Posts Tagged ‘Julius Caesar’

Wandering: Rome, Venice, and Middle Earth

April 3, 2019
  • The wonderful Joseph Epstein, who is making more hay of his Roman reading project than I am, writes charmingly of the life of Julius Caesar, whom he, rather cheekily, calls Big Julie.
  • Speaking of Rome, William Edmund Fahey writes a thoughtful meditation on the city by way of an introduction to Hawthorne’s final, Roman novel The Marble Faun. By such means does the reading list increment.
  • It might seem incredible, but not everybody likes visiting Rome, or indeed the other great Italian cities. Some people even complain.
  • Although even I might complain, at least once, if I went to Venice and found it flooded. Having unburdened myself, I hope I would find a way to enjoy the watery wonderland.
  • Bradley Birzer reviews, appreciatively, The Fall of Gondolin, the most recent volume in which Christopher Tolkien, in a continuing labour of “love and piety”, has brought his father’s unfinished writing to print. I hadn’t thought to read it, but I’m re-considering.
  • At the New Yorker, Bob Moser writes a scathing exposé of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” that has excelled at finding “hate groups” where the rest of us saw only their political opponents.
  • Finally, Terry Teachout writes, also appreciatively, about the music of Chopin.

For an envoi, here is the first of Chopin’s Nocturnes, played by the — in Chopin — unsurpassable Artur Rubinstein:

Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.


The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.


Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.


Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.


They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.

Caesar: The Civil War

January 13, 2019

The Civil War
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2018) [48 BC]
200 p.

Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounted his decade-long campaign to bring Gaul under the control of Rome. That tale ended in 49 BC, and is continued here, in Caesar’s first-hand account of the momentous events of the years 49-48 BC, during which Caesar and Pompey contended against one another for control of Rome itself.

Though Caesar had succeeded brilliantly in his Gallic campaign, and had been awarded multiple triumphs by the Roman Senate, and had seen his popularity rise, he had also made powerful enemies. In 49 BC, as he wrapped up his campaign abroad, those enemies, led by Pompey the Great, passed a resolution in Rome requiring him to disband his army or be declared a traitor. Caesar countered that he would do so provided that Pompey, too, would disband his army. (It was one of the marks of Rome’s political decline that an army’s first loyalty was often to its commander rather than to Rome, effectively giving powerful generals their own private armed forces.) Pompey refused, and Caesar, in turn, likewise.

Marching south from Ravenna, Caesar crossed the boundary between Cisapline Gaul and Italy proper — that is, he crossed the Rubicon — with his army intact, thereby violating Roman law and sparking the civil war. It is interesting to note that Caesar passes over this now-famous moment with hardly a comment; it was later writers — Appian, Plutarch, and others — who made much of it.

Fearing that Caesar would march on Rome, Pompey and many of the leading Romans fled south to Capua and then to Brundisium (modern Brindisi). Caesar pursued them and, rapidly building a barrier across the mouth of the harbour, very nearly succeeded in trapping Pompey then and there. But, as it happened, Pompey did escape to Greece where he began assembling an armed force to oppose Caesar.

Caesar, meanwhile, abandoning the chase, went to Rome to argue his case before the remains of the Senate, who decided that negotiations with Pompey should be attempted.

One might naively expect that the Roman civil war would be fought in and around Rome, but in fact this speech before the Senate is the only time in the war that either of the two principals was in the city. Instead, Caesar next proceeded on a course that I did not anticipate: he went north again, first to the southern coast of Gaul, where he established a siege of Marsilla (modern Marseilles), and then to Spain, where he fought a lengthy campaign for control of Ilerda. These episodes are properly parts of the civil war because these cities were loyal to Pompey. Before the year was out, both cities fell to Caesar.

Concurrently (in August of 49) one of Caesar’s deputies, Curio, was commissioned to lead a force against Pompey’s allies in Numidia (modern Tunisia). This ended in disaster for Caesar: there was a clever ruse on the African side, in which they faked a retreat, lured Curio out of his fortifications and into an open plain, where he was surrounded and his army slaughtered. It was the most significant victory for Pompey’s side to that point in the conflict.

