Without doubt, veni vidi vici is one of the most famous quotations from Antiquity. It is well known that it was Julius Caesar who coined the renowned expression. Less frequently discussed is the fact that ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ was announced as written text. According to Suetonius, Caesar paraded a placard displaying the words veni vidi vici in his triumph held over Pontus in 46 b.c. (Suet. Iul. 37.2):
Pontico triumpho inter pompae fercula trium verborum praetulit titulum VENI VIDI VICI non acta belli significantem sicut ceteris, sed celeriter confecti notam.
In his Pontic triumph he exhibited among the biers of the procession a placard (titulus) with three words VENI VIDI VICI, not to show the deeds performed in the war, as in the others, but to mark out how fast the war had been concluded.Footnote 1
Famous though the statement is, veni vidi vici has not been analysed in context. Works on Roman history and Caesar mostly note the phrase only in passing,Footnote 2 as do discussions on the Roman triumph.Footnote 3 The words are taken as a reflection of Caesar's speed, which is certainly correct, but they are not scrutinized in further depth.Footnote 4
This article proposes to analyse veni vidi vici as a political statement made in a Late Republican triumphal context. The discussion will focus on issues of the written text, self-presentation, elite competition, public display, ritual and mos maiorum, and the basic questions posed are: What was the message and meaning of veni vidi vici? Why was it shown in Caesar's triumph? What do its style, contents and context tell us about the intent and implication of the written words? How would people have reacted to its display? ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ is a strong announcement of self, proclaimed at a very critical point just after Caesar returned to Rome as victor in both external and internal conflicts. It will be argued that veni vidi vici was an extremely unconventional display that should be read as a strong provocation challenging traditional norms at a time that saw the final collapse of the long-praised Republican collegial system.
Suetonius is the only ancient author who writes that Caesar paraded veni vidi vici in his triumph in Rome. The phrase does, however, appear in two other writers. According to Plutarch and Appian, Caesar, having swiftly defeated Pharnaces of Pontus at Zela in 47 b.c., wrote ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ in a letter to Rome.Footnote 5 Both give the phrase in Greek translation, but Plutarch praises the Latin wording for its persuasive composition and brevity.Footnote 6 Florus and Cassius Dio also describe the victory at Zela in words that testify to Caesar's speed and clearly refer to his statement.Footnote 7
The Greek authors (and Florus) are relevant, as they attest to the efficiency and success of Caesar's words. However, for this paper, which proposes to discuss veni vidi vici in its Roman political context, the passage in Suetonius (quoted above) is the most important. Only Suetonius describes how the words were displayed in Rome, and he is, moreover, the one source to give the original Latin phrasing. In contrast to some of Caesar's other famed sayings, like ‘You too, my child’, ‘Let the die be cast’ and ‘They wanted this’ (at Pharsalus), reported by some authors to have been said or written in Greek,Footnote 8 it is significant that veni vidi vici was quite clearly first proclaimed in Latin. In terms of historical credibility, moreover, there are grounds for preferring Suetonius' account of a triumphal display to Plutarch and Appian, who claim that Caesar wrote the words in a letter to Rome. Certainly, there is no way to prove either tradition right or wrong. Caesar could have written the words in letters to Rome and then displayed them in his triumph.Footnote 9 Both versions could also have been preserved in the writings of Caesar's contemporaries, Oppius, Hirtius, Balbus and Asinius Pollio, sources extensively used by both Suetonius and Plutarch.Footnote 10 Still, we should note that Suetonius, as an imperial secretary, had access to records and archives, where triumphal contents could have been copied and preserved.Footnote 11 Moreover, Plutarch's account has a dramatic point and a contextual meaning that Suetonius' enumeration of triumphal displays lacks. One possibility therefore would be that the saying, stemming from one or more Latin texts that described the triumph in detail, was picked up by Plutarch, or his sources, and used as the perfect ending to Caesar's action at Zela, a narrative that Appian also follows. In fact, many modern historical treatments also place the saying at Zela, very likely because it makes an effective conclusion to the account of that battle.Footnote 12
In the passage under discussion (Iul. 37), Suetonius reports on the display of the words as one of three very particular episodes that took place during all five of Caesar's triumphs, held in 46–45 b.c. for the victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, Africa and Spain.Footnote 13 The other two incidents both occurred during the Gallic triumph. Suetonius writes that the axle of Caesar's chariot broke along the route and that he climbed the Capitol flanked by forty elephants bearing torches. Both these events were highly spectacular incidents, and the mention of veni vidi vici in this context suggests that this written announcement also made a significant impression at the time and in the records and that it was considered to be out of the ordinary. In fact, the concise alliterative message of veni vidi vici made up the perfect rhetorical catchphrase for a mass audience. As we saw above, Plutarch underlines its persuasive quality. Hence, whether or not Caesar had previously formulated the statement, veni vidi vici was most certainly intended for a large audience. The triumph provided an optimal setting, where the memorable phrasing would have been read, called out, repeated, debated and remembered by people gathered in this crowded ceremony that was filled with strong emotion and expectation.
