Absolutely Correct

Between 58 and 50 BC, Julius Caesar fought two wars simultaneously: one resulted in his conquest of Gaul, the other in his conquest of the Latin language. His Commentaries on the Gallic War (Commentarii de Bello Gallico) were the record of the first conflict, and his weapon in the second. For as well as being an innovative, bloodthirsty and dangerously successful military commander, Julius Caesar was also a litterateur and grammarian. Of the great achievements that followed on the back of his Consulship in 59 BC, it is difficult to know which had a longer-lasting effect: his subjugation of France or his creation of a model of clear and readable Latin which is still held up for emulation today.

Amazon.com: Commentarii: Volume I: Bello Gallico cum A. Hirti Supplemento (Oxford  Classical Texts) (9780198146025): Caesar, Du Pontet, R. L. A.: Books

This was no mean achievement: although Latin had been developing as a literary language for a couple of centuries by the time Caesar picked up his pen, it had done so in fits and starts. Cicero’s oratorical history, the Brutus, provides a wealth of evidence to back up the idea that the world of Latin prose writing in Caesar’s day was a crowded marketplace of different vocabularies, sentence structures and grammatical ideas.

Julius Caesar’s reaction to the confusion that reigned in the world of Latin prose was not a million miles from the words of St Francis of Assisi recited by Margaret Thatcher on the steps of 10 Downing Street:

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

Margaret Thatcher Arrives At Downing Street (1979) - YouTube

In his de Analogia, a grammatical treatise written while out on campaign (inter tela volantia, as Fronto puts it, ‘written amidst flying missiles’), Julius Caesar laid out a method for resolving the manifold irregularities in the Latin that was spoken and written by his contemporaries. In sharp contrast to his contemporary Cicero’s preferred approach to achieving a uniformly correct form of Latin (which was to adapt one’s language to the speech patterns of the Roman aristocracy), Julius Caesar advocated either working out or creating grammatical rules which, by analogy, would allow everyone to distinguish correct Latin from incorrect Latin.

Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War were an attempt to put this theory into practice. The language of the commentaries is as clear, precise and elegant as you could imagine. I’ll offer two quotations as proof of this. The first is from Cicero’s Brutus, in which he praises the Commentarii for their unadorned beauty:

ualde quidem—inquam—probandos; nudi enim sunt, recti et uenusti, omni ornatu orationis tamquam ueste detracta. sed dum uoluit alios habere parata, unde sumerent qui uellent scribere historiam, ineptis gratum fortasse fecit, qui uolent illa calamistris inurere: sanos quidem homines a scribendo deterruit; nihil est enim in historia pura et inlustri breuitate dulcius. (Cic. Brut. 262.)

“Indeed,” I replied, “they’re very admirable – bare, straightforward, alluring, with all rhetorical elaboration stripped away, like a garment. He wanted others to have a source to use in writing history, but while he perhaps did a favour for fools who’ll want to apply their curling irons, he frightened off sensible people: for there’s nothing more pleasing in history than pure and lucid brevity. (Trans. Kaster)

The second is from Down With Skool!, Geoffrey Willans’ guide to surviving a 1950s Prep School, with the irrepressible Nigel Molesworth taking the role of cicerone:

They sa: “The gauls—galli—subject—go on molesworth oppugnant—what does oppugnant mean—they are atacking fossas. Ditches. What did you say molesworth? Why on earth attack a ditch? Keep your mind on the sentence. The gauls are attacking the ditches. What? I am quite unable to inform you molesworth for what purpose the Gauls wished to attack the ditches. The latin is correct. That sufices.

BBC Radio 4 Extra - 'Down With Skool': The Art of Molesworth

Caesar probably wouldn’t have approved of Molesworth’s spelling, but the sentiment was certainly one he could get behind. His desired form of Latin was rules-based and prescriptive, anomalies (like recalcitrant Gallic chieftains) were to be hunted down and removed. This was, after all, the man who reformed the calendar to ensure that each year contained precisely 365 ¼ days, and who (according to Suetonius at least) “intended to reduce the body of civil law and reorganize the best and most useful elements of that vast and amorphous collection into the smallest possible number of books.”

‘Order and method’, as the greatest of the Belgae would say.

Hercule Poirot - Wikipedia

This is all a rather longwinded way of saying: when you find a grammatical oddity in the works of Julius Caesar, you should be astonished. And I would like to share one with you.

