Thursday, 15 March 2012

Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

The end of the Roman Republic is one of my little obsessions.  I blame Rubicon by Tom Holland for so effectively bringing to life such characters as Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cato, Cicero.  Giants all, but the biggest and most fascinating is Julius Caesar.  The perfect product of the Republican system, and the man who destroyed it.

An early anecdote to highlight his coolness - in his teens Caesar was taken hostage by pirates.  He became firm friends with them, urging them to raise the ransom and promising to come back and kill them all when he was released.  My, how they laughed....

He rose to power in a pretty standard fashion - by borrowing and spending money wildly, although Caesar was wilder than any other.  Politics in the Roman Republic was a high risk game.  Everyone was out for himself, and there were no political parties, so the whole thing operated as a network of patrons and clients.  Favours owed and called in at the right time.  Caesar gained a reputation as a good friend to have, and became peacemaker between the two big rivals: Pompey, Rome's greatest general and Crassus, Rome's richest man.

And when he wasn't making friends with the most powerful men in the Senate, Caesar was in bed with their wives and sisters.  It almost seems like a compulsion for him.  And if we know about it more than two thousand years later, you can bet they knew back then as well.   Somehow when he did end up stabbed to death, it wasn't over a woman.

So Caesar was at the centre of everything, but there was a problem.  War and politics weren't seperate worlds at Rome.  The only way to pay back your debts (apart from attempting a coup, like the notorious Cataline) was to be named a governor and, ideally, win a war.  He went to Gaul, took advantage of some tribal tension and ended up ruling the whole of modern day France in just a few years.  The people back in Rome loved him - and many of the other senators grew to hate and fear him.

I'm still a little puzzled by exactly how the Civil War started.  The senators, led by his former son in law Pompey and pious "voice of old Rome" Cato wanted to stop him running for consul, or having a triumph through the streets, or both.  But Caesar had a battle hardened army who fought for him, not for Rome. So he crossed that Rubicon and the die was cast.

What really struck me about the Civil War was how Caesar used generosity as a weapon.  He was amazingly merciful to those who'd taken up arms against him and could credibly paint himself once again as the peacemaker.  He cursed his bitter rival Cato for taking his own life before Caesar could forgive him.

He ruled as dictator (but not a tyrant) for just a few years, and most of the work he started was unfinished.  He did invent the leap year though, so kudos for that.  But he wasn't careful enough to avoid being seen as the man who would be king.  Romans didn't like kings, and his successor Augustus was much smarter in the way he handled it.  He kept the apparatus of republicanism, but in reality turned it into a monarchy.   Meanwhile Julius Caesar was made a god.

I admit this book was sometimes a bit of a slog to get through - Roman names and positions are very complicated, and I drifted in and out of many of the military campaigns - but it was well worth finishing.  Not just for getting a clearer picture of this awesome man, but for the other players and the world they lived in.  Expect more Roman stuff pretty soon - I can't get enough of it.

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