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.

Caesar came to maturity in the terrible time of Marius (his uncle by marriage) and Sulla. Kahn opens his book with an imaginative reconstruction of “the education of an oligarch,” starting with the four-year-old Caesar being awakened and dressed to join the celebrations marking the return of Marius to Rome. A lot of this is confessedly imaginary, but it is well done. As a young man Caesar was threatened but not harmed by Sulla. Kahn thinks this left “a titanic rancor” in the heart of the young admirer of Marius. More likely, perhaps, he took Sulla rather than Marius as his model, at least in the crucial question of style: Sulla was an aristocrat and a hedonist, while Marius was dour and uncouth. The eminent German scholar Christian Meier, whose large book, also aimed at the general reader, makes an interesting comparison with Kahn’s, thinks that what really struck the young Caesar was less the tyranny of Sulla than the feebleness of the Senate. With many of its natural leaders killed either by Sulla or by Marius, the restored Senate was never really secure in control: that was a tempting thought for an able and ambitious young man.

Kahn, as we have seen, makes his Caesar a lifelong New Dealer, with a principled belief in popular power and the care of the underprivileged. Christian Meier, by contrast, dismisses all that as window dressing. There were, he argues, no parties in Rome, certainly not a popular party; Roman politics consisted of a constantly shifting pattern of ad hoc alliances between individuals. Young and rising politicians might go through a temporary phase of proposing a popular law or attacking a reactionary grandee, but that was just a recognized stage in the development of a perfectly reliable oligarch. Both positions involve difficulties. Caesar squeezed the provinces for money as ruthlessly as anyone, and what he did for the poor in Rome, as dictator, was so moderate that one of his supporters wrote to Cicero, “Nobody is pleased with Caesar except the money-lenders,” and there was a radical revolt, speedily suppressed. On the other hand, his career up to his consulship was marked by a long and consistent series of actions of a clearly “popular” tendency. Meier is baffled and can only say that his actions in the year 63, for instance, are “hard to understand,” and that he perhaps was aiming at some electoral advantage that we cannot discern.

Caesar resembled other young men in a hurry, in being anxious to make his mark. Popular gestures came well from Marius’s nephew, and they allowed him to defy the reactionary constitution of Sulla. But the consistency with which he continued them was very unusual, and it is surely right to see in it something nearer to a principle. What is inextricable is the question how far that principle reflected sympathy with the common people, and how far it reflected contempt for the Senate and a desire to replace their bumbling and ineffectiveness with his own steely and stylish efficiency.

For Caesar was a great stylist. He was extraordinarily quick, decisive, successful; he was a master of the Latin language, a friend of poets, an aesthete, a lover—it is an extreme point of Kahn’s tenderness for his hero that he claims Caesar as “discreet in his love affairs, by contemporary standards,” when in fact his exploits with both sexes were the subject of poems by Catullus, scurrilous pamphlets by his political opponents, songs sung by his soldiers, and the gossip of the whole world. He had the aristocratic virtues of generosity—not always, of course, with his own money—and magnanimity. He was celebrated for sparing the lives and even the fortunes of his defeated Roman enemies, expressing in doing so the height of his superiority to them. Significantly, the greatest rise that any of them ever got out of him was Cato’s killing himself rather than be spared, thus publicly denying that Caesar had any right to “spare” a social equal. Caesar was sufficiently enraged to commit two uncharacteristic lapses of taste: he wrote a long book, the Anti-Cato, denouncing his dead antagonist for every vice; and he carried in his triumphal procession paintings of Cato stabbing himself. Kahn tries to minimize the effect of the latter gesture by saying “Aristocrats were angered by this mockery of optimate leaders”; the ancient source says, more tellingly, “The people, though intimidated, groaned at this reminder of their own sufferings, especially when they saw these pictures….”

Mary McCarthy describes, in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, the effect on her of reading Caesar in Latin while at school: “I fell in love with Caesar,…just, laconic, severe, magnanimous, detached—the bald instrument of empire who wrote not ‘I’ but ‘Caesar.’ The very grammar was beatified for me by the objective temperament that ordered it.” That does bring out the quality of Caesar’s Gallic War, which is a most seductive work in its plainness and energy and self-confidence: the most “masculine” work, perhaps, in all literature. The contrast between Caesar and Napoleon is indeed that between an aristocrat and a parvenu. And yet we must surely not be dazzled into losing sight of some important moral facts.

