Is Caesar worth reading? Is Horace?

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Ulpianus
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Is Caesar worth reading? Is Horace?

Post by Ulpianus » Fri Feb 13, 2004 6:24 pm

This started in another thread, but it seems to have acquired a life of its own and I thought I would spin it off. Original thread is here: viewtopic.php?t=1397.

MickeyV wrote:
Say, Ulpianus, do you propose that Caesar's writing is, for the modern Latinist, merely functional?
I'm a fan of him myself. Brilliant, impeccable Latin, and, really, not hardly as boring as some, who've perhaps read the first few lines only, make it out to be. Take, for instance, this passage, wherein Caesar sheds some light on the Gauls' character as he sees it. Certainly, even if lacking complete veracity, it bespeaks a great sensitivity, almost a sense of humour, and, as always, great writership.

His de rebus Caesar certior factus et infirmitatem Gallorum veritus, quod sunt in consiliis capiendis mobiles et novis plerumque rebus student, nihil his committendum existimavit. Est enim hoc Gallicae consuetudinis, uti et viatores etiam invitos consistere cogant et quid quisque eorum de quaque re audierit aut cognoverit quaerant et mercatores in oppidis vulgus circumsistat quibus ex regionibus veniant quas ibi res cognoverint pronuntiare cogat. His rebus atque auditionibus permoti de summis saepe rebus consilia ineunt, quorum eos in vestigio paenitere necesse est, cum incertis rumoribus serviant et pleri ad voluntatem eorum ficta respondeant.

(and I myself don't too much fancy Horace or Vergil. Tacitus though, indeed, was an excellent writer, although, ei Sallustium antepono. )
My point --- which I would stand by --- is that Caesar, whatever his merits, does not stand on the highest peak of Latin literature. I agree that he is not purely functional, and in fact I am quite keen on him. But I wouldn't put him in the same bracket as Tacitus or Virgil. As it happens I can't be doing with Horace, but I expect I'm too young. The point I was trying to make, perhaps badly, was that one of the things that makes Latin a relatively hard language is that the slope is not only steep, but high: and unlike a modern language where one has many stopping-off points along the way, there is relatively little that is both worthwhile and easy.

Caesar's merits seem to me to be those of simplicity, directness, a sense of "being there" (which, of course, he often was), and as you point out occasional wit. But the wit lacks elegance, the psychological insight is minimal, and the simple directness easily and often becomes monotonous. In the long run, the Gilderoy Lockhart self-importance --- which things having been don, Magical Me, went off and scored a fantastic victory by once again grinding my foes to a pulp by force of Genius --- gets trying, though the ubiquitous suspicion of dishonesty (and the need to guess when and how dishonest it all is) is strangely compelling. In a strange way Caesar's virtues are also his vices; he is the authentic voice of the late Republic in all its glorious self-deception and inspired bad faith. But I can't help feeling that he is, in the end, a parochial writer where Catullus, or Tacitus, or Virgil (or, I readily concede, Sallust) aspire to and sometimes achieve the universal.

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Post by Episcopus » Fri Feb 13, 2004 7:16 pm

Let's settle with Horace is nice.

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Post by MickeyV » Fri Feb 13, 2004 7:39 pm

That's an interesting vision, surely, Ulpianus. And, I do agree with you that the scope of matters Caesar discusses is fairly limited. The main themes may be summed up quite nicely by "war, the excellence and virtues of the Roman people and Caesar in particular, the inferiority and perfidity of the non-Romans". And, I agree as well that it is not unlikely that it, after some pages, becomes trying for many. So, as far as the subject matter concerns, I think I pretty much concur with you.

But the main point of attraction, to me, in Caesar's writing is not so much enshrined by the subject matter (although, I myself somewhat fancy the "pathetic" approach, and, as you said, the ubiquitous suspicion, which entails an ever-present suspense) as it is formed by his syntactical purity. You say Caesar's writing is characterised by simplicity. To the extent that you contend that Caesar's Latin is quite "readable" I agree entirely, but to the extent that "simplicity" is meant as a somewhat disparaging qualification, I couldn't disagree more. The readability of his writing is a merit of Caesar's writing style and an indicator of his extreme mastery of the language and its purity, which Tacitus didn't attain. I'm especially exasperated by the superfluous use of the subjunctive by Tacitus, seen in the first few lines of Tacitus' Annales: " donec gliscente adulatione deterrerentur"

A question: how do you judge Cicero, or Livius?
Last edited by MickeyV on Fri Feb 13, 2004 7:58 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by MickeyV » Fri Feb 13, 2004 7:49 pm

Add.: as to the subjunctive, Caesar shows how it should be done:

His interfectis navibus eorum occupatis, prius quam ea pars Menapiorum quae citra Rhenum erat certior fieret, flumen transierunt atque omnibus eorum aedificiis occupatis reliquam partem hiemis se eorum copiis aluerunt.

