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Caesar: Life of a Colossus
by Adrian Goldsworthy
Adrian Goldsworthy introduces the subject of his book in a lengthy introduction which is almost an essay in itself and begins thus:
The story of Julius Caesar is an intensely dramatic one, which has fascinated generation after generation, attracting the attention of Shakespeare and Shaw, not to mention numerous novelists and screenwriters. Caesar was one of the ablest generals of any era, who left accounts of his own campaigns that have rarely – perhaps never – been surpassed in literary quality. At the same time he was a politician and statesman who eventually took supreme power in the Roman Republic and made himself a monarch in every practical respect, although he never took the name of king. Caesar was not a cruel ruler and paraded his clemency to his defeated enemies, but in the end he was stabbed to death as a result of a conspiracy led by two pardoned men, which also included many of his own supporters. Later his adopted son Octavian – fully Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus – became Rome’s first emperor. The family line perished with Nero in AD 68, but all later emperors still took the name of Caesar, even though there was no link by blood or adoption. What had simply been the name of one aristocratic family – and a fairly obscure one at that – became effectively a title symbolising supreme and legitimate power. So strong was the association that when the twentieth century opened, two of the world’s great powers were still led by a kaiser and a tsar, each name a rendering of Caesar. Today the Classics have lost their central position in Western education, but even so Julius Caesar remains one of a handful of figures from the ancient world whose name commands instant recognition.
The author concludes with this paragraph:
Part of the fascination with Caesar is because he is so difficult to pin down and because mysteries remain, for instance, as to what he really intended in the last months of his life. In his fifty-six years he was at times many things, including a fugitive, prisoner, rising politician, army leader, legal advocate, rebel, dictator – perhaps even a god – as well as a husband, father, lover and adulterer. Few fictional heroes have ever done as much as Caius Julius Caesar.
Mr. Goldsworthy explores all this with a full and detailed biography, which is divided into three sections:
Part One: The Rise to Consulship 100-59 B.C.
Part Two: Proconsul 58-50 B.C.
Part Three: Civil War and Dictatorship 49-44 B.C.
The book is aimed at a general audience rather than an academic one, and has some catchy chapter titles. “Rise to Consulship” starts with the chapter “Caesar’s World,” which provides a concise introduction to Roman history, political, military, and social, prior to the adult life of Caesar (although the author left me totally confused as to what being an equestrian meant), thus setting the stage for the life of Julius Caesar. We are treated to a straightforward narrative, where “the focus is always on Caesar, and no more description is provided for the events in which he was not involved than is essential.” However, where he is involved, no essentials are spared.
Caesar’s known story here really begins with Marius, Cinna, and their nomination of young Caesar as flamen dialis, and Part One concludes with the year of Caesar’s first consulship. Much of what we know of the pre-Gallic-war Caesar by necessity comes from often tendentious ancient historians. On the whole Mr. Goldsworthy carefully weighs this evidence against modern research and tries to give a balanced portrait of his subject and the events of the day. Occasionally, some absolutes creep in, such as with the bona dea scandal, where he writes, “Pompeia had a lover, the thirty-year old quaestor-elect Publius Clodius Pulcher, and the couple had decided that the celebrations offered a perfect cover for an assignation.” That is pure Plutarch, and a closer study of Cicero’s letters might have led to a more cautious statement. (Jeffrey Tatum, in The Patrician Tribune: Publius Clodius Pulcher, has carefully explored this particular issue.) Such lapses notwithstanding, Mr. Goldsworthy presents well the complexities of Caesar’s personality and ambitions and their effect on his contemporaries and rivals, and what he calls the “changed circumstances of public life,” which greatly influence the career of Caesar. There is also a balanced piece on Caesar’s philandering and relationship with women.
It is in Part Two, covering the war in Gaul, where Mr. Goldsworthy really shines: the military historian in him can take over. Before he goes into more detail, he discusses the Commentaries (with great enthusiasm) and Caesar’s army and his staff; he then concentrates on the major events of the war. This section concludes with “The Road to Rubicon,” a fairly extensive treatment of the relationship between Caesar, the Senate, and Pompey. Mr. Goldsworthy is in the camp of historians who do believe that civil war was not necessarily inevitable, and he makes his point well. Then he says, “Resorting to his army was a mark of Caesar’s failure to get what he wanted by political means. The die had been rolled, but so far, no one knew what number it would show when it came to rest,” and thus we are led into Part Three, civil war and eventual dictatorship.
Again, we are treated to a good weighing of the evidence and analysis of the civil war, and excellent battle descriptions in the various campaigns, concluding with the battle of Thapsus. Mr. Goldsworthy discusses the possible effect of Pompey’s death on Caesar and then goes on to the Egyptian interlude, giving Cleopatra a fair hearing.
The rest of the section deals with the dictatorship and the remaining years of Caesar’s life. Mr. Goldsworthy tries to hold the middle ground between Caesar the visionary and Caesar the power grabber. He points out the eventual weaknesses in Caesar’s situation, which he likens to the creation of a settlement in conquered Gaul. “Caesar had to persuade his fellow citizens, especially the aristocratic elite, that tolerating his dominance was preferable to opposing it. This was the final test.” And he points out, in another comparison to Gaul, that, as Caesar had misjudged the mood of the Gaulish aristocracy in 53-53 B.C., so now he had done the same in Rome.
The book ends with the assassination except for a brief epilogue, with a discourse on senatorial ambitions in general and where Caesar stood in this, “not all that different from his opponents or most of the other prominent Romans of the first century B.C.” And that “all of them were gamblers in their way, and all certainly were afraid of consequences of defeat and reluctant to trust personal enemies.” While not minimizing Caesar’s faults, Mr. Goldsworthy sees him as “a patriot and very able man.” He cannot disguise his admiration for the man, and “whatever the rights or wrongs of his actions, it is hard to imagine that in any way his life could have been more dramatic,” taking up the theme from the Introduction. Thus he has given the reader a complex and rounded portrait. On my first read-through, as some of my friends know, I was more critical of some of Mr. Goldsworthy’s assertions/absolutes, but on second reading, these are minor compared to the overall picture. The general audience, for whom the book is intended, gets its money’s worth and hopefully will enjoy the book. The question, “do we really need another book on Caesar?,” can be answered in the affirmative, since a popular history treatment of the subject has been wanting for quite a while, and this one fills the bill. In the end though, Caesar still remains difficult to pin down, not for want of trying by the author, but because of his truly elusive personality.
Finally, there is a brief discourse ‘Always I am Caesar’ – Caesar through the Ages, from his contemparies to ours, namely Colleen McCullough, Conn Iggulden, Alan Massie and Steven Saylor.
The book is nicely illustrated with photos, maps, and battle diagrams. It has the prevailing and annoying habit of publishers not linking the endnotes to the page numbers.
Irene Hahn© 2006 Irene B. Hahn
Caesar : Life of a Colossus
by Adrian Goldsworthy
Hardcover, 608 pages
Yale University Press; 1st edition 2006
List Price: U.S.$35.00
Also by Adrian Goldsworthy:
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group