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The Subalterns Speak: Remembering the Words of Caesar’s Officers

Lydia Spielberg

University of Calfornia, Los Angeles

It is nothing new to observe that direct speech is rare in Caesar’s commentarii. While direct speech gives the impression of immediacy and vividness, it is also, within a narrative that purports to be factual, inherently implausible as a true record (Laird 131-52). Indirect discourse, by contrast, may give the impression that the author reports no more than what could plausibly be remembered: the content of the original speech but not its specific form (cf. Thuc. 1.22.1: ἡ ξύμπασα γνώμη τῶν ἀληθῶς λεχθέντων). Caesar’s unadorned and “objective” narrating persona maintains an appearance of omniscience in part by rarely requiring the reader to suspend disbelief about the transmission and recall of a lengthy, polished speech (cf. Grillo 2011). The general avoidance of direct discourse, however, gives a greater impression of authenticity to the rare words that Caesar does transmit as if direct quotations, and this is especially true of those that are presented as short, memorable quips rather than extended orations (cf. Rasmussen 18-20).

In this paper I examine the rhetorical and historiographical functions of a substantial subset of short, direct-discourse utterances in Caesar: words attributed to centurions, standard-bearers, and anonymous soldiers. Caesar regularly singles out such subordinates, described by Welch as the “brave and loyal centurion type” for colorful, personalized scenes of prowess, a historiographical reward for, and demonstration of, outstanding loyalty (Welch 90, cf. Batstone/Damon134-6). These speakers and their ostensibly authentic words are, I argue, particularly useful for Caesar because they give vivid and explicit voice to sentiments that would be impolitic or indecorous for Caesar to claim in his own voice.

The impression of authenticity, as well as the low status of the speakers, ensure that Caesar remains somewhat aloof from their sentiments, while the very fact that he deigns to transmit their words signals both his attentiveness to his men and the special relevance of the utterances themselves. In the Bellum Civile, where the politics of Caesar’s self-representation as both narrator and general have become especially delicate, “subaltern speakers” like the dying aquilifer (3.64.3) and the centurion Crastinus (3.91.1-3) exemplify and vocalize the army’s loyalty to their commander and their conviction that he and they are fighting to liberate the Roman people. When Crastinus exhorts his men at Pharsalus, “This is the only battle left; once it’s over, the general will recover his rank and we our freedom” (3.91.3, Unum hoc proelium superest; quo confecto et ille suam dignitatem et nos nostram libertatem reciperabimus) and then promises Caesar his good service, his words serve as confirmation – from the “independent” voice of another speaker – of Caesar’s own self-presentation. But whereas Caesar, both narrator and character, insists that he would sacrifice his standing for peace and has made every concession thereto, (1.8.3, 1.32.4, 3.90.1-2), Crastinus, speaking simply and spontaneously “from below,” can explicitly equate Caesar’s rank and popular freedom.

Some sense of the specificity of such “subaltern” quotations to the immediate aims of Caesar’s commentarii can be seen in their reception by later historians. Plutarch (Caes. 9.10) and Appian (Civ. 2.82), also include brave words for Crastinus at Pharsalus, but omit the statement that in Caesar carried the most explicit ideological charge. While this abbreviation may testify to the skepticism of Caesar’s accuracy by the intermediate source, Asinius Pollio (Pelling 44-47, cf. Morgan 2000), I suggest that the elision also illustrates the power that notionally authentic utterances possess within a historiographical narrative. Crastinus’ optimistic faith that Pharsalus will end the civil wars and his commitment to Caesar’s political goals would look sadly naïve in the aftermath of the dictatorship and civil wars, and are slightly out of sync with the position of Plutarch’s and Appian’s works. The reduction of Crastinus’ words to a statement of personal loyalty – an undisputed aspect of Caesar’s biography – highlights the specificity and power of “subaltern speech” in Caesar’s contemporary history.

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Contemporary Historiography: Convention Methodology and Innovation

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