History through the winner – Caesar on the Civil Wars

The Civil WarThe Civil War by Julius Caesar

Casear’s The Civil War is actually three related books: a long one by Julius himself on the initial crossing of the Rubicon, the battles in Spain and defeated Pompey in Alexandria. His account ends abruptly, but is continued by anonymous accounts continuing through events in Alexandria, then through northern Africa and finally in Spain.
Like his account of the Gallic wars, Casear’s section is straight-forward and enthralling, although one should keep his aims in mind: these are not unbiased looks at how things unfolded. These books were meant to show how great a leader he was; in so many words, they’re propaganda, reading meant to excite the masses.

Even now, some 2000 years after the events within took place, they’re still great reading. Unlike some of his contemporaries – Plutarch comes to mind – Casear’s prose is uncluttered and direct. When he writes of battles, his first-hand knowledge shines: at times it feels like a conversation with the leader. But when he writes about how he spared this person or that town, showing off how merciful he could be, it bogs down the general reader (although it’s worth noting he was pretty lenient, much more so than some of the people who followed him as Emperor).

However, the other three books are more mixed: the Alexandrian account is interesting reading, the Spanish War is fragmentary and disjointed and the African war is somewhere in between. The differences between them and Casear’s are stark, and not just in language: only after you see them repeatedly say the gods decided who would win which battle do you realize secular Casear’s writings could be. All three aren’t quite as interesting as Casear’s account, either: they range between too unwieldily and too fragmentary. Oftentimes, they don’t have the access to the larger picture that Caesar’s does: they focus more on the front lines then the strategy. Still, their addition completes an incomplete picture.

Penguin’s edition is translated by Jane Gardner, who also provided a great introduction and copious notes in the back: maps, a listing of who’s who and many footnotes, all of them helpful, throughout the book. I can’t speak to the nuts and bolts of her translation, I’m willing to credit her for how readable the book is, especially given the state of the last two accounts. While her translation is pretty simple for the most part, it can to be long-winded at times. Take this example, addressing Pompey’s front lines at the battle of Pharsalus:

Between the two armies there was just enough space left for them to advance and engage each other. Pompey, however, had told his men to wait for Casear’s onset, and not to move from their positions or allow the line to be split up. He was said to have done this on the advice of Giaus Triarius, with the intention of breaking the force of the first impact of the enemy and stretching out their line, so that his own men, who were still in formation, could attack them while they were scattered. (Pg 152)

The value of this book as a primary source can’t be overstated, either. Precious little has come down to us from this period in time; that we have the memoirs of not only one of the leaders, but from the eventual dictator of Rome, is itself pretty damn cool. On that alone, I’d recommend this book. That it’s a genuinely exciting and lively read is a welcome bonus.

Rating: 7/10 The Civil War is a great, if biased, read on the end of the Roman Republic. The average reader start with a modern history of the Civil Wars – Tom Holland’s Rubicon comes to mind – before moving to a primary source like this. For those willing to delve a little deeper, and read between the lines here, The Civil Wars is a rewarding read: Casear’s accounts take you right to the battles. The other accounts? Not so much.

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