Caesar in the USA

Caesar in the USA

by Maria Wyke

Hardcover(First Edition)

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The figure of Julius Caesar has loomed large in the United States since its very beginning, admired and evoked as a gateway to knowledge of politics, war, and even national life.
In this lively and perceptive book, the first to examine Caesar's place in modern American culture, Maria Wyke investigates how his use has intensified in periods of political crisis, when the occurrence of assassination, war, dictatorship, totalitarianism or empire appears to give him fresh relevance. Her fascinating discussion shows how—from the Latin classroom to the Shakespearean stage, from cinema, television and the comic book to the internet—Caesar is mobilized in the U.S. as a resource for acculturation into the American present, as a prediction of America’s future, or as a mode of commercial profit and great entertainment.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273917
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 11/13/2012
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 3.30(d)

About the Author

Maria Wyke is Professor of Latin at University College London.

Read an Excerpt

Caesar in the USA

By Maria Wyke


Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-27391-7




In the early years of the twentieth century, Julius Caesar encroached on the lives of many young Americans. Public high schools experienced exceptional growth between 1900 and 1910, and Latin was regularly included as an option in their curricula. As working-class and immigrant children started to enter secondary education in substantial numbers, they (or their parents on their behalf) chose the study of Latin as a gateway to full participation in American life and a path to social advancement, not least because Latin was still compulsory for admission to American colleges. By 1910, only U.S. history and algebra were recruiting more high-school students, and one in every two students was enrolled in a Latin program and was reading Caesar. The first decade of the twentieth century was among Caesar's finest times in the United States.

Young Americans began their study of the Latin language and their memorization of its grammatical rules in their first year in high school. Their second year of Latin was commonly known as "the Caesar grade" or "the Caesar year" because in that year (when they were approximately fifteen years old) students were first introduced to Latin literature through Julius Caesar's commentary on his conquest of Gaul, De bello Gallico (or The Gallic War). In a classical canon that reached back as far as the Renaissance, Caesar's writings held a "time-honoured place as the first Latin classic to be placed in the hands of the beginner." In the American curriculum, Caesar had been selected as the second-year text because of the near-perfect regularity of his syntax and the simplicity of his linguistic form. The latter comprised a limited, repetitive vocabulary of between 1,200 and 1,300 words, and that vocabulary was concrete more often than abstract and abounded in verbs of action. Thus, translating Caesar allowed a constant review of the basic principles of Latin grammar and syntax. Yet, in the schoolrooms of the United States, the Roman general's commentaries on his war against fellow Romans—the three books of De bello civili (or The Civil War)—received scant attention. It was almost always only De bello Gallico whose content was perceived to reward the labor students were required to bestow on its linguistic forms. Offering a story featuring rapid narrative, vivid character-sketching, and seemingly heroic adventures (some even on Anglo-Saxon terrain), the Gallic War was thought to be far more appealing and wholesome for the readership with whom educators seemed most concerned—boys. Study of the Gallic War also nicely balanced study in second-year English of Shakespeare's bloody tragedy Julius Caesar. Together the two works framed and shaped the rise and the fall of the greatest of Roman statesmen.

Consequently, how to teach Caesar's commentary on his military campaigns in Gaul became a matter of fundamental concern and extensive debate among schoolteachers, academics, and other professionals who advocated a classical education for young people in the United States. If the nation's young people could not be persuaded of the merits of the Roman general's text, then they might give up Latin at only the second-year hurdle. Without Julius Caesar, classics might just fade away.


The pervasive presence of Julius Caesar in the classrooms of American high schools and in the everyday lives of students during the early twentieth century deserves close scrutiny. It was at the turn of the century that education came to be recognized as a technology of government, and schools as institutions of the nation and agents of child socialization. Although the cultural norms laid down by school curricula were always vulnerable to reinterpretation, transgression, or rejection in the day-to-day practice of both students and teachers, in theory they were set in place to instruct young people in moral maturity and national character and to shape them into adults who would become good citizens. Moreover, in this same period, the United States witnessed social change of such rapidity and intensity that the new system of mass education increasingly became the object of explicit anxiety and intervention by state boards. As the nation changed from a largely agrarian to an industrial and commercial economy, as its population doubled, cities grew, and urban high schools filled up with the children of immigrants of mostly southern European rather than Anglo-Saxon origin, "Americanization" became a fundamental mission of educators. Paradoxically, they thought that (alongside other high-school subjects) Caesar's Latin could eradicate the foreignness from these new arrivals on American soil.

In the long history of European pedagogy, both the Latin language and the culture it embodied had traditionally been cast as masculine, imperial, and uniquely civilizing, while classics had been tightly interwoven with ecclesiastical, intellectual, and political institutions. In the United States, however, the value of a classical education had been questioned from the foundation of the nation, and ever since the classical curriculum had constantly been subjected to challenge (even, and especially, when Latin enrollments were at their highest) as elitist, irrelevant, useless, obsolete, dead, Old World. Consequently, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, buoyed by the increase in high-school enrollments, American advocates of a classical education fought to restore to the public the belief that the study of Latin would mold noble characters and good citizens.

