Commentarii de Bello Civili

For the epic poem by Lucan called de Bello civili, see Pharsalia.
Commentarii de Bello Civili
(Commentaries on the Civil War)
Author Julius Caesar
Language Classical Latin
Subject History, Military history
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Julius Caesar
Publication date
? 40s BC
Preceded by Commentarii de Bello Gallico
Followed by de Bello Alexandrino

Commentarii de Bello Civili (Commentaries on the Civil War), or Bellum Civile, is an account written by Julius Caesar of his war against Gnaeus Pompeius and the Senate. Shorter than its counterpart on the Gallic War, only three books long, and possibly unfinished, it covers the events of 49-48 BC, from shortly before Caesar's invasion of Italy to Pompey's defeat at the Battle of Pharsalus and flight to Egypt with Caesar in pursuit. It closes with Pompey assassinated, Caesar attempting to mediate rival claims to the Egyptian throne, and the beginning of the Alexandrian War.

Caesar's authorship of the Commentarii de Bello Civili is not disputed. However, its continuations on the Alexandrian, African and Hispanic wars are believed to have been written by others: the 2nd-century historian Suetonius suggested Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Oppius as possible authors.[1]


The Latin title Commentarii de Bello Civili is often retained as the title of the book in English translations of the work. The title itself is Latin for "Commentaries on the Civil War". It is sometimes shortened to just "Civil Wars", "About the Civil Wars", and "The Civil War", in English translations.[2]


Caesar organized his commentaries into three separate books, at that time written on individual scrolls. Each book is subdivided into numbered paragraphs. The books covers a two-year period discussing the Roman Civil War during 49 and 48 BC. As governor of Gaul, Caesar presents himself as the victim of a conspiracy occurring in Rome led by his political enemies, including Gnaeus Pompeius, Scipio, and Marcus Cicero. Throughout the commentaries he presents his cause as a noble one to restore order and return peace to the Roman people, while showing how his actions were justified. He also commonly presents himself as a humane liberal on the epicurean model. Caesar omits many details of the military campaigns, focusing in large part on the larger strategic situation and the reasoning behind the actions occurring.[2]

Written as a narrative, the book begins with the expiration of Caesar's term as governor of Gaul and the party dominating the Roman Senate ordering him to return to the city to face charges of misconduct and possible execution.[3] Caesar explains how he was wronged by Pompeius and his cohorts, who refused to permit him the triumph that was traditionally permitted to victorious generals. He proceeds with his army to invade Italy from Gaul. Pompeius attempts to raise an army in southern Italy, but is forced to retreat with the army to Greece. Caesar continually points to his efforts to reach an accommodation with Pompeius, and attempts to portray Pompeius as a jealous man only interested in perpetuating a rule in which he and his inner circle control the Republic.[4]

Caesar and his army follow Pompeius across the Adriatic Sea to Greece after a mop up operation in Italy and in Spain. In Greece Pompeius initially has the stronger position, with more troops, controlling many of the strategic areas.[5] Caesar writes a lengthy monologue about the superiority of his army of elite veterans of the pacification of Gaul, and dismisses Pompeius' tactics and the strength of his army. He points out that Pompeius' army was drawn largely from the provinces and was poorly trained. After Caesar successfully outmanoeuvred Pompeius's army in the eastern Balkans, Pompeius and his army gradually fall back into Macedonia. Caesar then writes another monologue portraying Pompeius as a coward because of his refusal to make a stand against Caesar, whose army was beginning to have supply problems, and pointed to Scipio as the primary obstacle to peace. Caesar describes Scipio as a maniacal and untrustworthy but weak villain concerned only with destroying Caesar. Scipio raises a personal army of his own from his provinces in Asia Minor and moves to reinforce Pompeius.[6]

The book climaxes with the Battle of Pharsalus in June 48. The lengthy battle and siege resulted in a decisive victory by Caesar's army. Pompeius and his cohorts flee to other areas of the Republic in an attempt to reverse their fortunes. Caesar then leads his army across the Mediterranean Sea in pursuit of Pompeius, who had landed in Egypt.[7] There Pompeius was murdered, according to Caesar, by the Egyptians. Caesar ends the book with an epilogue on the Egyptians' lack of justification for killing Pompeius. He then proceeds to explain his reasoning for occupying Egypt with his army, using a succession crisis among the Egyptian royal family as his pretence. The Egyptians resisted and Caesar seized the Pharos. The book ended with the line "Haec initia belli Alexandrini fuerunt." ("These things were the beginning of the Alexandrian war").[8] The events of the book were followed by the books Alexandrian, African and Hispanic wars, written most likely by officers of Caesar's armies.

Criticism and revival

Modern historians lament the fact that Caesar omits many important details about the military events, primarily because the book is the only source known to exist for many of the events that occurred in it, but also because it was written from the unique perspective of the most powerful figure in the Republic and one of the most notable generals in human history. Some modern historians have further suggested that Caesar also does not present a neutral picture and at every opportunity distorts the goals and positions of his enemies in favour of his own position, but does so in a subtle manner sometimes difficult to detect.

The book was for a time lost, but was rediscovered in Italian city archives in the Middle Ages. The oldest known manuscripts of the commentaries date to the tenth century AD. Parts of the book have remained lost though, with at least sixteen passages known to be missing.[9] Given its much shorter length when compared to Caesar's other works, and its abrupt ending, it is possible that he never finished the work, or that a significant part may still be missing. In 1469 the commentaries were republished in Rome, from which edition most modern copies are now derived. In 1809 Napoleon I, Emperor of the French, ordered a detailed look at the works of Caesar. The Commentarii de Bello Civili, along with his other works, were compiled into the Histoire de Jules Cesar, and served as an important history that renewed interest in Caesar.[9] The Commentarii de Bello Civili, along with Caesar's other literary works, became staple reading for Latin studies around the world because of the quality and excellent grammar employed by Caesar in his writings.[10]


  1. Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Julius 56
  2. 1 2 Henderson, p. vii
  3. Caesar, 1.2
  4. Caesar, 1.58
  5. Caesar, 1.23
  6. Caesar, 2.4
  7. Caesar, 3.103
  8. Caesar, 3.112
  9. 1 2 Henderson, p. x
  10. Henderson, pp. ix–x


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