John Milton—and Julius Caesar

Hearing two Sixth Formers express their delight in reading Paradise Lost, I marvelled. Milton fell from grace among many school and university teachers after the 1960s: commonly ranked hitherto with Shakespeare, he was denounced by F R Leavis at Cambridge, and soon, in many people’s minds, he was downgraded in the canon of English literature. Such an attitude has persisted, and sometimes criticism of Milton has verged on obloquy: in 2008, a respected writer and journalist decried him as ‘a bore and a prig.’*

Around the same time, Julius Caesar’s writing came in for similar treatment—in England, though not so much in America— and especially among the practitioners of the Cambridge Latin course. Caesar’s writing, they advised, represented an old and discredited way of teaching Latin. What school pupils wanted to read such material, or could be enthused by it?

If one listened carefully, there was suspicion that this aversion to reading Caesar was in reality distaste for the teaching of Mr or Mrs Dryasdust, from which these people seemed to have suffered; but those of us who had been given inspirational teachers recalled reading Caesar at school as interesting, exciting, and above all liberating, because at the age of 13 or 14 we found ourselves reading original Latin, and realised we were on the way to mastering the language: such is the clarity and simplicity of Caesar’s prose, and his power of crystallizing things in few words.

Quintilian says:

vero C. Caesar si foro tantum vacasset, non alius ex nostris contra Ciceronem nominaretur: tanta in eo vis est, id acumen, ea concitatio, ut illum eodem animo dixisse quo bellavit appareat; exornat tamen haec omnia mira sermonis, cuius proprie studiosus fuit, elegantia.

  But if Gaius Caesar had been free to concentrate only on the forum, then no one else of our writers would be named as rival to Cicero. There is so much vigour in him, such shrewdness, such motivational power, that it seems he spoke with the same passion as he waged war; yet he enhances all this by one wonderful quality of speech that he especially cultivated: elegance.  —Institutio Oratoria X.1.CXIV.

Caesar’s speeches have gone: lost in the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria, either in an earlier fire or in the comprehensive vandalising of that city in 392. For a recent account of that event, see Catherine Nixey, The Darkening Age, Macmillan, 2017.

Presumably there were also copies in the library at Constantinople, but that too was destroyed, in a fire of uncertain date.


*Simon Jenkins in The Guardian, 12th December 2008.