This is one of the best biographies I have ever read, from the first Roman period that offered the richest assortment of literary sources and archeological evidence. It covers all of the things that Caesar did, from his political career to his military exploits. Every single page is fresh and engaging, never bogged down in academic trivia or obscure scholarly disputes, but always sticking to the essence of what we can know and indicating what we can't due to lack of evidence. It is dense and utterly fascinating, bringing to life a time but also an exceptional career and life.
First, we get the context of the republic, which is in decline due to the unwieldliness of its procedures and the fatuous intrigues of its Senators and aristocracy; the issues (of empire) it is facing are also increasingly diverse and complex, requiring a steadier hand from an executive. Due to the amount of access points that could be used to block actions, from the auguries of Caesar's mortal enemy Bibilus that were judged "bad" and hence should block all political activity to vetos from Tribunes. The intricacies are all explained with clarity as well as in vivid stories of various incidents. In particular, it became clear to me how important individuals were, rather than parties: alliances were ephemeral, a function of each person's pursuit of personal glory rather than a reflection of any coherent ideology.
Second, there is the particular Roman politico-cultural context. After a series of increasingly brutal civil wars, the ruling class had been decimated, denuded of both high quality politicians and, perhaps worse, the accepted traditions that used to limit their exercise of power (checks and balances via ostracism, but there is much more). In addition, there was the traditional importance of family honor, which went back several generations. While it was a constraint on behavior, it also created an obligation to live up to past glories and offices, both increasing responsibility but also nakedly ruthless ambition. The republic was akin to a religion, to avoid too much control by a king, which was associated with autocratic repression. It is similar to American respect for democracy and alternation of power via parties.
Third, we get to know the unique personality that was Caius Julius Caesar, an aristocrat from a long-declining family that lacked honor (in highest office) for nearly a century. From an early age, he was precocious in astonishing ways. For example, he was captured by pirates while barely older than a student adolescent, but he laughingly partied with them while telling them he would return to crucify them and sell their families into slavery. Once ransomed, he did - at enormous profit from slave and booty revenues.
Nonetheless, as a tribute to Goldsworthy's art as biographer, we see Caesar as only one of the typical kind of brilliant aristocrat of his time, just another ambitious youth willing to risk his life to advance. Throughout his entire career, he was one step ahead of utterly ruinous catastrophe. Yet though his innermost thoughts and drives remain a complete mystery, he was always thinking ahead, to the long-term prospects of his pursuit of glory and power. It is as intimate a portrait as possible, subtle, and just this perspective is worth the price of admission.
Fourth, Goldsworthy follows the trajectory of Caesar's career. As a struggling politician to the age of 40, with occasional military missions, he built a client base by providing services and cultivating an image as a "popularis", i.e. champion of the working class. In this time, we see his friendships with Pompey, Cicero, and many others, in addition to his implacable enemies, such as Cato (a rigid fool, if you ask me) and Bibilus. He also gained an impressive array of lovers, including Sevilia, the mother of Brutus, which was also a political act.
Caesar was a poltical genius, rarely making mistakes and always planning his next accomplishment, which always advanced his prospects. Though born relatively poor, he became immensely rich, risking everything with his debts - incurred to entertain the masses, then finding military opportunity to exploit in Spain. To run for highest office, he also gave up a triumph, one of the greatest honors possible, which has been denied through administrative procedure by his enemies.
Fifth, Caesar's military genius is microscopically examined, which is utterly fascinating and a good half of the book. You get his strategy and tactics, but most interestingly his leadership style. In this respect, Pompey, his great competitor, comes off as an unimaginative master of mass confrontation (overwhelming adversaries by superior force and organization), whereas Caesar is a creative underdog, often badly outnumbered, seeking advantage in terrain, tactics, and by understanding the assumptions behind his adversaries behavior; there are so many leadership lessons that I cannot do them justice here.
Regarding his leadership, Caesar cultivated good subordinates that could never equal his fundamental creativity; this required him to make most of the big decsions, of which they were consistently incapable. In this regard, you witness Cicero's brother, Marc Anthony, Labienus, etc. He also respected his adversaries to recognize their own self-interest, which explains his clemency and lack of cruelty, but also his ability to entice enemies to give up without fighting to the death as they expected mercy. Again, very subtle stuff, which nonetheless led to his assassination.
Sixth, with the civil war, the reader learns of Caesar's immense egotism. To preserve his dignitas, which his senatorial adveraries threatened via trivial lawsuits in my view, he was prepared to plunge the empire into civil war, resulting in untold thousands of deaths: rather than humiliation, exile and the end of his career, he used military force to smash his adversaries.
