The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works

The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works: Gallic War, Civil War, Alexandrian War, African War, and Spanish War
Edited and translated by Kurt A. Raaflaub
Series Editor Robert B. Strassler
Pantheon Books, 2018

Time has a funny way of turning scoundrels into icons. Jesse James was a racist, a war criminal, and an all-around sociopath who, for his sins, became the hero of folk ballads and dime novels. Just over a century ago, the deficiencies of Napoleon were so vast and obvious that Madame de Stael (who had reason to know), could write of him that, “The force of his will consists in the impossibility of disturbing the calculations of his egoism; he is an able chess-player, and the human race is the opponent to whom he proposes to give checkmate.” Two centuries later, historian Andrew Roberts could, with a straight face, title his biography Napoleon the Great. The farther back you go, the more likely the odds that a man’s crimes and self-aggrandizements will be transmuted into a kind of epic heroism.

A case in point being the roman tyrant Julius Caesar. By the magic of historical alchemy, that self-proclaimed Dictator for Life, described by ancient historians as spindly, sickly, and over-sensitive about his receding hairline, has been turned into a lantern-jawed idol fit to be played by Rex Harrison or Ciaran Hinds. Shakespeare deserves some of the blame for this, of course, as does Hollywood. But the project of bolstering Caesar’s image began with Caesar himself, in the self-promotional histories composed by the warlord himself during his long and contentious military career.

Those histories form the subject of The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works, the latest entry in the Landmark series of ancient histories edited and overseen by Robert B. Strassler. For more than two decades (beginning with The Landmark Thucydides in 1996), Strassler and his collaborators have been producing gorgeously-packaged volumes of the great Greek historians, most featuring new translations, and all supported by a vast supplementary body of maps, photographs, timelines, explanatory notes, and additional essays. The result has been a set of volumes often revelatory in their ability to shine a new and revealing light on familiar texts. With this installment, Strassler, along with editor and translator Kurt A. Raaflaub, have turned their attention from the Greek to the Roman world, and to one of the most beguiling figures in all of ancient history.

The Roman world of the 1st Century B.C. into which Julius Caesar stepped was in a perilous state. For more than a century, the steady growth of Roman imperial power had bred systemic inequalities that had paralyzed the venerable Roman Republic. The growth of vast, slave-worked plantations drove thousands of peasants off the land, and crowded the capital with a new class of hungry discontents; professionalized armies unleashed the new hazard of military strongmen backed by their own loyal soldiers; and Roman politics was increasingly divided between two hostile political factions: the oligarchic Optimates (“Best Men”), and the rabble-rousing Populares (who, though universally as wealthy and blue-blooded as the Optimates, nevertheless allied themselves with the landless masses).

Caesar, the scion of a noble but lately rather cash-strapped patrician family, had little choice but to throw in his lot with the Populares if he wanted to make his mark in the old boys club of Roman elected office. As the young hotshot maneuvered his way steadily up the cursus honorum of ambitious politicians, he displayed two virtuosic talents. The first was a keen eye for useful political alliances, most importantly a three-way partnership with the two most important statesmen of the day: the pompous but ubiquitous war hero Pompey Magnus, and the filthy rich Marcus Licinius Crassus. Together, they would form what their rival Cicero dubbed the “three-headed monster” of Roman politics, dominating the Senate with a combination of cash (Crassus), Guile (Caesar), and the threat of brute physical force (Pompey, along with the thousands of agitated veterans under his command). 

But Caesar’s second talent was for the free and easy spending of other people’s money. This was nothing new in the world of Roman politics, of course: office-seekers habitually ran up vast, crushing debts which could only be paid off by the capturing of the ultimate prize -- the Roman consulship, and one of the lucrative provincial governorships that followed. Even by this standard, however, Caesar’s prodigal habits were jaw-dropping, as Raaflaub and Cynthia Damon explain in this volume’s introduction:

Caesar’s notoriety did not come cheap: by the late 60s, between the obvious expenses of shows and building projects and the suspected expenses of election-related bribes, he was deeply in debt. When he kissed his mother good-bye on his way to the pontifical election in 63, he supposedly said: “Mother, today you will see your son either as supreme pontiff or on his way to exile.” But debt did not curb either ambition or audacity.

It was that borrowing, in the end, that made the future course of Caesar’s career -- and the fate of the Roman Republic -- inevitable. By the time Caesar had won and served his consulship, he had two things to show for it: an inconceivable level of personal debt, and a host of Optimate opponents just waiting for the chance to throw him in prison or worse. The governorship of Gaul (then consisting of modern-day France and Southern Italy) was Caesar’s last, best hope to extract the money that could save his hide and keep him at the top of Roman society. And when the migration of some Gallic tribes presented a pretext for an all-out war of conquest and profit, Caesar was determined to seize his chance. What followed was a campaign of subjugation and extermination ruthless even by the rather lax standards of the classical world.

