops from their camp and came to their rescue. Caesar makes a point of describing the skilful way the Britons use their chariots.

He fights off the attackers and decides not to escalate the engagement into a full battle but withdraws to the Roman camp. But the Britons had sent messages in all directions and gathered a huge number of armed men. So a second battle takes place which is briefly described – the Romans win, drive the enemy from the field, burn their villages and crops, then withdraw again to their camp.

Next day deputies from the tribes come to sue for peace and Caesar demands they hand over hostages. He orders these to be brought to him on the continent because that evening Caesar sets sail back to Gaul.

37 to 38: Defeat of the rebellious Morini — subjection of the Menapii

One troop of about 300 had landed back in Gaul and were marching to camp when they were attacked by a large contingent of the Morini, who had been at peace with the Romans when Caesar had left Gaul. The Romans formed a square and soon as he heard about it Caesar sent cavalry to relieve them. The combined force beat off the Morini and pursued them, killing many.

Next day Caesar sends his most trusted lieutenant, Titus Labienus, against the Morini. Previously the Morini had retreated to their marshes but it’s been a hot summer and the marshes have all dried up. So they surrendered.

As for Quintus Titurius and Lucius Cotta, the lieutenant-generals who had led legions into the territory of the Menapii, they did not return to Caesar until they had laid waste all the fields of the natives, cut down the corn-crops, and burnt the buildings, because the Menapii had all hidden in their densest forests.

Great deal of wasting and burning, isn’t there? Which has led some modern historians to accuse Caesar of genocide. Some historians have totalled up the number of Gauls killed at over a million, in a land with a population of only a million or so. Arguments about numbers killed or enslaved quickly become highly technical (and Caesar may well have been exaggerating throughout his accounts to big up his achievements) – but you can see their point.

Even the most detached reading of the text begins to weigh you down with the sheer numbers of people killed, the towns razed to the ground, the populations sold into slavery, the villages and all the agricultural land destroyed. As Tacitus has his (probably fictional) Scottish chieftain declare of the Romans, in his account of Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s campaigns in Britain a hundred years later, in the late 70s AD:

‘They make a desert and call it peace.’

When the Senate received Caesar’s dispatches for the year they declare twenty days’ thanksgiving in Rome for his achievements.

Slavery

The usual fate of the inhabitants of a captured town was to be sold into slavery. A great part of Roman war profits came from the sale of people, as well as of property.
(note to page 227 in the Oxford University Press edition)

The practice of slavery among the native Gauls, and what it meant to be sold into slavery by the Romans, and how far towns and peoples would go to avoid such a fate, strike me as being of huge importance in understanding the native societies Caesar was attacking, the fears of those peoples and their motivation in repeatedly rising up against Roman rule.

And yet the issue of slavery is mentioned nowhere in the introductions of either Hammond nor Gardiner. They both go on at length about the well-known political political situation in Rome, which is covered in numerous other books, and yet completely ignore this huge elephant in the room.

Video

A useful video summary of Caesar’s campaigns.


Related link

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Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh (1936)

On Monday night there was a bacchanalian scene at Mme Idot’s, where, among other songs of international popularity, ‘Giovanezza’ was sung in a litter of upturned tables and broken crockery.
(Waugh in Abyssinia, page 107)

In 1935 Italy declared war on Abyssinia, an independent sovereign state in north east Africa, and Evelyn Waugh was hired by a British newspaper (I think it’s the London Evening Standard) and sent to the capital, Addis Ababa, to cover the conflict. This was because it was widely assumed that he knew about the country because of the hilarious and colourful, but also detailed and thoughtful, account of the 1930 coronation of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie which he had covered for The Times and then expanded into his book, Remote People.

Serious opinions

Waugh in Abyssinia opens a lot more seriously than its predecessor, with a chapter he jokingly titles ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to the Ethiopian Question’. (This is a humorous reference to the book ‘The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism’, published George Bernard Shaw in 1928.)

This opening chapter reads like an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. It gives a detailed history of Abyssinia from the turn of the nineteenth century till the present day. The facts he gives are illuminating but what’s really striking is his opinions: this dyed-in-the-wool Tory repeats at face value the standard Marxist critique of Empire, that the scramble for Africa, although dressed up in pious sentiments, was mainly motivated by the need of Western capitalists for:

new sources of raw material, new markets, but, more than anything, for new fields of profitable investment.

Even more surprisingly, he frankly agrees with modern ideas that Africa was seized by force from its traditional owners, who were swindled or simply out-gunned out of their land.

