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The Civil War is Julius Caesar’s personal account of his war with Pompey the Great—the war which destroyed the five hundred-year old Roman Republic. Caesar the victor became Caesar the dictator, who was assassinated by Brutus on the Ides of March, 44 BC. From the ruin of the Republic arose Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, later Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. The crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar, in January 49 BC, is, quite simply, one of the most symbolic moments in world history. In three short books, Caesar describes how, in order to defend his dignitas (‘honour’), and the libertas (‘freedom’) of both himself and the Roman people, he marched on Rome, and defeated the forces of Pompey and the Senate in Italy, Spain, and Greece. Caesar’s ‘commentaries’, written in famously simple prose, with the distinctive use of the third person, offer a unique opportunity to read the victor’s version of events, written by one of the greatest figures in world history, the first ‘Caesar’.
Caius Julius Caesar was born on 13 July 100 BC. His family, the Julii, claimed descent from the ancient kings of Rome, and from the goddess Venus (through her son Aeneas). Caesar was the nephew of the general Caius Marius, and in his youth he witnessed the rise of the military warlords of the last years of the Roman Republic, Marius, Sulla, Crassus, and Pompey. He rapidly carved out an impressive political career of his own, forging an alliance with Pompey and Crassus in 60 BC. This won for him a military command in Gaul (southern France), and in ten years of spectacular campaigns he extended Roman rule to the Rhine and the Atlantic—and mounted the first Roman invasion of Britain. But competition for honours with his contemporary Pompey the Great, and the political manoeuvres of other fellow senators, placed Caesar in what he saw as an untenable position. At the start of 49 BC, faced with the choice between political extinction and civil war, Caesar gambled on war and led a single legion of his Gallic veterans across the River Rubicon (which marked the northern boundary of ‘Italy’). The die was cast. The tradition that has built up around Caesar is immense and ambiguous. The reader will not find Caesar’s famous quote in his writings—”I came, I saw, I conquered,” after Zela, in Cilicia, in 47 BC. Although seemingly unfinished and unpublished at his death, the Civil War is instead his own attempt at an explanation of the war that changed the Roman world, a version summed up by the words placed in his mouth by one ancient biographer, Suetonius,: hoc voluerunt, ‘they asked for it!’
For all its apparent simplicity, the Civil War is not an easy work to understand, nor is Caesar an easy man to assess. The death of the regent of Egypt in late 48 BC, and not the death of Pompey (28 September 48 BC), marks the end of book three, and this is not an obvious point of closure. The Civil Wars, for Caesar, dragged on until the Battle of Munda in Spain in 45 BC. The account, as we have it, seems to have been published after Caesar’s death, in 44 BC, by one of his officers, Aulus Hirtius, or so Hirtius himself tells us in the eighth and final book of Caesar’s earlier commentaries on his Gallic Wars (covering 58-50 BC). Hirtius completed Caesar's Gallic Wars by writing book eight (52-50 BC), published Caesar’s three books on the Civil War (49-48 BC), and then either he or another wrote the surviving commentaries on the Egyptian, African, and Spanish phases of the Civil Wars (48-45 BC). It is commonly accepted today that Caesar therefore wrote what we have as the Civil War no later than the winter of 48-47 BC, when he was held up in Alexandria (with Cleopatra); but that the events which followed, both in Egypt and Rome, culminating in his adoption of the position of Dictator for Life, rendered publication pointless in his eyes. In other words, his claims (especially at I.7 and 22) to be defending both his dignitas and the freedom of himself and others from the oppression of a factio paucorum (‘the faction of a few’) rang increasingly hollow in his own ears as much as those of others, the more distant became the likelihood of a return to Republican normality.
Such a view requires brief consideration of the genre in which Caesar was writing and his reasons for writing. But to consider these things in turn demands that we examine the context for the Civil War itself. Throughout, the opinions of both contemporaries and later writers overshadow what can be said. When studying the ancient world, the evidence is always less than we would wish; it is particularly rich, comparatively speaking, for this moment in time, but nonetheless, it is highly partial. We have letters to and from the contemporary orator and statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who struggled in vain to compose the strife; we have the writings of, and attributed to, the contemporary historian Sallust; we have the anti-Caesarian verse account of the Civil War by the Neronian poet Lucan (also known as the Pharsalia); we have the biographies of Caesar written by Plutarch and Suetonius, c.150 years after his death; and we have the historical accounts of Appian’s Civil Wars and Cassius Dio’s Roman History, written in the second and third centuries AD respectively. On the other hand, we do not have the contemporary history of Asinius Pollio, though it clearly underlies much of what does survive in other writers.
