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).

Just another day on the Via Sacra

You’re ambling along one of the main thoroughfares of ancient Rome, minding your own business, with not a lot on your mind. It’s a route you know well and, despite being a pretty important figure round these parts, you’re blending fairly well into your surroundings: no one is really noticing you.

Though of course someone does. Oh dear. A pest, a bore, a social climber, a wannabe literary type strides up. He peppers you with conversation, having grabbed your hand with a note of urgency, and he insists on addressing you with an uncomfortably over-familiar greeting: ‘Dahhhhhling’. The campness of the greeting doesn’t offend but the presumption does.

So what can you do here? Naturally, you must do your best to deflect him: you suggest (not perfectly) politely that you really must be getting on now, that you’re due on the other side of town, that you need to see someone who’s not very well and whom he definitely doesn’t know. Your implication is that there won’t be a welcome for him at the end of it if he follows you on your journey.

The truth is that this bore, this try-hard, this nobody wants you not for your conversation, but for your contacts. He doesn’t seem to care sincerely for your everyday affairs, nor for your welfare more generally… still less does he show any sign of caring to praise or discuss your poetic genius! Hmmph.

Let’s be clear, then: it’s influence, introductions, and a route upward he’s after. And you represent a nice networking opportunity. Which is to say you’re a cog in a machine here: not a figure of veneration, nor – frankly – any kind of inspiration.

This might just be an example of the cost of your literary celebrity: dealing with people who care about your connections, not your talent. Well, sort of. In a way – and let’s admit this very quietly – this whole interaction is in fact a nice reminder that you matter. That you know important people and that important people care about your work.

But shhhh. Back to what an ordeal this whole thing is. That feels safe and modest. And yes, it’s awkward being you, right now, in this situation. But then again: you’re good at doing awkward. It is, in fact, one of your talents (if you do say so yourself!).

Now, before you rejoin the conversation, consider this: doesn’t this pest remind you of someone? Well, ummm yes. Because of course there was a time not too long ago when you yourself weren’t exactly flavour of the month among the Roman cognoscenti. Could this be the reason, then, why you’re not quite able to summon the brusqueness his impudent outpourings deserve? Why you’re (just about) prepared to indulge him where others would have given him a brisk dismissal?

See, this is why you’re good at awkwardness: you like finding yourself in your adversaries.

And so there you have it, maybe. Now: allow yourself to be peppered! And don’t pretend there’s nothing of creative interest here for you. Because, actually, this might just be the scene of a poem for a talented poet like you. A walk down the Via Sacra with this character might well titillate your regular readers, if skilfully done. And if you go to print, then future pests will have a way to know what you’re really thinking!


Looking back on 3 weeks of reading Horace’s Satire 1.9 with my sixth form classes, I thought it might be fun to try to give a sense of the scene we’ve been looking at together. Above was my hasty attempt to do just this. In it, I wanted to try to capture something of the delicate sensibility and subjective awareness I think we encounter in the poem, but also to bring to light a few further ideas and issues that may simmer beneath the surface of the poem in a way Horace himself does not.

While we’ve been looking at the satire together, I’ve been trying to put my finger on the full range of experiences that pupils (and teachers) might hope to have when reading it.

A big focus when looking at the poem has been on its stylistic and literary features: the way words and phrases are used and manipulated, the way the writer creates effects. There is a subtle genius to the way Horace presents his account of the encounter with the literary pest that is made manifest through close study of his Latin.

One feature of the poem I’ve tried to emphasise is that it’s useful to think in terms of 3 voices being in play in the poem: the voice of the narrator (Horace) when he’s speaking with the pest, the voice of the pest himself, and then the voice of the narrator when he’s not speaking with the pest (that is, when he’s relaying to the reader his inner thoughts about their encounter).

I stressed the interest of thinking about these different voices, about how Horace plays them off against each other – but also about how we get a very interesting (and uncannily contemporary-feeling) sense of the narrator’s subjective consciousness as a result of this style of writing.

