Exiled to St. Helena, and dying of stomach cancer, Napoleon Bonaparte dictated his ideas on the wars of Julius Caesar for posterity. The work is mired in technical details comparing modern and ancient armies, as well as endless reflection on how Napoleonic era artillery would be applied to the ancient Roman battlefield. However, Napoleon’s views on the conduct of the civil war, and its aftermath for Roman society are captivating. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon believed Caesar’s dictatorship was justified, and his assassination was unjustified. He also concludes Caesar’s Parthian campaign would have been successful – had he lived – thereby extending the Roman Empire to the Indus River.
“Nothing is more opposed to a national spirit, to general ideas of liberty, than the private spirit of family or village. Because of this fragmentation, it also followed that the Gauls had no trained standing army, therefore no knowledge of military science. If Caesar’s glory depended solely on his conquest of Gaul, it would be in doubt… Any nation which lost sight of the importance of a standing army ever-ready for action, and which relied on mass levies of militias, would suffer the same fate as Gaul, although without even the glory of putting up a resistance as strong as theirs, which could be attributed to the barbarism of the time and to the nature of the terrain, covered with forests, marshes and quagmires and without roads: which made it difficult to conquer and easy to defend.
“One can only despise Caesar’s treatment of the Senate of Vannes. This people had not revolted; they had provided hostages and promised to live quietly, but they were in possession of all their rights and liberties. They had indeed given Caesar grounds to make war against them, but not to violate the law of nations in their case and to misuse his victory in so atrocious a way. This conduct was not just; still less was it politic. Such means never achieve their aim; they anger and disgust the nations. The punishment of a few chief people is all that justice and policy permit; it is an important rule to treat prisoners well.
“The conduct of Cato was applauded by his contemporaries and has been admired by history; but who benefited from his death? Caesar. Who was pleased by it? Caesar. And to who was it a tragedy? To Rome and to his party. But, it is argued, he preferred to kill himself rather than bow down before Caesar. But who was forcing him to bow down? Why did he not follow the cavalry, or those members of his party who embarked at the port of Utica and rallied the party in Spain? What influence his name, his advice and his presence must surely have had among the ten legions which in the following year were to vie for the destinies of the world on the battlefield of Munda!… If the book of destiny had been presented to Cato, and he had read there that in just two years’ time, Caesar, pierced by twenty-three dagger wounds, would fall dead in the Senate at the foot of Pompey’s statue, that Cicero would take the floor and angrily denounce Antony in his Philippics, would Cato still have transfixed himself? No, he killed himself out of spleen and despair. His death was the weakness of a great soul, the error of a stoic, a blot on his life.
“Among nations and during revolutions, there is always an aristocracy. If you destroy it in the form of the nobility, it will immediately be recreated among the rich and powerful families of the Third Estate. If you destroy it among these, it will resurface among successful artisans and the people. A prince gains nothing by such a displacement of the aristocracy. On the contrary, he restores order by letting it continue in its natural state, by reconstituting the ancient families on new principles.
“Caesar did not wish to be king because he could not have wished it; he could not have wished it because, after him, for 600 years, none of his successors wished it. It would have been a strange policy to replace the curule chair of the conquerors of the world with the despised and rotten throne of the vanquished.
*All excerpts have been taken from Napoleon’s Commentaries on the Wars of Julius Caesar, Pen and Sword.