Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Caesar: De Bello Gallico/The Gallic War

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres… Caesar, having begun his commentarii in this immortal fashion, guided us across the landscapes of Gaul and Britain through his nine year campaign.  Michael, having taken years of Latin, reflected upon the Latin texts which influenced him and which he enjoyed most during his undergraduate career.  His nostalgia, having been set into motion, he decided that he would undertake the task of re-reading Caesar and commenting upon this well-known work:  The Gallic War.

Caesar’s De Bello Gallico is familiar to many school age children of yesteryear and, for the fortunate few, the school age children of today.  The work is easy to read in the original Latin, having been formulated in a very simple way, and Caesar makes great use of the subjunctive.  It is accessible both to the classical scholar and to someone with a minimal Latin education.  The Loeb Classical Library edition, first published in 1917 (and with its quaint English translation of the Latin) is the subject of my review.  It is a reasonable edition for the regular reader since it has the Latin text on one page and the English translation on the opposite.  This is handy for anyone curious about the quality of their Latin or anyone curious about what Latin might be like compared to the English translation.

The eight books of The Gallic War are based on Caesar’s commentarii (commentaries) about his activities during the conquest of Gaul (much of what is today modern France).  These were a less formal version of the reports he sent on the Senate and the commentaries were his own notes on the war.  Caesar wrote in the third person and with a narrative that is breathtaking and, at times, breathless.  The third person highlights Caesar’s accomplishments far more impressively since it also portrays the actions of his men and their deep appreciation for their leader.

Caesar’s writing is lively and we can almost feel the hectic pace at which Caesar pushed his soldiers when he moved quickly (the celebrated Caesarian celeritas which was his trademark).  We are also granted a look at his men, his loyal and trusting men.  Two of his men, Vorenus and Pullo, have recently been highlighted in certain entertainment circles.  Caesar noted how these two performed in a breathtaking fight with the enemy (BG 5.44).  He portrayed the two men breaking ranks and charging at the enemy, all the while daring each other to greater achievements due to their personal rivalry.  You feel the adrenaline when Caesar’s men attack the Celtic stronghold of Gergovia and their frustration when they are repulsed and forced away from the walls (BG 7.34-51).  You feel the tension as the soldiers reach the walls and see victory in their sight and, heedless of Caesar’s orders to withdraw, they carried on the fight due to their belief in past victories and the general inability of the Celts to withstand them.  This time, they were to prove wrong and 46 of Caesar’s centurions are said to have died during the fighting (BG 7.51).

Caesar’s officers and men are heroic, perhaps a bit too noble (particularly the centurions) but they come across as human.  Some of it is undoubtedly embellished by Caesar but much of it rings true.  Their overconfidence at Gergovia and the rivalry of Vorenus and Pullo remind us of the men Caesar was able to command.  These were the men whom Caesar and his heirs would eventually take to civil war against fellow Romans.  They were fond of their general; at Caesar’s triumph they referred to him fondly as ‘…our bald whoremonger’ during his triumphal parade (Suetonius, Caes. 51).

Caesar’s legionaries have been the topic of fiction and non-fiction. One which comes to mind is Stephen Dando-Collins’ Caesar’s Legion, a populist mass market non-fiction work about the history and the men of Caesar’s favourite legion, the 10th Legion.  Who were these men?  It is too easy to forget that the soldiers in Rome’s armies were human beings, separated from us by thousands of years.  Many films and books have portrayed them as automatons, always fighting for the glory of Rome.  Caesar’s legions were a product of the so-called Marian reforms attributed to seven time consul Caius Marius, a relation of Caesar’s by marriage.  During the days of the early and mid-Republic, the Romans had relied on an army consisting of propertied men who provide their own equipment.  As the number of propertied men decreased, owing to various social, political, and economic factors, the Senate looked for new methods of gaining recruits to supplement propertied citizens.  Marius recruited some from the capite censi, citizens who contributed only a ‘head count’ and who fell under the property qualifications to serve as heavy infantry.  He equipped them from state funds and marched to war with them.  These men eventually had everything to gain from loyalty to their generals, who distributed booty and loot to them.

