Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Matthias Gelzer, Caesar: Der Politiker und Staatsmann (Neudruck der Ausgabe von 1983). Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008. Pp. xxiii, 309. ISBN 9783515091121. €36.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Richard Westall

Progress is not to be taken for granted. As the events of the last decade have dramatically reminded us, history rarely advances in a direct line. Scholarship is not immune from the contemporary tendency towards retrogression. Therefore, it is with great pleasure that the reviewer greets Franz Steiner Verlag's decision to re-publish Matthias Gelzer's classic biography of Julius Caesar. Although last revised by its author half a century ago, this work remains unsurpassed for its detailed treatment of the life of Caesar. Conceiving the project in 1917-1919 and publishing it in six editions1 over the next four decades (1921, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, and 1960), Gelzer wrote a work of reference that should be required reading for every serious student of Roman history. Thanks to Gelzer's attention to detail and thorough use of the ancient literary sources, this account remains the essential point of departure for the political and military history of the final decades of the Roman Republic.2

Gelzer arranged his biography of Caesar in six chapters oriented about the protagonist's political career. In the first chapter (Die politische Welt), pp. 3-22, Gelzer provides an arkhaiologia for Roman history in the midst of an account of Caesar's life from his birth until the middle of the 70s BCE. The second chapter (Der politische Aufstieg), pp. 23-58, is dedicated to tracing Caesar's activities from his prosecution of M. Iuncus de repetundis and his service as military tribune through to the eve of his assumption of the consulate. The third chapter (Das Consulat), pp. 59-84, covers the events and immediate consequences (e.g. Cato's lucrative mission to Cyprus) of the year 59 BCE. The fourth chapter (Das Proconsulat), pp. 85-164, covers the long decade of the 50s BCE, rehearsing in detail the events of the conquest of Gaul as well as pertinent occurrences within the city of Rome. In the fifth chapter (Der Bürgerkrieg), pp. 165-231, Gelzer narrates the events of the civil war that opened with Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon and brings the story down to Caesar's victorious return from north Africa in mid-summer (according to the unaltered calendar) 46 BCE. With the sixth and last chapter (Der Sieg und die Katastrophe), pp. 232-284, Gelzer takes the story from Caesar's quadruple triumph in Rome through to his assassination on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. As was appropriate in terms of the evidence and as is indicated by the book's subtitle, the organization is focussed upon the political career of C. Caesar, which is what proved his lasting heritage for the West. For this new printing, a brief introductory survey of the history of Gelzer's biography of Caesar and its effect upon subsequent scholarship has been provided by E. Baltrusch. A genealogical table, a chronological summary of Caesar's career, and a map of the Roman world at mid-century as well as two bibliographies (compiled by Baltrusch's students) and an index complement this work.

It is sobering to reflect upon the fact that Gelzer provided footnotes for this work only in its sixth and final edition. To date the richest source of documentation for the period, the footnotes are what enabled this work to supplant that of W. Drumann as it was revised by P. Groebe.3 They are also the reason why no biography of Caesar produced in the past half-century has supplanted Gelzer's work. There has been an exponential increase in scholarship4 and sources (especially archaeological and epigraphic) are far more accessible and perhaps better understood, but no biographer has engaged in the research that makes Gelzer's biography a jewel in the crown of Roman historiography. Footnotes have been turned into hard-to-consult and forgettable end-notes or even jettisoned as the purported ease of editors and the requirements of divulgation have come to dictate how history is written. Fortunately, as remarked at the outset of this review, history is not linear and it may be hoped that the footnote has not breathed its last.5 In the final analysis, the footnotes are what render Gelzer's work an enduring monument of scholarship.

Resolutely adhering to his goal of explaining Caesar as a statesman, Gelzer wrote a biography that is palpably weighted in favour of the political element. For example, in the fourth chapter (Das Proconsulat), roughly 45 out of 80 pages are dedicated to a detailed analysis of politics at Rome during the 50s BCE. Caesar's military conquests achieved in Gaul are related to the goals that he had within the political landscape of Rome itself. Eliminating from the narrative items superfluous for this purpose, Gelzer provides an account of military actions that is focussed upon the results obtained. Most historians would have placed the capitulation of Vercingetorix towards the very end of their account of Caesar's proconsulate. By contrast, Gelzer evocatively describes this moment and then goes on to devote nearly thirty pages to exploring the consequences of Caesar's achievement as they regarded not only Gaul, but also the statesman's future political career at Rome. For this reason does the work remain unsurpassed in terms of comprehensive political analysis.

