This important and readable book deserves the ecstatic reviews that it has received elsewhere, including one by Boris Johnson. It is of interest to classicists, military historians and lovers of France.
- Bijan Omrani,
Rome still matters. Of the four pillars on which European civilisation is based: Greek, Roman, Jewish and Christian, Rome is arguably the most important and durable. Its legacy is immense, including law, administration, art, literature and architecture. At least six modern European Romance languages derive from Latin. Every kingdom, empire, republic and dictatorship that has existed since the fall of Rome has measured itself against the Roman achievement and sometimes tried to present itself as Rome's true successor. This is particularly the case with French leaders like Louis XIV, Napoleon I and Napoleon III, who wrote a biography of Caesar and sponsored archaeological investigation into his campaigns. Caesar's Footprints refers frequently to this research.
Julius Caesar is a key figure in the expansion of the Roman Empire and therefore in European history. Without him, modern Europe would look very different. His campaign against the Gauls in the first century BC, which he described in De Bello Gallico, was a pivotal event in European history. Gaul, the future France, was the first Atlantic country to be subdued by Rome. This simple political and military fact ensured that Graeco-Roman civilisation should not remain confined to the Mediterranean basin but would cover a much wider area; most of Western Europe. It took root first in France - before Portugal, most of Spain, the Rhineland, the Low Countries, North Africa or Britain - and there it lingered latest; indeed, it never really died. After the conquest the Gauls enthusiastically adopted Roman customs and became ultra-civilised; it is correct to call them “Gallo-Romans”.
What makes this remarkable is that the conquest, whose main purpose was to gratify Caesar's thirst for glory and political power, was carried out with such cruelty and barbarity. Caesar's campaign resulted directly in the deaths of about 1.2 million people, apart from those who starved to death or were sold into slavery as a result of his actions. Unsurprisingly, he is still recalled in the popular imagination in France and Italy, both as hero and villain. He merits a line in one of Charles Trenet's songs, Ohe Paris!:
De Villon à Ronsard, de Molière à Verlaine
Et tant pis pour César qui nous voulait d'la peine
Et tant mieux pour Pasteur, pour Ravel, Debussy,
Pour ton cœur éternel, Paris.
In other words: “Two fingers to Caesar, who wished us harm”. And what harm! Apart from the human suffering, he obliterated the native Gaulish culture, its history, religion and literature which – from the scant evidence that remains – seems to have been interesting and relatively sophisticated. The brilliant Gallo-Roman civilisation rose from its ashes.
And what a person: Caesar was a ruthless and duplicitous politician who was also a successful General; who aimed at, and eventually achieved, an absolute monarchy. He never used the title of Emperor but became one in all but name. He was an aristocrat – allegedly descended from an early King of Rome; more distantly from Aeneas and therefore from the goddess Venus - who posed as a champion of the people. He also posed as a defender of the Republic but was a major factor in its downfall. His private life, even by Roman standards, was appalling. Corrupt as hell, he was also completely bisexual and apparently insatiable. A contemporary described him as “every man's woman and each woman's man”. He had no legitimate children but is credited with a few bastards, including one by Cleopatra. Let none of this, however, deflect you from the reading Caesar's Footprints; the book is un-putdownable.
It is still a mystery why the Church, centuries after Caesar's death, should have recognised him as one of the Nine Worthies: nine military saints, who were considered to be suitable role-models for, and worthy of veneration by, soldiers. The others are Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus, King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon; none of whom, with the exception of Alexander, seem natural soul-mates of Caesar.
The author, Bijan Omrani, is a traveller, especially in Afghanistan, schoolmaster and classicist. His other books include Afghanistan: A Companion and Guide and Asia Overland. His paternal family is from north-western Iran; his maternal one from England. He has several British Army ancestors. He read Classics and English at Lincoln College, Oxford. There has to be something special in the water at Lincoln: his fellow alumni include the First World War poet Edward Thomas, John le Carre, Emeka Ojukwu (the Biafran “President”) and Robert Nairac GC.