Caesar: Life of a Colossus

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Can there possibly be any justification for a new biography of Julius Caesar?

Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus is by quick reckoning the third published in English in just the past 10 years. You’d think by now there was nothing left to say!

And candidly, you’d need a better knowledge than I possess to evaluate in which precise ways, if any, Goldsworthy advances the scholarship of Caesar beyond its previous resting place. What I can say is that Goldsworthy’s Caesar that vividly retells the familiar story while doing full justice to both the political and the military sides of the story. (Goldsworthy is best known as a Roman military historian, author of a much praised history of the Roman army that I have bought but not yet read.)

There is a long English-language historiographic tradition that despises Caesar. Livy, Cicero, and Tacitus formed the basics of the classical curriculum, and their celebration of ancient Roman liberty shaped the minds of educated young Englishmen and Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries. English readers in particular identified with the aristocratic republic that rose to global empire. When a Burke, a Sheridan, a Chatham, a Daniel Webster, a John C. Calhoun, or a Henry Clay rose to speak, they modeled their paragraphs, their sentences, even their posture on the classical orators – and they very likely saw in their mind’s eye opposite them, not the wigs and hats of Westminster or the spittoons of Washington, but the marble benches of the Senate house. Indeed the most famous line from Daniel Webster’s last great Senate speech, on the compromise of 1850, is “Hear me for my cause” – a quotation from Shakespeare’s version of the speech Brutus gives the Roman crowd in defense of Caesar’s assissination.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s self-conscious emulation of Caesar did not help the Roman’s reputation, and neither did the proliferation of ever more horrific dictatorships in the 20th century.

But since 1950, Caesar has begun to receive a better press.

Modern historians are acutely conscious that history is read backward, but lived forward. We know that Julius Caesar overthrew the Roman Republic. Did he know it? Did he even know that he had done it? Caesar was not the first person to have seized pre-eminence in Rome. Pompey had done it before him, and Sulla before Pompey, and Cinna before Sulla. They had ruled as dictators. Sulla had had the title, which was in the Roman context a perfectly respectable one. Yes, his behavior was flashier than theirs, and he accepted honors they had never taken. (Caesar was the first man in history to put a portico on his house – previously that adornment, now seen on every McMansion in McLean – had been reserved for the temples of the gods.) True too probably intended to hold his power to death: He derided Sulla’s resignation of the dictatorship as an act of childish folly.

But on the other hand, Caesar was a much less brutal and bloodthirsty ruler than Sulla or Cinna – and his power took a much more constitutional form than Pompey’s had done. Above all, Caesar had no legitimate son, so it seems impossible that he envisioned founding any sort of hereditary monarchy. As it happened Caesar’s nephew Octavian was able to maneuver his way into a power more absolute than Caesar had ever known – but Octavian was barely 14 when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and there was surely no reason then to credit Octavian with the political acumen and ruthless will to power he would later develop.

It seems at least as plausible to believe that Caesar envisioned himself not as the first Roman “emperor” (he was of course acclaimed by his troops as “imperator,” but so had hundreds of generals before him) – but as the latest in a series of Republican warlords, and one rather more easy-going and less arbitrary than his reent predecessors.

Had Caesar avoided assassination, had he died a natural death at say age 65 in the year 35 BC, his power would very probably have devolved back to the Senatorial elite – of whom Octavian might well not have been one. Octavian’s power rested on two great facts: (1) Caesar’s will, which adopted him as Caesar’s heir and conferred upon him Caesar’s name and Caesar’s vast fortune, and (2) Caesar’s assassination, which outraged the Roman populace and provided him with both the duty and the opportunity to avenge the murder.

But Caesar might well have taken another wife and fathered a child in the years remaining to him. (Caesar was not sterile. He had a son by Cleopatra, although a Greek-speaking semi-Ptolemy from the exotic East would not have been a credible contender for power in 1st century BC Rome.) Or he might have quarreled with Octavian. Or he might have left Octavian the money but not the name or the name but not the money.

On the other hand – and here we come to the second reason that modern historians tend to take a less hostile view of Caesar than the writers of a century or two ago – it does seem inevitable that somebody was going to take hereditary power in Rome at around the time that the Caesarian dynasty did. Either that, or the Roman commonwealth would very possibly have disintegrated altogether.

In the years after 146 BC, Rome had established its ascendancy over the eastern Mediterranean. This conquest had hugely enriched the leading members of the Roman elite. Caesar’s mentor and rival Crassus would joke that nobody could call himself rich who could not afford to field a private army.

The accumulation of wealth hugely increased the value of political power – but also the cost and danger of pursuing it. Think of the politics of the late Roman republic as a game of musical chairs, with death as the penalty for the losers.

Caesar’s career exemplifies the ever higher stakes character of elite competition in the later Republic. Caesar came from an old, patrician family, but one not particularly rich, nor one with much recent hold on public office. Caesar had to borrow massively to finance his political campaigns, beyond all possibility of repayment if he lost. On his way to one crucial election (as of all things pontifex maximus – chief priest!) he told his mother that he would return a winner or not return at all: if defeated, he would have to flee the city to the furthest edge of the Roman world to escape his creditors.

