Birth of an Empire: A Review of The Landmark Julius Caesar

“O judgement! thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason…. Bear with me;

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,

And I must pause till it come back to me”

― William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 3, scene 2

History is full of great men who performed daring actions that began the greatest motions of war, peace, love, and terror. Remaining true to the study of great men, Robert B Strassler’s Landmark series offers compelling histories of the ancient world. Strassler’s series began with the publication of the The Landmark Thucydides, followed by The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, Xenophon’s Hellenika, and then The Landmark Arrian: Campaigns of Alexander. Filled with some of the greatest works of the ancient world, each edition usually contains accessible maps, illustrations, diagrams, and some of the best translations from prominent classicists. Over the years, the Landmark series has quickly grown into an authoritative position among students and teachers, for reasons obvious to anyone familiar with Strassler’s work.

The latest addition to this series, The Landmark Julius Caesar: The Complete Works continues that tradition. For the first time, Strassler’s series steps out of its comfort zone of Greek writers, entering the ferocious Imperii Romani. This new work is comprehensive, including all the trademarks of the series that readers have come to know and love. Each page is lavishly adorned with footnotes, detailing important historical, geographical, and political insights about the work. For example, there is additional information given on the nature of rivers and how they presented obstacles to armies, the nature of weapons used in combat, or the political connections of Caesar’s movements to Roman politics. Also among the pages are illustrations of battles plans, maps of army movements, images of Roman weaponry, depictions of ancient coins, and photographs of various stone reliefs or other Roman art such as tablets or busts.

Along with the various addendums, The Landmark Julius Caesar offers five major works: Caesar’s Gallic War and Civil War, as well as the Alexandrian War, African War, and the Spanish War. Each of these pieces was masterfully translated by Kurt A. Raaflaub, a classics professor at Brown University. The book also offers an easy to use glossary, a major classical works list, and several appendices including a list of major figures by John T. Ramsey, and an explanation of Roman military tactics and unit organization by Christopher S. Mackay.

The accuracy of Raaflaub’s simple, yet elegant translation not only improves the readers comprehension, but allows for insight into the mind of Caesar himself. Caesar was a military man, and he lived and died in that manner. His letters, reports, and histories marched to the same beat. He was never one for fanciful oration. So, in the first book of the Gallic wars Caesar famously stated

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur.

This section literally translates to the following:

All Gaul is divided into three parts, of which the Belgae inhabit one, the Aquitani another, the third of which are called in their own language Celtae, called Galli in ours.

Raaflaub translates Caesar's work true to the meaning, but not word-for-word. Instead, the translation is made easily readable and engaging to anyone, be they a classicist or a new reader of ancient texts. This technique has its benefits, and allows for a smooth flow throughout the work for all. Raaflaub therefore translates the above passage as follows:

Gaul, if you take all of it into account, is divided into three regions. The Belgae live in one, the Aquitani in the second, and in the third a people called Celts in their own language but Gauls in ours.

Raaflaub’s fidelity to Caesar’s style allows the man behind the work to be revealed to all. Caesar is unearthed as bold, daring and ready to jump into action, but he can also be quiet and thoughtful with an air of complexity. Caesar did not need to flatter himself in his own histories, for he knew that his deeds would be the only true measure of his character in the ages to come. Caesar therefore states that, in regards to his enemies, he

“should not claim any excess of bravery on his own part, and he should not look down on them.”

With this edition’s translation the reader is therefore able to jump into the history of ancient Rome. The pitched battles between Caesar and Pompey can now be easily accessed in the Civil War, allowing the last few years of the Roman Republic to be examined in detail. Furthermore, the campaigns of Caesar in Greece, northern Africa, and Iberia can all be studied, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of Caesar’s military career. Military buffs and students of history alike will benefit greatly from the knowledge offered by this new edition.

Raaflaub and Strassler’s new Landmark Julius Caesar is therefore a worthy addition to any serious scholar’s library. It contains within it all that an admirer of the ancient world, or the Roman Empire, could desire, placing it among the best in the series.