The most remarkable feature of the partition was the speed with which it was accomplished. In less than ten years the whole of pagan Africa was in the hands of one or other of the European Powers. Explorers pushed on from village to village armed with satchels of draft treaties upon which hospitable chiefs were induced to set their mark; native interpreters made gibberish of the legal phraseology; inalienable tribal rights were exchanged for opera hats and musical boxes; some potentates, such as the Sultan of Sokoto, thought they were accepting tribute when they were receiving a subsidy in lieu of their sovereign rights, others that it was the white man’s polite custom to collect souvenirs of this kind; if, when they found they had been tricked, they resisted the invaders, they were suppressed with the use of the latest lethal machinery: diplomats in Europe drew frontiers across tracts of land of which they were totally ignorant, negligently overruling historic divisions of race and culture and the natural features of physical geography, consigning to the care of one or other white race millions of men who had never seen a white face. A task which was to determine the future history of an entire continent, requiring the highest possible degrees of scholarship and statesmanship, was rushed through in less than ten years.

These are the kind of progressive sentiments which authors writing in the 1990s or 2000s pride themselves on and yet here they are, forcefully and clearly stated as long ago as 1935, as not just the property of the left or progressives, but as a universally acknowledged truth held by all educated people of the day:

But the avarice, treachery, hypocrisy and brutality of the partition are now a commonplace which needs no particularisation…

Not only that, but this Tory patriot then zeroes in on the record of his own country and the particular brand of hypocrisy which the English brought to their colonising.

It is worth remembering indeed, in the present circumstances, the particular nature of the reproach which attaches to England. France, Germany and Belgium were the more ruthless; we the more treacherous. We went into the shady business with pious expressions of principle; we betrayed the Portuguese and the Sultan of Zanzibar, renouncing explicit and freshly made guarantees of their territory; we betrayed Lobenguela and other native rulers in precisely the same method but with louder protestations of benevolent intention than our competitors; no matter into what caprice of policy our electorate chose to lead us, we preached on blandly and continuously; it was a trait which the world found difficult to tolerate; but we are still preaching.

And then his comments about the important impact of African art on Western art:

For centuries Africa has offered Europe successive waves of aesthetic stimulus…the gracious, intricate art of Morocco or the splendour of Benin…the dark, instinctive art of the negro — the ju-ju sculpture, the carved masks of the medicine man, the Ngomas, the traditional terrifying ballet which the dancing troops carry from the Great Lakes to the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba.

Although we might bridle at some of his phrasing, nevertheless this is the kind of claim you find made in up-to-the minute art exhibitions by the wokest of curators (for example, Tate’s self-flagellating exhibition about British Imperialism) . I was genuinely startled that a man who’s often seen as a blimpish reactionary held views 90 years ago which are identified with the most progressive of progressives in 2021.

Abyssinia and Ethiopia

As to Ethiopia’s origins:

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Abyssinia consisted of the four mountain kingdoms of Amhara, Shoa, Tigre and Gojjam, situated in almost complete isolation from outside intercourse.

Waugh says the word ‘Abyssinia’ is a corruption of the Arabic Habasha, variously said to mean ‘mongrels’ or ‘members of the Arabian Habashat tribe.’

They believed they had migrated from Arabia at some unrecorded date, probably before the Christian era; they employed a common literary language, Ghiz, which had some affinity with ancient Armenian, and spoke dialects derived from it, Tigrean and Amharic; they shared a common culture and feudal organisation and recognised a paramount King of Kings as their nominal head.

He says he will use the term ‘Abyssinian’ to describe the Amharic-speaking, Christian peoples of the four original kingdoms, and Ethiopian to describe the tribes and naturalised immigrants subject to their rule.

He describes the series of kings who sought to unite the four squabbling kingdoms, namely Emperor Theodore and Emperor Johannes, and then goes on to describe the rule of Menelik II, who is the key figure in the story. It was Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) whose organisation, diplomacy and buying up of Western guns and ammunition allowed the well organised Ethiopian army to massacre an Italian army which had been sent to colonise his country, at the decisive Battle of Adowa in 1896. For the rest of his reign, from 1896 to 1913, Menelik devoted himself to expanding his ’empire’, and is a record of conquests, treaties and submissions by neighbouring tribes and chieftains until, by 1913, he had quadrupled the size of his ‘country’.

