James J. O’Donnell on The War for Gaul

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Why did you want to translate Caesar? 

Caesar’s War on Gaul is the very best book ever written by a truly bad man who sets out to tell us with absolutely no remorse just how bad he’s been.  So first we get the cognitive dissonance of this utterly self-assured voice telling us horrible things.  (Best estimate is that about a million people died in that war, a war that didn’t need to happen.)  But it’s also just a great book— a gripping yarn with thrills, chills, and adventure, written in a taut, vivid style.  Hemingway only wished he could write this way.  So I wanted to see how I could capture both the atrocity and the elegance at the same time.  

Is there anything else like Caesar in our “canons” of literature?  

I can’t think of anything—perhaps the steamy epistolary fiction of Dangerous Liaisons, that needed Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer to cast the film.  No room for women in Caesar’s cast, but there’s got to be a part for John Malkovich in here somewhere—and maybe Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel and John Goodman.  When Hollywood calls, I’m ready to pitch a great movie!

Your translation comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story.  How do those work?

If you just read Caesar’s words, you get a story of soldiers marching around clobbering people.  Really good soldiers, clobbering a lot of people with plenty of panache, no question.  But what was really going on?  Caesar spent those nine years up in Gaul because he was a politician on the make.  He needed to be a great conqueror, he needed people to know he was a great conqueror—so he wrote the book.  But he also needed money, lots and lots of money, so plundering and enslaving masses of people were big on his mind—but he plays that side of things down.  And he also needed to stay in touch with politics back in Rome and needed the reports of what he was doing to land in Rome just when he needed them to spin his narrative and to keep his name and fame alive.  My introductions and notes tell you all the things Caesar didn’t tell you but that everybody around him and everybody back at Rome knew.  What was he really up to?  I spill the beans.

So what’s in it for you?  Most people don’t think of translating Latin as a job they’d want!

Different strokes for different folks.  From some time in college, I’ve just known that reading Latin makes my head feel good in ways I can’t describe.  If you see me in the window seat of a plane muttering to myself, I’m probably subvocalizing whatever Latin book I have with me, just because it feels so good to do that.  And Caesar has been one of the half dozen or so Latin books that have always done that for me the best.

Ah, so what other Latin writers do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

It’s a very mixed bag.  Nobody in the ancient world hated Caesar so much as the poet Lucan a hundred years later, who wrote an astonishingly gory epic about Caesar’s civil war, then committed suicide when he got caught in a plot against Nero.  It’s a real leap from there to Augustine’s Confessions or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but in ways I can’t really explain those books always work for me as well, over and over again for decades.  They work the way the last page of Joyce’s “The Dead” can work—still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Some books are just magical for some readers and we should cherish that.  If I can make Caesar a little big magical for readers of this book, I’m happy.

So, which book would you most like to have written yourself?  Caesar’s?

No!  I’m actually a nice guy.  And I wouldn’t last a week in Caesar’s army.  A book I go back to over and over is called Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidad-born cricket journalist, professional rabble-rouser, and historian C.L.R. James, who died at great age in 1989.  He was an Afro-Trinidadian brought up to be a citizen of the British empire, acutely aware of both his British-ness by virtue of his culture and education and of his exclusion from British-ness by virtue of his race and colonial subjection.  So he wrote a book about the ultimate imperialist game, cricket — and it was a combination of memoir, social history, love song (for his love of cricket in spite of everything), and literary triumph.  Think of a skinny little black kid growing up in Trinidad before the first world war, dividing his time passionately between the English game and the Englishman’s literature.  Vanity Fair was the book he read over and over and over again, the way I remember reading Life on the Mississippi in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Anyway, it’s a book that brings together things intensely personal for him, but in a way that opens up the whole set of cultures he grew up and lived in and leaves the reader thinking about the paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion, of loyalty and exclusion.  He’s somebody able to love the past and cherish an inheritance and at the same time give himself fiercely to the struggle to transcend that past for a more just and inclusive way of seeing and living.  That one makes my head feel pretty good too.

James J. O’Donnell is professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University. His books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biogr