Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book review: Julius Caesar

In May, Jeff gave me a neat gift for my graduation: an autographed copy of Philip Freeman's new biography of Julius Caesar. For someone like me, whose knowledge of Caesar was mostly derived from textbooks, fictionalized portrayals and an incomplete reading of the Penguin edition of his Gallic War, Freeman's book was a wonderful way to fill many of the gaps.

Indeed, a desire to introduce Caesar to readers who might know little more than his name was the motivation for Freeman, chair of Classical Studies at Luther College in Iowa. In a preface that will disarm those critics who might wonder why the world needs another biography of Caesar, Freeman describes how asking his bored Latin class who Caesar was prompted an animated discussion and led him to wonder how many people really knew "the true story of Caesar." In writing this book, Freeman aimed "simply to tell the story of Caesar's life and times" without joining the legions of commentators who have sought to place Caesar among history's "greatest heroes" or "most pernicious villains."

I suspect there is little that's new here for aficionados of Caesar and his period, but most other readers will enjoy Freeman's conservative-but-colorful interpretation of the sources, to which he hews closely throughout. This is especially visible during the part of the book which recounts Caesar's campaigns in Gaul, when Caesar himself is often the only source. I found it entertaining to keep the Gallic War at the ready so I could monitor Freeman's adaptations of Caesar's narrative, such as his deflations of Caesar's sometimes excessive self-congratulation. Freeman's own observations are well-placed. He consistently reminds the reader that Caesar's actions in the field were not taking place in a vacuum dedicated to the accumulation of military glory, as some of Caesar's contemporary readers might have allowed themselves to believe. He clearly explains how nearly every military action Caesar took also had carefully considered ramifications for his economic and political position back in Rome.

When I press myself to come up with something critical, the best I can do is to complain about the brief epilogue, "Caesar and Cato at Valley Forge," which finds reflections of Caesar's civil war in the American Revolution and briefly reviews Caesar's legacy. It feels like a pro forma afterthought.

Caesar, who espoused simplicity in writing, would have approved of Freeman's unpretentious and direct prose. I'm a slow, deliberate reader, but I found myself breezing through the chapters in spite of that. Though Julius Caesar is a trade book, students will find a full bibliography, index, and 19 pages of endnotes. I can readily forgive the lack of inline citations for what I imagine it is: an invitation to general readers who might be put off by something that too-closely resembles an scholarly tome. For readers looking for a more rigorously academic treatment, Freeman himself recommends Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus, but lay history buffs would do well to add Freeman's book to their libraries.


Anonymous said...

You might consider doing more book reviews :) I'm a devout user of the Free Library's website - I order them online and pick them up when work is ready at the print shop - really easy! I liked this review, and I know very little about Caesar or that time period, so it was interesting and informative.

David Powell said...

Thank you for the kind words! I'll see what I can do about whipping up more book reviews, but where history books are concerned, it seems I'm nearly always reading a chapter from this, a chapter from that, and rarely giving myself the opportunity to read something from cover-to-cover. This book was an exception. So many books, so little time.