The War For Gaul
By Julius Caesar
Translated by James O’Donnell
Princeton University Press, 2019
The latest translator of Julius Caesar’s Commentaries into English is James O’Donnell, an Arizona State University history professor and author of an excellent 2005 biography of St. Augustine, and his The War for Gaul, newly published by Princeton University Press, is among other things considerably more portable than last year’s magnificent Landmark Julius Caesar, which likewise included the Commentaries but also included 600 pages of additional Caesariana.
Not so this O’Donnell translation: The War for Gaul is pointed, essential, and almost brusquely down to business. Caesar wrote his Commentaries in the form of military dispatches sent back to the Senate at Rome, detailing his various murderous adventures during his military campaigns in Gaul for nearly a decade, writing it all with a combination of clarity and spare eloquence that has made this book a staple of Latin language classes for two thousand years, which in turn has had two major effects: it’s kept Julius Caesar’s name more alive than any other figure from antiquity, and it’s instilled an affection for him in the hearts of many a young tyke who then grew up to become an otherwise-respectable historian.
The result has been a veritable torrent of hagiography, and the backwash has tended to give us English-language translations of the Commentaries that amplify and hero-worship the man in the center ring.
O’Donnell has a restorative project in mind, and he succeeds beyond the dreams of any jaded classics-reader. Caesar’s book, he tells us, “gets war exactly right and morals exactly wrong,” and in The War for Gaul, O’Donnell gives us one of the first English-language renditions of Caesar’s work that doesn’t read like it was written in servile collaboration with the Julian estate.
It starts, quietly but magnificently, with the book’s Introduction and some sentiments most translators of this book would never dream of committing to the written page:
Books about war often make us sympathize with the wretchedness of the victims. This one forces us to be Romans of the kind its author wanted to be. We read it nervously, cheering for a bullfight we didn’t want to attend and don’t approve of, admiring the grace of the awesome minuet that floods the sand with blood. There is no denying that this is a great work of literature, one of the greatest, and at the same time, there should be no denying that it is a bad man’s book about his own bad deeds. I think it is the best bad man’s book ever written.
The translation that follows is a fluid, confessional thing unlike any other English-language Caesar. O’Donnell wisely keeps his footnoting and end-noting to a minimum; he seems to prefer to step back and let the text do the talking, and the result is a bit startling: given the ubiquity of the text and the moral turpitude of its author, it’s easy to forget what simple page-by-page good reading these chapters are.
“Caesar’s armies had little excuse for what they did and they preferred not to remember it once done,” O’Donnell writes. “But Caesar told their story coolly.” That cool tone is preserved in The War for Gaul, as is the dynamism that, for good or ill, has kept this book alive for so long. Even readers (including many a former Latin student) who are long familiar with the Commentaries will find this a new experience.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.