BMCR 2013.01.30

The Art of Caesar’s ‘Bellum Civile’: Literature, Ideology, and Community

, The Art of Caesar's 'Bellum Civile': Literature, Ideology, and Community. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. xii, 221. ISBN 9781107009493. $95.00.


As Grillo states in his introduction, “two artificial divisions … have hindered the understanding of the Bellum Civile… one division separated Caesar the writer from the orator, intellectual, politician and general, and the other separated the work’s style and content” (10). The Art of Caesar’s ‘Bellum Civile’ – a pallid if accurate title – seeks to reconnect the severed parts, working to situate Caesar in the intellectual stew of his times. Along the way, Grillo uses a variety of approaches including, among others, a careful analysis of word choice and meaning, narrative structure, prose rhythm, and focalization to reveal how Caesar persuades. The Bellum Civile is a special work in which “the cooperation between the narrator and the general creates multiple possibilities for magnifying the authority of the former and the mastery of the latter” (9). The rhetorical methods by which Caesar achieves this, however, have only recently drawn greater scrutiny as the implications of the highly self-aware, literary history-writing practiced by the Romans has become a lively topic of study.

Chapter one explores Caesar’s methods of characterization by focusing on one of Caesar’s famed attributes, celeritas. Yet, as Grillo points out, Caesar uses the term to describe himself only twice, applying it far more often to his enemies. In the case of the Pompeians, the emphasis on speed ironically reveals their slowness when compared to Caesar’s disciplined marches and strategic apprehension. Caesar builds the narrative to compel his readers to draw the conclusions themselves. Throughout, Grillo ties his observations to close readings of the Latin as well as to the history of the period, highlighting divergences from Caesar’s version of events in the accounts of Dio, Appian, and Plutarch. Chapter two describes how Caesar represents himself as having a number of desirable virtues. Qualities like constantia and innocentia, while not applied to Caesar, are shown through his deeds while their lack is revealed by the Pompeians’ misdeeds. Cato, the exemplar of moral rectitude, reveals his lack of constancy by abandoning his attempts to prepare Italy for Caesar’s arrival while complaining bitterly about Pompey’s generalship. Thereafter Cato is elided in the subsequent narrative in a move that Grillo compares to damnatio memoriae.

Characterization also extends from the leaders to the armies they lead; the negative pole of the characterization of the military is tackled in chapter five. By comparing some key scenes of potential defection and mutiny, Caesar demonstrates the greater pudor of his men. Unlike the Pompeian Afranius, Caesar can order his troops to march at night without danger of desertion. The chapter closes with a discussion of virtus and how it is never attributed to the Pompeians themselves and only occasionally to their allies. The chief use of the term in the Bellum Civile when describing Caesarians stretches into the semantic range of patientia. The third chapter treats the issue of loyalty in civil war and examines the methods employed by each side to recruit soldiers and administer oaths of loyalty. Pompeian scenes of oath swearing are regularly followed by Pompeian defeat. Grillo notes deviations from appropriate ritual that would have been clear to a Roman audience – as when Labienus, out of the proper order from high to low, swears before Pompey does. He also links the breaking of oaths to the depiction of Gallic treachery in the Bellum Gallicum. While Pompeian oaths are marked by iusiurandum, the oaths of Caesar’s troops are described by sacramentum, a word emphasizing both the permanence of the oath and the individual will of the one swearing it. Caesar’s word choices underscore the commitment of his own troops. This chapter also contains an excellent comparison of Pompey’s violation of his oath prior to Pharsalus—not to return to camp except as victor—with the actions of other generals in Caesar’s works at moments of crisis.

The majority of chapter four is a close reading of the battle of Ilerda and the siege of Massilia to examine the way that Caesar shapes the notion of clementia. The notion of mercy is complicated in civil war by the conflation of enemy and citizen. An enemy is, in the notional world of the Romans, justly warred upon. Because of this, any mercy shown to a defeated enemy is by the grace of the victor. A citizen, however, pleads for mercy when he has suffered iniuria. Thus Caesar was in something of a double bind. Did he treat the defeated as enemies, thereby undercutting his own rhetoric of inclusion? Or did he treat them as citizens, which came dangerously close to admitting that he had inflicted the iniuria of civil war? The conflict Grillo notes here is real, though I found the argumentation here a bit less engaging because of the density of rhetorical terminology.

Chapter five demonstrates how Caesar deploys the loci of Otherness against the Pompeians. In the Bellum Gallicum there are gradations of Otherness, but Caesar rejected “numerous … opportunities to draw a sharp distinction between Roman self and alien other.”1 Instead of Roman/Barbarian, the important division is between tribes allied with or favorable towards Rome and those hostile to Roman interests. This same distinction occurs in the Bellum Civile. Enmity to Rome in turn maps the Pompeians (and their barbarian allies) onto the foreign other. The point is convincingly demonstrated by a series of verbal parallels. Moreover, Caesar applies the term barbarus only to Pompey’s foreign troops, never to his own, and when describing the battle lines at Pharsalus, Caesar names his legions by number but Pompey’s by their regional or tribal affiliation (3.88.3).

