Between Propaganda and Literature: An Autobiography of Caesar

By Faktorovich, Anna | Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

Between Propaganda and Literature: An Autobiography of Caesar


Faktorovich, Anna, Pennsylvania Literary Journal


Between Propaganda and Literature: An Autobiography of Caesar Julius Caesar; James J. O'Donnell, translator. The War for Gaul: A New Translation. $27.95. 336pp, 5.5X8.5", 1 map. ISBN: 978-0691174921. Princeton: Princeton University Press, April 30, 2019.

An ideal book for me is one that might be handy in one of my future research projects. This certainly falls into this category. Anybody writing or researching war in any period in history can benefit from understanding Caesar's perspective on this subject. As the supreme ruler of one of the world's first civilized democratic republics, this general's perception of war helps explain why humanity is still engaging in this barbaric enterprise. The translator's "Introduction" explains that this is not a book that brushes over the brutalities of war, instead it describes these without guilt, glorifying victory over any suffering winning is causing. O'Donnell explains: "The best reasons for not teaching this book to the young are that it gets war exactly right and morals exactly wrong, and that it achieves a crystalline purity of style that looks easy from every angle but proves to be sternly difficult and demanding when faced flat on. This is a book for the middle-aged and sober, for those who know that the world is not run according to their tastes and never will be, for those who listen best to the author who has truly mastered his language" (viii-ix). This is a very powerful opening. Yes, great books are those that paint the most honest and detailed painting of a time and place, rather than those that hold the approved moral position. Readers should decide if the author is moral; editors and publishers must present evidence to allow them to reach an informed decision. The rest of the introduction continues to be helpful as it summarizes the relevant history and geography, including a detailed map of the region Caesar describes conquering.

Caesar writes in third person about his own exploits. The translator stresses that Caesar "did not set out to write lucid, comprehensive, accurate battle reports," but rather to "tell a good story, his story" (xlii). …

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