And, of course, anyone who is fond of the the ablative absolute, will not be disappointed by Caesar. :D


Add II.: you make a sensible point, I admit, in stating that the slope, in learning Latin, is higher than with most vernacular languages, on account of the fact that Latin, as we receive it, is extant only (at least: mostly) in artful literary style, the difficulty in reading of which is the result of that literary style per se rather than of the character of the language.

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Post by Ulpianus » Fri Feb 13, 2004 8:36 pm

You say Caesar's writing is characterised by simplicity . . . to the extent that "simplicity" is meant as a somewhat disparaging qualification, I couldn't disagree more.
The simplicity, as such, I think altogether admirable. Perhaps "simple purity" (in a purely grammatical sense) would be better. But I do think it carries with it -- not that it need have done, but in Caesar it does -- a vice, namely monotony. That ablative absolute. You could train a parrot to squawk "ablative absolute" when asked "What is the construction with which Caesar begins this chapter" and it would, depressingly often, be right.
A question: how do you judge Cicero, or Livius?
Cicero--admirable but not engrossing (except the letters): too refined, too carefully constructed. The problem for me is that our modern conception of what is persuasive is so different from the Roman that I cannot think myself into finding such carefully constructed stuff convincing. Which means that, by the final test of rhetoric, it fails. Our modern style of oratory is all about plainness, bluntness, the very reverse of artifice. Yet everywhere in Cicero artifice is on display.

Livy--horribile dictu--a dreadful old provincial windbag. One understands why he was so admired in the nineteenth century, which shared many of his faults. (But I haven't read much or for years: I was thinking recently that I really ought to try again. My comment should be regarded as an entirely prejudiced invitation to controversy! I understand that his reputation is, in scholarly circles, increasing, though one suspects from a pretty low ebb.)

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Post by Episcopus » Fri Feb 13, 2004 9:23 pm

Hmm...I need a good Gallic War book with all those notes etc.

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Re: Is Caesar worth reading? Is Horace?

Post by Skylax » Mon Feb 16, 2004 4:13 pm

Ulpianus wrote:But the wit lacks elegance, the psychological insight is minimal, and the simple directness easily and often becomes monotonous.
May I once more try to defend the significance of reading Caesar, although I can not applaude his political action.

With the Bellum Gallicum, Caesar did not intend to compose a literary work supposed to attract the reader by means of intrinsic artistic appeal. He would not « sell a book » and enjoy literary success.

Bellum Gallicum is an occasional work, serving the author’s political aims. It was written (dictated) in a few months during winter 52-51 BC in central Gaul. At the time, Caesar had been nearly driven out of Gaul because the Gauls were succeeding in preventing his army from being resupplied. Unfortunately, the Gauls made a full-scale attack on the retreating Romans and were defeated. Nevertheless, the situation remained so serious, even after Alesia, that Caesar decided not to go back to Italy, although he had used to do so each year before.

The book, the monotonous and boring book, had thus a critical role to play : it hat to reassure the Romans about Caesar’s ability to complete successfully his military operations. If Caesar had looked inferior to his task, his political adversaries could have had him relieved of his command. Then Caesar’s political carreer would have been brought to an end.

Could Caesar save his carreer (maybe even his life) by composing a boring, monotonous book ?

I would not say it is monotonous. I would say it is dry, cold, and it seems to be precise and accurate. (Thus boring for the one who is looking for entertainment.) Bellum Gallicum is written as a staff release. Military style. Don't annoy me with flowers of rhetoric.

But, knowing that, it is AMAZING to see how carefully, and, say, artistically, Caesar has succeeded, using so simple words, in distorting things and facts in order to present his action in a favourable light. Moreover, there could not be too big lies in, because there were so many Roman witnesses, which were not all necessarily Caesar’s followers.

Now, yes, it is a crooked work, but a crooked masterpiece.

In the long run, the Gilderoy Lockhart self-importance (...) gets trying, though the ubiquitous suspicion of dishonesty (and the need to guess when and how dishonest it all is) is strangely compelling.
When it goes right "Caesar" did it. When it goes wrong (remember Atuatuca) nostri are doing something Caesar hasn't ordered. With the word nostri, Caesar involves his Roman reader in the story. Psychological manipulation.

