Julius Caesar (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)
Julius Caesar 100 b.c.-44 b.c.
(Full name Gaius Julius Caesar) Roman prose writer, general, and dictator.
Widely acknowledged as a military genius, Caesar extended Rome's boundary to the Atlantic by conquering Gaul, prevailed in the Roman civil war, and in 44 b.c. declared himself dictator for life. His war chronicles, hybrids of commentary and history, are classics in military thought: De Bello Gallico (before 46 b.c.; On the Gallic War) and De Bello Civili (c. 44 b.c.; On the Civil War) are praised by critics for their clarity and precision, and are important historically as the only extant record of many significant events. His exactness and economy in his use of words is best known through his description of vanquishing Zela in Asia Minor: “Veni, vidi, vici,” which translates to “I came, I saw, I conquered.” His oratorical skills were superb; it has been said that only Cicero was his superior. Caesar, Rome's most famous general, has also been immortalized through William Shakespeare's tragedy Julius Caesar. In the play Shakespeare has Cassius say of Caesar: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus, and we petty men / Walk under his huge legs and peep about / To find ourselves dishonorable graves.”
Caesar was born in Rome to Gaius Caesar and Aurelia. Although his family were aristocrats, the power of the patricians was no longer an important factor in politics. In 86 b.c. Caesar was appointed to a position of little importance by Gaius Marius, an important member of the popular party with anti-senatorial views. A couple of years later Caesar married Cornelia, the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, an associate of Marius. Caesar served with the army in Asia from 81 to 78 b.c. before returning to Rome. He unsuccessfully prosecuted two cases, which nevertheless brought him considerable public attention, and then left for Rhodes to study rhetoric with Cicero's teacher. Pirates interfered with his trip to Rhodes and kidnaped Caesar; later, Caesar hunted the pirates down and crucified them. He returned to Rome in 73 b.c., was elected a priest, and then became a senator in 70 b.c. Caesar served as governor of Farther Spain for the year 61 b.c. and then formed the first triumvirate with Crassus and the general Pompey. He was elected consul in 59 b.c., followed by governship of Roman Gaul. From 58 to 51 b.c. Caesar conquered Gallic Gaul, now part of France. Crassus had died in 53 b.c. and Caesar's good relationship with Pompey ended when Pompey was appointed sole consul in 52 b.c. by the senate. Outright civil war began in 49 b.c. when Caesar crossed the Rubicon river, which separated Gaul and Italy. Caesar conquered Italy, then Spain, and chased Pompey to Egypt, where Pompey had already been murdered by the time of Caesar's arrival. Caesar lived with Cleopatra in Alexandria and fought more campaigns against Pompey's supporters. He became elevated to a godlike level by the citizens of Rome and relished his absolute power; he had a broad vision for reform of Rome, but little time to carry out his plans. Shortly after Caesar declared himself emperor for life in 44 b.c., a group of some sixty senators (out of a total of nine hundred) who believed that Caesar was a threat to the republic, conspired to assassinate him. Caesar was attacked while sitting in his chair at the senate. Although he fended off the first attempt to kill him, a group too powerful for one man to fight rushed him and stabbed him twenty-three times. His death did not strengthen the republic, but rather plunged Rome into a civil war that lasted thirteen years and from which it never fully recovered.
Caesar's commentaries on his campaigns are typically divided into two distinct works. Part one comprises De Bello Gallico, which describes Caesar's battles against Gaul, Britain, and Germany. Its first seven books, covering the period from 58 to 52 b.c., one volume per year, were written by Caesar, but the eighth book was written by Hirtius. The second work is De Bello Civili, which describes the war against Pompey. Its three books, covering the years 49 to 48 b.c., were also written by Caesar. The final commentaries on Caesar are composed by others: they include Bellum Alexandrium, Bellum Africum, and Bellum Hispaniense. The last three works leave off at 45 b.c.. Caesar also wrote a book on grammar, a collection of witty sayings and jokes, and some poems. Except for a few lines quoted in the writings of others, these works are no longer extant.
