I have been thinking on a phrase that Caesar used in his De Bello Gallico for a while now. Perhaps I am just overthinking it (yes, it happens) but I really like how the sentence speaks to his battle tactics.
Caesari omnia uno tempore erant agenda.
To Caesar, all things had to be done at a single time.
Para César, todas las cosas debian de haber sido hechas en un sólo momento.
The composition of the sentence, which flows quite well in the Latin, needs all sorts of prepositions and complex participles to make it work in English and Spanish. I could render it in English somewhat all-encompassing-like (how’s that for an adverb) without losing a lot of the meaning but, surprisingly, the Spanish gave me a lot of trouble. The verb to be, usually smooth in the Spanish, was somewhat awkward here, perhaps due to the language’s aversion to participles. Who knows.
The cool thing about this bit of writing, is that Caesar is talking about himself in the third person. Caesari is Caesar himself, in the Dative. Not only is he third person, but he makes himself the Indirect Object of the sentence (and the verb). Humility? I doubt it. Rather, he was expressing his opinion about a fact that he had experienced, and that all should consider, especially since he knew first hand. Sometimes will will construct something like ‘to me, it seems the best…’ In that sense, we are placing ourselves as an indirect actor, allowing the real subject of the sentence to come through in hopes that we can carry a point. So, what is our subject, if not almighty Caesar? Everything.
No, literally, omnia is the subject of the sentence. This little word in the nominative case and neuter gendered (I am not a fan of the neuters because they like to make you think they are direct objects – accusatives – when they aren’t) literally means ‘all things.’ ‘Everything’ as the subject seems almost fallacious. After all, no one can like ‘every kind of food,’ or ‘every person,’ or even ‘every good thing;’ but the use of the expression brings Caesar’s mind to us in an interesting way. The guy loved his extremes. Believe or not, conservatives tend to be far more all encompassing in their statements than liberals or democrats (ya, I just went there), and therefore use more words like ‘every,’ ‘always,’ ‘never,’ or ‘none’ more often than the aforementioned people. Why? Conservatism is pretty close to an ‘all or nothing’ sort of philosophy. In other words, conservatives are like the Sith.
It is no wander that Obi Wan Kenobi’s answer to Darth Vader in Episode III is “Only the Sith deal in absolutes.” After all, “you are either with me or against me” is quite a conservative statement to make. Things are black and white when extremes are applied – ask any conservative. Caesar is doing the same thing here by separating ‘all or nothing.’ By saying ‘all things’ Caesar forces the reader to take into account everything they think about when they ponder Roman issues, culture, and ideals. In writing this to the senate at Rome, which is what Caesar was doing, he was challenging their changing beliefs, because he had won in Germany and that gave him the right, therefore he was in the know of life, right? Well…
Uno tempore is an Ablative of Time in Which, ya, that exists. This ablative set the reader into a time, a single dot of time in which the action of the sentence happens. Why choose to write it here? Well, Caesar, like the Romans, was a Subject-Object-Verb kinda guy. We, English speakers, are a Verb-Subject-Object people. We say ‘The Dog Runs to me’ because that’s how we like our sentences, and we don’t really have a way to express the same idea in any other way. If I were to say ‘The Dog me runs’ people would wonder if you got run over by some Great Dane or something. Romans didn’t care as much for word order, because the ‘to’ in the sentence was embedded into their dative case. Equally, here, instead of using a preposition, such as ‘in,’ the position and spelling of Uno tempore tells us that ‘one time’ is the time in which the action happens. Fun!
But here’s the kicker: erant agenda is a construction made up of an imperfect verb and a participle. Verbs are awesome little things that tell you when things are happening, which tend to be useful – usually. In English, because we conjugate little, we need aiding verbs to tell us time. ‘I eat’ is a present, ‘I was eating’ is a past, ‘I will eat’ is a future. Caesar’s Latin modifies the verb proper to give us meaning. The verb mutates something like this:
I eat – eato
I will eat – eatebo
I was eating – eatebam
I have left the verb roots in English to give you an idea of what is added. You may say, ‘aha, there are too words there!’ And you would be right. Because prepositions can act as nouns, the verb is complimented by one. Erant literally means ‘they were being’ in the imperfect past. Here is Caesar being a Sith again. The imperfect past denotes an action that begun in the past and is still taking place. Thus, he is saying that since he begun to do things this way, he has always done things this way. ‘Things never change.’ Conservative much? Just in case you think I’m going crazy, take a look at agenda. Yes, we get our word agenda from this. The participle literally means ‘to be done’ or ‘about to be done.’ Future participles, such as this one, also carry a sense of duty (ought to be done) with them. The more accurate translation would be ‘ought to be done’ or ‘has to be done.’ Remember that famous phrase from Cato: “Carthago delenda est”? Same thing. Carthage ought to be destroyed, and Caesar’s being ‘ought to be done.’ Literally, the Roman Imperator (general, here, not Emperor) was saying that ‘to Caesar, all things ought to be done that were [being done] at a single moment.’
I just love that. To do things at that level of preparation, considering how massive Caesar’s army was, is impressive enough. To picture conservative Caesar writing to the senate of Rome telling them their indecision was shameful and that, in order to save the city, they too ought to do things within a single moment, is just impressive. But to understand that to Caesar life was but a moment in which all that could be done should be done in order to leave behind the greatest memory possible of oneself, giving meaning to the phrase alea iacta est, is just mind-blowing. Caesar stopped for no one (not just a phrase in Spaceballs, apparently), rather he understood the importance of carpe diem, and seized indeed. Maybe the Romans got tired of the guy because he didn’t give them a moment’s respite. Yet again, who does business on March 15th anyway?
Disclaimer: as much fun as it is to judge Caesar’s character on a single phrase, you probably shouldn’t compare him to a Sith Lord Conservative whilst amongst friends. Actually, don’t compare your conservative friends to the Sith either… come to think of it, don’t compare anyone to siths, they may think you are being mean.