Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review: The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar

Why yes, this is a book review of a work by the Julius Caesar. Caesar wrote commentaries, which read like memoirs, of his near decade warring, exploring and conquering Gaul. The book is living history and a primary source for events from 2000 years ago. While not a fantastic piece of writing, it has a value in its mere existence. Caesar was quite the warrior and statesman, but could he write?

What we have are translations to read, unless you want to find a version in Latin and go wild. Caesar is very smart to leave out some cruel realities of a war of conquest in hostile territory in ancient times. Caesar gives some interesting details on the peoples that he is meeting: the Gauls, the British Gauls, the Germans and random areas of France. I enjoyed reading how the tribes were eager to get their hands on as much wine as possible. I never knew that the Gauls were taller than the Roman (and laughed at their diminutive stature), and the Germans towered over the Romans. His descriptions of Gaul and German life is a bit of fluff compared tot he action elsewhere, but it is an itneresting look at one leader's mind and views of 'barbarians'. This can't be surprising considering modern France's reputation for wine and champagne. One important thing to keep in mind is Caesar wrote this not for historical preservation, but for his own reputation in the contemporary political landscape of the late Roman Republic. He protects some people in his commentaries, and he pushes the complexity of his task. This is a bit like the memoir of Douglas MacArthur and a bit like the self serving memoirs of modern US politicians like Barack Obama, Romney and McCain. These are much closer to MacArthur's book as they explain tough decisions in a position of leadership.

Examining Caesar's performance as a general, wow, talk about writing a great memoir to explain one's amazing ability. He has one defeat, which is mostly due to zealous soldiers and tribunes who disobeyed an order. He uses spies. He uses trickery to disguise numbers or fool the enemy. He negotiates with wavering neutrals to secure forces. He is merciful at times, but he is cruel at other times. He tries to only engage the enemy when the battleground favors his men. Caesar is a great blend of politician and warrior, as he can play the different tribes off one another yet has the military intelligence to win battle after battle. He gets the most out of his men, listens to the centurions, and keeps at his soldiers despite fighting in an alien land. These commentaries are dry, but definitely an interesting read.

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