In the spring of 47 BCE, Julius Caesar took a Nile cruise. The civil wars that would make him sole ruler of Rome were drawing to a close. His main rival and erstwhile ally, Pompey the Great, had been decapitated—and Caesar had even managed to produce some tears when the head was brought to him. The internecine fighting in Egypt, which was in effect another civil war between the young queen Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy, had been crushed. Caesar himself had safely escaped from the palace in Alexandria where he had been besieged by Ptolemy’s forces.

True, many of Pompey’s supporters were still under arms. The loss of the leader did not necessarily mean the loss of the cause. Indeed, Pompey’s son would not finally be defeated until 35 BCE, almost a decade after Caesar’s own assassination. What is more, a thousand miles away from the Nile delta in Rome itself, Caesar’s control was still provisional at best. But he needed a vacation—and was hopelessly in love. So rather than take the next steps in consolidating his power, he opted instead for a month-long Nile cruise, in the company of his mistress, Cleopatra, who was by then heavily pregnant with his child, Caesarion. While Rome was made to wait, Caesar indulged his carnal desires and enjoyed a relaxing, five-star holiday.

That, at least, is the story told in many popular accounts of Caesar’s life, both ancient and modern. And as Maria Wyke richly documents in Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, it has been replayed in fiction, film, art, and opera ever since. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries more than fifty operas across Europe featured the passion of Caesar and Cleopatra, set against the gory backdrop of Roman civil war. Earlier, in Petrarch’s series of allegorical Trionfi, or “Triumphs”—poems that reflect on the power of love, chastity, death, and so forth—Julius Caesar features as one of the most prominent victims of the power of love: “Caesar, whom in Egypt/Cleopatra bound, amid the flowers and grass.” On this model, the famous cruise becomes a classic example of a statesman putting love before the demands of his office, for better or worse.

More hardheaded modern historians have been doubtful. It is difficult to deny that there was some sexual entanglement between Caesar and Cleopatra. The birth of Caesarion stands in the way of out-and-out skepticism. Even if HBO’s Rome floated the idea that the child was not Caesar’s at all, the emperor Augustus was so convinced that Caesarion was Caesar’s natural son (and, as such, a threat to his own position) that he had the boy killed. “Two Caesars is one too many,” he is supposed to have said. Nonetheless, there may well have been a good deal of embellishment of the details by ancient writers seeking to make Cleopatra’s affair with Caesar a harbinger of her later disastrous relationship with Mark Antony. Having failed to seduce Caesar permanently from the path of duty, so this myth went, the glamorous Egyptian queen eventually succeeded with his lieutenant Antony.

The Nile holiday is one possible embellishment. In the 1930s, the famous Oberlin classicist Louis E. Lord tried to pour cold water on the whole trip. Not only did no classical author mention it until Suetonius, writing some 150 years after the event, but careful calculations of Caesar’s movements between Egypt and Rome in 47 appeared to leave no room for a leisurely vacation on the river. Besides, for Lord (betraying his early-twentieth-century prejudices about proper statesmanly conduct), it was inconceivable that Caesar would have “dissipated on a love-affair valuable time that should have been devoted to the administration of the state…even [with] a woman as brilliant and seductive as Cleopatra.”

Others have managed to fit the cruise into Caesar’s schedule, but have speculated that it had purposes far beyond pleasure. In his new biography, Julius Caesar, Philip Freeman follows those who have sensed a military aim driving the expedition. Although Suetonius refers only to the queen’s “state barge,” the historian Appian, writing about the events a couple of decades after Suetonius, claims that Caesar and Cleopatra had four hundred ships with them. If so, Cleopatra or no Cleopatra, this was not just a holiday for Caesar, but a display of force. As Freeman puts it, it was a sign to “the natives” that “Rome was willing and able to crush them.”

More ingenious historians have proposed that the cruise was actually an aborted attempt to find that Holy Grail of the ancient world—namely, the source of the Nile. Or, as I was told when I was a student, there may have been a more practical, educational purpose behind this apparent vacation. As Denis Feeney has recently underlined in his excellent book Caesar’s Calendar, the most lasting achievement of Caesar was not military conquest or political revolution, but the calendar that is still used, more or less in the form he devised, throughout the West.


