Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.34 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.34

Luca Grillo, Christopher B. Krebs (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Writings of Julius Caesar.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2018.  Pp. xiv, 396.  ISBN 9781107670495.  £24.99 (pb).  

Reviewed by Adam Littlestone-Luria, UC Berkeley (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

As he crossed the Alps, returning to his army in Gaul in 55 or 54 BCE, Caesar took the time to pen his De Analogia, a grammatical treatise dedicated to his stylistic rival Cicero. It tells us something significant about Caesar’s character and preoccupations that, even in the midst of military maneuvers, a corner of his fine literary mind remained devoted to erudition. Until recently, however, scholars paid little attention to Caesar as literary stylist, and the Bellum Gallicum and the Bellum Civile were mostly mined for military and political detail. Caesar the man of power had long eclipsed Caesar the literary light.

The “historiographic turn” brought sweeping changes to the study of ancient historical writing in the 1970s and ’80s, but scholars only extended this new approach to Caesar’s works in the late 1990s.1 Over the past two decades, however—since Kathryn Welch and Anton Powell published their Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter in 1998—scholars have rediscovered and reimagined Caesar, not only as a politician and general, but also as a crafty author, orator, and scholar.2 Using narratological, intertextual, and semantic tools, recent studies have sought to reveal the literary complexity of the Bellum Gallicum and the Bellum Civile beneath the unadorned prose style.3

As is usually the case with the Cambridge Companions, this volume offers a tour of these new approaches and suggests directions for further research. It largely succeeds in its aim. The reader comes away with a sense of the potential benefits of applying a variety of literary lenses to Caesar’s full surviving historical works (Part I and II). In addition, the collection details his activities as a littérateur in other genres (Part III) and his position in literary history (Part IV).

In their introduction (1-9), the editors discuss the progress of Caesar scholarship: his history as a paradigmatic primer for Latin students; “the predominant view of Caesar as a historical figure ... and as a man of power rather than letters” (2); past debates about the dating, composition, and publication of the commentarii; the vexed question of the parameters of the commentarius genre; and the belated impact of the historiographic turn on studies of Caesar.

The editors lay out the history of Caesar’s scholarly reception admirably, but more attention to the contents and arguments of the essays contained within would have enhanced the coherence of the collection. For the most part, they let the volume’s argumentative interventions emerge over the course of the individual essays (it is in the first two parts, treating the commentarii as literary artifacts, where the lack of this kind of editorial framing is most apparent). Nevertheless, the individual contributions are strong and thought-provoking; and, taken together, they offer a broad sampling of approaches to Caesar’s historical works as literary texts. All of the contributions offer intriguing insights: some present theses that seek to advance debate, while, as is inevitable in such a handbook, others seek to explicate a theme without a strong argumentative thrust.

Part I, “Literature and Politics” (Chapters 1-6), begins with two chapters, the strongest in this section, treating links between Caesar’s literary activity and his political trajectory. In his “Caesar, Literature, and Politics at the End of the Republic” (13-28), K.A. Raaflaub considers how Caesar’s literary production across genres furthered his political agenda. Although C. Krebs’ “The Commentarii in their Propagandistic Context,” (29-42) covers some of the same ground, it nicely brings out the dynamic of communication between the absent commander and various audiences back in the city of Rome. W. Batstone’s “Caesar Constructing Caesar” (43-57) seeks to unpack the process whereby Caesar (as author) uses conscious textual choices to project an image of Césarité: “the totalizing force that protects our boundaries and monumentalizes our virtues” (56).

Although the last three chapters in this section might seem to fit less comfortably under the “Literature and Politics” heading, narrowly construed, this arrangement probably reflects the editors’ recognition that the boundaries of the Roman political sphere were fuzzy. Caesar’s relationship to religion—as a priest, as an author (both in his limited engagement with Roman religion and with Fortune, on the one hand, and his ethnographic discussions of Gallic practices, on the other), and as a scholar (on the stars and, by extension, as a reformer of the calendar)—receives treatment in J. Rüpke’s “Priesthoods, Gods, and Stars” (58-67). A. Riggsby’s “The Politics of Geography” (68-80) is a fascinating study of Caesar’s uses of geography “to make political points” (69), and A.C. Johnston’s “Nostri and ‘The Other(s)’” (81-94) engages with Caesar’s ethnographic construction of the Gallic “Other” and, by reflection, of the Roman self.