Textbooks for students, practical manuals for teachers, and public lectures at universities often contained quasi-religious witness to the importance of classics, and of Latin in particular. For example, in 1911 Professor of Latin Language and Literature at the University of Michigan, Francis Willey Kelsey (author of one of the most enduring and widely used school commentaries on Caesar, recently the president of the American Philological Association, and, at this juncture, president of the Archaeological Institute of America), collated into one volume a series of papers on Latin and Greek in American education. Kelsey included talks he had originally delivered at meetings of the Michigan Classical Conference and the Michigan Schoolmasters' Club, followed by an extensive list of testimonials from medics, engineers, lawyers, theologians, ambassadors, newspaper editors, and other academics as to the value of "humanistic studies," and buttressed these various arguments with encouraging statistical data on classics enrollments drawn from reports of the Commission for Education in Washington. Kelsey began with a summary of seven ways in which Greek and Latin are valuable as educational instruments (a summary much cited in later literature of this kind). Access to the ancient languages (1) brings the boyish mind under control by virtue of translation's scientific method of observation, comparison, and generalization; (2) makes our own language intelligible (including its technical vocabulary) and develops powers of expression; (3) brings the mind into contact with literature in elemental forms; (4) gives insight into a basic civilization; (5) cultivates the constructive imagination; (6) clarifies moral ideals and stimulates to right conduct (because the natural sciences are devoid of moral illustrations); and (7) furnishes means of recreation (1927, 15–33).

Professor Kelsey here flavored the discipline of classics with ethics and the science of modernity. Elsewhere he added race and gender. In his view, classics succeeds because "there is a readier sympathy, a closer affinity between an Englishman or American and a cultivated pagan of Athens or Rome than seems possible between Anglo-Saxon and oriental stock" (1927, 28). Yet classics is also in danger of failing, in Kelsey's misogynistic view, because "our secondary teaching is in no inconsiderable degree in the hands of young women without adequate preparation for their work, who engage in teaching as a makeshift, and either grace the schoolroom with their presence briefly on the way from the commencement stage to the altar or, if they remain for a period of years, continue to teach without an ambition for self-improvement" (46–47). More inclusively (given his likely readership), Professor of Classics and General Literature at Florida State College for Women, Josiah B. Game, produced a handbook of Latin for high-school teachers, which was first published as a bulletin of the Missouri State Normal School in 1907 and then revised and republished in 1916 and 1925 (both moments of crisis for classics in schools). In it, he boasted: "To those who believe that our country's future is intimately bound up with the kind of education offered in the schools of today, it is very gratifying to know that more young men and young women are now studying Latin than at any other time in our history." But for academics and teachers alike, a key question emerged: could the text selected for the second year of high school—Julius Caesar's Gallic War—live up to these bold advocacies of Latin?


The crucial concern for advocates of a classical education was how to get students beyond a painful struggle with the Gallic War as a tortuous catalogue of grammatical constructions to an appreciation of the value of Latin as one of their school subjects. Even the future president, Woodrow Wilson, had set his mind to the problem when teaching ancient and modern history at the undergraduate women's college Bryn Mawr. In a personal letter to the college's departing professor of Latin dated 2 August 1888, Wilson (himself on the verge of leaving for higher pay and an all-male college) followed up a discussion they had previously held face-to-face on the matter of how to teach Caesar to boys:

My dear Mr. Slaughter

... The whole matter stands in my mind thus: Boys like generals, like fighting, like accounts of battles: if, therefore, they could be given a just conception of the reality of this man Caesar—could see him as a sure-enough man (who in his youth, for instance, a fop and a lady-killer, was yet in his full age an incomparable commander and a compeller of liking, nay, of devotion, on the part of the rudest soldier—was himself a lover to strategy and force); if they could be made to realize that these Commentaries were written, in many parts probably, in the camp (on some rude stool, perhaps—the noises or the silence of the camp outside) when the deeds of which they tell were fresh in the mind—perhaps also heavy on the muscles—of the man who was their author as well as author of their history—if, in short, they could be given a fellow-feeling, an enthusiasm, or even a wonder for this versatile fellow-man of theirs, reading the Commentaries would be easy, would be fun—and their contents would never be forgotten, I should say. Maps help to give pictures of the fight; if the boys could be gotten to play at the campaigns it would be a capital help; anything to dispel the idea that Caesar wrote grammatical exercises in hard words!

