Who Said "Veni, Vidi, Vici" and What Did He Mean?

The Brevity and Wit of the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar

Caesar at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli
Caesar at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Napoli.

Get Directly Down/Flickr

"Veni, vidi, vici" is a famous phrase said to have been spoken by the Roman Emperor Julius Caesar in a bit of stylish bragging that impressed many of the writers of his day and beyond. The phrase means roughly "I came, I saw, I conquered" and it could be pronounced approximately Vehnee, Veedee, Veekee or Vehnee Veedee Veechee in Ecclesiastical Latin—the Latin used in rituals in the Roman Catholic Church—and roughly Wehnee, Weekee, Weechee in other forms of spoken Latin.

In May of 47 BCE, Julius Caesar was in Egypt attending to his pregnant mistress, the famed Pharaoh Cleopatra VII. This relationship would later prove to be the undoing of Caesar, Cleopatra, and Cleopatra's lover Mark Anthony, but in June of 47 BCE, Cleopatra would give birth to their son Ptolemy Caesarion and Caesar was by all accounts smitten with her. Duty called and he had to leave her: there had been a report of trouble rising against Roman holdings in Syria.

Caesar's Triumph

Caesar traveled to Asia, where he learned that the primary troublemaker was Pharnaces II, who was king of Pontus, an area near the Black Sea in northeastern Turkey. According to the Life of Caesar written by the Greek historian Plutarch (45–125 CE), Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates, was stirring up trouble for the princes and tetrarchs in several Roman provinces, including Bithynia and Cappadocia. His next target was to be Armenia.

With only three legions at his side, Caesar marched against Pharnaces and his force of 20,000 and handily defeated him in the Battle of Zela, or modern Zile, in what is today the Tokat province of northern Turkey. To inform his friends back in Rome of his victory, again according to Plutarch, Caesar succinctly wrote, "Veni, Vidi, Vici." 

Scholarly Commentary

The classic historians were impressed with the way Caesar summarized his triumph. The Temple Classics version of Plutarch's opinion reads, "the words have the same inflectional ending, and so a brevity which is most impressive," adding, "these three words, ending all with like sound and letter in the Latin, have a certain short grace more pleasant to the ear than can be well expressed in any other tongue." The English poet John Dryden's translation of Plutarch is briefer: "the three words in Latin, having the same cadence, carry with them a suitable air of brevity."

The Roman historian Suetonius (70–130 CE) described much of the pomp and pageantry of Caesar's return to Rome by torchlight, headed up by a tablet with the inscription "Veni, Vidi, Vici," signifying to Suetonius the manner of the writing expressed "what was done, so much as the dispatch with which it was done."

Queen Elizabeth's playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) also admired Caesar's brevity which he apparently read in North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Caesar published in 1579. He turned the quote into a joke for his silly character Monsieur Biron in Love's Labour's Lost, when he lusts after the fair Rosaline: "Who came, the king; why did he come? to see; why did he see? to overcome."

Modern References

Versions of Caesar's statement have also been used in several other contexts, some military, some satirical. In 1683, Jan III of Poland said "Venimus Vidimus, Deus vicit," or "We came, we saw, and God conquered" reminding his triumphant soldiers after the Battle of Vienna that there is "No I in TEAM" and that "Man proposes, God disposes" in one witty quip. Handel, in his 1724 opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) used an Italian version (Cesare venne, e vide e vinse) but associated it with the proper ancient Italian.

In the 1950s, the title song for the musical version of Auntie Mame included a line from her lover Beauregard who sings "You came, you saw, you conquered." Hilary Clinton, then the United States secretary of state, reported the death of Muammar Gadaffi using the phrase "We came, we saw, he died."

More recently, Peter Venkman, arguably the idiot member of the 1984 "Ghostbusters" film, applauds their efforts "We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!" and the 2002 studio album for the Swedish rock band the Hives was titled "Veni Vidi Vicious." Rappers Pitbull ("Fireball" in 2014) and Jay-Z ("Encore" in 2004) both include versions of the phrase. 

Sources

Carr WL. 1962. Veni, Vidi, Vici. The Classical Outlook 39(7):73-73.

Plutarch. tr. 1579 [1894 edition]. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, Englished by Sir Thomas North. Online copy by The British Museum.