With the coming of the year 48, a more direct conflict between Caesar and Pompey was looming. Caesar succeeded in crossing to Greece from Brundisium, and established a camp across a river from Pompey’s camp. A cunning attempt at a flanking manoeuvre by Caesar eventually settled down to a peculiar stand-off: both armies built semi-circular fortifications beginning and ending on the sea, with Pompey’s being entirely enclosed within Caesar’s (like this). It was peculiar because it resembled a siege, but the besieged — Pompey — had ready access to supplies from the sea, and therefore could, it seemed, hold out indefinitely.

But several things happened to break the stand-off. One was that two of Caesar’s senior officers were arraigned for corruption, and in response defected to Pompey’s side, taking with them valuable intelligence, on the strength of which Pompey mounted an attack on a weak point in Caesar’s fortifications, resulting in the deaths of many of Caesar’s men. Caesar’s side was weakened but not defeated. The second thing was that a variety of factors, especially a lack of fresh water, led to Pompey’s being forced to break his army out of the siege and flee, which he did.

Caesar again pursued, and the armies squared off again in August near Pharsalus. Caesar was outnumbered by a factor of two, and his cavalry was barely a tenth as large as Pompey’s. Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to flank Caesar, but Caesar, anticipating this, placed a specially selected line of infantry to defend that same flank. When the battle began, this anticipation proved decisive; while the main lines fought, Pompey’s flanking manoeuvre failed and, instead, Caesar’s defenders moved around and flanked Pompey, causing the latter’s army to turn and flee for their lives. It was a rout: Caesar reports (how accurately is hard to tell) that he lost just 200 men in the day’s fighting, while Pompey lost 15000.

Pompey, for his part, failed to embody the noble Roman virtues in defeat. He first — before the battle was ended — retired to his tent, apparently stunned, and then, rousing himself, fled. He boarded a vessel and began a circuit of the Mediterraean. As news spread of Caesar’s victory, the tide turned against Pompey, and he was denied entrance at several ports. Eventually he decided to go to Egypt, counting on the support of the young ruler, Ptolomy, and his regents. But the Egyptians, too, could tell which way the wind was blowing, and Pompey was murdered at Ptolomy’s command while coming ashore. His was a sad and ignoble end.


The main contours of this story were familiar to me already, most recently from reading Appian, but it was a pleasure to go over them again, in more detail, and straight from the horse’s mouth.

I’ve already remarked that it was a sign of Rome’s immense power that the Roman civil war was fought, not in Rome, nor even much in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and Greece.

It is also worth noting a marked difference between Caesar and Pompey in the exercise of power. Pompey took the view that “He who is not for me is against me”; a lack of explicit support was taken as opposition and treated as such. But Caesar’s rule was “He who is not against me is for me”; cities that withheld support for Pompey were, in his judgement, on his side, and he treated them as such. The result was that people who were not sure which way the conflict would eventually resolve — which was most everyone — were more likely to favour Caesar. By not forcing them to take sides, Caesar didn’t create unnecessary resistance.

Another thing that emerges from this account, as from the Gallic Wars, is Caesar’s brilliance as a general. Again and again he wins by out-thinking his opponent, anticipating their plans or luring them into traps. Even taking into account the fact that it is Caesar himself telling us about his victories, it is hard not to be impressed by his superior tactics.

As was the case in the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s writing is always clear and well-organized. His focus is very much on military tactics and strategy, with occasional feints at politics. I have been reading from The Landmark Julius Caesar, an edition whose many virtues I have sung before. Simply put, I do not believe there is an English-language edition of Caesar’s writings to compare with it.

Accounts of Caesar’s subsequent military campaigns, in Alexandria, in Africa, and again in Spain, have also come down to us, though not by Caesar’s own hand. They are nonetheless included in this Landmark volume, and I think I will tackle them soon.

Favourites in 2018: Books

December 28, 2018

I had, by hook and by crook, a pretty good year of reading. In this post I’ll highlight what were for me the most satisfying, interesting, and entertaining books I had the pleasure to read this year.


