Students Hate Caesar

John Knowles, A Separate Peace Chp. 11:

We went on to our room. I sat down at the translation of Caesar I was doing for him, since he had to pass Latin at last this year or fail to graduate. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it.

“Is anything exciting happening now?”

“This part is pretty interesting,” I said, “if I understand it right. About a surprise attack.”

“Read me that.”

“Well let’s see. It begins, ‘When Caesar noticed that the enemy was remaining for several days at the camp fortified by a swamp and by the nature of the terrain, he sent a letter to Trebonius instructing him’—’instructing him’ isn’t actually in the text but it’s understood; you know about that.”

“Sure. Go on.”

“ ‘Instructing him to come as quickly as possible by long forced marches to him’—this ‘him’ refers to Caesar of course.”

Finny looked at me with glazed interest and said, “Of course.”

“‘Instructing him to come as quickly as possible by long forced marches to him with three legions; he himself—Caesar, that is—’sent cavalry to withstand any sudden attacks of the enemy. Now when the Gauls learned what was going on, they scattered a selected band of foot soldiers in ambushes; who, overtaking our horsemen after the leader Vertiscus had been killed, followed our disorderly men up to our camp.’”

“I have a feeling that’s what Mr. Horn is going to call a ‘muddy translation.’ What’s it mean?”

“Caesar isn’t doing so well.”

“But he won it in the end.”

“Sure. If you mean the whole campaign—” I broke off. “He won it, if you really think there was a Gallic War …” Caesar, from the first, had been the one historical figure Phineas refused absolutely to believe in. Lost two thousand years in the past, master of a dead language and a dead empire, the bane and bore of schoolboys, Caesar he believed to be more of a tyrant at Devon than he had ever been in Rome. Phineas felt a personal and sincere grudge against Caesar, and he was outraged most by his conviction that Caesar and Rome and Latin had never been alive at all … “If you really think there ever was a Caesar,” I said.

Finny got up from the cot, picking up his cane as an afterthought. He looked oddly at me, his face set to burst out laughing I thought. “Naturally I don’t believe books and I don’t believe teachers,” he came across a few paces, “but I do believe—it’s important after all for me to believe you.

Too cool for school.

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