Caesar's Books, the Gallic Wars

An old map of Northern Gaul

Public Domain / LacusCurtius

Julius Caesar wrote commentaries on the wars he fought in Gaul between 58 and 52 B.C., in seven books one for each year. This series of annual war commentaries is referred to by various names but is commonly called De bello Gallico in Latin, or The Gallic Wars in English. There is also an 8th book, written by Aulus Hirtius. For modern students of Latin, De bello Gallico is usually the first piece of real, continuous Latin prose. Caesar's commentaries are valuable for those interested in European history, military history, or the ethnography of Europe since Caesar describes the tribes he encounters, as well as their military engagements. The commentaries should be read with the understanding that they are biased and that Caesar wrote to enhance his reputation back in Rome, passing blame for defeats, justifying his own actions, yet probably accurately reporting the basic facts.

The Title

Caesar's title for The Gallic Wars is not known for sure. Caesar referred to his writing as res gestae 'deeds/things done' and commentarii 'commentaries,' suggesting historical events. In genre it appears to be close to the Anabasis of Xenophon, a hypomnemata 'memory helps'—like a notebook to be used as a reference for later writing. Both Anabasis and the Gallic War commentaries were written in the third person singular, relating historical events, with the intention of sounding objective, and in simple, clear language, so that the Anabasis is often the first continuous prose beginning Greek students face.

In addition to not knowing for sure what Caesar would have considered its proper title, The Gallic Wars is misleading. Book 5 has sections on the customs of the British and Book 6 has material on the Germans. There are British expeditions in Books 4 and 6 and German expeditions in Books 4 and 6.

The Pros and Cons

The downside of the standard reading De bello Gallico during the early years of Latin study is that it is an account of battles, with descriptions of tactics, techniques, and materials that can be hard to understand. There is debate as to whether it is dry. This evaluation depends on whether you can figure out what is going on and visualize the scenes, which in turn depends on your understanding of military tactics in general, and Roman techniques, armies, and weaponry, in particular.

The upside is, as Vincent J. Cleary argues in Caesar's "Commentarii": Writings in Search of a Genre, that Caesar's prose is free of grammatical error, Grecisms, and pedantry, and rarely metaphorical. It overwhelmingly reads as Cicero's tribute to Caesar. In Brutus, Cicero says that Caesar's De bello Gallico is the best history ever written.

Sources

  • "Caesar's "Commentarii": Writings in Search of a Genre," by Vincent J. Cleary. The Classical Journal, Vol. 80, No. 4. (Apr. - May 1985), pp. 345-350.
  • "Style in De Bello Civili," by Richard Goldhurst.The Classical Journal, Vol. 49, No. 7. (Apr. 1954), pp. 299-303.