BMCR 2007.08.03

Caesar’s Civil War

, , Caesar's Civil War. Oxford approaches to classical literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xiii, 225 pages) : maps.. ISBN 9780198036975. $19.95 (pb).

This book is the third in a series entitled Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature, which aims to provide accessible yet critical introductions for first time readers of classical literature in Classical Civilization courses (see the Series Editors’ Foreword, v-vii). The ideal implied readership for this book is a class of students who have diligently read Caesar’s Civil War with the support and guidance of their instructor. Judgment of the book should therefore begin by assessing it from this perspective. Will students who read this book be likely to enhance their understanding of Caesar’s text? Further, would adding this book to a syllabus advance the purposes of the teacher of those students?

Quite simply: yes. The prose of Batstone/Damon is as clear and efficient as Caesar’s, and their structuring likewise demonstrates their claim that the arrangement of material conveys the art of advancing an argument. Since description is explanatory in Caesar (10), students who seek to retell the story of the civil war after one reading of Caesar’s account almost necessarily advance Caesar’s own purposes. One way for an instructor to respond is to demonstrate the tendentiousness of Caesar’s account, to show students places where Caesar has manipulated chronology or assigned motive prejudicially. Batstone/Damon do this where appropriate, but without fanfare or malice, for they do not seek Caesar’s faults as narrative historian. Quite the opposite: they find Caesar’s narrative effectiveness a literary art and they seek to explain the successes of that art in Caesar’s text. Caesar is awarded greatness, but specifically as the author of prose with an argument, and anyone who thinks Caesar’s methods are simple should read this book. Best served, however, will be readers who come to this book looking for ways to pinpoint and analyze the importance of Caesar’s Civil War for Roman history and literature. The depth of the argument surpasses what could be done by an instructor in the classroom, and its accessibility will advance and not limit further discussion. Yet this book should not be overlooked by scholars as but a students’ companion, for even those familiar with Caesar’s techniques will find force and insight in the lucid arguments of Batstone/Damon. Their scholarly touch is light, but the quality of their argumentation is very high. This book deserves a wide readership.

The book contains an introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. Transitions between chapters and especially between sections within chapters are well done; a student readership, for example, should have no excuse for not being able to follow the argument. The reader is expected to be attentive, which is to the credit of the authors; names and places are frequently mentioned because of their relevance, but also included are a timeline of events in Caesar’s life and especially in the civil war (173-177), a glossary of prominent persons (201-209), and four good maps (180-183; an additional map of Spain would be welcome). Discussion of bibliography is limited to the endnotes (185-199), where acknowledgement of, rather than disagreement with, others’ ideas seems the goal; in fact, the notes generally discuss additional primary evidence more than secondary literature. The co-authors have very successfully blended their work (see ix), for the tone and pace is consistent throughout: analytical and readable.

The Introduction (3-7) surveys the major events of Caesar’s lifetime that caused the Republic to crumble and led to the outbreak of civil war. Caesar’s ambition is thereby presented as part of the larger historical forces of his time, but this is no crisis without an alternative: “Caesar himself proved the biggest problem for the republic” (5). Chapter 1, “Choices: Genre, Content, Style” (8-32), provides the real introduction to the main topics of this book. It starts from a discussion of the range and sense of the term commentarius (i.e., a work of explanation that emphasizes content over style, but justifies its content), which then leads to the demonstration that the selection of material (primarily specific events and people) is a major criterion for identifying artistry, for Caesar’s choice of details guides the reader to share his understanding of their significance.

Chapter 2, “Structure as Argument in Civil War I” (33-88), develops this idea very effectively. Starting from a splendid close reading of Caesar’s details in the opening chapters of Book 1, Batstone/Damon sketch Caesar’s characterizations of the two sides of the conflict: the cruel and duplicitous Pompeians subverting the republic vs. a statesmanlike Caesar standing up against this coercion in the best interests of the republic. They then demonstrate the care and precision with which these characterizations imbue every subsequent panel in Book 1, showing how Caesar’s consistency and thoroughness in crafting the details that support this picture bring suggestive credibility to what would otherwise seem overt tendentiousness. “Pompeians imagine senatorial failure as an excuse to turn their backs on the Senate, while Caesar imagines the same kind of failure as requiring him to take up the reins of government himself. One might say that in reality the difference is merely rhetorical, but that is the point: Caesar’s rhetoric creates a difference” (73). This chapter is the best in the book, for it does exactly what a title in this series ought to do: show the first-time reader just where and how this author is the master of his craft. Many perceptive details of the reading, moreover, will also impress those already cognizant of Caesar’s designs.

The next two chapters survey how Caesar extends and enforces these thematic characterizations in the work’s two subsequent books. Chapter 3, “Taking Sides, Making Sides” (89-116), considers the characterizations of some of the main players of the work, especially the contrast between the loyalty of Curio (despite his military failure) and the treacherous hypocrisy of Pompey, Scipio, and Labienus. Chapter 4, “Mastering Victory” (117-142), explores Caesar’s presentation of himself, how he suggests the common ground between himself and his reader, how he presents himself as disciplined and imperturbable, and how this presentation suggests Caesar’s aspirations for what his victory could mean for Rome.

