‘Letters from a Stoic’ by Seneca

senecaThis is a book about wisdom and how to get it. It takes the form of a series of letters from an old man to a young protégé – an apt model since wisdom, according to Seneca, comes not from experience, or travel, or labour, or failure, but only from listening to wise men. ‘Philosophy is good advice,’ he says, and learning is a kind of discipleship. The elder role model gives instruction, teaches by example, and acts as the conscience of the impressionable youth, being always with him, an angel on his shoulder. Choosing the right friends is important, too; not just for the young but for everyone. We soak up influences, good and bad, like sponges, so we should surround ourselves with the right people. It is our concern with their good opinion that helps keep us from doing wrong.

It is Seneca’s belief in friendship, and his capacity for it, that drives these letters. The great value he places on his friends leads him to prepare himself for their deaths in the same way as he prepares for his own. All this might sound morbid to the modern reader, but it is central to Seneca’s idea of wisdom as a defence against an uncertain world. ‘You’re younger than I am,’ he tells his correspondent, ‘but what difference does that make? Just where death is expecting you is something we cannot know; so expect him everywhere.’ To conquer the fear of death, to be ready for it when it comes, is to conquer death itself. This becomes possible with wisdom, which is the realisation that nothing but wisdom is essential. Health, riches, friends, even life; all are gifts to be appreciated, but they are only ever on loan. We must be prepared to give them up, smiling, at any time. Vicissitudes are like taxes, Seneca tells us: unavoidable. ‘Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck.’ The wise person can face the very worst misfortune with equanimity, never having taken peace and comfort granted. There is a compelling appeal at work here: Stoicism as a kind of superpower. If you are a Stoic, nothing can hurt you.

Seneca isn’t interested in the engineering feats and practical ingenuity that the Romans are famous for. He is not impressed by the building of bridges and roads, or the invention of new heating systems for the baths. These may contribute to our physical comfort, but physical comfort is of no importance. Neither does he care for the plastic arts, believing sculpture and painting to be mere commodities, luxury goods. He admires literature, but only so far as it imparts wisdom. In the end, the only worthwhile accomplishment for any individual is becoming wise. The clay you must work on is your own soul; you must be your own invention of genius, your own work of art.

nero
                             Nero, in a rare photograph

Seneca is given to lecturing, and he can come across as a sanctimonious old bore, particularly in letter CXIV, where he rails against people who like to dress stylishly, stay up late and have a good time. There may be a subtext to this, though. Seneca wrote these letters during the decadent years of Nero’s reign, when the young emperor had shrugged him off as a good influence and was beginning to indulge his cruel and arbitrary whims. In this light, Seneca’s angry protest against moral dissipation might look courageous. In 62 A.D he exiled himself from the imperial court, and three years later Nero ordered his death.

La_mort_de_seneque
                     ‘The Death of Seneca’ by Giordano

Tacitus describes Seneca’s forced suicide in his Annals, and the dignity and courage with which the old man faced it is deeply moving. Seneca died a true Stoic. It must be said though that he hadn’t always lived like one. He was one of the richest men of his age, owned vast estates and surrounded himself with all the trappings of wealth he affected to scorn. His loan sharking operations in Britain are thought to have contributed to the Boudiccan uprising. The third century historian, Cassius Dio, accuses Seneca of avarice and hypocrisy, and the charges are compelling. In his defence though, the introduction to this Penguin Classics edition contains a typically withering quote from Samuel Johnson: ‘Sir, are you so grossly ignorant of human nature as not to know that a man may be very sincere in good principles without having good practice?’

What is striking about Seneca is how modern he often sounds. His loathing for the arena, his enlightened attitude towards slaves, and his conception of a benign almost Christian-like god are all very much ahead of their time. His advice on how to deal with bereavement, illness, physical pain, anger, has links with coping techniques used in modern cognitive therapy. Even his model for this book has been revived recently in a series called The Art of Mentoring, which includes such titles as Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, and Letters to a Young Gymnast by Nadia Comaneci. Two millennia after he lived, Seneca remains up there with the best of mentors. In more recent centuries, great western thinkers have been concerned with what it is possible for us to know, or how we should act politically. Seneca would have seen all this as a distraction, his concern being with something more fundamental – what we should be.