Considerable controversy exists concerning exactly when Caesar wrote De Bello Gallico and when it was first published. If it was written during the years 52 to 51 b.c., as many historians believe, Caesar's motives for writing it would have been vastly different than if had written it years later. As C. E. Stevens and others have indicated, Caesar intended to run for office in 50 b.c.. The work was definitely published by 46 b.c.; if it was published nearer to that date than to 51 b.c., Caesar would have had less reason to distort his record, as scholars point out. This leads to another area of controversy, that of deciding what audience Caesar addressed in his writings. Another matter of interest to critics is one of genre. There has been much debate concerning how best to describe Caesar's work: notes, commentarii, annals, or historia? F. E. Adcock explains how Caesar incorporated elements from all of these genres to create a composite form. Scholars also vigorously discuss the question of how honest Caesar is in the way he describes events. While all agree that no one can be totally objective in describing events in which he himself prominently figures, some critics believe that some of Caesar's interpretations are deliberately misleading. C. E. Stevens accuses Caesar of juggling facts. John H. Collins is inclined to believe Caesar; he thinks some of the problem comes from readers reading too much into Caesar's words. Andreola Rossi, however, points out that Caesar intends his readers to reach the stretched interpretations they sometimes reach. J. P. V. D. Balsdon concludes his study of the problem of Caesar's veracity with no firm conclusion except that extremists on either side of the question are likely wrong. Caesar's lucid writing style has been criticized as being too plain, monotonous, and pedestrian, but this view is now largely being eclipsed. H. C. Gotoff, for example, credits Caesar with employing some interesting variations of Latin grammar. Military historians praise Caesar's study of the large picture of war and are fascinated by his explanation of tactics. Adcock writes regarding the way Caesar describes battles, “it is hard to imagine how better it could be done.”
De Bello Gallico (history) before 46 b.c.
De Bello Civili (history) c. 44 b.c.
Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul (translated by S. A. Handford) 1951
Caesar's Gallic War (translated by Joseph Pearl) 1962
Caesar: The Civil War (translated by Jane F. Mitchell) 1967
The Battle for Gaul (translated by Anne and Peter Wiseman) 1980
Seven Commentaries on the Gallic War (translated by Carolyn Hammond) 1996
The Civil War (translated by J. M. Carter) 1997
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SOURCE: “The Bellum Gallicum as a Work of Propaganda,” in Latomus, Vol. 11, 1952, pp. 2-18.
[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1951, Stevens examines instances in De Bello Gallico in which Caesar conceals the truth or interprets events self-servingly.]
It is not possible to consider the Bellum Gallicum as a work of propaganda unless a position can be taken up on the date of its composition. We know from external evidence only that it was published not later than 46 b. c.1, but the fact that the story of the campaign of 51 b. c. is written by another hand would lead us to suspect that Caesars's own books of the commentaries were written, as has long been the general belief of scholars2, in the winter of 52-51 b. c. The campaign of 52 b. c., though not the end (and realised by Caesar, as his legionary dispositions and his determination to winter in Gaul prove3, as not the end of the war), marked nevertheless the end of the national resistance, with the supplicatio of twenty days to crown it4. If Caesar had left the writing of the commentaries to 50 b. c., as Holmes, for instance, was inclined to believe5, we may ask why he did not complete them; book viii, even with the post-war politics from Hirtius' more prolix pen, is not a long book. I accept then the date of 52-51 b. c. for...
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SOURCE: “The Literary Form,” “The Purpose and Content of Caesar's Commentaries,” and “Style and Personality,” in Caesar as Man of Letters, Cambridge University Press, 1956, pp. 6-49, 63-76.
[In the following excerpt, Adcock explains how Caesar enlarged the genre of commentarii, examines his motivations for writing, and asserts that his plain and precise writing style accurately reflects his personality.]
The extant continuous writings of Caesar were entitled C. Iuli Caesaris commentarii rerum gestarum. After the researches of F. W. Kelsey,1 this seems to be beyond doubt, and it has not been seriously doubted. What we possess must have been contained in nine rolls—the first seven books of the Gallic War, covering the years 58-52 b.c. being rolls i-vii; then roll ix—the first two books of the Civil War covering the year 49; and roll x the third book of the Civil War describing the events of 48 b.c. until the narrative breaks off late in that year. Between roll vii and roll ix there lay the eighth book of the Gallic War, written by Hirtius, and the series of commentaries in the Caesarian Corpus was completed by the addition of three rolls containing the Bellum Alexandrinum, the Bellum Africum or Africanum, and Bellum Hispaniense. The whole series thus describes the military achievements of Caesar from the...
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SOURCE: “On the Date and Interpretation of the Bellum Civile,” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. LXXX, No. 2, April, 1959, pp. 113-32.
[In the following essay, Collins argues that Caesar was a moderate rather than a revolutionary, and that most of his writings should be accepted as truth, not propaganda.]
In a fundamental article in Rheinisches Museum nearly fifty years ago, A. Klotz,1 summing up the evidence and earlier discussion and adding solid arguments of his own, showed with great probability that the Bellum Civile was not published in the lifetime of Caesar, nor from any finally revised copy, but was superficially edited and published shortly after his death by Aulus Hirtius, who had as his text the unfinished and unpolished manuscript from Caesar's literary remains. The view thus nailed down by Klotz, though attacked in the following decades by E. Kalinka2 and others, may be considered the received doctrine on the matter down to 1938, when K. Barwick published his elaborate study, Caesars Commentarii und das Corpus Caesarianum.3 In 1951 Barwick again took up the problem in his Caesars Bellum Civile. Tendenz, Abfassungszeit und Stil, and with further argument based on intensive linguistic analysis and historical reconstruction, attempted to make good the thesis that the B. C. [Bellum...