My ongoing Roman reading project started this year with Appian’s history of a century of conflict (c.130-30 BC) and concluded with some of the early poetry of Virgil. In between I sallied at Lucretius and Catullus, but spent most of my time with Cicero and Julius Caesar, the latter of whose first-hand accounts of the Gallic Wars and Civil War were a highlight of my year. I read Caesar in the unsurpassed luxury of the Landmark edition, which I recommend unreservedly.


This was also the year in which I polished off the final few volumes in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series. I’ve written about the pleasures of these books in previous years, so I’ll simply say that even apart from the wonderful characters, musical language, and adventurous stories, I loved them for their portrayal of a friendship, between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin, that has few literary rivals.


Forlorn without Aubrey and Maturin, I turned to Jeeves and Wooster for comfort, and spent the rest of the year devouring comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. I expected to like the Jeeves books, and of course I did, but I also dipped into the Psmith novels and the Blandings Castle books, and, to my unalloyed delight, found them just as good. If I have to pick just one to highlight for this list, I will choose Something Fresh, the first of the Blandings Castle books, through which I laughed with hearty cheer and admiration. P.G. Wodehouse and I will remain boon companions in 2019.


Another highlight has been my slow perusal of The Complete Old English Poems, a massive volume packed with Anglo-Saxon verse rendered into modern English by the indefatigable (I assume he must be indefatigable) Craig Williamson. This year I read the Vercelli Book and the Exeter Book, two of the principal surviving anthologies of Old English poetry, and I relished both. Lives of saints, clashes with cannibals, dream prayers, gnomic riddles, moral meditations — Old English poetry has it all. The thought that I still have about 500 pages to go in this colossal codex, including another encounter with Beowulf, is cheering.


Of the two Dickens novels I tackled this year, the best was A Tale of Two Cities, my edition of which is now stained with tears. By some unlikely series of mischances I had arrived in life on the threshold of this book having no idea what it was about, and I was thoroughly absorbed by the tale of a family caught in the cross-fire of the French Revolution. Dickens is always good, of course, but I found him particularly good here, especially in the final quarter. I now have, I believe, only one (and a half) Dickens novels left before I’ll have read the whole groaning shelf-full.


Perhaps the greatest surprise of my year was T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, which I began only in a dutiful effort to scout ahead of my children for good books to hand to them, but which quickly won my heart for its winsome combination of wit, supple language, and inventive storytelling. I’ve since been working my way through the other volumes in White’s Arthurian tetralogy, but, as I was warned, they have not been the equal of the first, which has earned a spot among the ten or fifteen greatest children’s books known to me.


The last novel I will praise on this list is George Mackay Brown’s Magnus, a mercurial book that is, on the surface, a life of the twelfth-century Earl of Orkney, St Magnus Erlendsson, but which turns out to also be lyrical medieval hagiography, ruminative meditation, and, in one dazzling sequence, a kind of spiritual portal into the twentieth century. Formally inventive and beautifully written in a style that drifts, as circumstances demand, between knotty toughness and languid beauty, I found it an excellent and memorable read.


Among the best nonfiction I read this year was Mont St Michel and Chartres, Henry Adams’ love letter to France in the high middle ages. His is a very personal encounter with the architecture and literary art of the period, with a premium on imaginative appreciation rather than objective analysis. It is a book that is willing to engage the great masterpieces of medieval art in a childlike spirit in an effort to collapse, so far as is possible, the centuries separating us from those who made and first inhabited them. I found in its pages a kindred spirit.


A rewarding short read was Michel de Montaigne’s essay “On the Education of Children”. Montaigne wrote about the aims, methods, and motives of education from within the broad tradition, playing on a thread that has grown frayed and strained in the centuries between his time and ours, and therefore providing a healthy, robust contrast with our own habitual ways of thinking about education today. This was my first foray into the world of Montaigne’s essays, and I look forward to going back.


