Thursday, May 13, 2021


Teaching Caesar's Gallic War

Bijan Omrani, Caesar's Footprints. A Cultural Excursion to Ancient France: Journeys Through Roman Gaul (New York: Pegasus Books, 2017), pp. 3-5 (footnote omitted):
It was a Wednesday morning deep in the winter term, period two. I was conducting a Latin language session with a bright but not especially motivated lower sixth. The unfortunate fodder for this exercise was the fifth book of Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War, describing his conquest of Gaul between 58 and 50 BC.

There was something almost ritualized about the pupils' misery during these sessions. The use of Caesar as fodder for teenage children to take their first steps in translating 'real' Latin, after leaving behind the safety of language textbooks, is an ancient tradition. Say 'Caesar' to anyone who has been subjected to an education containing a classical component, and there are two likely reactions. One the one hand, a cheerful reminiscence of how good Caesar was for them: how wonderfully hard his writing worked their brain, as if his dialogues were specifically designed — like some formidable fibre-laced breakfast cereal — to improve their cerebral motions. On the other, a cross-eyed stab of agony, like thinking back to a mental version of the Somme, where all was muddy quagmire and barbed-wire entanglements formed of indirect statements enmeshed with ablative absolutes and gerundives of obligation. My lower sixth form class was very much in the latter camp.

I hated it that, for generations of schoolchildren, this was the miserable end to which Caesar's account of the Gallic Wars was put. During that lesson, as someone, floundering in a particularly long and vicious stretch of oratio obliqua, paused and expressed his total disgust for Caesar, The Gallic Wars and the whole exercise, I felt compelled to pause and make a defence, if not of using Caesar for grammar bashing, then at least of Caesar's writing. It was, I pleaded, rather more than a random tale of legions being marched and legates being dispatched. The text stood as an extraordinary account of the very foundation of modern Europe: for it was by taking the heartlands of Gaul under their control that the Romans introduced the culture of the Latin Mediterranean to the European north. Without this conquest — which was not a historical inevitability, and which was undertaken on the spur of the moment because of Caesar's own political circumstances and all-consuming ambition — the Roman empire would likely never have had the reach or staying power that it attained. The modern languages of Europe would probably have been more Celtic than Latinate in nature. The literary classics of Virgil, Cicero and Ovid, and the masterpieces of ancient Greek literature that influenced them, might not have had such a profound impact on the Western tradition. The same is the case for classical ideas of philosophy, law, rhetoric, music and architecture. Christianity likewise would perhaps never have penetrated Europe as deeply as would prove to be the case. Without Caesar's conquest of Gaul, the map of modern Europe would look entirely different. There would have been no European neurosis springing from the memory of the barbarian invasions across the Rhine in the fifth century AD; no Charlemagne; no modern state of France; no Renaissance in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — and very little likelihood that we would have been sitting in that classroom reading a classic work of Latin literature on a cold Wednesday morning.

I expressed myself largely and eloquently. My class essentially told me to sod off.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?