Caesar's GALLIC WAR is a book very few have read to the end, though countless multitudes have fought their way through the opening chapters in the original Latin. Chosen by pedagogues as the ideal medium for initiating school children into the mysteries of the ablative absolute ("These things having been done, Caesar . . ."), it left most of its young readers with little more than a vague memory that Gaul as a whole was divided into three parts. This is a pity, since it is a remarkable book; the history of a great conquest, written by its organizer on the spot and year by year in admirably elegant prose.

Unlike most generals, Caesar was already a celebrated writer and orator when he began the conquest of Gaul. Cicero, who detested his politics and feared his ambition, expressed admiration for his style. "The Commentaries are splendid; bare, straight and handsome, stipped of rhetorical ornament like an athlete of his clothes." What Cicero does not say (for Caesar was master of the Roman world when those words were written) is that this factual style, though it does not so far as we know contain any direct lies, suggests the false by concealing the true. The truth is that the whole enormous enterprise -- the conquest of what we now know as France and Belgium plus all the territory on the west bank of the Rhine, not to mention the two expeditions to Britain -- was embarked on and completed without orders from home. Caesar was conquering a new world to enrich himself and to train an army which would eventually cross the Rubicon and conquer Rome. In the imperial city feelings about his operations varied according to political allegiance; Caesar's accounts of the campaigns (probably issued year by year) were designed to win over uncommitted public opinion by appealing to Roman pride. It is as if General MacArthur had defeated the Chinese on the Yalu and then gone on, without orders, to conquer Manchuria, sending back all the while to The New Yorker brilliant, apparently factual articles, detailing the triumphs of American arms in unknown territory over exotic peoples.

Caesar wrote of his actions in the third person, a tradition strongly rooted in ancient historiography. The translators, boldly but wisely, have substituted the first person; Caesar is made to speak to us directly. For the modern reader this is much more effective; the personal tone which is muted by the Latin convention resounds dramatically in the English version. When Caesar defeats the Veneti, the sailor peoples of the Breton coast, he accepts their unconditional surrender. They had detained his envoys -- a "category of men" that "has always been sacred and inviolable to all peoples" -- and put them in chains. "I decided that they must be punished with particular severity, so that in future the Gauls would have greater respect for the rights of envoys. I put all their elders to death and sold the rest into slavery."

He does not tell us how many Veneti were enslaved, but on another occasion the number of human beings sold to the Roman slavers was 53,000. The proceeds of these huge transactions went to swell Caesar's coffers, from which he paid his political agents in Rome and reinforced with lavish bonuses the loyalty of the troops to their successful commander. Ernst Badian has rightly called him "the greatest brigand of them all." But it is also true that he brought Gaul into the Roman world and so is eventually responsible for the fact that the present inhabitants of the area recount the exploits of Asterix the Gaul against the Romans in a language which is recognizably a lineal descendant of Caesar's Latin.

This translation is magnificently illustrated not only with useful maps but also with photographs of Gallic sites and artifacts, many of them as unfamiliar as they are striking. It reads easily, but anyone using it as a historical source had better check the Latin. In the sentence quoted above, for example, Caesar does not say that he wanted "the Gauls" to respect envoys, he says "barbarians" (barbaris). Furthermore, there are occasions where an explanatory note would have saved the untrained reader some headscratching. He will find it hard to believe, for example, that the cynical writer of these dour accounts of war and politics actually wrote the chapter on the elk (if that is what alce means) in the German forest. This creature has no joints; consequently, if it ever lies down it cannot get up again. So it sleeps leaning against a tree, and the hunters, to catch it, simply saw the trees almost all the way through and wait for the elk to lean against them. This passage is almost certainly a later addition by a fantasist of the same stripe as the one who, in the following century, gave Pliny the information that the elk's upper lip is so long that it has to graze backward to avoid biting it off. The reader should have been warned that most editors bracket these chapters on the Hercynian forest as interpolations.

Still, here is De Bello Gallico in eminently readable form. Those who have never been subjected to it can now enter a strange and brutal world which however (as the passage about envoys suggests) has many likenesses to our own. And those whose interest in Caesar's doings was killed at an early age by the ablative absolute and the accusative and infinite can, at last, move through the narrative with the speed of Caesar's legions and find out what happens in the end.