As a great fan of Caesar, I loved this. It's surprisingly enthralling once you get into it, but takes a bit of work to start, especially if you're not familiar with the setting and political background.
Originally written as a series of despatches to the Senate back in Rome, it is undoubtedly propaganda created by Caesar to justify his own conquests, and make sly digs at his enemies back in Rome.
Starting with his departure from Rome in 58bc after his consulship, this takes in the battles against the rebellion under Vercongetorix as well as the abortive first invasion of Britain.
It might not be to everyone's taste, but I think Caesar's an elegant and lucid writer who uses understatement as a style factor.
The Penguin volume is excellent, with an easy, free-flowing translations, an introduction outlining the background, a glossary of people and terms, and maps of Gaul. Altogether, a bargain.
This is a remarkable document. It is at once a manual on military strategy, on effective management of his troops, and on the psychology of the enemy. But it is also a history, with smatterings of anthropology, sometimes our only source on a vanished pre-Roman way of life in what became France. Finally, and most difficult to grasp, there is a political subtext, in which Caesar is communicating with both allies and rivals in Rome, advancing his career while advising future leaders on proper conduct. Why did he mention certain things? What did he omit? What political image (or self-consciously enduring myth) was he creating for himself? There are few antique documents as fascinating and to boot it is a literary masterpiece of clear exposition and rapidly moving narrative. Once you read it - and it must be read carefully and with references to other sources - you will have no doubt that Caesar was one of the greatest leaders of all time: afterall, his name is the basis for Tzar as well as Kaiser!
Then there are the details. What stick out in my mind are individual tales of bravery as well as foolishness, rendered in detail as vivid as a novel, and the ever-present possibility of failure or even disaster from which Caesar always manages to pull victory at the decisive moment; of course, there are the many instances of brutality in a time of different standards of military conduct. Then there is the siege of Alesia. To protect his troops and starve out the enemy (and the charismatic Gaul, Vercingetorix), Caesar at Alesia had in a matter of days not only to build a surrounding rampart facing in, but also one facing outwards (14 miles in curcumference!), to ward off the last-stand of the bravest of the Gauls. Finally, to break the spirit of small revolts after Alesia, Caesar cut off the hands of all the Bellevoci who took up arms in a desperate, last gambit that Caesar feared would repeat itself in innumerable city-tribes as his consulship ended. It worked.
And there are many characters who figure later in the great civil wars that destroyed the last remnant of the Republic: Brutus, Labienus, Mark Antony, and Cicero's brother Quintus Tullius. You get glimpses of them as men as well as military leaders who later opposed Caesar.
As with much in Classical Civilization, the more you know the more you love it. And the more this period of diversity looks like a metaphor, or example, for the present. There is a good reason why the educations of scholars in the humanities (as well as in the sicneces) and diplomates began with the Classical era - read this and see how relevant it still is, in light of the War in Irak. This is one of the most important documents from the period.
Warmly recommended. If you are predispoosed, it will influence the way you think of contemporary events.
on 1 December 2009
Caesar's Commentaries as they were suposed to be seen contrast markedly with say the "Histories" of Tacitus. How strong is this constrast, well we will see. But first, Caesar's Gallic wars covers his years as Consul and the gradual conquest of the lands known today as France, Belgium, Holland and the western parts of Germany. The book itself never mentions any of the political infighting taking place both in the Senate itself and among the enemies and friends of Caesar. Many things stand out in the history itself such as Caesar's advanced age before he started his conquests, given his birth in 100 BC and the start of the Gallic consulship in 58 BC Caesar was aready 42 years old. Interesting as well, is Caesar's insistence on the use of the third person to comment on the subsequent wars, and then even more surprising the change to first person in a very few instances to make a point. No doubt this is a device often invoked at the time to try to ensure impartiality or some fashionable way of writing. Certainly these commentaries were intended to be read by military and senatorial leaders on the way to wage war in Gaul and for that matter maybe even in Germany.
Now we come to the fascinating contrasts with Tacitus's "Histories" for example. Somehow, in the intervening time between the conquests of Caesar and the year of the four emperors, about 100 years, much had changed. Not only in the style of writing itself but in the way both Roman and foreign society was envisaged in Roman eyes. Nowhere except in a very few occasions did Caesar mention that his men needed encouragement for the fight, or lacked bravery. But then in Caesar's day the men were indebted to him to ensure both pay and security, Caesar or one of his generals having recruited them himself and being levied only for a number of years rather than the long term service required from a certain date onward (possibly Augustus's time). We see again and again the expressions of bravery and courage witnessed by Caesar of his own men in action and the determination requiring incredible effort to construct siege engines or wait out a siege, or for that matter the persistance by the armies involved in continuing the struggle to conquer territory when there was no real incentive to do so apart from honour in war and the gratitude of their general.
