BMCR 1999.04.16

Julius Caesar as Artful Reporter: The War Commentaries as Political Instruments

, , , Julius Caesar as artful reporter : the war commentaries as political instruments. London: Duckworth, 1998. xii, 225 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780715628591 $49.50.

No other author so clearly part of (or even central to) the Greco-Roman canon in theory has been held in such contempt in practice, especially in the Anglophone world. And if this is true of C(aesar)’s work as a whole, it is particularly so of de Bello Gallico (BG). There have, however, been a few signs of rehabilitation. I note several dissertations of this decade devoted to C.1 The 1996 conference whose papers this volume collects is another hopeful sign, even if it did take the tag “artful reporter” twenty-five years to trickle down Parnassus from Thucydides to C. That phrase marks an intellectual strength of the book. Most of the contributors have avoided the twin traps afflicting much of what little has been written about C. in recent years. One the one hand, C. is not free-composing fiction from behind which we must uncover the truth. The premise is implausible (several contributors note the pressure placed on C. by alternative sources of information from Gaul), and the project would in any case be impossible (for lack of independent evidence). Nor, on the other hand, do the notion that C. rarely (simply) lies and the fact that he rarely argues a case mean that his narrative choices do not advance an agenda. One might go so far as to say that the historical event for which BG provides the best evidence is not the Gallic War, but itself, the Bellum Gallicum. At any rate, the latter is the event with which this volume is primarily concerned.

This approach is perhaps as much of a unifying force as one would want and more than one can count on in a collection of essays. However, the contributors for the most part share several other common views. The focus is narrowly on BG 1-7. BG 8 (by Hirtius), BC, and the rest of the corpus Caesarianum are invoked only to point out significant contrasts. Several contributors stress the preeminent position of Pompey throughout the 50’s, easily overlooked in hindsight. Many of the papers also share an interest in the audience for the text. This is both logically necessary to a collection that views the commentaries as (in the words of the subtitle) “political instruments” and partakes in a broader scholarly interest in the diffusion of literary “texts” in the Roman world.2 In the particular case of BG this question is tied to another: that of the time of publication of the books. (Most of the contributors accept roughly a year-by-year appearance.) These last two points are the main topics of the first essay, and so it is to the individual papers that I now turn.

T. P. Wiseman puts forward a double thesis: (1) BG was composed and published year-by-year (except book 5 which Caesar was forced to combine with book 6), and (2) it was deliberately diffused far beyond elite circles, primarily by recitation. On both points he makes strong circumstantial cases. C. had the opportunity and motive to work this way, and there are parallels for the alleged mode of transmission. There seems to be no direct evidence, one way or the other, for the original circulation of BG whether in oral or purely written form.3 What remains is internal evidence for the circumstances of production. As is well known, BG 5.49.1 seems to contradict the claim at 2.28.1 that C. had essentially eliminated the Nervii. This does seems to suggest serial composition, but it is worth noting that in the earlier passage Caesar explicitly attributes his information about Nervian numbers to the Nervii themselves (2.28.2). They doubtless tried to exaggerate their losses in begging for terms. Perhaps C. deliberately used those false figures to inflate his success, while using the source to maintain deniability. If BG really was serially composed, one might have expected more and clearer cases where C. proved himself wrong. Wiseman reasonably avoids impressionistic arguments about, say, stylistic change in the work or (on the other side) ring composition between books 1 and 7. I suspect that both his theses are correct, but it is hard to regard either point as settled.

Catherine Torigian offers, for the most part, a close reading of the first five sections of BG 1, with some reference to echoes of their themes in book 7. Her main point is Caesar’s use of lexical, structural, and plot devices to suggest the impossibility of Gallic unity in implicit contrast to Rome. This contrast makes the Gauls a weaker (and so more tempting) and deserving target, “flatters” the patriotic sensibilities of the Roman audience, and sets up a dominant us vs. them contrast by which C. effaces his own, personal interests. Most of the other contributors take the view that, at least elsewhere, C. inflates the Gallic menace to magnify his own achievement.4 Torigian’s presumed Roman audience has, for me, suspiciously low self-esteem, but the detail of her reading must clearly be reckoned with.

