On Thursday, March 6, St. Olaf students interested in Julius Caesar were given a fresh take on the legendary Roman general. Christopher Krebs, a classics professor at Stanford University, gave a lecture in Viking Theater entitled “The Forgotten Intellectual: Julius Caesar with a Twist.” The twist: Caesar remains famous to this day as a military leader and a politician. However, Caesar’s abilities as a scholar are often overlooked. The focus of Krebs’ lecture was “Caesar, the forgotten intellectual.” This Caesar was an avid reader of poetry, a talented and thoughtful historian and a wordsmith who coined some original Latin words in his writing.
Regarding poetry, Krebs demonstrated that Caesar had read some of the great poets of his era, specifically the Roman poet Lucretius, who is known for his work “On the Nature of Things.” Scholars were able to verify that Caesar had read the poet because he used certain Latin words and phrases that only appear in Lucretius’ writing.
In addition, as a historian, Caesar’s writing about the Gallic wars echoed the great Roman historian Sisenna and the Greek historian Polybius. One notable instance involves Caesar’s account of one of his mountain campaigns in Gaul. The account has distinct echoes of Polybius’s history of the Punic Wars and his account of the great Carthagian general Hannibal’s journey across the Alps. These connections show Caesar’s desire not only to record events, but to record them in the style of great writers of the time.
Finally, Krebs addressed Caesar as the “man of letters,” the wordsmith who had the ability to coin original words and terms when necessary. It is this aspect of Caesar’s writing which particularly demonstrates his talent as a scholar. He not only emulated famous writers, but he was also inventive enough to create words and phrases of his own.
Caesar’s brilliance as a military commander and his meteoric rise in the Roman government has in many ways obscured his achievements as a scholar. Krebs aims to fix this. He encouraged classics students when they next read Caesar to “read him just the same way that we read any other ancient historian, as an author engaging with other authors.”
This way, the merits of his work and his gifts as an intellectual will not be overshadowed by his other, more famous accomplishments. This is important, according to Krebs, because Caesar “was one of those who shaped and formed the classical Latin that has been taught in classrooms for the last 500 years.”
Krebs stated that his analysis of Caesar’s work based solely on its scholarly merits was one of the first of its kind. Krebs’ innovation could encourage students of Latin to read Caesar based on the merits of his work. By doing this, they would find, as Krebs put it, a “colorful and interesting author.”
Christopher Krebs’ book “A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich” won the Phi Beta Kappa Book of the Year award in 2012.
Photo Credit: HANNAH RECTOR/MANITOU MESSENGER