October 22, 2013
Meet Caesar, man of letters, says Stanford’s Christopher Krebs
Professor of classics revisits Julius Caesar’s time-honored work "The Gallic War," revealing that beneath the military garb prowled a man of supreme intellectual abilities.
By Benjamin Hein
Julius Caesar was a man of many talents, not just military, says Christopher Krebs, professor of classics. (Photo illustration by Anna Cobb)
Glorious general, cunning politician, ruler of the mighty Roman Empire: this is the Julius Caesar we have long known.
But this appears to be only half the story, according to Stanford Classics Professor Christopher Krebs. A specialist in ancient Roman literature, Krebs notes that, apart from his well-known military exploits, Caesar was a man of letters who saw eye to eye with the famed Roman orator Cicero; a prolific writer and skilled linguist; and commissioner of the Julian calendar.
It is this lesser-known Caesar – the literary virtuoso rather than the conqueror of Gaul – whom Krebs describes in a new project he calls "Caesar 2.0." His research involves reading Caesar's main surviving text, the Commentarii de Bello Gallico (also known as The Gallic War), in an entirely new way: as a piece of literary art and a product of its cultural context rather than as a straightforward military journal.
According to Krebs, Caesar's literary accomplishments are arguably just as important as his talents on the battlefield for explaining the man's extraordinary longevity in modern memory.
"Caesar was a leading linguist of his time who contributed extensively to debates about the Latin language. . . . Two hundred years after his death people still referred to Caesar as an authority on the Latin language," Krebs said. "And, more than any other author – with perhaps the exception of Cicero – Caesar has shaped the way we teach classical Latin in school today."
None of this should come as surprise to us, Krebs added. The son of wealthy Roman aristocrats, Caesar received intensive rhetorical and linguistic training from early childhood, mastering the arts and languages well before guiding Roman legions across the Alps on their way to Gaul.
As both a scholar and a public intellectual, Krebs – whose previous work includes a highly acclaimed study of the Roman historian Tacitus – does more than simply set the historical record straight. He insists that historians should also devote themselves to making the distant past more accessible and exciting to present audiences.
For example, Krebs combines his new reading of the Commentarii with recent discoveries about Caesar's real world environment, including recent archaeological excavations of the ancient Roman road network.
"Today, we can use ORBIS, Stanford's Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, to calculate how long it would have taken Caesar to travel across the Po Valley and which roads he was likely to have taken," Krebs said. "Suddenly the text comes alive. The daily routines Caesar describes, the challenges he observes his men facing, the unlikely victories his legions won – we can place all of these stories in their actual geospatial context.
"Caesar 2.0 goes beyond a mere translation. It exposes a man in his full complexity: a man of letters as well as the conqueror of Gaul."
Caesar, master of language
Caesar's collection of literary works is thought to have been vast, but most of it has long been lost or destroyed. Consequently, Caesar's literary side remains little understood.
The only surviving works of substantial length are the Commentarii, which read more like an officer's journal than a monument to Latin literature. Composed during Caesar's conquest of Gaul from 58 to 50 B.C., the texts consist of basic vocabulary. Not surprisingly, they are most commonly read in introductory Latin courses.
Those scholars who have examined the Commentarii more closely have tended to mine them for their factual details about Roman military practices or the famous battles against the Gallic king Vercingetorix.
In addition, editors have regularly skipped over the more unusual vocabulary in the text and at times have removed unfamiliar words entirely.
"The problem is not only the rudimentary nature of the text corpus but also how we read it," Krebs said. "That Caesar is known mostly as a general and politician is partly the result of certain preconceptions, militaristic and political, that many readers have projected onto the Commentarii."
Today's scholars are much better equipped to discuss the significance of specific words and grammatical structures, thanks to the recent progress researchers have made with the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae – the most comprehensive dictionary of the Latin language available.
"We may not consider a word such as materiari – referring to the use of timber to construct siege and defense works – to be a literary term," Krebs said. "And indeed, it is not. But we should recognize that the term is an extremely precise description of the soldier's daily routine. By using materiari, Caesar expresses with one word what otherwise would have required half a sentence."
From a literary perspective, too, the Commentarii have much to offer: the text is packed with clever sound plays and alliterations, and an ingenious organizational structure.
And then there is Caesar's play on etymologies. "One of the Gallic leaders Caesar mentions, Acco, would have reminded an educated Roman of the Greek word ἁκκὡ, 'a bugbear' or 'silly woman' – surely not an unfitting name for a Gallic rebel," Krebs said.
"What we should be trying to do – especially when we are dealing with classic texts – is to cut through the surface a bit. The Commentarii warrant a close reading just as any other important literary work of the period does."
Revisiting Caesar's legacy
Krebs said he hopes that his new reading of the Commentarii will help to dismantle the one-dimensional picture of Caesar. At the same time, however, he cautions against reading Caesar 2.0 too uncritically.
"For all our admiration of Caesar, we should always remember that here was a man who in all likelihood was responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people. The Gallic conquest was not pretty.
"The reason why Caesar fascinates me – and why he should fascinate modern society in general – is that he did it all, and at the highest level, no less."
Benjamin Hein is a doctoral candidate in history at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.