The fifth and final chapter, “Writing Fighting War” (143-165), perhaps ought to be the first, for it describes and analyzes the Caesarian stylistic techniques that make all the rest of Caesar’s literary aims possible. Placing it last has the definite advantage that the thematic contexts of many of the passages discussed are by now familiar to the reader, which makes it easier to see how small effects resonate in context, but so much can be learned from this chapter about what makes rhetorical prose effective that it seems foundational for the project of this book. The general argument (well articulated on the chapter’s final page) is that the customary lack of ornamentation in Caesar’s narrative is effective in facilitating the apparent validity of the picture it paints. Yet Caesar does choose to employ some ornamentation, and its contrast with the general plainness elsewhere often brings palpable emphasis. Caesar’s stylistic effects should thus be everywhere watched and can be everywhere appreciated, yet the more elaborate a passage becomes, the more potential there is to gauge its purposes. Students are often told that writing style influences effectiveness, and yet many have difficulty seeing in practice how such influence works. This chapter goes far to erase that difficulty, with a range of representative examples that impress but do not exhaust. Here one can helpfully see, for example, how adjectives label, arrange, and assess, strategically and/or prejudicially; or how abstract nouns can be used to categorize experience and so explain outcomes (an especially good example at 154-155); or how subordination valuably allows an author to explain why one course of action was chosen and not others, for such structures explain motive, and motives characterize.

The Epilogue, “Surviving Failure” (166-171), returns to the thesis of the whole book, which is acknowledged already in Chapter 1 (29-32) but emerges fully in Chapter 4 (especially 131-142). In fact, the thesis quietly grows from the very first sentence of the book: “Caesar’s Civil War is an unfinished masterpiece” (3). One might think that the controversial word here is “masterpiece,” given Caesar’s demonstrable tendentiousness in places, but the key word for Batstone/Damon is “unfinished.” What does it mean for our understanding of the work that Caesar never finished it? The decisive factors were political and not literary, Batstone/Damon say on their first page, so there should be no doubt that the literary goals for the work are fulfilled within it. But when considering why the work is unfinished, they move from a literary to a political assessment, just as Caesar’s literary skill is ultimately in the service of his political ambition.

Batstone/Damon develop their thesis as Caesar does, incrementally yet consistently. After building to the introduction of the thesis at the end of Chapter 1, their purpose for Chapter 2 is to show how Caesar structures the argument of Book 1 to show both the pattern of Pompeian failure and the ways in which his conduct can repair that failure. Thus Caesar’s argument is always as much about the future condition of the republic as it is about narrating its current troubles. In Chapter 3, Caesar’s presentation of the loyalty of Curio even in military failure is contrasted repeatedly with his close association between the failures of Pompeian loyalty and their failures on the battlefield. By chapter 4, then, one’s loyalty to one’s obligations is recognized as a Caesarian mark of virtue, and one of which Caesar makes a careful reckoning. “According to the argument of the Civil War, when the old sources of cohesion failed, or rather were destroyed by the faithless enmity of Pompey and others, the new source of cohesion lay in the qualities and capacities of one person, Caesar, and fides is what he offers as the virtue constitutive of a newly cohesive state” (140). Caesar’s “underlying principle” is “one of mutually beneficial action: just rewards for services, and good faith in obligations. For Caesar, this is the republic, not some abstract idea of self-sacrifice” (133, see also 57-59 on 1.8-9). That this is a challenging understanding of patriotism, Batstone/Damon are quick to admit. By the “uncanny logic of politics,” Caesar’s claim to be wresting the republic back from the private interests of the Pompeians turns out “to depend more and more upon the willingness of individuals to remain loyal to their personal obligations” to him alone (141). This logic was offensive to the Roman aristocracy, and the fact that Caesar would be assassinated by men who he felt owed him gratitude poignantly symbolizes its failure. As Batstone/Damon see it, however, Caesar perceived the failure of his logic well before his assassination, and it was this perception that caused him to abandon his Civil War unfinished (171).

The development of their thesis is perhaps the most impressive of the authors’ successes in this book, for each chapter valuably analyzes its own immediate subject (i.e., genre, structure, characterization of self and others) while also building toward a compelling culminating understanding of Caesar’s purposes for the whole work. Expectations for a series like this would not normally include a new scholarly reading, and yet the authors have designed their work to deliver one. Scholarly readers of this book will perhaps pine for more detailed engagement with the secondary literature, but Batstone/Damon have notably exceeded the goals of the series. They have not only written a book that will undoubtedly intensify students’ literary interest in this rich historical text, but they have also provided teachers and scholars a refreshing and stimulating starting point for rethinking Caesar’s successes and failures. The authors are thoughtfully experienced in the ways of Roman historiography, and they have combined to write a powerful book in modest form. As Cicero concluded about Caesar’s commentaries, “in history nothing is sweeter than a pure and clear brevity” ( Brutus 262, quoted on 143).