In Part II, “Genre, Rhetoric, Language, and Style” (Chapters 7-11), the volume turns to more explicitly literary approaches to the commentarii. In a sense, this section represents the core of a companion dedicated to Caesar as author. D. Nousek engages with the genre of the commentarii in her “Genres and Generic Contaminations: The Commentarii” (97-108), portraying them as historical texts but lacking the kind of ornatus Cicero expected in proper historiography. Caesar’s stylistic elegantia, grounded in the dilectus verborum, comes in for examination in Krebs’ “A Style of Choice” (110-130), an admirably subtle summary of Caesar’s word choice, with an intriguing coda about his impact on the future of “classical” Latin under the Principate. In his “Speeches in the Commentarii” (131-143), L. Grillo uses test cases to reveal the function of indirect speech in the narrative and to illustrate how, in the direct speeches, delivered both by Romans and by Gauls, Caesar “structures his arguments according to some precepts of manuals of rhetoric” (139). A. Corbeill’s “Wit and Irony” (144-156) examines both implicit and overt humor in Caesar’s own works and references to Caesar’s humor in other authors to “narrate how his wit and irony reveal some of the attitudes that drove Caesar to greatness” (144). Grillo rounds out the part with his “Literary Approaches to Caesar: Three Case Studies” (157-169), demonstrating the potential of semantic and syntactic, intra- and intertextual, and narratological analysis when applied to the Bellum Gallicum. This chapter contains some of the sharpest close reading in the whole volume, including a cogent analysis of Caesar’s choice to use third-person narrative, while retaining the designation nostri for the Romans in general, and how these choices benefit “both the narrator and the character Caesar” (167).

The volume shifts away from the commentarii in Part III, “Fragmentary Works” (Chapters 12-16), which offers especially comprehensive and illuminating coverage. G. Pezzini’s “Caesar and the Debate about the Latin Language” (173-192) analyzes the fragments of the De Analogia; details the background of the grammatical debate between analogists and anomalists; locates the treatise within the context of efforts at linguistic standardization in the late Republic; and discusses the treatise as a salvo in a debate with Cicero about the nature of elegantia (and, by implication, Caesar’s own claim to possess it). In a concluding section on the political import of the text, Pezzini argues against “populist” and “nationalistic” readings. Caesar’s oratorical activity receives consideration in H. van der Blom’s “Caesar’s Orations” (193-205), while, in “Caesar’s Poetry in its Context” (206-214), S. Casali examines his mostly lost poetical oeuvre and his relationship to poetic circles. Both are valuable summaries of largely fragmentary corpora that successfully position Caesar’s activity in the context of late Republican social and political culture. Corbeill’s “Anticato” (215-222) analyzes Caesar’s response to Cicero’s pamphlet as an outdated attempt to exploit traditional categories of Republican invective in an effort to blacken the dead Republican martyr’s name. One of the strongest chapters in the collection, R. Morello’s “Innovation and Cliché: The Letters of Caesar” (223-234), rounds out the section. She uses the six preserved letters Caesar wrote himself, in conjunction both with their context in the books in which they are preserved and with Cicero’s responses, to reconstruct “the persona of a busy epistolographer who needs to make smoothly packaged epistolary clichés work to his best advantage, and who will persist in his attempt to teach even Cicero how to play that game” (233).

