There was a time when every schoolboy knew his second-year Latin class would teach him Julius Caesar’s Gallic War. In first-year Latin, farmers and sailors and soldiers predominated. The linguistic accident that the Latin words for sailor and farmer—as well as for poet—take feminine grammatical forms was uncomfortably taken for granted. But this meant, of course, that the first and easiest declension of nouns, mostly feminine in meaning as well as in form, could be used to construct sentences about men’s activities. Marcus est agricola. Marcus est nauta. Marcus most certainly non est femina.
After that beginning we ploughed and sailed steadfastly through the declensions, constructed bridges over torrential conjugations, built castra of vocabulary, armed ourselves with ablative absolutes, and prepared ourselves for an agrarian and military career to be fulfilled in the readings of second year. We really didn’t come to grips with Roman women’s lives, except perhaps for snippets of Lucretia the raped and Cornelia the mother of sons, unless we survived into the fourth year, when we finally read of Juno’s implacability, Venus’s maternity, and Dido’s fatal passion in the Aeneid. We never did get as far as Camilla in her own full armor.
The argument was that reading Caesar in second-year Latin made good pedagogical sense. The text is prose, not verse. The prose is straightforward and limpid, a general’s diction, no nonsense and no ambiguity. Circumstances and descriptions repeat themselves and thereby reinforce a solid Roman settlement. But a literary translator becomes wary of affirmations of limpid prose and unambiguous diction, and very little in language is settled. So, when I look at the opening words of Commentarii de bello Gallico, I find it as politically treacherous as the steamy corruptions and conspiracies that came to trip us up in Cicero’s third-year class.
Thus, “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…,” seven words that have become a common enough Latin tag. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the conventional translation has been that of W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn in 1869: “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” This reads the verb est as a copula, the word divisa as a predicate adjective, fair enough. What could be more limpid and unambiguous?Yet the words can actually, and just as naturally, be read as a past perfect passive verb: “All Gaul has been divided into three parts,” and this translation makes a mighty political difference. Like all passive constructions, it raises an otherwise unspoken question—Who did the dividing?
These two readings are differentiated along a line I would locate around 1960—the finality of British imperialism that did not question colonial divisions, and the surge of post-colonial consciousness. Franz Fanon breathes into the ear of Vercingetorix, Che Guevara takes the field among the ranks of the Nervii. And yet, this revolutionary reading has never been a choice of translators. Caesar has always camped his legions in the province of empire-builders.
But there is more, for nothing is innocent in the study of history. A good translator takes in not only the context of his or her own culture imposing its politics on a text, but also the intent and circumstances of the original writer. What was Caesar doing when he wrote those lines? He was certainly not writing them for the education of second-year Latin students in a British public school. No, Caesar was writing a report back to Rome. Part self-aggrandizement, part propaganda, part history. The rest of the paragraph continues by defining the three major peoples of Gaul, their geographic boundaries and their character. (The Belgae come out best, being “least often visited by merchants introducing the commodities that make for effeminacy.”) The kind of language Caesar was aspiring to, then, seems to have been as objective as possible, even—dare we say it—academic. The most accurate translation would reflect that judicious neutrality, the ethnography of the initial description, say: “All Gaul may be considered as divided into three parts…” But, accurate as this might be, it clearly won’t do. It does violence to the muscular simplicity of Caesar’s actual Latin. Round and round we go.
And then we arrive at yet another layer. It might be coincidence that The Gallic War, so obsessed with Germanic incursions into Celtic Roman territory, was a staple of secondary education just during those decades when a more contemporary Germany loomed. “Next, [Caesar] could see that the Germans were becoming gradually accustomed to cross over the Rhine, and that the arrival of a great host of them in Gaul was dangerous for the Roman people,” Edwards translated in 1917. It wasn’t just every schoolboy who knew that.
The commentaries waned in popularity when the map of modern Europe was redrawn. Nowadays, Latin is taught very differently. A new generation has come to bury Caesar, not to read him. (His implacable enemy Cicero is gone as well.) A campaign to revive interest in Latin in the 1970s, fought on the field of “relevance,” brought domestic activities into the schoolroom. Marcus and his lively sister Cornelia, the new Dick and Jane of Latin studies, have led my daughter through a rich and diverse Roman social landscape until they handed her over to Pliny and Petronius. Much has been gained, but a swath of hotly disputed territory in Gaul has been lost.