It is these men who eventually supplied the long-term recruits for the late Republican army.  The same army which Caesar took to war in Gaul, Britain, and eventually against Rome.  Caesar’s writing describe men who are human and who have human motivations.  There is glory but we also see the heavy price they pay for the nobility and courage attributed to them by Caesar.

(The edition reviewed was Caesar’s The Gallic War, translated by H. J. Edwards.  Loeb Classical Library, 1917.  ISBN 0-674-99080-3)

6 comments on “Caesar: De Bello Gallico/The Gallic War

  1. Jackie
    April 23, 2010

    Where was this book when I was trying to teach myself Latin as a teenager?
    Your enthusiasm for the subject really shines through in this review. I’m pleased & a bit surprised to see that Caesar discussed some of the officers who served him, I would’ve expected him to keep the whole focus upon himself. And that like sports superstars of today, he talks of himself in the 3rd person.
    Having some Irish ancestors, I am secretly delighted that the Celts were able to repel such a strong army. Not the point of this review, but still.
    This post has piqued my interest in the book, however & since I want to learn more about that time period anyways, I might search it out at my local library.

  2. Moira
    April 23, 2010

    Oh Mikey … this has brought back memories (mostly fond!). I swear that’s even the same edition I had in my desk – Latin on one side, English on the other. Dear old Mr Mac our Latin teacher tried so hard to instil in us some of his own enthusiasm, but it wasn’t until I was much, much older that I actually understood his fascination with the language. The bone-headed cussedness of youth …

  3. Hilary
    April 23, 2010

    I’m afraid that I studied Latin for only five years, from the age of 10 to 15, and only read two works, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Caesar’s De Bello Gallico. So I’m delighted to be reminded of my sense of achievement in making anything at all of The Gallic Wars. Thank you, Michael!

    I have to say, though (and I think I”m vying with Kirsty to make this connection), it’s the ineffable Molesworth who bound The Gallic Wars to my heart – the wonderful drawings of the Roman Soldier and the Gaul converging on one another, and the line that I remember leaving me helpless with giggles (almost still works now): ‘Labienus is your man, third tent on the left. Hand me my chisel i am writing to mum.’

    So, the only character missing for me here, is Labienus!

  4. kirstyjane
    April 24, 2010

    I am quite unable to inform you molesworth for what purpose the Gauls wished to attack the ditches. The latin is correct. That sufices.

    Unfortunately I had only one year of Latin at school (and would have dearly loved more) so I never got as far as Caesar in the original. I only got as far as the old men sleeping in the sun, the dogs barking in the street and the cook liking the slave girl. (Cambridge Latin textbook anyone?) I intend to remedy this some day!

    Thank you Michael for a lovely and thoughtful article on Caesar and more importantly those brave men who fought for him. It really is enjoyable to see the passion and interest shining through and to benefit from your years of study in the area.

  5. Michael Ng
    April 24, 2010

    Thank you for your kind words. I have to admit that reading Caesar in English was one thing which got me to take Latin in the first place (Latin wasn’t offered in school but I had the chance to take it at university as an undergraduate). Caesar enthralled me with his description of his campaigns against the British Celts, the Gauls, and Germans. The siege of Alesia was my favourite and, even though his numbers are exaggerated (400,000 Celts against about 50,000 legionaries), we can still imagine the final battle was intense.

    As my old Latin professor used to say (it was also in our textbooks): Latina lingua est gaudium et utilis! 😉 Caesar’s propaganda notwithstanding, it is an interesting view of life in the Roman army and the duties of a provincial governor.

  6. The Literary Omnivore
    April 27, 2010

    I feel like the silliest thing for not knowing that this book existed, but I hope my enthusiasm for it will make up for it. I have to read this, although I have no grasp of Latin at all, so I’ll be utterly dependent on a translation.

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This entry was posted on April 23, 2010 by in Non-fiction: history, Non-fiction: memoir and tagged , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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