Caesar: Life of a Colossus I give it 5 stars

Adrian Goldworthy has written a spectacular biography of Caius Iulius Cæsar. Or, perhaps, I should say that Adrian Goldsworthy has written a spectacular history of the end of the Roman republic, wrapped around a biography of the enigmatic Cæsar. If Goldsworthy is right, the two of them—Cæsar and the republic—died simultaneously on the Ides of March in 44 BC. The genius of the book is that it is just enough a biography and just enough a history to make that case, convincingly.

On Goldsworthy’s version, the internal logic of the Roman republic was that of individual glory. A man of senatorial rank was encouraged from birth to strive for auctoritas, a blend of dignity and reputation that could be earned through military success, public service, or personal virtue. The more the better, and better still if one’s auctoritas exceeded that of one’s rivals. And in the centuries of Rome’s rise, auctoritas proved a strikingly successful ideology for yoking the elite’s personal ambitions to the service of the public. A man born to wealth could spend it on wine, women, slaves, and villas, but if he wished to earn the respect of his peers, there was nothing for it but to lead an army and smash Rome’s foes. (A bolder reviewer than I might draw a parallel to the ideology of wealth in the United States; he who builds the biggest business wins the greatest adulation. The greater good is thereby allegedly served.)

In times of war and external crisis, the ideology of auctoritas has obvious benefits. Some men will win everlasting glory on the battlefield; others will die trying. The system ensures consistent belligerence and unbelievable societal tenacity. Hannibal pounded Rome and its armies again and again; unlike any rational nation that would have long since sued for peace, the Romans simply kept fighting, and fighting, and fighting. Rome’s leaders competed bitterly with each other for office and command, it is true, but it was hard to begrudge a rival his triumph when his success kept the city secure.

All this changed in the years after 146 BC, when Rome burned Carthage to the ground, eliminating its only serious rival. Rome, like a college student pulling an all-nighter to finish a term paper, was about to discover the dangers of catching a breather. Over-caffeinated and jittery, Rome had too much energy for its own good. It needed a little rest and some land reform. Instead, over the course of the next hundred years, it got gridlock, then violence, then gridlock, then violence, then gridlock and violence both at once, then Cæsar and more violence, then truly unbelievable gouts of violence, and finally the emperor Caius Iulius Cæsar Octavianus.

The basic problem was that various deep-seated issues—the grain supply, a plague of pirates, an astronomically iffy calendar, unequal citizenship for Rome’s various vassals, and above all the misdistribution of land—had gone unaddressed for many years. The man who could fix them would do the republic a great service, and thereby win great auctoritas. Too great for his fellows, in fact. That glory could be theirs if they did it themselves, but better that no one do it than that a rival claim the honor for himself.

Where the pipes are clogged, however, pressure grows. And as the demands for reform grew louder, the men who stepped up to answer them grew bolder. In 133 BC, the tribune Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was the first. In the cause of land reform, he precipitated what we would today call a “constitutional crisis,” bypassing the senate and overruling a fellow tribune. Then, as now, one must be careful in angering powerful men. For his troubles, a group of senators clubbed him to death with a chair leg and threw his body in the Tiber.
In 122 BC, his brother Caius tried a similar reform program and met a similar fate.

For much of the next century, a succession of larger-than-life men had their moment in the sun. Some, like Caius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, achieved military success, became undisputed first man in Rome, tinkered a bit with reform, and then faced the tricky challenge faced by all dictators everywhere of how to give up power without being immediately killed. Others, like Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Lucius Sergius Catilina, concluded that the path to power and glory lay in fomenting rebellion among Rome’s second-class citizens. Civil wars, electoral malfeasance, secret plots, political murder, and private armies were regular features of Roman life.

The increasingly belligerent tint to Roman politics had all sorts of destabilizing effects. It made politics a higher-stakes game; defeated men frequently believe they faced a choice between resorting to the sword and being put to it. It made them even more determined not to see rivals succeed, since any man who rose high enough was a potential military dictator. It made almost any political decision subject to retroactive veto via brawl. And it made Rome’s leading mean extremely determined never to let themselves be put in positions of vulnerability.

The point, Goldsworthy suggests (if he does not directly say), is that Cæsar was the man who broke the logjam. During the year of his consulship—59 BC—he managed to push land reform through the senate, and to survive. In part, this was due to the help of his patrons and co-triumvirs, Cnæus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, but it was also due to his great charisma, force of will, and creative genius.

From then on, Cæsar knew that his political future (and perhaps his life) depended on never being at the mercy of the normal political system again. His Gallic campaigns, famous as they are, were also a convenient way of ensuring his own safety: away from Rome’s political cesspool, at the head of a very large army. When he crossed the Rubicon with his army to return (among the fascinating details Goldsworthy provides is that to this day we do not know exactly which river the Romans called the “Rubicon”), it was because his political foes would not provide him safe passage and immunity from prosecution (for his perhaps somewhat irregular land-reform legislation). Of course, for the various reasons aforementioned, they were as much afraid of him as he was of them. Rome’s reserves of trust had simply been depleted.

