Monday, November 18, 2019


James J. O'Donnell (trans.), Julius Caesar. The War for Gaul: A New Translation. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780691174921. $27.95.

Reviewed by Anthony Smart, York St John University (

Version at BMCR home site

Caesar's commentarii provide a visceral window into the dying years of the Roman Republic, and the world beyond Rome's borders. They paint an image of Caesar as a man of action, a general without compare, and a true embodiment of Roman belligerence. His actions in Gaul, and his recording of them, can and have been read in wildly different ways. For some they are military episodes that create a military handbook of sorts, of leadership and battle tactics. For others they are political pieces, designed to engage with the Roman populace, and intimidate the senate. They are biographical, and historical, journalistic and rhetorical. In short, they are hugely important, but also complex pieces that operate on a number of different levels, betraying the multifaceted political character writing them. They are Caesar, through and through, but as with all things connected to a man who does not truly belong in the world he calls home, they are powerful and carefully crafted reflections that pose more questions than they necessarily answer.

The new translation by James J. O'Donnell is welcome. Although there are several other versions of the commentarii available (e.g., Handford & Gardner; Hammond), this volume sets out to be rather different, in tone, in translation, and in the textual framework underpinning each section. O'Donnell attempts to give the reader a translation that reflects the careful craft of Caesar the writer, and the way in which he records his events, with an eye both to Gaul and the political infighting of Rome. In reminding us that Caesar is a writer of some repute, who uses his language and narrative as his legionaries did their weapons and shields, O'Donnell gives us a very different sense both of Caesar and the commentarii than is found in other modern translations. It is worth remembering that Cicero was aware of the stylistic strength of Caesar's prose, and what he sought to do within his commentarii. He wrote of them that they were stripped of embroidery (nudi enim sunt, recti et venusti, omni ornatu orationis tamquam veste detracta) and designed to assist others in the writing of history, but in fact have become history themselves (nihil est enim in historia pura et inlustri brevitate dulcius). This style of brevity and succinctness can be clearly seen in the Latin itself; but most translations lose that true sense of Caesar by tidying and embellishing his prose. Not so here. O'Donnell manages to return the Gallic war to Caesar, for good or ill.

The translation throughout is excellent, and it only when returning to the Latin version that the reader can see how careful O'Donnell has been in shaping and working through the commentarii. The translation is much shorter than typically seen, and does not seek to clarify Caesar's murky objectives or establish a clear sense of topographical understanding. When places are known they are indicated in the footnotes, but this translation returns as closely as possible to Caesar's writing, and is all the better for it. Behind this O'Donnell recognises the work of Heinrich Meusel and his Lexicon Caesarianum, and follows him in the deletion of certain sections that appear un-Caesarean. The skill in translating Caesar becomes all the more apparent when we reach the eighth commentary, written by Aulus Hirtius (220-258). Meusel considered this commentary ungeschickt (xliii) and O'Donnell himself refers to Hirtius' prose as 'sludge' (221). In consequence, this translation reads in a slow and belaboured fashion, reflecting the Latin closely, and reinforcing that this is an inferior writer completing the work. O'Donnell resists any temptation to tidy this up or make it read better, and that is the right choice to have made.

O'Donnell provides a clear introduction, includes footnotes in each commentary, a short afterword, three meditations on Caesar at the end of the volume, and a chronology. The introduction (vii-xlv) provides a succinct foundation, although the points made are a touch embryonic and inchoate. In part this is because the book is aimed not just at specialists but also a general readership, and consequently some of the observations providing modern parallels are a touch unnecessary (e.g. 'True, he is no Hitler and no Stalin, though he did not need to be in order to reach his goals', xxxii). The piece opens with a purposely provocative interpretation of Caesar, written in a conversational style. This instantly sets out O'Donnell's standpoint: 'Caesar deserves to be compared with Alexander the Great. No one before or since comes close […] Have I said that right? Isn't that what you would expect a translation of Caesar to say?' (vii). This is an excellent and arresting opening, a touch on the nose perhaps, but one that engages with the recent shifts in historiography and Latin learning. The introduction then moves through discussion of Gaul, war, barbarians and gods, Caesar himself, his finances, the commentarii, and the language used, before then talking of the translation and providing a map of Gaul (at xliv). This is all useful, but each section would have benefitted from a more overt engagement with scholarly approaches, even if just in providing summaries of opposing voices and perspectives. The discussion of Gaul is good, but this section would certainly have benefitted from a greater discussion of archaeological evidence, with some accompanying images of what we know about ancient Gaul (ix-xiii). The segment on barbarians and gods makes a good point in how to translate civitas (here as 'nation'), but the echoes of classical ethnography needed to be established to fully understand how and why Caesar describes the people of Gaul as he does (xviii-xix). The depiction of Caesar is persuasive, placing him firmly in his political backdrop, and asking important questions of the events (xix-xxxiv). The main criticism here is that it would have been useful if a couple of the modern biographies had been examined, in particular Christian Meier's important reading of Caesar. O'Donnell also makes a couple of initial observations that have important consequences for how the work should be read. The Roman audience did not know Gaul, and Caesar was not intending to write clear and detailed battle reports of this foreign land. Instead, he was speaking to an audience where he could create his narrative, against an unknown set of enemies, in a world they could not fully understand or imagine. He is both a guide and a creator of Gaul.

Another way this book sets itself apart from other translations is that each commentary is preceded by an account of the key events and moments in each given year. This allows the reader again to participate in the commentarii, echoing perhaps how the Roman audience(s) may have understood Caesar's words. In doing so, the book creates different layers of understanding, not just fact-checking Caesar, but instead inviting the reader to consider how and what can be achieved through each commentary, when placed against the very real political issues and concerns facing Rome. In another sense, of course, O'Donnell is demonstrating how a commentary can be used to shape audience understanding (for he has chosen the events in Rome to discuss, and the observations to make). It is this, alongside the clear and succinct translation efforts, that make reading this book such a rewarding endeavour.

The other sense that abides throughout, in part because of the fact checking footnotes and occasional critical treatment of Caesar, is the absence of other voices. We know that there must have been other versions of events, certainly in the letters sent home by serving officers, and Appian and others had access to competing Roman versions (most likely Asinius Pollio), but we lack the ability to fact check anything from the side of the oppressed. There must have been counter stories across the Celtic peoples, but they do not exist in the historical record. This again reminds the reader that Caesar is writing something that is a multitude of different aims and ambitions.

There are some issues here. The bibliography is not as extensive as might be expected to fully provide a foundation for the translation. There are some absences, in particular the two books that came out too late to be used (The Landmark Julius Caesar & The Cambridge Companion to the Writings of Julius Caesar, 274). There are chapters in each that would have added weight to the observations O'Donnell makes (e.g., J. Thorne's 'Narrating the Gallic and Civil Wars with and beyond Caesar'). A greater exploration of how the various modern biographies present Caesar in Gaul would have been useful, in particular Christian Meier's classic depiction.

To close, this is an excellent translation, and one that poses important questions about Caesar, his actions in Gaul, and the dying years of the Republic. It is best read alongside some of the modern biographies and critical studies, to get a sense of how these actions have been interpreted. The book creates a sense of dialogue, for Caesar is writing for the Roman people, allies and enemies both, and engaging with them in each and every paragraph. Not only is he shaping an image of himself (several competing ones welded together to create a somewhat artificial whole), but also rebranding the Republic, and placing it in a wider world of danger and threat. The Gauls and the Germans become integral parts of his own image and his own world view. He is not just ignoring the rules of the game, he is playing something else entirely.

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