This long opening chapter is designed to show that the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935 was far from being a simple act of unprovoked aggression. His aim is to show that Ethiopia was a much more complex place, with a complex and troubled history, than the simple shape on the map of Africa suggested. It was itself the product of imperial conquest, above all by the legendary King Menelik II, who attacked Tigray in the north, Somalia in the south and East, seizing territory, forcing countless chieftains, sheikhs and local leaders into obeisance. ‘Ethiopia’ was the result of conquest every bit as brutal as the European conquest of Africa, a ‘country’ which was more a:

vast and obscure agglomeration of feudal fiefs, occupied military provinces, tributary sultanates, trackless no-man’s-lands roamed by homicidal nomads; undefined in extent, unmapped, unexplored, in part left without law, in part grossly subjugated; the brightly coloured patch in the schoolroom atlas marked, for want of a more exact system of terminology, ‘ Ethiopian Empire’.

Return to farce

So the opening chapter is surprisingly serious, factual and (liberally) opinionated. But as soon as we move to chapter two we enter the more familiar territory of Waugh farce and fiasco.

He describes for comic effect the panic throughout London’s media as war in Abyssinia looms and companies scrabble to capitalise on the fact: publishers dust off rubbish old books about the north east Africa, which suddenly sell like hot cakes, press agencies buff up photos of Borneo head hunters or Australian aborigines to flog them as pics of Abyssinian natives.

Above all anyone with the slightest acquaintance with Ethiopia is suddenly in great demand and thus it is that Waugh finds himself able to wangle another commission as a foreign correspondent, sent by his paper to buy a mountain of comic equipment, catching the boat train to Paris, train to Marseilles, boarding a steamer along with hordes of other journalists, steaming across the Med and through the Suez Canal to Djibouti, then scrambling aboard the shabby stopping train across the barren desert and then up into the Ethiopian highlands to Addis Ababa.

Comedy

There is ample comedy about the farcical aspects of journalism, war, and Africa. Here is Waugh at his magisterial comic best, this paragraph like a magnificent galleon sailing though a comic extravaganza of his own devising.

There were several hotels in Addis Ababa, all, at the time of our arrival, outrageously prosperous. The ‘Splendide,’ at which we all assumed we should stay — the Radical had had the name painted in large white letters on his medicine chest — was completely full with journalists and photographers living in hideous proximity, two or three to a room even in the outbuildings. It was a massive, shabby building of sepulchral gloom, presided over by a sturdy, middle-aged, misanthropic Greek, who had taken it over as a failing concern just before the troubles. There was something admirable about the undisguised and unaffected distaste with which he regarded his guests and his ruthless disregard of their comfort and dignity. Some attempted to be patronising to him, some dictatorial, some ingratiating; all were treated with uniform contempt. He was well aware that for a very few months nothing that he did or left undone could affect his roaring prosperity; after that anything might happen.

Deadpan

A very Waughesque effect is the deadpan statement of bizarre or extreme facts.

Presently [the Italian consul’s] luggage arrived, prominent in its midst a dripping packing case containing bottled beer on ice, and a caged leopard.

Charles G. had had the fortune to witness a fight between two of the European police officers. As a result he had lately been expelled on a charge of espionage. His parting act was to buy a slave and give her to Mati Hari as a tip.

We secured [a cook] who looked, and as it turned out was, all that a cook should be. A fat, flabby Abyssinian with reproachful eyes. His chief claim to interest was that his former master, a German, had been murdered and dismembered in the Issa country. (p.125)

The chauffeur seemed to be suitable until we gave him a fortnight’s wages in advance to buy a blanket. Instead he bought cartridges and tedj, shot up the bazaar quarter and was put in chains. (p.125)

[The soldiers] were ragged and dilapidated, some armed with spears but most of them with antiquated guns. ‘ I am sorry to disturb you,’ said James [our servant] politely, ‘ but these people wished to shoot us.’ (p.129)

Waugh doesn’t approve of a slave being given as a tip any more than he approves of a German being murdered and dismembered. His records a world brimful of violent absurdities. It is the harshness of some of these absurdities which gives his books their bite, and also helps to explain the depth of his Roman Catholic faith. Only faith in a benevolent God could stay him against the panorama of violence, futility and fiasco he saw all around him. He reports it deadpan for its comic effect. But sometimes his despair peeks through.

Before the war

Although there were armed clashes in late 1934, and Mussolini made a steady stream of blustering warnings throughout the spring and summer of 1935, in reality Italy was happy to bide its time till the right time and place to commence hostilities.

