Napoleon's Commentaries on the Wars of Julius Caesar
Translated and edited by RA Maguire
Pen & Sword
130pp
Hardback, £16.95/$24

While exiled on the South Atlantic island of St Helena after meeting his Waterloo, Napoleon passed the time, and distracted himself from his stomach cancer and insomnia, by dictating commentaries on the military memoirs of Julius Caesar. Published in 1836 as Précis des Guerres de César, each chapter of the commentaries summarises the events of a single Julian campaign, then concludes with some Napoleonic observations. RA Maguire's new translation is clear, and carries the flavour of Latinate and Gallic syntax into modern English.

Warfare had changed in the intervening centuries, notably through the invention of firearms. But the rate of movement was still defined by the foot pace of a man or a horse. Human muscle-power, augmented by horses, ropes and pulleys, remained the main source of energy for military construction work, from trench-digging to bridge-building. Napoleon and Caesar had much terrain in common, too. Both fought campaigns in Gaul, Italy, North Africa and the Levant.

Their imperial characters were not dissimilar, either. Both men were famous womanisers. Both seized power by unconstitutional means. Both permanently altered their legal codes. But their paths to power differed. Caesar held multiple positions in the public administration before taking charge of the legions in Gaul. Maguire supplies another diachronic comparison. If Bernard Law Montgomery (Monty) had not gone directly into the army after school, but had followed a cursus honorarum akin to Caesar's, then at the time of D-Day, Montgomery would also have been 'a top barrister, a leading politician and the current Archbishop of Canterbury'.

Napoleon and Montgomery were professional soldiers, and there is more than a little professional pride, if not imperial vanity, in Napoleon's observations. In 55 BC, Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine at Cologne on piled supports in the space of 10 days. Napoleon notes that both of Caesar's incursions during this campaign were 'premature and unsuccessful', and that his conduct towards civilian populations at Berg and Zutphen was 'contrary to the law of nations': 'In his memoirs, he seeks in vain to tone down the injustice of his conduct, and Cato condemned him for it.'

Plutarch, Napoleon writes, considered Caesar's bridge-building a 'prodigious achievement', but the view from St Helena is that it seems 'an entirely unremarkable work' that should have taken fewer than 10 days. As evidence, Napoleon cites the bridging of the Danube in 1809 by General Bertrand. He then notes that construction of a bridge does not require possession of the bank. Speaking of himself in the third person – the voice of egotism – the ex-emperor writes: 'Napoleon built a pontoon bridge 160 yards long as a single unit' in the shelter of an island. His men carried it to the river under darkness, then swung it across the river. Within 'a very few minutes' it was moored to the opposite bank, and his infantry had surprised the enemy.

Napoleon's commentaries are the response of one great military-political mind to another. The little Corsican admires the mighty Roman, but cannot resist cutting him and his contemporaries down to size. But then, Caesar never made the error of invading Russia, and he did manage to invade Britain. And while Napoleon may have been the bolder builder of bridges, Caesar, albeit indirectly, laid stronger foundations for an imperial dynasty. 

Cato the Younger, the champion of the republic, committed suicide in Africa rather than surrender to Caesar. Napoleon calls this a strategic error. Cato should have joined the other supporters of Pompey in Spain; it might even have altered the outcome of the civil wars. This is the Napoleon of the Hundred Days – the modern Caesar. It would be no less interesting to know the first Caesar's opinion of his French admirer.
Dominic Green

 

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