14 May 2009

"The Gallic War" by Julius Caesar

The Gallic War
Gaius Julius Caesar
A new translation by Carolyn Hammond
Date of publication: 30 April 1999
Cover Price: $8.95
320 pages

Julius Caesar wrote ten commentaries, covering his campaigns in Gaul (modern day France) and the Roman civil war.  The Gallic War collects the first seven of these, with an eight commentary by Aulus Hirtius.  Carolyn Hammond's translation comes with a lengthy introduction, a chronological list of primary events, illustrations of referenced geography, a glossary and end notes.  Personally, I loathe end notes, because they provide relevant information but interrupt the reading process to access.

Caesar's years in Gaul are generally glossed over in most history courses.  This is a phase in which Caesar's conquests brought prestige to himself and expanded the empire; that's nearly all I remember being discussed of these years (and I hold a degree earned in the field of history).  Whether the credit for the ease of reading goes to Caesar or to translator Hammond is unclear, but I was impressed by how easily I followed these descriptions.  Caesar refrains from bogging down his accounts with minutiae, and combat omits graphic detail.  Remarkably, though, Caesar's narrative manages to paint vivid imagery with such ambigious writing.

If there is one complaint, it is that Caesar's campaigns all follow the same formula.  A Gallic uprising is leaked, Caesar musters his legions from their winter quarters, the forces jockey to cut off one another from corn and seize the other's baggage, the courage of the Romans overcomes the pettiness of the Gallic forces, the Gauls send envoys to sue for peace, Caesar accepts hostages and grants them his customary clemency.  Still, these eight commentaries offer fascinating insight into the mindset of one of history's greatest figures.

For instance, Caesar frequently mentions that the Gauls fight to win their liberty from the Romans.  He makes no effort to downplay this motive; at no point does he suggest that the Gauls ought to be content to live under the rule of the empire.  In fact, Caesar worries a few times that if he is unsuccessful in quelling a particular uprising, that the rest of the Gauls will be encouraged to fight for, and possibly win, their liberty.  Simply put, this is the unadulterated perspective of a conqueror being shared.

My favorite commentary is the sixth, for it is in that book that Caesar offers some biographical information about his Germanic adversaries.  More of this kind of information would make the rest of the commentaries more compelling, I think, but this is the perspective of a reader whose stylistic preferences were formed more than two thousand years after these texts were composed.

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