Roman Heroics

| Introduction | Goals and Objectives | Grammar Highlights | Passage | Handouts | Web Resources |


This passage describes a certain incident during the Alesian campaign at the battle of Gergovia in the spring of 52 BC. In it, a certain centurion, Marcus Petronius, disobeys an order to retreat and storms the gates of the town. Despite an initial success, it becomes clear to Petronius that his action was ill-considered and he chooses to sacrifice his own life in order to buy time for his men to retreat.

Historically, the battle of Gergovia is significant in that it is Caesar's only campaign in Gaul that fails. He never takes the town, the Aeduan tribe that had previously been Caesar's ally rebels and joins Vercingetorix, and the Gauls are inspired by the short-lived victory to continue the revolt until their defeat at Alesia. Caesar takes great pains to convince his audience at home that he had never planned to take the city and, in fact, withdrew in order to tackle more important projects. The facts, however, seem to indicate that Caesar did intend to take the town and was unsuccessful in that attempt. In the assault described in the selection, over 700 soldiers and 40 centurions perished.

In trying to soften his defeat at Gergovia, Caesar writes a compelling narrative of Petronius' bravery and self-sacrifice in Gergovia's final assault. The passage is more complex than this, however, since Caesar questions Petronius' motives for the attack. Almost immediately after this passage, for instance, Caesar condemns the men for lacking obedience and self-restraint. Caesar also mentions in the 7.50 selection that Petronius was led by a desire for glory. Glory was an ambiguous concept for the Romans - to have it brought honor and fame, but to want it enough to act in the hope of obtaining it was looked down upon. It is here, therefore, that Petronius errs, even though he makes his mark as a hero. Perhaps it is also significant that Petronius realizes his mistake and sees it as his duty to save the men he put into danger. That duty is what Caesar seems to praise most.

The activities and questionnaires provided with this passage are designed to foster a thoughtful discussion on these issues between teacher and students. To what extent, for instance, is Petronius a hero? Do modern eyes have a different perception than Caesar? How are people "cupiditate gloriae adducti" today and what moral judgments, if any, do we make on them? Modern examples on which teachers may wish to focus include the Oscars, military commanders from WWII and the Korean War, and political election campaigns (especially with the recent Gore/Bush fiasco).

Goals and Objectives:

Also provided are some sample lesson plans:
  1. Read the passage (Student Handout A). Do this together in class, as homework, or use a provided translation (Handout E).
  2. Spend one or two days on the Ablative Absolute construction, using the exercises in Handout C.
  3. Work on Making a Polished Translation (Handout D). Use either the provided translation (Handout E) or their own previously made ones. See Polished Translation for a sample.
  4. Assign for homework Handout B; this provides focus for class discussion.
  5. Discuss the implications of the passage as outlined above in the Introduction.

Grammar Highlights:

The following is a list of the more interesting grammatical features of the passage and where each is located. Teachers will also find here a listing of the line numbers in which participles and absolutes appear.

Cum-circumstantial clauses ( 2 )

Gerund of purpose with postpostitive causa ( 2 ) Participles and Absolutes ( 13 participles, present active and perfect passive [ablative absolutes are starred] ) This passage has a wealth of participles and ablative absolutes (a total of 9, tallied together) and can serve as a good review for them. A worksheet on participles and the ablative absolute is provided for students to work on. In addition, there is an exercise for interested teachers on teaching students how to polish translations. With participles and ablative absolutes especially , translations of students (and sometimes teachers) often come out sounding stilted and unnatural. An accompanying worksheet, therefore, invites students to re-evaluate a translation once it has been made. Provided are two translations: the first in a "stilted" style common to intermediate level students (see Handout E) , the second in a more crisp, lucid style (see Polished Translation). The second is provided as only one example of how a translation can be polished while still maintaining Caesar's style and meaning; students are likely (and encouraged) to come up with many more.


This passage from De bello Gallico 7.50 is taken from the text at the Perseus Project online and formatted in a table with line numbers and macrons.


There are several activities to go along with the "Roman Heroics" selection. They are made to be as printer-friendly as possible; you may wish to set your browser not to print the date, page number, and web address (you can set these options in Netscape under File->Page Setup in the menu bar). You can also download a zipped version in Microsoft Word format of the entire Unit here.

Web Resources:

Questioning French archaeological beliefs:

Emile Mourey has a website discussing archaelogical difficulties in locating Gallic towns, including Gergovia and Alesia. Much of it is written in French, but there are some English translations. It includes some maps of the battle and pictures of the neighboring modern towns and geography.