With the result that ship after shipload of correspondents arrived from all over Europe, America, Japan and beyond, booking up all the rooms at every hotel and, like Waugh, spilling over into neighbouring boarding houses, engaging in feverish rounds of press conferences, meetings with diplomats, interviewing every official they could find, creating an over-excited community of feverish scribblers liable to over-react to every new rumour no matter how far fetched, and yet – long weeks went by and nothing happened.

Waugh is tempted to go on excursions to locations said to be vital in the strategic planning of the attackers, and so find himself going with an old friend (Waugh’s world is full of old friends from public school or Oxford or London’s narrow literary clique) back to Harar, the town he first visited in 1930, which is east of Addis. They had an interesting time, he gives an evocative description of how the place had changed in just 5 years since he was previously there. They press on further east to the town of Jijiga on the border with Somalia (p.70) and here Waugh and Balfour stumble on the story of a French aristocrat, Count Maurice de Roquefeuil du Bousquet, who runs a mining concession in the district and  who has just been arrested, along with his wife, for spying for the Italians. He had been taking photographs of Ethiopian defences and sending the rolls of film by secret courier to the Italian Consulate at Harar (p.74). Balfour and Waugh take photographs of all the relevant locations, of the count himself in prison and send off excited despatches to their papers back in Blighty.

Slowly, however, their excitement at having secured a scoop fades and by the time they arrive back at Addis they realise that, by being absent for those few days, they have missed one of the great scoops of the period, which was that the emperor had granted to an American consortium, led by one Mr Rickett, the mineral concession for the entire north of Ethiopia, precisely the territory an invading Italian army would have to cross, in a typically canny attempt to invoke international law and get the international community on his side (p.80). In fact it failed, as a diplomatic ploy, because the US government refused to ratify the concession and by doing so, in effect, gave the green light to Italy to invade.

Comic characters

In Waugh’s hands every person he meets becomes a comic character: Mr Kakophilos the gloomy Greek owner of the Hotel Splendide; Herr and Frau Heft, owners of the Deutsches Haus boarding house, also home to two fierce geese and a pig; the Radical journalist, a high-minded reporter for, presumably, the Manchester Guardian; Mme Idot and Mme Moriatis, French owners of the only two places of entertainment in town and bitter enemies; Dr Lorenzo Taesas, the beady-eyed Tigrayan head of the Press Bureau; the accident-prone American newsreel cameraman, Mr Prospero; the avaricious Greek owner of the only hotel in Harar, Mr Caraselloss; the bibulous chief of police in Harar; a spy Waugh hires, an imposing old Afghan named Wazir Ali Beg who roams the country sending Waugh ever-more ludicrous reports (p.68); the spy his friend Patrick Balfour hires, who they all nickname Mata Hari (p.69); Gabri, Patrick’s Abyssinian servant who speaks eccentric French; the wily customs officer of Jijiga, Kebreth Astatkie; the Swiss chef hired by the emperor who, when he doesn’t get paid for a few months, quit in high dudgeon and the emperor tried to persuade to return by arresting his entire kitchen staff (p.93).

These aren’t people so much as a cast, the cast of a wonderful comic extravaganza. At several points Waugh just lists the weird and wonderful types who have washed up in Addis, for their oddity value.

There was a simian Soudanese, who travelled under a Brazilian passport and worked for an Egyptian paper; there was a monocled Latvian colonel, who was said at an earlier stage of his life to have worked as ringmaster in a German circus; there was a German who travelled under the name of Haroun al Raschid, a title, he said, which had been conferred on him during the Dardanelles campaign by the late Sultan of Turkey; his head was completely hairless; his wife shaved it for him, emphasising the frequent slips of her razor with tufts of cotton-wool. There was a venerable American, clothed always in dingy black, who seemed to have strayed from the pulpit of a religious conventicle; he wrote imaginative despatches of great length and flamboyancy. There was an Austrian, in Alpine costume, with crimped flaxen hair, the group leader, one would have thought, of some Central-European Youth Movement; a pair of rubicund young colonials, who came out on chance and were doing brisk business with numberless competing organisations; two indistinguishable Japanese, who beamed at the world through hornrimmed spectacles and played interminable, highly dexterous games of ping-pong in Mme. Idot’s bar. (p.81)

And:

Two humane English colonels excited feverish speculation for a few days until it was discovered that they were merely emissaries of a World League for the Abolition of Fascism. There was a negro from South Africa who claimed to be a Tigrean, and represented another World League for the abolition, I think, of the white races, and a Greek who claimed to be a Bourbon prince and represented some unspecified and unrealised ambitions of his own. There was an American who claimed to be a French Viscount and represented a league, founded in Monte Carlo, for the provision of an Ethiopian Disperata squadron, for the bombardment of Assab. There was a completely unambiguous British adventurer, who claimed to have been one of Al Capone’s bodyguard and wanted a job; and an ex-officer of the R.A.F. who started to live in some style with a pair of horses, a bull terrier and a cavalry moustache—he wanted a job to.

