In estimating distant historical events, one is often the victim of an error of perspective; that is, one is disposed to consider as the outcome of a pre-established plan of human wisdom what is the final result, quite unforeseen, of causes that acted beyond the foresight of contemporaries. At the distance of centuries, turning back to consider the past, we can easily find out that the efforts of one or two generations have produced certain effects on the actual condition of the world; and then we conclude that those generations meant to reach that result. On the contrary, men almost always face the future proposing to themselves impossible ends; notwithstanding which, their efforts, accumulating, destroying, interweaving, bring into being consequences that no one had foreseen or planned, the novelty or importance of which often only future generations realise. Columbus, who, fixed in the idea of reaching India by sailing west, finds America on his way and does not recognise it at once but is persuaded that he has landed in India, symbolises the lot of man in history.
Of this phenomenon, which is to me a fundamental law of history, there is a classic example in the story of Rome: the conquest of Gaul. Without doubt, one of the greatest works of Rome was the conquest and Romanisation of Gaul: indeed that conquest and Romanisation of Gaul is the beginning of European civilisation; for before the Graeco-Latin civilisation reached the Rhine over the ways opened by the Roman sword, the continent of Europe had centres of civilisation on the coast or in its projecting extremities, like Italy, Baetica, Narbonensis; but the interior was still entirely in the power of a turbulent and restless barbarism, like the African continent to-day. Moreover, what Rome created in Asia and Africa was almost entirely destroyed by ages following; on the contrary, Rome yet lives in France, to which it gave its language, its spirit, and the traditions of its thought. Exactly for this reason it is particularly important to explain how such an outcome was brought about, and by what historic forces. From the propensity to consider every great historical event as wholly a masterpiece of human genius, many historians have attributed also this accomplishment to a prodigious, well-nigh divine wisdom on the part of the Romans, and Julius Caesar is regarded as a demigod who had fixed his gaze upon the far, far distant future. However, it is not difficult, studying the ancient documents with critical spirit, to persuade oneself that even if Caesar was a man of genius, he was not a god; that from beginning to end, the real story of the conquest of Gaul is very different from the commonly accepted version.