Much of the evidence and many details remarked by Gelzer are susceptible of different interpretations or evaluation; it is impossible to read Gelzer's work and not be aware that scholarship has advanced in the past half-century. Using the evidence provided by Caesar himself, Gelzer frequently notes the large numbers of slain as well as the harsh treatment of the defeated. Despite late nineteenth-century scholarship, which has received due attention only in recent years, Gelzer displays no awareness of the possibility that the statistics in question are not empirical data. Another example is furnished by a characteristic footnote (p. 50 n. 131), wherein Gelzer takes into account H. Strasburger's penetrating critique of the sources even while seeking to save the bon mot attributed to Caesar. In the view of the nature of anecdotes, it might well be wondered whether the whole episode is not an invention. Lastly, Gelzer's focus upon great men and decisive battles obscures the fundamental fact, or such it seems, that these individuals were actually corporate entities. Caesar without C. Matius and L. Balbus is unthinkable (cf. p. 233, for a more forceful statement). Likewise, where would Pompeius have been without his counsellors Theophanes, L. Lucceius, and Scribonius? Despite the pioneering work of J. Malitz6 and others, this aspect of the creation of the princeps has yet to receive adequate treatment. Moreover, to amalgamate these individuals of secondary importance with a consularis such as M. Cicero, whom Gelzer surprisingly describes as a Gefolgsmann of Pompeius (e.g. p. 57), fails to do justice to the variety of roles and status. The project in which Gelzer was engaged is not so reassuringly founded as the text and footnotes might make one think, but it is to Gelzer's credit that he often recognised problems and drew readers' attention to them. That is far more than can be said for his epigonoi.

The brief introduction provided by Baltrusch will be of use to a generation of readers not acquainted with the vicissitudes of the twentieth century and coming to scholarship upon Caesar for the first time. Baltrusch provides a sweeping review of interpetations, exploring both the strengths and the weaknesses of Gelzer's historiography. Baltrusch also looks briefly at the reception accorded to Gelzer's work since it first appeared. In tune with recent intellectual history, this focus upon Rezeptionsgeschichte was to be expected and is on the whole satisfactorily performed. However, the exercise is by its very nature reductive and there is the occasional bad slip.7 An annoying complication is the fact that all of Baltrusch's page references to the book that he is introducing are off by 6 pages (e.g. Gelzer's discussion of M. Rambaud is to be found at p. 150, rather than p. 144).

The re-setting of the text afforded an occasion for editorial intervention, as can be seen from one silent correction (disclosed by p. VII; e.g. M. Cotta becomes L. Cotta at p. 26, thanks to the review of Badian in 1961). But some errors persist and others have been introduced. For instance, the mistakenly unaspirated form raithymotera, instead of the correct rhaithymotera, has been perpetuated despite the fact that an elementary knowledge of Greek would have sufficed to rectify this error. In fact, the error was corrected in the English translation (p. 140 n.1). As regards novelties, the last two paragraphs on p. 46 should in reality be one, just as was the case in the 1960 edition. Indeed, sense will not allow them to stand as two separate entities. Similarly, the Latin of one footnote (p. 116 n.155) has suffered, with the insolens of Caesar's injunction becoming isolens. Equally egregious, hyphenated German words have suffered in orthography. Editorial intervention is hard to discern, even though there are moments when it was desirable. As is expressly remarked in the publisher's note to the 1968 English translation, "certain corrections of fact" had been introduced and slight changes incorporated in the translation thanks to collaboration with Gelzer. One example is afforded by the cartographic correction situating Ariminum to the south of the Rubicon.8 Another concerns the conciliatory effort by Caesar to revive ancient tradition and accord greater honour to his colleague in the alternate use of lictors carrying fasces. In the German text under review, Gelzer asserts that M. Bibulus enjoyed this bit of showmanship in January 59 BCE (p. 59). In the English translation, on the other hand, it is asserted that Bibulus' turn came in February of that year and the associated footnote contains a new reference to an article jointly published by T.R.S. Broughton and L.R. Taylor (p. 71 English). Why was the change not silently made in the German text as well? As the editors of medieval texts have recognised for quite some time, one ignores at one's own peril the parallel traditions for a text's transmission in translation.9 Lastly, rather annoying and the potential source of considerable confusion in the years to come is the change in pagination between the sixth edition of 1960 and the new impression of 2008. Indeed, with this change the innovatory and useful "captions" that appeared on odd-numbered pages of the sixth edition have disappeared. In the absence of a detailed subject-index, those "captions" served a purpose, rendering consultation of Gelzer's work far easier and more rapid than is now the case.