‘Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose’ by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner

Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose

This book starts with a redefinition of style. For guide writers such as Strunk and White, elements of style include such things as preferring the active voice and sticking to one tense in summaries. Newspapers and magazines generally have a house style, which is a set of arbitrary but consistent choices, such as how to format dates, and whether or not to italicise titles. Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing include, ‘Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue,’ and, ‘Never use an adverb to modify the word “said”‘. None of this, according to Thomas and Turner, is style.

They assert that style does not consist of arbitrary surface choices: it is a fundamental stand concerning truth and writing’s relationship with it. There are many styles, but they are concerned here with just one: classic style. Classic style makes two big claims: first, that truth can be known; and then, that language is equal to expressing it. It is an optimistic style, in which prose is a perfect medium, a clear window on truth. Whatever is recognisably a ‘thing’ can be presented, no matter how abstract or complex it is. The causes of the 2008 financial crisis, or the meaning of fear, are both ‘things’ in the same way that a chair is a thing, and they can be presented perfectly using classic prose. None of the labour and inspiration that goes into the writing will be visible to the reader, because part of the writer’s job is to hide all this. Classic prose draws no attention to itself, only to the truth being presented.

Classical style is sophisticated because any truth worth telling is nuanced. The title of this book, inspired by an Oscar Wilde quote, is thus somewhat ironic. ‘The truth is clear and simple,’ would be an example of plain style, which is suitable for Biblical pronouncements and folksy aphorisms. Classic style incorporates plain style, but is not satisfied with it. The classic sentence that Wilde actually wrote was, ‘The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.’ It is not just the nuance that make this classic, but its confident, declarative stance. If Wilde had prefixed it with, ‘In my view…’ or, ‘It may be that…’ the sentence would not be classic. There is no compromising, no hedging in classic style.

All of this is a pose, of course. There is no absolute truth, and if there were, there would be no perfect way of expressing it. But the classic writer behaves as if there is because it is useful to do so: it makes for stronger, clearer, more persuasive writing. There are techniques in play here that will be well known to any student of rhetoric. One is the establishment of the author as an expert and objective commentator. Another is the connection the author forges with the reader. Classic style is egalitarian: it places the author and reader on the same intellectual level in a scene where one is talking spontaneously to the other. The reader is assumed to be competent, but not to have any specialist knowledge or familiarity with other texts. The only privilege the author claims is in knowing something the reader does not. This knowledge is shared through a process that cognitive scientists call joint attention; a scene in which, ‘there are just two people, paying attention to something that is directly perceptible, such as a blackbird in a tree.’ Classic prose enables the reader to ‘see’ this blackbird, or whatever other thing is being presented, just as clearly as the author can.

Classic style is ‘pure, fearless, cool and relentless’ in a way that no human writer can ever be, or at least, not all the time. It is not suitable for every purpose. It lacks the overt emotional appeal needed for a political speech, or a love letter; it is not equipped for the doubt and self-exploration that a memoir or personal essay might call for; and it will not entertain the artificial signposting, jargon, and counter-arguments that are conventional in academic writing.

Classic style is a good style for history, philosophy, reportage, expository essays and narrative fiction. Thomas and Turner list Thucydides, Descartes, Mark Twain and A.J. Liebling as notable proponents. They call the school of classic prose an aristocracy, but this is an elite that anyone with enough application can join. Classic style is a craft, not an art, and it can be learned. The current edition of this excellent book includes a section called The Studio, which features practical exercises in developing the skill of writing classic prose. There is also a section called The Museum that features examples of the style and discusses what makes them classic. The most illuminating exhibit though is the book itself, which is written with all the cool elegance and unswerving rigour that defines classic style.

