“Veni, Vidi, Scripsi”: The Literary Conquests of Gaius Julius Caesar
A man who needs no introduction, Gaius Julius Caesar is more than well known for the stories he spearheads—namely, his numerous military victories. (Although, even his defeats somehow sound rather astounding as well.) Caesar’s supposed quote, "veni, vidi, vici" when describing his speedy victory over Pharnasus of Pontus, son of Mithridates, continues to resonate among scholars and laymen alike, the meaning of the phrase one of few Latin phrases that need no explanation. The length of Julius Caesar’s life is chock-full of all sorts of “gossip”—ranging from his military victories and defeats, to rumors of his health and sexuality, to—of course—slander from his political enemies. Though he died young, Caesar lived a fascinating life.
Artistic representation of Julius Caesar. ( Public Domain )
Caesar the Storyteller
Yet, Caesar was not just a man of which many stories were written. He was, in fact, a storyteller too. In ancient Rome, one of the best qualities of a man was his ability to address the public and politics in eloquent oration. (This trait was one of many "borrowed" from ancient Greece.) Caesar was among the best orators in the Republic. It is in great part due to this charismatic quality that Caesar was able to gain sole power (however temporary) of the Republic in the first place. Cicero, himself one of the greatest orators in Roman history, praised Caesar's speeches and written works as masterpieces; though, of course, one must consider how much of this might have been due to Cicero's own political ambitions.
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Among the most famous works by Caesar is his Commentarii de Bello Gallico , known in translation as The Gallic Wars . This text describes Caesar's attempts to conquer the Gallic lands of modern day France, Belgium, and Switzerland and his ambitions to reach Britannia, and conquer the "barbarian" tribes who dwelt there. One of the first Romans to do so, Caesar's time in Gallic Britain did not last, yet his presence was certainly felt by the Gallic and Celtic tribes throughout mainland Europe. During his extensive military campaigns between 58 and 50 BC, Caesar left a definite mark on ancient Gaul (i.e., France and Belgium).
"Vercingetorix Throws Down His Arms at the Feet of Julius Caesar", 1899, by Lionel Noel Royer. ( Public Domain )
Caesar's Bello Gallico is widely valued for his description of these triumphs, as well as for providing one of the first—and likely somewhat "accurate" descriptions of the Gallic culture of ancient Britain before the region's later Romanization. For instance, Caesar is among the first Roman writers to mention the Druids through personal interaction, though he admits confusion regarding the exact nature of their purpose within Gallic culture.
Commentarii de Bello Gallico, an account written by Julius Caesar about war in Gaul. ( Public Domain )
History is Written by the Victors…
Caesar writes another dictation of his military exploits in the Commentarii de Bello Civili , his version of the events of the war between himself, Pompey, and Crassus—though Crassus was, in fact, already dead by the time Caesar begins his narrative. The tale Caesar relates is one of a feud between him and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey), also viewed as the Senate versus the populares, or the common people. Caesar championed the latter, while Pompey was heavily backed by the optimates in the Senate. Thus, when Crassus was killed, and the trio of power crumbled, Pompey and Caesar were, in essence, battling for sole power of Rome—not just a consulship. As history is written by the victors, Caesar’s eventual defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus is heavily documented in his text, as well as Pompey’s decapitation by the Egyptian king.
Busts of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey. ( Public Domain )
Caesar, in the Bellum Gallico , presents himself as a hardworking battle hero. He defeats the barbarians, and expands Rome to its largest extent to date. In his Bellum Civile, Caesar instead shows himself as an “innocent” victim - “innocent” used loosely as Caesar’s military background and actions when returning to Rome left something to be desired. In this latter text, the Senate and Pompey are conspiring against him, and Caesar must defend the Roman people!
Caesar’s Achievements Off the Battlefield
While other contemporary historians reveal a different perspective of the events of the civil war, Caesar’s text—along with his Gallic Wars —are valued as literary achievements. Not all warriors are capable of creating such intriguing, well-devised literature; that Caesar becomes dictator might be an argument for why his texts have survived. Yet upon reading each book, one realizes Caesar was able to gain power in Rome with good reason—he had the military skills and charisma. It is somewhat lucky that less pleasant views of Caesar’s reign survives; otherwise, scholars might only have known about his personal perspectives of his exploits.
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Top Image: Detail of a painting depicting Julius Caesar on his triumphal chariot. Source: Public Domain
This is another reason why Caesar’s literary accomplishments should be valued. Roman historians such as Livy, Plutarch, Sallust, etc. write of events they have heard second, third, or fourth-hand. Livy, in fact, is one “historian” who writes of events several decades after they occur; as “history” did not have to be accurate in the ancient world, much of the works such as Livy’s leave a lot to debate. Caesar, though he undeniably painted himself and his enemies in whatever light he saw fit, was at least present for the events described; he witnessed them first hand, and dictated them for his audiences. The mere act of being present for such events is uncommon for “historians”, but beneficial for the realism of the account.
‘La clémence de César’ (1808) by Abel de Pujol. (The clemency of Caesar). ( Public Domain )
Gaius Julius Caesar. “The Civil War of Caesar.” (trans. Jane Gardener, 1976.) Penguin Classics.
Gaius Julius Caesar. “The Conquest of Gaul.” (trans. S.A. Handford, 1983.) Penguin Classics.
Gaius Julius Caesar. “The Works of Julius Caesar.” (trans. W.A. McDevitte and W.S. Bohn, 1869.) Sacred-Texts.com. Accessed October 25, 2017. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/jcsr/index.htm
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars , Vol. 1 (Public Domain Books, 2004).
Plutarch. “Life of Caesar.” University of Chicago . Accessed October 23, 2017. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/lives/caesar*.html