Julius Caesar (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism) - Essay

William Shakespeare


(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.”

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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

C. E. Stevens (lecture date 1951)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 entire section is 6309 words.)

F. E. Adcock (essay date 1956)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 14241 words.)

John H. Collins (essay date 1959)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 7566 words.)

Zwi Yavetz (essay date 1979)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 23084 words.)

C. B. R. Pelling (essay date 1981)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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 entire section is 9672 words.)

Christian Meier (essay date 1982)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4182 words.)

Cynthia Damon (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5573 words.)

John Henderson (essay date 1996)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 13555 words.)

J. E. Lendon (essay date 1999)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 27505 words.)

Andreola Rossi (essay date 2000)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 7377 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 299 words.)