In my review of Remote People I remarked that these collections of eccentrics and oddballs reminded me of the Tintin books from the 1930s and 40s, a seemingly endless supply of screwball eccentrics.

Dodgy dossier

I was fascinated to learn that the Italians compiled a dossier of grievances against Ethiopia which they presented to the League of Nations in Geneva as justification for their invasion. It brought together all the evidence they could muster from the legalistic to the cultural.

Thus they claimed the emperor had signed a contract giving an Italian firm the job of building a railway from Addis to the coast but in the event gave the work to a French company. They complained that Ethiopia had breached various clauses of the 1928 Treaty of Friendship between the two states. The new arterial road, which was specifically provided in the 1928 agreement, joining Dessye with Assab was abandoned and, instead, Selassie concentrated in opening communications with the British territories in Kenya and Somaliland. The construction of a wireless station at Addis Ababa was undertaken by an Italian company, heavily subsidised by the Italian government, but on completion was handed over to the management of a Swede and a Frenchman. They documented slights, insults, abuse and even the arrest of Italian citizens.

The Italians accused Ethiopia of what we would nowadays call ‘human rights abuses’, namely the fact that slavery and slave-raiding were universal (and this isn’t a bootless accusation; Waugh meets many officials or rich Ethiopians who are accompanied by one or more slaves). The Italians claim that justice, when executed at all, was accompanied by torture and mutilation; the central government was precarious and only rendered effective by repeated resort to armed force; disease was rampant, and so on.

How similar to the ‘dodgy dossier’ assembled by our own dear government to justify our attack on Iraq back in 2003.

The state of the prisons was confirmed by Waugh who made a horrified visit to one, discovering prisoners manacled to the walls of tiny hutches by chains which barely let them crawl a few yards into a courtyard to catch a little sun, no food or water provided, the prisoners surviving amid their own excrement. It was ‘the lowest pit of human misery’ he had ever seen (p.94)

The feverish press pack attend various ceremonies connected with the week-long festival of Maskar, some officiated over by the emperor, understanding little or nothing of what was going on.

Waugh becomes so bored he buys a baboon who, however, turns out to be ‘petulant and humourless’, and ‘added very little to the interest of these dull days’ (p.101)

The war

War finally broke out – that’s to say Italy invaded northern Ethiopia without any formal declaration of war – on 3 October 1935. It immediately resulted in a ramping up of baseless rumours and shameless speculation. The Italian forces consisted entirely of natives; a Red Cross hospital full of women and children had been obliterated by Italian bombing; the Italians were deserting in droves. All turned out to be utterly false.

The absurdity intensifies. The press pack in Addis is remarkably isolated from the front and the outside world. Therefore they routinely find themselves discovering by telegraph or even in newspapers, events which are happening in the war they’re meant to be covering. Waugh discovers a perverse law is at work: the London editors imagine stereotyped scenes, for example riots at the Addis railway station as desperate refugees fight their way onto the last train out of town weeks before anything like that happens; so that when there finally is something approximating to fights to get onto what everyone believes (erroneously, as it turns out) will be the last train, the newspaper editors aren’t interested: it’s old news even though it’s only just happened. Again and again Waugh has the dizzy experience of seeing the media-manufactured fictions precede the facts, creating ‘an inverted time lag between the event and its publication’ (p.113).

Eventually the press pack begin to discuss leaving. The most experienced foreign correspondent does in fact depart. Waugh embarks on another visit to Harar where there is a serious interlude when he talks to venerable Muslim elders of the town, who tell him, at some risk to themselves, how saddened they are by the attrition of the Muslim culture and customs of the place by the swamping Abyssinian Christians with their drunkenness, prostitution and corruption. It is to Waugh’s credit that he listens and retails their concerns with sympathy.