On this latter point, it strikes me that the poem calls to mind something of what it’s like dealing with everyday interactions for us, still today. For it shows an example of a context in which we might say one thing and think another, and it gives an example of how and why a person might be led to do this.

Its central theme, maybe, is the subtlety and complexity that can be at stake when dealing with everyday human interactions of the kind we might find tricky or awkward, as we try to negotiate them. Rather than trying neatly to dissolve (or resolve) any of this trickiness, Horace just takes us into one such situation, and shares an account of dealing with it (or not dealing with it). It’s an invitation, perhaps, to reflection.

And so maybe, then, I should have asked pupils to think in terms of 4 voices being important for their reading of the poem: the fourth being their own. Because there is an implicit invitation from Horace to join him in the poem, to try to wrestle with the situation involving the pest, with him. I suppose this post has been my attempt to take part (just a little) in this very process, and to give an expression to my own ‘fourth voice’.

Ginsberg meets Ovid

The first part of my final lesson today took a somewhat unusual path. It began with an impassioned attempt on my part to argue that the translator of Latin literature should never give in to any temptation (exacerbated though it may be by the necessity of passing public exams) to treat Latin poetry as a jigsaw puzzle; a puzzle in which the only thing we’re really concerned with is how to solve a set of problems, how to spot and decode grammatical detail and structure, how to provide answers to technical questions. Translating Latin poetry is not, or should not be, just like solving an equation.

The immediate inspiration for this diatribe came, I think, from two sources. First, I had fresh in my mind two blogposts (one by Johanna Hanink, another by Joel at sententiae antiquae) which discuss the inanity of having to translate for a teacher who treated the Latin language in a particular way – as a context for exercising their own highly developed penchant for pedantry. Second, my own recent reflections about how poetry (in this case the poetry of Virgil) can offer a source of consolation in times of melancholy were fresh in my mind too.

And so I launched into a brief expostulation. The essence of my point was that (though this can seem unlikely to at least some of the gadget-obsessed teenagers I teach) poetry can and has really *said* something to people over the course of its millennia-old literary career. It can and has undercut and exposed the shortcomings of everyday speech and everyday patterns of thought. It has meant and made meanings that defy easy categorisation – meanings that have created space and freedom for people to be. It has done many interesting things in that strange grey netherworld between acceptable and unacceptable public discourse. And, moreover, it has laboured to draw its audience into questioning the mores of many of those who arrogate to themselves the role of defining what acceptable public discourse is.


The poetry of Ovid (which is what the lesson was about) arguably possesses all of these qualities. Ovid’s is a poetry which can push at various kinds of boundaries, invite heartfelt contemplation, transgress approved social mores, and probe and re-envisage mythical religious stories. It can look at individuals in odd and unexpected ways, as they make their way through remarkable or merely quotidian situations. While doing so, it can establish unlikely juxtapositions, drawing disparate stories and personalities into an unanticipated common thread. Perhaps before anything else (though this is of course my particular take on things), it tries to evoke a special kind of beauty using the richness of words and images.

I try never to lose sight of these characteristic elements of Ovidian poetry in my lessons – and any pupils who are reading this are welcome to take me to task if, on any occasion, they feel the elements in question have disappeared entirely from view.

Today my method of making a point about the way in which poetry can still *mean* in our own contemporary context was to point to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg – specifically his 1956 poem, America. This is a poem which self-consciously pushes boundaries in both form and content. I leave readers to see this for themselves (the poem is available online here).


From my point of view in the lesson, the point of adducing this poem was not simply to show how a piece of poetic writing – in a recent and reasonably familiar, and thus hopefully easily relatable context – could really *mean* and speak very powerfully (even if, perhaps, offensively) to its readers. It was also to show that there is a parallel between the way that Ginsberg foregrounds a deep and dramatic attention to the individual (in this case Ginsberg himself), and their feelings, fears, and subjective consciousness, and the way that similar tendencies are also perceptible at times in the ancient poetry of Ovid.

So that is my story of how – today – an unlikely meeting took place between Ginsberg and Ovid.