Goldsworthy treats us to a fine narration of Cæsar’s campaigns, first against the Gauls and then against other Romans. It’s military history for an audience not obsessed with military history. Goldsworthy’s Cæsar is not an unequalled genius; he is an outstanding leader of men, a remarkably fast mover, and a competent tactician whose talent consists in making fewer mistakes than his enemies. At the end of it, he is the last man with an army standing, the unchallenged leader of Rome. And that was probably the best that Rome could hope for.

Goldsworthy doesn’t dwell on this point, at least not explicitly, but it is clear in his telling. Cæsar emerges as almost unique among his contemporaries in one striking way: he pardons his enemies. Any man could fight against him once, but would be pardoned on surrender. Only on the second time would Cæsar’s wrath descend. Goldsworthy’s Cæsar is saddened that Pompey is murdered and Cato self-murdered before he has a chance to deal with them leniently. He alone argues for mercy towards the Catilinarian conspirators. The contrast with his bloodthirsty predecessors, rivals, and successors is notable. Caius Iulius Cæsar may well have been the one great man in Rome of his generation willing and able to rule it benevolently and trustingly.

Too trustingly, in fact. Goldsworthy’s Cæsar surrounds himself with any man willing to throw his lot in with Cæsar. Marcus Antonius was a drunkard and a wastrel; Caius Cassius Longinus had commanded Pompey’s fleet against Cæsar. Goldsworthy tells us that with Cæsar now preeminent in Rome, the old desires for auctoritas were now to be definitively thwarted: any glory would have to be derivative of Cæsar’s own. So the force of that old republican ambition took one last, destructive turn. The conspirators surrounded Cæsar and stabbed him to death. They hoped to restore the republic, by which they meant restore the institutions that would let them acquire auctoritas. They seemed all but oblivious to the fact that Cæsar as leader was repairing those (badly-damaged) institutions that actually gave Romans a functional, benevolent government. Their daggers killed the republic; Augustus would fill the chaos they created with a very different sort of polity, one that had much less use for the dangerous currents of old-fashioned auctoritas.

Some more ought to be said about the literary virtues of this biography, which are many. Goldsworthy writes as Cæsar does: clearly, effectively, without needless complexity or affectation. He interleaves biography and context effortlessly; each digression is placed exactly where it ought to occur. The names, always a challenge when writing about the name-recycling Romans, are neither too many nor too few. The cast of characters is large, but never unmanageable. And Goldsworthy has an eye for the telling detail and the memorable anecdote.

The account has a villain, and perhaps a surprising one. It is not Pompey or Vercingetorix: they appear as worthy, if nonetheless inferior, adversaries. Nor are the assassins villainous; their motives are probed, their humanity made clear. His Cæsar is certainly not a villain. No, the true fiend in this tale is Marcus Porcius Cato called Uticensis. Though some today celebrate Cato’s conservatism and personal virtue, Cato, as Goldsworthy depicts him, was an implacable, bigoted, priggish force of destruction. A less rigid man might have compromised a little and thereby saved his causes; instead, Cato’s intransigence led him to take indefensible stands and to force confrontations. Cæsar, being Cæsar, in the end won every outright clash between the two; Cato’s irrational hatred of Cæsar wound up creating the very colossus he sought to destroy. Goldsworthy’s Cato fetishized goodness, but his deeds were not good.

The account also has a hero, again not Cæsar. (This is a warts-and-all biography, in the scholarly fashion, which means a careful discussion of why Plutarch but not Sallust mentions a particular wart). No, the real hero of this book is Marcus Tullius Cicero. History is written, not by the victors, but by those whose letters survive. And this is why Cicero seems inevitably to be the most interesting man on the stage, the one you’d like to have over to your house. By turns, the great orator is cowardly, indecisive, pragmatic, benevolent, sarcastic, foresighted, ambitious, pompous, heroic, and hilarious. He worries about his reputation six centuries hence, cracks puns, tries to broker compromises between enemies, hurls invective at his own. Cicero refers to Antony as “vomiting his words in the usual way”; he says that Cato’s resolutions “are more fitting for Plato’s ideal Republic than the cess-pits of Romulus.” It’s through Cicero’s eyes that we have our best window on Cæsar’s life, and that’s because Cicero himself is the most strikingly modern, human figure of all the Romans.

Caius Iulius Cæsar towered above his contemporaries. This biography does the same.

Bravo! That is an extraordinary review. Goldsworthy goes right on the list.

Wow, great review! just the review gives me a great idea of what is going on if i do get to read it, i appreciate it!