Updated: Jun 22
When Caesar ventured off the map and into unknown worlds, he discovered new lands and peoples that captivated the Roman world with Wonder. We too can feel Wonder through our own explorations of the unknown.
“I came, I saw, I conquered."
- Gaius Julius Caesar
I spend a lot of my time reading about, thinking about, and if you ask my wife, talking about, Gaius Julius Caesar. He is arguably the most famous and ambitious man who ever lived. And boy did he live. The flashy clothes, willing women, piles of cash, giant brain, and devil-may-care swagger, Caesar was the David Lee Roth of the ancient world. But unlike Diamond Dave, Caesar was a genocidal killer and tyrant. And now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about how great he was!
In the span or fourteen years, Caesar conquered Gaul, discovered Britain, invaded Germany, impregnated Cleopatra, won victories in Egypt, Greece, Spain, Turkey and Tunisia, and oh yeah, ended the already waning Roman Republic by declaring himself Dictator for Life. (Comparatively, I’ve spent the last 14 years just trying to get through the day.)
In future posts, I’ll likely discuss more about Caesar’s vigor and genius, but for now, I want focus on one aspect of Caesar’s life that adds wonder to my own: he ventured off the map and into the unknown.
As a kid I loved those ancient and medieval maps portraying sea monsters along the edges of the “known world.” The idea that people back then didn't know what lay beyond those points on the map always intrigued me. Those mysteries intrigued Caesar as well. For a man of his ambition and curiosity, sea monsters on a map weren't a warning, they were an invitation. He would venture off the map, explore the unknown, and slay any monsters who got in his way.
To best explain the wonders of Caesar’s ventures off the map, I want to first describe the world he inhabited – a world defined by lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
One of the coolest things about the ancient world is how new races of people would just appear, seemingly out of nowhere from parts unknown.
A favorite example occurred just before Caesar’s birth in 100BC, when two northern tribes – the Teutons and Cimbri – invaded Italy. And this wasn’t just a few thousand migrants looking for a new place to live, this was close to a million people (including 300,000 warriors) trekking over the Alps and into northern Italy. As reports came flooding into Rome of white-haired, fair skinned warriors "of great size [and] light blue eyes" who had "no [previous] contact with southern races," Romans kept asking themselves, “who the hell are these guys!?” It was the equivalent of CNN reporting that a million aliens just landed in Maine and are now marching down I-95 to sack Washington, D.C.
According to Plutarch, who reported on this invasion more than a century later, “who these people were and from what part of the world they [came]… no one knew.” Okay, this blows my mind. A million people just appear out of nowhere and scholars in Rome are left scratching their heads about the tribes’ origins? The best guess, Plutarch writes, was from territories “at the end of the world by the outer ocean in a land of shade and forests so thick that the sun is never visible because of the size and thickness of the trees.” Did you get all that? Rome’s best guess is that that they came from “the end of the world.” God, I love history.
Despite the Teutons and Cimbri annihilating hundreds of thousands of Roman soldiers during their invasion of Italy, eventually (like always) Rome got its shit together and called upon a savior. This time it was General Gaius Marius. Reorganizing, retraining, and replacing “citizen soldiers” with paid, career-oriented professionals, Marius reinvigorated Rome’s legions and after a decade of fighting, drove the northern horde back over the Alps.
Off the Map
A few decades after Marius’ pushed the Teutons and Cimbri back over the Alps and out of Italy, a 41-year-old Julius Caesar marched over those same Alps and invaded Gaul (modern day France and Belgium). For the next seven years, Caesar conquered Gaul while sending dispatches of his army’s conquests back to Rome. Most Romans ate it up, cheering Caesar and his legions from afar. But the conquests of Caesar's legions aren't what captivate me most, it’s where he took those legions that leaves me spellbound.
During his Gallic campaign, Caesar and his legions ventured into lands where no Roman soldier had ever been. Like Captain Kirk would thousands of years later, Caesar sought “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” And he did just that in two great acts during the summer of 55BC. To this day, both actions leave me billowing with wonder.