First came the invasion of northern Italy into Cisalpine Gaul where the Helvetii, an Alpine tribe, planned a migration into other parts directly imposing themselves on client tribes under Rome's protection and north Italy itself, a situation not tolerated. From there, after their defeat, Caesar continued into Gaul ostensibly to help other tribes against Germanic invaders originally called to help in domestic disputes between Gaulish tribes. In this way Caesar gradually eliminated tribe after tribe in clever tactics designed to disrupt the banding together of the whole of Gaul against him. Obtain hostages and promises from one and nove onto the next, fight a decisive battle usually against odds such as 2-3 or even 5 to 1, defeat them and punish whatever was seen wrong in Roman eyes, establish Roman control and so the law and get Caesar as judge over disputes and Bob's your uncle, one conquered country. Caesar was not only a brilliant commander and very clever man but also excellent at getting his men to trust and love him, as well, he knew how to plan and carry out a campaign, taking risks when necessary, all in all a natural talent.
He writes fluently with litte influence of personal detail but rather in an entertaining style easily captivated by. But the book is a commentary and intended as such, this must be remembered.
Throughout, we see the vast difference in the times of Caesar and say Nero; in Caesar's time the eagerness and devotion and determination as well as courage of the Roman army could not be faulted, nowhere do we see cowardice in play, his men running or being frightened by the Germans with their reputation for ferocity and toughness. The confidence of the army grows as victory builds on victory.
Unfortunately, very little is said of military tactics in the battle itself or the troop movements or how commands are given or how men are relieved with fresh troops in close combat fighting in multiple lines, this has remained a mystery but nonethelss a known ability which would have required astonishing discipline and bravery. On the other hand we see in Tacitus's day that corruption and fear and cowardice are ripe, everywhere one looks such a decline is obvious, where did the vital, proud and brave army go, or for that matter the people themselves. What a difference 100 years make and maybe a couple of defeats as well, such as the Varus disaster which basically ended a conquest of Germany, the one enemy, even more than the Parthians which were implacable and undefeated watching and waiting in the background for a hint of weakness. It is also seen how the way Romans saw foreigners changed significantly in this time, in Caesar's time they were simply barbarians and non-Romans, in Tacitus's time after decades of service in the army and long trade and contact they came to be seen in a new light more human and less barbarian. The Roman himself less stoic under pressure and more prone to weakness. Why did this happen? Not simple questions if indeed it is true.
An excellent narrative unsentimental and thorough as the man himself.
on 9 March 2013
In my school days every child knew the story of the 10th Legion's standard bearer, leaping from the beached ship and into the fray while his comrades hesitated. Here we have an account of both the 55 and 54 B.C expeditions to Britain and the first description of the island and its inhabitants in history.
Interesting descriptions of geography and peoples aside, this is primarily a campaigning account. The reader is left in no doubt that the Gauls and Britons, however numerous or courageous, were no match against a disciplined professional army - even when the Gauls were united under Vercingetorix.
Apart from battles and sieges Caesar describes the campaigning as consisting of relentless marching, endless digging of trenches and earthworks and foraging for food. The vast circumvallation and contravallation at Alesia are proof of the enormous physical labour of war. The Rhine bridges, meanwhile, are justly famous as masterpieces of Roman military engineering. Just reading an account of the unrelenting toil of the legions invoked a certain exhaustion.
The tone of confidence in the army of the late Republic is reflected in the narrator's own confidence in his military prowess. It smacks of self- propaganda throughout, heightened by the third-person narrative. Not until the loss of the legions of Publius Quinctilius Varus in the Teutoburger Wald in A.D 9 was Rome's military confidence dented.
I didn't find the history itself particularly interesting or relevant to modern times, but as a campaigning account it's as seasoned as old hob-nailed caligae.
I read this book many years ago when interested in Caesar's forays into Britain in 55 and 54BC and enjoyed it then. I was then compelled to read it again recently when studying for a History degree.
It's a unique book in many ways - an eye witness account of the conquest of Gaul and Caesar's invasions of Germany and Britain. I still find it fascinating that a text over 2,000 years can say so much to us and I really do feel we'd be much worse off without Caesar's writings - EVEN IF they are (like all ancient texts) written with a specific purpose and open to bias and exageration.
The review by J. Coffey is actually pretty much the most boring review I have ever read. Does he think he is clever just because he can quote some Latin? <yawn> Yes, little man you are very clever... NOT!
Anyway, if you want to read a translation of a 2,000+ year old account of the invasion of Britain (and with it the subjugation of Gaul and invasion of Germanic lands) then you really HAVE to start here!
on 26 May 2015
One of the most readable books I have purchased this year, full of interesting anecdotes and clever military analysis. Brilliant translation, really useful for gaining an understanding of Caesar's greatness and obvious personal bias, it should be recommended reading for humans generally.