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The Exemplary Imperialism of Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War

Rex Stem

University of California- Davis

This paper argues that Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War can be read as an explication of Roman attitudes toward imperialism and international relations. Caesar has often been read as self-serving, tendentious, and propagandistic, and cynical readers assume that his text is little more than all about him. But Caesar's political shrewdness, literary sophistication, and rhetorical clarity – all highlighted in recent scholarship (Riggsby 2006, Grillo 2012, Grillo and Krebs 2018) – suggest that his texts are more than crude propaganda. To the degree that propaganda reflects the political thought of the culture for which it was produced, then acquiescing to Caesar's favorable characterization of himself allows the cultural assumptions behind the characterization to become more visible. On this approach, Caesar's narrative of conquest can be seen to justify not only his own actions, but also the paternalistic militarism of Roman political thought. Such an approach to Caesar as a political thinker derives from the recent reconception of the practice of Roman exemplarity as a method of developing the representation of the specific in a generalizing way (Lowrie and Lüdemann 2015). Other important recent work on exemplarity stresses its open-ended nature (i.e., that authors want readers to recognize the potential ambiguities of exempla and so think for themselves: Chaplin 2000, Lowrie 2007, Langlands 2011), but Caesar's strategy is different. He controls the narrative so tightly that he all but tells the reader what to think (Melchior 2009 provides a case study of the African War). Caesar depicts himself as an exemplary figure, both as a commander and as a Roman (Raaflaub 2018), yet his exemplary method is understudied (although Brown 2004 provides a beginning). This paper argues that Caesar employs an exemplary historiographical method in which he shapes and elevates the particular into the general: he presents abundant and specific information within a framework that shapes it into familiar patterns and thereby enables it to trigger a generalized collective reaction. In Book 1 of the Gallic War, the representative sample on which this paper focuses, Caesar presents the actions of his enemies such that he implicitly establishes the superiority of the principles of Roman imperialism relative to Gallic and Germanic alternatives. In the early chapters of Book 1, for example, Caesar introduces the Helvetii as a belligerent and chaotic people desirous of gaining control of all Gaul (1.2-6). Their decision to migrate from their homeland leads to their pillaging of peoples adjacent to the Roman province (1.11). The Helvetians are thus an immediate threat to Rome's interests, but at the same time their particular movements generate a generic response: Rome would want any of its proconsuls to march against any hostile people massing next to their borders (1.7-12). Caesar just happens to be the particular agent of Rome's general policy of defensive imperialism. Likewise, when Caesar decides to pursue diplomatic relations with the German commander Ariovistus in the latter half of Book 1, he depicts his motivations as the preservation of existing Roman alliances and the upholding of Rome's central position in the bestowing and receiving of international recognition (1.32-33, 35, 40, 43, 45). Ariovistus is characterized as Caesar's foil, rudely rejecting the world of mutual alliances and asserting that the law of war renders the conquerors free to do as they wish (1.34, 36, 44). Once the conflict has been developed into a clash between two conceptions of hegemony and how each regards the defeated, then the military victory over Ariovistus also represents the superiority of Roman diplomatic practices to the barbarism of Ariovistus' tyranny (1.30-31, 53). Caesar's narrative skill at casting himself and his enemies as types develops his actions into idealized Roman actions (for this practice in Livy's early books, see Vasaly 2015), by which his interests are Roman interests and the principles that explain his individual conduct also espouse the deeper principles of Roman imperialism.

Session/Panel Title

Political Thought in Latin Literature

Session/Paper Number

57.2

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