According to Suetonius, the three words veni vidi vici were shown on a titulus. The term is revealing.Footnote 14 Several Latin authors tell of tituli that were carried in triumphal processions. Both Ovid (Tr. 4.2.20) and Propertius (3.4.16) depict the people of Rome reading names of captured towns on tituli. The Elder Pliny writes that Sulla in 81 b.c. paraded 14,000 pounds of gold under a placard (sub titulo) that specified the amount and reported that the younger Marius had earlier robbed the sum from the Capitoline temple.Footnote 15 Pliny also records that Balbus in 19 b.c. had a representation of mons Gyri preceded by a titulus that stated the name of the mountain and declared that it produced precious stones,Footnote 16 and that Claudius displayed tituli announcing the weight and the donors together with the golden crowns in his British triumph.Footnote 17 Suetonius writes that in the procession of a.d. 68, Nero displayed the crowns secured in the Greek games with tituli that provided information on how they had been won.Footnote 18 Centuries later, the biographer of the Historia Augusta (Aurel. 34.1–2) claims that the different groups of people in Aurelian's triumph had their names announced on tituli. There were, among others, women labelled as Amazons.
In all these examples, the triumphal tituli appear on parade together with captives, spoils and representations of places. They provide information on the specific displays by announcing names, numbers, weight and origins. Quite clearly, they are identical to the placards seen on reliefs depicting triumphal processions. For example, the famed relief in the passageway of the Arch of Titus in Rome provides three examples of placards carried by processional ministri (Fig. 1).Footnote 19 Each placard precedes a piece or group of booty from the temple in Jerusalem: the table of shewbread with vessels and trumpets, the golden seven-branched lampstand (menorah) and, probably following to the left of the third placard (where the relief breaks off), the Jewish Law.Footnote 20 Certainly, these placards once named and described the spoils on display; they were the tituli noted in the literary sources. Similarly, placards depicted in other representations of triumphal processions, for example on the Arch of Trajan in Benevento, appear just in front of captives and booty and were clearly tituli that gave brief information on those who followed.Footnote 21
Tituli seen on reliefs depicting triumphal processions almost exclusively have the form modern literature calls tabula ansata; that is a board with small handles, ansae, on the short sides. Tabula ansata is a modern and rather unfortunate term,Footnote 22 as Latin authors always call the placards tituli and never tabulae.Footnote 23 A general difference in the ancient terminology seems to be that tabulae were boards used for longer texts, such as legal decrees, edicts and treaties,Footnote 24 which were fastened on to any wall, whereas tituli were labels, ‘titles’, attached to a specific content for which they provided information. Hence, a titulus gave, for example, the title of a book, a speech or a wine, or the name and career of the person represented in portraiture and statue (titulus/imago).Footnote 25 The tituli were intended to be read together with the item or person to which they belonged. Hence their knobs: clearly the handles were once used to fix or to nail the placards on these objects.