Act I: Crossing the Rhine
As Caesar fought Gallic tribes in France, two Germanic tribes foolishly decided to cross the Rhine River (separating Germania from Gaul) and attack Caesar’s legions. Never one to show weakness, Caesar turned a portion of his army east to punish German aggression. First, he defeated those attacking Germans on Gallic soil. Next, to deter any future attacks from the east, Caesar did something no Roman had ever done before: he crossed the Rhine River and invaded Germania.
Germania, the land of the German. It was an unknown entity to most Romans -- a mysterious land that, according to Tacitus, “bristled with forests [and] reeked with swamps.” It was said a man could walk through Germania for months and never leave the dark forest. The deeper he ventured, Tacitus warned, the more likely he would encounter warriors with “the faces and expressions of men [and] the bodies and limbs of wild beasts.”
Caesar, a man who traced his lineage to Achilles, was not afraid. He would cross the Rhine, invade Germania, and do it in a way that left a lasting impression.
In his famed chronicles, Caesar dismissed crossing the Rhine by boat as beneath “his own stature… and [that] of the Roman people.” As a result, Caesar would do something spectacular, something the awaiting Germanic barbarians never thought possible. Caesar would build the first bridge across the Rhine River.
Lurking behind trees on the river’s eastern shore, bearded warriors dressed in bear skins and carrying spears peered through the trees with bewildered horror. They saw two-story high Roman cranes floating on barges and hoisting five-thousand-pound logs as if they were steel I-beams above the river. Guiding those logs and pilons into the river, Roman engineers used state-of-the-art pile drivers to pound thick pilons into the riverbed as they laid board after board over the connecting crossbeams. In just ten days, Caesar’s legions built a bridge stretching hundreds of meters across the Rhine’s strong and deep currents.
As the astonished Germans gathered their nerves, they watched Caesar’s determined legions, dressed in crimson and steel, march row by row across the bridge, followed by horses, baggage trains, and slaves. And so they crossed, the conquerors of Gaul and arguably the most formidable killing machine in history, the legions stepped away from civilization and into the dark, fabled, and according to many, haunted forests of Germany. For the next eighteen days, Plutarch tells us that Caesar’s men “burned and savaged the country belonging to hostile tribes.” In the end, Caesar had made his bold statement, projecting Roman technology and power. Turning his legions west, he crossed back over the bridge he built, and then dismantled the marvel board by board, leaving the Germans mesmerized, scared, and above all, relieved that he was gone.
About a month after his gangster move on the Rhine, Caesar’s wanderlust was far from sated. He still had a few warm months remaining before winter, so in August he began preparing for another bold leap into the unknown: he would cross what Plutarch called “the Western Sea” and invade an island many writers and scholars in Rome claimed didn’t even exist. Standing at the northwestern edge of civilization, Julius Caesar, Plutarch writes, would “carry the Roman empire beyond the limits of the known world.” Caesar would do what Napoleon’s Grand Armée and Hitler’s Third Reich could never do. He would invade Britain.
Act II: Crossing the Sea
While planning his invasion of Britain, Caesar noted that he “could discover neither how large the island was [nor] what nations inhabited it.” Caesar was in the dark; consequently, his amphibious landing was a serious risk. But for the resolute Caesar, standing on the Gallic coast with his red cloak flapping in the salty wind, invading the mythic island proved irresistible. It would be worth the risk.
With only the scantiest of information from Gallic merchants about the British coastline, Caesar’s legions hacked down neighboring forests as engineers constructed one hundred wooden ships, enough to sail two legions plus auxiliaries (10,000 men) across the channel.
As the Roman ships crossed the sea and approached Britain’s southeastern tip, I’ll let the great Tom Holland take over to describe the scene:
“Waiting for the invaders on the Kentish cliffs was a scene straight out of legend: warriors careering up and down in chariots, just as Hector and Achilles had done on the plains of Troy. To add to the exotic nature of it all, the Britons wore peculiar facial hair and were painted blue. So taken aback were the legionaries that they stood cowering in their transport boats until finally a standard-bearer, clutching his eagle to him, plunged into the waves alone and started wading toward the shore. His comrades, shamed into action, piled into the water after him.”
