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Reading the first book in the MM series has triggered a series of events that has re-ignited my passion for the Roman world possibly stronger than it ever was before. I have read Caesar's De Bello Gallico in its entirety and had a bite of De Bello Civili, enough to realise that the HBO series Rome, which I recently started watching, is a rather close to the letter fictionalization of Caesar's account. I did not finish the great man's commentaries as Simon sent me MM7 one week before its official launch. Honoured and humbled by the gesture, I have made it my mission to read and review the book in time for the launch. Being the behemoth of a book that it is, I have failed, but I hope this review of mine will still serve some marketing purpose. Hence, here's my two cents:
Let me start with a huge spoiler: Caesar has won the war on Gauls. The readers that don't know that are very lucky, as they will have on their hands a very tense historical novel, whose conclusion hangs on a thread up until the very end. For the rest of us, the point of interest rests more with the journey than with the destination. Of course Caesar or Marc Anthony survive and, to an extent, we all know what happened to Vercingetorix in the aftermath of the battle of Alesia, but there's uncertainty over the faith of our main (fictional) heroes. There are a lot of layers to this book and I guess it speaks to different audiences in different ways: for teens and pre-teens it is an excellent introduction to the Roman world and they should certainly read this or something similar before they take on Gibbon; for laypersons with little to no interest in history it does the same job the popular science books do, in that it teaches a few history lessons while being a very entertaining read; for readers familiar with Roman history and Julius Caesar's writings, it puts a lot of flesh over the skeleton of a book that De Bello Gallico is. Even within this last category we could make a separation between historians - interested in dates, numbers and hard facts, military historians - curios to find out about battle tactics, weaponry, siege engines and the like and re-enacters of one sort or another - interested in costume, way of life, way of thinking. There really is something for everyone in this heavily documented account of Caesar's most important campaign in Gaul that, although follows very close the official version of the emperor-to-be, it is over 40 times longer.
Now, there's one thing to be said about Gaius Julius Caesar: the man excelled in everything it did and his merits far expand beyond the limits of any one area. He was a masterful soldier, commander, politician, historian, writer, sociologist and perhaps many others. Although my first serious introduction to character was Alexander Dumas' less-than-flattering account in the namesake book, the more I learn about the man, the more I appreciate it. And there is a lot to be said about how, despite all his merits, he is such a controversial and often negative character of history. However, for the purpose of this article, let us concentrate on just his writing merits. Despite his Commentaries being first and foremost a journalistic account for the senate and the people of Rome, the man certainly kept a view to posterity when writing it. He must've had. There are hints and smells in his writings that is talking not only to his contemporaries, but possibly to many future generations. And while it certainly it does not pass as what it would be called entertaining writing nowadays, there is a clarity and concision in his style that leaves a lot to be admired. Besides, at times his writing is no less than a literary master-stroke, to the point that poor Aulus Hirstius, who wrote the eighth and last book of De Bello Gallico says about the other seven that "no composition was ever executed with so great care, that it is not exceeded in elegance by these Commentaries".
Writing about these same events and willingly submitting your writing to the inevitable comparison with that of the great man is an enterprise bold if nothing else. But Simon does a beautiful job at it and, with the understanding of the difference in purpose, it does exceed Caesar's merits in ways which more than make up for the ones that he falls short in. For example, here's Caesar speaking to the troops in the wake of the reckless failed attack on the walls of Gergovia: "That as much as he admired the greatness of their courage, since neither the fortifications of the camp, nor the height of the mountain, nor the wall of the town could retard them; in the same degree he censured their licentiousness and arrogance, because they thought that they knew more than their general concerning victory, and the issue of actions: and that he required in his soldiers forbearance and self-command, not less than valour and magnanimity."
And here's Simon: " Indeed, I am, on a base level, proud of the daring and fearlessness of you all. For, though by your arrogant insubordination you brought about our defeat here, the manner in which it occurred will become a tale of heroism someday. For no terrain or enemy or even the walls of that great oppidum stopped you when your blood was up. So, from this, take away not a loss for our army, but the knowledge that only our own pride and fierceness brought about our downfall, not the strength or daring of our enemy."