By the middle of the first century BCE, the traditional Roman system of timekeeping, with its rough and ready method of keeping the calendar year in step with the solar year, was hopelessly disorganized. Despite the best efforts of those responsible, the official date was sometimes several months adrift from the natural cycle of the seasons: “April” might fall in the middle of winter, and the harvest festivals tied to particular dates must often have been celebrated before the crops were even ripe. Caesar solved all this, introducing a year of 365 days, with an additional day in each quadrennial “leap year,” not to mention—in due course—a month named after himself, “July.” Ancient writers had no doubt that the expertise behind this reform came from scientists based in the Greek city of Alexandria in Egypt, where Caesar had been besieged. But how, and where, did Caesar manage to find the time to master the intricacies of calendrical science? It was most likely, we were told (half-jokingly perhaps), on that cruise. However he spent his evenings with Cleopatra, by day he was swotting up on his astronomy and having lessons with the Alexandrian scientists.

This minor, scholarly controversy over Julius Caesar’s movements, activities, and aims in the spring of 47 nicely exposes the perils, and the fun, of attempting to reconstruct almost any aspect of his career. He may now be the most famous Roman that ever lived (beating his indirect descendant, the emperor Nero, in a close race). He may have bequeathed to modern languages some of their best-known Roman phrases: “Crossing the Rubicon,” “Beware the Ides of March,” “I came, I saw, I conquered,” and “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” (uttered to justify the divorce of his second wife, who was rumored to have been having an affair with a charismatic young aristocrat).

But despite this familiarity—or perhaps because of it—there remains enormous debate not just about the details of his career, but about the big picture too. What drove him to wield autocratic power in Rome? Was he aiming at popular dictatorship, standing up for the rights of the common people against the vested interests of the conservative traditionalists (which is more or less Freeman’s view)? Or was he simply after power for himself? Did he plan to make himself permanent king of the Roman world, abolishing the republican constitution once and for all? Did he want to be worshiped as a god during his lifetime, as he came to be after his death? Why was he assassinated?

Modern historians generally agree that various public relations stunts were staged in Rome by Caesar and his associates to prepare the way for whatever he planned. On one notorious occasion in 44 BCE, recreated by Shakespeare at the beginning of his Julius Caesar, Mark Antony was taking part in the religious festival of the Lupercalia, which involved—among a number of other now scarcely comprehensible rituals—young men racing around the city naked. In the middle of these proceedings the naked Antony approached Caesar, who was watching the festival from a dais, and offered him a symbol of monarchy in the shape of a diadem. Caesar refused it three times before Antony withdrew. Each time the cheer of the crowd which greeted the offer was drowned by the cheer which greeted the refusal.

It is easy enough to see that there was a message intended here, but hard to be certain what exactly that message was. As Freeman explains, there are historians, both ancient and modern, who have seen this as a serious attempt to offer regal power to Caesar, but argue that he got cold feet when he sensed the reactions of the crowd. There are others who think that Caesar had no intention of accepting the crown, and that the whole charade was staged to make it absolutely clear to the people that he was not aiming at kingship. There are still others who see the incident as a primitive version of an opinion poll. Uncertain whether to make a move toward regal status, Caesar decided to use this experiment at a mass festival to test the people’s support.

The Roman historian Livy nicely encapsulated the Roman version of these doubts, and also the uncertainty about what exactly led to Caesar’s assassination. The parts of his massive, multivolume history in which Livy dealt directly with the Caesarian regime no longer survive. But elements in his treatment of Rome’s mythical first king, Romulus, who according to tradition founded the city in 753 BCE, were clearly based on Caesar’s story. When Livy came to describe the death of Romulus, he offered two alternative narratives: either the king was miraculously taken up to heaven to join the gods, or he was hacked to pieces by the early Roman senators jealous of his overweening power. “Caesar: good or bad?” is the question only just under the surface here. Modern commentators might express a similar dilemma somewhat differently. Where on the political spectrum between John F. Kennedy (who is part of the inspiration for Steven Saylor’s Caesar, in his detective novels set in ancient Rome) and Robert Mugabe does Caesar most plausibly belong?


For the would-be biographer the problems run even deeper than this. As the events of 47 BCE make clear, it is not just a question of why Caesar did what he did. Disagreements about motive and evaluation are, after all, part of the biographer’s stock-in-trade. It is also a question of what. Caesar is much better documented than most ancient personalities. He himself left us a detailed, if self-serving, autobiographical account of his military campaigns in Gaul (even now the best-selling volume in the Loeb series of Greek and Roman texts) and of the early stages of his civil war with Pompey’s forces. There are also two surviving ancient biographies by Suetonius and Plutarch. All the same, beyond the military narratives, his recorded life story amounts to not much more than a short series of high-profile incidents or highlights (from his capture by pirates when young to the eventual assassination in 44 BCE), with long, ill-documented gaps which the modern biographer who aims at a continuous narrative must somehow fill. This has not put them off. No fewer than ten biographies of Caesar have been published in English since the turn of the century, each one a mixture of well-documented fact and more or less judicious speculation.