I’ll round out this list with another book about education. Renewing the Mind: A Reader in the Philosophy of Catholic Education, edited by Ryan Topping, is a treasure trove of reflections on the nature and purpose of education culled from eminent pens, starting with Plato and Aristotle, running up through Augustine, Basil, and Aquinas, through Erasmus and (yes!) Montaigne and into the 20th century. It’s a superb collection that has been put together in part to remind modern Catholics, the great majority of whom have attended schools much more influenced by Rousseau and Dewey than by Bonaventure and Newman, just what the Church through time has thought and taught about education. If my dozens of pages of notes are any indication, it’s a book with a lot of valuable things to say.


Record keeping:

Oldest: Plato, Phaedrus.

Newest: Ross Douthat, To Change the Church.

Longest: Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit.

Most by one author: Shakespeare (11), Wodehouse (11), Thornton Burgess (5).


That’s the kind of year in books it’s been for me.

Caesar: The Gallic Wars

October 20, 2018

The Gallic Wars
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2017) [c.50 BC]
306 p.

In 59 BC Caesar had convinced Pompey and Crassus to form an alliance with him for power in the staggering Roman Republic, and had been awarded governorship of the province of Transalpine Gaul (that is, the south of modern France). The next year he departed to wage what turned out to be a decade-long contest to conquer the whole of Gaul — roughly, the area bordered on the south by the Pyrenees and in the northeast by the Rhine — and bring it under the governance of Rome. His success had the effect of nearly doubling the geographical size of Roman territory. He himself wrote this account of the campaign (with a slight caveat, below).

Caesar’s motive in undertaking the war is partly obscure. His stated reasons were that several peoples of northern Gaul had appealed to him for assistance as they faced violent incursions from Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine. He defended them and established Roman authority to maintain peace. But historians have not failed to notice that Caesar began the war deeply in debt and emerged immensely wealthy, and there is some natural suspicion that this prospect formed part of his motivation as well.


The war followed a fairly predictable pattern, year on year. Because the armies involved were immense (tens of thousands of men) and because, as always in ancient warfare, they survived by foraging from the lands through which they passed, they could fight only when food could be had. Thus they would begin in around June and wrap up by October; for the remainder of the year the army would hunker down in winter quarters, making weapons or building boats, while Caesar himself would cross southwards over the Alps to mind his other duties.

In the early years of the campaign the Romans enjoyed a marked military advantage. Their opponents had never seen discipline, technology, and expertise such as Rome possessed. A Gallic army might occupy a hill town — not a bad tactic against a near peer enemy — but the Romans, instead of charging uphill in a wild assault, would build a massive circumvallation to prevent any traffic in or out; they would dig great trenches filled with water; they would construct siege towers and massive earthworks by which to breach the enemy’s walls. It was no contest.

But, to the credit of the Gauls, they learned quickly, and by the midpoint of the decade the technological advantage of Caesar’s forces was less obvious. Countermeasures like fiery projectiles and collapsing tunnels were used against Caesar, and the Gauls adopted siege warfare tactics as opportunity allowed. Caesar does not stint to praise the ingenuity of his foes when, in his eyes, they earned it.

Still, the number of Roman defeats was small. Late in 57 part of the army was ambushed in the Alps and had to flee for safety. The winter quarters were attacked in 54, with many Romans killed. The following year the main supply camp, left on minimal manning while the main army was elsewhere, was surprised by a Gallic attack and routed. But these were exceptional; the Romans faced greater or lesser resistance, but mostly prevailed.


The campaign included several famous episodes. In 55 Caesar, keen to demonstrate Roman power to the Germanic tribes harrassing his Gallic allies, did what had been thought impossible: in just 10 days his engineers built a bridge across the Rhine strong enough to march his entire army across. The methods were quite amazing: footings were driven into the river bottom using dropped weights, stabilized against the current by being placed at angles, and the bridge surface was extended from footing to footing until the crossing was complete. They even built deflecting barriers upstream of the footings to prevent logs floated down by the Germans from causing damage. The feat was repeated in 53 at a different location. Once across, Caesar didn’t do much; this was military theatre with a message: don’t think you’re safe just because this paltry creek runs between us.

