Friday, 30 January 2015

Review: Caesar’s War Commentaries, by Julius Caesar

The Queen of Bithynia, or Julius Caesar as he is sometimes known, was a chap from the first century BC who wrote two accounts of his military and political adventures. The Gallic Wars covers his substantial role in conquering Gaul (NB Gallia Narbonensis, covering the south coast, was a province founded before Caesar turned up). The much shorter The Civil War is about his tussle with a chap called Pompey for supremacy of the known world.

The edition I read is from the 1950s, an Everyman’s Library version with an interesting take on the translation. Interesting, in that Caesar wrote in the third person and it’s been shifted to the first (with the exception of a connecting letter written by Aulus Hirtius). I have read a different version of The Civil War (including three parts, of four, which were written by other chaps) and have to say the perspective change really improves it. Another change, of which I was less fond, was changing the ‘cohort’ to ‘battalion’. Changing the money sums to pounds (from 1950s Britain) is also a bit tricky. Modern place names are used, with ancient equivalents mentioned as footnotes on the first occasion.

I have to say I really rather enjoyed it. The Gallic Wars is written in a more polished, immersive way than The Civil War (which is terser and there is some suggestion he intended to edit and redraft it until he had a meeting with Brutus which resulted in a dramatic decline in his writing output). Descriptions are concise but sufficient to fully convey the situation, and there is an air of objectivity about the writing which lends weight to the account (even though Caesar cannot possibly be entirely objective, of course).

It should be stressed that there’s an emphasis on military matters, both strategic and tactical, and that the political situation, excepting The Civil War (which is perhaps a fifth or less of the book), are in the background.

Because it ends with the last portion likely written by Caesar, it does not finish at a natural point (after Pharsalus, for example), but that merely adds to the sense of mortal strife that was encompassing the world at that point in history. Many other notable people are killed during the course of the two accounts, and the fact the author himself falls prey to mortality fits the subject matter nicely.

Caesar’s life and the aftermath of his death marked the end of the Roman Republic and ushered in the Roman Empire. It’s a critical turning point of the Roman state, which had existed for about seven centuries at this point and continued, using the longer measure, for another fifteen or so afterwards.


No comments:

Post a Comment