Part IV (Chapters 17-21), “Sources and Nachleben,” positions Caesar’s literary production in the context of a literary tradition. Connections between the commentarii and Greek historians are difficult to trace, given Caesar’s reluctance to cite sources and models, but L. Pitcher’s “Caesar and the Greek Historians” (237-248) makes the attempt. Although Pitcher finds a single direct reference to Eratosthenes, for the most part he discovers “not so much systematic allusion to a single model as dipping into the grab-bag of narrative possibilities which Greek historiography in the round has established” (240); maybe inevitably, the lack of strong connections makes many of the conclusions tentative. M. Chassignet’s “Caesar and Roman Historiography Prior to the Commentarii” (249-262) treats Caesar in relation to antecedent Latin traditions of historical writing, locating Caesar’s originality in his synthesis of earlier annales, historiae, commentarii, and political autobiography. Chassignet’s comparisons with Sulla’s memoirs are particularly sharp: for instance, the observation that the choice to use a third- rather than a first-person narrator creates an intentional “distancing effect” (261). In “The Corpus Caesarianum ” (263-276), J.F. Gaertner provides a nuanced treatment first of the contents and style and then of the authorship of the four supplements to Caesar’s commentarii (including an intervention in favor of the authenticity of the Epistula ad Balbum). The two valuable chapters on Caesar’s reception in imperial Latin successors, C.S. Kraus’ “Caesar in Livy and Tacitus” (277-288) and T. Joseph’s “Caesar in Vergil and Lucan” (289-303), both analyze general Caesarian reminiscences and more specific intertextual moments in some of the most important historians and poets of succeeding generations. Joseph’s comments on Lucan’s “deformation” of Caesar—foregrounding the crossing of the Rubicon and the role of Cato, for instance, and musing at length on Pompey’s death—are especially insightful (298-301). J. Thorne, in “Narrating the Gallic and Civil Wars” (304-317), provides a useful discussion of the relative importance of Caesar’s works as sources for ancient and modern treatments of the conflicts: Caesar’s works were deemphasized by authors in antiquity, but they came to dominate in the modern period, if only as an “enormous canvas” (316) for the authors’ own personalities and preoccupations. The last chapter, H. Schadee’s “Writing War with Caesar: The Commentarii’s Afterlife in Military Memoirs” (318- 332), is a particularly valuable example of this genus of Nachleben study.

In sum, this volume serves its purpose commendably: it presents a range of possibilities for approaching Caesar’s historical works as literary texts rather than merely as sources of evidence; it engages with Caesar as a literary figure beyond his historical writing with a battery of strong pieces on his fragmentary works; and it situates Caesar and his literary works in the context of the extended Greco-Roman and European tradition. In these ways, this collection succeeds in demonstrating how the “historiographic turn,” which reached Caesar’s writings relatively late, has now rehabilitated him as a literary artificer.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Caesarian Questions: Then, Now, Hence, Luca Grillo and Christopher B. Krebs (1)
Part I Literature and Politics (11)
1. Caesar, Literature, and Politics at the End of the Republic, Kurt Raaflaub (13)
2. More Than Words. The Commentarii in their Propagandistic Context, Christopher B. Krebs (29)
3. Caesar Constructing Caesar, William Batstone (43)
4. Priesthoods, Gods, and Stars, Jörg Rüpke (58)
5. The Politics of Geography, Andrew M. Riggsby (68)
6. Nostri and “The Other(s)”, Andrew C. Johnston (81)

Part II Genre, Rhetoric, Language, and Style (95)
7. Genres and Generic Contaminations: The Commentarii, Debra L. Nousek (97)
8. A Style of Choice, Christopher B. Krebs (110)
9. Speeches in the Commentarii, Luca Grillo (131)
10. Wit and Irony, Anthony Corbeill (144)
11. Literary Approaches to Caesar: Three Case Studies (157)

Part III Fragmentary Works (171)
12. Caesar the Linguist: The Debate about the Latin Language, Giuseppe Pezzini (173)
13. Caesar’s Orations, Henriette van der Blom (193)
14. Caesar’s Poetry in its Context, Sergio Casali (206)
15. Anticato, Anthony Corbeill (215)
16. Innovation and Cliché: The Letters of Caesar, Ruth Morello (223)

Part IV Sources and Nachleben (235)
17. Caesar and Greek Historians, Luke Pitcher (237)
18. Caesar and Roman Historiography Prior to the Commentarii, Martine Chassignet (249)
19. The Corpus Caesarianum, Jan Felix Gaertner (263)
20. Caesar in Livy and Tacitus, Christina Shuttleworth Kraus (277)
21. Caesar in Vergil and Lucan, Timothy A. Joseph (289)
22. Narrating the Gallic and Civil Wars with and beyond Caesar, James Thorne (304)
23. Writing War with Caesar: The Commentarii’s Afterlife in Military Memoirs, Hester Schadee (318)
Bibliography (333)
Index Rerum (372)
Index Locorum (378)
Index Personarum (389)


1.   Associated especially with T.P. Wiseman, Clio’s Cosmetics: three studies in Greco-Roman literature (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1979) and A.J. Woodman, Rhetoric in Classical Historiography (London and Sydney: Croom Helm, 1988).
2.   K. Welch and A. Powell, Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The War Commentaries as Political Instruments (London: Duckworth, 1998).
3.   Among others: W.W. Batstone and C. Damon, Caesar’s Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); A. Riggsby, Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006); and L. Grillo, The Art of Caesar’s Bellum Civile: Literature, Ideology, and Community (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

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