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Olivia Coolidge

Caesar's Gallic War
Houghton Mifflin, 1961


A modified-first person narrative of Caesar's campaigns in Gaul, a retrospective account (30 years after Gaul) by a fictitious former military tribune of Caesar, Q Octavius, who knits together his own experiences with what he learned from Philo, a secretarial slave of Caesar, Varus, a recruit in Caesar's army, and Caburus, a chief of the Helvians and once a loyal ally. Thus, Octavius gives more-or-less first-hand accounts of events he did not himself witness and we are, therefore, able to see (with additional detail) all of the major events Caesar recounts in Bellum Gallicum plus political activities of the time not part of Caesar's own narrative. Coolidge faithfully follows BG in the main and fills in reasonable detail to make the story more like a modern novel, but she often loses the dramatic impact of Caesar's own vivid prose without creating a novel that most students (or adults) would read for its own sake. Compare the uncomplimentary review of the 1961 edition in CW 56.4 (January 1962, p. 124), where Kibbe says "no Caesar class would be the poorer without Mrs. Coolidge's book", points out the problems with "fictional-factual dilution" and a style that was "more archaic than current, more adolescent than adult, more obfuscating than clarifying". No one will be led into historical error by Coolidge, but few will be stimulated beyond what a good translation of BG could accomplish. For a historical novel on Julius Caesar, opt for Thornton Wilder's Ides of March; for historical drama, either G. B. Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra or T.H. White's Caesar at the Rubicon. (Mench)

- Fred Mench, 11/25/2005

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