Movie endings: Cross of Iron (1977)

The sense of men under assault in Sam Peckinpah’s 1977 Cross of Iron is relentless. The combat scenes are as visceral as you would expect from Peckinpah on the Eastern Front, but even in the lulls between them, when men talk, sometimes at length, about class or sexuality, the individual and God, they do so with shells exploding nearby and the bunkers shaking around them. It is a full blooded (anti-)war film then, cynical, but not ironic; and that is why it is difficult to watch the final moments without feeling your jaw drop. This is an ending that does not at all fit with the rest of the piece, and does not offer any conclusion to what has been a conventional narrative. Absurdist, disorienting and utterly out of the blue, it is one of the most daring scenes in mainstream cinema; a gamble that succeeds brilliantly.

The film focuses on a German sergeant, Steiner (James Coburn), and the platoon he leads during the retreat from Russia in 1943. His courage and professionalism are evident not only in the thundering action scenes, but in two beautifully choreographed sequences that unfold in silence and show the unit advancing on and securing enemy positions, their movements precisely synchronised under his direction. Steiner has an almost mythical status among the ranks, but he is also is a damaged man, much wounded, who frets over the whereabouts of his children. For a time he adopts a Russian child soldier his platoon has taken prisoner, and when the boy is killed he releases the kind of anguished howl that it seems he may never be far away from. When he is wounded again, he hallucinates in the hospital, seeing the men he leads and loves among the patients.

Resolved to cling to an idea of humanity, Steiner is perforce a class warrior – ‘I hate all officers’ – tolerated by his superiors because of his effectiveness. His new commanding officer, Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell) represents exactly what he despises: aristocracy, cowardice, incompetence, and a thirst for glory. This film makes no bones about its political agenda: the officer class here explicitly represents the ruling elite in civilian life, and it is corrupt to the core.

Steiner and Stransky have one thing in common: their dislike of Nazism; but Stransky distances himself from the regime principally because it discriminates on the grounds of race not caste. Steiner maintains that a man is what he feels himself to be, while Stransky feels the need to prove himself, to justify his privilege. He wants the Iron Cross, and when he tries to lie his way towards getting it, Steiner’s word is the only thing that stands in his way.

In the plot’s final cycle Stransky arranges for Steiner’s platoon to be wiped out, but Steiner survives and returns to confront him in the midst of a major Russian offensive. So far, so formulaic. But instead of killing Stransky, Steiner claims him as ‘the rest of my platoon’ and hands him a machine gun. Stransky accepts this as a challenge, and the two men venture out to face the enemy as the German positions are overrun. But it turns out that Stransky is unfamiliar with his gun: ‘How do I reload?’ he shouts to Steiner, over the roar of battle. A Russian child solCross Of Iron  (War Drama 1977)  James Coburn, Maximilian Schell & James Mason  (BR).mkv_20150421_225128.483dier shoots Stransky’s helmet off. He retrieves it and puts it on back-to-front, still struggling to reload, while Steiner laughs uproariously. Suddenly we are watching a farce. The boy shakes his head in mild vexation, a response to the preposterous duo in front of him. He looks unsettlingly like the boy killed earlier in the film – is Steiner hallucinating again?

The force of this scene is extraordinary. Far from undermining the themes of the film, it reinforces them with this shatteringly simple statement: war is insane. But Peckinpah hasn’t finished. As Steiner’s laughter echoes out over a freeze-frame of his own mirthful face, we are then shown a gallery of archive pictures: Nazis executing children; starving refugees; the civilian victims of wars in Vietnam, Palestine, Africa; and finally this quote, from Bertolt Brecht.

Don’t rejoice in his defeat, you men / For though the world stood up and stopped the bastard, / The bitch that bore him is in heat again.

War is insane then, but fighting remains necessary.

‘Germany’ by Tacitus

During the reign of Domitian, when books were being burned and their authors killed, Tacitus wrote nothing. His nature was such that anything he could honourably have put his name to would have been proscribed. Better to stay silent than to write dross. Even Germany, which on the face of it is a straightforward ethnography, would have been seen as deeply subversive. The victories Domitian claimed over the Germans are here derided as sham, and on another level the book can be read as a veiled hymn to the Republic. The Germans Tacitus describes so admiringly have a polity that relies on persuasion rather than taking orders, and they kill any man who tries to make himself king. It was not until the enlightened regimes of Nerva and Trajan when, as Tacitus said in his Histories, a man could think what he liked and say what he thought, that such writing would not have been taken for treason. 

