The Uncivil Servant: Ave Caesar!

Mitchell Abidor
April 12, 2018
Discussed in this essay: The Landmark Julius Caesar, edited and translated by Kurt A. Raaflaub. Pantheon, 2017, 793 pages.


AS I WAS READING the magnificent new Landmark edition of Julius Caesar’s works, my initial instinct was to relate the Roman leader to the anti-democrats of today, starting -- of course -- with our own president. This seemed particularly apt, given the kerfuffle over the Shakespearian Julius Caesar performed in Central Park with a Caesar resembling Trump meeting his preordained fate.

But having finished my reading of this book, which contains The Gallic War, The Civil War, and a handful of outside accounts of Caesar’s campaigns, I abandoned that tack. For what I came away with from my reading of this translation, by the volume’s brilliant editor, Kurt A. Raafalub, was a reminder that Caesar’s writings are not merely classics; they are thoroughly enjoyable classics. Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic, but it’s all but impossible to complete a reading of his work without developing a sneaking admiration for the man. All the person in the White House has in common with a great man like Caesar is genus and species. Though Trump has colonized our minds today, let him at least be banished from our contemplation of ancient days.

The Gallic Wars, for example, Caesar’s account of his eight years of campaigns in Gaul (with side excursions to Germania and Britain), is filled with insightful and fair portraits of even his enemies, starting with the ruler of the Arverns, Vercingetorix, who French historians centuries later would turn into a foundational hero of the French nation. Caesar’s enemies are not cardboard figures: He engaged in accurate and colorful ethnography, delineating clear difference among the barbarians outside Rome. His writings are also filled with reflections on the soldier’s mentality, the mastery of which played a key role in Caesar’s becoming one of history’s greatest military generals. When describing the people he combats, Caesar has his preferences, to be sure — finding the Germans a tad too savage for his tastes compared to the Gauls — but none are ever treated condescendingly. We take from The Gallic Wars the sentiment that Rome’s enemies were people, which is something one doesn’t always find in the work of politicians or generals, even less in men who were both. But what other imperial conqueror provides set pieces in which opponents explain their desire for freedom from the conqueror’s yoke? This doesn’t excuse Caesar from imposing that very yoke, but it makes Caesar’s writings all the more readable and compelling.

To be sure, these books are entirely partial affairs. It is estimated that a million of the four million residents of Gaul perished in the Gallic Wars, and though Caesar is not shy of speaking of mass killings,  one gets little feel for the Romans’ barbarity.  He can massacre entire populations, drive them from their homes, and sell them into slavery with barely a pause. The entirely personal nature of his conquests, in contravention of Roman law, is not made much of, either. And in his other major work, The Civil War, his characterization of the events leading up to the struggle against Pompey is summary at best, while the death of his opponent, whom he pursued around the world, is disposed of in a sentence.


HOWEVER MUCH the classics in general have fallen into disfavor, viewed, in the phrase of the classicist Bernard Knox, as the work of the oldest dead white men, any open-minded reading of this thrilling edition of Caesar’s works repays the time invested many times over.  The Gallic Wars and The Civil War were  written as propaganda, but that only makes their accomplishment all the more impressive: Propaganda that can survive millennia is no longer propaganda, but literature.

There are many editions of the works contained in this volume, but there is no edition that even vaguely equals this for comprehensiveness and readability. It is the first Latin translation in the magnificent Landmark series (which includes Xenophon, Herodotus, Arrian, and Thucydides), and augurs well for the future.

The translation, by Kurt A. Raaflaub, is fluid without being overly colloquial. The hefty but manageable volume includes brilliant and essential maps, both of the areas covered in the text and of battles, allowing the reader to easily follow the steps of Caesar’s many encounters with his enemies. After a lengthy introduction, which lays out the general history into which Caesar’s works were inserted and explains the books contained, there is a section containing a list of the individual chapters, the years events occurred, their location, and a very brief summary of the information contained in each chapter. The book is also generously illustrated, the images clearly reproduced and well explained. The paragraphs are summarized in the margins, and the copious but unobtrusive footnotes are thorough and assume no specialist’s knowledge of the history. Also included in the volume are the non-Caesar elements of the canon: accounts by other participants in the Gallic Spanish, Alexandrian, and African Wars, about which Caesar did not himself write. Finally, there are forty-seven essays of commentary, four of which are included in the published book, the rest available online.

The Landmark Julius Caesar is a model publication, one far more suited to our time than the classic Loeb bilingual editions, which appeal mainly to the few among us still possessing mastery of classical Greek and Latin.  How odd and wonderful that the most thrilling book to cross my desk in 2018 was one written two millennia ago. 

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.