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The Conquest of Gaul by Gaius Julius Caesar

Book Review by Ursus

History should not be so facile, nor literature so digestible. The assumption for generations has been that both disciplines are complicated subjects which legions of trained academics prod and poke, uncovering heretofore undiscovered truths. Theories are spun, papers published, and debates hashed out concerning the significance of the tiniest arcane details. Emanating from historical literature is a dire aura of esoteric majesty in which only the chosen few may brave such climes. Why then does it seem like a half-literate adolescent could, upon reading Caesar, not only enjoy it, but understand it as well?

Certainly that aforementioned half-literate adolescent would not be so quick to devour Cicero. I know, for I was that half-literate adolescent once upon a time. Contained within the writings of Cicero, I was told, was the wisdom of the ages. Hail and praise Cicero, the standard bearer of Classical Latin, the avatar of Stoic virtue! Only one problem to that formula: I fell asleep. I overdosed on an insufferably tedious and pretentious exposition of moralist drivel. The adolescent was left wondering wherein one might find the might and majesty of Rome if soporific musings were hailed as its finest product.

The answer to that was provided by Gaius of the Julian clan, called Caesar, Proconsul of Gaul. Here, finally, was a Roman. “Here was a Caesar; when comes such another?” asked Shakespeare, and with good reason. Setting out simply to execute whatever the “honor and interests” of Roman imperium demanded, Caesar conquered a nation. From the repulsion of the Helvetii to the climatic siege of Alesia, with choice adventures into Britain and Germany in between, the gripping events unfold as if spun by the loom of the fates. The prose conveying those events is deceptively simple yet tenacious, allowing the glorious transactions of history to speak for themselves. Unlike Cicero we have not moralism but action; unlike Cicero we have not a dry dissertation but a living story.

My initial reading, colored as it were by hormones and fantasies typical of a young male, appreciated the martial valor displayed on every page. Older and hopefully a little wiser, I now enjoy the commentaries on another level. What comes across is not so much the renowned tactical genius of the man in question (I do not have enough military training to appreciate tactical genius where it is manifest. In any event, it seems like Caesar routinely bit off more than he could chew, with only the bravery of his troops, or perhaps the favor of Venus, to save his hide). Rather, what screams loudly with every word is Caesar’s keen insights into what we moderns might today call psychology. Caesar was a shrewd observer of those around him and would not have been half the general, much less the politician, without those insights.

Consider for example his leadership style among his troops. Knowing full well the central Roman traits of honor and glory, he made a point to serve in the thick of battle and observe his men, knowing that while under his watchful gaze they would fight all the harder with thoughts of later reward in their heads. Consider also Caesar’s grasp of his enemy. The Gauls were quick to incite to action and rebellion, but even quicker to surrender or retreat when the tide turned against them. Caesar’s familiarity of Gaulish inter-tribal politics and cultural values underpinned many of his tactical decisions. Finally, consider the mentality of the Roman mob, or at least the literate among them, for whom Caesar wrote his commentaries and on whose good will his future political career depended. At all levels the commentaries read as much more than a military journal; they are a study of the psychological currents at work in the ancient world.

In Caesar is contained also the best eye witness accounts of the Ancient Celts and Germans, another legacy of our shrewd psychological observer. Barbarian apologists have long protested that Caesar’s words were wartime propaganda and should not be trusted; sometimes, admittedly, the archaeological record contradicts Caesar. Yet many other times the same archaeology champions the validity of Caesar’s words. In any event, the point should be Caesar was one of the few to have both seen firsthand the peoples concerned and to have written down those observations. Those barbarian apologists might have less to apologize about if their ancestral natives had taken the pains to write some thoughts down on themselves and their own culture. Illiteracy, whether deliberately chosen or merely the product of laziness and ignorance, cannot hold a candle to Caesar’s words, no matter how allegedly biased and erroneous they may have been.

It is said the pen is mightier than the sword, but Caesar could use both with deadly efficacy. The Conquest of Gaul is the finest testament to that. The second edition from Penguin takes Caesar’s own seven books on the subject and adds a later eighth book written by one of Caesar’s officers. It also contains a glossary, footnotes and maps to aid in clarity. This inexpensive masterpiece stands near the center of the Western literary tradition, to be enjoyed on various levels by both young and old. Ave Caesar!

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Book Review of The Conquest of Gaul - Related Topic: Julius Caesar


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