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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Book review: Kurt Raaflaub's latest tells the definitive chronicle of Julius Caesar

His concise translation of the Roman’s military campaigns brings Caesar into sharper focus, with illustrations and notes to round out this compendium of the legendary general’s life and times

Vercingetorix's surrender to Caesar in Alesia in the Gallic Wars of 52 BC. Apic / Getty
Vercingetorix's surrender to Caesar in Alesia in the Gallic Wars of 52 BC. Apic / Getty

The goal of Robert B Strassler’s Landmark series has been twofold and fairly simple since it started a decade ago with The Landmark Thucydides: create scholarly popular editions that are not only figuratively landmarks, drawing together important contributions from classicists, but also literally landmarks, since the series’ signature feature is the extensive collection of maps in every volume. Many classical authors were travellers as well; by land and sea they saw great swathes of their world, and their books reflect that.

Scarcely anywhere in the classical canon is this more true than in the case of Julius Caesar, who travelled over the Roman world in both war and peace, and who had accounts of virtually all of those travels ghostwritten in great detail. The accounts were created in order to massage public opinion in Caesar’s favour, and it’s the good fortune of posterity that they survive to give invaluable glimpses into the workings of one of the most pivotal individuals in the ancient world.

Those accounts – the Gallic War, the Civil War, the Alexandrian War, the African War, and the Spanish War – comprise the glorious new entry in Strassler’s series, The Landmark Julius Caesar, an oversized 800-page volume featuring the usual panoply of illustrations, diagrams and detailed maps, and also featuring a translation and copious new notes by Brown University classics professor emeritus Kurt A Raaflaub. Despite the stellar visuals throughout the book, Raaflaub’s translation is its standout feature. The first volume in the series, The Landmark Thucydides, used the creaky public-domain Victorian translation by Richard Crawley, but all the subsequent volumes have enlisted new translations of their central works, and in Raaflaub’s case, his version hews close to the spare narrative line usually favoured by Caesar’s amanuensis.

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For hundreds of years, translators have perennially been tempted to add meat to the bare bones of of Caesar’s prose. Raaflaub consistently shaves off these excess words and lets Caesar’s more pointed sentences stand. S A Handford, for instance, in his 1957 translation of the Gallic War for Penguin Classics, writes up a tense combat-moment during Caesar’s seventh year of war in Gergovia this way:

Fierce hand-to-hand fighting was in progress, the Gauls relying on their superior numbers and position, while our men trusted in their courage to see them through, when suddenly the Aedui, whom Caesar had sent up by another route on the right to create a diversion, appeared on our right flank. The similarity of their arms to those of the enemy gave our soldiers a bad fright; for although they could see that the newcomers had their right shoulders uncovered – the sign always agreed upon to mark friendly troops – they imagined that this was a ruse employed by the enemy to trick them.”

Raaflaub, in a dozen fewer words, translates the same passage with an ear to preserving the telegraphic effect that was Caesar’s way of signalling to his readers he was trying to be an unvarnished and impartial reporter of his own deeds:In this fierce hand-to-hand combat, the enemy relied on their position and numbers, our men on their bravery.

Suddenly the Aedui were seen on our troops’ open flank – Caesar had sent them up the slope by another route, on the right-hand side, to divert the enemies’ attention. Their armour was like that of other Gauls, and this caused a great panic in our troops. Though it was noticed that their right shoulders were exposed, which was the usual and accepted sign, our soldiers nevertheless believed that the enemy had used this very sign to deceive them.”

In Raaflaub, fewer lines flow into each other, fewer points are co-opted into subordinate clauses of other points. These slight differences have a cumulative effect that’s noticeable; the reader comes to feel this is the closest thing to reading Caesar that English can provide.

The book’s lengthy Introduction (by Raaflaub and Cynthia Damon) is a comprehensive overview of Caesar’s life and times. He was born in 100 BC to a patrician family that had long been out of Roman public life. With the aid of carefully-cultivated political allies, he entered that public life, becoming first a military tribune, then a quaestor, then an aedile, all the while marrying and remarrying for political and social advantage and probing like a tailor at the weak seams of the Roman Republic.

Over the next two decades, through the succession of artificially prolonged military commands partially chronicled here in The Landmark Julius Caesar, he accrued both enormous debts and a roster of bitter enemies among Rome’s ruling elite. When it came to a choice between adhering to the rule of law he had loudly proclaimed for years or becoming a military dictator, Caesar didn’t hesitate, crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC and marching into Italy at the head of a legion loyal only to him.

There followed a dictatorship only momentarily ruffled by his assassination in 44 BC, which continued for centuries. As Raaflaub and Damon somewhat coyly put it in their Introduction, Caesar “played a crucial role in bringing about the fall of the republic.”

That crucial role – and the controversial career leading up to it – receive a unique chronicle in the series of books that have come down to us under Caesar’s name, and this mini-library of accounts now has a magnificent new English-language rendition. The Landmark Julius Caesar is a superb addition to a superb series.