Back in Addis he discovers the press have been granted permission to head north to the town of Dessye, nowadays called Dessie. He decides to travel there with the Radical journalist and they buy a knackered lorry off a shifty looking Syrian. In the event the outing is a total farce. At the first little town on the way they are pulled over and given the third degree by the officious chief of police who their servant, ‘James’ buys off with a half pint of whiskey. But a few hours drive further along the road, at Debra Birhan, the shabby mayor and chief of police conspire to forbid their further progress. When they return from the chief’s shabby office they find the locals have built barricades of stone in front and behind their lorry. They are obliged to spend the night camping there, and in the morning the chief removes the barricade behind them and obliges them to trundle back to Addis. Oh well.

Barely have they got back than the Press Office gives the entire press corps permission to travel to Dessie, so now our heroes set out on the same road but this time accompanied by many other cars and lorries packed with journalists and are not hindered or stopped.

In other words, Waugh at no time gets anywhere near a front, sees no fighting, doesn’t even hear the roar of distant artillery, never sees an enemy airplane. The text is entirely about the fatuity of the press corps and the obstructiveness of the Ethiopian authorities.

The emperor arrives at Dessye which would thenceforward be his headquarters for the war, until, in the spring, he was forced to flee the Italian advance, driving fast back to Addis, then catching the train to the coast and then by ship into exile.

By now it was December and the European press and American film companies were bored of the lack of action, coverage, footage, photos and stories. One by one the journalists find themselves being withdrawn. Everyone expects the war to drag on and end with some kind of diplomatic fudge which would revert to the status quo ante, Italy with a bit more influence, maybe Britain and France intervening under cover of a League of Nations mandate, foreign companies seeking concessions, then demanding justice if there was any murder or harassment. Same old.

Waugh’s newspaper terminates his contract. Having come this far he toys with staying on as a freelancers but, like everyone else, expects nothing will happen. He blags a seat in a Red Cross car heading back for the capital.

The German driver — an adventurous young airman who had come to look for good fortune after serving in the Paraguayan war — kept a rifle across the wheel and inflicted slight wounds on the passing farmers at point-blank range. (p.142)

Bereft of its emperor, the capital is dead. The bars are empty. The thronging press pack has gone, He packs his things and gets the train to Djibouti where he discovers a little community of journalists who never even bothered to go to the capital, but were making a perfectly happy living reporting events which they entirely invented. Ship back up through the canal, to Palestine where he fulfils an ambition to see Christmas in Bethlehem. And so by easy stages back to dear old Blighty.

Collapse

The final chapter reports events as a historian, from England. The Italian advance through February and March 1936, the sudden complete collapse of Ethiopian forces and the flight of the emperor to Djibouti and into exile. It had to compete with the German occupation of the Rhine and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.

But he follows events, aware as few others how much being printed in the papers was nonsense, eventually overcome by curiosity he applies for permission to return to Abyssinia and, one year after his initial setting off, once again crosses France, then the Mediterranean, then down the Red Sea and so to Djibouti. It is packed with Italians and native hawkers.

Waugh is amused at the sight of the Italian soldiers having to travel from Djibouti, which was in French Somaliland, as far as the border with Ethiopia proper, in mufti. At the border they were allowed to change back into the garish uniforms. Absurdity.

Immediately things are counter-intuitive. He had read that his favourite town of Harar had been bombed and devastated. His friend Patrick Balfour wrote an eloquent obsequy for it in a newspaper. Except it hadn’t. If anything it was cleaner. the pavements had been fixed. The town was packed with Italians. The Hararis looked happy as sandmen to replace the oppressive rule of the Abyssinians with the more permissive – and lucrative – rule of the bon vivant Italians.

He discovers currency chaos with seven different currencies in circulation. There have been attacks on the train by ‘bandits’ prompting ‘pacification’ measures by the Italians in the surrounding villages. When the emperor left there was wholescale looting in Addis Ababa. Waugh discovers no building was untouched, curtains ripped down, electric light fittings torn out.

Waugh meets the Italian general running the new imperial administration, the Viceroy, Field Marshall Graziani. He is frank and forthright, happy to give Waugh whatever help he needs. Slowly it is revealed how extensively Addis was not only looted but burned down. The main hotel looted, the boarding house where Waugh stayed, attacked and burned. Accommodation is difficult. Everywhere is overflowing with the new Italian soldiers and administrators. The streams of lazy Abyssinians riding mules in their white cloaks have disappeared. Crops have not been sown. Food prices are astronomical. There will be famine.

