Scaliger – the Intolerant Genius

Joseph Scaliger, C. Julii Caesaris Quae Extant. Printed by the booksellers Johann and Friedrich Lüderwald at Johann-Erich Hahn in Leipzig in 1674.

There are certain subjects and authors that always guarantee success, regardless of whether we’re talking about social media content or linen-bound classic editions. Such a bestseller of the 16th and 17th century was Julius Caesar. Until recent history, the Roman politician and general was considered one of the greatest role models for “great men”, alongside Alexander (the Great), Hannibal and (later) Napoleon.

When looking at this edition of Caesar’s work printed in 1674, the first thing that strikes you is that its editor, Joseph Scaliger, had already been dead for two generations when the book was published. But this isn’t everything that’s remarkable about this edition.

Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540–1609).

Joseph Scaliger, Son of Julius Caesar

Joseph Justus Scaliger was born in 1540 in Agen, in southern France. His father – who had the distinctive name of Julius Caesar Scaliger – was Italian and had moved to Agen only a few years earlier. Julius Caesar Scaliger’s life was shrouded in mystery, and this was to be his son’s undoing. However, his father was young Joseph’s ultimate role model. At the age of 15 he became his father’s secretary, who mainly wrote Latin verses at the time. When he became an orphan at the age of 18, Joseph started to study Greek literature in Paris under one of the masters in this field. Nevertheless, Joseph quickly found that he learned nothing there and from then on he studied alone: he finished reading Homer’s works in Greek within three weeks, then he studied Hebrew and Arabic. In 1562 he converted to Protestantism and became the companion of aristocrat Louis de Chastaigner in the following year. At first, he accompanied him to the salons of Italy, England and Scotland, and after the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre also to the battlefields of religious wars.

Besides these mundane activities, Joseph Scaliger also had much time to pursue his literary and philological interests. He produced editions of ancient authors, broadened the perspective from the classical ancient cultures of Greece and Rome to those of Persia, Babylon and Egypt, and put the world’s chronology on a new footing. Just remember: in 1582 Pope Gregory introduced the Gregorian calendar – which was rejected by most Protestant rulers for political reasons. By means of the Julian Period, Scaliger provided a calculation tool based on a day counting system that is still used in astronomy today, which made a quick conversion between both systems possible.

Textual Criticism and Critical Historiography

The highly talented Scaliger was a perfectionist. This implied two things. Firstly, whatever he did, he did it thoroughly. Thus, while editing the work of numerous ancient authors, he developed a system of textual criticism, which became the foundation of the work of the next generations of philologists. The aim was always to reconstruct the original wording of the text as far as possible. This tends to be quite arduous as, throughout the centuries, diverging ways of understanding a work came up in different editions. In his preface to the Caesar volume, Scaliger mentions that he tried to eradicate every “wrong and uncertain” version of the wording in order to publish the text in the way that he thought it had once been written. (However, he admitted that he would probably never be able to achieve that completely.)

And this brings us to the second consequence of his perfectionism: Scaliger did not accept ignorance, and especially no superficial knowledge (we all know them, these people that don’t know much about a topic but pretend to be experts in it…). And since he knew a lot about virtually everything, Scaliger actually didn’t accept any other opinion at all. His students adored him, many others didn’t forgive him his arrogant remarks against them.

Once Upon a Time… Before Copyright Protection

So let’s get back to our book. We don’t know when Scaliger published Caesar’s works. It’s quite remarkable that the edition adorns itself with his illustrious name but doesn’t mention the first edition. In addition to Caesar’s actual works, Gallic War and Civil War, the edition also comprises the works which were probably written by his general Aulus Hirtius Pansa as well as several letters by Caesar and other “testimonia”. Scaliger’s preface is addressed to the legendary Flemish printer and publisher Christophe Plantin. (To all lovers of typography: exactly, the Plantin typeface is named after him!) Plantin died in 1589, which means that Ceasar’s works had been published earlier.

So why is our version from 1674? Once again, there are two aspects at play: Firstly, Scaliger had obviously done an excellent job and, of course, his name alone guaranteed a philological masterpiece – and good sales. And secondly, there was no copyright protection. That’s why there are many reprints from the 17th century (including his preface along with the text) claiming to only have based their edition on Scaliger’s version but, of course, have improved it further. Let’s leave that aside for now. Magdeburg booksellers Johann and Friedrich Lüderwald apparently also wanted to make profit from Scaliger’s “public domain” edition and reprinted his Caesar “for the youth”. At that time, people read Caesar for edification (or to learn flawless “classical” Latin). To make this more pleasant and to create an incentive for buyers, the Lüderwald brothers added an index and a pretty map of the Roman Empire. They had it printed by Johann-Erich Hahn in Leipzig. By considering that there were numerous reprints of this edition back then, it becomes clear that it probably wasn’t hard for them to sell all copies.


The Bavarian State Library provides you with a similar edition printed in Amsterdam in 1686.

Plutarch already wrote about the lessons that can be drawn from studying the lives of great men like Caesar. Here you can read more about his Parallel Lives.