GAIUS IULIUS GAESAR


Gaius Julius Caesar was born about 100 BC and died in 44 BC on the infamous "Ides of March", assassinated in the Senate by a coalition of his colleagues whose main worry was probably that he would become permanent Dictator and thus destroy the nature of the Republic. There may have been truth in this, but on the other hand he was the only man who could hold together a fragile government torn on all sides by conflicting politicians with large armies at their disposal. It is impossible to summarize in brief the political and military life of a man like Caesar, who was at the heart of everything that happened at Rome in the first half of the 1 st c. BC.. Every serious book on ancient history has the facts of Caesar's amazing and effective life, and it may be sufficient to quote to words of Sir Paul Harvey who wrote in l937 that "Caesar combined preeminently the qualities of statesmanship and generalship, discernment, determination, promptitude, and clemency.". This is more than can be said for most political leaders in Caesar's time, or since.

The political life and achievements of Gaius Iulius Caesar (around 100 B.C. to 44 B.C.) are too complex and too well known to be laid out fairly in any brief notice. Suffice it to say that Caesar as general and statesman did more than anyone else could have attempted, in a period of insane internal strife and civil commotion, that succeeding in what he did with cleverness coupled with a sense of political propriety, he overcame great odd and the forces of his formidable enemy Pompeius. He would have possibly brought greater order to Rome than anyone else on the scene, had he not been murdered by a group of wrongheaded conservatives, who believed that his achievements would lead to a kind of single-handed leadership intolerable to those raised in the old concepts of Rome as a Res Publica. Had they come back in spirit a century later to review the history of Rome under the astute if self-conscious Augustus, the paranoid Tiberius, and finally the schizoid Nero, they might have repented of their red-necked enthusiasm for Caesar's blood. But all this is in the realm of political history rather than literature to discuss, although it cannot be separated from Caesar as man and author.

But Caesar was also a writer and a literary stylist. Ancient sources list him as a leader of the puristic style of writing, which was called the Attic Style, opposed to the more highly-wrought and flowery Asiatic Style, of which Cicero was considered a proponent. Caesar wrote in the year 52-51 B.C. his Commentaries on the Gallic War, and left unfinished three books on the Civil War. It is this literary aspect of his energetic and multifarious personality which we will discuss here.

It is hard to approach the book on the Gallic War as an example of a particular style of writing for a variety of reasons. First, Americans have an entirely different view of this remarkable little volume from that of European scholars, for whom De Bello Gallico is just another historical document, not unlike Tacitus' Germania. In Europe there are still places where Caesar's soldiers trod, beneath many European cities are visible traces of Roman buildings and battlefields, so there is a certain automatic interest for those who like history.

In America it is otherwise. Early in the 18 c. Caesar was selected as the reading material on which basic grammar and vocabulary would be based, and all students were marched in step through the six books on the Gaulish campaigns. The use of Caesar was established as an educational sine qua non very early and continued, unabated as the first reading after an introduction to Latin Grammar, through the 19 th. and on into the 20 th. century. It is still safe to say that no student, whether enthusiast or unwilling dullard, gets into Latin study in the United States without campaigning with Caesar through his second year of Latin. This alone is enough to explain the distaste which most people, whether unwilling high-school Latinists or college majors, feel toward Caesar. who retains an aura of high-school, the stale smell of the class-room. This is something which all students of Latin, college majors and graduate students alike, never seem to forget.

Why was Caesar selected for beginners as an example of Latin writing only in America? After 1725, when the Caesarian grammars and textbooks began to appear, America was, or perhaps thought it was in a position comparable to that of the Romans in Caesar's time. Men bearing a high form of Civilization, whether Romans or Anglo-Saxon colonists, were facing an uncivilized and dangerous race of savages (Gauls or American Indians). War was waged against the savages in their own backyard, where they presumably had an advantage. They were brave, at times admirable, but of course doomed to be beaten in the name of Civilization, under Rome or under the American government. But propaganda, Roman or American, had to show that they were a serious threat to the bearers of the burden of civilization, so that no right-minded person would extend to them much sympathy or any degree of clemency..