Which one is better? That is for each man to decide. I will say two things about this particular moment:
1. while I see nothing wrong to copy, at times, the general's words letter by letter, Simon tends to avoid that thinking probably it would be in some ways dishonest or unethical. Likewise, he considers it his duty to stick to the letter and to the official account at times when, to my mind, there is a lot of room for fictionalization, fantasy and what if-s.
2. there is something in Simon's books that is entirely missing from Caesar's: the view from the lines, from the other side. Simon continues: "There was almost an imperceptible straightening of the backs". It is, in my opinion, the big plus of the Marius' Mules books. This kind of detail that makes the reader really see the times and events depicted and it is as close as you can get to being an eyewitness from a man which, although has not been an eyewitness himself, he sure wishes he was. It is also what makes the Marius' Mules books - like I said before - only one step away from movie scripts and I sure as hell would like to see this series brought to the screen.
There is a huge gap in my readings, as I have skipped from the first book in the series straight to the seventh which, of course, makes me wonder what happened to characters in-between the 5 years that I do not know of. And when exactly has the series gone astray from De Bello Gallico so that it makes Simon say in the note at the end that this seventh book is a return to the origin of the series. In comparison - strangely enough - I find Fronto a much less likeable character now that he was in the first book. Which is good, I like myself a good anti-hero. It is admirable from the author to try and show things from different perspectives, including the Gauls in the fist person depiction of events. However, it is clear as daylight that there is a lot less hard historical information available about the Gauls than it is about the Romans. And it shows in the book, and this is one instance where Simon could have babbled on about gods, about Ogrimos, master of the dead and how he's viewed and revered by Gauls and their druids or how he's entered the Gallic pantheon via Greece. Or about anything, really. But, because I spoke of gods, I might have touched on the wrong topic as the author himself is clearly a deeply secular man, with a strong conviction that there is no superior order to the world than the one we see and understand. And he borrows this feature to the two main characters: Fronto and Cavarinos the Gaul. Fair enough.
For comparison, he takes all the liberties in depicting the German warriors and their fighting style - to the point where they seem to be the deciding factor in two of the key battles, which both makes them one of the most colourful, vivid and likeable presence in the book and betray where the author's true interests lie: of the categories of readers described above, he's one of the re-enacters. Well, just look at the man's facebook profile picture:
For some reason, I particularly liked Masgava, the big Numidian mercenary, ex-gladiator and one of Fronto's bodyguards. I would be really curios on reading an account of the events from his prospective, as a complete neutral and alien to this fight and because of the exotic element he brings. The short forays into the minds of Gauls fighting against Gauls I found particularly attractive.
I realise that throughout my review I haven't yet recommended the book directly. Well, of course I recommend it. It is a hugely entertaining reading and you can get anything but bored. If anything, it is a bit too dense and one might be left with the impression that it is nothing more than a series of sieges. By the time we get to the siege of Alesia, I found it hard to recall what happened at Avaricum or Noviodunum. In fairness, I think the siege of Alesia alone would have been deserving of a whole book and I reiterate the idea that this one book could easily have been split into two. Nevertheless, the reader is not forced to race through it like I did and is free to take it all in at its own pace. Oh, and do not be afraid to use those maps in the beginning. They are another great feature which is sorely absent from Caesar's journals and incredibly useful in Marius' Mules. Unlike in the first book, I have now learnt to refer to them every few pages, and they are incredibly useful in figuring out the battle plans and strategies that the characters talk about.
Now, get your asses to Amazon and buy the book. Link is in the book title at the top.
2316/8961: "if ever there was a true and just cause for the invasion of Gaul, it had been to rid humanity of the inhuman sound of the carnyx."
5740/8961: "retrospective wisdom is a useless gift"
8394/8961: "The horses - Germanic steeds of their own selection - trampled the unwitting and more than once Varus saw the animals lunge down and bite the enemy, something he'd never seen a horse do in his life."