This is the opening sentence of the third book of Caesar’s Commentarii de Bello Civili (Commentaries on the Civil War):

Dictatore habente comitia Caesare, consules creantur Iulius Caesar et P. Servilius; is enim erat annus, quo per leges ei consulem fieri liceret. (Caes. B.C. 3.1)

In his role as dictator, Caesar held the elections, at which Julius Caesar and Publius Servilius were made consuls; for this was the year in which it was legally allowed for him to become consul. (Trans. Author’s own)

The meaning of this sentence is perfectly clear. There is, though, something off about the relationship between its first two clauses. The main clause is built around the passive indicative verb creantur (‘they are made’), while the introductory sub-clause is provided with a neat little construction known as the ablative absolute, the verbal part being the present participle habente (‘holding’).

The ablative absolute is a key and valuable part of Latin prose composition – it is a quick, precise and elegant means for the writer to add supplemental information to the main thrust of their sentence, be that concessive, causal, temporal, conditional or simply contextual. Its value as a construction is particularly clear in a sentence like the above, one which already has two main verbs (creantur and erat) and one more in a relative clause (quoliceret). So rather than having to pile on another main verb of another subordinate clause (as I have done in the translation), Caesar can maintain the concision and clarity which he felt were the keys to good Latin.

Except, except.

Except as well as being concise and clear, Caesar also held that the key to good Latin was following the rules, and avoiding irregularities of vocabulary (‘barbarisms’) and grammar (‘solecisms’). And he seems to have committed a cardinal sin here. There are two reasons why the ‘ablative absolute’ is called the ‘ablative absolute’, and they are both integral to its functioning as a recognizable grammatical concept. The first is that the subject and verbal part of the ablative absolute should be in the ablative, and the second is that it should be absolute, standalone. That is to say, the subject of the ablative absolute construction should not play a role in the main part of the sentence. And it is on this second count that Caesar seems to be uncharacteristically in breach of the rules.

The subject of the ablative absolute is Julius Caesar himself (Caesarehabente – ‘Caesar was holding’), and the subject of the main verb is also Caesar (creanturCaesar et P. Servilius – ‘Caesar and Publius Servilius were made consuls’). This is as cut-and-dried a solecism as you could want to meet, and would be met with a double underlining in red pen if submitted to Molesworth’s Latin Master.

So what’s going on here? How does a man with an unwavering commitment to grammatical exactitude end up breaking the main rule governing a construction he used possibly more often than any other? And how does this happen in such a prominent place – the opening sentence of the third book of his Commentaries on the Civil War? I would like to suggest that Caesar would argue that he is not making a mistake here, and that understanding why this ablative absolute is grammatically correct is crucial to understanding the central argument of his de Bello Civili.

The key to grasping what is going on here is an appreciation of something that is rarely noted about Julius Caesar’s behaviour during the civil war: his dedication to being punctiliously constitutional in his actions. Constitutional rectitude is not usually something one expects from a man invading his own fatherland to protect his wounded pride. Indeed, ‘Might is Right’ is at the heart of most interpretations of how the Roman civil war played out. Nevertheless, Caesar’s actions during the civil war and his writings afterwards both reveal a statesman keen to be at least seen to do things by the book.

Not long after he crossed the Rubicon, Julius Caesar’s constitutional problems began to rear their head. His most immediate issue concerned his imperium – his constitutional right to give orders (or rather, to expect that his orders would be obeyed). In constitutional terms, the right to give orders stemmed from the magistracy one held, each one coming with different limitations and stipulations. As Caesar marched through Italy to assert himself in Rome, he faced a problem. His imperium was dependent upon his Gallic Proconsulship, a temporal extension of the Consulship he had held ten years previously, and one which would automatically lapse when he crossed the sacred boundary of the city of Rome (the Pomerium).

Caesar’s quandary, then, was that having kicked off a civil war so as to use his army to solve the problems in Rome, he would lose his control of that army if he entered the city. For a while, Caesar put off confronting this issue by focusing on urgent military issues – chasing Pompey the Great and his allies out of Italy, and crushing the Pompeian forces in Spain. After almost a year, however, it became clear that Caesar could not any longer put off appearing in Rome to sort out some of the existing urban problems which had if anything grown worse in the twelve months that had followed his invasion.