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SOURCE: “Caesar and Caesarism in the Historical Writing of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Julius Caesar and His Public Image, Cornell University Press, 1983, pp. 10-57.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in German in 1979, Yavetz surveys modern interpretations of Caesar, focusing on the question of whether he should be considered a dictator.]
In 1953 Hermann Strasburger startled a group of German teachers when he stated briefly and persuasively,2 that Julius Caesar, despite his image of great popularity,3 was nothing more than a lonely dictator: not a single Roman senator supported his fateful decision to cross the Rubicon.
Before he took this risk, Caesar addressed his companions, ‘My friends, if I do not cross this stream, there will be manifold distress for me; if I do cross it, it will be for all mankind.’4 This warning left his friends unmoved. Some of them, including Calpurnius Piso (his father-in-law), Publius Dolabella, Scribonius Curio, Sulpicius Rufus and Trebatius Testa, absolutely refused to cross the Rubicon; others, like Oppius, Balbus and Matius (who were reckoned in Rome to be Caesar's most trusted associates), had their own views about it. According to Strasburger, one factor was crucial: at no point did Caesar command the total devotion of his followers....
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SOURCE: “Caesar's Battle-Descriptions and the Defeat of Ariovistus,” in Latomus, Vol. 40, No. 4, October-December, 1981, pp. 741-66.
[In the following essay, Pelling argues that many of Caesar's battles and maneuvers were too complex to be understood by his intended readers, so that he simplified his accounts accordingly.]
Caesar's military descriptions mark him out among ancient writers. He paints them in the firmest lines; he is uniquely able to communicate to his audience the important strands in the strategy of a campaign, or the tactics of a battle. This tends to inspire modern scholars with an unfortunate confidence. We have a clear and definite picture of the course of events: we expect it to be an easy matter to fit Caesar's narrative to the terrain, and to determine the exact theatre of the campaigns and battles which he describes. Most of the modern topographical discussions of his campaigns are confident and precise. And yet our expectations have proved delusive. Archaeology alone has been genuinely successful in deciding topographical issues, as (it may be argued) at Gergovia and Alesia. Where archaeological evidence is not to hand, scarcely one of Caesar's battlefields has been determined in such a manner as to quell dispute.
It is time to stop considering topographical questions in isolation, and to adopt a new approach. Caesar painted his pictures firmly; but how...
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SOURCE: “Caesar and the War as Reflected in His Commentaries,” in Caesar, translated by David McLintock, BasicBooks, 1995, pp. 254-64.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in German in 1982, Meier explains how in De Bello Gallico Caesar triumphs by taking the offensive, presenting himself in total control, and purposely avoiding self-justification.]
Caesar's book on the Gallic War was in the tradition of reports by Roman military commanders, but at the same time quite novel in that it was composed in a style that matched the highest literary standards. Though ostensibly a campaign report, it is also a highly idiosyncratic expression of the author's personality.
Such a self-portrait naturally has an apologetic purpose. Hence, Caesar's memoir—as well as the conscious and unconscious wishes that guided it—misrepresents certain matters, passes over others in silence or treats them only cursorily, and gives a somewhat partial account of the whole. This is often hard to check, since for the most part Caesar's report is our only source. Where it is possible to check it, Caesar himself usually provides clues that help in unmasking him. For he leaves many contradictions unresolved, unlike a petty deceiver, who would have been consistent. And he reports many things that today seem discreditable—and probably did at the time. In view of Caesar's evident skill in trimming...
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SOURCE: “Caesar's Practical Prose,” in Classical Journal, Vol. 89, No. 2, December-January, 1994, pp. 183-95.
[In the following essay, Damon explains that, in reading De Bello Civili, it is important to recognize the character traits of the individuals discussed; to understand Caesar's narrative as a Roman would have; to notice repeated events; and to realize that recurrent events can lead to different outcomes.]
Thirty years ago, when Matthias Gelzer had the opportunity of addressing an audience of teachers of Latin and ancient history, he chose for his topic “Caesar as an historian.”1 He argued that Caesar was not an historian in the modern sense of the word—not objective, not dependent on inadequate sources, not university trained—but that his commentarii were, given ancient criteria for the genre, historiographical texts, something to set beside Sallust for the history of the late Republic, something to put in front of Appian and Cassius Dio. In making this claim Gelzer was attempting to quell a flood of scholarship which had fastened limpet-like on the chronological problems in the Bellum Civile and on Asinius Pollio's assertion that Caesar himself would have changed many things in the commentaries if he had lived long enough to do so, scholarship that was trying to reduce the commentarii to the category of propaganda.2 Now propaganda is...
