Julius Caesar was one of the most versatile of great men. Not only was he a deadly general, he was also a brilliant politician, a distinguished orator, and a superb literary stylist. He wrote poetry, letters, rhetorical analysis, speeches, and a political pamphlet. With the exception of a few letters and a few tidbits preserved as quotations in other writers, none of it survives except his two famous war commentaries: the Gallic War and the Civil War.
Commentaries were a general’s report from the field. In republican Rome, generals were also politicians, and Caesar was the most ambitious man of his generation. It is no surprise, then, that Caesar’s commentaries are highly self-serving. Though based on fact, they are not history. Caesar wrote them to justify himself to the citizens of Rome and to posterity. He wrote them brilliantly. They are impressively concise, dramatic, and at times profound. Caesar’s words are chiseled in stone; yet sometimes they seem like polished diamonds, sometimes carved in ice, as the author casually recounts the slaughter and ruin unleashed by his legions. He always refers to himself in the third person, which lends a (false) air of objectivity. Speed was Caesar’s hallmark as a general, and the words of his commentaries rush the reader along as if in the path of a military force. What was later said of Churchill, that he mobilized the language and sent it into battle, could be applied earlier to Caesar. One thinks of Cicero’s judgment that Caesar’s oratory was pure and elegant, like the finest painting placed in the best light.
The student of the past needs to read Caesar. Now it is possible to do so in a new and splendid edition of The Landmark Julius Caesar, edited by Kurt Raaflaub under the supervision of series editor Robert Strassler. A distinguished historian and classicist, Raaflaub offers an excellent translation. Strassler, who has done a superb job in his Landmark series of ancient texts, features in this volume the notes, maps, charts, and photos for which earlier volumes are widely and rightly praised. In addition to four valuable essays by classicists within the book, a series of over forty essays, many by outstanding scholars, has been posted on the Internet. The result is a boon for every student.
The Gallic War and the Civil War are rightly regarded as literary masterpieces. True, they have a bad rap for having been foisted on generations of schoolkids who suffered through them as their introduction to Latin literature, but they were written for adults. They are remarkable indeed for their brevity, their grandeur, and their cunning. In not many words the author covers world-shaking events. In less than ten years Caesar and his armies conquered most of France as well as Belgium and parts of the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. Caesar wrote the first eight books of the Gallic War, focusing on 58–52 B.C., while a subordinate wrote a ninth book on the events of 51 B.C.
These were no fleeting victories: they changed the culture of these areas permanently. By conquering Gaul, Caesar unknowingly unleashed the forces that would one day create France. Modern France and parts of Belgium and Switzerland to this day speak a largely Latin-derived language, French. During these years Caesar also laid the groundwork for Rome’s eventual conquest of England, in two campaigns that first brought the legions across the Channel; it was the work of later Roman rulers to turn Britannia into a Roman province. Shortly after Caesar’s conquest of Gaul came two years (49–48 B.C.), chronicled in the three books of the Civil War, in which his legions unleashed internal strife at home and began the process of bringing down the Roman Republic. It remained for other authors to finish the story in the works known as the Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War, which cover the years 47–45 B.C. All of these books appear in The Landmark Julius Caesar.
Nowadays, assaulted as we are by non-stop disinformation at any hour of the day or night, our standards for propaganda are low. One hesitates to label the Gallic War and the Civil War as propaganda, because there is far more to them than that. If, however, we want to see what half-truths and massaged facts look like at the height (or depths) of the art, then Caesar shows the hand of a master. Two examples may suffice.
The one thing that most Americans know about Julius Caesar, aside from his assassination on the Ides of March, is that he crossed the Rubicon. Or, if they don’t know its connection to Caesar, they probably will be familiar with the phrase “to cross the Rubicon,” meaning to take a fateful and irrevocable action.
