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Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy

At least he cut their throats first

Julius Caesar was great, if not good, acknowledges Goldsworthy in this definitive and entertaining new biography. Our definition of what constitutes "good" nowadays being utterly different to that of the Romans anyway, and morality being rather more time-tied than we like to admit, arguments about any historical figure's goodness or badness tend to be fairly worthless. About Caesar's greatness, though, there can be no argument: charismatic, daring, brilliant, charming, a supreme political operator, a brilliant military tactician and improviser, a writer of admirable simplicity in an age of tiresome floridity. Oh, and if this counts as a sign of greatness too, a highly successful bedder of other men's wives.

His conquest of Gaul certainly resulted in the deaths of tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands, but brought along with it a 500-year Pax Romana with all its associated benefits of roads, bridges, baths, etc (see Monty Python's Life of Brian for further details). He was also famed for his mercifulness to his conquered enemies; responded to his own troops' rude songs about his bedroom antics with a cheerful and tolerant laugh; and you can't help warming to a man so upset about his receding hairline that he wore his laurel wreath on all possible occasions to hide it.

Caesar was born into the ancient but generally undistinguished clan of the Julii in 100BC. We know next to nothing about his early years, since the Roman writers, like Shakespeare, found children utterly uninteresting. His father expired while putting on his shoes one morning when the boy was 15, but his mother, the formidable Aurelia, lived on for decades, no doubt contributing enormously to the vast self-confidence of her son. He once dreamt that he had sex with her, but a soothsayer calmed his Oedipal anxieties by saying that this symbolised only that he would thus conquer his Mother Earth. Hmmm... More than a touch of the Italian mamma's boy in JC, it seems.

After his Roman education he went on to Greece to study philosophy and public speaking, honing his distinctively plain, curt style. As John Wayne recommended, "Speak low, speak slow, and don't speak too damn much." The Romans would have loved that. Manliness, y'see. Less manly was the time he spent at the perfumed court of Nicomedes in Bithynia. Rumours abounded that the eastern potentate and the handsome Roman youth got on rather too well, and Caesar had to put up with the nickname "the Queen of Bithynia" for some time after.

On his return voyage, there occurred that extraordinary and revealing incident with the pirates, which "in so many ways", as Goldsworthy says, "encapsulates the legend of Caesar". He was seized with his comrades off the island of Pharmacussa, his captors demanding a ransom of 20 talents of silver. Caesar laughed their demand to scorn, saying he was worth at least 50. He also scolded them for talking when he was trying to get to sleep at night, and called them "illiterate barbarians" when they were unimpressed by his poetry. They apparently admired the magnificent fearlessness of this haughty youth, and a certain Stockholm syndrome developed between them. However, Caesar also promised that after they released him, he would return and have them all crucified. Presumably they laughed at this too. Soon enough his comrades returned with the 50 talents, Caesar was released, sailed to Miletus, raised a force, returned... and had them all crucified.

While fulfilling his promise, as any good Roman should, he did take the trouble to have their throats cut first, before the slow agony of crucifixion killed them. It may not sound much, but by the standards of antiquity this showed real thoughtfulness. Proud Caesar generally, if not always, forgave his enemies. He certainly didn't suffer from low self-esteem; but neither did he harbour the petty vindictiveness that often goes with it. Catullus once wrote some cruel verses about him, but the moment he apologised, Caesar promptly invited him round to dinner. "We grow strong through pity and generosity," he observed: high-minded, or Machiavellian? Or both?

Until he was 42, Caesar was principally a politician in Rome, surviving through the failing political machinery of the old Republic, keeping his head, and spending lavishly to foster public adulation. By the time he set off to conquer Gaul, he was a staggering 31 million sesterces in debt, when a legionary earned 500 sesterces per annum. Gaul was going to have to win him both fortune and glory.

It did both. And he earned extra glory by "conquering" that mysterious, miserable, fog-bound island called Britain: a stunt much like the moon-landings in its risk, expense, outlandishness, capture of the public imagination, and utter inconsequence. Britain wasn't properly colonised until almost a century later, Caesar's invasion being, as Goldsworthy bluntly puts it, "a failure" which "narrowly missed becoming a disaster". Caesar wrote it up himself, of course, and with a rather different spin.

In his early fifties, he had his affair with 20-year old Cleopatra. You can hardly blame the poor girl, married as she was to her own 13-year old brother Ptolemy. She first smuggled herself into his presence not in a roll of carpet, as Hollywood has it, but in a laundry bag. And then at 55, his assassination. His last words to Brutus, as that noblest Roman drove the knife in, were a mild, "You too, my son?" The Roman people were grief-stricken by his death, but by the time it came, he was world-weary: "I have lived long enough for either nature or glory." He had certainly lived more than most of us ever will.

Goldsworthy is renowned as a military historian, but his coverage here of messy late Republican politics is also authoritative and crystal clear. He gives us a colourful sense of the wider world and Roman society at this time, and above all, the commanding, unmistakable presence of the timelessly fascinating man himself: a character of limitless energy and ambition, unscrupulousness and opportunism, combined with the saving graces of magnanimity, stoicism and humour.

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