Barbara Levick mounts a defense, or at least a sympathetic review, of C. E. Stevens’ work on BG, exemplified by his reading of book 3. Fault is found with some positions, such as Stevens’ detection of outright deception by C. in the chronology of 56 and in the function of the legates sent to Gaul in the same year. But larger themes such as C.’s concealment of intentions for continuing the war (in 57 and 56) remain plausible. Despite a critique of the specifics of Rambaud’s reading of this episode, Levick’s paper indulges in a fair amount of Rambaudesque speculation about the untruths and “deceptions” in C.’s narrative.5 For reasons noted above, this is an approach of limited utility. Moreover, in this particular case it is undercut by one of the more attractive of Levick’s own historical hypotheses. If she is right that C. in 57 was keeping open several options for campaigns in the following year (74), then it is not obviously deceptive that he fails to discuss any particular one of them.

The next paper is by one of the co-editors, Kathryn Welch. She examines C.’s depiction of his legates and other high officers. One the one hand, legates are rarely set in dramatic vignettes the way, say, centurions are several times. Nor are they often ascribed virtues directly. Not only can a contrast be shown with the lower officers, but also with Hirtius’ version of the legates and even C.’s Gauls. Finally, we know that there must have been many legates C. never even bothers to mention. On the other hand, C. does not simply hold his senior officers in contempt. They are rarely ascribed vices, rarely need to be “rescued,” and are rarely used as scapegoats for failures that might otherwise have been blamed on the imperator. If I read Welch right, there is a tension in the text between a desire to suppress the legates as a class (to emphasize C.’s leadership) and a desire to avoid giving offense to them as individual members of the political class. The chapter also offers close readings of most of the few passages in which senior officers are given prominence.

The other co-editor, Anton Powell, offers a study of “the presentation of massacre” in BG. The two main incidents treated are the defeat of Sabinus and Cotta and the annihilation of the Tencteri and Usipetes. In the first case C.’s narrative tries to preempt possible criticism that the loss was due to his own poor initial planning. In the latter case he attempts to deflect moral criticism for a violation of fides. Here we know that the criticism had actually been voiced at Rome. In both cases, and some lesser examples, Powell shows how C.’s narratives imply arguments without making them explicitly. Powell concludes with a few thoughts on the way C.’s audience would have reacted to depictions of his strategic terrorism. Were they expected to compartmentalize this as what one does to foreign enemies? Or were they (as Powell prefers) being given a little taste of what might happen to anyone who resisted C.?

Jonathan Barlow investigates C.’s depiction of individual Gallic leaders. Not surprisingly, the friendly ones are described in positive terms, the hostile ones negatively. More striking is the role of a Roman political correctness in these characterizations. In BG “good” foreigners are not only nobly born, but also committed to aristocratic government. Bad ones are demagogues or aspire to regnum or (quite often) both. In addition to summarizing all the data in a handy table (159-64), Barlow gives close attention to the way C. distinguishes members of important minimal pairs (e.g. Dumnnorix vs. Diviciacus or Cingetorix vs. Indutiomarus). He also shows that depictions of enemy leaders in BC, BG 8, and even among the Britons of BG do not show the same careful discrimination.

Louis Rawlings sets himself the important task of examining C.’s ethnography outside the formally ethnographic passages. He is primarily interested here in Gallic styles of fighting and of political authority. One of his main sections concerns the rhetoric of virtus (on which both sides try to claim a monopoly) and its place in the politics of reputation. Honor demanded aggressive, conflict-oriented warfare. This moral aspect of warfare seems to be important not only between Gauls and Romans but among Gauls. However, Rawlings notes, neither side practiced the restricted style of warfare it preached. The variations in practice are accounted for well, but I wonder if virtus as a concept is the unproblematic given that Rawlings takes it to be. [Conflict of interest notice: this is a topic on which I have rather a lot to say in forthcoming work.] He goes on to note how C. emphasizes (presumably genuine) patronage ties as a form of Gallic social organization, at the expense of (presumably equally genuine) state-like institutions. This chapter attempts to see through C.’s text to the truth, not to discredit C. but to recover a little subaltern history. This is not as methodologically problematic as déformation -scholarship, but there are still problems, which could perhaps have been discussed more explicitly.