In the triumphal procession, tituli were not actually physically suspended on the spoils and captives on display. Nevertheless, through their shape, they transmitted the image of tituli to the spectators. Their knobbed ends signalled that they belonged to the objects or people shown behind them and that they should be read together with and as information about this display.
Hence, when Suetonius tells us that Caesar showed a titulus with veni vidi vici in his triumph, he reveals that the three words were not intended to be read in isolation. Instead, the placard formed a joint display with the person to whom it belonged: Caesar, the triumphator. According to Suetonius, Caesar exhibited (praetulit) the text among the biers of the procession (inter pompae fercula), a wording that does not specify its placing. Inter fercula might mean anywhere in the parade, while prae in praetulit could indicate that the placard was carried at the head of the parade, or that Caesar showed it just before (prae) his own appearance. The term titulus itself suggests that the placard appeared close to Caesar.Footnote 26 The intimate relation between triumphator and text is further underlined by the fact that the verbs were formulated in the first person singular – I came, I saw, I conquered. The titulus with its first person proclamation was a title ‘fixed’ to Caesar, encouraging the spectators to read it together with and as information about the triumphator.
Caesar's placard stands out as an unprecedented exception. All other triumphal tituli recorded in literature and art preceded, as we have seen, the captives, spoils or representations on parade and provided descriptive information about names, places, weight and provenance. By way of these short texts, the Roman victors defined the contents and extent of their conquests, now on display. Veni vidi vici is, as far as the sources tell, our only example of a titulus linked to a triumphator and it is exceptional in its first-person style. Moreover, Caesar's placard had not been attached to the triumphator by someone else. Instead it was Caesar himself who symbolically carried his own titulus ahead (praetulit). He thereby took advantage of a medium conventionally used to express Roman power and control over defeated enemies to show off his personal success. Veni vidi vici is an unorthodox and challenging self-advertisement, preceding Caesar and proclaiming the speed of his own deeds in his own words – I came, I saw, I conquered.
VENI VIDI VICI AS WRITTEN RESPONSE
Caesar certainly had cause for his boastful veni vidi vici. The Pontic campaign had been a quick affair. Caesar arrived in Pontus more or less directly from his cruise on the Nile with Cleopatra and defeated King Pharnaces at Zela within five days after his arrival and after only four hours of fighting.Footnote 27 Hence, the declaration of extreme speed had its rightful place in the Pontic triumph, and Suetonius also notes that the placard was brought forth to tell how fast the war had been concluded and not, as was usual practice, to show the deeds performed.
Caesar's swift victory in Pontus is generally given as the explanation for his veni vidi vici. This is certainly correct. However, as I aim to show, Caesar's message had further causes and wider implications, beyond the immediate reference to a quick Pontic success.
According to Appian (B Civ. 2.91), right after the victory at Zela, Caesar is said to have exclaimed: ‘O fortunate Pompey, who was considered and named Great for fighting against such men as these in the time of Mithridates, the father of this man.’ Thereafter, Appian says that Caesar wrote ‘But I (ἐγὼ δὲ) came, saw, conquered’ to Rome. Appian thus suggests that Caesar by veni vidi vici set his swift and effective success in contrast to Pompey's previous Pontic warfare. Suetonius also links the battle of Zela and the announcement of veni vidi vici with a comment by Caesar on Pompey's earlier campaigning in the area. Having just described the quick victory over Pharnaces, Suetonius (Iul. 35.2) writes that Caesar often reminded people of Pompey's luck in having gained his military reputation almost exclusively by defeating such powerless cowards.