          Some Germans, yesterday

But Germany is an ethnography for all that, and a fascinating one. Tacitus reviews the various Germanic peoples, starting with the warlike frontier nations, then moving eastwards to the Fenni, who were so primitive that they worshipped no gods, and finally the fabled Oxiones of the Baltic region, who were thought to have the heads of men and the bodies of beasts. The Anglii get a mention along the way: they might have been the forebears of the English-speaking peoples, but back then there was, according to Tacitus, ‘nothing especially noteworthy’ about them.

Tacitus believed the Germans to have been native to their soil and racially unmixed. This, coupled with his admiration of their courage and upright morality, caused Germany to be politically explosive nineteen centuries after it was written. A.R. Birley’s excellent introduction here traces the book’s influence on notions of Germanic superiority from the early 19th century through to Hitler’s pet racial theorists. In 1956 Momigliano described Germany as being ‘among the hundred most dangerous books ever written.’ But it was, of course, just another case of Nazi misappropriation. It shouldn’t take much reflection to conclude what Tacitus, the scourge of tyrants, would have made of Hitler. And the ancient Germans he describes, strong in violent outbursts but lacking in endurance, would have cut it neither as legionaries nor Wehrmacht landsers.

                          Tacitus

Tacitus’ punchy, aphoristic style is as much a joy here as in his more famous works; his poise and penetration are masterly. He holds values that are alarmingly alien to us, asserting for example that war is ennobling and peace enervating. He also believes that the Germans, like all other free and warlike peoples, are Rome’s enemies by definition. But he is often strikingly modern. When he writes: ‘Silver and gold have been denied them by the gods, whether as a sign of favour or anger I cannot say,’ he is identifying what any political scientist would today recognise as the resource curse. And this: ‘Ignorance is a surer protection than any prohibition,’ contains a lesson about proscription that public policy makers have yet to learn.

This Oxford World Classics edition also includes Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, the aforementioned introduction, and endnotes that add up to more pages than the two ancient texts put together. It’s a wonderful package. Germany itself is 26 pages long. There’s no excuse not to read it.

‘Tiberius’ by Allan Massie

TiberiusMassie has a bit of fun with Tiberius here, which might be something one else has ever done. In the introduction to this novel, Massie describes his brush with an eccentric Italian count who gives him the papers that purport to be Tiberius’ memoirs. The manuscript – in true Massiean style – is peppered with anachronisms and literary references that can only have come from post-classical periods. It turns out that the count is either a ‘notorious swindler’ or an immortal, possibly even Tiberius himself. The old emperor, it seems, made some kind of Faustian pact with a genius loci on Capri: In exchange for peace of mind in this world, he would agree to being branded a monster by history. But he was had. He got the savage write ups sure enough, but he never did get the peace of mind.

And that’s where the fun ends. From there, we have a novel of melancholy and disillusionment, suitable enough for a straight retelling of the charmless, friendless, luckless Tiberius’ life. Even his loudest accusers, the likes of Tacitus and Suetonius, must have felt a bit sorry for this bookish lad, who loved philosophy, but gave the best of himself to public service and got no thanks for it. Pushed around by his mother, resented and used by Augustus, he was properly loved only by his brother, who died, and his wife, whom he was made to divorce. Then, at the age of fifty-six, he was thrust into the imperial seat, and his troubles really began.

Massie’s Tiberius is a Republican who despises the autocracy Augustus created, and the creatures that inhabit it. He wants to restore the Republic, but no one will take him up on it. When he offers to share power with the senate, they are afraid of a trap, and insist he rule alone. Active citizenship has been a crime for so long that there is no one left who knows what it means. Rarely in fiction has Tiberius’ famous utterance, ‘Men fit to be slaves!’ been laid open so effectively. His disgust is palpable, as is the pain of his loneliness. Augustus, who actively sought power, had the talents of Agrippa and Maecenas to support him. Tiberius, whose happy time was living quietly among the the philosophers of Rhodes, had no one.