The writing of commentaries on campaigns was by no means a novel practice. It belonged to an age in which the writing of history, understood as the history of men, politics, and action, was commonplace, and had been ever since Thucydides had set forth his version of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, in which he had fought. However, commentaries in general were intended as notes for a proper literary history, not as a finished product by themselves. Caesar had already broken the mould with his Gallic Wars, of which Cicero wrote, in 46 BC:
They are like nude figures, straight and beautiful; stripped of all ornament of style as if they had laid aside a garment. His aim was to furnish others with material for writing history, and perhaps he has succeeded in gratifying the inept, who may wish to apply their curling irons to his material; but men of sound judgement he has deterred from writing, since in history there is nothing more pleasing than brevity, clear and correct.
We know that Caesar sent back reports to the Senate and People of Rome on a regular basis. The Gallic War is however something grander, even if still written up a year at a time, in the leisure of the winters between campaigns. These books belong in a culture in which the gloria won through military achievements was all-important, and its emphasis all the more necessary during a prolonged absence from Rome. We must assume the same thing for the Civil War. A shift in style has been suggested between the first two books, covering the year 49 BC, and the third, covering 48 BC. This would fit with annual composition.
Cicero’s praise was written under Caesar the dictator. By contrast, Asinius Pollio, writing shortly after Caesar’s death, thought the commentaries to have been written rather carelessly and with too little regard for the whole truth. The speed of composition and the probable lack of revision by Caesar himself might partly defend Caesar from such an accusation. Scholars have often sought to control Caesar’s account, and although it is true that there are omissions (e.g., a mutiny by his legions, which belongs at II.22.6, but is reported only in later accounts such as Suetonius, Divus Iulius 69), disparities (compare Caesar’s report of the negotiations attempted through N. Magius at Brindisium in I.24.4 and 26.2, with the letter of Caesar preserved among Cicero’s Letters to Atticus, IX.13.a), and distortions (the chronological sequence of events in the opening phase of the war is not that implied by Caesar’s account), it would be hard to accuse Caesar of gross falsehood. J. P. V. D. Balsdon concluded that “Caesar could not claim to have written ‘the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’.” But the value of this lies, as Leo Raditsa observed, precisely in the fact that “As often in first-rate ancient historians, Caesar desires his reader to think what he does not state outright.” And to glimpse the mind of Caesar is a precious thing. The real problem, as so often, is that we lack sufficient contemporary evidence always to control Caesar’s account.
However, the Gallic commentaries were written to bring home Caesar’s achievements on behalf of the Roman state to the Roman people (or at least the upper echelons of the Roman people). As a motive—and genre—this sits very uncomfortably with a civil war fought against other members of the Roman senate. The exact reasons why Caesar should both have begun, and then abandoned, the attempt to write an account of his actions in a civil war will always remain obscure, but we can speculate. However, to do so we must consider the context and nature of the civil war.
“Caesar would tolerate no superior, Pompey no equal.” Such was the judgement of antiquity, and it deserves our notice. The Roman Republic was not a democracy (whatever the views expressed in the Translator’s Introduction, on which see below). At its heart was a largely closed ruling elite. Members of this elite competed for office, and in particular the highest office, the consulate, to which two men were elected annually. Election was by the people, but the people were constituted in a fashion which favoured the wealthy, and voting was heavily influenced by political loyalties and alliances, by social bonds such as clientship, and by the use of wealth (which might be crudely, if not entirely accurately, classified as bribery). It is an unavoidable fact that the majority of those elected to the consulate came from families that had already achieved the consulate in the past. For this elite, one’s dignitas (‘honour’) and auctoritas (non-executive ‘power’, or ‘influence’) derived from the winning of honours such as the consulate, which lay in the gift of the Roman people and conferred gloria. Success in war had long been the most traditional means to the winning of such honours, and from this derived much of the Roman Republic’s imperial success.