Roman fighting against Pontus had been going on for periods since 89 b.c., including three so-called Mithridatic wars,Footnote 28 and when Pompey finally defeated Mithridates in 63 b.c., he did indeed win much repute for the success. Caesar's actions and comment at Zela, as reported in Appian and Suetonius, suggest that he announced veni vidi vici to take the shine off Pompey's deeds.Footnote 29Veni vidi vici underlined the ease of his victory in contrast to earlier extended campaigns against Pontus. Caesar's words were aimed at previous Roman military leaders in the area, who had either been remarkably ineffective, or had won their fame far too easily (Pompey).Footnote 30 ‘Came, saw, conquered’ was an announcement of military quickness and resolute success against the kingdom that Caesar's predecessors – for very little reason, as it consisted of such easily defeated cowards – had been fighting for years.
Roman generals, with Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey as their prime champions, had been struggling to subdue Mithridates and Pontus for a very long time. Moreover, both Lucullus and Pompey (and probably Sulla)Footnote 31 made huge efforts to magnify their successes in the triumphal parades that ended their campaigns. In order to set veni vidi vici in context, it is necessary to discuss these earlier displays in some detail. In 63 b.c., Lucullus' triumph over Mithridates of Pontus and Tigranes of Armenia paraded a six-foot high golden statue of Mithridates, and sixty friends and generals of Mithridates also walked in the procession (Plut. Luc. 37.3–4). Two years later, Pompey held a massive two-day triumphal celebration over the eastern kingdoms and the pirates. In order to outdo Lucullus, he paraded a colossal statue of Mithridates of solid gold and eight cubits in height, plus large silver statues of both Mithridates and of Pharnaces I, the first king of Pontus.Footnote 32 There were moreover representations of Mithridates and Tigranes, shown fighting, conquered and fleeing, as well as an image of the death of Mithridates (App. Mith. 117). Sons and daughters of the king were put on show in the triumph, as were his throne and sceptre.Footnote 33
Both Lucullus and Pompey also paraded a number of texts in their triumphs over Mithridates, and these too formed part of the competitive strife between the two. According to Plutarch, Lucullus exhibited tablets (δέλτοι) that recorded the sums of money that Lucullus had already paid to Pompey for the war against the pirates, to the Roman treasury and to each soldier (950 drachmas).Footnote 34 Both Appian (πίναξ) and Plutarch (γράμματα) also tell of lists brought forth in Pompey's triumph.Footnote 35 They gave names and numbers of nations, cities, forts, kings and ships conquered, cities founded and also stated that whereas the public revenues from taxes had been 50 million drachmas, Pompey now delivered twenty thousand talents in coined money and vessels of gold and silver to the treasury, in addition to the money that he gave to the soldiers.
The texts described by Appian and Plutarch were no tituli, but lists that would have worked independently of the displays on parade. Such texts are otherwise unattested in the sources. Appian and Plutarch suggest that Lucullus' and Pompey's texts were designed to eclipse the achievements of each man's rival. In Plutarch's version, Lucullus even has a placard boasting that he has paid a lot of money for Pompey's continued campaign. Hence, Lucullus' text could be said to project itself into Pompey's parade held two years later, in that it told future spectators to remember his role in the making of Pompey's victory and triumph. Pompey's processional lists, in their turn, could be read as a textual response to Lucullus' claim, announcing clearly that the money now taken into Rome superseded all previous victories over Mithridates and Tigranes.
The triumphal displays of Lucullus and Pompey form part of the intense rivalry between the two. In 74 b.c. the Senate appointed Lucullus for the prestigious command against Mithridates. When his troops mutinied in 68/7 b.c. (Plut. Luc. 34), Rome deprived him of his command and sent Pompey instead to take up arms against Mithridates.Footnote 36 From that point on, the two fought bitterly to be given the highest honours and recognition for their Pontic commands. When Lucullus returned to Rome in 66 b.c., he was forced to stay outside the city for three years before he could enter in triumph.Footnote 37 Pompey came off better, and on his return in 61 b.c. walked almost immediately into the city in a procession lasting two days.Footnote 38 In his triumph were also a majority of the soldiers who had once fought for Lucullus in the East.Footnote 39 Lucullus reacted by calling Pompey a vulture, who in his unlimited lust for military power and glory profited from other people's success.Footnote 40 Pompey, for his part, made fun of Lucullus' failure and his greed for money.Footnote 41 The texts paraded in their triumphs formed part of this verbal dispute.
