I'm listening to The Commentaries of Julius Caesar on audio right now. Some thoughts on the book:
1. This is the second time I've gone through the book, and it's much more understandable. The book is hard to fully grasp without background.
Caesar is an immensely clear writer, but there's 10,000 things left unsaid in his book. If you don't understand the background of his life, and the general scope and plan he had -- and the general machinations of Roman society -- then a lot of actions don't make as much sense.
I've gone through enough Roman history now that I understand the backstory about how Roman politics and military works -- tribunes, consuls, governors, the immunity to prosecution while in office yet retroactive liability to prosecution after leaving office, how the various Popularii leaders had been executed or murdered, how indebted most of the aristocratic politicians became to run for office, the state of the equestrian class, troop makeup, etc.
To really get the most out of the book, you need to know something of the political and financial situation of Caesar, his men, and their general political party. It's a good read without that, but a fantastic read with it.
2. The Ford edited / MacDevitt translated version is pretty good for the layman. They translated most place names and dates. My first attempt at the book had been from one that had the original Roman names in them preserved, which gives you two options -- (1) spend a lot of time looking up maps online to figure out what's going on, or (2) not understand exactly where they were in modern-day terms. They keep the Roman names of the most prominent places (Gaul, Germania, Britannia), but the locations are referenced in terms of modern-day towns and cities. It sounds slightly funny in the writing to hear Caesar refer to modern-day French cities, but it's helpful for getting a bearing on what's going on.
3. Particularly interesting points from The Commentaries --
--Logistics: Caesar is constantly planning around food. He thinks about food more than almost anything else. Keeping his troops fed and supplied is a top priority of his. Almost every decision he makes revolves around making sure they have enough food. He worries less about combat with any particular enemy than he does about getting his supply lines cut in a distant place. Of the precarious situations he faces in the book, the majority come when his supplies are endangered.
--Roman battlefield engineering: The Romans were amazing at building things quickly. Sometimes the Romans would go into pursuit mode, if they were facing an enemy that was much more poorly equipped than them. But if the enemy was somewhat evenly matched, the Romans would spend time digging in and building extensive fortifications. They also were able to construct basic siege materials quickly, as well as boats and bridges. It gave them much stronger defensive positions, let them overtake adversarial fortifications, and -- perhaps most importantly -- struck a huge blow to the confidence of the enemy. Many of the Gallic and German adversaries he faced retreated or even surrendered after seeing the Romans rapidly built fortifications.
--Time: Caesar had a particularly good control of time. He always knew what season it was, and he became much more cautious as soon as the end of summer started to come on. A number of times, towards the end of the year, he'd inflict damage on enemy towns and crops before falling back for the winter. Notably, he built his famous bridge over the Rhine in 10 days, invaded Germany on a punitive expedition, and the Germans immediately retreated from their lands and set themselves up for guerrilla warfare. Caesar didn't engage: instead, he burned their main base, and fell back into Gaul. The whole trip took only 18 days, and then they dismantled the bridge. He had a similar situation in his first expeditionary trip to Britain, and again fell back to Gaul for the winter after a brief trip. He never got caught down in an hostile area in cold weather.
--Training: Caesar's troops were much, much better trained than his adversaries, and that's what contributed to victory after victory. Arguably, a huge part of the eventual fall of the Roman Empire is that Roman culture had diffused and their opponents had become better-trained. But in this day, you can read about the cohesiveness of action in the troops.
--Morale: Caesar had a keen sense of his troops' morale. After a particular branch of his military had been embarrassed, he would often rotate them out of the heavy fighting for a while. To rally troops, he'd often take his bravest and most loyal legion -- the Tenth Legion -- and lead onwards, with himself and the Tenth in the vanguard. People would then fall-in. Caesar was consistently good at motivating his troops, and anticipating their motivations.
--Anticipation and planning: Caesar had pre-planned for many bad outcomes, many of which do happen. Whenever he has a minor setback or reversal, he starts planning around an enemy attacking following that news and set up defensive positions and reserves. He would increase his troops readiness to fight whenever a slightly bad thing had happening, assuming the enemy's scouts had picked up on it.
--Control of information: After having a couple ambushes set for him by factions of supposed allies, Caesar started to control information much better. With his large mixed forces, enforcing secrecy wasn't practical. Therefore, he started to spread some disinformation. He'd leak that a major reversal had happened in Italian Peninsula, and that he needed to fallback, and then he'd feint like he was retreating. When the enemy came out to meet him, he'd actually be at full strength and able to form up quickly into battle lines. The effect was twofold -- he won victories through the disinformation, but he also spread some doubt that defectors and traitors could be trusted.
It's a fascinating book. I'm listening to the Charlton Griffin-narrated version on Audible, which I recommend -- he's my favorite narrator by far.
If you haven't dug into Roman history before, you'll probably miss some important backstory, but it's still a good read/listen. If you have, then it's a damn fine book. You get insights from one of the top generals of all-time in his own words.
"He worries less about combat with any particular enemy than he does about getting his supply lines cut in a distant place."
I read somewhere that top military leaders realise that the most important thing is logistics, not tactics or strategy. Maintaining supply lines is not as glamorous or intellectually stimulating as crafting grand battle plans, but seems to be more important.
These history posts are consistently my favourite, by the way. Keep them coming!
I would love to see Sebastian Marshall's top 100 essential reading list broken down by categories like history and philosophy...
"I, Claudius" has rapidly become my second favorite historical fiction. It's written by the author as an 'autobiography' of the Emperor Claudius, who had all sorts of troubles in his life -- he was lame and could barely walk, was bullied often as a child and overlooked, his father was most likely killed by poisoning at a young age, he stuttered, and had a variety of other issues. And yet, he survived and became Emperor.
I want to recommend it, since it's excellent especially on audiobook (the narrator is awesome, hilarious, does voices well, understands drama, and obviously knew Roman history well enough himself to cover it very credibly).
But the more I thought about recommending the book, the more I realized you need a lot of background on Roman history to truly appreciate it. It's a great book for weaving together the pieces of Roman history from the end of Republic through to the establishment of the Empire, but you need the background on the Republic, Civil Wars, and early Empire first.
So I thought about it. Here's my recommended order for learning some Roman history, with a mix of links to podcasts, books, and audiobooks --
1. Hardcore History's The Death of the Roman Republic series: Hardcore History is my favorite podcast, with Dan Carlin really bringing history to life. This is the best place to dive into Rome, adn it explains all the tensions and conflict of the late Roman Republic which led to the Civil Wars, introduces you intimately to many of the personalities involved, and is really enjoyable and exciting in the process. It's entirely free, so start here.
Having finished Prince of Thorns (see previous blog post) I was fulling intending to pick up a different book but the world of Jorg proved far too attractive when compared to anything else I had lined up.
It won't be a surprise that in this book we find Jorg installed as king in his own right. It is also his wedding day. Rather inconventiently his castle is also about to be attacked by a huge army and he just doesn't have the troops to stop them.
The main story thread takes place over the day of the wedding and the battle to save his castle and kingdom. Any worries that Jorg has become soft in the years since the first book are swifly put aside as it's clear that with a proper army he can simply cause mayhem on a larger scale.
Like the first book there is also a 'flashback' story, again taking place four years previously, a year after he declared himself king. In this his journey takes him to other parts of the broken empire, showing more variety than the first book. There is also more use of arcane powers - for good and evil - and other adversaries join the story.
I thought the first book was excellent, if a little light on plot. This follow up is another notch up on the scale. The battle scenes are tenser, the plans even more desperate. The plot is now in full swing and moves nicely between the two story threads, evens from four years previously having direct impact on the present.