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