Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review: Caesar, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge

I first read this military history/biography of Caesar quite some time ago, and recently finished re-reading it. Dodge’s ancient histories (he’s written similar books about Alexander and Hannibal) are amongst my favourites. There’s a great level of detail, with maps and sketches of soldiers, siege equipment and so on throughout.

This is not a full-blown biography. It’s concerned almost exclusively with the military career of Caesar. Obviously there’s also some political overlap, such as when he and Pompey had a bit of a tiff, but only when that relates to the military aspect of the subject. As you would expect, the meat of the book is the Gallic and Civil Wars (the latter including sojourns in Spain, the Balkans/Greece, Alexandria and Africa) with a few side-orders (such as the swift spanking of Pharnaces II).

Th author is clearly enthusiastic about his subject, and had the opportunity to visit the theatres of Caesar’s wars. This helps him to reconcile potential conflicts in ancient sources, Caesar’s own accounts foremost amongst them, as well as providing an opportunity for maps and sketches of the landscapes upon which battles, marches, and sieges occurred. It must be said that Dodge sometimes gets a bit carried away (he really does like the three ancient generals about which he wrote) but that doesn’t stop him criticising when he feels Caesar’s been a daft sod (most of the general’s great successes are only great because he thrust himself needlessly into peril and it took significant skill to extricate himself).

Caesar’s reckless conduct gets pulled up several times, but this is far outweighed by successes achieved all over Europe. And, alongside the recklessness, audacity enabled some of the signal victories, most notably at Pharsalus, where he attacked an army twice his size.

It’s also worth remarking upon an episode that doesn’t fit the popular narrative of Caesar, namely his brutality. Specifically, killing around 430,000 Germanic people whilst the tribe was conducting peace negotiations with him. The book was written pre-WWII, and Dodge uses the term holocaust to describe Caesar’s actions (the man himself claimed the Germanic tribe was plotting to betray him so he struck pre-emptively. Dodge is not persuaded).

In addition to the history of Caesar, there is much information on the Roman army and how it had changed over the centuries, particularly from its peak in the Second Punic War. There’s also a splendid chapter near the end comparing Caesar, Alexander and Hannibal in a variety of ways.

It’s a hefty 800 pages but the text is often broken up by drawings, so it’s not quite as dense as it might appear. Overall, an engaging portrayal of one of history’s most intriguing figures.

Related books I’ve reviewed include:
The Crisis of Rome [the period shortly prior to Caesar’s, involving his uncle Marius] -


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