The success of the Republic in turn depended on the self-regulation by this elite of its internal competition. No one member could dominate—he could do so only at the expense of his fellows, who could be expected to restrain him. The system, in principle, had enough honours to go round. In the later part of the Roman Republic, and especially in the period of Caesar’s lifetime, this structure began to break down. The political machinery was that of a city-state, not a Mediterranean empire, and the expansion of empire led to an increase in the number of lesser magistracies, but not to a systematic revision of the constitution. Consequently, a growing number of men came to compete for the consulship, of which there were still only ever two per year. The growth of empire likewise meant that the rewards to be had from the consulship became ever greater. The system became further imbalanced with the increase in special, one-off commands to deal with specific problems, such as piracy, the corn-supply of Rome, or particular wars. Added to this, the Republic never developed a state-run, professional army, but rather, troops, employed on increasingly distant, long-term campaigns, became dependent upon the beneficence of their commanding officer, or some other politician, to finance their demobilization. In combination, this situation encouraged the rise of highly ambitious individuals, supported by veteran armies of soldiers trained on extended campaigns and who looked to their commander to provide for their futures. Such individuals, born to compete with their peers for honours, found themselves in situations where the normal restraints suddenly lacked any relevance. As Lucius Cornelius Sulla had starkly demonstrated, first in 87 BC and then again in 82 BC, all one had to do was march at the head of one’s army to Rome and demand one’s due. Those who resisted could be swept aside. But as R. Syme observed, “the true glory of a Roman aristocrat [was] to contend with his peers for primacy, not to destroy them,” and Caesar’s defence of his dignitas was ultimately his undoing.
This is of course a gross simplification, but it will aid analysis. By the end of the 50s BC Caesar, and especially Pompey, had both held several extended commands, far beyond anything their predecessors or contemporaries could expect, or even match. Caesar had been consul in 59 BC, and proceeded from that to a hugely successful campaign of conquest in France, Belgium, and Germany, which by any normal expectation would have earned him quite spectacular honours and recognition on his return to Rome. Pompey, on the other hand, had achieved similar successes in the eastern Mediterranean in the 60s BC, and now held special commands for the control of Spain and the maintenance of the corn supply. He had won the consulship very early, back in 70 BC, and twice more in 55 and 52 BC. Caesar now aimed for the consulship again, an honour which he felt his due, but also one which he perhaps saw as necessary in order to maintain the position he had reached. Without it, further great commands would be difficult, but he would also find it hard to resist the attacks that were likely to come from other senators for his actions, not all of them entirely legal, over the preceding fifteen years.
Since 60 BC Caesar and Pompey had been in uneasy alliance, for their mutual advancement (together with Marcus Crassus, who died in 53 BC). Since antiquity, this unofficial triumvirate has often been seen (by Pollio, Horace, Lucan, and others) as the real start of the Civil War. The remainder of the Senate was still sufficiently powerful to resist the demands of figures such as Pompey and Caesar, and a small group of conservatives, under the leadership of a senator called Marcus Porcius Cato, had in general sought to resist such abnormal grants of honours. It was their opposition which had inspired the triumvirate in the first place. Conservative (optimates in Latin) is something of a misnomer, since the senatorial oligarchy, by its very nature, was conservative; the difference lay rather in the methods used to win dignitas, gloria, and auctoritas, either traditional or more popular (the populares); there was essentially no difference of opinion about the overall system. This group now sought to split apart the coalition of Pompey and Caesar, to bring Pompey within its number, and thereby to resist Caesar’s claims all the more successfully. It was the resistance of this group to the idea that Caesar should receive preferential treatment in his pursuit of a second consulship (in particular the right to stand in absentia, while still holding his Gallic command) which directly caused the Civil War. That is, of course, not the same thing as to say that it was their fault (although some, both in antiquity and today, would lay the blame at Cato’s door—including Caesar, who claimed to resist the unjust ‘faction of a few’ of Cato and his allies).
