Warning: this post may contain spoilers for Julius Caesar’s Commentaries
Although, these works describe historical events that are firmly established in the historical record, so perhaps the statute of spoiler limitations has passed. After all, the first of Caesar’s writings come from a few decades before the advent of the time known as the Common Era, or Anno Domini (I will be using the CE and BCE designations, since they are currently the most commonly accepted amongst historians, although this does beg the question of what comes next – the uncommon era (UCE)?), so if you don’t know that Caesar would go on to to start the Roman Empire by now…
Sometimes, reading historical pieces like this can be a bit slow. The language and sentence structures are not familiar to modern readers, and the way the story is structured is not intended for entertainment – it’s intended for education or political manipulation of the authors’ contemporaries. For instance, The Collected Works of Xenophon, which I’ve been working through for some time, is fascinating, and also has a tendency to put me to sleep after a few pages (in fact, I recommend it as a cure for insomnia). Yet I love to read these kinds of pieces because of the fascinating insight that they offer into the time periods in which they were written, and the unique perspective that can be gained.
Caesar’s Commentaries, though, are not tedious. They are not slow, or particularly difficult to read, and they certainly are not short on action. Written by Caesar himself, they demonstrate a side of the man that is rarely emphasized in the numerous biographies and histories centered around him. He is famous for his skill as a general and for his conquests, but he was also a brilliant politician, an adept author, and a strikingly intelligent figure. It is easy to dismiss history’s figures as being somewhat one-dimensional, or to ascribe their accomplishments to mere chance and positioning. After all, all kinds of things had to happen in the years and centuries leading up to Caesar’s time in order for him to be in a position to accomplish what he did. Yet this leaves out the fact that he was a uniquely brilliant man who accomplished incredible things as much by intellect and political maneuvering as by military conquest. In fact, his commentaries make it clear that his military conquests may well have been part of a much larger political scheme. He was not a man to lose sight of the larger picture.
Beyond insight into the author, we also have the unique opportunity with these Commentaries to see history from the perspective of someone who was there. These pieces are our primary, and in some cases only, source to know what happened during Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul. Who better to explain what was happening? Reading these will challenge your preconceptions about a man who has fallen out of favor in modern historical circles.
For the first part of this book, I read it alongside listening to Hardcore History’s The Celtic Holocaust, which made for an interesting experience; it was almost like having someone to discuss the book with as I was reading it. It also helped contextualize what was happening, placing the locations into a modern framework, and providing other reference materials and sources for the events being described in Commentaries. Though not required to appreciate and learn from Caesar’s books, I do recommend it if you happen to have some long drives to complete, as I did.
As with most historical works, there are a lot of different translations floating around, and if I were a historian, or even a more assiduous reader, I would have spent a lot of time researching to find out what translation was considered the best, rather than picking the most inexpensive one with decent reviews on Amazon. The vagaries of translation are worthy of an entire post unto themselves, and it is a topic I have not spent very much time studying. Thinking about it always makes me very aware of how much meaning and nuance can be lost in translation. For instance, at several points Caesar declare Gaul to be “pacified.” But depending on the translation, all of these instances may say “pacified,” while others may use words like “tranquilized,” “becalmed,” or “quieted.” Or, Caesar often paints his enemy in an oddly favorable light, describing them as freedom fighters. They basically have a “give me liberty or give me death” moment (and Caesar obliges). But what does “freedom” or “liberty mean in the original Latin? The Latin “libertas,” for instance, had a connotation perhaps even more intense than our modern “liberty.” Or, on the other hand, it may have merely meant “not a slave.” It’s almost enough to make me want to learn ancient Latin. Yet even if I did, I doubt I would ever be able to understand it in the same way that Caesar used it. Some things really are lost to time.
I realize that most of you probably won’t go out and read Caesar’s Commentaries, and that’s okay. However, I do enjoy learning about history, and I have found that reading original sources is one of the most interesting ways of gaining insight into other places and other times. It always makes me wonder if historians will one day read the things that we write today, and use them to try to understand the times in which we lived. So, if you have an interest in history and want to see a side of Caesar beyond the military conqueror commonly depicted in modern treatments, I highly recommend finding a translation of Caesar’s Commentaries.