Cordially yours, woodrow wilson

As an academic, Wilson held research interests in the history of government and, more specifically, in the concept of successful political leadership. As an educator, he would soon be attempting to shape the ideal university at Princeton, and to establish the liberal arts (especially literature) as an appropriate training for classes of graduates whom he expected to lead America's national life. Small wonder, then, that he might once have reflected on how to enliven the Latin of Julius Caesar for fifteen-year-old boys laboring over it at high school. This he does, as many schoolteachers would also do, by placing dramatic emphasis on content, context, and author over form (and all in a rhetorical style that recalls Cicero's love of the tricolon crescendo). For the future president, the content of the Gallic War is enjoyably military, and its author attractively frivolous in his youth while developing in maturity into a leader of manly robustness. The potentially fraught relationship of student to textbook is translated into the certain devotion of the soldier to his general. The circumstances of composition are given a raw physicality—the uncomfortable stool, the sound of silence, the aching muscles. Caesar is the empathetic agent of action, the writer of his own recent story, not just the nominative subject of verbs. If teachers could communicate this message through visualization and enactment as well as routine translation, then it would be hard for boys to drop the text of second-year Latin, as well as, by implication, the study of classics. Years later, when the widow of the addressee found Wilson's letter among her deceased husband's papers, she offered it for publication to the editor of a classics journal. The now-widened readership of these recommendations may only have regretted that they had been sent originally to a man named Slaughter.

Among schoolteachers of Latin, such concerns and recommendations were expressed regularly and publicly in the pages of their magazines and journals, and at meetings of their classical associations. In January 1909, for example, in the Classical Weekly, Mary Harwood of The Girls' Latin School in Baltimore wrote with equal passion:

Yet if our boys and girls are ever to come out victorious from grappling with Caesar's ablatives absolute, laying siege to his gerundives, and fighting the barbarian subjunctive to a finish, they must be given, somehow or other, a little of the courage and enthusiasm that Caesar inspired in his soldiers. How easily this could be accomplished if the pupils could only see in the text what the old Roman saw—a moving picture of thrilling dramatic action, where the tramp of soldiers' feet, the cry of battle and the shout of victory could almost be heard! But they seem to think there is nothing to be evolved but an endless confusion of camps, marches and grammatical constructions.

The teacher neatly borrows from the content of Caesar's commentary to treat learning Latin as a thrilling war. The rhetorical ploy transforms her into an inspirational general and her pupils into courageous and enthusiastic legionaries. Reading the Gallic War is an exciting battle (involving "grappling,"laying siege," and "fighting to the finish"), and the act of understanding its Latin positions the students with its author, turning them almost into miniature Caesars: seeing the action, hearing the tramp of soldiers' feet, the cry of battle, and the shout of victory.

From the late nineteenth century through the first decades of the twentieth, classics teachers, university professors, and other educators in the United States developed and advertised a whole array of pedagogic strategies to present Caesar's Gallic War (and, therefore, Latin and the whole discipline of classical study) as engaging, relevant, and topical for American students and, frequently, even to infuse them with a love for the Roman general. Everywhere they placed emphasis not just on aids to comprehension of Caesar's linguistic form but also on the practical, ethical, and topical opportunities provided by Caesar's content.


Even in the twentieth century, juvenile instruction in Latin (as in Greek) followed a pattern that had originally been laid down in the Renaissance. Through recitation and written exercise, young people put to memory the grammatical rules of the classical language (its parts of speech, accidence, and syntax) and a portion of its lexicon, and then utilized this linguistic code to decipher texts of increasing difficulty. In the first year of high school, reading the original language was often confined to relatively mechanical translating, and where such schooling in Latin operated as a strict, ritualized practice of rewards and punishments applied rigorously to boys, it has since been understood as akin to a puberty rite, a testing passage from youth to manhood.

American high-school students often encountered Julius Caesar's Latin and his war in Gaul almost as soon as they began their study of the language, when they were about fourteen years old. A popular school textbook for beginners bore the title Bellum Helveticum, because it took as a structuring Latin text Caesar's account of his opening campaign in 58 B.C.E., when he opposed the migration of the Helvetian tribe west through the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul (Gallic War 1.1–29). After ten preliminary lessons, it is the vocabulary and the syntax of Caesar's narrative that guide the student's advance through the forms and grammatical rules of the Latin language. First published in 1889, and revised and reprinted over the course of more than twenty years, this beginner's guide to Latin based on reading a small segment of Caesar was highly successful. The two teachers from a boys' high school in Brooklyn, New York, who revised the 1906 edition (Arthur Lee Janes and Paul Rockwell Jenks) identified what they saw as the primary cause of the book's pedagogic excellence: the first twenty-nine sections of Julius Caesar's Gallic War were "a model of perfect Latinity" and "an illustration of the most important principles of the language." 19


Excerpted from Caesar in the USA by Maria Wyke. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations


Part I. Education

1. Maturation
2. Americanization
3. Militarism

Part II. Political Culture

4. Dictatorship
5. Totalitarianism
6. Presidential Power
7. Empire



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