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O Mighty Caesar!

In response to:

'Here was a Caesar!' from the May 12, 1988 issue

To the Editors:

Asserting at the start of his review [NYR, May 12] that my “book is not the work of an academic,” my book contains “little slips that a professional would have avoided,” Jasper Griffin devotes his “review” to exposing “little slips that a professional would have avoided.” Proceeding thus, he fails to provide his readers with a sense of the content and general approach of the book.

Unprofessional?” Shortly after the publication of the book, E. Togo Salmon, a dean of North American Roman historians, whose books on ancient Rome are acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, wrote the author:

As I review my career in Classics, I find a handful of books that stick in my mind as the ones I found really “great”—Reid’s Municipalities of the Roman Empire, Beloch and De Sanctis on the Roman Republic, Devot’s Antichi Italici and Syme’s Roman Revolution. To these I add Kahn on Julius Caesar. I place it alongside Gelzer’s [for more than fifty years the standard scholarly Caesar biography] on my shelves but esteem it more highly.

David Herlihy, Henry Charles Lee Professor of Medieval History at Harvard, reviewing the book for the History Book Club (which distributed it as its July 1986 selection), agreed. He wrote:

[Kahn’s] splendid biography…deserves untempered applause. He brilliantly displays Caesar’s grandeur, in all its colossal dimensions.

Within a limited space I can merely touch upon examples of the kind of “review” Jasper Griffin offers his readers.

After mentioning, in passing, Caesar’s adoption of the slogan “There is nothing but change!” Griffin fails to note that Caesar’s association with the Epicureans, whose slogan this was, was as significant in ancient Rome as would be the association of an American president with the socialist movement.

With a casual rejection of my contention of Cicero’s ” ‘waffling on’ about the conspiracy of Catiline,” Griffin avoids investigating a major exploration in my work, namely, Cicero’s service during the Catiline “conspiracy” as an agent for a reactionary oligarchic clique.

Let the reader to judge whether my implied political comparison of the cultivated intellectual Cicero with the boorish Joe McCarthy is justified.

Noting that Caesar faced mutinies, Griffin dismisses me as an “overoptimistic encomiast” of the legionaries. But the passage he quotes refers to the moment of triumph of Caesar’s legionaries in Gaul. Mutinies took place many months later during an unpopular civil war. Can it be that Griffin is unaware that in every war military units vacillate in morale according to circumstances?

Griffin’s certainty of resistance to Caesar’s resettlement program is unsupported by evidence. (I leave it to readers to judge his distorted interpretation of a footnote in the passage on this subject.) Cicero and Caesar’s other enemies would certainly have reported with gloating any riots and strikes in opposition. In fact, in Caesar’s day the resettlement of surplus populations was already an ancient practice. Indeed, Caesar’s veterans were rewarded by settlement in distant colonies!

Griffin dismisses Publius Clodius, Catiline and Mark Antony as “desperadoes.” As a historian, I would urge caution with such a simplistic characterization of anti-establishment figures. Griffin may trust Cicero’s characterization of his political enemies, but I do not trust the Roman orator in this regard any more than I trusted Nixon in his characterizations of Vietnam war protesters.

Griffin decries my failure to express dismay at the horrors of the Gallic war. Yet Griffin quotes a series of reports of massacres from my text. We agree, Mr. Griffin, indeed, that “war is hell.” Imperialist wars are especially cruel. The evidence is in the book. In fairness, should not Griffin have noted that an unreserved encomiast of Caesar’s Gallic victories was Griffin’s favorite, Cicero?

American readers of my book will frequently be reminded of the declaration in the preface that I was moved to devote twelve years of my life to this work by concern at general analogies between developments during the fall of the Roman Republic and developments in the American Republic in recent decades.

In the preface I quote as guidelines both the counsel of the great German historian Theodor Mommsen that “you cannot learn to realize the life of the past but by experience of the present” and the definition of a historian’s objectivity by Griffin’s distinguished countryman Edward Hallett Carr in What Is History?

…a capacity to rise above the limited vision of his own situation in society and in history—a capacity to recognize the extent of his involvement in that situation, to recognize, that is to say, the impossibility of total objectivity. Secondly, we mean that he has the capacity to project his vision into the future in such a way as to give him a more profound and more lasting insight into the past than can be attained by those historians whose outlook is entirely bounded by their own immediate situation.

From Griffin’s review readers do not obtain a picture of the complex investigation in the book, an investigation accorded encomiums by distinguished historians.

Arthur D. Kahn

Brooklyn, New York

Jasper Griffin replies:

I am sorry to have caused Arthur D. Kahn so much vexation. In reply to his four main points:

Kahn complains that I fail to mention his emphasis on Caesar’s association with “the Epicureans.” First, there is a lack of positive evidence that Caesar was seriously interested in philosophy at all. Second, Epicurus said emphatically that one should live unobtrusively and keep clear of politics: in the words of the Epicurean poet Lucretius, whose work Kahn supposes that Caesar would eagerly discuss with his friends, “It is much better to obey and be quiet than to desire rule, power, and kingship.” Such a philosophy can explain little in a career like Caesar’s. As for the association of a Roman aristocrat with Epicureanism resembling the association of an American president with the socialist movement, it is worth remembering that Caesar’s assassins were led by Cassius, a conservative aristocrat whose Epicureanism is far better documented than that of Caesar. A philosophical allegiance had, in Rome, no such dramatic overtones, and “the Epicureans” were not a single group.

The idea that Cicero framed Catiline and impelled him into rebellion in order to destroy him and discredit liberal policies is one that has recurred in various forms at least since E.S. Beesley (Catiline, Clodius and Tiberius, 1878), who remarked, “That there was an organization in Rome for the purpose of burning, slaying and plundering, is a supposition too ridiculous to be seriously discussed.” Similar views were put forward, more recently, in articles by K.H. Waters1 and R. Seager.2 I did not therefore find this argument as innovative as Kahn thinks it is.

On the mutinous legions, Kahn’s memory of his book has played him false. I quoted him as saying ” ‘Caesar’s men,’ they could hardly imagine their lives apart from his…. Caesar had made them larger as men, more fulfilled as human beings, and introduced them into the theater of history.” I remarked that this rather effusive passage was hard to reconcile with their attempts to mutiny and disband. Kahn now says that this “refers to the moment of triumph of Caesar’s legionaries in Gaul. Mutinies took place many months later during an unpopular civil war.” In fact, the passage quoted is applied by Kahn to Caesar’s army just before the Civil War battle of Pharsalus, after the mutiny of the ninth legion, which had to be suppressed with executions.

I expressed a certain sense of shock that Caesar’s ferocious warfare drew no moral comment in Kahn’s very moralistic book. He takes that to be a call for more banal pieties—“war is hell.” But there is more to it than that. Caesar invaded and conquered a huge area, with no constitutional mandate and no military necessity, and he carried out that conquest with exemplary ferocity; he then led a Roman army on Rome and fought a long civil war, in defense (he himself tells us) of his own dignity. That is a career that raises more urgent moral questions than simple platitudes about the inevitable sufferings of war.

Kahn contrasts my review with more favorable comments by two other scholars. I might reply by mentioning the review (“review”?) by Elizabeth Rawson: “The book is wide in scope…but it lacks depth. It fails in its ambitious purpose, for its analysis of the collapsing society of the Republic is too pedestrian to help us understand either that period or the American present.”3 An author cannot expect all his reviewers to agree in friendliness.

  1. 1

    Historia 19 (1979), p. 195ff.

  2. 2

    Historia 22 (1973), p. 240ff.

  3. 3

    In the American Historical Review 93 (1988), p. 129.

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