Monday, August 22, 2011


A review of Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus (2006)

(Rating 5 of 5)

In the over two thousand years since Julius Caesar was assassinated, many authors have written books about the great general and statesman trying to understand him. Was he a hero or tyrant? A visionary or a just a practical politician? Caesar is a hard man to nail down despite being one the most written about men in ll history. However, I feel I can say with absolute confidence that Adrian Goldsworthy has truly captured the essence of Caesar and has succeeded in writing in—what I feel—is the book on Julius Caesar for the twenty-first century. If you want to know about just who Julius Caesar was then this is the only book on him that you will ever really need. You do not have to be a history buff to both understand and enjoy this book*, Goldsworthy writes a smooth narrative that is devoid of any technical history jargon that usually infests most historical works.

Julius Caesar did a great deal in his fifty-six years on this Earth. Goldsworthy covers his childhood, his time aboard, and his political rise. Throughout the book, Goldsworthy avoids any trace of presentism and also continuously reminds the reader to avoid using hindsight to come to conclusions about events. He also is carefully not to judge one side in a conflict more harshly than the other and does his best to maintain a historian’s impartial distance.

“Roman rule brought to Gaul and other provinces many advantages. At a most basic level it is not unreasonable to say that more people were better off living under the Roman Empire than they were before it came or after it failed. The faults of Roman society—and there were many—were often shared by other cultures including the Gauls. Slavery is an obvious example. The violent entertainments of the arena, which came alongside literature, art and drama as part of Rome's influence, were less usual. Caesar was not responsible for Roman imperialism or for Roman culture, although he was certainly an enthusiastic agent of the Republic's expansion. His conquest of Gaul was not a fulfillment of a long-term aim or ambition, in any sense other than that he had long craved the chance to win glory. It was chance and opportunity that led to him focusing his attention on Gaul.”(p.354-5)

(Caesar accepts Vercingetorix's surrender)

“The benefits of Roman rule are arguable but the grim nature of Roman conquest is not. Caesar was entirely pragmatic—effectively amoral—in his use of clemency or massacre and atrocity. During the course of the conquest of Gaul his soldiers did terrible things, sometimes by order, as when they massacred the Usipetes and Tencteri, and occasionally spontaneously, as when they slaughtered women and children at Avaricum. Other Roman armies under other commanders had done similar things in past and would continue to do so in the future. Indeed atrocities as bad, or even worse, were committed by virtually all armies in the ancient world. This is not to justify what Caesar did, merely to place it into context. Warfare in antiquity was generally an extremely cruel business.”(p.355)

After Caesar's conquest of Gaul he comes home to find his enemies have backed him into a corner. He can either back down in humiliating defeat or do what other disgruntled Roman generals had done since he himself was a boy: invade Rome. The Roman Civil War has become a romanticized period of history. Much like World War II, the Roman Civil War is given a story-like narrative filled with the colorful figures of the age. The power struggle between two of Rome's greatest leaders and their allies locked in a bitter conflict where there can only be one winner.

“The greatest battle of the war, fought by armies commanded by the ablest generals of the age, was about to occur and inevitably sources recounted the great omens that foreshadowed this massive shift in fortune.” (p.425)

For this book does not just feature Caesar. During his life Caesar encountered incredible people. He was the nephew of the great Maris, the son-in-law of Cinna, and he stood up to Sulla when no one else would. Among his colleges during his career were allies such as Crassus, enemies like Cato, friends such as Cicero, and the most intriguing of all Pompey the Great. Caesar and Pompey were two great friends who would become the greatest of rivals. However his most famous encounter is with the great Queen of Egypt.

(Caesar meets Cleopatra)

“When Caesar arrived in Egypt Cleopatra was nearly twenty-one years old and had been queen for almost four years. She was highly intelligent and extremely well educated in the Greek tradition. Later, she would be credited with writing books on a very broad range of subjects. Cleopatra was a noted linguist who it was claimed rarely needed an interpreter when conversing with the leaders of neighboring countries.” (p.438)

One of the insights Goldsworthy makes that I find the most fascinating, is he compares Caesar's two great errors: miscalculating the mood of the Gallic aristocracy and miscalculating the mood of the Roman aristocracy to be, in fact, the same error. In both cases he felt that since his rule was good and benevolent that those who had opposed him would come to his side. In Gaul, he managed to prevail and conquer but in Rome he lost his life.

Death of Caesar
“Caesar tried to change this. In 49 BC he feared falling into the hands of his rivals, just as they were terrified of his returning at the head of an army. In each case the fears may have been ungrounded, but that did not make them any less real. Once the war began Casear paraded his clemency, sparing defeated enemies and in time allowing them to resume their careers. This was calculated policy, intended to win over uncertain and deter the enemy from fighting to the death, but that does not reduce the contrast with his opponents or earlier victors. After he had won, the pardoned Pompeians were allowed back into public life and some treated very well indeed. Once again he clearly felt that this was more likely to persuade them and others to accept his dictatorship. Regardless of his motives, there was a generosity about Caesar's behavior that was matched by no other Roman who came to power in similar circumstances. In the same way, while his lifelong backing for popular causes was intended to win support, at the same time he did implement a number of measures that were in the interest of a wide part of the population.” (p.515)

Goldsworthy is right to title this book the life of a Colossus because that is what Caesar was. His life and legacy left a huge impact on the world that very few historical figures can compare. His legacy still looms large even today for both myself and my county celebrates our birthdays (July 3 and 4) in the month that bears his name.

*Although you probably are a history buff if you are going to read this. After all, who else is going to read an over five hundred page book about Julius Caesar?

{Video is from the already classic HBO series Rome, to which the author was a consultant}

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