The two bibliographies that accompany this new impression of Gelzer's work look quite elegant, but, with the exception of the listing of reviews of earlier editions, do not quite seem to serve the needs of a new generation of scholars. As Gelzer himself rightly perceived, emphasis ought to be upon the original sources. An index locorum for the citations from ancient authors and epigraphic or legal documents would have constituted a valuable addition, enhancing this biography's potential as a tool for research. An index locorum would reveal at a glance Gelzer's meditation upon the significance of Caesar's grandiose appeal to a common interest in the quies Italiae, pax provinciarum, salus imperii (Caes. BC 3.57.4; pp. 184, 196, 233). As for the modern authors used by Gelzer, a similar index would have likewise have been far better than the bibliographical lists provided, with the introduction of an error or two. It is of no little interest to see where and how one scholar has made use of the work of his contemporaries and predecessors. As things stand, the bibliographies provided fail to include works dealing with ancillary subjects or marginal figures, even though these works contribute substantively to our knowledge of Caesar's life and the period in which he lived. A perfunctory bibliography that focuses primarily upon items having Caesar's name in their title is not adequate. A. Fraschetti's slender volume dedicated to Caesar, for example, is fine for high school students, but has no place within a bibliography aimed at a scholarly audience.

These, of course, are minor issues when compared with the solid nature of Gelzer's text and marvellous footnotes, which are unlikely to be surpassed any time in the near future. Consequently, Baltrusch and the Franz Steiner publishing house deserve our gratitude for giving a renewed lease upon life to one of the few twentieth-century classics of ancient history.


1.   The reviewer is aware of problems with the use of the term "edition" to render the German "Auflage". It might be more correct to speak of three editions -- the initial one of 1921, that of the printings in the 1940s, and that of 1960 -- but linguistic accuracy could be achieved only at the likelihood of disseminating confusion. For full disclosure, the reviewer has been able to consult only the "editions" of 1921, 1943, and 1960 as well as the 1983 reprint.
2.   Comparable narratives are hard to identify: T.R.E. Holmes, The Roman republic and the founder of the empire. 3 vols. (Oxford 1923); E.S. Gruen, The Last Generation of the Roman Republic (Berkeley 19952); R. Seager, Pompey the Great: a political biography (Oxford 2002 rev.). Silence regarding potential candidates (e.g. J. Carcopino, Jules César. rev. P. Grimal. Paris 19906 and L. Canfora, Cesare: Il dittatore democratico. Bari 1999) is not to be taken for ignorance of their existence and pretended merits.
3.   Cf. the review of E. Hohl, Gnomon 18 (1942) 185-186, where readers wishing to know the sources are referred to Drumann and Groebe.
4.   As can be seen from the bibliographical lists dedicated to Caesar: F. Cairns and E. Fantham, eds., Caesar against liberty? Perspectives on his autocracy (Cambridge 2003) ix-xix and 201-220 (J.G. Nordling); H. Gesche, Caesar. Erträge der Forschung Bd. 51 (Darmstadt 1976) 207-325, with reference to earlier lists provided at 223-224 nrs. 180-201. Despite the ease of consulting L'Année philologique by electronic means, it would be useful to have a systematic updating of the work done since 1975. Titles hardly tell the whole story.
5.   For the subject, see A. Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, Mass. 1997, which is wickedly delightful as well as highly informative. Typical is the judgement passed upon Lorenzo Valla at p. 74-75.
6.   J. Malitz, "Die Kanzlei Caesars: Herrschaftsorganisation zwischen Republik und Prinzipat," Historia 36 (1987) 51-72.
7.   E.g. p. XIX n.53, where it is claimed vis-à-vis Rambaud, L'art de la déformation is "von Gelzer beifällig zitiert". Gelzer himself notes that "geht das Buch von M. Rambaud . . . von ganz falschen Voraussetzungen aus" and caustically refers readers to other scholars' unfavourable reception of Rambaud's work. If that is approval, then condemnation is to be feared in truth. As another example, the reviewer thinks it opportune to note that the culmination of F. Millar's ground-breaking articles upon the democratic nature of the middle and late Republic came with the publication of his Jerome lectures (given at the AAR in 1994-95) in 1998, not in 2001 fitting though that date might have been in some ways.
8.   The error had been remarked by E. Badian, Gnomon 33 (1961) 597-600, here 597. It is interesting to observe that this error did not occur in the map accompanying the 5th printing in 1943, which was done by the publishing house Georg D.W. Callwey. That map, however, has its own strange items, e.g. the anachronistic indication of cities such as Lüttich, Worms, and Speyer.
9.   See, for example, the exemplary work of P. Petitmengin et al., Pélagie la pénitente : métamorphoses d'une légende, 2 vols. Etudes Augustiniennes 84 and 104. Paris 1980-1984.

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