In Caesar's triumphs, sources again note the display of a particular text in a triumph: veni vidi vici. Once more, the enemy was a king of Pontus, Pharnaces, son of Mithridates, the long-time bitter enemy of Rome. Caesar's placard can be interpreted as mocking earlier lengthy campaigns against Pontus. When carried through the streets of Rome, the words might also be read as a written response to Lucullus' and Pompey's longstanding rival claims for having won a decisive victory over Pontus, and their use of triumphal processions to announce that mastery. In its message as well as in verbal quickness, veni vidi vici put an effective end to that dispute. Not only had Sulla first, and Lucullus and Pompey later on, needed twenty years to subdue Pontus. They also spent years in arguing about it, and in their triumphs they paraded Pontic spoils and images with list after list with words, numbers and names to publicize their deeds. For Caesar, four hours on the battlefield and one placard with three words in the triumphal parade sufficed.
Hence, just as Pompey's triumph might be read as a response to Lucullus' parade, Caesar's performance was a reply to his predecessors' celebrations. In particular, veni vidi vici countered Pompey's Pontic pomp. In the larger context, all five of Caesar's triumphs were designed to outdo his former father-in-law's three separate triumphs (around 80, in 71 and in 61 b.c.). Pompey had shown himself master of the world, staging triumphal processions over Africa, Spain (Europe) and Asia, all culminating in the two-day long celebration held in 61 b.c. that paraded the inhabited world as his trophy.Footnote 42 Caesar went one step further, and stacked up four of his triumphs in just one month. These marked his victories in Europe (Gaul), Africa (Egypt and Thapsus) and Asia (Pontus), later to be complemented by a military victory in Europe (Spain). Caesar's celebrations could be read as a response to Pompey's claim of world conquest, by emphatically announcing worldwide mastery in the space of just one month, whereas the same achievement had taken Pompey a period of twenty years.Footnote 43 Thus, veni vidi vici tells a story similar to that of Caesar's triumphs taken as a whole. While Pompey had performed great deeds and paraded grand displays, Caesar had equalled or even surpassed his success, and at a much swifter pace.
VENI VIDI VICI AS PROVOCATION
Veni vidi vici was an utterly effective text that announced Caesar's speedy victory in contrast to earlier never-ending campaigns in Pontus. We have also seen that it could be read as a textual response to the bitter quarrel and triumphal displays of Lucullus and Pompey. Furthermore, I will argue that veni vidi vici was a manifest challenge to centuries of normative acting and writing in Republican Rome. The titulus in Caesar's Pontic triumph is unparalleled, and was, I believe, deliberately provocative in several senses: in proclaiming Caesar's extreme speed at the expense of his fellow Romans, in boasting the triumphator's personal achievements in the first person singular, and in expressing the success of one man in such a condensed form.
First, veni vidi vici was provocative in its contents: the announcement of Caesar's exceptional and victorious speed. Spectators of the triumph could hardly have missed the blunt announcement of superiority in a message that, carried in front of the triumphator, ridiculed and scorned Caesar's predecessors. ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ both showed off Caesar's achievements and diminished the value of other Roman generals' accomplishments.
