The Plasticity of Julius Caesar

Posted on April 6, 2013 by


The Plasticity of Julius Caesar

Jack Leahey, ’13, Marist School

“Servi igitur eis etiam iudicibus, qui multis post saeculis de te iudicabunt, et quidem haud scio an incorruptius quam nos. Nam et sine amore et sine cupiditate et rursus sine odio et sine invidia iudicabunt.” – Cicero on Julius Caesar, Pro Marcello 29

I became interested in Caesar while taking the AP Vergil course last year. I became interested in the impact of postcolonial theory on the studies of Vergil (which offers a charter for imperialism, e.g. Aen. 6.847-53).  What was true for Vergil, I thought, must be true a fortiori for the Caesar of the Gallic Wars.  What, I wondered, were the main lines of the scholarly presentation of Caesar’s imperialism, indeed of his historical role as the conqueror of Gaul generally, in the past century or so?  In what follows I present some of what I learned in attempting to answer this question.

Certainly few historical figures have been as contentious as Julius Caesar.  He is a hero to some, a villain to others; while some condemn his plunder of Gaul, others praise him as a skilled statesman and man-of-letters.  Our general picture of him seems to depend on the age in which he is studied, or rather on the ideology and range of theoretical perspectives prevalent in a given time and place; thus the Germany around the time of WWI produced the first edition of Gelzer’s Caesar (conceived in 1917, published in 1921) and post-war France produced the dramatically different Rambaud’s Art of Deformation.

I. Biography

Perhaps the first great modern biography of Julius Caesar was Matthias Gelzer’s (1921). He issued revised editions since that date, adding a wealth of notes, but made few changes to the text.  Preferring to let the facts speak for themselves, Gelzer argued no particular thesis. As the original subtitle, “Master of Politics,” indicated, his focus was on Caesar’s statesmanship rather than on his military campaigns.  Gelzer’s narration of the events of the Gallic campaigns was brisk; he placed more emphasis on the political circumstances surrounding them (e.g., Caesar’s consulship, or the Luca Conference) than on the battles themselves.

Though it was Gelzer’s intention to highlight Caesar’s political life, he perhaps had another motive for his cursory account of the campaigns in Gaul.  Gelzer was a professor at the University of Munich at the time of this biography’s first edition, and he felt the distaste for war shared by many intellectuals in the early Weimar Republic.  This was the postwar Germany that produced such Dada artists as Hannah Höch and George Grosz who expressed this distaste with their anti-art techniques. The fact that von Schlieffen’s German forces and Caesar’s legions had both ravaged the French countryside in their respective campaigns gave Gelzer even more of a reason to downplay military matters in his biography.

Christian Meier’s biography is another seminal German work.  Published in 1982 – about sixty years after Gelzer’s – it is certainly more assertive on the Gallic campaigns.  Meier even ventures to imagine Caesar’s feelings about the war – something that is notably missing from De Bello Gallico: “He may have been troubled, even haunted, by the thought that this war, started for the sake of his own fame and perhaps also for the glory of Rome, claimed hundreds of thousands of victims – to say nothing of all the devastation” (311).  Meier’s thoughts are more ambiguous on Caesar’s other actions, but his account of Gaul is refreshingly firm.  The lengthy chapter dedicated to the Gallic campaigns shows the influence of Hermann Strasburger’s revisionism (see below); he frequently quotes the latter’s “Caesar in the Judgment of His Contemporaries.”  Moreover, Meier takes the time to include an assessment of the bias of the De Bello Gallico.  He acknowledges its purpose and consequent flaws: “Such a self-portrait naturally has an apologetic purpose. Caesar’s memoir … misrepresents certain matters, passes over others in silence or treats them only cursorily, and gives a somewhat partial account of the whole” (254).  It is difficult to miss the echoes of contemporary theory in this statement.

Meier’s book was a departure from that of the cool and discreet Gelzer.  His subtle revisionism did not carry over into the most recent major biography of Julius Caesar, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006).  Goldsworthy is a military historian, and it shows.  He follows Caesar’s battle narrative closely, offering clarifications and maps; yet he tends to avoid the questions that post-colonial or alterity theorists would pose about Caesar was doing in Gaul.  He does tack on some commentary to the end of his account of the campaigns, in somewhat apologetic tones: “The benefits of Roman rule are arguable but the grim nature of Roman conquest is not … Other Roman armies under other commanders had done similar things in the past, and would continue to do so in the future … This is not to justify what Caesar did, merely to place it into context.  Warfare in antiquity was generally an extremely cruel business” (355).