The other very famous episode, also in 55, and of special interest to English speakers, was Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel into Britain. He embarked in September with a relatively small force, mostly, it seems, from curiosity to see the island which was, in the Roman imagination, the very end of the earth. They first encountered the cliffs of Dover, and, being unable to land, sailed northeast up the coast until they found a beach (probably near modern Walmer). Naturally, the Britons were not overjoyed to see them, and opposed their landing. Nonetheless the Romans were able to establish a small camp, where they remained for about a week before attempting to return to Gaul. En route some of the Roman ships were forced back to Britain by a storm, and this contingent, including Caesar, was attacked again by the Britons, who were resisted only with great difficulty. Finally gaining the upper hand, Caesar imposed on the Britons an obligation to send hostages (a standard penalty for those whom he defeated), and departed. Apparently only one tribe did send hostages, the rest, presumably, hoping that they would never see the Romans again.

But this was wishful thinking. Caesar’s men spent the winter building boats, and in July of 54 he crossed the Channel again, this time with more than 600 vessels in his fleet. Astonished, the Britons failed to even contest his landing. Several conflicts ensued, as Caesar marched his men approximately 100 km inland over the course of a campaign lasting 2-3 months. On those whom he defeated he imposed financial penalties on the understanding — still a pretense, but soon enough a reality — that Britain was now under Roman control. It was Caesar’s last British hurrah; once departed, he never returned to Britain.


The overall arc of the Gallic Wars was of escalating conflict against progressively better organized foes. When first Caesar came to Gaul it was divided into many small tribes, but as the scale of the Roman threat became more evident the Gauls organized into larger groups to increase their chances of success. This resistance culminated in 52 with the formation of a pan-Gallic force led by Vercingetorix. He conceived a new strategy: scorched earth. Attempting to use the size of the Roman army against it, he directed that the Gauls burn their fields, farms, and towns in order to deprive the Romans of supplies. But this tack was only partly successful; yes, it made things harder for Caesar, but he simply foraged farther afield. Eventually he cornered Vercingetorix in the city of Avaricum (near modern Bourges). A difficult siege ensued, but the Romans eventually breached the walls.

Vercingetorix, however, escaped and took shelter in Alesia (modern Alise-Sainte-Reine), where the culminating battle of the Gallic Wars took place. The city was situated on a hill, with strong fortifications. A sizable Gallic army was inside, and another was outside at some distance. Standard procedure was to lay siege to fortified cities, but the presence of the second Gallic army, roaming about, complicated things. Caesar’s response was to make a double-facing circumvallation of the city: walls, towers, trenches, and booby traps facing both toward Alesia and away. Though he had few men to staff such an extensive fortification, the obstacles he installed allowed him time to concentrate his men where the attacks took place. Eventually, their hand forced by hunger, the Gauls broke out of Alesia and attacked, and the second army also assaulted the Romans in a co-ordinated effort. But Caesar and his men proved too strong. Vercingetorix was captured, and surrendered along with all the forces at his command. The conquest of Gaul was, more or less, complete.

More or less, because although Caesar’s own account of the campaign concludes after the siege of Alesia, one Aulus Hirtius appended an eighth and final book in which he recounts the events of the years 52-50, bridging the gap between Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars and Caesar’s account of the Roman civil wars (which I hope to read sometime soon). In these years, we learn, there were a variety of smaller skirmishes against pockets of resistance. But they have the feeling of being an aftermath, or a mopping up operation, and it is perhaps for those reasons that Caesar did not take the trouble to write about them himself.


As in most accounts of ancient warfare, the methods employed by Caesar (and his opponents) can be shocking to us. Even so standard a tactic as siege warfare, involving, as it does, civilians alongside soldiers, fails to meet ethical standards of modern warfare. There were rare occasions when Caesar was especially brutal — as at the siege of Uxellodenum, when he had the hands of the defeated soldiers cut off — and, as was standard, he gloried in reporting how many foes had been killed (often, modern historians suspect, greatly exaggerating the numbers). It is possible that a million Gauls lost their lives in the decade-long fight against Rome, so this was war on a large scale, and, we must admit, despite that fact that Caesar acquired in his own time a reputation for clemency, he would by modern standards be guilty of war crimes. The same, of course, could be said of other Roman generals, and of Persians, Greeks, and Gauls.