The chapter ends with an extended analysis of the discovery of the silver dinnerware and elaborate bowers set up in Pompey’s camp to celebrate a victory feast after Pharsalus. Grillo seeks to link this scene to Pompey’s extravagant triple triumph in 61 BCE and the inaugural games for his theater in the Campus Martius in 55 BCE. If one buys the parallels, then Caesar rescripts these demonstrations of Pompey’s prestige as previous examples of Pompey’s hubris and luxuria. Underlying Caesar’s representation of events is the idea that the Pompeians are corrupted by their contact with foreign potentates, in contrast to Caesar, who successfully assimilates the best of the Gauls.

Chapter six examines the alienating viewpoint of the Pompeians with the assimilating viewpoint of Caesar.2 Grillo expands upon the use of these terms by showing the relevance here of juridical rhetoric. The Pompeians view Caesar’s forces as the enemy and treat them as such whenever they come into their power. Caesar, on the other hand, stresses inclusion and the social bonds and obligations that hold together the Roman state. His march into Italy becomes a march of peace in which town and cities, liberated from Pompeian bullying, throw open their gates to Caesar. Where Caesar’s advance brings with it harmony and unity, the movements of the Pompeians are accompanied by strife. Behind every recounting of Pompeian cruelty hovers the specter of Sulla, affirmed by Cicero’s fear of proscriptions should Pompey win.

The final chapter deals with the temporal anomalies in the Bellum Civile. Rather than being a largely annalistic account with occasional linking devices for narrative clarity at book beginnings and ends like the Bellum Gallicum, the Bellum Civile changes the real-time order of the siege of Massilia and Curio’s defeat in North Africa. Grillo argues that the manuscript evidence properly reflects the three book divisions, an opinion with which I heartily concur. The relevance of this structure is that it presents the reader with alternate visions of what the end of the war might look like depending upon the victor. The first ending, coinciding with the end of book one, is largely bloodless and marked by Caesar’s pardon of the Pompeian army and its commanders after their surrender. The second ending, which closes book two, shows the massacre of Caesar’s forces by foreign cavalry and the Pompeian commander’s betrayal of the survivors when he gives them to Juba for execution. The inabiltiy of the Pompeians to stand tough against a foreign king demonstrates in nuce all the Pompeian faults in one scene: oath-breaking, toadying to barbarian royalty, and cruelty towards their fellow citizens.

Caesar was recognized in the ancient world for both his personal and literary style. The style of a work of scholarship is seldom praised (and perhaps seldom deserves to be), but this book is a pleasure to read. The touch is light, the glosses on concepts concise and clear, and there are brief references to other sources that call Caesar’s various claims into question or confirm them. These external touchstones keep in mind the sometimes contentious problem of what really happened. By keeping in focus both the techniques of representation and what is at stake in them, the author shows the substance behind the rhetoric and demonstrates why historiography matters. Because of this and its crisp presentation of Caesar’s modes of persuasion, The Art of Caesar’s ‘Bellum Civile’ is a perfect book for a college level Caesar class and an excellent book for those teaching Caesar at any level. It will serve those without Latin less well. While most of the Latin is glossed, some is inserted parenthetically without explanation, and Latin phrases find their way into English sentences.

Caesar, the orator, given free hand as a writer to depict his own ethos and that of his enemies, is able to present them as the sorts of people who are inclined to do certain sorts of things. And because as author, Caesar is able to cherry-pick the events he describes, he can show everyone doing things that conform to the character he has assigned. In essence, this is history that lays bare the highly rhetorical and political nature of shaping the past in narrative. This book also heals one final breach in Caesar scholarship, which has tended to treat the Bellum Gallicum and the Bellum Civile as distinct works. This book eloquently demonstrates that they should no longer be read in isolation because the logic of their argumentation is so deeply imbricated and mutually reinforcing.


1. A. Riggsby, p. 126 in Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words, Austin, 2006, quoted by Grillo (109).

2. This terminology is defined in the first chapter of M. Roller’s Constructing Autocracy, Princeton, 2001. In an “assimilating viewpoint,” “one’s opponent is more or less assimilated to oneself, with the result that the conflict is seen as taking place within a single community of obligation. Despite the presence of conflict, the community on this view remains fundamentally intact” (29). The “alienating viewpoint,” by contrast, views the opponent as “an alien enemy, a hostis, who threatens one’s own community of obligation yet is also utterly excluded from it” (37).