Besides boasting of Caesar's pre-eminence over other Roman commanders, veni vidi vici could be read as a proclamation of victory against these very generals, not least Pompey. We should not forget that the four processions that Caesar staged in one and the same month in 46 b.c. were also his first ritual entry into Rome after more than three years of civil wars that had started off with the crossing of the Rubicon.Footnote 44 The four triumphs celebrated his victories in Gaul, Alexandria, Pontus and Africa. However, although the triumphs officially celebrated only Caesar's bella externa,Footnote 45 they in practice signified the ceremonial end to battles fought against enemy Romans.Footnote 46 Not only were Caesar's successes at Alexandria and Zela marked as festive days in the calendar afterwards, but so were his victories at Pharsalus and Thapsus, and later Munda.Footnote 47
Late Republican triumphs did not altogether cover up civil wars.Footnote 48 In his processions of 46 b.c., Caesar was careful not to exhibit the names of defeated fellow Romans, but he could not resist parading images of them in their death.Footnote 49 Thus, the suicides of Cato and Scipio were both shown, a display much disliked by the Roman spectators.Footnote 50 There could have been little doubt for the people watching that Caesar was now master of both the outside world and of Rome. To further his message of power, as many as seventy-two lictors accompanied the victor, a massive display, which was not taken favourably by the people (Cass. Dio 43.14.3, 43.19.2). Hence, Caesar's famed declaration of clementia on his return after Thapsus was proclaimed with a parallel statement of supreme power.Footnote 51 The triumph showed the Romans who had refused Caesar's clementia crushed, while those who had chosen to accept his pardon were forced to watch their comrades and the defeat of their cause. The triumphs in themselves were also a victory for Caesar. The last time he tried for a triumphus, in 60 b.c., Cato and the Senate managed to hinder it.Footnote 52 This time, any such resistance had effectively been wiped out, and Cato's death scene was even on public display as part of the triumph.
In this triumphal context, where victories over Romans were suggested and even paraded alongside those over foreign enemies, the message veni vidi vici had double significance. Beyond the obvious reading of a swift Pontic campaign, ‘Came, saw, conquered’ was, I would argue, also a statement of Caesar's determined and speedy takeover of the Italian peninsula and his victories over Roman adversaries. Caesar was renowned for using surprise and rapid, bold movements as a strategic weapon, both in his foreign wars and in the civil struggles. Hence, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian and others repeatedly describe Caesar's audacious speed as a winning factor in the internal conflicts.Footnote 53 Contemporary sources tell the same story. Cicero, in his letters from 49 b.c., time after time comes back to Caesar's almost unimaginable swiftness, strongly contrasted with Pompey's irresolute undertakings. Thus, according to Cicero, Caesar, unlike Pompey, used an unbelievable speed (O celeritatem incredibilem!), rushed along and would soon be in Rome (at illum ruere nuntiant et iam iamque adesse), and then hastened through Apulia to catch Pompey at Brundisium (Caesaris hic per Apuliam ad Brundisium cursus quid efficiat, exspecto).Footnote 54 On display in Rome in 46 b.c., veni vidi vici told the Roman spectators that Caesar's speed, force, boldness, strategic superiority and leadership had struck down Pontus with a single blow, and also that he rapidly and with little resistance had taken control of Rome. The four triumphs were Caesar's entry as first man in Rome,Footnote 55 and veni vidi vici a declaration of his swiftness and his unquestionable new position of authority and power.
The second aspect of provocation in veni vidi vici concerns its pronounced I-form. As far as we know, no other text displayed in a Roman triumph expressed the specific acts of the triumphing general in the first person. As demonstrated above, texts shown in triumphal processions were almost exclusively short notes of names and numbers that preceded spoils and prisoners, providing the spectators with effective and easily read labels on the objects and peoples that passed by. Also, lists of kings captured, cities founded and money brought into Rome appear in the description by Appian and Plutarch of Lucullus' and Pompey's eastern triumphs.
