In Medias Res logo

Published by the Paideia Institute

A Better Way to Read Caesar

A Better Way to Read Caesar

Julius Caesar embodies the contradictions and controversies of the Classical. His influence is everywhere. He set up the 365-day calendar with leap years we use with minor modifications today. July is named for him, as are all history’s Kaisers and Czars. Names like Julia and Cesar and Julio and Jules gained much of their currency because of him. His brutal military exploits brought the Latin language into Gaul and ultimately created the French language. The Roman Republic never recovered from the wounds he dealt. He is one of the most praised writers in history, but his writings fit all too perfectly the definition of a classic: a work which is often praised but seldom read.

What is more, the few who do read Caesar typically read him under poor conditions. Someone long ago decided that Caesar was a ‘first Latin author,’ and students are thrown from their Latin textbooks into the Gallic War, and expected to be able to read it with pleasure or at least profit. In general, they have not been able to do so.

Now there is a reason to return to Caesar: a new edition from the Paideia Institute Press, called a Dolphin edition, modeled on the Ad Usum Delphini texts produced hundreds of years ago for the education of the crown prince of France. The Ad Usum Delphini (AUD) texts have been a kind of legend among Classicists who really wish to learn to read the authors well and with pleasure. For poetry, AUD texts contain a simplified Latin paraphrase of the poet’s verses, which allows a reader’s brain to remain in Latin for the reading experience, a key element in mastering a language. Latin notes complete the monolingual (i.e., all-Latin) experience. The Paideia Institute, inspired by the AUD texts, last year produced an edition of Vergil in Latin, an updated monolingual edition with a revised paraphrase and rewritten notes, and followed it with a monolingual edition of the first book of the Iliad in Greek.

An excerpt from this edition featuring a map of Gaul. Next comes a Dolphin edition of Caesar’s Commentarii De Bello Gallico. It represents a striking improvement over the original AUD edition of Caesar — and indeed over all available editions. The AUD editions of prose authors contained no Latin paraphrases of the original, but only learned notes in Latin, often of dubious value to the modern reader. The Paideia edition, on the other hand, contains a full running Latin paraphrase of Caesar’s text: at times a simplification, at times a rephrasing in order to use different vocabulary or word order. And so for Caesar’s famous “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres,” we have “Gallia dividitur in tres partes.” The effect is the same as what is called in the jargon of pedagogy an “embedded reading”: students can build up their understanding of the more complicated original by constant reference to the different phrasing and simpler construction of the accompanying paraphrase. The simplified version does the same thing a good teacher does during instruction: clarify and restate.

One of the most dramatic episodes in the Gallic Wars comes in Book V. The Romans are scattered in winter camps through the countryside, when one camp receives word that a massive attack is planned against them, with help from the Germans on the other side of the Rhine. There were two commanders. One of them, Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, counseled staying inside their fortifications and waiting for help. The other, Quintus Titurius Sabinus, wanted to join forces with another legion further away from the Rhine. Aurunculeius noted that the intelligence they had received came from a Gaul and was hence not reliable. Titurius replied as follows:

Nōn hostem auctōrem, sed rem spectāre: subesse Rhēnum; magnō esse Germānīs dolōrī Ariovistī mortem et superiōrēs nostrās victōriās; ārdēre Galliam tot contumēliīs acceptīs sub populī Rōmānī imperium redāctam superiōre glōriā reī mīlitāris exstīnctā.

This is a good example of how useful it is to have a Latin paraphrase. The speech is in extended indirect discourse, which reduces all verbs to infinitives and, in general, slaughters students. Here is the paraphrase:

Titūrius volēbat spectāre rem ipsam, nōn hostis cōnsilium. Ille dīxit Rhēnum fluvium esse prope; Germānōs velle Ariovistī mortem et priōrēs clādēs ulcīscī; omnēs Gallōs īrātōs esse, quia plūrimās iniūriās ā Rōmānīs accēpissent et Gallōrum glōria exstīncta esset.

Titurius wanted to look at the situation, not the enemy’s advice. He said that the river Rhine was nearby; the Germans wanted to avenge the death of Ariovistus and earlier military defeats; all the Gauls were angry, because they had suffered much injustice from the Romans and the glory of the Gauls had been extinguished.

