Yesterday: Coriolanus Tomorrow: Annals of Imperial Rome
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As yesterday’s post covered the legend of Coriolanus and the three books in which it mainly appears, today’s will cover Julius Caesar, as a historical figure who is portrayed in Great Books and not simply as Shakespeare’s famous play. If Coriolanus earned his role as a villain by treating the plebeians like trash, Caesar earned the same reputation by catering to them too much. The lessons learned from a combination of the two are remarkable.
Caesar was born into a noble family but not a rich one, and he was a nephew of the dictator Marius. In the aftermath of the Social Wars of the 80s and 70s BC, Sulla mysteriously spared him his life, and Caesar entered Roman politics as a lawyer. Successful alliances with Pompey the Great and Crassus (one of the wealthiest men in history)–which bordered on collusion–brought him to the height of power. The ties with Pompey were cemented by the marriage of Caesar’s daughter Julia to Pompey, but she died in childbirth and those ties were then broken. He led a campaign into Gaul (France) as general, conquering and subjugating the whole of it, then (briefly) crossing over into Britain, becoming the first Roman to do so. He crossed the Rhine into Germany, subdued the more fickle of the Germanic tribes, then crossed back to Gaul and destroyed the bridge so that the Germans couldn’t cross it.
Caesar was not involved in the Catilinian conspiracy, but he was suspected for a time and the arrival of a letter addressed to him in the Senate as debate proceeded about how to proceed in subduing the conspiracy marked him out as slightly suspicious. When the great statesman Cato demanded that Caesar reveal the contents of the letter, the ever-ready Caesar handed it over to him, which, upon reading it, Cato handed back to him, saying “Take it, drunkard.” It was a love-letter from Cato’s sister Servilia, who’d been having an extramarital affair with Mr. Caesar. The ultimate fuck you.
With increasingly populist political maneuvers he ensured support among the masses, then crossed the Rubicon into Northern Italy marched on Rome. The Senate fled and Pompey crossed with his army into Greece, awaiting a battle with Caesar to determine the fate of Rome. Caesar’s forces defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalia, he was named dictator for life, and Pompey’s head was handed to him at the command of the Egyptian monarch, who was hoping to thereby secure Caesar’s confidence and friendship. The emblem of freedom, Cato, committed suicide. Caesar thus destroyed the Republic and the men who would protect it, forever altering the fabric of the Roman constitution. But within a few years Caesar himself was assassinated, conspirators stabbing him on the floor of the Roman Senate. Without leadership but without the capacity for self-rule, Rome then found itself in the throes of an interregnum, awaiting the general whose power would subdue it as three factions competed for control.
Caesar’s life is told in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, Plutarch devotes a life to him in Parallel Lives, and his legend is such that his name holds meaning even to the present. But how much do we really learn about him in school? How many people know of his campaigns in Gaul and Britain, of his authorship of two marvelous classical histories (The Gallic War and The Civil War), and of his extraordinarily liberal social policy, which he used not to assist the masses in any substantial form but instead to bring them under his control? How many people recognize Caesar as a tyrant rather than a celebrity? How many people are aware of his legendary exploits with (mostly fat) women and his dictum that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion”?
If the answer is very few, that should serve as a wake-up call.