Best classical military history,
This review is from: The Gallic War: Seven Commentaries on The Gallic War with an Eighth Commentary by Aulus Hirtius (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)
Caesar's Gallic Wars is almost pure military history, relating the conquest of Gaul by the Romans in the 50s BC, the subsequent revolts, and their repression. It is a brutal tale and, while it has its heroic moments, is not for the faint-hearted. But it is also noteworthy for its accessibility and readability. Caesar may have written two thousand years ago, and he may have been a military man addressing a public well versed in the contemporary art of war, yet his account remains completely intelligible to the modern lay reader. His battle accounts are far clearer than those of many a classical Greek writer. This is partly a question of the book's direct, unadorned style. But it is also because so much irrelevant detail is stripped out. Greek writers were interested in what corps from what city faced what other corps on what wing. Caesar just gives use the legions, the barbarians, and the gore.
Embedded in the military narrative is some ethnographical detail about the Gauls, Britons, and Germans. Though the Gallic Wars is not a single source, it certainly was a propaganda account, however, and it is hard to tell what to trust. Caesar writes that druids practiced human sacrifice, for example. This sounds likely true, but it is also reeks of stigmatisation. (Nor does the otherwise excellent introduction explain. If anyone knows of archaeological evidence on that, please feel free to post a comment.) The Gauls' motivations are sometimes difficult to understand - one suspects Caesar is less keen to tell us that their constant rebellions were not so much due to pride as to despair at Roman raping, pillaging, enslaving, and military requisitioning to the point of famine. Among other matters I found of both interest and surprise is the contemporary role of Germanic auxiliaries, and the presence of German tribes in Gaul already at the time. And I finally understood why Vercingetorix chose to surrender at Alesia, something which had never made sense to me. But no spoilers: the Gallic Wars must be read as the captivating story it remains.