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SOURCE: “XPDNC / Writing Caesar,” in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 15, No. 2, October, 1996, pp. 261-88.
[In the following essay, Henderson explores how the act of writing helped to create the image of Caesar that he wanted to project of himself.]
Whereupon Henderson rose, in his place, to speak his motion (surrexit sententiae suae loco dicendae). And moved (pro sententia sua hoc censuit):1
that: Caesar's Caesar tells, undecidably, of a peace-keeping war2 which didn't have to be, yet had to be, fought over the “self-regard” the world owed him and his Caesar self (dignitas)—“not status for Caesar but something approaching self-respect” (his apologist might aver) “and knowledge of his actual worth and the offices it entitled him to seek, meaning more to him than life itself.”3 From the horse's mouth, what a Caesar is worth, is.
—that: the monological, even monomaniacal, myth of Caesar's writing puts De Bello Ciuili in denial, where fiercely dialogical contestation powers and motivates every turn of the rhetoric through its repression. The text plays host to the welter of writings occasioned by the dispute between Caesar and his world; parasitic on them, Caesar hides his parade of self.
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SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar's Battle Descriptions,” in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 18, No. 2, October, 1999, pp. 273-329.
[In the following essay, Lendon explains how Caesar adapted Greek theories of warfare to better reflect Roman values and culture, particularly the Roman emphasis on courage.]
War eclipses all other subjects in the classical historians: not without reason did the Cretan in Plato's Laws (625e) describe war as the permanent condition of mankind. Battle descriptions in ancient authors are legion; Xenophon's Hellenica alone describes or mentions over one hundred and fifty military engagements.1 So too is modern interest in old battles perennial. A gigantic scholarly literature seeks to locate ancient battlefields, to reconstruct the movements of armies upon them, and to divine the strategies of the great captains. Methods improve with time: the floppy sun-hat of today's wanderer over ancient fields shelters modern instruments of source-comparison far more sensitive than the clumsy engines cooled by the trim kepi of his nineteenth-century predecessor. Yet the intellectual underpinnings (to say nothing of the motivations) of this project remain firmly rooted in the nineteenth century. “How very much superior to Caesar's is Thucydides' style of battle narrative,” writes the military historian John...
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SOURCE: “The Camp of Pompey: Strategy of Representation in Caesar's Bellum Ciuile,” in Classical Journal, Vol. 95, No. 3, February-March, 2000, pp. 239-56.
[In the following essay, Rossi contends that Caesar used established rhetorical models and types as a way of leading his readers towards the conclusions he wished them to reach.]
Asinius' Pollio damaging judgment on the historical inaccuracy of Caesar's Commentarii1 has for a long time led many scholars to dismiss Caesar's historical works as an almost free-composed historical fiction, where events are, at best, systematically distorted, or even fabricated altogether.2 It is only in recent years that scholars have begun a slow process of rehabilitation. On the one hand, they have called attention to the limited presence of large scale historical falsification in the Commentarii; and on the other, they have started to highlight the sophisticated nature of the narrative structure,3 hidden behind a prose that Cicero had praised for its elegant clarity and directness of style.4 It is what we may call Caesar's strategy of representation of events, not their falsification, which forces upon the reader the desired reading and interpretation. In a recent article, Damon5 has studied one of these narrative strategies adopted by Caesar. She points out how in BC [De Bellum...
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Brown, Virginia. The Textual Transmission of Caesar's “Civil War.” Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1972, 96p.
Examines and describes assorted manuscripts of De Bello Civili.
Fuller, J. F. C. Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier, Tyrant. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965, 114 p.
Uses classical sources in assessing Caesar's career as a general as sometimes brilliant, but sometimes blundering.
Gelzer, Matthias, Caesar: Politician and Statesman. Translated by Peter Needham, 1921. Reprint. Harvard University Press, 1985, 368 p.
Standard biography originally published in German.
Kahn, Arthur D. The Education of Julius Caesar: A Biography, A Reconstruction. New York: Schocken Books, 1986, 514 p.
Explores the life of Caesar in the context of his times.
Balsdon, J. P. V. D. “The Veracity of Caesar.” Greece and Rome 4 (1957): 19-28.
Explores problems that arise in determining the truthfulness of Caesar's writings.
Eden, P. T. “Caesar's Style: Inheritance versus Intelligence. Glotta 40 (1962): 74-117.
Examines how and why Caesar developed his chronicles from the...
(The entire section is 299 words.)