The smiling surface of the sea

CAESAR by Christian Meier, trs David McLintock, HarperCollins pounds 25

WHAT brought about the fall of the Roman Republic, the oligarchic system of government which preceded the scandalous excesses of the emperors? For the Greek historian Plutarch, born nearly a century after Julius Caesar's assassination, it was Caesar's long-standing determination to overthrow the res publica and replace it with a monarchy with himself at the head.

The orator Cicero, according to Plutarch, was one of the first to discern the breathtaking scope and destructive force of Caesar's ambition, fearing it "as one might fear the smiling surface of the sea". Yet even Cicero, who had the jealous regard of a novus homo - a recent entrant to the senatorial class - for the institutions of the Republic, was seduced by Caesar's charm and reassuring presence. "When I notice how carefully arranged his hair is," he said, "and when I watch him adjusting the parting with one finger, I cannot imagine that this man could conceive of such a wicked thing as to destroy the Roman constitution."

Plutarch's near-contemporary Suetonius argued that Caesar's seizure of power and acceptance of excessive honours "justify the conclusion that he deserved assassination". With differing degrees of emphasis, both writers reflect the view, widely held in the ancient world, that Caesar's political and military career had a single aim, which was to attain absolute power for himself.

Caesar's latest biographer, Christian Meier, accepts that the question facing Roman society in the middle of the first century BC was "Caesar or the Republic?" The survival of one, in other words, depended on the destruction of the other. But Meier, who is professor of Ancient History at the University of Munich, argues persuasively against the notion that this stark choice is evidence of Caesar's monarchical intentions, either at the outset of his career or at the end when he was de facto sole ruler of the Roman empire.

This is not in itself new, and Caesar's decision to begin a military campaign in 44BC against the Parthians, far away on the eastern border of the empire, suggests that he himself was unsure how to consolidate his peculiar position in Rome; if he seriously intended to found a dynasty, it seems strange that he prepared to set out for the East without first securing the succession. Six months before his death he drew up a will, making his sickly and completely untried grand-nephew, 18-year-old Gaius Octavius, his heir and leaving him his fortune. "It is hard to avoid the conclusion," Meier writes, "that if Caesar had wished to set up a monarchy he went about it very ineptly."

But his book is not simply about this question. Presenting itself as "scholarly biography", it is really a subtle and complex inquiry into the nature of politics and power in the late Republic.

One of the tasks it immediately sets about is demolishing the idea that Rome in the 60s and 50s was ripe for revolution and Caesar a leading popularis, or champion of the people. This, according to Meier, represents a failure to understand the unusual extent to which Roman citizens in the first century BC identified themselves with the political order. "To put it in extreme terms: they did not have constitutions - they were constitutions," he writes.

So close was this identification that sustained opposition was either unthinkable or perceived (as Caesar eventually came to be) as a threat to the Republic itself rather than just the ruling class: "The opposite of res publica was not monarchy, but nulla res publica ("no republic") or res republica amissa ("lost republic"), that is to say, disorder." These are difficult but not arcane concepts which throw new light on the shifting alliances between gifted individuals like Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), Crassus, Cicero and Caesar, which are hard to explain in conventional party terms.

According to this analysis, the Republic fell not because of Caesar but because of a mutual failure of understanding. By temperament an outsider, with scant respect for the senatorial class which governed Rome, Caesar did not understand that his assaults on his personal enemies would weaken the Republic itself precisely because there was no coherent alternative. Equally, the oligarchy failed to recognise that in allowing marauders like Caesar and Pompey to extend the boundaries of empire and seize booty in their name, they were also permitting them to build up a significant power base - the legions - whose loyalty rested with their commanders rather than the state.

Meier argues that Caesar's insensitivity to political institutions enabled him to enfeeble them but left him exhausted and with little idea what to do next. He builds up a convincing portrait of a man with a restless need for achievement but no master plan: "He had climbed ever higher and defeated everyone. Where was it to stop?" Meanwhile the Senate, which had tried to buy him off with commands and triumphs, could no longer control the monster it had created.

Meier is as fond of paradox as any Roman author and writes a Latinised prose whose formal elegance is evident even in translation. His Caesar goes well beyond the confines of biography to present a radical analysis of a political system in decline, and the opportunities it afforded one of the most brilliant and unscrupulous individuals of all time. While Suetonius' harsh judgement that Caesar deserved his assassination may well be correct, it is impossible to remain unmoved by Meier's evocation of his final moments on the Ides of March in 44BC: "At last, severely wounded, he drew his toga over his head. No one should see him as he lay bleeding, powerless, dying."

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