It seems clear that Americans, faced with the protracted Indian Wars of the first half of the l8th c. would find in Caesar a clear, if tacit, parallel to their situation, from which boys could learn something practical if they put their minds to it. It was in this atmosphere that Americans chose Caesar as a text for beginners, and it is obvious why Europeans never considered Caesar as a suitable text for neophytes. From an educational point of view they were in a measure right: Caesar is too mannerismed in his military language for beginners, too intent on forcing Latin style back into purified stylistic simplicity.

The destruction of the Native Americans' political identity and culture are one of the greatest shames of American history. Without being simplistic, it seems clear that the uniform decision to eradicate Indian culture from the continent had to have a great deal of psychological backing in order to be effective, which it clearly was. This could not in good conscience come from the Church, which ostensibly preached human brotherhood, in fact a great deal of it may have come from the schools, which like churches have a tradition of operating exceptionally effectively on young minds. Uniform generations of young American males, trained in the traditions of Caesar's military mission against the savages, did go forth and decimate the Indian population without qualms, just as the Roman tradition prescribed. On such strange grounds can we understand the use of Caesar's Commentaries as an essential part of Colonial American education, for unsaid political purposes rather than for training in a sane Humanistic tradition.

As inheritors of such a process, we no longer have to deal with the Indians, except in lawsuits involving restitution of rights, although we still have to deal with Caesar in the Latin classrooms, which have shown a curious talent for surviving through the years. There are many problems in the important second year of high school Latin, of which these seem to be the most pressing:

But there is another reason that Caesar is not a favorite author. Generation after generation, Latin spawned a tough breed of teachers who believed that discipline is the end of education. What better place to enforce discipline than in an elaborate system like Latin grammar? "They may not learn much Latin, but they are sure going to learn how to work." The more interesting social studies appeared in the l920's, the engaging Humanities penetrated the schools in the l950's, but the Latin teachers held their thin line stout-heartedly. Society always managed to applaud them enough to keep Latin in the curriculum, saying that the rigors of Latin were good for the mind.

There is another factor at work. Teachers who know Latin as grammar but are not really trained in Latin Literature and History, are not in a position to exposit a text as literarily contrived and tightly nuanced as the Commentaries. It is rarely noted that Caesar's style of writing is unusual as Latin, that it often imitates the language of military dispatches, that it is compressed and factual as an example of Roman pragmatism and practicality. The continual use of the Ablative Absolute, which is not naturally translated into English and generally conceived of as an instrument of torture devised to plague high-school Sophomores, is not seen as representing impersonal, military concision. The tenor of the Commentaries is not represented as clever propaganda for the people back in Rome, which it clearly is. So the question easily arises: Why would anyone like Caesar?

Since Caesar is introduced as an introductory text, progress in reading is slow, and the pages seem longwinded and labored. But this is the exact opposite of Caesar's stylistic art, which is direct, short-winded and compressed. In order to convince students of his directness, better methods of learning must be introduced, so students get a basic reading knowledge of Latin quickly, before they can get bogged down by "paralinguistic" explanations and eternal word-searching in the vocabulary. A method of learning Latin as direct as is used in any modern European language, coupled with a fast dictionary search (such as this dictionary), should provide the linguistic know-how necessary for reading Caesar. But this will only work if the teacher will make it clear, by example and iteration, that these pages are terse reports from a general in his tent at the frontier, reporting with the exactitude of a Pershing, an Eisenhower or a Schwarzkopf the military record of that day and that week. Historians of the military will recognize that the best generals have a way of omitting what is not favorable to their image, and Caesar was no exception, since funding for campaigns must be met by the votes of a Senate. This is telling part of what we can see in the Commentaries, not only what Caesar tells us, but what we think he may have fudged over. Such are campaigns, and such is life!..

