CAESAR: THE LIFE OF A COLOSSUS
By Adrian Goldsworthy
Caius Julius Caesar was one of history’s great men, but the reason he bestrides history like a colossus may have less to do with the man than the historical moment. It was the moment that grew into a myth and archetype. The myth is that of the military commander who betrayed the Republic and became a dictator in a time of chaos of civil war. Napoleon was a different sort of character, but his contemporaries could accuse him of Caesarism because of the historical pattern – the myth – they could see being repeated. Not that it was a comparison Napoleon ever sought to avoid.
It’s not a historically revisionist myth, a later construction or spin on political events, since even at the time this was how a lot of people (in particular his enemies) saw Caesar: Someone whose ambition threatened the existence of Republican institutions, or at least the traditional system of aristocratic privilege (faith in which was not “so deeply entrenched amongst the rest of society” as his assassins supposed, a fact which would lead to further civil war). Caesar’s own view was slightly different. He was a child of revolution. The Roman Republic he was born into was already beginning to unravel under various strains, to the point where he would later declare that it was “nothing, merely a name without body or shape.” Sulla, an earlier dictator, had already shown the way. And, taking this one step further, hadn’t Sulla (at least so goes what may be another myth) suggested that “in this Caesar there are many Mariuses”? It’s not as though young Julius was without role models.
In large part this was because the means and the ends were not really matters of debate. The career path for any ambitious young Roman male of Caesar’s age and station was clearly marked out. In order to get political power you had to first prove yourself as a general. Military command, aside from dealing with the odd barbarian emergency, was the fastest way to acquire fame and booty, the two prerequisites to becoming a big man back in the capital.
Hence the adventures described in Caesar’s own Commentaries, a narrative whose primary purpose may have been as (political) campaign literature. It seems almost wholesome reading today, Caesar’s personal ambition so frank and uncluttered by ideology compared to modern tyrants. On the other hand, one is a little put off by the annihilation of tribes for no other reason than the propaganda value in their destruction. Why, for example, invade Britain at all? Adrian Goldsworthy, nothing if not fair and balanced in his judgments, cites “reasons that were essentially political and personal.” And how to judge its success? Again, there were just two criteria:
The landings were undoubted propaganda successes, even if the actual results were negligible and the risks taken very high. . . . Yet no one could doubt that Caesar was making the most of his opportunity to win glory and make himself fabulously rich in the process. Even if the profits of the British expedition were a little disappointing, the cumulative result of five years of successful campaigning had raised him from a debtor on the brink of ruin to one of the Republic’s wealthiest men.
Mission accomplished, even if Britain was to remain free of Roman rule for a while yet.
As a biography, Goldsworthy’s Caesar is even-handed but does not always play to its strengths. The author is primarily interested in military history, which does allow him plenty of room for maneuver. From the age of 41, when Caesar set out from Rome for Gaul, until the end of his life, there “were only two years in which he was not involved in major military operations” (and in those two years he was busy planning). The remainder of his life “was dominated by warfare to a degree that it is difficult to exaggerate.”
Unfortunately, there still isn’t a whole lot to draw on. The overwhelming majority of information on Caesar’s campaigns comes from his own Commentaries. “For the campaigns in Gaul in particular, there is scarcely any information in other sources that does not seem to have been derived from Caesar’s sources. If we have reason to doubt the truthfulness of the Commentaries then we have nothing with which to replace them.” And, as noted, these works were written “for a political purpose,” as “works of propaganda.” So what we are left with is a no doubt somewhat embroidered account of the basic events.
Which is fine, for the most part. And Goldsworthy knows enough of the general military background to fill in a lot of blank spaces. The actual battles, however, are not always clearly described, and the maps, a key ingredient in every military history, are sometimes unclear (the one illustrating the Battle of Ilerda is particularly confusing), and at other times unnecessary, especially when simply showing troop deployments without any movement (the maps of the Battles of Thapsus and Munda are typical in this regard). When, in the case of Thapsus, we learn that the deployment of Scipio’s army is conjectural anyway, one almost regrets that the effort was made.
We don’t know much of Caesar’s private life – which may be a blessing in disguise – and this book wisely avoids speculation. In any event, for a Roman of Caesar’s class one’s public image was what was important, and this is Goldsworthy’s primary focus. The background on Caesar’s world is fleshed out well, if again the emphasis is overwhelmingly on military and political campaigning. This makes it a valuable companion to Tom Holland’s Rubicon, a breezier recent history covering a lot of the same material but more gossipy, anecdotal, and concerned with individual personalities. There’s no arguing that Holland is a better read. Goldsworthy is long on facts and restrained on their interpretation. His style can also be clunky (the book’s final sentence should never have been allowed to get past an editor) and the narrative blocks don’t always weave together seamlessly. But he does provide a meaty, no-nonsense biography of Caesar that readers should find of some assistance in separating the man from the myths.
Review first published online August 28, 2006.