The Rubicon is a small river, perhaps no more than a stream, whose precise location is debated. In ancient times it marked the boundary between Italy, which lay to the south, and Gaul, which lay to the north. “Gaul” in this case means Caesar’s province of Gaul, which included both northern Italy (that is, Italian Gaul or what the Romans called Cisalpine Gaul, “Gaul on this side of the Alps”) and today’s France and Belgium (Transalpine Gaul, that is, “Gaul across the Alps”). By crossing the Rubicon, Caesar left his province and took his army into Italy without permission of the Senate, thereby breaking the law and starting a civil war. According to other ancient authors, this is the occasion when Caesar famously said either “The die is cast” or “Let the dice fly high.” But not in the Civil War.
What, then, does Caesar say about his trip across the Rubicon in that book? The answer is: nothing. He says nothing. To some scholars that is because the significance of the event was exaggerated by other ancient writers, who were either hostile to Caesar or untroubled about inventing drama to play up the occasion. But I prefer to read in Caesar’s silence the deft touch of a politician who knew that the best policy is sometimes to redirect attention from what happened. Calling people’s attention to the crossing of the Rubicon would simply highlight his illegality and aggression. Instead, he focuses on the support he had on that occasion from his soldiers and from two tribunes of the plebs, who had fled to him after what he called persecution by a faction that had taken over the Roman Senate.
Another example comes from Caesar’s presentation of a battle on the Sabis River in northern Gaul in 57 B.C. This was a near-disaster in which Gallic warriors hidden in the woods surprised Caesar’s army and nearly destroyed it, before the Romans turned things around and hammered out victory. Caesar’s mistakes caused the ambush, but a reader would never know that. Instead, we encounter a powerful tribute to Caesar’s bravery and grace under pressure. He writes:
Grasping a shield from one of the soldiers in the rear, because he himself had come here without one, he went up to the front line. He called the centurions by name and urged on the rest of the soldiers, too, ordering them to go on the attack and spread out the ranks of their units to allow freer use of their swords. His arrival brought hope to the soldiers and restored their courage.
In short, Caesar’s rhetoric turns his failure into success, just as his soldiers turned the tides of battle. Incidentally, Caesar’s Number Two, Titus Labienus, played the key role in reversing Rome’s initial failure, but Caesar downplays that, of course.
We study Julius Caesar to encounter greatness but not to behold goodness. Caesar was a genius. In politics he stood on the side of the masses, whose lot he aimed to improve and whose support he leveraged to advance his career. He came to understand better than most Romans that the empire’s ruling group needed to make room for the provincial elites. Insofar as he saw the necessity of change, Caesar was progressive. He was, however, neither a humanitarian, a democrat, nor a believer in constitutional government. He was ruthless, relentless, and single-minded in his ambition. He cared little for preserving the republic’s liberty.
We need to study Caesar nowadays and to recognize both the dark and the light in his personality. Democracies have a tendency to see things in either/or terms, making our public figures either heroes or villains. Caesar was both. To recognize that is disturbing, but it is also educational.
Not the least of the things to consider about Caesar’s writings is this: He wrote them. Himself. Somehow the man who conquered Gaul, defeated the assembled forces of the Roman Empire and their allies abroad, brought down the Roman Republic and laid the foundations of rule by the emperors whom we know as the Caesars, wooed and won beautiful women from Gaul to Egypt (including Cleopatra), gave the western world its current calendar—somehow, this man also found the time to become a great literary artist. Sure, he had slaves, but he didn’t have computers or washing machines or any other modern time-saving devices, and yet he wrote his own great literature. The next time you hear that some politician has a speechwriter and can’t write his own speeches himself, ask yourself why. Ask what that says about our educational system and what it does and doesn’t teach young people.
Once upon a time, eloquence was a virtue. Not that it is a guarantee of a happy outcome: Caesar shows that, when combined with arms and vote-getting, persuasiveness can bring down a republic. Eloquence is no guarantee of constitutional government, but can you keep a republic without eloquence? That is a question that Caesar leaves unanswered, but we need to know. Given the current state of our educational system, wherein stem is proclaimed the supreme discipline and wherein those of us in the liberal arts could use a refresher course in what really matters, I fear that we may find out.
1The Landmark Julius Caesar, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub; Pantheon, 896 pages, $50.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 8, on page 65
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