Seventh, once all his adversaries were subject to his rule, we see his governance, all the while campaigning in such disparate locations as SPain and Egypt. Here, Caesar may have been a reformer of genius, riding rough shod over problems that had festered for decades under the immobile republic. While Goldsworthy continually reminds us of how little we can actually know, he gives a balanced view of what we know Caesar to have stood for. Once again, we feel awe at the depth of his genius, in particular surpassing Alexander the Great in this domain.
Eighth, we get a glimpse of his literary genius. While traveling, he would dictate correspondence and his book-length commentaries to three full-time secretaries. In the process, he created both a new level in the art of political propaganda and refined the accepted style of written Latin, challenging Cicero as the premier writer of his time. Again, unbelievable accomplishment.
Finally, as Caesar had flouted so many conventions and mortally offended so many, we see his assassination. Interestingly, throughout the entire book, the author always demonstrates that Caesar could have lost everything with a single misstep, most obviously in the military domain. In the last instance, he took one risk too many, in trusting those he pardoned.
I was astonished to see how much more of a gambler he was than I had imagined, after reading more than a dozen histories of Rome. This in my view is the true art of biography: you feel you are seeing the life as people did at the time, even if you know what happened in the end.
This is absolutely brilliant popular history. I will have to read more by this gifted author, one of the best I have ever read on the Classical era. Recommended with the greatest enthusiasm.
With Adrian Goldsworthy you know you're in competent academic hands (unlike Bettany Hughes or Tom Holland) and so can rely on his reading of the sources and the scholarship on Caesar. But this isn't by any means a dry, academic tome - Goldsworthy writes well for a lay audience and wears his (intense) learning very lightly. His admiration for Caesar shines through (something which, perhaps, he has to dampen a little in his academic work?) but this is never hero-worshipping for all that.
He sets Caesar in his time but never allows the political background to overshadow the man. Being Goldsworthy, there is a lot of emphasis on Caesar the general in both Gaul and the civil wars, but he doesn't allow military tactics to take centre stage, and stays with the mind of the man.
I enjoyed this book hugely, but my only tiny criticism is that it's a safe read - if you know anything about Caesar, then there won't be any surprises here: all the sources are reviewed, all the incidents dramatised well. This isn't, of course, Goldsworthy's fault as, after all, Caesar has fascinated for millenia but I guess for me the Christian Meier biography of Caesar is still a personal favourite above this one for the way in which he stretches his reading of Caesar.
So, this is highly recommended, but read Meier too and compare their views.
on 13 June 2012
I think it's fair to say that most people have a rough idea of what Julius Caesar did, most people know he crossed the Rubicon, he fought in Gaul, he was assassinated on the Ides of March. What this book does is tells his story from the very start to the very end.
It's fascinating to read about his early life, his involvement with Sulla, his capture by Pirates. Admittedly the sources for his earliest years are not as good as for later but the author fully acknowledges this. The information is always presented as what it is - a source that may not be reliable, there are many points throughout the book when the author tells us of differing opinions about certain events from different sources and freely admits that there are things that we just don't know about Caesar and sadly never will.
The first third of the book covers Caesars rise to this first consulship and it's very interesting to read about how he went about his life. The fact that he was in massive debt for much of his early life was news to me and very interesting to read about. The relationship between him, Crassus and Pompey is shown evolving over time until they eventually formed the First Triumvirate. The First Triumvirate is perhaps a little more difficult to understand than the Second Triumvirate in that it was not a military alliance. The book does a great job of explaining what it was and how it worked for each of the members.
The second third deals primarily with Caesars war in Gaul and invasions of Britain. This part is definitely the most detailed as so much of the information came from Caesar himself in his commentaries. It goes through each year he spent there telling us about his movements, the political situation within Gaul and tells about every battle he fought. Some parts are more detailed and interesting than others such as the rebellion led by Vercingetorix.
In the final third the author takes us through the best known part of Caesars life, the civil war with Pompey and the aftermath of that, leading up to his assassination. It's very fast paced as there was so much happening in such a short time and the book really makes you feel that sense of urgency. Again a lot of the source material for these events came from Caesar himself but as with earlier in the book we are given many other viewpoints from different people.
This is one of the very best history books I have ever read. It has already inspired me to order more of the authors work. I was a little disappointed in that Octavian is not mentioned very often even towards the end, unfortunately his relationship with Caesar remains a bit of a mystery. The book does a great job of bringing these historical figures to life, Mark Anthony, Cleopatra, Pompey and especially Cicero as there are many extracts from his letters throughout the book.
A brilliant book and thoroughly recommended, the story tells us about the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic and tells, in such a brilliant way, the story of one of the most important men who ever lived.