Adrian Goldsworthy treats C.’s depiction of himself as a general. Did he make himself out as a new kind of leader or just a very good leader in a traditional mode? The decisive answer is the latter. Strategically, C.’s extreme aggression (even to the point of seeming rashness) is absolutely conventional, and in fact rational; Roman generals aimed to crush incipient rebellions before they could grow and attract support on their home ground. His more cautious and situational approach immediately before battle was also characteristic of the time. Enemy general: “If you are a great general, Marius, come down and fight me.” Marius: “If you are, make me.” (Plut. Mar. 33). Finally, in battle itself, C.’s usual position just behind the front line was conventional and gave the greatest opportunity for intervention by the commander. Though Goldsworthy’s arguments are, for me, completely convincing, it may be worth raising one methodological complication. There is some ambiguity whether C.’s self-presentation is normal with respect to other self-presenations or the reality of other generals. The evidence for this aspect of military reality (contrast, e.g., military equipment) is essentially textual and in fact quite literary. Strictly speaking C.’s text must be compared to other texts in the same tradition. One need not adopt a position of radical scepticism to suggest that, on these particular issues, there is an evidentiary problem. Looking (as we are) exclusively at the world of discourse might have been expected to normalize C. somewhat.6

I have saved for last what is perhaps the most novel contribution to the volume. Lindsay Hall offers a detailed examination of C.’s language. From the bottom up (lexicon, syntax, word order, text coherence) C. writes with remarkable discipline, especially given the lack of a consensus form of art prose at the time. (C.’s distinctiveness can, however, be exaggerated by comparing him with the whole range of contemporary variation rather than with other individuals.) C. wrote during a period when language and style were the subject of polemic, polemic in which he engaged directly in his de Analogia. Hall, then, naturally looks for a cultural and/or political point to the style of BG. He detects a linguistic nationalism both in the text and in the bureaucracy with which C. surrounded himself. C. was, on the one hand, asserting not only Roman but Latin world domination, and, on the other hand, taking control of the language from the non-Romans who had been producing so much even of Latin “literature” up to that point. Both theses are exciting and plausible, but it would have been interesting to see some direct confrontation with the apparently contradictory views of Sinclair.7 Hall promises a “book-length study” of these themes, and his paper contains passing references to numerous observations that would doubtless repay more extended study.

These papers will perhaps not, individually, redirect debates on broader issues of Republican history, ideology, propaganda, or the like. Collectively, however, they show that BG (and C.’s writings more generally) need to be accounted for in those debates and that, because of the considerable sophistication of the texts, this accounting cannot be done casually. One hopes that both the contributors and readers continue the paths laid out in this volume.


1. J. Nordling, Indirect Discourse and Rhetorical Strategies in Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile (Univ. of Wisc. 1991); R. MacFarlane, The Narrative of Politics (Univ. of Mich. 1991); D. Mannetter, Narratology in Caesar (Univ. of Wisc. 1995). Alexa Jervis at Univ. of Penn. is currently working on BG.

2. Most recently, E. Fantham, Roman Literary Culture: from Cicero to Apuleius (Baltimore 1996) and J. Marincola, Authority and Tradition in Ancient Historiography (Cambridge 1997). Wiseman himself has, of course, contributed already to this discussion.

3. Wiseman rightly rejects the notion that BG is closely modelled on the official dispatches C. sent to the senate (much less being a collection of them), though of course he may have occasionally reused his own material in composing the commentarii.

4. Perhaps more in line with this view is Torigan’s observation that C.’s initial division of Gaul builds up Belgium and Aquitania to the point that he can claim to have conquered two-thirds of the country by the end of the first book (50).

5. M. Rambaud, L’Art de la déformation historique dans les Commentaires de César, 2 ed. (Paris 1966) and De bello Gallico secundus tertiusque libri (Paris 1965).

6. Goldsworthy also points out that there is good reason to suspect that the “literary” tradition may have had a considerable role in shaping military practices in its own image (195).

7. P. Sinclair, “Political Declensions in Latin Grammar and Oratory 55 B.C.E.-C.E. 39,” Ramus 23 (1994) 92-109.