Caesar had no instructions from the Senate to embark on the conquest of Gaul, and he went far beyond the normal conduct of even the bossiest Roman governor in assuming the right to dictate the actions and fate of independent peoples beyond the Roman frontier. He makes it clear that from the very beginning he intended nothing less than the conquest of this vast region, consisting of most of France and part of the Low Countries, with two invasions of Britain thrown in for good measure. His conduct of the Gallic war was ruthless. We read in Caesar’s own pages, and in Kahn following him, of the destruction of the Helvetii (“a great slaughter ensued”), of selling into slavery 53,000 of the Aduataci, of the “almost complete destruction” of the Nervii, of the fearful example made of the Veneti (“he put the whole of their senate to the sword and sold the rest of the men as slaves”), of the extermination of the Usipetes and Tencteri (“he surprised the German encampment and slaughtered the men, women, and children there”), and so on, and so on. At Uxellodunum, Kahn says, Caesar “decreed a punishment that was at once dreadful and, for the times, merciful”—cutting the men’s hands off and letting them live.

Now, it is true that the Romans were not a squeamish people, and that conquest was a ferocious business. But some Romans were, we know, shocked by Caesar’s ruthlessness. His biographer Suetonius criticizes him for “exploiting every occasion of making war, even unjust ones,” and for sacking towns for profit and looting temples for their precious offerings. Cato viewed the extermination of the German tribes as a breach of faith and said that Caesar should be surrendered to the Germans in expiation. Kahn quotes this merely as the objection of a “cantankerous Stoic,” and at no point does he consider the morality of this tremendous bloodshed.

Mary McCarthy goes on to describe her later sense of alienation from some parts of Caesar’s work, as when he ordered the killing of Dumnorix the Aeduan, who had joined in a Gallic rebellion against him. Caesar tells us that Dumnorix as he was killed “kept screaming that he was a free man and of a free people.” In his patrician way Caesar does not suppress this scene, showing himself unworried by the reader’s response to it. “In later years,” writes Mary McCarthy, “those screams of a cornered man have echoed reproachfully in my mind, particularly during the recent war, when they merged with the screams of other Gauls, other patriots and Resistance leaders who failed to keep faith with the conqueror.” Her comment makes a painful contrast with that of Kahn, who says only: “Dumnorix’ defiance provided a warning of the fragility of the loyalty Caesar enjoyed even within a favored state.”

The Roman conquest of Gaul is so vast an event in history and with such lasting consequences—the French still speak a Latinate language while the Germans do not—that a simple condemnation of it, at this date, would be beside the point; but at least we must be fully aware of its terrible side. In a book where everybody else receives such hearty moral censure, there is something shocking about Kahn’s refusal to make any comment on the following passage: “If Caesar had not felt uneasy about events at Rome, he might have pursued a leisurely policy of conciliation in Gaul, patiently persuading the states to an acceptance of Roman rule, but…he resolved to respond with terror to the mounting disaffection. To distract the Gauls from thoughts of rebellion he proclaimed the territory of the Eburones open to plunder…. The Eburones ceased to exist.”

Finally we come to the Civil War. Meier begins his book with the scene in which Caesar, about to cross the Rubicon and lead his army on Rome, reflected that he was choosing between disaster for all mankind and disaster for himself: he chose the former. The scene derives from the evidence of an eyewitness, although Caesar, in his Civil War, characteristically admits to no hesitation. That is a terrible choice, and it is noteworthy that Caesar makes no mention of replacing the outmoded Senatorial rule, or of popular sovereignty, or of progress for the provinces. In Caesar’s own account of the opening of the war, he speaks exclusively of his own dignitas, his position (existimatio), and the injuries inflicted on him by his enemies; his dignitas, he says, has always been dearer to him than his life. Cicero, in an indignant letter, agrees but does not approve: “And all this, Caesar says, he is doing for the sake of his dignitas!”

What would his enemies have done to Caesar? They would have brought him to trial, condemned him, and sent him into exile; he would have vegetated comfortably in Marseille or Athens or Smyrna. From Caesar’s point of view, that was clearly unjust, in view of his achievements. But it was a small basis from which to fight a civil war. Why were Caesar and the Senate so irreconcilably opposed to each other? Kahn sees a simple conflict between a farsighted and benevolent reformer and a purblind oligarchy that flatly refused to see that history was condemning it to the dustbin. As Kahn withholds sympathy from Dumnorix and from the massacred tribes of Gaul, so he consistently withholds it from Cicero and Cato and the Senate; they have no virtues.