Caesar is wonderful if you can read him easily. Once background if offered, once the complications of Ablative Absolute and Indirect Discourse are made reasonable, and seen as part of the language of the military, the Commentaries are fast-moving and revealing, as the notes of a very astute general and writer. But one cannot read Caesar with understanding at a snail's page, half page at a time. By using this Dictionary, students should be able to read several pages for an assignment, aided by the printed lists of the words they have consulted, while reading aloud keeps the flow going.

Two technical matters cause much concern for students. First the phenomenon called "Indirect Discourse" generally seems anything but direct, since it is explained as an automatic peculiarity of the Latin language dependent on the presence of certain magic verbs. It could be much clearer if teachers would explain that it is actually a compressed statement following verbs which involve 'thinking' or 'telling', in which most of the important information (such as person, or the difference between subject and object) are stripped away, as suits secondhand thinking and reporting. As such, Indirect Discourse, which might better be called "secondhand statement", is barebones reporterage, and as such distinguishes between what we know is going on, and what we are to assume is going on. In military communiques, this is most important, as a way of distinguishing among the different levels of fact, whether they are real facts or just reported statements. In a real world dealing with real matters, this makes sense.

Second, the "Ablative Absolute" to beginning students often makes absolutely no sense, especially with its subordinate rule that " it's subject can never be the subject of the sentence". If we start from the beginning, and describe this construction as "an accompanying use of the ablative" (in formalese for the teachers only: an Ablative of Concomitant Circumstance), we see that the clause in question is virtually a parenthetical remark, and we see why its subject (being bracketed as firmly as "b" in the algebraic formula "a (b+c)"), cannot be indiscriminately pulled out of its isolation to modify the multiplier, or the subject. The Ablative Absolute construction represents a fact or situation which can be trusted as factually accurate, and in this sense it can be inserted into any sentence as background material. Like the Indirect Discourse construction, it is stripped of many of the things which true verbal sentences have, but it does not reflect reported opinion like Indirect Discourse. It represents an encapsulated statement of fact, serving as background to what is being said in the rest of the sentence.

If these two things can be made clear, much student apprehension about two strange and threatening linguistic features which occur continually in Caesar can be laid to rest, and the business of getting to read Caesar's pellucid prose can be gotten on with directly. Add to this use of maps, some knowledge of the French countryside as gleaned from a tourist's guide to modern France, a general awareness of the science of military history, and you can have a classful of wide eyed students participating in something like social-archaeology. And Caesar should never be read without thinking seriously about War, what it means and entails, and whether it is really an essential part of our performance as civilizable men and women.

Since Caesar is encountered as the first concerted reading after Grammar, this is the time start serious reading IN LATIN, without transverbalizing. We do this in French, in Spanish, in Russian and in Chinese, and we have been doing it for over seventy years. When are the Latin teachers going to catch up with the world and start really reading --- in Latin?

Caesar is the first encounter for students with Latin, Caesar is the scene of the first battlefield, and Caesar is generally the scene of the Great Discouragement. This is unfortunate, but can be remedied by reading Caesar after the student has read simpler texts, like Florus' very easy abridgment of Roman history, some of the short family-style letters of Cicero, and then going into Caesar as a special military style of writing, as well as an introduction into that ancient occupation which is still firmly with us --- the military craft and Warfare.

One additional note: The traditional Latin HS coursework always used Caesar Book I-V, but it is book VI which is really interesting, since it is a survey of the frontier, recounting much interesting information about the peoples who lives on that Gallo-Germanic isogloss-line traced by the River Rhine. For students who are becoming fairly fluent with Latin prose, Book VI along with Tacitus' short essay De Germania makes a fine introduction to the anthropology of the ancient world. Reading these two collections in a term with enough time left aside to do some basic reading in anthropological theory, would make a great project for upper level HS or college students.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris