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Plutarch’s Caesar and the Historical Tradition Regarding Caesar’s Gallic War

Rex Stem

This paper argues that Plutarch’s depiction of Caesar’s conduct during the Gallic War (Caesar 15-27) explicitly reflects the rhetorical purposes left implicit within Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War. He renders unto Caesar precisely what Caesar sought to be rendered, claiming that the Gallic War marked Caesar’s new start in public life, one that would make him the greatest of all Rome’s generals (Caes. 15). Plutarch has been praised for his independence when sifting through the ancient tradition (see, e.g., Shipley 1997 on Agesilaus and Badian 2003 on Alexander), but it must also be recognized that Plutarch sometimes uncritically endorses the perspective of his source. In his narrative of Caesar’s Gallic War he reveals himself – perhaps unwittingly, if, as Pelling 2011: 44-47 argues, he drew his narrative from Pollio and not Caesar’s own text – to be Caesar’s ideal reader.

When, for example, Caesar is ambushed by the Nervians and his disordered army is on the cusp of defeat, Caesar grabs a shield and rushes to the front line in order to encourage his men and to have them loosen their formation. His arrival brought hope, Caesar says, and the attack of the enemy was slowed a bit (BG 2.25). He implies but does not state that his conspicuous arrival turned the tide of the battle. In Plutarch, by comparison, “Only one thing saved the Romans from complete destruction, and that was Caesar himself, who grabbed his shield ... and hurled himself into the enemy” (Caes. 20.8, Pelling trans.). Plutarch thus transforms Caesar’s implicit heroism (what Goldsworthy 1998 describes as his “instinctive genius”) into the one thing that saves the army. This is the strongest of a series of examples along similar lines (compare Caes. 18.3 to BG 1.25.1; 18.5 to 1.28.3-4; 19.3-4 to 1.39-40; 22.2-5 to 4.11-15; 24.3 to 5.52.2; 26.3-4 to 7.8.2-3); in all cases the interpretation to which Caesar’s text points is openly developed and sometimes exaggerated in Plutarch’s biography.

Grillo 2012: 6 rightly observes that “Caesar’s art in fact does not consist in openly falsifying the narrated events so much as in directing the reader to infer the particular ethical points that he wants to make.” In the case of the Gallic War, Plutarch (via Pollio, whose judgment of Caesar’s accuracy at Suetonius, DJ 56.4 is rendered ironic) has fallen under the spell of Caesar’s art. Plutarch does not ultimately endorse Caesar’s pursuit of power (e.g., Caes. 69.1), yet his account of the Gallic War depicts it as an unambiguously glorious achievement for Caesar (Pelling 2011: 203; cf. Pliny, NH 7.92) and the basis for the judgment that Caesar’s generalship surpassed that of his Roman predecessors (Caes. 15.3-4). That judgment is the implicit telos of Caesar’s own account, but Caesar himself never writes it. Indeed, the deeper strategy behind Caesar’s false modesty as the author of commentarii is to provide the raw narrative for others to embellish (Cicero, Brutus 262; Riggsby 2006: 133-150), and Plutarch’s narrative reveals Caesar’s success in causing the later tradition of writers on the Gallic War to take his bait. 

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Plutarch and Late Republican Rome

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