Given these circumstances, it’s easy to see that Caesar’s Gallic War, his eight-part record of the campaign,  was hardly intended as a neutral history, and even less as a reliable report to the Senate on military developments (though that, at least, was its ostensible purpose). In reality, Caesar was producing regular instalments of political propaganda, simultaneously instructing the public in the author’s dauntless heroism, and bluntly reminding the Optimates of the powerful army rampaging just north of the Alps. And it’s precisely this quality of moral dishonesty -- this capacity to turn acts of brutality into demonstrations of martial valor -- that Raaflaub captures better than any previous English translator, as in the following passage recounting Caesar’s final solution to one particular Gallic problem (here, as throughout his commentaries, Caesar always refers to himself in the third-person):

This engagement decisively ended the war with the Veneti and the people of the whole seacoast. For all the young men, and also those of a more advanced age who had any standing and influence on politics, had come together there, and they had also gathered their ships from the entire area in this one place. So when they lost these ships, they lost their ability to withdraw to other places and defend their towns. Therefore they surrendered themselves and all their possessions to Caesar.

Caesar decided their punishment must be especially severe, so that in future the barbarians would observe the laws protecting envoys more carefully. He therefore executed all counsellors and sold the rest of the people as slaves.

The matter-of-fact blandness of this passage, even as it gradually culminates in flat-out communical slavery and massacre, is vintage Caesar, and Raaflaub willingness not to sugar-coat the man’s own words is thoroughly commendable.

Weaselly self-justifications, as it turned out, were a skill Caesar would have ample opportunity to practice in the coming years. No sooner had the Gallic Wars ended (with the slaughter of perhaps one million Gauls, and the enslavement of one million more -- all profits accruing to Caesar and his commanders, naturally), then the tenuous political balance at Rome collapsed permanently. Crassus had died in a horrifically ill-planned invasion of Iraq, and Pompey, alarmed at Caesar’s growing prestige, cozied up to the hard-line Optimates. In 50 BC, the Senate demanded Caesar disband his army and return to Rome without delay, there, presumably, to face belated trial for his various shady wars and political shenanigans. Caesar, predictably, refused, and so it was civil war for control of the Republic.

Even more than in his battle for Gaul, war against fellow Romans demanded the most delicate excuse-making on Caesar’s part. And here, as in the earlier book, Raaflaub manages to catch the precise tone of Caesar’s perpetual justifications. Here he is, for example, explaining to the Senate why he simply had no choice but to march his soldiers through the streets of Rome:

In his address to it [the Senate], Caesar recalled the injustice he had suffered at the hands of his enemies. He insisted on the fact that he had not sought any extraordinary office; instead he had waited out the period decreed by law before seeking the consulate a second time and had been content with what was open to all citizens...Caesar spoke of the willingness to compromise that he had shown in taking the initiative and proposing that both his and Pompey’s armies be disbanded, even though this meant that he himself was going to suffer a loss of dignitas and prestige. 

A modern reader can be forgiven for looking over such passages and thinking, “Yes, Caesar does have a point, doesn’t he? If sullen old Pompey had just been a little more reasonable…” It’s exactly the trick Caesar himself hoped to pull off, and it’s the highest achievement of a translation that we can feel ourselves hoodwinked all over again.

Excellent as the translation is, however, the real stars of the show here are the supplementary materials -- as is usually the case with this handsomely produced series. Every other page is graced by a map of the action at hand, a drawing or photograph of a pertinent object, or generously explanatory footnotes glossing everything from Latin terminology to the social customs of Gallic tribesmen. And while the sheer number of texts collected in this volume have resulted in fewer of the fascinating appendix essays found in previous Landmark volumes (in addition to the Gallic War and Civil War, the book also includes three follow-up works penned by Caesar’s underlings recounting his mopping-up campaigns in Africa and Spain), readers are invited to visit the Landmark Caesar website for a cornucopia of additional essays on topics from The Fall of the Republic, to Caesar at Sea, to The Civil War as a Work of Propaganda. As usual in this series, it’s a feat of scholarship that transforms the entire experience of reading Caesar, and opens up this period of history even to thorough newcomers to the world of Rome.

Caesar, of course, won his war against Pompey, but the fruits of victory didn’t stay fresh for long. Less than a year after quashing the last armies of resistance in the civil wars, Caesar was stabbed to death at a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March, 44 BC. Whether he was a hero worth admiring is, two millennia later, a matter of some debate. But as this volume so brilliantly reminds us, the crafty old politician would certainly have wanted us to think so.

Zach Rabiroff was an editor at Open Letters Monthly. He lives in Brooklyn and consumes books relentlessly.