Julius Caesar has been making a comeback in the last decade. Michael Parenti’s The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar; Life of a Colossus are just two of the recent treatments of this larger than life figure, almost legendary in his own day, mythic in ours. Philip Freeman’s stated purpose was to parse out the myths from the facts and his Julius Caesar is a brilliant and compelling narrative which will help the general reader realize just how important Caesar was to the way western civilization evolved.
While the current trend in historical studies is to minimize the role of the “great men,” it is hard to ignore the fact that at times some people do change their world, for the better or worse, and without them, that change would not come. Caesar was one of those men. But Caesar knew, as Freeman points out, that his power was not cut from the whole cloth of his charisma. Caesar was dependent on the Roman lower classes for his political and military successes. Bertolt Brecht asks the question in his Questions from a Studious Worker, “Caesar conquered Gaul- Did he not even have a cook with him?” As Freeman shows, Caesar knew his cooks and his men. Growing up in a gritty working class neighborhood, Caesar saw better than his richer contemporaries the problems of the lower classes in late Republican Rome.
The inability of the Roman nobility and their “business leader” allies to deal with the social and political problems created by the rapid expansion of the state created an instability that was to prove as fatal to the Roman Republic as it did to Caesar himself. A century of civil war, of which Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon was but a small blip, left the state as little more than a resource to be exploited for the personal gain of the various contenders for power. The entrenched interests of the nobility left any notion of reform unacceptable and the increasing violence of the reaction left little room for compromise.
Freeman’s Caesar is neither a hero nor a villain, to use the author’s own definition of the extremes. But his treatment of his subject is sympathetic, and justifiably so. There is little doubt that Caesar’s motives were self serving, but that does not take away from the effect of what he tried to do. The land reform question, which claimed the lives of many reformers before Caesar, was not solved by the time of Caesar’s death, but one does have to ask the question of how Roman society would have evolved had he been successful. Much like how Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms were designed to ameliorate the worst problems of the working classes, Caesar’s land and debt reforms did not radically change the Roman system, but strengthened it. Caesar was a product of that Roman political system, a system in which he was just the most successful manifestation of what competence and charisma could accomplish. To destroy the system would have been to destroy his own place in his society.
Freeman’s Julius Caesar is a good read and well worth the effort of the general and specialized reader. I highly recommend it.