Tiberius' Villa Jovis on Capri, by Weichardt
Tiberius’ Villa Jovis on Capri, by Weichardt

Although that is not quite true – he did have Sejanus. Massie presents this as the central relationship of Tiberius’ middle and advancing years. He loved and trusted the young Sejanus, one of the few people to offer himself as a friend during his wilderness years. When, for the second time in his life, Tiberius exiles himself to an island out of sheer contempt for the world and his fellow men, it is to Sejanus that he entrusts Rome. He is betrayed. The pain this visits on the old emperor is immense and double-edged. Not only has his one friend proven himself faithless, Tiberius’ own political judgement – his ability to evaluate men – has failed him. There is nothing left. He has given all he could to Rome, but he couldn’t make it work again.

In those last years on Capri, alone, knowing that the vicious Caligula will succeed him, Tiberius comes apart. ‘If I cared for Rome, I would have him disposed of,’ he writes of his heir. ‘But they deserve him.’ Massie at his bleakest – and sharpest.

‘Agricola’ by Tacitus

Tacitus
Tacitus

Agricola is where we meet Tacitus the man rather than the historian. As a tribute to his deceased father-in-law it is a very personal expression of love and grief. But, in true Tacitean fashion, it also brimming with rage at the corruption of monarchy and the moral decay of the empire. Agricola was one of Rome’s great generals, a model of old fashioned Republican era rectitude. His achievement, in 83 CE, was to complete the conquest of Britain by defeating the peoples north of the Forth-Clyde line; his misfortune was to excel at a time when glory was reserved for royalty. The emperor Domitian, jealous of his success, recalled him the following year, and Agricola found himself caught on a kind of Morton’s Fork. He was modest about his achievements, and had no concern for personal glory; but the more he shunned public praise, the more popular he became. Domitian, simmering, quickly abandoned the territories his general had conquered, and on the subject of Agricola’s death some years later, Tacitus all but accuses the emperor of murder by poisoning.

Tacitus is not detached. He worked under Domitian himself and saw many of the best men of the senate, those who dared defy the emperor, judicially murdered. His career during that period must have been ridden with humiliation and fear. But the thesis of Agricola is that it is possible for good men to live under bad rulers, and that martyrdom, while heroic, does not necessarily benefit the commonwealth. This theme of pragmatism in evil times is one that resonates through the history of the Roman empire, and through history itself. Andrew Marr, in his recent A History of the World, writes of ‘a kind of bravery that we perhaps make too little of, the bravery of the gritted-teeth survivor, the man who bows his head and keeps going without ever quite grovelling, always keeping his eye on what he believes to be essential.’ These words are a tribute to Deng Xiaoping, whom Mao persecuted and called ‘the little man’, and whom Marr believes may be the most influential figure of the late twentieth century. I like to think Deng knew his Agricola.

Calgacus
Calgacus

On another level, Agricola is of interest for its descriptions of first century Britain – ‘The climate is miserable, with frequent rain and mists’ – and its subject peoples, who ‘have now been broken into obedience, but not yet to slavery’: this written with the Boudiccan revolt in living memory. Tacitus wrongly believed the Caledonians to be of German stock, but they do embody all the unspoilt courage that he ascribes to the Germans. This is not some rhetorical ploy to inflate Agricola’s victory over them: Tacitus is absolutely sincere in his admiration for these enemies of Rome. He concocts a magnificent speech for the Caledonian leader, Calgacus, on the eve of the Battle of Mons Graupius. It contains that famous blast at imperialism: ‘They make a desert and call it peace,’ and the oratory is so wholly admirable, so full of love and dignity and valour, that Tacitus actually has us rooting for the barbarians. They lose of course, cut up by Agricola’s auxiliaries, while the legions stand by and watch.

