Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: The Landmark Julius Caesar

This is a review of a new book on Julius Caesar, published in The Wall Street Journal December 1, 2017. My bolded sections.

By James Romm

It’s astounding that so few fans of martial sagas like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones” have found their way to the narratives of the Greek and Roman historians. In these works, too, one finds apocalyptic battles, ruthless political struggles and bizarre twists of fortune. They may lack dragons, but their intensity is amplified by the knowledge that the events they describe really happened. The story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power in the 50s and 40s B.C., first through the conquest of Gaul (modern France) and then by whirlwind campaigns throughout the Mediterranean, is as compelling as any televised drama, and indeed HBO and the BBC built the first season of their series “Rome” around exactly these events.

Who would prefer modern-day dilutions and screen adaptations to the surviving firsthand accounts of such episodes, narrated by great writers? Just about everyone, it seems, and perhaps the reasons are not so hard to find after all. The chronological gulf that separates us from the Roman world, and even more from the Greeks, can render the primary narratives blurry and indistinct. Opacities of nomenclature, geography, units of currency, measurements of distance and a dozen other pitfalls stand in the modern reader’s path. As a teacher I am always dismayed when undergraduates declare themselves bored by the Greek historian Thucydides, whose vividness as a reporter of the catastrophic Peloponnesian War ought to quicken their pulse. Despite my best efforts, some are simply unable to part the veil of time.

Edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub
Pantheon, 793 pages, $50
Similar frustrations in teaching ancient history to disengaged students led independent scholar and businessman Robert Strassler to conceive the Landmark Ancient Histories. Beginning with “The Landmark Thucydides,” published by the Free Press in 1996, Mr. Strassler showed his determination to leave no reader behind. He supplied detailed maps on nearly every third page of text and clear, full annotation that removed potential stumbling blocks. Headings kept readers oriented in time and space, as did brief summaries, running down the book’s generously wide margins, of each stage of the action. Well-curated photographs of objects and sites turned a mere encounter with the Peloponnesian War into an immersion in classical Greece. Appendix essays set new standards for readability and point. An opening chronology laid out the events of the text in sequence, and a closing index, done in unprecedented detail, provided a precise means of finding whatever item one might be looking for.
Subsequent installments in the Landmark series added new features and enriched the old, as Mr. Strassler, with the help of the editors for each volume (this writer among them), tackled the major Greek historians in turn: Herodotus, Arrian and Xenophon. Now, with “The Landmark Julius Caesar, ” the series arrives for the first time at the gates of Rome and deals with a figure who is far better known—in part through his own writings—than any Greek or Macedonian. The huge volume of evidence surviving from this book’s time span, the years 58 to 45 B.C., posed a challenge for the Landmark series. Under the expert guidance of volume editor Kurt Raaflaub, with oversight from Mr. Strassler (who remains series editor), the challenge has been met with stunning success.
The tireless devotion of both Mr. Strassler and Mr. Raaflaub, professor emeritus of classics at Brown University, is evident right from this book’s table of contents. Caesar’s best-known work, the “Gallic War,” would by itself have made up a full and satisfying volume, but “The Landmark Julius Caesar” also gives us four other narratives, descriptions of subsequent campaigns, to make up the whole of what scholars term the Corpus Caesarianum, the body of contemporaneous accounts of Caesar’s wars. These five works, only two of which are Caesar’s own compositions, have not appeared together, in English, since the early 18th century, even though their dovetailing time frames makes the set a continuous whole. To see them here between one set of covers is truly inspiring.
We begin in Gaul, with perhaps the most famous sentence in Latin literature, Caesar’s marvelously low-key “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” The “Gallic War” relates, in Caesar’s own words, the series of campaigns (58-52 B.C.) by which Gallic tribes were either brought over to Rome’s cause or defeated, one by one, then finally smashed in the decisive siege of a collective resistance at Alesia (See my post on this)... Aulus Hirtius, one of Caesar’s officers, composed a final segment to the “Gallic War” that covers some mopping-up operations in 51 and 50 B.C., bringing us to the next work, the “Civil War,” also written by Caesar himself.
The “Civil War” begins at the start of 49 B.C. with attempts by the Roman senate to strip away Caesar’s power and position, by which they felt increasingly threatened. In response, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River with his army, declaring his intention to march on Rome. The senate opposition fled across the Adriatic with their champion, Pompey Magnus, Caesar’s great rival in military brilliance. At Pharsalus (I also have a post on this), in northern Greece, Caesar put them to rout. The “Civil War” closes with a cliffhanger as Caesar, pursuing the defeated Pompey to Egypt, becomes enmeshed in a local civil war and besieged in Alexandria with his new ally and lover, Cleopatra.
That event marks the endpoint of Caesar’s own writings, but members of his staff, their names unknown to us (and their styles recognizably poorer), took up the tale. The “Alexandrian War” describes the daring moves by which Caesar broke the Egyptian siege, then swept through the eastern Mediterranean, Greece and Italy in late 48 and 47 B.C., chasing opponents and firming control. After spending only a few weeks in Rome, at the end of 47 B.C., Caesar left for North Africa to deal with the unreconciled Pompeians Scipio and Cato, and the narrator of the “African War” follows him there. Despite the opposition of a local potentate, Caesar was again victorious and returned to Rome in the summer of 46 B.C. to a hero’s welcome and a grant, by a now compliant senate, of unprecedented power.
A final campaign, described in the “Spanish War,” brought Caesar to Spain to deal with new foes, Pompey’s sons Gnaeus and Sextus, in late 46 and 45 B.C. The Corpus Caesarianum ends abruptly in April of 45 B.C., with the text of the “Spanish War” breaking off in mid-sentence. But the Pompeys had by then been defeated and Caesar’s invincibility made plain to all.
The denouement of Caesar’s story was not recounted by any surviving chronicler, but it is well known today, thanks to Plutarch and Shakespeare. Once he had returned to Rome with his fiercely loyal army, Caesar’s political future posed a dilemma to what was still, in name at least, a republic. Some wanted him made king, but monarchy stood in ill repute in Rome, so he was instead appointed dictator for life, a marginally constitutional office. Senatorial foes, defeated once in Caesar’s war against Pompey but pardoned and restored to office, disliked the appointment and also feared the power that Caesar might accrue from a planned attack on the Parthians (based in modern Iran). Just before the launching of that campaign, in the spring of 44 B.C., they assassinated him.
To edit and annotate such a diverse collection of narratives, produced by several different hands, describing intricate military maneuvers and spanning three continents in their ambit, was, by any measure, a Herculean task. Mr. Raaflaub has surpassed even the previous high standards of the Landmark series by supplying full, expert and wide-ranging notes, almost all containing his own elucidations rather than showy scholarly references. This achievement is amplified by more than 40 appendix essays, all commissioned by Mr. Raaflaub and several written by him, addressing all sorts of literary, military and biographical questions. The amplitude of these essays is such that the volume prints only four essential ones and directs the reader to a website for the others. The dimensions of the book simply could not accommodate all the knowledge it seeks to convey.
It’s rare for a scholar of Mr. Raaflaub’s standing to annotate an ancient text translated for Latinless readers, and still more rare for him to translate it himself, as Mr. Raaflaub has done here. As its holiday-season debut implies, “The Landmark Julius Caesar” is his gift, and Mr. Strassler’s, to history readers everywhere and even to professional historians, who will find much original research between its covers. Among his other devoted efforts, Mr. Raaflaub, together with University of Illinois classicist John Ramsey, has made painstaking calculations of the distances and rates of travel involved in Caesar’s movements, such that the dates accompanying the narrative could be given not just by season (as in Caesar’s own reportage) but by month and, in some cases, by day. Such precision, if not something that readers would demand, adds to the steadying sense of authority and factuality that is the trademark virtue of the Landmark series.
History buffs, classicists, fans of television’s “Rome”: Do not pass up this gift. Whether you revere Caesar as a military genius or despise him as a butcher and a tyrant, “The Landmark Julius Caesar” is an indispensable way to read his writings and understand his rise to power.
—Mr. Romm is the editor of “The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander” and the editor and translator of “How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life,” to be published next month.
I own the Landmark Xenophon and can testify to the quality of the series.

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