The people of Rome, though, had few qualms about Caesar’s methods or aims. Caesar would send back reports, and he tells us, with pride, that he was on several occasions awarded lengthy public celebrations in Rome that outstripped in lavishness and duration those of any previous military commander. When he did finally return to Rome in 49, it was, of course, an epoch-making (or, to be more specific, a Rubicon-crossing) event. His fame and power had waxed greatly, and although he faced powerful opponents, especially in the person of Pompey, it was clear that he was a man with whom the Roman Republic could not avoid a reckoning.


This was a tremendously enjoyable book. Being one of the few ancient accounts of a military campaign written by the responsible military commander, it has special historical value, but the importance of the story it tells has made it attractive to a wide swath of readers. Indeed, The Gallic Wars was for centuries one of the standard books that students of Latin would read in the course of their education, admired for the clarity of its style in addition to the interest of the story it tells.

I read a new edition published in the Landmark series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The text is enriched by a generous helping of maps, paragraph summaries, timelines, many explanatory notes, an excellent introduction, and a daunting set of essays on various aspects of Roman warfare, economics, and politics. An immense amount of work went into it, and we, the readers, benefit. It deserves to win every pertinent publishing award, and maybe a few others besides.

Appian: The Civil Wars

July 14, 2018

The Civil Wars
Appian of Alexandria
Translated from the Greek by John Carter
(Penguin Classics, 1996) [c.150]
xliii + 436 p.

Lives of the Noble Romans
Gaius Marius, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Antony, Cicero
Translated from the Greek by John Dryden
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]

Livy’s surviving history broke off in the 160s BC. At that time the Roman Republic controlled the Italian peninsula, most of Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece, along with the swath of Northern Africa formerly held by Carthage. It was the end of a long period of consistent triumph for Rome. But fortune’s wheel turns, and the next 150 years were a time of tumult, trial, and war, a period, as Appian says,

well worth the attention of any who wish to contemplate limitless human ambition, terrible lust for power, indefatigable patience, and evil in ten thousand shapes. (I, 6)

It resulted finally in the collapse of the Republican government and the emergence of Imperial Rome.

Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars covers the period 133-35 BC in five Books; it is but a part of his more comprehensive history of Rome, but it attracts special attention, despite his defects as a historian, because it is our only surviving ancient source for the period 133-70 BC, years of great interest and import for what happened later.

“The hour calls forth the man” is a proverb (and, if it isn’t, it ought to be). In previous periods of Roman history one could usually focus on one or perhaps two main threads and major figures at any one time, but as the first century BC progressed and the political crises deepened they seemed to summon up a crowd of powerful personalities — in the year 50 BC, for example, a list of important political figures then living (if not all then in power) would include Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavius, Marc Antony, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Cato — so that any adequate account has to slow down and descend into the details — which Appian certainly does, devoting about half of his history to the two or three years surrounding the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. Obviously I can’t do the same in this forum, but I will try to sketch, in rough outline, how things developed as the Republic slowly crumbled.

The faltering Republic was beset by an abandonment of political traditions and breakdown of the rule of law. We can look, for instance, at the careers of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, who were grandsons of the great general Scipio Africanus. Tiberius became tribune and proposed a number of reforms — specifically to redistribute land from the wealthy to the poor and to extend Roman citizenship more broadly to the conquered peoples of the Italian peninsula — and, when his programme encountered resistance, broke with both longstanding tradition and law by standing for (and winning) a second term as tribune. When Tiberius was opposed by the Senate, he simply sidestepped them — after all, their ratification was only customary, not necessary. And when he was opposed by another tribune during a vote, Tiberius had his opponent forcefully removed from the Forum, in flagrant violation of the long tradition of holding the person of the tribune sacrosanct. Harmless enough, you might think, and in the service of a good cause, perhaps, but the Roman tradition of rotating political offices every year was one of the oldest and most venerable political traditions they had, and the immunity of the tribune from violence or prosecution was quasi-sacred in nature; both had always been understood as safeguards against political tyranny. His younger brother Gaius was even more radical in his political programme and in his conduct: he held the tribunate for three years. Both brothers met violent ends at the hands of mobs, another sign that Rome’s political life was straining.

