The Invention of Civil War Writing: the Case of Caesar

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There is no denying the predominance of war as a subject in classical literature across multiple genres (cf. Pitcher 2009, esp. 72; Munn 2016), and nowhere more so than in historiography. Roman historiography had traditionally focused on the deeds of the Romans domi militiaeque. During the second and first centuries BCE this changed; or rather, perhaps, another aspect was added: civil war studies, civil war itself being (naturally) a subcategory of the broader phenomenon of war. The language of foreign war naturally came to be used to describe civil war (hostis declarations are but one example): partly because this was the already well-established language of war, and partly because there was a need to invent a new (Latin) language of civil war. This article explores the long process of that development. What some scholars might consider a question of ‘downplaying’ civil war was in fact the Romans trying to explain internal and civil war through the already well-established vocabulary of foreign war. Two basic narratives were often at stake in Roman politics of the civil war period. First, there was the traditional (older) discourse of competition, expressed in the triumph-hunting of the Roman elite; the victories of the Late Republic were to an extent civil war victories, but they often included a foreign element as well (only exclusively ‘civil’ wars were in the end considered a problem; Lange 2016). A second (newer) narrative emphasised the ending of civil war, focusing on the positive outcome of victory. It was always possible to claim that others had ignited that flame, only for the merciful victors to extinguish it; such a claim implicitly equated pax with the ending of civil war.

Consequently, however we approach the civil war(s) of the outgoing Republic, we should not ignore the continued importance of legitimacy. How to write about and otherwise explain civil war and account for one’s activities within it? From Sulla to Caesar and on to Augustus, dynasts had one all-embracing concern in common: the need to legitimise their role in stasis and in full-blown civil war. This legitimation was furthermore vital in reuniting society in the aftermath (a concern which was not always an obvious and central policy). It would hardly have been feasible to ignore the recent civil war and its huge impact. In focusing on these issues, this paper will explore how Caesar used the past and how Augustus used Caesar, focusing on the development of civil war in autobiographical writing. The basic claim is this: for us to understand the civil war writings of Caesar they need to be explained in their context. In doing so, it should – unsurprisingly – become clear that Caesar learned from Sulla, and Augustus learned from Caesar (and, indeed, Sulla also).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationin Trine Arlund Hass, Jan Kindberg Jacobsen, Rubina Raja and Sine Grove Saxkjær, Caesar’s Past and Posterity’s Caesar
EditorsRubina Raja, Trine Arlund Hass
PublisherBrepols Publishers
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

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