Monthly Archives: January 2015

Caesar’s Interpreters in Gaul

Asterix Caesar

I borrowed the image above from the wonderful L’Encyclopédix Illustrée, which has lots of fun information on the Asterix comics, including a handy list of each time they use Latin, and what it means.  (I am happy to remove the image if requested by the copyright holder.)  The comics sometimes play with language to highlight the differences between Romans and Gauls, but the real story of how Julius Caesar and his army communicated with the Gauls they were conquering is an even more fascinating one.

Interpreters in wartime can be very vulnerable.  The Languages at War project at the University of Reading has given a new prominence to the history of language in conflict.  Its focus was on the Second World War and on the war in the former Yugoslavia.  In the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC), interpreters were also vulnerable, and suspected of treachery by all sides.  We have Julius Caesar’s own eye-witness report of the conflict, in the De Bello Gallico, and this is as partial (in both senses of the word) as one might expect.  Caesar doesn’t mention interpreters very often (the established trope of the ‘invisible interpreter’), but we get a little information on the careers of two individuals.  Both were Gaulish nobles who were also Roman citizens: Gaius Valerius Troucillus and Gaius Valerius Procillus. (Arguments about whether the two were one and the same are too complex to go into here, but can be followed via the link below.)   Neither was a professional interpreter.

Troucillus found himself in a tricky situation when Caesar was negotiating with a leader of a Gaulish tribe, the Aedui, and suspected a secret alliance with the Helvetii.  He brought in his “close friend C. Valerius Troucillus, a leading citizen of the province of Gaul, in whom he had the greatest confidence in all matters” (Caes. B. Gall. 1.19).  Troucillus does not appear to have had any say in the matter, and we do not know how the Aedui will have received him: a Romanised Gaul, whose family had gone over to the other side.

Procillus had a worse time of it.  Caesar sent him as an emissary to the Suebian king Ariovistus, who then – not without reason – accused him of spying and took him captive.  Ariovistus recommenced hostilities but was beaten by the Romans and fled across the Rhine.  In the chaos of the retreat, Procillus, who was being dragged along in chains, was rescued by Caesar himself – who duly records his joy at recovering “one of the most distinguished men of the province of Gaul, his close acquaintance and guest-friend” (B Gall . 1.52). Never mind that he had been the one to send his interpreter into enemy hands in the first place. Procillus reported that on three occasions his captors had cast lots to see whether he should be put to death by burning, and only by luck of the draw had he survived. His feelings towards his saviour Caesar are not recorded.

We have to read between the lines of accounts such as these.  The individuals who were pressed into service as interpreters in the Gallic Wars – or, at least, the ones whose names we have – were chosen because they were between two worlds.  They were bilingual individuals who also had a cultural and social connection to the Romans.  They held Roman citizenship, and had associations with prominent Romans such as Caesar.  They were nevertheless subject to the same suspicions and attack as modern conflict interpreters.

The full article ‘Translator, Traditor: The Interpreter as Traitor in Classical Tradition’ (Greece & Rome 58, 2011) can be found here.


Pyramids Guide Talks Churchill and Roosevelt Off Their Feet

In December 1943, an Egyptian dragoman named Hadji Ali No. 1 (presumably to distinguish him from numerous other Hadji Alis) had a moment in the international spotlight.  Press reports described how the venerable guide refused to be star-stuck when dealing with two famous clients – Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President F. D. Roosevelt.  Not only that, but he gave the two famed orators a run for their money, as he lectured them on his specialist topic, the Sphinx, for 15 minutes without stopping.

The press found Hadji Ali unfazed by the experience: ‘I was very glad to see them here’  Perhaps Churchill and Roosevelt were less glamorous than one of his previous clients, the Duke of Windsor, who made the dragoman his caddy as he drove golf balls from the top of the Great Pyramid.

Perhaps the Hadji’s most controversial remark, however, had nothing to do with the two Allied commanders.  He claimed to have refused a tip: ‘If this is widely circulated he may be expelled from the Dragoman’s union’.

Chiang Kai-shek was also in Cairo for the conference.  A passing reference is made in the press stories to his wife acting as interpreter for him with Churchill and Roosevelt.  Soong May-ling (1898-2003) was from a prominent Christian family in Shanghai, had been educated in America, and spoke English with a Georgia accent.

Churchill Pyramids

The Ottawa Journal, Thursday 2 December, 1943.