On the face of it, the fact that Caesar’s imperium would lapse as soon as he crossed the Pomerium should have been one of the lower order problems faced by a man who had just kicked off a civil war. There was, after all, no lack of precedent (not least Pompey himself) for Roman generals sloughing off their Proconsular imperium as they entered Rome only to be invested with a sparkling new Consular imperium granting them the ability to wield power within the city. Caesar could even have looked back to his youth and remembered Sulla’s swift transition from a Proconsul in 83 BC to a Dictator in 82 BC.

These historical examples, however, offered cold comfort to Caesar. A constitutional principle governed how power was transferred in Rome, and it was which stood in the way of him following the lead of either Pompey or Sulla. Roman magistracies existed in a strict hierarchy, and elections for higher magistrates could not be conducted by those lower down the pecking order. In short, it took a Consul to make a Consul.

Caesar’s problem was that as soon as he had invaded Italy in January, both Consuls of 49 BC (along with most of the other senior magistrates) had fled Rome and Italy, and were by December sitting with Pompey in Greece considering how best to defeat Caesar. In the absence of any holders of Consular imperium, Caesar could not be elected Consul. As such, as soon as he crossed the Pomerium he would forfeit his legal right to give orders and would not be able to get it back.

Julius Caesar | Biography, Conquests, & Facts | Britannica

There was one exception to this rule. Since the Dictatorship was an emergency office specifically designed to be a magistracy outranking all other magistracies, it was by definition impossible for anyone but a wielder of inferior imperium to create it. In practice, however, this was little help to Caesar. Just because the Dictatorship had to be conferred by a magistrate of inferior imperium did not mean that any magistrate with inferior imperium could appoint a Dictator. All previous Dictatorships in Roman history had been appointed by the magistrate with the highest existing imperium. And in 49 BC, the world’s highest existing imperium was in Greece with Pompey.

This constitutional anomaly, however, gave Caesar his opening. While Caesar was returning victorious from Spain, his ally Lepidus, who as Praetor wielded the highest imperium in Rome, convened an assembly of the sovereign Populus Romanus (the Roman people) to pass a law allow making it legal for a Praetor to nominate a Dictator. Transparent fudge though this may have been, it did not violate any existing constitutional principle that Dictators could not be nominated by inferior magistrates, nor did it invert the constitutional hierarchy, as the Consuls were welcome to come back to Rome and use their superior powers to veto the Praetor’s nomination.

Once the Populus Romanus had passed this law, Lepidus duly nominated Caesar to the Dictatorship. What happened next is where things get interesting. As Dictator, Julius Caesar now had the constitutional right to do as he wished. He held the highest imperium in the world, and one which would not lapse if he entered the city of Rome. On the basis of this power he could pass whatever laws he liked and command whatever troops he wanted.

He laid down the office, however, after only 11 days.

Caesar perhaps feared that it would be a touch unpalatable to use the unstoppable might of the Dictatorship to conduct a war which he had justified on the grounds of his opponents’ over-mighty tyranny. Perhaps he wished to distance himself from the example of Sulla. Perhaps he disliked the faff that would be involved in renewing the time-limited powers of the Dictatorship. For whatever reason, Caesar restricted his use of the Dictatorship’s highest imperium to ensure that the annual election of new consuls could go ahead as usual.

This brings us to the passage of Caesar’s de Bello Civili mentioned above. Having secured the superior imperium necessary to hold elections for the Consulship, Julius Caesar was duly elected Consul: Dictatore habente comitia Caesare, consules creantur Iulius Caesar et P. Servilius. We are also now in a position to solve the grammatical mystery of this sentence.

Why does Caesar here and only here break the rule that the subject of an ablative absolute cannot also be the subject of the main clause? On the basis of his interest in constitutional propriety we can safely attribute it to the fact that as far as the author is concerned the two Caesars in this sentence are distinct entities. Julius Caesar was not made Consul by personal fiat, he was elected to this position in accordance with the constitution of the Roman state. One legal entity presided over the election, another triumphed in it. The validity of the action described in the sentence is the key to understanding the validity of the grammar used to convey it.

The positioning of this curious sentence is key to understanding the propaganda game Caesar is playing. This sentence does not just come after two full books of de Bello Civili, it comes after 7 books of de Bello Gallico and several decades experience of Caesar’s Latin. When confronted with a grammatical oddity like this at the start of Bell. Civ. 3, the reader is expected to realize that something is up, and should not proceed until they have figured it out.

What better and more reassuring message could Caesar present to the readership of his Commentaries on the Civil War than to say that he was no more inclined to break the rules of the constitution than he was to break the rules of Latin?

Beware the pedants, they know what they do.

3 comments on “Absolutely Correct

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