Making Caesar interesting and exciting to students can sometimes be a challenge for teachers used to a mythology or poetry background, particularly when confronted with passages about war. This can be especially difficult for students and teachers who have issues with the violence and arguably genocide Caesar commits as part of his campaigns in Gaul. While I can’t give any good advice there except to either avoid teaching it entirely or specifically make the unit about the horrors of war, I do have an idea about presenting a different aspect of war that more students can appreciate, and that is to focus on stratagems. War and conflict is often resolved as much by the use of intelligence and crafty tricks as by the use of force. The best strategies can resolve a conflict without the use of violence at all. Today I’d like to share some of the places you can find these stratagems as well as some of my personal favorites.
Sextus Iulius Frontinus is a treasure trove of these ideas and, as a bonus, he writes using somewhat Caesarian language. His book Strategmata was so influential it was required reading for generals through the 15th and 16th centuries until gunpowder and cannons radically changed how battles were fought. Better yet for a Latin teacher, Frontinus organizes his book by the kinds of ploys he found in history and then gives several paragraph length examples.
My first example is from the very beginning:
M. Porcius Cato devictas a se Hispaniae civitates existimabat in tempore rebellaturas fiducia murorum. Scripsit itaque singulis, ut diruerent munimenta, minatus bellum, nisi confestim obtemperassent, epistulasque universis civitatibus eodem die reddi iussit: unaquaeque urbium sibi soli credidit imperatum; contumaces conspiratio potuit facere, si omnibus idem denuntiari notum fuisset.
This is a great story because it shows how Cato used deception to convince all the cities in Spain to weaken themselves at the same time by making each one think they were the only one being compelled to do so.
In my second selection, also from Book 1, we learn of the clever method by which Duellius circumvented the underwater chain that the Syracusans were using to block access to their harbor.
C. Duellius consul in portu Syracusano, quem temere intraverat, obiecta ad ingressum catena clausus universos in puppem rettulit milites atque ita resupina navigia magna remigantium vi concitavit: levatae prorae super catenam processerunt. Qua parte superata transgressi rursus milites proras presserunt, in quas versum pondus decursum super catenam dedit navibus.
Sometimes a general pretends to have less of a force than he actually does to trick someone into fighting a battle. Here’s an example from Book 2.
Memnon Rhodius navali proelio, cum haberet ducentarum navium classem et hostium naves elicere ad proelium vellet, ita ordinavit suos, ut paucarum navium malos erigeret easque primas agi iuberet: hostes procul conspicati numerum arborum et ex eo navium quoque coniectantes obtuleruntse certamini et a pluribus occupati superatique sunt.
I also like this tale from Book 3:
Hannibal apud Tarentum, quae a praesidio Romano duce Livio tenebatur,Cononeum quendam Tarentinum, quem ad proditionem sollicitaverat,eiusmodi fallacia instruxit, ut ille per causam venandi noctu procederet,quasi id per hostem interdiu non liceret. Egresso ipsi apros subministrabant,quos ille tamquam ex captura Livio offerret; idque cum saepius factum esset et ideo minus observaretur, quadam nocte Hannibal venatorum habitu Poenos comitibus eius immiscuit: qui cum onusti venatione, quam ferebant, recepti essent a custodibus, protinus eos adorti occiderunt. Tum fracta porta admissus cum exercitu Hannibal omnes Romanos interfecit,exceptis his, qui in arcem profugerant.
Here Hannibal uses a traitor within Tarentum to begin a habit of hunting at night with some friends. Once the guards get used to seeing him, they notice too late the night that Hannibal switches out Cononeus’ friends with his own soldiers!
And, lest you think that these only exist in Frontinus, my last example (slightly shortened to get to the best stuff) comes from Cornelius Nepos’ Vita Hannibalis 10-11, in which the famous general uses amphora full of snakes to cause a superior force to scatter!
Superabatur navium multitudine; dolo erat pugnandum, cum par non esset armis. Imperavit quam plurimas venenatas serpentes vivas colligi easque in vasa fictilia conici. 5 Harum cum effecisset magnam multitudinem, die ipso, quo facturus erat navale proelium, classiarios convocat hisque praecipit, omnes ut in unam Eumenis regis concurrant navem, a ceteris tantum satis habeant se defendere. Id illos facile serpentium multitudine consecuturos…Reliquae Pergamenae naves cum adversarios premerent acrius, repente in eas vasa fictilia, de quibus supra mentionem fecimus, conici coepta sunt. Quae iacta initio risum pugnantibus concitarunt, neque, quare id fieret, poterat intellegi. 6 Postquam autem naves suas oppletas conspexerunt serpentibus, nova re perterriti, cum, quid potissimum vitarent, non viderent, puppes verterunt seque ad sua castra nautica rettulerunt.
How to use these in class? There are several methods – in my own class I divide up the selections I think are the most interesting and then ask the students (singly or in groups) to read the selection that they’ve been given and summarize it in their own words to the class. They could also make posters or dioramas or videos, and this makes a great choice or challenge activity for a long-term project.
Have any great ideas? We’d love for you to share them in the comments!