Review of Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The war commentaries as political instruments, edited by Kathryn Welch and Anton Powell

Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 22
Review by Nicolas Gross, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, University of Delaware

Had Julius Caesar been as skilled a general as he was a self promoter, he probably would not have needed a near suicidal, solo confrontation with the enemy to motivate his troops at Munda.[[1]] In contrast to this desperate, physical gesture, Caesar's considerable rhetorical skills have often been overlooked; however, with the publication of Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter his verbal prowess need not take a secondary role. Indeed essay after essay emphasizes the degree of difficulty Caesar faced in presenting his case for himself. For example, in chapter 1 T.P. Wiseman, 'The Publication of De Bello Gallico' (pp. 1-9 at p. 4), writes: 'For Caesar, the political problem was his absence from Rome . . . as long as he was not there, his enemies had the advantage.' In chapter 5, 'Caesar and his officers in the Gallic War Commentaries' (pp. 85-110 at p. 91), Kathryn Welch states that it was imperative that Caesar 'maintain a place in the minds of the Romans during his long absence,' and the 'political pressure on Caesar was enormous.' Anton Powell argues in chapter 6, 'Julius Caesar and the presentation of massacre' (pp. 111-37 at p. 111) that 'to distort unobtrusively was not a simple matter. But, just because of his attentive enemies, the pressure upon him to angle accounts to his own credit was severe.' Finally, Powell adds (ibid.) that, unlike Lawrence of Arabia who had 'no public enemies' and whose deeds were witnessed by few or no native speakers of English, there was no lack of Romans in Gaul who could, at sometime, present 'authoritative contradiction' to Caesar's reported exploits.

Despite these potential challenges, the Gallic War kept the often-absent general favorably in the public eye from 59 to 51 BC. How he accomplished this feat is the focus of Wiseman's contribution. Appropriately Wiseman (p. 1) dismisses the notion that BG was 'a single narrative, composed . . . after the defeat of Vercingetorix' and 'aimed at an elite audience' -- the earlier consensus of Gelzer, Meier and Rambaud. Had Caesar delayed composition of these memoirs, he would have vanished from public view for more than half a decade. That he employs the phrase populus Romanus 41 times in BG 1 leaves little doubt that Caesar's audience is pointedly the Roman populace. Had the BG been published toward the end of Caesar's command in Gaul, how could the Nervii, according to Caesar effectively annihilated in 57 BC, number 60,000 in 51 BC? Caesar's 'nod' proves seriatim publication. By pointing out the weakness of former theories concerning the publication of the BG, Wiseman convincingly demonstrates that form follows function in Caesar's military history. Indeed to end on a high note, Caesar will even deviate from his formulaic and Roman annalistic practice of linking each book to a single campaign. At what would have been the 'conventional' end of a campaign and hence the conclusion of book 5, Ambiorix escapes. Breaking with the pattern he had established earlier, Caesar, as Welch notes, continues book 5 into the winter and the next campaign season in order to conclude dramatically with Labienus' victory and the death of Indutiomarus, a powerful enemy of Rome.

Within the political motivation of the BG may even be found an explanation for Caesarian Latinity. In chapter 2, 'Ratio and Romanitas in the Bellum Gallicum' (pp. 11-43), Lindsay Hall thoroughly describes the exceptional purity of Caesar's Roman diction. His vocabulary was 'fewer than thirteen hundred words' (p. 21) with virtually no colloquialisms and almost no Graecisms despite the fact that Romans of Caesar's educational level were given to using Greek. By employing the plain style Caesar implicitly contrasts the rational Romans with their more emotional Gallic counterparts, a cultural divide that Caesar underscores by referring to the Gauls' excessive preoccupation with religious matters (BG 6.16.1). Ever alert to the power of language and style, Caesar deliberately crafts a Roman political identity for himself, a persona, even more Roman than his rival, Pompey.