To hold a triumph was the greatest honour that a Roman general could achieve. The procession provided him with a public space and opportunity to exhibit his glorious deeds of conquest. Nevertheless, from what the sources suggest, the parade was acknowledged primarily as a place and time to bring the fruits of victory, spoils and prisoners, into the Roman realm and to present the conquests to the people and gods of Rome. Personal success, though profoundly present in the performance per se, was not visually emphasized by specific displays. Hence, while vivid representations showed the actions and deaths of Roman enemies, no images are attested that picture the martial acts performed by the general.Footnote 56 In fact, except for veni vidi vici, our sources lack references to displays that focussed on the person of the triumphator, but for one example – Pompey's portrait made of pearls paraded in 61 b.c., a distasteful exhibit according to Pliny the Elder (HN 37.14). Pompey and Caesar are exceptions that prove the general rule; that in this ritual context, the triumphator played a role, a god-like, kingly performance, in which the phallus under the car, the songs of the soldiers and the slave standing behind the successful general worked to hinder any personal hubris from going too far.Footnote 57 To use this ritual moment reserved for thanking the gods to produce a first-person boast, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, was unprecedented and, without doubt, very provocative.
Quite clearly, Caesar's veni vidi vici, like Pompey's portrait, belongs to a Late Republican context, in which the great generals, equipped with unprecedented power, authority and self-confidence tested the limits of traditional behaviour to the extreme.Footnote 58 In their quest to outdo each other,Footnote 59 Pompey and Caesar staged triumphs that went far beyond the conventional. Both marked themselves as world conquerors, and both employed elephants to escort them;Footnote 60 Caesar also had white horses.Footnote 61 Elephants and white horses were potent symbols that signalled royal and semi-divine status and thus marked the ambition of Pompey and Caesar, unrestricted by the limits of Republican codes of behaviour. Caesar's use of massed lictors to escort him in the triumphs, his display of conquered fellow Romans, and the presence of elephants and white horses were together with veni vidi vici prime components in his use of ‘provocation and transgression as political habitus’, to use the words of Tonio Hölscher.Footnote 62
Caesar's use of the first person singular also stands out in contrast to his use of the third person in the Bellum Gallicum and Bellum Civile.Footnote 63 The commentarii were well known in Rome at the time of the triumphs in 46 b.c.,Footnote 64 and one would suspect that at least spectators within the leading political circles would have reacted to this drastic shift in expression. Now, as has been discussed by Batstone and Damon, Caesar by using the third person in his commentarii paradoxically manages to shape an intimate feeling of shared values that transmits a sense of ‘us’ to his readers.Footnote 65 The recurrent character Caesar appears as an impersonal and distanced actor in the field, who fights for the good of Rome, and whose deeds appear as objective facts.Footnote 66 This is an image of Caesar, omnipresent and highly successful, but still in the midst of equals. Interestingly, as Batstone and Damon also show, Caesar in the Bellum Civile gradually refers more frequently back to his own accounts and he also uses the first person plural more often, to refer to Caesar the author.Footnote 67 In one passage near the end, he even slips in an ‘I’ (3.70.1: credo). Hence, as his wars proceed towards their conclusion, Caesar, again according to Batstone and Damon, transforms his voice from that of the participating general to that of the analysing observer.Footnote 68
One might argue that veni vidi vici takes the narrative voice one step further. Caesar's use of first person could be interpreted as a playful and self-confident textual reference to his own earlier third-person writings. More importantly, in veni vidi vici, Caesar is certainly no more a Roman general who aims at including his readers, or even an observant commentator of a war that is coming to its end. ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’ allows for no feelings of a collective Roman identity and the words do not even pretend to present a factual war report. They are the blunt and raw words of a winner who has by his own superior actions mastered all resistance and taken full command of both external enemies and former friends.
