Julius Caesar is known for being the conqueror of Gaul and for being the main responsible for the collapsed of the Roman Republic, but he is also known for being one of the most important historians of his time. Among his writings are the Commentarii de bello gallico and the Commentarii de bello civili, which are an account of the events that occurred in the regions north of Italy, and the civil war which confronted Pompeii and his followers against Caesar. The focus of these two commentaries are his military campaigns and achievements, but their focus is much wider as this summary will show.
The Commentarii de bello gallico is made of eight books while the Commentarii de bello civili is made of three books.
The Commentarii de bello gallico is most problematic text, because we cannot be sure how it was published. Some scholars believed that it was published year-by-year, which would make sense of its name, commentarii, which means report, journal, diary. The publication of the de bello civili is even more problematic, as some scholars claimed that was published during Caesar’s dictatorship and after the civil war. Other scholars believe that it was published in different periods. There are those that claim that it was a posthumous publication.
The commentarii creates a problem in terms of its contribution to the definition of historiography, as it is not the usual annalistic account, mainly focussed on political events. Instead, it blends sub-genres of Roman historiography, mainly focussed on one individual and on one specific event with an annalistic structure.
The narrative is sober, manifestly dry and factual on style, with a tendency to clarity. The vocabulary is simple. It is written on third person, which aims at showing detachment from the author towards the events that are explained and to appear unbiased.
The Commentarii of the de bello gallico intents to be a self defence of the author towards the events he becomes involved. This is even more explicit in the de bello civili, in which he argues his rightness on fighting other Roman citizens.
Unlike the bello civili, the former has a clear structure with a “tangible narrative arc and a marked beginning, complex middle, and fully closural end” (Kraus C. 2009: 159), and it seems to be written as a unitary narrative. The original title of the commentarii remains uncertain even today.
De bello Gallico is very important in that shows the capabilities of Caesar on dealing with his army and shows his capacity of persuasion and leadership. Caesar focuses on Roman virtus, which he defined as courage and manliness, on usus, Roman military experience, exempla or the Roman experience shown with factual examples, disciplina, collective Roman military discipline. All these attributes had to be shown under his own diligentia to assure Roman victory against the Germans and the Gauls.He considers a kind of Roman identity, which is a new one postulated by himself.
Caesar combines the description of strategic military events, with a remarkable portrayal of the army as essential to Rome. An army which is controlled by him and shows discipline. However, in his work Caesar shares leadership with other two personalities, Vercingetorix and Ariovistus.
Interdiscursivity is also important on the text, which is narrative and descriptive. The Commentarii is a description of a military campaign and its success based on various aspects. It is based on technological superiority or the mastering of siegecraft, which Germans are unable to match and the Gauls are able to copy after various encounters with the Romans. But it is virtus, seen as the virtue of a Roman soldier, which leads to success in battle. A virtue that is seen as a collective experience and exercise, a discipline that is achieved collectively, but more importantly, by submission to the authority of Caesar. The toughness needed to win battles needs to be merged with a discipline and obedience to an authority that leads the legions.
Roman army’s discipline and obedience also aims at gaining control over the aristocracy and the citizenship. He de-barbarizes the Gauls and the Germans in his writings, because he wants their obedience. The oratory that Caesar uses in the bello Gallico is strategically aimed at obtaining control over citizenship and over any potential new groups and regions that could form part of Rome. Caesar is shaping and changing the Roman social identity, introducing the element of authority. He broadens the concept of Romanness, allowing it to be expandable, and including the possibility for near regions to become part of Rome, but always under his authority.
On the Commentarii of the bello civili, Caesar aims at informing the reader about the events that happened in Rome on the years 49/48, which are the years of the civil war. The commentarii provides a negative representation of the Pompeiians, who are framed as people that are “denying safety to his troops, arming slaves, boartful reports, showing cruelty to captives and plundering temples” (Damon C. 1994: 185). Caesar emphasises the moral and military shortcomings of his enemy, which is a reflection of the nimia, luxuria, avarice and excessive confidence of the Pompeians. He defines these attitudes as a threat to the integrity and the future of the Roman empire. In contrast, the text gives an image of himself keen of peace, and generosity or clemency.
He described the civil war as a private conflict among citizens, and by doing this, he gave the opportunity for citizens to remain neutral. He is generous to those he captures and forgives them, as long as they resume the fighting and remain loyal to him. That contrasts with the Pompeians view, which according to him don’t accept neutrality and clemency.
The narrative of events is aimed at picturing Caesar as the saviour of the Republic, and the Pompeians are convicted of contemptuous disregard of Roman laws and customs. The text shows the same polarity that was shown by Alexander the Great against the Persians, or between the West and the East. Polarity that was shown already in Ancient Greece, with the projected image of the “Other”. Caesar is clearly framing the Pompeians as the new Eastern barbarians, just as previously Ancient Greeks and Macedonians did with the Persians. The process in this last case though is a process of de-familiarisation, of de-romanization, as Pompeii was Roman. Caesar aimed at describing him as a foreigner, an alien to Roman culture and law.
Unlike in the bello gallico, which focuses on explaining a straightforward statement of the facts, in the bello civili, the author is concerned to show that he is right and that his adversaries are criminal, un-Roman, stupid and therefore his victory was the victory of the best cause.
These texts raise questions regarding the incompleteness of the work and its publication, the nature of the commentaries, and its style and accuracy. It lacks the polish of the bello gallico. Gaps, omissions and inaccuracies are obvious. Its style reflects brevity. The structure of the commentarii is of elegant clarity and of directness of style. There is no agreement on its publication and when did it happen. Some scholars even claim that it was not published by him, but by one of his contemporaries named Hirtius.
The commentarii aims at preserving and describing the author’s achievements from his own perspective, justifying and glorifying them, and correcting misperceptions. The emotional temperature, which was already visible in de bello gallico, increased further with de bello civili, where his “sense of engagement and involvement was inevitably paramount” (Raaflaud K. 2009: 184), and this expressed itself on a looser and flexible style.
Images taken from:
Damon C. (1994). Caesar’ s Practical Prose. Classical Journal vol. 89, 183- 195 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3297665%5D
James B. (2000). Speech, Authority and Experience in Caesar, Bellum Gallicum 1.39-41. Hermes vol. 128, 54-64 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4477345%5D
Krauss C. (2009) Bellum Gallicum. in Griffin, M. T. A companion to Julius Caesar. Chichester, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell.
Murphy P. R. (1977). Themes of Caesar’s “Gallic War”. Classical Journal vol. 72, 234-243 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3296899%5D
Raaflaud K. (2009) Bellum Civile. in Griffin, M. T. A companion to Julius Caesar. Chichester, U.K: Wiley-Blackwell.
Riggsby A. (2006) Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words. Austin [available through Net Library, http://www.netlibrary.com]
Rossi A. (2000). The Camp of Pompey: Strategy of Representation in Caesar’s BC. Classical Journal vol. 95. 239-256 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3298193%5D