II. Literature

Goldsworthy notes that “the [historical] novelist does not possess the historian’s luxury of being able to state that we simply do not know something” (519).  Where evidence is lacking, he must use his imagination to fill in the gaps.  The reader, for his part, learns as much about the novelist’s mind as he does about history.  If we wish to see ideology at work in the representation of Caesar, historical fiction is an ideal medium for study.

The Scottish writer Naomi Mitchison’s historical novel The Conquered is an instructive and underappreciated example of such imaginative reconstruction. This 1923 work attempts to recover the lost voice of the Gauls in Caesar’s campaigns.  Mitchison writes from the point of view of two chieftains, Kormiac and Meromic, from the Veneti, a tribe in Brittany that Caesar eradicated in 57 BCE.  Mitchison does not pull punches in her portrait of Caesar.  In The Conquered, he is aggressive and endlessly ambitious.  One needs only to glance at Mitchison’s own biography to understand her attitude toward Caesar’s imperialism.  She was active in the push to overturn apartheid in South Africa and served as an advisor to an indigenous nation in Botswana.  She was no admirer of empire.

Roughly two decades later, the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht treated Caesar similarly in his unfinished novel The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar.  Brecht was a devout Marxist, which is particularly evident in the imaginary diary of Rarus, one of Caesar’s secretaries.  Rarus’s descriptions of Caesar do not fit with his traditional representation as a great man.  Indeed, Brecht was impugning the Great Man theory of history in the manner of Carlyle and others: individuals, much less one individual, do not shape history.  As a Marxist, he was convinced that the true agents of historical change were relations of production.  He felt compelled to write this novel in defiance of Fascist Germany.

III. Historiography

In his essay, “Caesar, Caesarism, and the Historians,” Zwi Yavetz traces the origins and usage of the term “Caesarism,” asking how the concept has conformed to the political agenda of those writing about it.  As he defines it, “Caesarism” is the monarchical absolutism that, for many, characterized Caesar’s brief dictatorship.  Yavetz traces the lineage of the “Caesar myth” (187).  He goes so far as to claim that modern representations of Caesar would be unintelligible to the man himself and his contemporaries: “Tacitus could not have understood Caesarism. This was a neologism used first in France in 1850” (189).  Yavetz, an Israeli by birth, was writing in 1971, a time of great tension in the Middle East.  The War of Attrition with Egypt and the brief Six-Day War occurred in close succession, and Israeli intellectuals felt ambivalence about the ongoing violence.  Some were claiming that Israeli attacks were preemptive, much as Caesar had argued when engaging the Helvetians in his early campaigns in Gaul.

In his historiographical sketch, “History’s Alternative Caesars,” Martin Jehne (2005) observes that “questions [concerning Caesar] … have been answered differently in different times and different cultures” (60).  Jehne summarizes “contemporary historiography” on Julius Caesar, focusing on the most recent works of German scholars, because “Caesar’s role … in the transformation from Republic to monarchy [has] been mainly investigated by German-speaking historians” (61).  Helga Gesche’s approach to Caesar was similar in concept to Jehne’s but much more comprehensive.  Her Caesar (1976) surveyed some two thousand works on Julius Caesar from the previous half-century. Considering the purpose her book, Gesche understandably offers scant commentary. The work reads much like an annotated bibliography, and the works Gesche includes concern issues of Caesar’s political conduct almost exclusively.   Since 1976 there have been perhaps again as many books and articles on Caesar, so that it is now difficult to gain an overview.  Karl Christ’s Caesar.  Approaches to a Dictator supplements Gesche up to 1994.  There is as yet no up-to-date survey in English comparable to these.

