In the writing of history, unreliable narration has been a constant since the first quill dipped onto the first piece of parchment. The consequent changing or omission of facts can have many motivations behind it. Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote critically of many ancient Roman leaders, but couldn’t be too critical for he relied on them for his livelihood. Voltaire writhed similarly under the watchful eye of the European monarchs he was beholden to, binding his hands on some topics where he might have otherwise been blunter. But unreliable narration has also arisen from less sympathetic purposes. For example, Winston Churchill wrote his memoirs in part to make sure that his reputation was glowing after he passed away. This urge to shape history in one’s favor is remains common. All you have to do is browse the Current Events section of any bookstore to see a mountain of political memoirs hoping to push your opinion into the author’s favor. From The Art of the Deal to The Audacity of Hope, their numbers are legion.
I bring this up because questioning unreliable narration, in this case the war stories of Julius Caesar, is the major focus of The Celtic Holocaust. This is a six hour podcast by Dan Carlin, part of his long-running and incredibly good Hardcore History series. In it, he takes Caesar’s ancient memoir, Commentaries on the Gallic War, and seeks to scrutinize what’s in it with a more critical modern eye. The end result becomes arguably one of the best of his deep dive history podcasts yet.
Hero or Villain?
Parsing what Caesar chooses to write ended up leaving me both better informed as well as unsure about where he ultimately ends up historically. Is Caesar writing these memoirs to connect him to the common people in Rome who will thus feel more attached to his political success? Is every effort to mention Roman officers a sop and wink to appreciative senators and noblemen back home? Is Caesar’s obvious appreciation of the Celtic warrior spirit an attempt to make him seem more awesome for being able to defeat it? Or are the compliments to the Gauls an effort to lay the groundwork for their eventual Roman citizenship a generation down the road (and to possibly save them from a genocidal extinction at the hands of the other more intolerant Roman leaders)? Dan Carlin raises these questions, seeks to explore them, and I, at least, was swept up excitedly every step of the way.
Caesar’s Moves in the Modern Eye
It would be irresponsible to write this mini-review without bringing up the titular Celtic holocaust. In this, the podcast becomes less about the unreliable narrator and more about what actions used to be acceptable in the era of Classical Antiquity and how that measures up to the mores of today. In addition, Dan Carlin spends a lot of time developing an interesting analogy to the experience of American Indians trying in vain to fight off the Europeans centuries later. In the historical case of the Celts & Gauls, their story thus represents a hypothetical of sorts: what if the American Indians suffered no casualties to foreign disease, had near technological parity, and often outnumbered their imperialistic foes? You know the ending before it begins, given Julius Caesar’s fame for later historical events, but it is still a fascinating hypothetical that Dan Carlin returns to multiple times over the course of the podcast.
If any of this piqued your interest, I’d highly recommend checking out Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series. You can find The Celtic Holocaust either on his website or on iTunes. It is free for now but eventually gets put behind a paywall three to four years after its release. Worth your time and if anyone listens to it, I’d love to hear opinions in the comments below!