Reading Caesar. Through the looking glass of history shine lessons for today.


Reading Julius Caesar is a wonderful exercise in propaganda detection and discussions about such detection in Caesar’s commentaries are the quickest way to reveal a person’ s depth of scholarly acquittance with the material.
I’m a scientist not a classics scholar, and my skill set — in at least one role I fill — is better suited to detect deception, disinformation, or propaganda in matters with a scientific and technical component. That’s also my way of saying that I don’t want to pretend that I can offer definitive answers regarding the veracity of Caesar’s writings or what was purely propaganda versus literary artistry.
My Jesuit classic instructors did, however, raise my awareness regarding these issues and that awareness (the detection skill set built upon that awareness) is something I find highly exportable across a broad range of topics. Alas, it is an awareness and a skill set largely absent in many young students — sometimes even when they are well into their undergraduate years.
One must always interrogate literature for its honesty and not fall into credulity. One of Caesar’s greatest skills was the power to persuade. In fact, many scholars argue that Caesar’s skill in rhetorical arguments were only clearly surpassed by Cicero. Of Caesar’s skills, Cicero himself wrote that if Caesar had not suffered the physical distractions required of generals and a rulers, and had the time to devote to the advancement of his argumentative arts, that Caesar would have become his equal.
One way to assess truthfulness is, of course to see how renowned scholars in a field treat the topic. With regard to Caesar this proves little because — as it frequently does — scholarly criticisms often follow scholarly fashion. For most first half of the 20th century, for example, with authoritarianism on the rise globally, Caesar’s commentaries (as well as the work of other Roman historians) was often treated by scholars as self-serving propaganda. This trend reversed itself in the latter half of the 20th century with scholars more apt to declare Caesar’s more questionable assertions as literary flourishes, or perhaps over dependance on the veracity of the reports of others, than outright distortions or outright propaganda. In fact, in the modern era, simply describing Caesar’s work as propaganda is going against the scholarly grain.
Another measure of the veracity of writing relates to whether the writing received contemporary criticism. The fact that a writing was criticized within its time, especially from a period when the written record is scant, must however also be carefully parsed.
Contemporaneous criticism can be inversely argued to add veracity to a text for if errors were blatant then a chorus of criticism would exist, enough to warrant correction by the author. Put another way, the contemporaneous criticism of Caesar’s work — if itself of merit– would itself have either forced corrections or engendered wider criticism.
One must evaluate criticism and assume it is as fallible to the malices of disinformation and counterpropaganda. We read in Suetonius, for example that Pollio contemporarily criticized Caesar for being carelessness with facts and too accepting of the statements of others that were then incorporated into Caesar’s writings as facts. Perhaps this is so. Perhaps also that normal human error and forgetfulness played a part in Caesar’s writings. Perhaps Pollio’s criticisms were leveled only to disparage Caesar. The almost conspiratorial lines of thinking along these lines are almost never-ending. Facts can be selected, discarded, and warped to fit any view or ideology.
Therein lies a lesson for evaluating what we see and what we read in our own time.