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Post by sesquipedalianus » Tue Feb 17, 2004 11:47 am

I've been thoroughly enjoying this discussion. However (attamen...), whilst Caesar is "studiable" easily rather than "readable" in terms of absorption in his subject matter, Cicero is too lightly dismissed, as is Livy. Cicero in particular needs to be judged precisely in terms of his own times, when rhetoric (as indeed right up to the modern age) was the sine qua non of the excellent orator. Cicero knew how to manipulate language to influence his listeners and, given the number of trials in which he was successful, his language had the desired effect. He can be a bit of a wind-bag, but then so is every speaker who is convinced of his own rightness. His speech in defence of Cluentius is wonderful oratory - and in his account of the wickedness of Oppianicus it is riveting stuff!
But what about poor old Livy? Why is he dismissed as dry and stuffy today? Just consider the sheer volume of what he wrote in his histories! At the very beginning of his history of Rome he sets out what his intention is: that of any decent historian - to help people understand their own times and learn from the lessons of the past.
And incidentally - where Caesar's economic style includes ablative absolutes almost ad infinitum, Livy is the accusative and infinitive user par excellence!

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Post by Ulpianus » Tue Feb 17, 2004 11:10 pm

I am sorry that it should be thought that I "dismissed" Cicero, lightly or at all. I did not intend to. And one may well assume that his rhetoric convinced his listeners. As an intellectual exercise (for him, for us) it is great. The style has long been admired as the acme of latinity, and with reason. But I do not find it convinces me, and I doubt that it would convince many today. So he is dry: an academic read; intellectually satisfying, indeed, but limited; we are constantly aware that we are outsiders in his world, and he in ours. At best we can try to imagine the effect he had on his listeners: I doubt that we can, to any substantial extent, share it. At least, I do not find that I do share it. "Wonderful oratory" is exactly the problem (ours, I grant you, not his): our reaction to wonderful oratory is suspicion. For us, if oratory is wonderful, or even identifiably "oratory", it has failed. If you ask me "Who is the better writer, Juvenal or Cicero?" I shall say, Cicero. But if you ask me, "Who would you rather read, purely for the pleasure of it?" I shall say Juvenal.

As for poor dear old Livy ... well, if one judged quality by volume of production, he would indeed stand high in the pantheon, even with so much lost. It is, however, regrettably possible to be dry, stuffy and prolific. No doubt there is something to be said for his style. But do you really enjoy him? As I say, perhaps I should try again, but as I sit here today I cannot say that I do.

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Post by chad » Wed Feb 18, 2004 2:09 am

hi, i'll just add a few comments to this discussion, since i'm concentrating on greek now, not latin. and i've only read a chunk of the gallic wars in latin (the whole thing only in english) so my opinions probably won't carry much weight anyway.

the chunk i did read of caesar i thought marked him out as the best latin writer, the closest thing to homer. the constant ebb and flow of battles and momentary victories, told in a (superficially) objective way: caesar did this, these people did that, &c, like in the iliad. caesar's side isn't necessarily marked out as the "good guys", or the other tribes as the "bad guys", just like in the iliad, the trojans aren't really painted as the "bad buys". there's an eternal feel to the little struggles in these 2 books. it's not boring at all.

i'm not trying to draw a comparison. that's just the immediate impression i got while reading caesar. virgil's aeneid is not at all like caesar or homer. his "team" definitely seemed to be the "good guys", leading up to the later rule of augustus. i hated the aeneid.

my other comment is on cicero's powers of persuasion. it's worth knowing that in roman times, rhetorical skills might not have been as important as in athens. cicero, like all political heavyweights at the end of the roman republic, had an entire gang of bullies to make sure the audiences in the comitia voted the way he wanted. i read that of the 200 or so comitia recorded in roman literature, the person who set up the hearing lost in only 3 or so cases, even where the hearings were a day or so apart and came to completely opposite verdicts (because political adversaries set up separate comitia hearings rather than attempting to speak at the other guy's hearing, because they knew they'd lose anyway because the other guy's hearing was staged).

there was apparently a multi-tiered system of thugs employed by each "orator". the hearings were apparently as staged as moern political addresses to party members.

i read this stuff in a 1999 study of roman rhetoric, it's not my own opinion. just another opinion to take into account in thinking about cicero's rhetoric. cheers, chad. :)

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