We ought to be sceptical of hagiography – the lists of Agricola’s noble qualities are extensive; notable faults he seems to have had none – but we ought also to be impressed by the love Tacitus clearly felt for the man. It shines from the pages. It is instructive of Tacitus’ nature that he expresses this love by telling us how well Agricola served Rome. The modern reader might ask why Agricola bothered to subdue Caledonia, there being nothing there, and why he would then contemplate crossing another sea to invade Hibernia (modern day Ireland). Tacitus doesn’t pose these questions, since to him the answers are self-evident: The land is to be conquered because to do so augments the security of the empire and the glory of Rome. Agricola’s seven-year governorship of Britain was, by Tacitus’ lights, exemplary. In the summer campaigning seasons he applied the stick – consolidating Roman authority and pushing back its boundaries by force. In the winters he served up the carrot – alleviating the tax burden, stamping out corruption, improving amenities and services; civilising.

Agricola is the earliest extant work of Tacitus, but already he shows his mastery of the withering epigram. The Britons are like the Gauls, he writes, showing ‘the same boldness in seeking out danger – and the same timidity in facing it.’ On the fabled British pearls that never materialised, he finds it ‘easier to believe that the pearls are lacking in quality than that we are lacking in greed.’

But in the end, tender emotion outweighs the cynicism. His quiet description of his and his wife’s grief at the death of Agricola is extremely affecting. They were absent at his passing, somewhere far from Rome, so they were unable to comfort him and hear his departing words to them, utterances that Tacitus would have held very dear. This written tribute is also, in part, Tacitus’ restitution for the funeral oration he was unable to make. Agricola in its entirety fills barely thirty pages, but ounce for ounce, it ranks with the greatest of his work. It contains so much, but its clearly-stated purpose is simple: to ensure the survival of Agricola’s memory. Good son-in-law.

The edition reviewed is the Oxford World’s Classics, translated by A.R. Birley, 1999. Also included in the edition is Tacitus’ ethnography, Germany, which will be reviewed at a later date.

‘The Gallic War’ by Caesar

It was Alexandre Dumas who first put me on to Caesar’s commentaries when he had Luigi Vampa, the bandit king in The Count of Monte Cristo, declaring them to be his favourite read. I suspect Dumas was having a dig there: if you are a bandit king looking for inspiration, who better to turn to than Caesar? As a Frenchman, Dumas might not have been very objective; but there is no denying that Caesar’s adventures in Gaul were largely a matter of plunder and profit, as well as political advancement. But then, neither can it be denied that that was how the game was played back then, by everyone, and that the principle thing Caesar’s opponents could hold against him was that he played it harder than anyone else.

Siege-alesia-vercingetorix-jules-cesarMontaigne writes of Caesar: ‘…the only thing to be said against him is that he speaks too sparingly of himself.’ I disagree. The Gallic War is, among many other things, Caesar’s love letter to Caesar, shot through with self-aggrandisement. Famously, he refers to himself in the third person, which gives a veneer of objectivity when he writes, again and again, of how his very presence made the difference between defeat and victory, or even war and peace. When he is not present at some pivotal moment, he has his officers tell the men to pretend that he is, so that they will fight with greater courage.

This thing, courage, is important. Caesar hardly mentions the tactics, formation and discipline that made the Roman army famous, but he talks a great deal about courage. The word is a rendering of the Latin, virtus, and something gets lost in the translation. Virtus is a characteristically masculine, and Roman, quality; it seems to encompass autonomy and rectitude as well as bravery. Slaves cannot have it, nor children, and very rarely women. Caesar allows that the Gauls have it, especially those such as the Nervii, unsoftened by civilisation, whom he describes as savages. But they don’t have as much of it as the Romans. The Romans do not panic like Gauls do; they do not lose heart in the face of long odds or reversals; and they do not run away. This above all, according to Caesar, is why they win. And it is important that courage be witnessed so that it can be acknowledged and rewarded: men will be braver if they know someone is watching, especially their general.

The other thing that Caesar mentions repeatedly is the corn supply and how it might be secured – war is about the prosaic as well as the glorious. The corn is taken from the Gauls, of course, with varying degrees of resistance. A crucial advantage Caesar had over these communities was their fractious nature, and as they quarreled among themselves they would often turn to him for arbitration. Caesar plays them off against each other expertly, granting favours here, issuing reprimands and warnings there. Rebellious communities are dealt with leniently if they come around quickly enough, but for those that persist in their error, massacre and enslavement await.

