Calico Belly and Caesar’s Gallic War 

P. I. 1282 Caesar wrote the Calico Belly. 

Commentators are clearly right in identifying “Calico Belly” as a schoolboy play on the title of Julius Caesar’s classic account of the war against the Gauls between 58 and 50 BC told in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (“Commentaries on the Gallic War”). Schools’ editions of the text were studied for Ireland’s Intermediate Examinations, which Joyce took from 1894 to 1898, so he will have been very familiar with the text.

Why “belly”?

But what is the lexical route from Bello Gallico  to “Calico Belly”? Firstly, “belly” is a suitably mischievous perversion of Bello to satisfy bored young Latin scholars. But secondly, “belly” suggests the genitive form of the Latin word, Belli (as in casus belli), inappropriate in Caesar’s title but found often enough in the pidgin-Latin title De Belli Galllico on Google from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, both in formal and informal use, to imply that the schoolboys’ corruption to “belly” was plausible in terms of bad Latin.


  Examples: In the 1750 Dublin edition of his Analogy of divine wisdom Richard Barton cites from “Caesar de Belli Gallico” on p. 164. “Professor Anthon’s Classics” were advertised in Bent’s Monthly Literary Advertiser in 1838 (11 March, p. 37) as “C. Julii Caesaris Commentarii De Belli Gallico”.


  It was an easy slip to make. Formal studies and editions normally retain the standard title, but it is not unusual to find Belli Gallico in secondary sources, where the editor or writer may not have as strong a grasp of classical Latin.


Why “calico”?

Along with the humorous similarity between Bello and “belly” it is also possible to see that schoolboy humour might associate Gallico and “calico”. The association well predates Joyce.


  It presumably underpins several jokes found in the works of the popular burlesque-writers of the middle of the nineteenth century. Scene II of Francis Cowley Burnand’s Boadicea the Beautiful: or, Harlequin Julius Caesar and the delightful Druid!, a Sensational Pantomime for the Theatre Royal, Back Drawing-roomtakes place in “Caesar’s tent” , and Burnand’s explanatory footnote discusses the tent:1


“Caesar’s Tent can be very easily represented; because you know it might have been like anything ... For an accurate description, consult Caesar’s Commentaries; the History of Rome, passim ... Also with regard to the material of which a War-tent was made, read Caesar de Bello Calico.”


  The play picks up on Caesar’s description of the Druids, led by the High Priest Oroveso, popularised in Bellini’s opera Norma, which was first produced at La Scala in Milan in 1831. Caesar’s Gallic War (especially Book VI) was one of the principal early sources of information about the Druids (druides) for modern readers.


  It was said that the meme of Druids and calico was the reason W. S. Gilbert unnecessarily introduced the Druid High Priest Orovesto (in fact Caesar in disguise) into his operatic burlesque The pretty Druidess; Or, The mother, The maid, and the mistletoe bough in 1869, produced at the opening of the new Charing Cross Theatre in June 1869 – simply to provide Gilbert with an opportunity to make use of the Gallico/calico pun.2 



Ha! Ha! Of course! Away concealment, fled.

For I am Julius Caesar in disguise!

     (Throws off disguise and appears as Julius Caesar. All kneel.)

Shrouded for years in calico and mystery,

Well, of this Gallic War I’ll write a history,

If safely I return to land Italic, O,

And call it – let me see – de bello Calico!


  The joke had been bubbling away in the background for several years. In 1867 the leisure magazine Fun (13 July p. 192) was in on it too:


Wanted, a Caesar.

The “Young Men”, who belong to a well-known Linendraper’s establishment, and who are members of a Rifle Corps, have recently had a “Sham Fight” between themselves. Can no modern Caesar be found to immortalize the affair under the title of “De Bello” – Calico?


  Can this Druidic play on words also lie behind the reported words of the Duke of Beaufort in Punch magazine in 1846 (vol. 10, p. 168):


“To men, conversant as you all are with Caesar’s De Bello Callico it would be impertinent in me, your Commander, to dilate upon the moral and martial uses of moustachios. Your gallant ancestors, the ancient Britons, knew the tremendous use of hair: and, like Britons, refused to shave accordingly. You will therefore prove yourselves worthy of that noble race by the use of your swords and disuse of your razors.”



“Calico Belly”

And does this occurrence from the Banbury Guardian of 7 April 1859 , the only instance so far uncovered before Joyce’s use of the term “Belly Calico”, imply the earlier existence of Joyce’s pun?


“Charge of assault. Henry Canning was charged with assaulting Hannah Satchell on the 19th March, at Dunstew [= Duns Tew, in Oxfordshire] ... As witness she called Mrs. Mary Stockford, who said that Mrs. Satchell’s grandson, a little boy of six years old, was sitting in her window, when he called out “here is Calico Belly serving his pigs”, meaning defendant, who for some cause bears that singular nom de guerre. Upon this “Calico Belly” was very angry, and upon Mrs. Satchell soon afterwards going out with the boy, he committed the assault complained of.”


  Although in the mouth of a simple village boy, it seems to echo the old joke, or why would the writer call it a “nom de guerre”?


John Simpson


1 The play appears first in in Beeton's Christmas annual. Fifth season, Number seven: the story of somebody's son: in seven parts (S.O. Beeton, London: 1864), and was republished in William Brough and Francis Cowley Burnand, Beeton's Book of Burlesques: Containing Five Burlesques (1865).

2 Text from W. S. Gilbert New and original extravaganzas (1931): scene III.