This eliminates all kinds of problems with interpreting subesse as being “under” something or ardere implying that combustion is occurring. All without ever having students leave the Latin. What is more, further notes on the text elaborate on the metaphors Caesar uses: when he says that Gaul is burning, a note explains: “ira et furore adversus Romanos.” They were burning with anger and rage against the Romans. It is, in other words, a metaphor.

As any teacher can tell you, one cannot go wrong by trying to make Latin easier for students today. The more explanations the better. And the more practice they get reading simple, clarifying Latin, the better. On the other hand, there is no time wasted on minutiae, name-dropping previous commentators, references to journal articles students will not look up, or anything else which students are apt to find useless. For teachers, notes like this make excellent fodder for comprehension questions. Here, ardere means irasci rather than comburere.

An excerpt featuring an “Ars Artis Gratia” section. The edition, in other words, helps to eliminate many of the opportunities for misunderstanding created by the barriers of language and time. Even without a teacher, a dedicated student can use this edition — which also has a useful glossary in English in the back, as well as a Latin life of Caesar amongst its prefatory materials — to actually understand Caesar’s writing. This is particularly true in the vivid account of the rebellion in Book 5, when Titurius Sabinus actually led his troops out of their camp — with disastrous results.

There does exist a monolingual edition of Caesar, originally edited by Hans Oerberg and today printed by the Accademia Vivarium Novum Press. A glance at the pages of the two editions will show the difference. The Dolphin edition offers more simplification and much more in the way of explanatory notes, pictures, maps, and so forth. The Oerberg edition focuses more narrowly on vocabulary glosses. Both editions have a major drawback, which is that they are incomplete: the Oerberg edition covering only books 1, 2, and 4, and the Dolphin edition covering only the selections mandated by the U.S. Advanced Placement Curriculum. The incompleteness of both editions makes it clear how much work goes into their production. We can only hope that the success of this first generation of Dolphin Editions will encourage more comprehensive tomes to come.

One question is worth bringing up: what is the purpose of a monolingual student edition? Doesn’t this seem like a contradiction in terms? A reader who knew Latin well wouldn’t need a student edition; and a reader who didn’t know Latin well wouldn’t choose an edition entirely in Latin. This is the mindset we need to overcome if we are to produce a new generation of people who are truly comfortable reading the ancient languages. Readers edited entirely in the target language have the power to increase student reading comprehension more quickly than any other type of edition. But there is a caveat: this reader is truly for intermediate readers of Latin. It is not, in fact, a first reader or beginning reader. Students have to look to other sources to take their first steps in Latin. But after mastering a text like this, students will truly be ready to read advanced Latin authors. This is, in other words, a true intermediate reader.

For this reason, anyone who really wants to master Latin should get this book. If you are a teacher whose Latin has never really been fluent, you owe it to yourself to get this book and spend a summer with it. If you are a graduate student who needs a better Latin game to get through that reading list, this is the book to start with. If you are a student looking to get off textbooks once and for all, this is the book for you. It provides the best possible first exposure to the Commentaries: the famous beginning in Book 1; the expedition to Britain and Caesar’s decision-making when faced with the difficulties of landing an army across the English Channel in Book 4; the human drama of the besieged camps, and the heroism of Quintus Cicero, Lucius Vorenus, and Titus Pullo in Book 5; and the ethnographic interlude about druids in Book 6. These excerpts will prepare the reader for one of two outcomes: those who want more can continue on to the culminating saga of Vercingetorix in Book 7, without the help of a running paraphrase; and those who have seen enough of Caesar can put him down, knowing that they have read a representative sampling of Caesar’s surviving work, using the most pedagogically advanced and best available edition.

The Paideia Dolphin Editions are available on the Paideia Institute Store and via online booksellers like

An excerpt featuring an illustration by Maud Taber-Thomas. John Byron Kuhner is editor of In Medias Res. He is working on a biography of Reginald Foster, the legendary Vatican Latinist.

Written by Alex Flint

testing the bio field

Home Donate