There are few military commanders in world history who reached the heights of fame or power as Julius Caesar. Like so many others, however, glory proved fleeting and, shortly after being declared dictator in perpetuity, he was assassinated in the Roman Senate on the Ides of March.
With March 15 having passed by, it seems appropriate to review a new book collecting Caesar’s writings. The Landmark Julius Caesar publishes in a scholarly, accessible addition all five works attributed to Caesar.
Anyone who has ever read a Latin or Greek translation from the Loeb Classical Library can tell you two things: 1) most translations are poorly done, and 2) the quality remaining ones cost a good deal of money. In Caesar’s case, a full translation of his corpus by a single individual hasn’t been attempted since the nineteenth century.
The publishers of this work (the fifth in a series of classical writers) aimed to keep costs down and aimed to explain the military and political aspects rendered opaque with time through copious footnotes and side commentaries.
The book starts off with an excellent fifty-page introduction explaining the goals of the publishers and the context in which Caesar.
Although Caesar wrote his works almost immediately after finishing a campaign, unlike modern works, such as Michael Herr’s “Dispatches”, Caesar focuses little on the perspective of the common soldier.
His main focus is his own military successes, and his attempts to reap the political benefits that come from them.
“The Gallic War”, the first work in the volume, opens with one of the most famous phrases in Latin: “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.”
This was traditionally been rendered akin to, “All of Gaul is divided into three parts.” Such a phrase is short, direct, and throws the reader into an analysis they expected to come slowly.
On the other hand, the new translation goes, “Gaul, if you take all of it into account, is divided into three regions.”
It still catches the literal meaning, but lacks something of the punch of its predecessor. Although my own Latin is virtually nonexistent, reading along with a primer some famous passages seems to indicate that early verbosity continues throughout the volume.
The book itself, however, is interesting for showing how Caesar, an aristocrat with limited supplies, few men, and in hostile territory, managed to win multiple victories.
Perhaps his most famous battle was at Alesia, where he encircled a group of Gauls. At the same time, however, he himself was being besieged by a relief force.
Only by starving out his interior opponents and personally leading a repulsion when his exterior line broke was he able to win.
The political capital he earned from his victory made him the most popular man in Rome, but his enemies, particularly the fading star Pompey, decided he was too much of a risk and ordered him stripped of his offices.
Knowing this would lead to his eventual execution, he rejected this and marched on the city. The Civil War chronicles his campaigns against his opponents and ends with Pompey’s death in Egypt. One notable thing about this second work is the relative absence of animus.
Although he was dealing with men who threatened his life, Caesar regularly pardoned those who acted against him, including the famous orator Cicero. They did not extend the same courtesy to him, but in turn provoked a backlash among Caesar’s allies that led to more years of bloodshed.
The other three short works in this volume chronicle other campaigns throughout Caesar’s career.
They lack the clarity and fluidity of Caesar’s style and more likely came from officers who served under him. The book on almost every page has at least two or three notes and there are dozens of photographs showing statues of the participants, reconstructed fortifications, and inscriptions, all of which make Caesar’s writing real.
The index and who’s who at the end further aid in navigating the book, and the bibliography shows both amateurs and professional scholars poured over this text before it went to print. Without a doubt, it is one of the best pieces of Latin literature made available to the public in English in decades.
Robert Bolton can be reached with comments or suggestions at [email protected]