Caesar’s Prose

My recent bedtime reading has been Nicola Gardini’s fun little book ‘Long live Latin: the Pleasures of a Useless Language‘. The book is a nice combination of personal reflection and linguistic and literary discussion. Gardini focuses on a range of Latin texts he has encountered and on the nature of his personal responses to them over the course of his education and career.

The book has by turns intrigued and frustrated me.

One part of the book I didn’t much warm to was Gardini’s discussion of the prose of Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars (Caesar’s account of a major stage in the Roman conquest of Gaul). This is a text I haven’t read much myself since sixth form days, but my memory of its style is good enough: Caesar displays a special knack throughout the text for conveying the brutal suppression of his enemies and the trials faced by his armies with unnerving understatement and precision.

For Gardini, Caesar is, straightforwardly, the ‘matter of fact’ prose stylist par excellence: he is a rationalist, a pragmatist, someone who wants to ‘recreate the world mathematically and geometrically, as if the obscurity and vagueness of our deeper motives had no place here’ (p72-3).

Well, yes, as far as this goes. But what about the chilling nature of some of Caesar’s descriptions (chilling, that is, precisely because of their lack of graphic description or celebration where some such might have been expected)? There is a good deal more to say about his prose style, I felt, than Gardini does say.

That this is indeed the case was nicely brought to light on (of all places) a Twitter thread recently. A number of classicists aired views on themes and stylistic elements in the Gallic Wars which confirmed (and indeed challenged) my own thinking. The thread, started by John Ma (link below), is worth viewing in full:

The notion (suggested by Llewelyn Morgan) that Caesar’s ‘pragmatic’ style in his writing reflects an attempt to ‘keep it that of a plain soldier’ struck me as a particularly interesting possibility.

My starting (and strong) assumption here is that the Gallic Wars was not a text intended for a readership of ordinary soldiers: why, in that case, write like one? Well, perhaps to identify oneself as a particular sort of character to one’s actual (well-heeled urban?) readers. A character, that is, who might come across as the very opposite of an effete aristocrat, and instead as a down to earth man of the rank and file military. (Quite a threatening posture to adopt in relation to these readers, in other words, and one that fits with the image of a Caesar who was interested in stirring things up in Rome itself).

Certainly I’m more interested now in a range of questions about the relationship between political and military authority and literate communication that I hadn’t considered all that clearly before. So thank you, classical Twitter, for the stimulus to reflection. Perhaps it’s time for me to revisit some Caesar this summer (Gardini, an unabashed enthusiast for this writer, would doubtless approve).

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