IV. Revisionist Studies

Hermann Strasburger was the pioneer in revisionist studies of Caesar.  In “Caesar in the Judgment of His Contemporaries” (1953) Strasburger interrogates those who were in a position to judge him directly – his contemporaries.  He calls Cicero and Caelius, among others, to the witness stand.  He shows that virtually none of Caesar’s peers – not even his proven allies – agreed with his decision to invade Italy after the Gallic campaigns.  Yavetz describes the study’s effect in Germany: “In 1953 Professor Hermann Strasburger shocked a group of German schoolteachers when he told them that Caesar was a totally isolated dictator; not a single Roman senator supported his decision to cross the Rubicon” (Yavetz 184).  As for Caesar’s political leadership, “I have not been able to find,” wrote Strasburger, “in any panegyric of Caesar by an ancient author (Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Appian, Velleius, Florus, Orosius, and all the rest) even so much as an abstract formulation specifically recognizing the accomplishments of Caesar as a statesman.”  Strasburger knew from his own painful experience the destruction that came with large-scale imperialism: “Anyone who was near the ‘splinters’ that fell when ‘the great men who make history’ were ‘chopping wood’ … can recognize analogues in his study of the past.”  Among the splinters that fell when Caesar was chopping his wood were, in addition to losses on the Roman side, some two million Gauls (some dead, some sold into slavery).  The impetus for his revisionism came from his experiences in WWII.  What is interesting is that to make his point he built his case on the ancient evidence alone; having had his fill of modern ideology, he eschewed it in favor of the ancient evidence – which is one of the reasons why his work is still valuable today.

In his provocative The Art of Historical Deformation in the Commentaries of Caesar,  Michel Rambaud regards Caesar’s commentaries as manipulative propaganda designed to justify his imperialistic ambitions in Gaul.  Accordingly, Rambaud analyses the De Bello Gallico to better understand the rhetorical methods of the man who referred to himself in the third person to convey reportorial objectivity.  His findings were revealing.  For example, he points out that between his description of his legates’ victory over the Bellovaci and that people’s submission Caesar inserts two chapters to prevent the reader from inferring that he played no part in the victory.  Rambaud went so far as to count the number of times Caesar mentions his own name – by his reckoning, 775 times across the De Bello Gallico and De Bello Civili.  The resulting picture is one of a Julius Caesar deftly pleading his case to extend his governorship.

Another critic of the De Bello Gallico, Andrew Riggsby, is concerned more with content than with rhetorical technique.  He argues that Caesar was trying to sell both himself and Gaul in his commentaries for the Senate.  In the guise of simple reports, Riggsby holds, the commentaries offer ethnographies of Gaul and Germany that make the former seem worthy of conquest and incorporation into the empire while presenting the latter as too uncivilized to be subsumed under Roman control.  Riggsby employs theoretical concepts such as discourse and alterity, the latter in connection with Caesar’s representation of “barbarians.”  He is cynical about Caesar’s descriptions of Gaul and its inhabitants.  He studies the Roman construction of Gallic culture and society in two particularly illuminating chapters, “The Other and the Other ‘Other’” and “Alien Nation.”  As he announces at the outset, his book “considers the kind of Roman identity postulated by Caesar’s work, particularly how it is constituted in the context of various non-Roman others.”

Julius Caesar, as I hope my review of approaches to his Gallic Wars has shown, serves as proof, if anything does, of the general insight that what we call “history” is situationally constructed.  Many still find themselves torn between admiration (with variations on Mommsen’s view, for whom Caesar was “the sole creative genius produced by Rome and the last produced by the ancient world”) and condemnation (an attitude that has gained ground since WWII).  Given these extremes, Hermann Strasburger’s approach to Caesar – to understand him as his contemporaries did by comparing their writings and remarks with his – is perhaps the best starting-point.   Caesar has long been whatever historians have wanted him to be.


Brecht, Bertolt.  Die Geschafte des Herrn Julius Caesar.  1938-1941.

Christ, Karl.  Caesar.  Annäherungen an einen Diktator.  1994.

Gelzer, Matthias.  Caesar: Politician and Statesman.  Trans. Peter Needham.  1968.

Gesche, Helga. Caesar.  1976.

Goldsworthy, Adrian.  Caesar: Life of a Colossus.  2006.

Jehne, Martin.  “History’s Alternative Caesars: Julius Caesar and Current Historiography.”  Trans. Kathleen Rabl & Horst Zander.  In Julius Caesar: New Critical Essays.  Ed. Horst Zander.  2004.

Meier, Christian.  Caesar: A Biography.  Trans. David McClintock.  1996.

Mitchison, Naomi.  The Conquered.  1923.

Rambaud, Michel.  L’art de la déformation historique dans les commentaires de César.  1955.

Riggsby, Andrew.  Caesar in Gaul and Rome: War in Words.  2010.

Strasburger, Hermann.  “Caesar im Urteil seiner Zeitgenossen”  Historische Zeitschrift

Bd. 175, H. 2 (1953) 225-264.

Yavetz, Zwi.  “Caesar, Caesarism, and the Historians.”   Journal of Contemporary History

Vol. 6, No. 2 (1971) 184-201.

Posted in: Uncategorized