The Conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar

Title:  The Conquest of Gaul
Author: Julius Caesar
Translated: S. A. Handford
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publish Date: 1982
ISBN: 9780140444339

As the situation was critical and no reserves were available, Caesar snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear (he had not his own shield with him), made his way into the front line, addressed each centurion by name, and shouted encouragement to the rest of the troops, ordering them to push forward and open out their ranks, so that they could use their swords more easily. His coming gave them fresh heart and hope: each man wanted to do his best under the eyes of his commander-in-chief, however desperate the peril, and the enemy’s assault was slowed…

Book II, “The Conquest of the Belgic Tribes, “section 2,
“Piecemeal conquest of the Belgic tribes (57 B.C.),
paragraph 25, lines 6 and 7.

First off, let me preface this review by saying this is not a book I would have ever picked for myself to read. It was a randomly assigned book from Penguin Classics to review. Second, it was not the book originally assigned. The first book had been Fortress Besieged, which I was really excited to get but was unfortunately out of print. And third, I must inform you of the following caveat: I was woefully unable to finish the book. It just was NOT my cuppa.

All that being said, on with the review:

Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul is basically the battle reports from a general, Caesar, to his boss, the Roman Senate and the people of Rome, detailing the events, names and places of his campaigns in Germany, Gaul and Britiannia. It is not war reportage full of excitement and suspense and suspense, but a simple list of details. For what it is, a historical accounting of the Roman push into northern Europe, it is an excellent, informative book to study. And as you study The Conquest of Gaul, make sure to keep your notepad, pen, highlighters and post-it flags handy so that you can get the most out of it. It would also help to be previously acquainted with the histories of the area and peoples in it before picking this book up as it is dense with names and events that would have been common knowledge for the people of the day, but have lost a lot of meaning in the millenniums that have passed.

For me, the book was intolerably boring, but that’s just a taste thing, however I did learn a great deal. For one thing, Caesar was a brilliant strategist and tactician. He was able to see ways to defeat the enemy that completely amazes me. His confidence in his abilities and that of his men, made him feared and respected by those who attempted to oppose his Rome. Some of the battles were won when the warring tribe was informed Caesar was on his way. They would send envoys of unconditional surrender and a plea of mercy to him before he’d even reached their land. He is, without a doubt, one of the top military minds in history.

Not only was Caesar a brilliant soldier and commander, but he was also a man of dedication and honor. He valued his word and made certain it was upheld. He followed a code of ethics that showed the people of Gaul what a civilized people can be.  Romanization was inevitable under Caesar. Tribes converted from barbarianism and fictionalized feuding to peaceful alliances. It is debated what Caesar’s political motivations were, whether he craved dictatorship or he was truly desirous of Rome’s best interests. I personally believe Caesar was less of the manipulative power-hungry megalomaniac I was taught in school, and more the noble patrician who wanted equality for citizens as opposed to the oligarchic political system of the time. He was the Man of the People who became their beloved Emporer, their first Caesar (as a title and office) of many.

I give Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul 4 out of 5 stars. It’s informative and a classic, though very dry and it’s strictly text book-style writing bored me to distraction.

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When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale

Title: When We Were Romans
Author: Matthew Kneale
Paperback: 240 pages
Publisher: Double Day
Publish Date: July 22, 2008
ISBN: 9780385526258

I had seen mum when she got worreid but I never saw her like this, this was worse. I said “mum, its time to get up, don’t you want your breakfast” but she just talked really quietly so I could hardly hear, it was like she was yawning, she said “I think I’ll just stay here, Lawrence, I’m a bit tired.” I said “but you can’t mum, we’ve got to go to Rome, remember” but she didn’t say anything, she just lay in her bed looking up at the cieling with her eyes. I could feel my breathing going fast and Jemimas lips were going all wobbly like she would cry, she said “whats gone wrong with mummy” and I didn’t know what to do, I thought “what about our breakfast?” I thought “I don’t know where we get it, we can’t go without mum” and suddenly I wanted to cry too. But then I thought of something, it was like I just notised it, I thought “I cant get upset too actually or there will be nobody left.”

When We Were Romans is a story of a family in crisis, fleeing from their home to escape the children’s stalking father as told by nine-year-old Lawrence. Through Lawrence’s eyes we witness and feel the life of a child who has no choice or control in his life and must go with and take care of his mentally ill mother. In this, Lawrence is both a helpless child desperate for his mother’s affection and care giver who must watch her carefully, always ready to do or say whatever he must to keep her from slipping into a deep depressive state.  (I kept wondering if she was a bipolar, borderline personality, or had paranoid schitzophrenia.)

It is heartbreaking to watch Lawrence struggle with being a typical older sibling who feels his baby sister is favored (and sometimes he’s right, as Jemima screams and bites until their mother gives in), and with being the man of the family, responsible for Jemima’s care and his mother’s safety. Several times his mother loses herself and Lawrence feels panicked about what he could do as a child.

As the book progresses, Hannah (mum) descends deeper into her delusions. When her friends disagree with her and try to get her to see that what she says is not possible, she tells Lawrence their father has turned them against her. She finally comes unhinged as she is certain their father has taken up residence in the building next door, sneaks in their house and poisons the food, and at one point she tells Lawrence he’s poisoned their tap, too. When Lawrence expresses his doubts about what his mother says, Hannah withholds love and affection until he finally gives in and agrees to everything she tells him.

A bit later the door opened and mum looked in, she was still cross, I could see it. She said “hurry up Lawrence, we’re going out to get some breakfast at a cafe.” I thought “that’s strange, why does she want to go outside to a cafe when shes worried dads out there?” But then when I got up I saw there were two garbage bags by the door and I understood, I thought “oh yes of course, mum has thrown away all our food in case its poissoned, so we have to go out.” I thought “I hope it really is poissoned or thats a big waste of food”

For me, this was a hard read. Not in the sense of densness or poor writing, Kneale is an amazing writer, never jumping out of Lawrence’s voice, and the language was so simple, just like a nine-year-old would write. What made it hard was that I’ve had a past where I was a mom and struggled with mental illness at the same time. It’s amazing how much children see and understand that, years later, I’m still shocked and embarrassed by the things they remember. To understand what young Lawrence is feeling, both dependant and caretaker, always tiptoeing around to see how mum’s feeling at this minute, which could turn 180 degrees the next. To hear his frustration, hurt, anger, and devotion breaks my heart for him… and for my kids, as well.

Also sprinkled throughout the book are scientific stories about space, Emperors and Popes. These are different tidbits from the books Lawrence was reading and at first seemed non-sequiter, but as I began to try to figure out how they fit within the text (I was certain an author of Kneale’s talent would just throw them in for filler) I began to see how they reflected what was going on for Lawrence. As he talks of “The Great Attractor” and the sun expanding out and burning up the earth before imploding on itself, I can see this references the pull his mother had on him. The stories of Popes and Emperors displayed madness and murder at it’s nth degree. The story of Nero trying to kill his mother Agrippina is was particularly interesting as I couldn’t help but wonder if this was Lawrence’s subconscious wish.

Amazingly simplistic and deeply intuitive, When We Were Romans is a prize worthy work. However, if you are put off by spelling and grammatical errors, I do not recommend it. As I said, it is written from Lawrence’s point of view and is full of the type of mispelling and grammar trouble typical of a child. But if you are able to look past that and enjoy books of family drama and suspense, then I definitely suggest adding When We Were Romansto your own Mt. TBR.   4.5 stars out of 5   This story will be with me for a while.