Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Oddly enough the opening introduction of this massive volume on the seemingly inexhaustible topic of Gaius Julius Caesar was one of the best parts. This doesn’t detract from the excellent work of Adrian Goldsworthy. Historical parallels are supposed to be deplorable, and you can’t just lay one set of circumstances over another and say look it’s the same! However, Goldsworthy’s introduction begins by laying out the world Caesar was born into and lived in. His world, though removed by 2000 + years, doesn’t sound drastically different from ours.

The Roman system of government allowed senators, magistrates, consuls, and other members of the elected body to receive clients who would essentially pay the elected official to either introduce legislation, or influence a vote on an piece of legislation(now-a-days called a *bribe*). This was for the most part done in the open, but on the _down low_ so to speak. This system also allowed for elections to be manipulated in the same way. Although in the Roman system the candidate often bribed the constituency as well. They also took bribes from influential prospective clients to make wider dispensation to the general voting public. So the bribing was two way. The widening rift between the richest senators and the poorest senators made it increasingly difficult for a young man to consider a political career without graft. As election season is now on full bore in the US, it is a painful reminder of the present. Those without patrician funds to run for an election are not really competitive.

The Roman Empire around 100 BC when Caesar was born was also under serious financial stress. It’s economy could not support all the freed men and women it had within Italy. Slave labor was causing unemployment to sky rocket. Money turned in from tax revenue was not supporting the system. To alleviate this problem the Senate, Consuls and Proconsuls would allow governors of provinces to essentially wage war against any territory they thought they could conquer. War was essentially a cash generating mechanism for the empire. It brought home booty, kept the army out of Italy, using foreign resources, and sending home gold, silver, and slaves for sale. When the republic was running low on cash they actually looked at surrounding territories and evaluated how much booty they could bring home if they invaded and conquered. Based on our problems in Iraq, I wonder if our oil problems were evaluated in the same way prior to the invasion.

This is not a direct parallel obviously. We are spending billions on the war in Iraq, our soldiers are not eating off of the Iraqi dime, they are eating off of the American tax payers’ dollar. The American government’s real reason to invade Iraq will likely remain secret until the Freedom of Information act makes it possible for us to see all of the documentation. The reasons the public were given were obviously less than factual.

Caesar as he is painted in the book, is not a moral person. Which is what is really interesting about the book. Often biographies try to give some sort of moral compass for a person’s actions no matter how questionable. Goldsworthy continually reminds the reader about the difference in world view the Roman aristocracy, and particularly the Roman male had towards his actions. Honor was more important than morality, a man’s _auctoritas_ was his influence and how his fellow man perceived him. If he was respected, well thought of, even feared, he was said to be a great man. Morality simply wasn’t a factor. All of Caesar’s actions from the time he was a young man until he marched into Italy at the head of his legions to seize power from Pompey and the senate was a move to gain respect and power. None of it had anything to do with moral decisions about what was best for the republic.

If there are two lessons to take away from Caesar; it is leadership, and how to take risks. He built up a reputation with his men from the beginning that he would fight with them at the front of the line. He often risked everything on big gambles. He was often caught outnumbered in Gaul and rather than run, he would stake everything on a pitched battle. Even after some fairly questionable moves, such as invading Britain with a very small force, his men recognized his ability to calculate risk and determine the best course of action. Some might even call it luck. However his ambition seemed to soar him to greater and greater heights.

Some of the highlights from the book where Goldsworthy appears to be at his best, is the descriptions of the rebellion in Gaul. When Vercengetorix organizes a full tribal rebellion against the Roman occupation, Caesar is caught unaware. He loses the initiative and is in a defensive posture, (not his best trait). He is in a precarious position and only the loyalty of his men saves him. However once the initiative is regained, the final battle between the Gaulish tribes and the Roman legions reaches its apex at the siege of Alesia. Not even J.R.R. Tolkien could have dreamed up a double encirclement siege. _(Perhaps he just outright stole it?)_

The Romans dug themselves in and besieged the beleaguered Gauls in their French fortress town of Alesia, only to themselves be encircled by Vercengetorix’s reinforcements. Goldsworthy shines in these moments and even at the hefty 500 plus page mark it is well worth the read.

Caesar’s own undoing it seems may have been one of his virtues. Unlike the previous dictator Cato, Caesar attempted to show clemency to his enemies. Cato had made several bloodthirsty purges of his detractors, enemies, and enemies relatives in his tenure as dictator after the previous civil war. During the civil war, that raged across Italy, Greece, and Africa, Caeasar allowed the men who fought against him to throw down their arms and embrace him as a friend. Marcus Junius Brutus was his biggest mistake. When Caesar allowed him back in the fold of Roman life, he seized the opportunity and used all of his patrician influence to assassinate Caesar. Apparently “frenemy”: was not a term he knew.

Goldsworthy’s notable quote at the epilogue of the book captures the reason why Caesar still gets caught in the net of our imagination, “It is hardly possible to imagine how his life could have been more dramatic.”

While Caesar’s failure as a politician is the dramatic denouement of the book and his life, his military victories are the zenith of his achievements and ultimately what catapulted him into his position of power. And this is clearly where Goldsworthy spent most of his energy in writing and research.