Here was a Caesar!’

The Education of Julius Caesar: A Biography, A Reconstruction

by Arthur D. Kahn
Schocken Books, 514 pp., $28.50

Caesar

by Christian Meier
Severin and Siedler (Berlin), 592 pp., 45 DM

What should one find interesting in ancient history? Rising popular interest in the ancient world concentrates naturally on spectacular works of art, towering achievements, and strong personalities. In doing so it is true to the world picture of the ancients themselves; truer, perhaps, than the interest that is nowadays more respectable among professional academics, who prefer subjects either more sociological and anonymous or more abstract and structural. A reviewer in a recent number of the Journal of Roman Studies makes the contrast neatly. “The old-style political history of idealism and opportunism, skulduggery, military brilliance, turning-point events and so on” is only one way of looking at things: “a serious alternative [is]…cultural horizons, social structures, systems of explanation and decision-making reflected in religious forms, questions of self-definition and changing habits of allegiance.”

Greek and Roman historians, on the whole, show a clear preference for narrative, preferably political and military, over such structural questions; and also for the display, within narrative, of great personalities, which can be seen to shape and direct the course of events. It follows that modern scholars who want to concentrate on different aspects of history find the ancient texts something of a hindrance. At least they must not be allowed to dictate to us: history is to be written against their grain rather than with it. Writing biographies of great men is now, in some sophisticated quarters, seen as a middle-brow activity, unworthy of the serious historian. If the general reader is to be converted from his taste for exciting events and glamorous lives to the drier biscuit of the “serious alternative,” then those who persist in offering him more luscious food must be discountenanced.

Arthur D. Kahn is magnificently indifferent to this debate. He has a lot to say about the structure of the Roman Republic, and on such questions as the education of a Roman boy or the rise of a mercantile and entrepreneurial class, but all is subordinated to a vigorous and lively account of Caesar’s life. His book is not the work of an academic, and along with the little slips that a professional would have avoided it has the virtue of being highly readable, exciting, coherent. He does not make much pretense of impartiality:

Caesar is the greatest personality of the thousand years of Roman history. Rightfully do we continue to commemorate him in the seventh month of the year.

Caesar is also, and more controversially, “an instrument of history…so locked into his role that he could not diverge from the course of action that history was effecting through him.”

Brought up in the company of entrepreneurs and traders, Caesar saw from his youth the corruption of the oligarchy that governed Rome in a manner both ineffective and bloodthirsty. Such a regime was condemned to destruction. Caesar chose a direction in which Roman history was moving, believing that the state should accept responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens, adopting the slogan “There is nothing but change!” The …

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Letters

O Mighty Caesar! June 16, 1988