In his Julius Caesar, Freeman tells a detailed story of Caesar’s military exploits, based on Caesar’s own accounts and enlivened with up-to-the-minute archaeological detail about the native Gauls who were his most famous enemies, and victims. Where Freeman must resort to speculation, he tends to be liberal with his clichés (years “dawn,” tribesmen are “fearless” or “fiercely independent,” blood flows in “torrents”). And he is often inaccurate with the background details, large and small. I know of no evidence, for example, that Romans stored their boots and shoes in the vestibulum (entrance hall) of their houses, or that the pool of water regularly found in the atrium was intended as a fish pond. More seriously, Freeman seems shaky on the details of the normal sequence of Roman political offices (the cursus honorum ) and on the religious duties of the Roman consuls—a crucial factor in making sense of the political and technical disputes between Caesar and Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, his colleague in the consulship of 59 BCE.

Typical is the opening of the book, which focuses on the turning point of Caesar’s career, the crossing of the river Rubicon in 49 BCE. This was the boundary between the province of Gaul, where Caesar had been engaged in years of fighting, and Italy itself. To cross it as Caesar did, with his army, amounted to the invasion of his homeland and the declaration of civil war. Freeman conjures up a bleak yet romantic picture. “A cold winter rain” was falling on the mountains. It was a “blustery January day.” On the brink of Caesar’s momentous decision, he pauses “at the banks of the rushing stream” before shouting “with an expression of calm assurance on his face…, ‘Let the dice fly high'” (or “the die is cast” in the more familiar version) and then stepping “swiftly into the icy stream.”

Some of these details are drawn directly from Suetonius’ account of the incident. Caesar himself in his own history of the civil war does not mention the Rubicon, though other ancient accounts do build it up as a key symbolic moment, and Suetonius includes the famous phrase about the dice ( alea iacta est ).

What Freeman does not mention is that the river in question has never been firmly identified. We do not know where it was, or how substantial a barrier. It might have been a “rushing stream,” but it could equally well have been a trickling creek. What is more, of course, neither here nor on any of those other occasions where Freeman uses speculation about the weather as a substitute for information (“On a bright summer morning in the year 46 BC”) do we have any idea whether the sun was shining or the rain pouring. In fact, given the disorganization of the Roman calendar in the years before Caesar’s own reform, the early January date that the calendar gave for the crossing of the Rubicon probably “really” fell somewhere around late October. A balmy autumn would give a rather different color to the event than the icy winter of Freeman’s account.

If there is an underlying theme to Freeman’s narrative of Caesar’s life, it also rests on a combination of romantic fantasy and misunderstanding. For his Julius Caesar turns out to be a “rags to riches” story. Freeman is well aware that Caesar’s family, the Julii, were one of Rome’s oldest and most aristocratic, tracing their origins to a time even before the founder Romulus—back to the Trojan hero Aeneas, and through him to the goddess Venus herself. But the facts that in the generations before Caesar himself they had not produced a series of major political leaders and that their ancestral home was said to be located in the Subura—an area of Rome that came to be associated with mass slum housing—lead Freeman to a view of Caesar as a self-made man. He is a politician who “had risen from the slums of the Subura to the heights of Roman power”; or again, when introduced to—and instantly entranced by—Cleopatra, he is presented here as the impressionable “boy from the slums of Rome who had fought his way to the top of the political ladder.”

This is preposterous. You might possibly tell some such story about Caesar’s contemporary Cicero, who really was a “new man” on the Roman political scene—though even he had a comfortable background among the country gentry, rather than among the festering slums. No successful Roman politician in the first century BCE was poor, least of all those who championed the cause of the disadvantaged in the city. Caesar’s career, and his rise to power, only make sense if you see him as a man endowed with all the hereditary prestige and advantages of old money. Smart and snobbish Julii, Caesar and his father (who had himself, after all, reached the praetorship, the second-highest office in Rome, after the consulship) would be appalled at Freeman’s picture of their lowly background.

In Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, Maria Wyke does not attempt to fill the biographical gaps in Caesar’s life story or to devise any overarching narrative theme. Hers is not a biography in the conventional sense of the word. Instead she explicitly concentrates on the highlights of Caesar’s life as they have come down to us, and—as the title hints—on how these have been reworked and reinterpreted in Western culture up to the present day.

