Boring details of my childhood
I’ve always been a bit of a history buff. It probably started in 4th grade, when I downloaded the demo of Age of Empires: Rise of Rome. Normally my gaming hours were strictly regulated, to prevent me from “wasting all my time” on Dave, Mario, Prince of Persia and the like but this game was different. I managed to play up the educational aspects of the game, portraying it as essentially a history lesson with a few game like elements thrown in and that was enough to convince my parents to allow me to play as much as I liked. I played the 3 campaigns for hours and hours, restarting the game even after being thoroughly outplayed by the computer. That love for Age of Empires was undiminished when I played the sequel, The Age of Kings. I found the experience of playing as Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Saladin, Attila the Hun and Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc truly memorable. I even spent several pleasant evenings absorbed in the in-game encyclopaedia.
At school, I used to do pretty well in history (and less well in geography) because I studied the textbook like it was a story. Writing about say, the events of World War II or the Indian Independence struggle was easy when imagining it to be one long story. I don’t remember any other people sharing this approach to studying history, nor do I remember very many people who enjoyed studying history.
To be honest, I had little contact with history after my 10th Board Exam apart from the odd special on the History Channel. I played Civilization V, but I’m not sure that really counts. Over the past year or so, however, I’ve subscribed to a community on reddit called AskHistorians where anyone can ask any question related to history. The responses are usually excellent, being well researched, carefully crafted and generally fun to read. Special mention go to a couple of users whose answers I’ve really liked - Tiako and Celebreth who post some of the finest answers on questions related to Ancient Rome. For example, here’s one by Celebreth about how good a commander Julius Caesar really was. For those unfamiliar with reddit, its organised thus - anyone can create a community (aka subreddit) where people can post links or write-ups and there is a comment section for each link where people discuss it. The quality of this discussion can vary widely across the site, ranging from cesspools of memes and lame jokes (like gaming) to ones where the quality is much higher (such as AskScience and Games). Generally I’ve found that the stricter the moderators are, the better the discussion is but that’s a post for another day.
Reading AskHistorians for a long time finally got me interested in reading history once more and for the first time, it wouldn’t be from a text book or a game.
Julius Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War
I started first with Julius Caesar’s own account of the Gallic War - the Commentaries. Caesar wrote this in third person, and describes in detail each battle he fought in Britain and Gaul (modern day France, as any Asterix fan will tell you) over a period of 8 years. At the end of each year’s campaigning, he would write about the year’s battles, accomplishments and other sundry details and have it published in Rome. Caesar’s future success in politics depended upon a successful stint as governor of Gaul, so he made every effort to keep prominent citizens abreast of his achievements. They were as a result, highly biased. Caesar would almost always grab the credit for any victory and blame his subordinates for any reverse he suffered.
Although the Commentaries are considered extremely well written, and won plaudits in Rome for its simple, effective style, it is my opinion that it probably did not translate very well to English or it wasn’t very good to begin with. He gives little context and for the events that take place or the for the various tribes that he encountered. Other details are missing as well because it would have been common knowledge to Caesar’s intended audience. Further, this was essentially a propaganda piece, and so his account often deviates widely from the truth. He usually boosts the number of enemy combatants by a huge margin; it is unlikely that he fought every battle outnumbered 2-to-1 or worse. I also found reading his constant praise of himself somewhat tiring. For these reasons, I abandoned the book just after the second invasion of Britain. This is arguably just before the really exciting part - where he fights Vercingetorix, the man who unites all the Gallic tribes under him.
Life of a Colossus
Instead I began reading a book often cited by Celebreth in his answers - Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy. He starts out with the events that took place in the decades preceding Caesar’s birth, during which the institutions of the Republic came under increasing strain. This context is important to understand the eventual end of the Republic. He gives an idea about life in Ancient Rome, and how the political system worked. (Its highly unlikely that anyone has read this long-winded post from the beginning. If you have persevered till this point, remind me to buy you a drink the next time I see you) He describes Caesar’s early life, his political activities, his military campaigns in Gaul, and later the Civil War. What I really liked was that all his actions were placed in context of the wider political sphere of Rome and we get to know of events which he did not influence directly, but are important nevertheless.
I think Goldsworthy has done a fantastic job with this biography. Writing about someone who has already been depicted a million times before, by Shakespeare, in Asterix comics, the big screen and the small is not easy, but he manages it. He maintains a good pace throughout, and I didn’t feel my attention flag at any point.
There’s a lot that we can learn from reading both of these books. The first is a study of Julius Caesar’s leadership style. It certainly had its strong point, evident from the devotion his legions showed him. He was certainly very generous with the loot from his campaigns, but less generous with the fame that he won. As a result, one of his senior commanders actually defected to the other side in the Civil War. Second, he dealt with people very well. He would rarely decline any favor asked of him, for he prized the opportunity to have as many people under obligation to him as possible. He generally dealt with people respectfully and was famous for the clemency he showed to his enemies. Third, I think reading about fall of the Roman Republic is relevant to politics today. Thought the system proved remarkably resilient and flexible for over 3 and a half centuries, it was finally undone by a combination of several factors. Learning from the mistakes that they committed is important for any citizen of a modern day democracy.
I realise that this is the only section that 4 out of 5 people will read, so I’ll try to make this short. If at any point you liked History and also like gaming, then I recommend you check out the Age of Empires, Total War and Civilization games. If you like History and spend a lot of time on reddit, I suggest you subscribe to AskHistorians. And lastly, if you like History and are interested in Ancient Rome, Caesar: Life of a Colossus is a great book to read.