Thursday, 14 June 2012

Review: The Civil War, by Julius Caesar

The version I got is by Penguin and includes the Civil War, the Alexandrian War, the African War and the Spanish War and was translated by Jane Gardner.

I actually first read it some years ago and wasn't too enamoured, so I thought I'd re-read it and see whether my perception had changed.

The book is written, probably, by four separate authors, with the Civil War by Caesar and each of the subsequent three sections by different writers. It covers the period from just before the war actually began to the destruction of the anti-Caesar forces in Spain some time later.

Caesar's own writing covers what many would consider the most important part of the Civil War, ranging from the preamble to the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus, with some adventures in Spain and the setback at Dyrrhachium along the way. It has a rather mechanical feel to it. The writing offers a reasonable level of detail but it wasn't, for me at least, very engaging. This is helped somewhat by the fact that the historical period covered does have many exciting events and is of great importance, but I never felt especially enthused by it. Whilst a certain level of bias is inevitable (no-one can be truly objective when writing about how they won a war) it does seem to be fairly minimal.

The Alexandrian War is probably my favourite part. Still offering as much detail as the Civil War, it seems a bit more engaging and the writing style is not as stark as Caesar's own. This part covers the events that occurred in Egypt, where Pompey fled and was slain, and the Egyptian battle for the crown into which Caesar became entangled.

The African War, rather obviously, happened in Africa. With Pompey dead the war is in the hands of a Scipio (although not one on a par with Africanus or Aemilianus) and King Juba, the leader of Numidia who had sided with the Pompeians. I found the level of detail a bit more lacking in this section, although the war itself did seem quite interesting. The writer was not as good as the previous author.

Lastly, the Spanish War, which dealt with Gnaeus and Sextus Pompeius, the sons of Pompey. They'd gone to Spain and were chased there by Caesar. I have to admit that I found this to be the weakest section of the book, as it never really grabbed me and seems to be somewhat lighter on detail than the earlier sections.

The period covered is fascinating and important but I found the book overall to be somewhat lacklustre. I'd sooner recommend Theodore Ayrault Dodge's military history/biography Caesar, to be honest. However, for people especially interested in classical history it may be a worthwhile purchase as there are few books written by men of such significance as Caesar. For him, I think it's just as well he was a better general and statesman than a writer.


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