It was only in the very last months of 50 BC that contemporaries actually began to speak of the possibility of civil war (as for instance Marcus Caelius Rufus, in a letter to Cicero, written in August 50 BC). The historian struggles with hindsight at such a moment. In the eyes of some, such as E. S. Gruen, there was no significant break between Pompey and Caesar before this time (in the view of others, events such as the death of Crassus in 53 BC mark the point of no return). But it is not simply a question of when war became inevitable. If the Civil War is Caesar’s account of his actions, its very existence requires that we ask why Caesar went to war; and that impels us to ask whether Caesar intended war and, if so, from what moment. Christian Meier, in one of the most important later twentieth-century interpretations of Caesar’s life, has suggested that the reason Caesar could contemplate civil war was because he was able to view the political system and the situation from outside. The father of modern Roman history, Theodor Mommsen, held the view that Caesar planned an overthrow of the senate from an early date, and that his Gallic campaigns were but the staging ground for the march on Rome. But such views perhaps fall victim to the perennial fascination which great figures in history hold. Matthias Gelzer, author of the fundamental modern biography of Caesar, did not doubt Caesar’s greatness as a statesman, but remained ultimately agnostic on his vision and motives. Where Caesar differed from his contemporaries was in his speed of decision, and in his level of determination to carry through his will to completed action. Not for nothing was Caesar the general famed for his celeritas (‘swiftness’), and throughout the Civil War, just as in the Gallic War, one sees Caesar again and again transforming a seemingly weak position by his remarkable ability to thrust his opponent onto the defensive.
It is the very existence of the Civil War that gives the lie to the view that Caesar long planned the Republic’s fall. Just as Cicero’s own manifesto for the Roman Republic (the De Re Publica, ‘On the Republic’), written in 54 BC, did not involve any radical transformation of the system, neither did Caesar’s attack constitute a revolution. Believing Caesar to be just one step along the way to transforming the Republic into an empire, Ronald Syme claimed, “Caesar was not a revolutionary,” in his classic The Roman Revolution. Contrast the actions of Marcus Caelius Rufus, an ambitious and youthful supporter of Caesar’s, whose misguided attempt to stir up the underclasses and debtors of Italy led to his death and was in no way supported by Caesar (described briefly in III.20-22). Caesar instead claimed the support of all Italy and seems to have been the preferred choice of the Italian propertied classes and in particular of creditors. The libertas, ‘freedom’, which he saw to be oppressed by his opponents was the freedom of a senator to compete for the honours of the Roman people, honours which he believed that he had more than warranted in his ten years of campaigning, and for which Pompey’s career offered plentiful precedents. To yield would be to lose all that he had so far won, and with it his dignitas. When Pompey sought the protection of his own dignitas by claiming to defend the position of the Senate (and so the future support of this group in his own maintenance of position), Pompey denied Caesar, in Caesar’s view, what was rightfully his.
What the Civil War so bluntly demonstrates, in the language of Caesar’s speech to his troops in I.7, or his exchange with Lentulus Spinther at Corfinium (I.22), is that Caesar saw all this in terms of the Republic. He could hardly do otherwise. What the non-publication of the Civil War suggests is that the Republic was rendered obsolete by the Civil War and Caesar’s subsequent attempts to control the system, and a defence in those terms became an irrelevancy. Caesar’s ability to comprehend that transformation does not mean that it was the reason that led Caesar to war in the first place. That is the benefit of hindsight, which has plagued the assessment of Caesar from the moment his gamble came off. Lucan (Civil War I.670-72), writing under the Emperor Nero, a century later, concluded bitterly that “During the civil wars, every party and every leader professed to be defending the cause of liberty and of peace. Those ideals were incompatible. When peace came, it was the peace of despotism.”
It remains for the reader to reach his own conclusions about one of the great conflicts in history. Caesar’s account contains little about the crossing of the Rubicon, in contrast to later versions. This may, quite plausibly, be because at the time it did not appear to have the significance that later events came to give it. The account of Caesar has the great merit of being the principal protagonist’s contemporary account of his actions. But just as he therefore has one particular view, which his non-publication may be taken to suggest changed with time, so Lucan, living with the consequences of his action, a century later had a rather different interpretation. The attitudes expressed in the Translator’s Introduction further demonstrate that any assessment is inextricably linked with its historical moment. Long’s introduction deserves reading, for it is no less instructive. But the parallels claimed with the British Empire are naturally intended to cast as positive a light on British rule as they are upon Caesar. Few would today agree with an assessment of the Roman Republic that classified it as “the freest of democratic institutions.” Few too would care to be associated with an account which spoke of the “administration of backward races.” But such a critique should give us pause for thought, before we jump too soon to our own interpretations of a different time and place.
Jonathan Prag is a lecturer in ancient history at the University of Leicester (UK). He has written a prize-winning doctoral thesis on Sicily under the Roman Republic, and he specializes in Republican history and the study of Greek and Latin epigraphy.