Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | October 7, 2014

Clumsy Historical Reference of the Week: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres

Map Gallia Tribes Towns

From Monday’s Marketplace Morning Report:

And in Latin class they used to teach that Gaul, as a whole, is divided into three parts. Hewlett-Packard, it seems, will divide into two…

The program goes on to discuss the announced split of Hewlett-Packard into two separate companies. (The printed story, which goes into a bit more depth than the quick morning radio segment, does not use the Gaul parallel; you can hear it in the Morning Report, starting at the 5:48 mark. I haven’t found any transcripts of the program.)

For those who did not study Latin: “All Gaul is divided into three parts” are the opening words of the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars, Julius Caesar’s memoirs recounting the campaigns of his armies in what what is today France, the Low Countries, western Germany, and southern Britain. Like almost all military memoirs, Caesar’s Commentaries served as propaganda, self-promotion, and self-justification; in part, Caesar was using his accounts of the Roman campaigns in Gaul to advance his political fortunes. For this reason, he wrote them for wide circulation; the Commentaries are written in a very straightforward, uncomplicated Latin, designed to be accessible to common Romans. A side effect of this accessible prose style is that Caesar’s Commentaries have been used as a teaching text for students learning Latin; passages from the Commentaries are often some of the first “real” Latin passages (i.e., written by a real Roman) that students are assigned to translate.*

All of this is of secondary importance to my main point — namely that “Gaul, as a whole, is divided into three parts” is a really weird and strained historical parallel to use as a rhetorical garnish in this context. Caesar was describing a region, using somewhat arbitrary boundaries drawn along geographic and ethno-linguistic lines to break up the region into smaller units for purposes of comparison and more detailed examination. The breakup of Hewlett-Packard is an act of division; a legal entity is about to go through a process of division to form two new legal entities. It’s the difference between a descriptive demarcation and an act of separation.

So, my thoughts wandered to historical parallels that might be less…odd in this context. Say, “Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire into three kingdoms.”

Or, since HP is being divided into two new entities (not three), “In 1889, Congress divided the Dakota Territory into the new states of North Dakota and South Dakota.”

Or, if we want to stick with a Roman theme, “The later emperors divided the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire.”

Theodosius I's empire

I mean, if we’re looking for an historical example of an aging empire dividing itself into two parts that are optimistically expected to be more nimble and better able to confront changing external threats…

* This was more true forty or fifty years ago than today; in former decades, students might spend weeks or months translating Caesar. Today, Latin textbooks and Latin teachers rely upon Caesar quite a bit less; but even so, some passages are still assigned in most second-year or intermediate Latin courses. In the normal progression, a high school student studying Latin would encounter Caesar’s Commentaries in the second year of Latin classes — say, sophomore year of high school or thereabouts. Nowadays, though, Latin students read less Caesar and are more likely to spend a lot of time reading the stupid extended story of Quintus and his family. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

Image Credits: (1) Map of Gaul by Feitscherg, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons. (2) Boundaries of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires after the death of Theodosius I, AD 395. Map by Geuiwogbil, used under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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Responses

  1. Good point on the strained analogy. I think I shd have taken Latin; too late now.

    I do know however about Charlemagne’s grandsons. 😉 [Don’t even ask, as the kids used to say]

  2. Caesar is doubtless too savage and uncouth for today’s students. Also, it’s hard to follow the narrative without understanding a bit about, um, Romans.


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