The third aspect of provocation signalled by veni vidi vici also concerns form, more specifically its brevity. Traditionally, Roman aristocrats told and inscribed their martial deeds by way of lengthy enumerations of names and numbers of places, peoples and wealth obtained. From the conclusion of the victorious battle onwards, the general gave detailed accounts at several occasions, the purpose being first to secure a triumph and second to commemorate the victory and triumph. He sent a laurelled letter from the battlefield to tell of the victory and on his return to Rome he met with the Senate in order to present a thorough war report.Footnote 69 Success could be quantified and numbers were important. Hence the reports included the number of battles won, cities, forts and ships conquered and enemies captured and killed (preferably balanced by a low number of Roman losses).Footnote 70 The lists that Lucullus and Pompey presented in their triumphs according to Appian and Plutarch form part of this tradition.Footnote 71
After the celebration, successful generals had their deeds announced and represented in inscriptions, monuments and art. Here, we find the same insistence on recording the particulars of the performed victorious deeds. Examples include the tabulae noted in the literary sources as describing the deeds of C. Duilius (Inscr. It. 13.3, 44–9), L. Aemilius Regillus (Livy 40.52), Tiberius Gracchus (Livy 41.28.8–10) and Pompey (Plin. HN 7.97–8). They were written in the third person singular and in the past tense (e.g. praeda domum reportavit; triumphans in urbem rediit; eius rei aedem vovit), giving name and title (Cn Pompeius Magnus imperator, Ti. Semproni Gracchi consulis), and recording the fruits of victory in names (e.g. peoples and kings conquered) and numbers (of captured ships, people etc.). Indeed, this would be the normative Roman written laudatory text, whether set up by the person praised or dedicated by somebody else: inscriptions written in past tense in the third person singular, and listing military and civic accomplishments in detail. This epigraphic habit formed part of the Republican competitive culture, in which martial deeds together with the cursus honorum were essential markers of the symbolic capital by which individuals and families struggled for power and status.Footnote 72 By listing in detail conquests, triumphs and offices, the public texts made Roman achievements and merits visible and comparable. In this culture of competition, the written records made it evident to the Roman public who had succeeded and who had not.
As with any written advertisement of victory, veni vidi vici gave evidence of the deeds performed by a victorious Roman general. It was written in the perfect tense, and thus told of a war fully completed. In all other aspects of form and content, however, veni vidi vici was unconventional in the extreme. In contrast to the traditional announcement of success, it presented no account of financial gains, or of battles won and enemies conquered.Footnote 73 It gave no numbers and no names. The message was clear: Caesar did not need to humble himself into reporting the details of his campaign to the Senate and the people. His achievements were too great to be compared to those of others. As victor over the outside world and over Rome herself, he stood above both the approval of others and the traditional system of public record-keeping.
In other ways too, Caesar's veni vidi vici marks his independence from the Roman tradition. As noted above, the Roman victory texts customarily presented the general in the third person singular, naming his role as consul or imperator as a way of marking that victory had been accomplished in the name of Rome. Duilius, Gracchus, Pompey and others had been successful not as private citizens but in their capacity as Roman representatives. In contrast, in Caesar's compressed veni vidi vici, there is no mention of Rome, any magistracy or title, and his first-person style suggests that his victory was simply won by himself and for himself.
Compared to the traditional listings of Roman achievements, the compact veni vidi vici was extremely effective. It reflected Caesar's speed at the battlefield and also his swiftness in writing. It told of a general who was not obliged to report his every action and who was too busy winning battles and taking control of Rome to give a detailed account. Veni vidi vici also exposed Caesar's character,Footnote 74 revealing at the same time his resolute actions (acta) and talent for witty and laconic self-expression (dicta).Footnote 75 In fact, Caesar was famed not only for his speed as general but also for his quick intellect and fast writing.Footnote 76 He was known as the second best orator in Rome,Footnote 77 and his charismatic personality was reflected in his sayings. Veni vidi vici became one of his catchphrases, and it was included in collections of Caesar's dicta.Footnote 78 Its stylistic elegance, as attested by Plutarch, revealed a leader who was just as quick on the battlefield as he was with words.
When veni vidi vici first appeared in Caesar's triumph, its context, contents and form was without precedent. To the people of Rome, the words probably made an immediate impact. To Caesar's equals, the announcement very likely appeared as humiliating. Caesar had not just shown himself undefeatable on the battlefield. With veni vidi vici, he also proclaimed that he was quicker, smarter and wittier than everybody else, and moreover was unbound by tradition and expected behaviour. Veni vidi vici was written provocation and a laugh in the face of the Roman mos maiorum.