Warfare, however, inevitably involves far more than triumph, and the presentation of casualties to those who may well have lost sons creates significant difficulties for one compiling his military memoirs. On the one hand, Caesar must avoid blame for the loss of Roman troops and any lack of foresight (Caesar claims to have providentia throughout the BG), while on the other hand, the deaths of the enemy must be justifiable. Powell's chapter explains how Caesar carefully casts one particular defeat as inevitable. Given Sabinus' irresponsible behavior and duplicitous character, the losses sustained as a result of Sabinus' military campaign could not have been foreseen, or so Caesar implies. Yet Caesar must remove even the slightest implication of personal responsibility for this massacre of Roman soldiers. His strategy is masterful. Rather than focus exclusively on Sabinus, he also extends blame to Cotta, a fellow legate and undeniably also at fault. Unlike Sabinus, however, Cotta dies nobly in battle -- at least if we are to believe Caesar's account. Thus Cotta's bravery makes Sabinus look all the worse. By riveting attention on Sabinus' failings, Caesar effectively distances the entire episode from himself. In making a scapegoat of one officer and one alone, he also avoids showing contempt for his junior officers and as a consequence enhances his own stature. Creating a favorable image for a Roman audience is ever on Caesar's mind, and thus, as Welch demonstrates, calculated manipulation, both political and rhetorical, dominates the BG.

In contrast to his portrayal of a massacre of Romans, when Caesar massacres an enemy, the presentation is markedly different. Timing is now paramount and he must strike fast before the return of the German cavalry, a military maneuver that makes good sense. But the severity of Caesarian military activity has a double purpose. First it provides powerful exempla to the Romans that he, as commander of the armies in Gaul, has protected Rome by destroying its enemies. But secondarily and by inference, Caesar implies that he can destroy any and all of the enemies of Rome; 'Caesar was keenly aware of the disciplinary value of terror' (p. 131).

In 'Noble Gauls and their other in Caesar's Propaganda' (pp. 139-70), Barlow further defines the Caesarian persona by illustrating Caesar's ability to create the 'appearance of magnanimity' (p. 142). In book 1 Dumnorix appears as Caesar's first significant Gallic foe. Shortly before his death in book 7, in a speech reported by Caesar, Dumnorix states that he is a free man from a free community. With such a report, Caesar appears to be a generous chronicler; however, in the interim between Dumnorix's first appearance and his death, Caesar has completely undermined the Gaul's character by emphasizing his self-seeking motives, e.g., cupididate regni adductus ('driven by the desire to be king'), a characteristic that Caesar also ascribes to his other chief rivals: Orgetorix, Casticus and Vercingetorix. Diviciacus, Dumnorix's brother is, on the other hand, pro-Roman, and quite intentionally 'his power is depicted as public and traditional' (p. 144). Barlow concludes his essay with an appendix of pro and anti-Roman Gauls that should prove very useful to scholars of the BG.

Another theme that underlies the BG is Romanitas. Like Hall who examines the Roman qualities of Caesar's style, the final two essayists in the collection address Caesar's characterization of himself as a Roman general. Of particular interest is Louis Rawlings' study, 'Caesar's portrayal of Gauls as warriors' (pp. 171-92), which focuses on the climactic battle at Alesia. Here Vercingetorix's strategy and tactics seem positively Roman, yet Caesar wins the campaign. Is Caesar presenting Vercingetorix as a Gallic Pompey to intimidate his opponents? Rawlings certainly thinks so. Similarly in Adrian Goldsworthy's essay, '"Instinctive genius": The depiction of Caesar the general' (pp. 193-219), Caesar is portrayed as a typically Roman general with the boldness that historically accompanied Roman campaigns. Typically Roman generals chose to confront threats as soon as possible and with their present troops rather than wait for reinforcements and the inevitability of facing better-organized resistance. In the Imperial era, for example, this penchant for immediate confrontation produced Varus's catastrophic defeat. Thus Keppie's earlier accusation that Caesar's generalship is rash falters when Caesar is compared to Republican generals who employed similar tactics, e.g. Sulla, Marius and Metellus. In concluding, Goldsworthy suggests that Caesar's characterization of himself as the model Roman general extends even to his commentary on the civil wars where clearly his description of the battle of Pharsalia suggests that the better and more Roman of the two generals was victorious.

Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter reveals the subtle art and artistry that lie behind Caesar's commentary and reminds us that his works repay careful reading and rhetorical analysis. This collection is a 'must read' for those interested in the calculating intellect behind the BG's seemingly objective historical narrative.


[[1]] If one is to believe Appian 2.104. See also Suet. Div. Iul. 36.