- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

CAESAR: LIFE OF A COLOSSUS

By Adrian Goldsworthy

Yale University Press, $35, 608 pages

REVIEWED BY BLAKE D. DVORAK

In his massive biography of Julius Caesar, Adrian Goldsworthy presents the case that a man can indeed be great without being moral or even good. Such an argument might lead some to suspect that Mr. Goldsworthy is just the latest of many to have fallen for Caesar’s charms.

However, though Mr. Goldsworthy says from the beginning that Caesar “was not a Hitler or a Stalin, nor indeed a Genghis Khan,” the historianisn’t smitten with his subject. But he does admire him, which in light of the ongoing debates about Caesar’s legacy, is bound to rankle some.

“It is striking that while today’s academics are supposed to be trained to examine the past dispassionately,” writes Mr. Goldsworthy, “it is rare to meet an ancient historian who does not have a strong opinion about Caesar.” While this is no doubt true, I don’t find it particularly striking. There hasn’t been an age since Caesar’s in which historians haven’t had a strong opinion of the man.

Even contemporaries such as Cicero had to admit that Caesar, tyrant though he was, possessed exceptional, nearly hypnotic, gifts. Not to mention that he was a delight- ful dinner-party guest (so long as your wife wasn’t around).

To the post-Republic Romans, he was worshiped as a god, the progenitor of a line of divine emperors. In Christianized medieval Europe, Caesar became legend, a mythic colossus of a lost golden age. By the Renaissance and the rediscovery of knowledge, the man returned, suddenly humanized with all the charm, wit and ability, but without losing a touch of greatness. And so it went, until the great 19th-century German classicist Theodor Mommsen would say, “In all this Caesar is the whole and complete man.”

Mr. Goldsworthy doesn’t go that far. Caesar made plenty of mistakes and committed his fair share of atrocities. Of these and more, however, Mr. Goldsworthy is usually ready with a tolerable explanation, if not justification.

What explains this strange fascination with a man who lived 2,000 years ago? Indeed, historian Michael Hart, in his controversial book on the 100 most influential people in history, put Caesar at number 67, well below Augustus and Constantine.

Yet “hardly any other [historical] figure has left such an enduring impression on posterity,” wrote Christian Meier in his 1982 biography. Will Durant was slightly more accommodating in his eight-volume “Story of Civilization” by calling volume three “Caesar and Christ.”

For his part, Mr. Goldsworthy says that Caesar “remains one of a handful of figures from the ancient world whose name commands instant recognition.” I think here Mr. Goldsworthy is being far too generous to other ancient figures, with the possible exception of Alexander the Great.

Unfortunately, Mr. Goldsworthy doesn’t delve too deeply into the phenomenon of Caesar admiration (and condemnation). The aim, he writes, “is to examine Caesar’s life on its own terms, and to place it firmly within the context of Roman society.”

Nevertheless, it stands as a flaw, one that the author covers in his epilogue with a stale “each person will inevitably shape their own Caesar.” One wonders if “inevitably” each person will shape their own Pompey or Brutus or Mark Antony. Maybe, but only by studying Caesar.

So what you won’t get with this particular Caesar biography is much by way of historical context. Mr. Goldsworthy is very careful to separate what he calls “historical inevitability,” the unfair hindsight a historian can bring to his subject, from what might be called the fog of the present.

Caesar did not set out to destroy the Roman Republic. He did set out to be the Republic’s most respected and powerful man, much like every other Roman. Of course now we see what his ambition wrought, but this is the temptation Mr. Goldsworthy asks us to avoid when studying his life.

Where Mr. Goldsworthy’s book shines is in its account of Caesar’s military campaigns, especially in Gaul. Employing his own “fog of the present” approach, Mr. Goldsworthy notes that before Caesar left for Gaul at 41 (58 B.C.), his life had been fairly ordinary — for a Roman aristocrat, that is. But from that moment, “the remainder of his life was dominated by warfare to a degree that is difficult to exaggerate.” His subsequent success there surprised everyone, “even in a Rome so recently dazzled by Pompey’s achievements.”

As a military historian, Mr. Goldsworthy is on familiar ground here. In fact, it is one of the few places in the book where he allows himself to compare Caesar to anyone not of his age. Alexander and Hannibal; Napoleon and Wellington; Robert E. Lee and George S. Patton all make a brief appearance so as to allow the author to say that Caesar “was about to prove himself as one of the greatest commanders of all time.”

Gaul is also the beginning where true Caesar fascination takes hold. It is still astonishing to think that Caesar, almost always outnumbered and deep into uncharted lands, successfully brought what amounts to modern-day France to submission.

Even Alexander, who found himself in a similar situation, never achieved a victory on the scale of Caesar’s. In fact, where Alexander’s empire folded upon his death, it would be 400 years after Caesar’s death before the Germanic tribes, cut out of the benefits of Roman civilization, ever dared assail Roman territory. It was for this reason exclusively that Mr. Hart put Caesar on his list at all.

But, again, history is strange, and it is not because of Gaul that Caesar still dominates the modern mind. For that, we turn to the Rubicon and the series of events that would culminate in the Ides of March 44 B.C., or so Mr. Goldsworthy’s narrative suggests by ending on that day. We know very little ended other than Caesar’s life on the Ides. “His assassination was followed by renewed civil war between his partisans and assassins [which] would finally be ended when Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — later Augustus — became Rome’s first emperor” in 27 B.C.

The events that led to the civil war as well as the absurdity of public life following Caesar’s victory play out in all their tragic confusion. Other than quick asides, Mr. Goldsworthy tells it all from a distance, but the reference point is certainly Caesar’s. The reader is given a far uglier picture than a battle between democracy and tyranny, as it is sometimes portrayed.

There were no good alternatives. Even the ever-confident, ever-nimble Caesar, now with autocratic powers, seems to have developed no clear way out of the mess. Which is why it’s hard to avoid the feeling that despite all he had achieved, the assassins cut short a life unfulfilled. What more could he have achieved, we wonder.

These are the lures Caesar dangles, yet as Mr. Goldsworthy writes, “it is a mistake to see him as all that different from his opponents or most of the other prominent Romans of the first century B.C.” It should be said that the author succeeds in returning the man to his time and place and reminds us how it all could have been very different.

Once, when Caesar was still a young politician, he wagered all of his personal fortune, and with that his public career, on a single election. Before heading to the polls, he told his mother that he will come home victorious or he will not come home at all. Caesar came home and he’s been with us ever since.

Blake D. Dvorak is an editorial writer at The Washington Times.


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