Addis feels besieged. Groups of armed men, sometimes in their hundreds, penetrate the defences on raids. In the four days he spends there, Waugh hear of a substantial attack on the airdrome, and numerous other incursions. Waugh’s trademark deadpan humour:

I had an appointment that afternoon to visit Ras Hailu ; drove out to his house beyond the American hospital and was politely informed that his Highness was unable to see me ; he had gone out to a battle. (p.157)

The Europeans fear for the day a massed attack will be met by an insurrection of blacks within the city and they’ll all be murdered in their sleep. Uneasy sleeps the colonist.

Waugh gives his view frankly and openly, as he did at the start about the process of Western colonialism, as he did in the previous book about the cause of the white settlers in Kenya. For him the central fact is nobody expected the Abyssinian nation to collapse to quickly and completely. Instead of Abyssinians fighting against the Italians and their former subject peoples (which he and other intelligent commentators expected) the Abyssinians themselves had disintegrated into scores of warlords and warrior bandits, living off the peasantry and fighting each other. Complete anarchy, in other words.

As always, the colonists hold the cities and towns, the railway and most of the roads, during the day at least. but the vast expanse of the country is the home of warring bandits as per Afghanistan in our time, as per Vietnam, as per so many colonially occupied countries. Waugh thinks the Italians are tougher than opinion credits them and they’ll make a go of their new empire, but it will be hard.

The road

The book closes with a short chapter describing progress on the new modern motorway the Italians are constructing to run the length of their new colony, praising the engineers and navvies who have built a wide, modern trunk road from the north coast through the heart of the country to Addis and which is still being constructed south towards Somalia and Mogadishu as he writes.

Waugh is positively propagandistic about the new Italian empire. He sees white men working very hard to build the road, something incomprehensible to the Abyssinians who watch them.

The Italian occupation of Ethiopia is the expansion of a race. It began with fighting, but it is not a military movement, like the French occupation of Morocco. It began with the annexation of potential sources of wealth, but it is not a capitalistic movement like the British occupation of the South African goldfields. It is being attended by the spread of order and decency, education and medicine, in a disgraceful place, but it is not primarily a humane movement, like the British occupation of Uganda. It can be compared best in recent history to the great western drive of the American peoples, the dispossession of the Indian tribes and the establishment in a barren land of new pastures and cities.

Very surprising that someone with such a shrewd, pitilessly realistic eye, and a temperament disposed to ennui and sometimes depression, should write such rose-tinted hogwash.

He goes on a whistlestop tour of the occupied north of the country: Asmara, Axum, Adowa and many more now made accessible in hours via the modern autostrada which only a year before had been inaccessibly remote hypothetical places marked on the journalists’ maps, which would have taken weeks of driving then mule trekking to reach. Quite obviously, it is this incredible turnaround in wretched, backward, squalid Ethiopia’s landscape which prompted his raptures about the Italian occupation.

Abandoning everything which makes him such good company, such an alert, malicious, eagle-eyed observer, such a cynic, with such an acute eye for human foibles and follies, right at the very end Waugh delivers a ridiculous hymn of praise to Italian Fascism. I quote it in full a) to give the full mounting rhythm of the thing but b) because it reviews and summarises some of the places he visited and experiences he described and c) it’s an important passage:

They [the engineers and navvies] are at work there at this moment, as I write. They will be at work there when these words appear, and in a few months the great metalled highway will run uninterrupted along the way where the Radical and I so painfully travelled a year before, past the hot springs where our servants mistook the bubbles for rising fish, past the camping ground where Dedjasmach Matafara entertained us to breakfast, up the immense escarpment, past Debra Birhan, where the one-eyed chief held us prisoner, to Addis, where a new city will be in growth — a real ‘New Flower’ — to take the place of the shoddy ruins of Menelik and Tafari. And from Dessye new roads will be radiating to all points of the compass, and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, as they came to our savage ancestors in France and Britain and Germany, bringing some rubbish and some mischief; a good deal of vulgar talk and some sharp misfortunes for individual opponents; but above and beyond and entirely predominating, the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgement — the two determining qualities of the human spirit, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes.

What utter horseshit. I wonder what Evelyn’s friends, let alone his enemies, made of this misplaced paean seven short years later when many of them were fighting against and being killed by these same charming Fascists in the Italian campaign of the Second World War.

