History writer Bill Yenne's contribution to the Palgrave Macmillan "The World Generals Series," Julius Caesar: Lessons in Leadership From the Great Conqueror, offers a stellar study guide to Julius Caesar's Gallic and Civil War commentaries. Yenne clarifies and simplifies strategy, manoeuvres, and the timing of the military events. He also relates them to specific 20th century military campaigns. Best of all, Yenne seems to know the physical geography*, so he explains why, for instance, Armorica (modern Brittany) proved harder for the Romans to conquer than expected.
"In understanding the Veneti and their allies, as well as the defense-friendly topography of their peninsula, Caesar and Crassus would have good company. In August 1944, seven weeks after the epic Allied invasion of nearby Normandy in World War II, General George Patton's US Third Army was tasked with capturing Brittany (Armorica) from the Germans as part of Allied Operation Cobra. Despite initial optimism, the Americans found to their dismay that things did not go well or as quickly as expected."
Yenne relies on seven ancient sources: the great Julius Caesar himself, author of Commentarii de bello Gallico and Commentarii de bello civili, Appian, Cassius Dio, Plutarch, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus. He says that "[a]ll historical works about Caesar are based in whole or in part on the writings of five ancient authors" (Caesar, Appian, Cassius Dio, Suetonius, and Plutarch). In this he misses out on the contributions of Caesar's contemporaries, Livy, author of a history of Rome with lost segments on Caesar that are, nonetheless, available in summary form through the Periochae and perhaps Lucan's Pharsalia, and Cicero, statesman, letter writer, and orator. Yenne looks to Tacitus and Caesar for material on the ancient Germans.
Populares vs. Optimates ≠ Democrats vs. Republicans
While the chronology and war details make Yenne's biography worth reading and keeping as a companion to Caesar's commentaries, there are serious issues the modest size of Yenne's bibliography helps explain. Before going further, let me say it is breath-taking to think Yenne accomplished so much with so little -- to my reading, mostly Plutarch and Caesar. My primary concern is his comparison of the ancient world with the 21st century political arena. While the military campaign comparisons sound right to my non-militarily-trained mind, my take on the politics of the late Roman Republic is highly influenced by Lily Ross Taylor's Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, who writes:
"[T]he optimates were working for the maintenance of an oligarchy while the great figures who adopted popular methods were usually attempting to establish personal supremacy."and Erich Gruen, in The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, who writes:
"Senatorial coteries were never permanent alliances. Their informal nature precluded rigid organization or 'party loyalty'.... Dignitas and gloria were the ends."
so I find it jarringly simplistic to see Yenne say:
"[The Populares] favored having the power of the republic flow from popular democracy."
"[A]s a Populare, Caesar would devote his political career to supporting the cause of the plebians within Roman government and society."
When Sulla was in power, he did what he could to reverse the losses of the senatorial class in the sphere of political power, but he was out of office by 79 B.C. [see Plebeian Timeline]. Caesar's notorious First Triumvirate [see 1st Triumvirate Timeline] started two decades later [see Caesar's Rise to Power]. Opposed to the Populares were the Optimates or Boni; foremost among them was one Cato the Younger, who was himself a plebeian, as well as a model of incorruptibility and so staunch an opponent of Julius Caesar that he committed suicide in protest against Caesar's assumption of supreme power. Another plebeian was Clodius Pulcher 'the Beautiful', who started his life as a patrician, but gave it up so he could have more power, which he could only get by becoming a plebeian. Caesar himself, said to come from a patrician line, and this, one of the most illustrious of them all, had a plebeian mother and novus homo and plebeian Marius as an uncle. At this period, in the last years of the Roman Republic, while a Cato might rail against bribery, candidates did buy votes, provincial governors made money from the people they governed, and popular favor was curried with entertainment spectacles. Also, I don't know where Yenne got the idea that from the time of the 12 tables (which is what he must mean when he refers to the fifth century B.C. written constitution), Rome had "a legal system comprised of written laws enacted by an elected legislature" -- or maybe I just don't understand what he means. It sounds to me as though he has projected modern legislative systems backwards in time.
Caesar as the 1st Emperor
More trivial problems arise, possibly from using English translations, rather than Latin. Yenne says "Pontifex Maximus" translates "literally" as "great bridge builder." What pontifex means is debated, although "bridge builder" is a leading contender, but maximus is the superlative, not the positive, and is usually translated "greatest." Yenne refers to the ancient language of the Germanic tribes as "German" and mislocates Cisalpine Gaul in one context, although he corrects it later. The most egregious error, in my estimation, might at first sight be seen as a minor semantic quibble. It isn't. It is a serious anachronism. Sulla is referred to as an aging emperor. This error is in the foreword, which was written by General Wesley K. Clark. Yenne knows better.
"He was arguably the greatest of the Roman conquerors, and, though the title of emperor did not exist in his lifetime, it can be argued that Julius Caesar was the first and perhaps greatest among Roman emperors."
Other matters of debate include whether or not Brutus was a son, an heir, or neither. Yenne only considers him as an heir, which he says was why Caesar referred to him as teknon "child" in his (Kai su, tekon? used by Shakespeare in the form "Et tu, Brute?") death scene. Another controversy Yenne picks sides on without explanation is whether or not Caesar's wife actually had an affair with Clodius Pulcher [see the Bona Dea scandal]. Yenne assumes that Caesar's wife was not simply "not above suspicion," but guilty as charged. Plutarch writes:
"Caesar at once dismissed Pompeia, but being summoned as a witness against Clodius, said he had nothing to charge him with. This looking like a paradox, the accuser asked him why he parted with his wife. Caesar replied, "I wished my wife to be not so much as suspected."
Yenne also seems to reverse the order of being hailed as imperator and celebrating a triumph. Likewise, he seems to say that Caesar was assassinated before he reached the Senate. The building in which the Senate met that March day in 44 B.C. had burned down some years before and had not been completely restored by the fateful Ides, so, instead, the Senate met in the porticus of the Theater of Pompey. [See In the Steps of Julius Caesar.]
"Ironically, Caesar was on his way to an appearance at the Senate when he met conspirators at the Theatrum Pompeium (Theater of Pompey), which had been dedicated to Caesar's rival in 52 BC."
Most of the problems I had reading the non-Gallic War sections of this book are theoretical and based on my biases and dislike of forcing the modern U.S. square pegs into the round Roman holes. Caesar was a great military commander. On this point, Yenne and I are in agreement.
* One of this site's guest reviewers Irene Hahn, a German from one of the areas Yenne details, says he erred about Rhine geography [see Roman History Reading Group on Facebook]
Julius Caesar: Lessons in Leadership From the Great Conqueror
By Bill Yenne
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan: 2012
205 pages; 4 maps and charts; 8 pages of pictures
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.