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Here was a Caesar!’

The Education of Julius Caesar: A Biography, A Reconstruction

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


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 provinces of the Empire were to be protected from oligarchic exploitation; “make-work programs” were to give employment to the poor on vast schemes of building, digging canals, and draining marshes. Still, “it was the middle stratum among the landowners, the artisans and the Italian municipal aristocracy whose interests Caesar catered to above all.”

All that has a modern ring to it; not indeed the modern of the disillusioned 1980s, but the modern, perhaps, of the hopeful 1930s. It is none the worse, necessarily, for that: to write ancient history is of necessity to write modern history, and if it were possible to produce value-free interpretations of the past perhaps we should not want to read them. The reader does, however, hear a faint alarm bell ringing when Kahn carries partisanship so far as to talk of Caesar, “tall, lithe, and well-featured, alertness and vigor shining in his blue-gray eyes,” while his great contemporary Cicero, who cuts a very poor figure in this book, is described in terms such as these: “In the broad neck protruding muscles betrayed a humbler country past, as did the stocky body beneath.” And yet the ancients described Cicero as a handsome man! The aesthetic bias, oddly tied to a social one, is very clear, and we shall not be surprised to find this Cicero “waffling on” about the conspiracy of Catiline (in the Catilinarian Orations, classics of oratory for generations of Romans), and involved in “shabby maneuvering” and indeed in “snivelling poltroonery.” History to the defeated knows no pity, and neither do some historians.

But even more suggestive, it may be, of overoptimistic encomiasts of more recent power are the passages that describe Caesar’s soldiers:

Glorying in their splendor and might, legionaries and cavalrymen shouted greetings to Caesar as they passed the reviewing stand, proclaiming their pride in their excellence as soldiers and in the genius of their general…. Those who looked forward to retirement…could wonder whether they could submit to a life of tranquility and routine after the zest of peril the exuberance of victory,…and the pride of association with Caesar.

That is set in 50 BC, when Caesar was on the point of starting the Civil War by leading his legions, in breach of the law, on Rome. Kahn immediately goes on to say, “In reward for their devotion and as a warrant of his future generosity, Caesar announced a doubling of the legionaries’ pay.” Another possible description of that set of events would read more cynically; quite apart from the fact that the legions repeatedly tried to refuse to go on, and Caesar had sometimes to quell mutinies and sometimes to allow his soldiers their head (as in the massacre that followed the battle of Thapsus in 46, “while Caesar looked on and begged the soldiers to spare them they were slaughtered to a man,” so we read in the contemporary source. That is softened by Kahn to “Caesar’s legionaries advanced to the carnage”).

Before the decisive Civil War battle of Pharsalus we read here:

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.

That must be said to be blarney, coming as it does between the mutiny of the Ninth Legion (“no longer could they be roused to Caesar’s unflagging enthusiasm”), which had to be punished with executions, and that of the Tenth and Twelfth (“disaffection was widespread”); and these are only two in a list of attempts by the soldiers, with whom it is surely hard not to feel some sympathy, to put an end to the interminable campaigning which their relentless leader demanded of them.

Something rather similar might be felt about another important passage. For Kahn, Caesar was the agent of history when he started the Civil War; the overthrow of the oligarchy was to lead to a better deal for the provinces and the poor. What Caesar himself said, as we shall see, was that he was fighting to avenge his own honor, his dignitas, from the slights and wrongs inflicted on him by his enemies. Moreover, it is not easy to find measures that he took, when in supreme command, to help the underprivileged. We do hear that he reduced the number of recipients of the state dole of free grain from 320,000 to 150,000. More positively, Caesar planned to settle as many as 80,000 of the Roman poor in colonies all over the Mediterranean world, from North Africa to the Black Sea. We hear nothing of their response to this, but Kahn is confident that “the excitement and ferment and the extraordinary sense of community evoked in this momentous enterprise can hardly be imagined.”

Well, maybe; though similar proposals in later Roman history were viewed by the conscripted settlers with great dislike. Kahn remarks in a footnote, “For a comparable effort in the twentieth century, the United States would have to settle 700,000 New Yorkers receiving public assistance as far away as Alaska and Hawaii.” The implication seems to be that such a settlement would evoke an extraordinary excitement and sense of community among the New Yorkers singled out for forced transplantation; again, maybe—but some readers will be unconvinced, and the passage has a ring of that familiar kind of writing which tells us how ecstatically happy the subjects of favored despots really are.

What explained Caesar’s extraordinary achievements, and what explains his lasting appeal? He came from a family of ancient nobility that had little to show by way of prominence or distinction in previous generations; he was conscious of great powers; and he was passionately desirous of success and distinction, which he claimed as his right both because of his achievements and because of his noble birth. He was in fact the most talented and energetic of a large class of aristocrats who saw that with the weakness of the Roman Republic enormous prizes were there to be grabbed, and who felt entitled by their own birth and merits to grab them.

The sanguinary and pleasure-loving Sulla, the first Roman commander to lead an army against Rome, was descended, like Caesar, from an ancient but long eclipsed house; so was the aristocratic revolutionary Catiline. Contemporaries believed that Catiline planned to arm the slaves and burn Rome, but when he spoke of himself it was to say “I, a man of patrician birth, whose benefactions to the Roman People, like those of my ancestors, are very numerous….” Publius Clodius, the first man to organize street violence in Rome and use it to dominate elections, came from a great patrician family. The last years of the Republic are full of more or less aristocratic political desperadoes, most of whom came—like Caesar—to a sticky end. The type finally disappears with the suicide of Mark Antony, leaving the world safe for Augustus, the Empire, and political stability.

Roman politics had always involved intense competition between ambitious nobles, but traditionally that competition had been kept within certain limits, with all senators accepting that the system depended, in the end, on each senator accepting his subordination to the Senate as a whole. The collective supremacy of the Senate, the “gathering of elders,” was maintained by the insistence that the great offices of state should be held for short periods and subject to the check of collegiality: the consulship lasted for one year, and there were two consuls, not one. The growth of the Empire put this system and its built-in defenses under increasing strain. It was hard to avoid giving extended powers to generals and governors to fight great wars or administer huge territories, and also hard to maintain the oligarchic line that every prominent senator, in principle, was capable of performing every duty.

That line encouraged mediocrity, and sometimes it became inescapably noticeable that mediocrity was not enough. Ordinary aristocrats suffered disastrous defeats at the hands of the German tribes that invaded Italy, before the great outsider Marius was finally given an unparalleled succession of consulships and the power to destroy them; and Marius fulfilled the worst fears of the oligarchy by staging a coup at Rome in 87 and executing a number of leading senators. The reactionary dictator Sulla massacred the Marians and restored the Senate to the saddle (“We shall see if it can ride,” he murmured); it found itself reluctantly forced to give irregular commands with vast powers to Pompey, to deal with the problem of piracy all over the Mediterranean and to settle the affairs of Rome’s eastern conquests. Without extraordinary commands, such problems were insoluble; but the men who exercised them would not return afterward to merge unobtrusively into the Senate. The sense of universal obligation to keep the oligarchic system working was disappearing from the minds of the most able and dynamic members of the governing class.

  1. *

    Nicholas Purcell, Journal of Roman Studies, No. 77 (1987), p. 181.

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