These trends continued in the career of Marius, who was first consul in 107, but who went on to hold the consulship a record seven times. Marius was a military hero who rose to prominence from an undistinguished background on the strength of his generalship. His greatest military achievement was, perhaps, his reform of Roman military tactics; he abandoned the maniple system Rome had used for centuries in favour of a new, three-line system that ensured that fresh troops would rotate to the front on a regular basis, and he achieved great success in the field. When in 91 the so-called Social War broke out between Rome and the subject peoples of Italy — a war that sounds more genteel than it was — Marius led the effort to put down the rebellion. But then, for complicated reasons, he returned to Rome and allowed his army to pillage the city, taking up residence as something like a military dictator.

He was opposed by Sulla, one of the most intriguing men to enter this history. He too had military success, in battles against Mithridates in the east, but when Marius occupied Rome Sulla returned with the intention of dislodging — and, as it turned out, displacing — him. Comments Appian:

“In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as though it were a hostile power” (I,60)

As it turned out, his job was done for him: Marius died, and Sulla moved in, declaring himself — or having himself declared — dictator. The office of dictator had been an official political role early in Roman history, invoked in periods of crisis, but it had always been understood as being limited in term to about 6 months or a year. Sulla was declared dictator for life. It would be hard to come up with a more radical upending of the Roman political system, but for Sulla it was just the beginning. He published proscription lists of his enemies; they were to be captured and executed, along with anyone who might try to help them escape. Sulla’s was a reign of terror. The paradox is that he was essentially a conservative figure: his radical measures aimed to restore the proper functioning of the Republican system. He saw that system buckling under strain, overtaken by violence and revolution, and he sought unrestricted power to shore it up. He broke the law in order to restore the law. And, in one of the most surprising turns in this or any other history, once he thought he had achieved his goal he relinquished his absolute power, walked away from political life and retired to a quiet country villa. But he had not achieved his goal, for what the next generation took from Sulla were not his objectives, but his methods, and those could be used against the Republic at least as effectively as Sulla had used them for it.

In Sulla’s conflict with Marius for control of Rome, he had been assisted by two able men: Crassus and Pompey, and in the aftermath of Sulla’s rule a rivalry between them brought both to prominence in Rome’s public life. They collaborated to put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73-71, but were thereafter at one another’s throats, jockeying for political position.

Into this fraught conflict came one Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of relatively humble station (patrician, but poor), who convinced the two that they would be stronger in partnership than in conflict, and that he could help them to achieve together both wealth and power. Thus was born the ‘first triumvirate’ — a rather distinguished title for what Mary Beard opts to call The Gang of Three, and what Varro called The Beast with Three Heads — an alliance that Caesar was to use to propel himself not only to an equal rank with Crassus and Pompey, but to the first rank, and that would effectively bring an end to the Republican government of Rome.

It all happened fairly rapidly. The alliance was formed in 59. Caesar took an army to Gaul where, for ten years, he fought his famous campaign (recounted in his Gallic Wars) that nearly doubled the size of the Roman empire, and brought Romans to Britain for the first time (albeit briefly), bringing Caesar immense wealth and popularity in the process. Crassus led an army to Parthia where, however, he was killed in 53, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the leading men of Rome. And, on the principle that “Three is company, but two is a crowd”, the alliance degenerated into a rivalry once again. In 49 Caesar returned to Italy, crossing the Rubicon with his army in violation of Roman law and setting the spark to inflame civil war. (Parenthetically, I was surprised to learn that historians do not know which river was the Rubicon.) Pompey, taken by surprise, took his army and fled to Greece, there to regroup, and Caesar occupied Rome.

Not resting on his laurels, Caesar pursued Pompey and they met in August 48 at the Battle of Pharsalus, at which Pompey went down to defeat. He fled to Egypt, where he was killed while going ashore by order of Egyptian authorities eager to get into Caesar’s good books. They, along with everyone else, could see the writing on the wall. Caesar was evidently the great man of the age, whom Appian describes as

“a man extremely lucky in everything, gifted with a divine spark, disposed to great deeds, and fittingly compared with Alexander.”

