“The Republic is nothing, a mere name without form or substance,” Julius Caesar allegedly stated.  The sentiment, certainly, was validated by the end of Caesar’s life, which marked the transition from an imperial republic to an empire eclipsing republican institutions.  So bloody and tumultuous was this period, it is unsurprising that estimations of Caesar vary.

While Shakespeare portrayed Caesar as pompously benign, George Washington and his contemporaries, inspired by Joseph Addison’s play Cato: A Tragedy, considered Caesar a tyrant, a view that would have been shared by Caesar’s aristocratic peers.  Among scholars, assessments also diverge.  The 19th-century German classicist Theodor Mommsen regarded Caesar as a gifted statesman and liberal reformer of a corrupt aristocracy; Oxford don Sir Ronald Syme deemed him not a reformer with purpose but a shrewd competitor vying for power among elite factions.  To this day, other interpretations abound.

The most recent addition is Caesar: Life of a Colossus, by the British military historian Adrian Goldsworthy, author of The Roman Army at War.  Goldsworthy weaves together information from various ancient sources into a well-written and lively biography, the aim of which is “to examine Caesar’s life on its own terms, and to place it firmly within the context of Roman society in the first century bc.”  While modern histories often appraise the works of other academics and debate historical methods, Goldsworthy relegates such discussion to a mere 35 pages of endnotes and bibliography.  Surprisingly, the book lacks an in-depth discussion of Sir Ronald Syme or Christian Meier, whose works provide substantial counterarguments to Goldsworthy’s own view of Caesar.  Writing a popular history and presenting a broad overview of Caesar’s life, he maintains Caesar was “a fugitive, prisoner, rising politician, army leader, legal advocate, rebel, dictator—perhaps even a god—as well as a husband, father, lover and adulterer.”

In many ways, young Caesar was no different from his aristocratic peers.  Dismissing the importance of partisan machinations stressed by earlier historians, Goldsworthy highlights that competing in the arena of Roman politics was not just a “question of winning popular acclaim, but of winning more than anyone else.”  Although Caesar may have championed the causes of the populares, it was for personal gain.  To that end, Caesar took great risks (e.g., taking on massive loans to promote himself).

Applying his knowledge of Roman military history, Goldsworthy provides a chronicle of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul (58-50 b.c.).  Some scholars have questioned the veracity of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War (on which Goldsworthy relies heavily), but the author counters that they were written to influence public opinion, and that Caesar could not have risked blatant invention, which his readers would have spotted.  Although Caesar might have been prone to exaggeration (in regard to casualties, sizes of armies, or the differences between Gauls and Germans, for example), the Commentaries provide a factual narrative that would have entertained Caesar’s audience, especially those with ties to the ordinary soldiers of the legions. (The senatorial and equestrian officers play only a minor role in these pages.)

While modern readers envision legions of Italian soldiers, Goldsworthy reveals the changing demographics of the Roman army.  Under Gaius Marius, Caesar’s uncle, the ranks had already been opened to non-Italians, and Caesar continued to apply this liberal recruitment policy to admit many auxilia: foreign warriors such as Cretan and Numidian archers, Galatian and German soldiers, Gallic cavalry and staff, slingers from the Balearic Islands, and Spanish cavalry.  Caesar also raised new legions of Gauls, including the Fifth Alaudae.  Although most of the soldiers lacked citizenship, Caesar treated them as if they were citizens, and within a century of his death descendants of these soldiers took their place in Rome’s senate.

The Roman civil war was fought, Goldsworthy argues, not “over great issues or between conflicting ideologies, but was about personal position and dignitas—most of all that of Caesar.”  Caesar believed he had contributed greatly to the welfare of the republic, and that the senate was attempting prematurely to curtail his command.  On the other hand, men from established families “were raised to believe that they deserved to guide the Republic, but Caesar’s eminence robbed them of much of this role.”  Most aristocrats joined the side of Pompey, while men whom Cicero and others saw “as people who had squandered their own inheritance and now expected to govern the Republic” joined Caesar.  The war was not inevitable—there were many attempts at compromise—but in the end no settlement was proposed that both Caesar and Pompey would accept.  Neither man was willing to back down.

After Caesar’s victory, he offered clemency to most of the surviving Pompeians (a practice Mark Antony and Octavian did not later imitate).  This clemency, Goldsworthy notes, was extended for a practical purpose: By demonstrating that he was no Sulla, Caesar hoped to increase his popularity.  But he acceded only so far to popular pleas.  Although there were many cries for the abolition of debt, for novae tabulae (new tablets), Caesar refused such drastic measures and sought compromise.  Still, throughout his life, Caesar championed numerous popular reforms—army reorganization, clemency, expanded citizenship, free grain, land resettlement—again, though, for reasons of personal consideration.  Caesar could also be ruthless when it suited his purposes, as his mass executions of rebel Gauls demonstrate.  He wanted power and respect, and he employed the necessary means to achieve them.

His assassins, although many had supported him in the civil war, thought it inappropriate for one man to wield so much power and preferred to pursue their careers in a republic from which their rival had been removed.  What Caesar intended for the long term—a monarchy or a modified republic—is uncertain.  Perhaps he really had no vision at all.


[Caesar: Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy (New Haven: Yale University Press) 608 pp., $18.00]