In one chapter she explores how the crossing of the Rubicon was represented in French medieval history writing and in Renaissance art. In the late fifteenth century, for example, Cardinal Cesare Borgia (who, as Wyke points out, regarded his own name “as an omen”) commissioned an elaborate ceremonial sword, featuring in its decoration the famous phrase alea iacta est. An omen, indeed, it was. For very soon after, the cardinal was leading the papal troops into battle, returning victorious in 1500 to a splendid version of a Roman triumph, including among its displays a tableau of Caesar at the Rubicon. Aut Caesar aut nihil (“Caesar or nothing”) became his motto.

Elsewhere Wyke takes a careful look at how Caesar’s victory over the Gauls (and especially the famous incident where the Gallic leader Vercingétorix surrendered his weapons at the feet of the conqueror) has been retold and depicted in France. While the propagandists of the Napoleonic empire might have looked back to Julius Caesar as a model of military prestige and power, nineteenth-century children’s histories subverted Caesar’s own narrative of the Gallic campaigns to turn Vercingétorix into a national hero. In the twentieth century new generations of young French picked up the same message, this time from the series of cartoon books by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, which starred the plucky Gallic freedom fighter Astérix and his battles with the battalions of ponderous Romans. On the first page of the first book in the series, Vercingétorix is pictured throwing down his heavy weapons—onto Caesar’s toes.

In one of the most rewarding sections of Caesar, Wyke faces head-on the questions of political motivation that have always surrounded accounts of both Caesar’s rise to autocratic power in Rome and his assassination. In his own story of the civil wars, Caesar claims that he marched on Rome and so provoked war against his rival Pompey “to assert the libertas of himself and the Roman people, who had been oppressed by a small faction.” When he was assassinated, the slogan of his assassins was likewise libertas, and it became one of the catchwords they blazoned on the coins minted after his death. Though it is usually translated as “liberty” or “freedom,” “democracy” probably captures its sense best.

To take the most generous interpretation of the motives of each side (rather than the simple naked clash of self- interest that some historians have seen), conflicting views of what counted as democratic government were at stake here. For Caesar, the so-called democratic institutions of the Roman state acted against the interests of the people as a whole and were merely a cover, to disguise or legitimate the power that was in fact monopolized by the traditional elite. For the assassins, Caesar’s dictatorship, his government by decree, and his attempt to control the city’s elections were simply incompatible with the traditions of republican democracy and libertas of the state.

As Wyke elegantly shows, these dilemmas have been rehearsed by autocrats, revolutionaries, political commentators, and libertarians ever since. Napoleon spent some of the long hours on St. Helena writing an analysis of Caesar’s campaigns—ending with the claim that it had been Caesar who guaranteed popular freedoms, while Brutus had been the enemy of democracy. Only a few decades later, Napoleon’s nephew, Louis Napoleon, bolstered his own claim to imperial power by emphasizing the Caesarian model of his uncle. It was a point not lost on the British magazine Punch, which published a cartoon of the emperor sitting next to a statue of Caesar. The caption read, echoing the motto of Cesare Borgia, Nullus aut Caesar (“Caesar or nobody”).

The implication was that, despite all his pretensions, Louis Napoleon (just like Cesare Borgia before him) would in the end be rated as a “nobody” compared with Julius Caesar. Politicians on the other side, of course, have taken predictably different views. Wyke here documents a lively tradition of would-be Brutuses, including such unlikely allies as the nineteenth-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, the Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and recent opponents of George W. Bush.

Wyke has gathered together a splendid array of Caesarian traditions, reminiscences, and arguments in Western culture, high and low. She is one of the leaders of the recent turn toward the study of the later “reception” of the classics, which now forms a significant and popular element in many university classics courses in the US and the UK. Her 1997 book, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History, is a central text in many of these courses. The material assembled in Caesar: A Life in Western Culture will warm the hearts of many students of the ancient world, with its repeated demonstration that Caesar’s career has made such an impact in so many different media over the last two millennia.

At the same time, for all its virtues, the book may reveal some of the weaknesses of this modern enthusiasm for “reception.” Wyke is an enterprising sleuth who is not only at home with Dante, Mantegna, and Shakespeare, but has unearthed some intriguing examples in the lesser-known byways of Western literature and art. But in the end does all this tell us much more than that the generals and dictators of all political colors in Western history have usually been more attracted to Julius Caesar than the anti-establishment anarchists?

Reading through the book, one gets a sense of diminishing returns—leading up to the last few pages, which consist in a solemn discussion of (to put it politely) an eccentric Web site which argues that the life of Jesus is based on that of Julius Caesar: “Both Caesar and Jesus start their rising careers in neighboring states to the north. Both have to cross a fateful river…. Both have encounters at night.” By the time I had plowed through this, I was feeling nostalgic for those old discussions about Caesar’s Nile cruise and the details of his timetable in the spring of 47.

This Issue

December 18, 2008