Pondering Waugh’s imperialist rhetoric

This florid passage is such a contrast with the entirely progressive, left-wing view of colonialism which he expressed in chapter one of the book. Then again revisiting that opening rhetoric may be a clue to its meaning or its origin. Waugh lived in a world where there were no aid agencies (with the notable exception of the International Red Cross which, however, restricted itself to treating victims of war). There was none of the long-established mechanisms of international aid, foreign loans, ministries of overseas aid, ministries of international development, nor the hundreds and hundreds of charities which medical, teaching, water aid, famine relief, mine clearing, humanitarian assistance and so on, which I have grown up with and take entirely for granted. (Thinking about it, I realise that there were quite a number of missionary agencies which had been operating since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and supported schools and, to a lesser extent, hospitals.)

Waugh had visited the country twice, travelled round it more extensively than most Westerners. He had learned that it was a ramshackle ’empire’ built on the conquest and suppression of neighbouring peoples and tribes. He had seen that, even at the centre, it was characterised by backward obscurantism, inefficiency, endless delay and inaction. No roads worth the name, hardly any hospitals, rarely any schools, and a population mostly illiterate living in poverty in the towns and absolute destitution in the countryside, where famine often brought starvation, many parts of which were prey to wandering bands murdering bandits.

It is worth, therefore, mentally trying on the position, I mean experimenting with the view he is clearly expressing, that Italian colonisation genuinely offered the best way forward for the people of Abyssinia. If you genuinely cared for the population, if you wanted to see roads built, and the economy developed, and modern commerce, and schools and hospitals built in regional centres and the population educated…then the building of the big new trunk road to run right across the country was a symbol of a new life for Ethiopia’s people.

This goes some way to explain his enthusiasm, that and maybe the decision to end the book on an upbeat, positive note. It still doesn’t justify the extravagance of his rhetoric, which seems ludicrous to us now. And, as with his support for the white settlers in Kenya which he expressed in Remote People, we have the immense advantage of hindsight, of knowing that his view was swept away by three or four cumulative forces: that Italian colonisation would be short-lived and ineffectual; that Mussolini’s government would be swept away by the Second World War; that the entire ideology of imperialism and colonisation would a) be swept away in the early 1960s and b) become associated with criminal exploitation.

I’m not defending his position, I’m just pointing out that Waugh knew none of this was going to happen and that, at the time of writing, while the colonisation process had barely even begun, he was genuinely inspired with hope that Italian hegemony would bring a new era of education and enlightenment to a country he had ample evidence for thinking backward and, in some areas (take his harrowing description of Addis Ababa’s prison) positively barbaric.

It is also worth remembering that we, in our fabulously enlightened modern era, despite knowing vastly more about international development than Waugh, have been prone to the same triumphalist rhetoric. Witness the gushingly positive commentary that surrounded the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, when Western nations invaded third world countries and overthrew their dictatorial regimes, promising a new dawn of peace and prosperity, the rule of law, hospitals, schools and all the rest of it – only to find themselves bogged down in years of violent conflict with unreconciled resistance fighters.

The opening chapter of the book makes it clear that Waugh was all too aware that high-minded European involvement in a developing country all too often covered self-serving commercial and strategic considerations. This makes it all the odder that he gave way to such a booming passage of high-minded rhetoric at the end of the narrative.

Well, a Western country hadn’t invaded a developing country in quite that way, with quite the modern facilities Italy brought to Ethiopia in the 1930s, for quite a while, when Waugh wrote. Presumably he thought this time it’ll be different.

And he had actually seen with his own eyes the impressive new trunk road being built across the country and seen the contrast between the dynamic Italian navvies and the shiftless, poverty stricken native peasants who looked on in amazement. So he has the excuse that he was writing about what he had actually seen at first hand and this included his genuine excitement that genuine change was at hand for the country’s people.

Whereas 70 years later, the armchair commentators, politicians and populations of Western countries who greeted America’s invasion of first Afghanistan then Iraq had no excuses. 70 years of brutal, disillusioning global history had intervened and they should have known better. But hope springs eternal in the human breast and the supporters of those invasions, just like Waugh supporting the Italian invasion, thought this time it’ll be different.

But it’s never different. It’s always the same.

Some Ethiopian words

  • dedjasmatch = civic leader or commander in the field
  • khat = wild plant whose leaves, when chewed, release a stimulant drug which produces mild euphoria and makes people feel more alert and talkative
  • tedj/tej = a honey wine, like mead, that has an alcohol content generally ranging from 7 to 11%
  • tukal/tukul = a traditional thatched roof hut

Credit

Waugh in Abyssinia by Evelyn Waugh was published by Longmans in 1936. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

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