Caesar saw through the Senate, its procedures and its precedents, its checks and its balances. His aquiline gaze saw in all that only mummery and hypocrisy, and with the impatience that was one of his leading characteristics he did all he could to sweep it away in favor of quick, efficient, and intelligent rule: rule, as it turned out, by Caesar himself. Partly this was the effect of his long military career. After his consulship in 59 BC he was in Gaul from 58 to the end of 50; all that time he was in supreme command, raising legions, making policy, doing exactly as he pleased. When he was present, he always won; when his subordinates were left without him, things went wrong and he had to rescue them. The position exactly suited his imperious and decisive temperament. But it is not simply that the Gallic experience made him impatient of civilian ways and senatorial procedures. The crucial thing was earlier: his performance as consul in the year 59.

Rome had plenty of experience of violence from tribunes, young men holding a relatively junior magistracy; a violent consul was something unfamiliar. Caesar’s supporters poured rubbish over his fellow consul’s head; he ordered senators and magistrates to be taken off to prison; he finally pushed through his legislation in the teeth of constitutional vetoes that made it all, strictly speaking, illegal. He was right to see that much of the opposition was mere obstruction, and that some at least of his laws were urgently needed; but he did not understand the nature of the offense caused by his methods and his attitude. Impatience and contempt were, from Caesar’s point of view, the appropriate response; but from the point of view of his opponents it was unforgivable. They did not regard the Senate, which for centuries had governed Rome and conquered the world, as a mere façade for a ruthless yet weak-kneed oligarchy. They regarded the republican constitution as the only possible one: it was Rome, and nobody had an alternative in view to replace it. At the moment, it was true, the system was not working perfectly; but that was a temporary fault, and with good will the machine would be made to run as smoothly as in its greatest days. As for the thought of Caesar in the consulship again, nothing could make them think of it as anything but a nightmare, to be avoided at all costs.

It was the weakness of Caesar’s vision, for all its power, that he had no understanding of any of this. Meier makes this point excellently. Caesar had done stupendous things, and now he claimed as his rightful due acceptance and veneration from the Senate. Many of its members, so far from being pleased with his successes, had been praying that he would be killed by the Germans or never come back from Britain. Acceptance, veneration, dignity; these could not be extorted by force. And so Caesar marched on Rome, and battled against Roman legions in Spain, and in Macedonia, and in Africa, and in Spain again, and was always victorious. The Senate lost many of its members; the rest were crushed, reduced to voting the conqueror more and more extravagant honors. Caesar accepted them all: unheard-of titles, unconstitutional magistracies, the right to wear extraordinary dress, the right to nominate the consuls, statues everywhere, an ivory image to be paraded with those of the gods, divine honors—the month in which he was born was renamed July. It is like the last days of the Shah of Iran.

Some people thought the Senate, in going so far, was trying to make him invidious or ridiculous. Why did he accept all these things? Kahn makes no comment, and it is hard to know whether Caesar did it from vanity or scorn or indifference. Perhaps these meaningless distinctions were to make up for the real acceptance that he had missed; for by defeating his rivals in war Caesar had spoiled the game, even for himself. What he had wanted was honor freely given by his peers, and what he got was the adulation of resentful subjects.

After his consulship Caesar lived for more than fourteen years. Of those years he spent barely one in Rome; all the rest were spent making war. In that one year he attacked many of Rome’s practical problems with his astonishing energy and intelligence, foreshadowing many things which proved important in the next hundred years. But he was disillusioned with it all. We hear that he often said, “I have lived long enough.” He dismissed his bodyguard and refused to take precautions. Finally he decided to abandon Rome and its tiresome problems and its touchy senators, and go off to fight the Parthians. He had made no serious attempt to do anything about the constitution, and it had become clear that he would not. While he was there himself, he would issue lucid and acute instructions for a stream of particular problems; but he had no real friends, only underlings or petty Caesars, and he set up no system.

He had finally taken the position of dictator in perpetuity: that meant that the basic principles of the Republic, which demanded that high offices should be both divided (two consuls, not one) and limited in tenure, were to be abandoned forever. That was decisive, and a large group of senators decided that before he could reach his legions he must be killed. His assassins included men to whom he had given the highest honors, men on whom he counted. What ingratitude! But it is also a condemnation of Caesar that he could not really attach such men to himself. The greatest personality in the history of Rome cannot be grasped without allowing full weight to the terrible and tragic side of his nature and his career. He claimed to have fought fifty battles and slain 1,192,000 opponents, and in the end he felt futility and was killed by his own associates. In the civil war that followed, even the opponents whom he had spared, like Cicero, were killed. And meanwhile, we must remember, the Romanization of the Mediterranean world continued to advance, by trade and travel and administration at humbler and more local levels. The splendors and miseries of civil war, whoever won or lost, made little difference—except by way of disruption—to the most important and most lasting effects of Rome.

This Issue

May 12, 1988