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In his Comentarii de bello Gallico, Caesar writes this on first page:

The Belgae rises from the extreme frontier of Gaul, extend to the lower part of the river Rhine; and look toward the north and the rising sun. Aquitania extends from the river Garonne to the Pyrenaean mountains and to that part of the ocean which is near Spain: it looks between the setting of the sun, and the north star.

How to interpret rising/setting sun and North star, they don't make sense as East/West and North?

What does 'look towards' mean?

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    I'm not sure what doesn't make sense. The region between the north star and the rising sun is "Northeast", the region between the north star and the setting sun is "Northwest". Can you explain your confusion?
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 16:38
  • Okay , i was thinking only in four directions
    – Kutsit
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 16:48
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    Of course Caesar did not write this: some translator did. Maybe you should ask latin.stackexchange.com for help. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 18:38

2 Answers 2

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It is, perhaps easier to understand when compared with a map:

Gaul in the time of Caesar


Now, Caesar's meaning should be a little more clear. When he says:

"The Belgae rises from the extreme frontier of Gaul, extend to the lower part of the river Rhine; and look toward the north and the rising sun"

We can see that the territory of the Belgae extends from the frontier of Gaul furthest from Rome to the River Rhine in the South, and has a third border running northeast ("to the north and the rising sun").

It may seem a little confusing because the territory of the Belgae was roughly triangular, and so had only three borders.


Similarly, the territory of Aquitania, which

"extends from the river Garonne to the Pyrenaean mountains and to that part of the ocean which is near Spain: it looks between the setting of the sun, and the north star."

is bordered by the River Garonne, the Pyrenees and the ocean, with the fourth (northern) border running north-west ("between the setting of the sun, and the north star").


More generally, East is where the Sun rises, West is where it sets, and the North Star is in the north. Points between those on the compass would be North-east ("between the north star and the rising sun"), and North-west ("between the setting of the sun, and the north star").


It's also worth noting that translation from Latin to English (or, more generally, between any two languages) involves the translator making choices and interpretations.

My Latin copy of De bello Gallico has the following (emphasis mine):

"Belgae ab extremis Galliae finibus oriuntur; pertinent ad inferiorem partem fluminis Rheni; spectant in septentrionem et orientem solem."

and

"Aquitania a Garumna flumine ad Pyrenaeos montes et ad eam partem Oceani, quae est ad Hispaniam, pertinet; spectat inter occasum solis et septentriones."

Now, I quite like the 'standard' translation you quoted (it has a nice, poetic, ring), but alternate translations are certainly possible. However, whatever precise translation is preferred, the meaning of the text appears clear, as I described above.

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  • Thanks, for aquitane I am still confused, suppose i am in aquitane, to my west is Bay of Biscay, to south are Pyrenees, to North and east are Garonne river, what remains for North-west ?
    – Kutsit
    Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 20:32
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    @ShlokVaibhav Caesar is describing the borders of Aquitaine. The northern border ran from north to west (i.e. in a northwesterly direction - see the map in the answer). Beyond that was Gaul (or 'Celtic Gaul' on the map), distinct from Gallia Narbonensis ('Prov Romana' on the map) which was beyond the Garonne to the east. Commented Apr 11, 2019 at 20:42
  • The author of that map seems unaware that the "lower Rhine" means that part north of roughly modern Cologne; not modern Basel. For rivers, "lower" means downstream rather than "further South*". There is no sensible interpretation under which Alsace and Lorraine are adjacent to the "lower Rhine". Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 23:36
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I was also confused by this passage. In my opinion this is a mistranslation, and Ceasar actually means the Rhine is in the East and North from the perspective of the Belgae, and the Ocean is in the Northwest from the perspective of Aquitania.

In my opinion "spectant in septentrionem et orientem solem" should be translated literally as "They see it (meaning the river) in the direction of the north star and the sunrise."

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  • It may be a cultural observation referring to the greater unknown. For the Aquitanians it's the sea, for the Belgae it's the lands over the Rhine which are full of even more aggressive peoples than them. The Belgic coast is full of swamps and small islands so doesn't have a notable maritime presence hence being ignored unlike the sea of the Aquitanians. Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 21:52
  • You can verify this over on the Latin site.
    – cmw
    Commented Oct 13, 2022 at 22:52

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