To the modern mind, The Gallic War is a catalogue of horror. After the defeat of Dumnorix, Caesar’s cavalry kill the enemy until their horses, and their arms, are too tired to carry on. At Avaricum, no one is spared; not the old men, nor the women, nor the children. The untold numbers of non combatants expelled from Alesia are simply left to expire in no man’s land when Caesar refuses them passage; and once the battle is won, there are enough captives for him to give a slave apiece to every man in his army. Genocide is an overused, and perhaps an anachronistic term here, but what else fits when Caesar states his aim of wiping out the race and name of the Eburones? He is clearly pleased with himself when he claims large numbers of enemy dead, and with good reason, by Roman lights: in the Republic it was necessary to kill at least five thousand in a battle to qualify for a triumph. Out of a Gallic population of around five million, Plutarch tells us that Caesar killed a million and enslaved another million. Nothing comparable would hit Europe until the Black Death, fourteen centuries later. But, as ever with the ancients, we have to adjust our moral response. Plutarch reports his figures neutrally, and his evaluation of Caesar as a general reads thus: ‘If we compare him with (those generals) whose glory, it may be said, went up at that time to heaven for every excellence in war, we shall find Caesar’s actions to have surpassed them all.’ (Dryden).

The Gallic War reminds us that the legions were so effective not just because they were courageous and disciplined, but because they were tireless navvies and expert engineers. The construction of the siege works at Alesia – 24 miles of it in total – is an astonishing feat, mentioned only in passing by Caesar; though he does go into more detail on the innovative man traps that were constructed around its outer ring. Time and again, Caesar’s enemies are stricken by technofear: from Gallic cities surrendering when confronted with moving siege towers, to the ferocious Germans melting away at the sight of a bridge spanning the Rhine, to the Britons thrown into a panic by the appearance of Roman warships and their artillery. Adaptability in the field is also important. The British expeditions put the legionaries up against chariots, which combined the mobility of cavalry with the stability of infantry, and which run rings around them to begin with. Caesar quickly gets the measure of the Britons by using his own infantry and cavalry in close conjunction. But there was an enemy in Britain more difficult to deal with – Caesar might have been the first, but was certainly not the last visitor to those shores to be set back by crap weather. On both expeditions Caesar’s fleet was smashed up by storms, and the unpredictable winds in the Channel meant that many of his ships didn’t reach their destinations at all.

It was of little account. Britain was more of a publicity stunt than a strategic objective for Caesar, and it must have generated some thrilling reports – woad-daubed savages with long moustaches, drinking milk and driving chariots on a mist enshrouded island at the end of the world. This was just the kind of publicity that would have appealed to the commons, Caesar’s political power base in Rome, even while snobs such as Cicero turned their noses up at it. But it was not just Britain: all the campaigns and conquests of Caesar’s nine-year proconsulship were every bit as political as they were military, because those nine years were, in fact, an exile. Had he remained in Rome, without his imperium to protect him, he would certainly have been prosecuted, and likely ruined, for the illegal tactics he employed during his consulship in 59. But if the Gallic campaigns were Caesar’s attempt to rehabilitate himself, they failed, as we know, and his seven commentaries are augmented by another, written by his legate Aulus Hirtius, that takes us to the brink of the Civil War. History is in motion, and Caesar’s continuing commentaries, The Civil War, look irresistible.

But my favourite part of this book, something that has puzzled and amused me for years, is of no consequence at all. In an unusual aside, Caesar writes of an elk-like beast that lives deep in the forests of Germany, where he has never been. This animal has no knee joints, so if it lies down it can never get back up. It takes its rest by leaning against trees, and it has favourite trees. When hunters identify such a tree they cut through the base so that the next time the elk leans on it both tree and elk fall down, rendering it easy prey. The notes in my edition shed no light on this bizarre entry, though they make it clear it is not thought to be an interpolation. Perhaps Caesar, with one eye on his audience as always, had a Baron Munchausen moment. Perhaps, in another life, he could have written sketches for Monty Python.

The edition reviewed is the Oxford World’s Classics, translated by Carolyn Hammond, 1996