Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reading Caesar

I've been reading chunks from Caesar's Commentarii de bello Gallico, Caesar's autobiographical report about his, let's call it adventures, in what's now France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, and Britain. For centuries, Caesar's writings were a standard part of the Latin curriculum in schools: the limited vocabulary and fairly straightforward nature of his style made him typically the first author one would read in the original Latin. (I'm reading Caesar because I'm teaching more and more Latin, and my most advanced class is approaching a level at which they could read this stuff.)

I have to say that, while I don't hate Caesar's language, I'm not particularly impressed by its elegance either. But the way Jules messes around in northwestern Europe is frightening. On almost every page there's something that's so upsetting that I have to stop reading to tell my wife about how the Great Roman is massacring one tribe or another.

Here is the worst line I've found so far. It's at the end of Chapter 11 in Book Two. Caesar has just cleverly defeated a massive army of Belgians, who have decided to quit and return home to take care of Other Business. But for Caesar, that's not enough: he sends his complete cavalry and three legions of infantry out to attack the fleeing Belgians. The attack is "successful", of course, and then it comes:

sine ullo periculo
tantam eorum multitudinem nostri interfecerunt
quantum fuit diei spatium.

And so,
without any risk,
our men killed as great a number of them
as the length of the day allowed.

Killing as many as the length of the day allowed... Does that remind you of any twentieth-century ruler? Frankly, I can think of only one.

The scary part is, I think, that at some level, when reading this, we all think: Wow--That Caesar! A bit naughty, perhaps, to kill all those nice Belgians, but nonetheless: What A Great Guy! I think that's somehow in Caesar's writing. Willy-nilly you find yourself taking his side against those Barbarian Tribes.

It does make me wonder about reading Caesar in school (this last year, he selected to be the single one prose author on the new AP Latin exams here in the US). If we have to, well, I guess, so be it. But it seems to me that teachers would have to be very, very careful putting whatever Caesar is saying in as fair a light as possible. If there's something to be learned in Latin class beyond grammar and syntax, than the lesson from Caesar is certainly how not to behave in international politics.

And that's putting it mildly.

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