The Civil War - Caesar

The Civil War
Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140441875 (Amazon link)

I'm not even going to pretend to review one of the most famous books ever written, but I do want to recommend it to people who might fear it'll be a difficult or dry read. I'm fascinated by Rome's history, but my actual knowledge of it is rather sketchy, with too much of what I know of Sulla, Caesar, Pompey etc coming from novels. In my efforts to learn more about the real history I've tried a few lack-lustre textbooks, then realised that we are privileged with plenty of documentary evidence about the period, including some material by key figures. I recently took the plunge and read The Gallic Wars, and was surprised to find it very accessible.

The Civil War is much more interesting, in my opinion, packed with colourful incident and shot through with politics. It is very much a brief military history though, and certain passages are best read again in light of other reading to appreciate their significance (well, that's what I found anyway).

This edition includes The Alexandrian War, The African War and The Spanish War by Caesar's lieutenants, as well as copious notes and decent appendices (my usual complaints about the readability of foot-notes vs end-notes still stands though). In some ways, some of the more interesting material is in these later books, and it's a real pity not to have Caesar's own thoughts on the events described - for example, particularly interesting from our modern perspective is the rather dispassionate report on how Cleopatra rose to power.

Honestly, if you are a fan of the historical novels of Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, Colleen McCollough etc then do at least try Caesar's own writing. You might expect it to be fascinating, but I doubt you expect accounts of single-combat between a man and an elephant... (The African War)

As an aside, I have to recommend perhaps the best history books I've ever read - John Julius Norwich's history of Byzantium is utterly brilliant reading, covering the period from they city's origin as an eastern extension of Rome to its final invasion by Mehmet (on a Tuesday). The trilogy is much to be preferred over the omnibus edition, and yes, I did read both. It starts with Byzantium: The Early Centuries .

Posted: Tue - September 30, 2003 at 12:19 AM