The competition among the Roman elite, never gentle, had turned outright murderous. Thousands of people were killed in the wars and proscriptions of Cinna and Sulla in the 80s, often simply because somebody on the winning side coveted their house or estate. Neutrality was not on option.

The elite could at least hope to gain fortune and power from these periodic bloodbaths. The desperately indebted Caesar who had staked everything on politics in the 60s had by 59 BC gained one of the great prizes of Roman politics: proconsular rule of a province. From such a proconsulship, an unscrupulous man could squeeze enough in three years to live wealthily for the rest of his life.

For the non-elite, however, the turmoil of the late Republic was a horror without compensating reward. The freedom praised in Cicero’s speeches and Tacitus’ histories was no freedom for the non-elite. Their right to vote in the popular assemblies was as much a sham under the Republic as under the Empire, only in slightly different ways: the Roman voting system was rigged so drastically in favor of the rich that few lower-class Romans bothered to participate at all. Even those who were not slaves were tied to the ruling elite by elaborate networks of patronage and dependency. The point is often made by modern classicists that probably the closest depiction of the social life of ancient Rome is the movie, “The Godfather.”

And for the provincials, it was the Republican experience that was most truly imperialistic – if imperialism means exploitation. Modern archaeology has helped reveal that the gains from Roman rule did not begin to accrue until after the establishment of the comparative peace and security of the Empire. In the Mediterranean basin and even in most of Italy, the Republic translated into pillage, plain and simple. Worse than pillage, for the most common spoil of war was not property, but people, or rather people turned into property. The conquest of Gaul between 59 BC and 52 BC made Julius Caesar the richest man in Rome, because of the capture and sale as slaves of tens of thousands of defeated Gauls. To be enslaved meant to be branded on the face, to be whipped, to be raped, to be worked to death in fields or mines.

It is under the Empire that we see the building of great public works like ports and aqueducts, the spread of baths and theaters, and the diffusion of small personal luxuries: lamps, mirrors, makeup, mosaic tile. The better understanding of this material improvement has knocked away some of the enchantment that previous generation of classicists felt for the Roman republican tradition. One single rich man of Republican Rome – Brutus, as it happens, the assassin of Caesar – possessed enough wealth to act as the lender of last resort to entire cities in Crete. He charged them 48% interest, with enslavement as the eventual penalty for nonpayment.

It is this background that seems to have predisposed Goldsworthy to take a more favorable view of Julius Caesar – that and the charm of personality that still shines through even after 2000 years. Caesar’s charm is not so evident of course to those few of us who remember translating his Commentaries at school. One fellow sufferer hypothesizes that Caesar was mistrusted by his contemporaries as too clever and too reckless, and sought to allay that mistrust by producing one of the most boring books in human history. Not quite fair! Even in the Commentaries, Caesar is pithy and quotable. His male contemporaries found him charming and inspiring; women, utterly seductive. Reading Goldsworthy, you sometimes find it amazing that Caesar lasted as long as 44 BC – scores of jealous husbands must have been tempted to strike the blow at many points over the previous 35 years.

The portrayal of Caesar in HBO’s Rome is I think very good. It gets at his willingness to kill if he must, his preference to avoid violence if he possibly could, his generosity with money, his guile, and his radical self-belief.

Indeed that self-belief may be the most important thing to understand about Julius Caesar. Caesar insisted that he crossed the Rubicon to defend his “dignitas.” Hard word to translate, and “dignity” does not begin to convey its meaning: too solemn, too white marbled. The Roman elite began with a massive sense of personal entitlement, and experienced any check or rebuff to their expectations as a monstrous and unbearable injustice. I sometimes think that the closest analogue to the relationships between Caesar, Pompey, Cato the Younger, Cassius and all the rest is that between gangsta rappers. Caesar crossed the Rubicon because he felt Pompey and his allies had dissed him.

Goldsworthy does a marvelous job of exploring and explaining this strange mental universe, at once misleadingly familiar and dumbfoundingly exotic. His Caesar is exciting, readable, and balanced.

As might be expected from the historian of the Roman army, it offers particular insight into Caesar’s military campaigns and operations. The legions that subdued Gaul did not look like the legions we recognize from the movies. They wore chain mail and leather rather than plate armor, and carried a different style of shield from the curving oblongs we recognize as Roman. But the legions were already doing the sophisticated engineering work that enabled them to render useless all the Gauls’ fixed defenses – the oppida that I was mistaught to translate (or taught to mistranslate) as “towns.”

As I said, I cannot evaluate whether it tells the scholars anything they do not already know. But most of us will I think find that it tells us all we need to know, and in a way that is at once accessible and reliable. Perhaps somebody else has done it before. But I very much doubt that anyone has done it better – or indeed anywhere near as well.

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