An Audio-Book Review: This is the World of Commander McBragg!


Commentaries : On the Gallic War and On the Civil War

By Gaius Julius Caesar

Translated by Rex Warner

Published by Audio Connoisseur

(includes “Gaius Julius Caesar: a Brief Biography” by Henry Stewart Jones)

Read by Charlton Griffin

The Texts:

Does anyone else remember the short feature from the Tennessee Tuxedo show called “The World of Commander McBragg?”  If you do not, they kind of went like this; with an initially unwilling listener as McBragg commenced on yet another tall tale of his amazing adventures:

Quite.

McBragg: Did I ever tell you about my time among the Zulus?

Listener: Well, no, but I really must be going…

McBragg: I had just finished climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in nothing but my swim fins when …

McBragg would go on and on with the story getting ever more fantastic and eventually the listener would get caught up in the story…

McBragg: so there I was, surrounded by a thousand Zulu warriors…

Listener: Good Lord, McBragg! What did you do?

McBragg: I quickly picked up a large sheep’s bladder, filled it with the hot air from my lungs and floated off to safety.

Listener: An amazing flight of fancy, Commander!

McBragg: Quite.

I don’t know if any of the episodes actually included any of that, but they might have. Actually, I think they all ended with “Quite.” However, that, in many ways is what Caesar’s Commentaries sound like. They are engaging, first person narratives of Julius Caesar’s experiences at war. Well…..

Okay, let us take a step back here. After having such negative experiences with some recent audiobooks, I thought it might be nice to listen to something a bit older. The Commentaries might not be Gilgamesh but as for ancient writings, they certainly qualify.

My previous experience with the Commentaries was in High School Latin class. “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.”  Or “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” That is the way I think most of us learned it. Rex Warner paraphrased it a bit with “The country of Gaul consists of three separate parts.” Correct, I suppose, but with a paraphrase like that on one of the most famous literary passages of all time, one can only wonder what liberties were taken later on. Not having read more than the first book in Latin – and not remembering much of it from then – I really could not say, but it was fun to read or listen to regardless.

As it turns out, most of the translational paraphrases involve changing Caesar’s text from a third person to a first person narrative, which consequently makes it all sound like my old friend McBragg is involved. Caesar referred to himself throughout the Commentaries in the third person. Caesar dis this, Caesar did that and so forth. You can get a real feel for how it would have come off if he did that when speaking out loud by reading Asterix the Gaul comics in which as a parody of the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars Caesar continually refers to himself in the third person.

For all I know, he might have been guilty of such illeism when speaking publicly. He would hardly have been the only politician in history to do so. I shall leave the psychological ramification of doing so to others. Is he showing his arrogance? Trying to draw attention to himself in a narcissistic manner?  Setting himself above his fellow Roman citizens? Maybe all of that and maybe not.

It is my personal suspicion that Caesar used the third person in order to make his commentaries read like an objective history and not like the personally biased proto-blog his Commentaries were. But Warner’s translation of these books as first person commentaries brings the stories to life. “I raised the signal banner and blew the trumpet. Then I grabbed a shield from one of the soldiers behind me and forced my way to the front.” Is far more engaging and interesting  to modern eyes and ears than hearing that “Caesar raised the signal banner…” and so forth. Especially when one’s immediate instinct is to respond, “Hey, Caesar-dude! You’re talking about yourself, man…”

It should be remembered that The Commentaries were intended for a wide audience in Rome during the late Republican period at a time when the democratic trappings of the Republic were crumbling despite bold attempts to restore an idealized Republic that never really existed. Caesar’s Commentaries are his autobiography and, in essence, no different from the plethora of autobiographies our modern Presidents, First Ladies, Prime Ministers and a lot of politicians who want to be.

Republican politics were divided into two basic sides most of the time. There were the Optimates –literally the “Best People” who were not only the Patricians, but the richest of the rich and those who were committed to keeping the Patricians on top of Roman society. They included Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Marcus Tulius Cicero, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and a long list of names only a classicist can memorize

Then there were the Populares, populists. These were not necessarily Plebian-class citizens. Many of them, most of whom we have heard, were Patricians who chose to court the public as their political base. They include Tiberius Gracchus, Lucius Sergius Catalina, Publius Clodius Pulcher and a similarly long cast of characters. Julius Caesar was another famous Roman populist (as was his adopted son, Octavian – later Augustus) and his commentaries served to boost his popularity with the people. His followers could say, “Look what Caesar has done. This is why we follow him.” And in a republic in which elections still took place even if they were heavily weighted in favor of the Patricians, such popularity was important. So the Commentaries are, in some ways, self-serving political propaganda.

However, most historians consider them accurate as far as they go. Inaccuracies are by omission of incidents and facts that might have portrayed Caesar in an unfavorable light (although he does suffer set-backs from time to time) and not by deliberate fabrication of falsehoods. So, take what you read here with a grain of salt. Then again, take any Roman era history with a grain of salt. An historian was safest when writing about historic figures who had no living and influential descendants. The closer they got to the present, the more careful they had to be when writing about people the guys in power actually cared about. There was no “Freedom of the Press.”

Getting back to Warner’s first person translation… Changing to the first person really brings the story to life and makes it as though we were having a cup of fine aged Fallernian wine with Jules in his favorite tavern. In fact when the translation reached Book 8 of the Gallic War which was not written by Caesar but by Aulus Hirtius at the request of Balbus so that the Commentaries would be complete, Warner switches to the third person, since this passage was no longer autobiographical. It works in its way, but the story is not as interesting when it is not Caesar himself dictating his memoirs.

Caesar’s own Commentaries ends with a better cliff hanger than most Hollywood productions can manage, “This was the beginning of the Alexandrian war” It sure left me wanting more, but Caesar never found the time to finish his Commentaries. Instead they were finished by Aulus Hirtius and/or Caesar’s friend Oppius. Certainly in Hirtius’ letter to Balbus he states his intention of  bringing the story up to the date of Caesar’s assassination. Whether he did it or it was Oppius, or else a combined effort if not known for certain.

No matter why Caesar wrote these books, however, they are essential to our understanding of Late Republican Rome. This was as uncertain a moment of history as any. One can argue that the civil wars of Republican Rome lasted from 133 BC until after Octavian defeated Marcus Antonius although careful historians will differentiate a dozen or more conflicts within this span of time and they were hardly the end of such conflicts. Roman history is full civil wars. Sometimes I find it hard to believe the empire stayed together as well as it did in its shaky way, but it did and it is Julius Caesar himself who gives us a first-hand insight into what it meant to be Roman.

The Audiobook:

I admit that I was not expecting to really enjoy this recording. I was interested, sure, but was afraid that after the first twenty minutes I would be trying to claw my way out of it. That was, after all, my reaction to some of the duller parts of Don Quixote, but whether it was Julius Caesar’s words, Rex Warner’s loose translation or Charlton Griffin’s reading( and his British accent – as I have said, all Ancient Roman patricians spoke with  British accents so this felt right) it all came together for me as an enjoyable experience. I’m only sorry this did not include the three later volumes finished by Hirtius and/or Oppius.

I highly recommend reading or listening to this translation of Caesar’s Commentaries. Do keep in mind that it involves a lot of paraphrasing to make Caesar’s words first person, but  there are plenty of other translations to which to compare it. Well, you could learn Latin for yourself and read the original… or just read Asterix. All told it is a grand adventure, made all the more interesting because it really happened.

McBragg: Quite!

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