From the ar­chive: Adrian Goldswor­thy’s 2006 homage to Julius Cae­sar’s rat­tling good ad­ven­ture, ‘Bel­lum Gal­licum’

The Independent - - Radar / Book Of A Lifetime -

I count my­self lucky not to have been made to read Cae­sar’s Gal­lic Wars [Bel­lum Gal­licum] at school. It’s not some­thing I lie awake at nights think­ing about, but the sen­ti­ment is no less gen­uine for that. It was an old-fash­ioned school, so Latin was still com­pul­sory even in the late Seven­ties. How­ever, chance – the tem­po­rary un­avail­abil­ity of the nor­mal text­book – meant that we fol­lowed a dif­fer­ent course and ended up read­ing Livy and Cat­ul­lus in­stead. I can’t say that I care too much for ei­ther au­thor these days. Early en­coun­ters with Latin texts tend to be painful as you grap­ple with de­clen­sions and abla­tive ab­so­lutes. Quite a few clas­si­cists never go back to Gal­lic Wars be­cause they still carry the scars of school.

How­ever, like Cae­sar, I had chance on my side. As a boy I stuck to As­terix and only read Gal­lic Wars as a stu­dent. Then it was a plea­sure, for Cae­sar’s Latin is clear, el­e­gant, and gram­mat­i­cal to a de­gree un­matched by any other au­thor – which is, of course, the rea­son it has so of­ten been in­flicted on

school­child­ren. Cae­sar said that a good or­a­tor or au­thor should avoid a dif­fi­cult word or phrase “like the helms­man of a ship avoids a reef”. That is an ad­mirable sen­ti­ment in our jar­gon-rid­den age, and re­fresh­ing in the aca­demic world, where any at­tempt to write with clar­ity or style tends to be greeted with sus­pi­cion.

Gal­lic Wars de­scribe Cae­sar’s cam­paigns in north­ern Europe in the 50s BC. At the most ba­sic level, they are a rat­tling good ad­ven­ture, as the gen­eral and his soldiers over­come ev­ery­thing thrown at them by sav­age en­e­mies and na­ture it­self. The mod­ern dis­taste for im­pe­ri­al­ism is soft­ened by the pas­sage of over 2,000 years and, any­way, this is not the sort of book from which you seek lessons for life. I have never found that read­ing Cae­sar gives me a burn­ing urge to in­vade France and mas­sacre or en­slave its pop­u­la­tion.

In the end, my fas­ci­na­tion is sim­ply that of the pro­fes­sional his­to­rian faced with a ter­rific source for a truly re­mark­able pe­riod. There is a wealth of de­tail about the Ro­man army and how it worked, and about the peo­ples he fought against. Yet Cae­sar was not writ­ing for pos­ter­ity. The seven books of Gal­lic Wars were prob­a­bly pub­lished in­di­vid­u­ally af­ter each year’s cam­paign and aimed squarely at a Ro­man au­di­ence will­ing to thrill at the achieve­ments of “our men”. This was pro­pa­ganda – or spin – to per­suade peo­ple that the au­thor was do­ing great deeds for the Repub­lic and de­served fur­ther hon­ours and suc­cess. It’s a lit­tle hard to imag­ine the out­put of any cur­rent leader be­ing counted as high-class lit­er­a­ture, let alone be­ing re­mem­bered and read in 2,000 years’ time.

Fights in bright Latin: Cae­sar’s im­pec­ca­bly writ­ten ac­counts were in­tended as pro­pa­ganda for a Ro­man au­di­ence (Alamy)

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