(Indeed, he goes on to compare Caesar and Alexander at some considerable length. [Book II,149-54])

But Caesar’s rule, as we know, was short. There were yet those in Rome who wanted to restore the Republic, and who resented these great men bent on treating Rome as their personal property, and of course Romans had a long-standing horror of kingship. Caesar appeared to them to be a king in all but name. And so it was that in 44 a conspiracy of about 10 men, led by Brutus (thought by some to be Caesar’s biological son, and certainly a man greatly favoured by Caesar) and Cassius, was formed to assassinate him. This assassination, narrated by Appian in Book II, 117, and in more detail by Plutarch in his life of Caesar, is of course well-known to us from Shakespeare’s play.

Following Caesar’s death, the conspirators fled, and much of Appian’s history is occupied with tracing what became of them, as, one by one, they were picked off. Brutus and Cassius met their end in 42, at the Battle of Philippi. Of them, Appian says in tribute:

“They were Romans of the highest nobility and distinction, and of unchallenged virtue, without a single stain…” (IV, 132)

which is slightly odd, because elsewhere he tends toward apologetics on behalf of Imperial Rome, and I would have thought that he would have consequently disapproved of Caesar’s assassins, as Dante did.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death and the departure of the conspirators begged to be filled. The natural man for the part, in his own eyes at least, was Marc Antony, a man who, though given to drunkenness and debauchery, had a proven record of military prowess and had been Caesar’s protege. But when Caesar’s will was read it was discovered that he posthumously adopted as his son and heir his great-nephew, Octavian, then just 19 years old. Naturally this precipitated a rivalry between Antony and Octavian, a rivalry temporarily set aside in 43 by the formation of another alliance of convenience, the so-called ‘second triumvirate’, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Lucius Lepidus, one of history’s most notable third wheels.

This second Gang of Three began another, even more frightful, reign of terror to purge Rome of their enemies. Proscription lists were once again published in the Forum, and Appian devotes a long section (Book IV, 1-51) to stories, both happy and tragic, about what happened to those whose names appeared on these lists: betrayed by their wives, perhaps, or saved by their slaves. Perhaps the most famous name to appear on the list was Cicero’s; he had initially sided with Octavian against Antony, and with the formation of the triumvirate Antony insisted on his execution. He, who was by some reasonable measures the greatest of all the great men swaggering through this episode of history, was captured and killed in December 43.

In subsequent years the uneasy alliance within the triumvirate continued. Appian describes the relationship of Octavian and Antony in these terms:

“Their behaviour constantly swung between suspicion, arising from their desire for power, and trust, arising from their current needs.” (V, 94)

They fought together against Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey, who led an effective naval blockade against Rome that prevented grain reaching the city. Antony went east on campaign where he fell under the spell of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Appian’s history of these civil wars comes to an end in 35, with the finale of the story yet untold. From other sources we know that, soon enough, open war broke out between the two, and in 30 Antony, seeing that he was beaten, committed suicide, leaving Octavian, at 28 years old, the unchallenged leader of the largest Empire the world had ever known.

It is said that Octavian went to Egypt after Antony’s death, and, like many before him, stood at the tomb of Alexander the Great. He was perhaps the only person in history who could do so without feeling humbled at the comparison. He returned home, and three years later took the name Caesar Augustus, the first unequivocal emperor of Rome.


Almost everything about this history has been fascinating. Of course I knew bits and pieces of it, but I had not before seen them all put together, with the gaps filled. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Appian is not a historian with the talents of Livy — how I wish Livy’s account of this period had survived! His account is sometimes disjoint and he makes mistakes of fact — the latter not such a problem in this Oxford edition, which is festooned with copious notes. My main complaint is that he is not good at conveying the character of the people whose actions he describes; they rarely come to life as real historical people. I supplemented my reading, therefore, with a number of Plutarch’s lives, and, for good measure, with Shakespeare’s plays on Caesar and Antony (and Cleopatra). I would recommend the same sensible and rewarding course to others interested in this period of history.