Imagine the scene! My god, it gives me chills. Who was this ballsy guy carrying the eagle standard of the Tenth Legion? Where was he from? How old was he? What did he look like? We will never know, but we do know that he mattered, and when considering him, we can let wonder do the rest.
Here’s, a first-hand account of this stud from Caesar himself:
“…he who carried the eagle of the tenth legion, after calling on the gods that the matter might turn out well for the legion, cried out, ‘Jump down, fellow soldiers, unless you wish to betray your eagle to the enemy. As for me, I will perform my duty to the state and my general.’ Having shouted this loudly, he threw himself from the ship and began to carry the eagle against the enemy.”
Galvanized by the standard-bearer’s example, Roman soldiers charged through the surf and engaged the Britons in bloody hand-to-hand fighting on the shore. Soon, both legions established a beachhead.
For the next twenty-eight days, Caesar’s men tore through southeastern Britain like bandits, battling Celtic barbarians who reportedly fought naked on occasion with their hair spiked high with clay and severed heads swinging from their war chariots. After burning villages and winning a series of battles against these fierce warriors, Caesar signed a treaty with the southeastern tribes, took his hostages (and newly acquired slaves), and returned to Gaul before the winter could make sailing back to the continent impossible.
Reflecting on Caesar’s ventures off the map and into the unknown worlds of Britain and Germania, Tom Holland writes in Rubicon that “nothing remotely concrete had been achieved. But in Rome,” he says, Caesar’s exploits “caused a sensation.” The Romans ate it up as Caesar fed their hunger for wonder. Caesar had literally discovered the island of Britain for the Roman world. This was the ancient equivalent, Holland concludes, of the “moon landings.”
Venture into the Unknown
When I read about Caesar’s adventures into the unknown, I’m left swirling with the same wonder I felt as a kid pouring over those ancient maps where sea monsters crested white-cap waves along the edge of the world. As we age, the importance of finding and feeling such wonder cannot be overstated.
In my early twenties, I loved “pre-gaming” with my buddies before a night out on the town. As we lounged around playing foosball or watching Highlander for the fiftieth time, our excitement for what could happen that night would only grow. As we drank beers and shared laughs, I still remember saying to anyone who would listen, “Anything could happen tonight! Anything!”
As a young man, I routinely ventured off the map and into bars, gyms, cities, and countries unknown to me before I discovered them. Yet, as I’ve aged, that same wanderlust seems to have faded away. Deep into my forties, that “anything could happen” excitement only seems to scare the shit out of me. In my prime earning years, I have more to lose now. I also have more expenses, more stress, and a lot less time (and patience) for shenanigans than I did in my twenties.
In many ways, the fire of my conquering heart seems to have tempered with age. And maybe that’s good thing because a conquering heart can get you into some deep shit (for Caesar, it got him assassinated). That said, a tame heart isn’t good either; it can leave us feeling despondent, asking this horrible question about our lives: “Is this it?”
When I’m feeling unexcited about life, wonder is my savior and cure.
Igniting my life with wonder doesn’t mean quitting my job and joining a militia in Papua New Guinea for some good old fashion raiding. All I need to do to feel wonder is read The Eagle and the Ninth, Chariots of the Gods, The Swerve, or some other swashbuckling tale.
And there are other ways to feel wonder too. I can drive "off the map" to parts of the city where I’ve never been, discovering new gyms, friends, restaurants, bookstores, and hiking trails along the way. In the winter, I can ski inside the trees instead of on the trail. In the summer, I can roller skate instead of hike or run. And whenever gathering with friends, I can ask, ”So… are we living in a computer simulation? Are we alone in the universe? How will Artificial Intelligence kill us all?" And when alone, I can always return to my books -- lighting a candle, pouring a whiskey, and opening The Gallic War by Julius Caesar and once again imagine Celtic warriors painted blue careening on chariots atop the Kentish Cliffs.
When we seek wonder and make new discoveries in our travels, books, ideas, and actions, we venture “off the map” and the leave the tedium, routines, and despondency of modern life behind.