Caesar: A History of the Art of War by T. A. Dodge

Book Review by P.Clodius

It is with some reserve I approach this review, for how can one do justice to a 780+ page book that inhabits every library in every military academy, and what surely must be as mandatory a read as the Commentaries themselves for future commanders. T. A. Dodge was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Union army during the American Civil War. He fought at Gettysburg where he lost a leg, following which, he moved to Europe and proceeded to write. He wrote detailed accounts of campaigns as varied as Alexander’s to the campaign at Chancellorsville. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Born at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, May 28, 1842, he received a military education in Berlin, Germany and graduated from the University of London (England) in 1861. He also received a LL.B degree from Columbian University in 1865. He married Jane Marshall Neil in 1865 and Clara Isabel Bowden in 1893. He entered the Union Army in 1861 as a Private and served in the Volunteer Services in every regimental rank. He was thrice wounded and lost his right leg in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was commissioned in the Regular Army in 1866 and served in the War Department, 1864-70, and was then placed on the retired list. He was the author of: "History of the Art of War: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon" (12 volumes), 1890-1907; "The Campaign of Chancellorsville," 1881; "Bird's Eye View of our Civil War," 1883; "Parrocius and Penelope," 1885; "Great Captains," 1889; "Riders of Many Lands," 1894. He made his home in Paris, France, and died there in 1909. He was buried in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery. His second wife, Clara Isabel Bowden Dodge (1859-1940) is buried with him.”

Dodge is not a partisan of Caesar. His writing is strictly neutral and he endeavors to present his works from all possible angles. He is therefore as intensely critical of Caesar as he is favorable. This book does not contain any of Caesar’s political exploits but focuses entirely upon his military career. As such, it is a must read for those who wish to study Caesar and is a welcome companion to both Meier and Gelzer’s Caesar. Its language is artful in the Victorian sense and is full of “hitherto”, “hereafter”, and “thenceforth” type words that are both thought provoking and lend weight to the gravity of this epic. The book is liberally sprinkled with illustrations and detailed maps and some of the illustrations offer a grounds eye view of terrain and fortifications. It starts with a brief introductory chapter on the pre-Marian legion, the Marian reforms and the battles of Aqua Sextae and Vercellae where these new formations were tested. Followed by another brief description of the Sullan campaigns in Greece and Italy, and Pompei’s efforts against Sertorius in Spain. The book then proceeds to its subject, and here is where we watch Caesar, with natural leadership, become student commander, competent commander, daring commander, and finally, legendary commander. From winning the roman equivalent of the Medal of Honor at Mitylene as a young Contubernalis, to Munda in 45BC and every campaign in between Caesar is both lauded and criticized by a tactician and strategist.

The lasting impression I derived from reading this book is one of scale. Not only do the campaigns take place on 3 continents, but, the battles themselves sometimes involved earthworks that would not have been out of place in WWI. Caesar’s legions dug their way to victory as much as they charged to victory and they did this, and it must be stressed, with minimal resources, as being outnumbered was the norm for Caesar’s legions. Quite often, Dodge lays the blame for this at Caesar’s feet. The crossing to Greece in the lead up to Dyrrachium is described, “But his thus risking his entire cause, by shipping half his army to encounter Pompey’s threefold forces on the latter’s territory, savors more of foolhardiness than the well pondered courage of a great captain.” Later, when Caesar’s army is united and is comprised of 22,000 men, Caesar and Pompey race for Dyrrachium, Dodge writes, “Caesar, never at a loss for a plan, and determined to leave Pompey no rest, conceived and executed one of those bold operations which show the head and hand of the master.”

Dodge is always writing from a military perspective and describes Caesar’s movement of a large body of men such as occurred at Dyrrachium and Gergovia as “…an operation of remarkable boldness and brilliancy.” All the major battles are described in a level of detail that I have not found elsewhere. If you are like me and are a little confused as to what exactly occurred in the lead up to this battle, or what happened at that battle you will find this book second to none. Also, it is easily referenced because it is chronological. I also learned that in the days prior to electronic equipment as a means of communication, ancient battles were remarkably uncontrolled. A commander would be responsible for dispositions, order of march, supplies etc, but once battle was joined it was out of his hands. Thapsus is a great example of this. Caesar is reluctant to give the command to attack because of the large numbers of Numidian cavalry. But a trumpeter of the 10th, perhaps urged to by his comrades who are eager to fight sounds the charge, and the call is repeated down the line by the other trumpeters, Dodge describes this as “an excess of spirit.” and “…the cohorts rushed forward, and could not be restrained.”

The roman legions, as separate, individual corporate entities often dictated the course of events, even overriding their commander’s will at times. This can be seen in the bloodshed at Thapsus and also at Munda and the subsequent liquidation of the Pompeian army. “Caesar took the eagles of the thirteen Pompeian legions, an immense number of standards, and seventeen higher officers. The victory was overwhelming; the massacre decided the war. Most fugitives made for Munda, which it became necessary to besiege. So heated were the passions of the Caesarians that the dead bodies of the slain were used as ramparts, and their javelins as palisades, and on these their bucklers were hung as breastworks. The heads of many were stuck on spikes and placed along the investment lines to strike terror into the besieged.

Concluding is Dodges comparison of Alexander, Hannibal, and Caesar, in which he examines a number of traits of each of the 3 greats; power of work, will power, courage, influence, fortune, statesmanship. “Tried solely by the standards of the soldier, these equal captains, if one may pronounce between them, stand: Hannibal the peerless; Alexander the Homeric; Caesar the unvanquished.

Taken in all his characters, Caesar is the greatest man in antiquity.” If someone were to ask of me which two books should they read to learn, and, understand Caesar, I would say in a heartbeat Gelzer’s Caesar to understand Caesar the politician, and Dodge’s Caesar for his military career. Two thumbs up!

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