Gaius Julius Caesar

Two views of a bust of Caesar in the British Museum

(on the right, the frontpiece of James Anthony Froude's remarkable 1879 book, Caesar: A Sketch)

The great and terrible personage of Gaius Julius Caesar has piqued my interest since childhood. I was about ten years old when I first picked up his War Commentaries, and learned somehow the commonplace: to Caesar we look, for the model of perfect prose. This was significant, for I aspired to write.

It was a matter of many years before I pursued the matter much farther. I had read many of Shakespeare's plays, and his Tragedy of Julius Caesar had always been a favorite. It was easier to read, less guarded by anachronisms of language, than most of the other plays. Plutarch, it was said, was Shakespeare's primary source for this play, and it was Plutarch who beguiled me into an adventure which lasted for years. I borrowed a copy of the Lives and read the Life of Caesar. Then I read the Life of Alexander; for Caesar's biography is one of the Parallel Lives, in which Plutarch compared an illustrious Roman with a Greek.

I rapidly went beyond, to Plutarch's biographies of Mark Antony, of Cicero, of Brutus, and many others; and then on to Caesar's own War Commentaries, to Suetonius, Dio Cassius, Sallust, and the remarkable letters of Marcus Tullius Cicero. In Plutarch and in Cicero I found some of the very cornerstones of Western civilization, whose influence on our culture had loomed large by implication--that an edifice so grand would indeed have something special by way of foundation, was always certain--here at last the veil was lifted. The shades and shadows of men and women two thousands years past were almost miraculously woven into the fabric of life and literature.

At this time, I was 31 years old. It was 1980. Concurrently, I had embarked upon a consuming study of polyhedra, and the polar zonohedra. For several years I was in a fever of study and discovery.

Almost from the first, I began, quite unexpectedly, to feel a peculiar sympathy for Caesar. It was only too apparent that Caesar lived in an age of intense polarization of party politics. On the one hand, there was the gradual rise of the common man, and the popular party; no longer would Rome be driven and determined by an ancient oligarchy. Caesar's aunt Julia was married to a leader of the popular party, a self-made man, a soldier who had risen through the ranks to lead the Roman army: Marius.

Men like Marius were viciously opposed by the Optimates, the party of old wealth, the Senatorial party. When the Optimates gained the upper hand, leaders of the popular party were hunted down and killed (and, vice versa). Thus it was that Julius Caesar, while a youth, had to fly for his life, simply for being the nephew of Marius. Wealthy Romans interceded on his behalf with Sulla, the leader of the Optimates, and won young Caesar's pardon. Sulla is said to have remarked that they had best beware, for "there was many a Marius in that young man."

I was not alone in developing this sense of sympathy and admiration for Caesar. Yet, almost all the ancient writers, Plutarch among them, are biased against Caesar, and in favor of the Optimates; their bias takes most people unawares, I should think, for it is easy enough to latch on to the idea that Caesar brought down the Roman Republic, and was an enemy of democracy. Or, perhaps one feels something special for the Celts, and thus Caesar becomes little more than a butcher and the destroyer of native (Celtic) culture. To feel sympathy toward Caesar, and to admire his life and his works, is somewhat to buck the current and swim upstream. So many people seem to lump him in with Hitler and Stalin.

For my own part, if Plutarch and Cicero are cornerstones of Western civilization, well, how much more so is Caesar. It is important to blur one's vision and see the big picture first and foremost, when studying history. Blurring, then, I see the Romans as quite deliberately carrying the torch of Greek culture, nurturing the flame of Greek genius for the benefit of future generations. The Roman genius, of government and administration, would be made to serve the Greek genius, of ideas, of poetry and song and mathematics and sculpture and painting. For, the Greeks could not in and of themselves maintain an empire through the periods of time necessary to spread Greek culture into foreign lands. Athens had enjoyed a brief sway, and then had slowly decayed under the stresses of the Peloponnesian War. The empire of Alexander was created and destroyed within a few years.

The empire of the Romans was slow to rise and much much slower to fall. Yet it might not, really, have lasted long enough to perform the essential service to Western culture that it did in fact perform; the intense centrifugal forces, the appallingly bitter political infighting and the fraying of the social fabric, which would allow one warlord after another to lead Rome to her ruin--for so many reasons, Rome might not have survived intact for a fraction of the time it did; were it not for Julius Caesar.

Perhaps I am childlike in my appreciation for the heroic aspect of the man; that he bridged the Rhine, twice, and carried the Roman eagles into Britain, twice, seem wonderful things to me. Blurring my vision once more, it was really Julius Caesar, not his remarkable grand-nephew Augustus, who set the boundaries of the Empire, not too large, not too small. To be accounted one of the greatest orators in Rome, while Marcus Tullius Cicero was still breathing, was a feat in itself. To not only be one of the greatest generals in history, but one of the best writers, is passing strange; it is incredible.

It is interesting, too, how large his shadow, and the Roman shadow, looms through the many centuries since his murder, on March 15, 44 B.C. What is a Czar, but a Caesar? What is a Kaiser? A Caesar. Ever since the Western Empire collapsed, one ruler after another has struggled to assume Caesar's mantle, one nation after another has struggled to realize the Roman ideal. For a while it seemed the English actually had succeeded. Then it was Germany, reaching to obtain that political position and sway, which the genius and energy of its people seemed to warrant. The record of that effort, and the wreckage and devastation of two world wars, in the century past, the shocking magnitude of human misery and suffering, which the German lunges for supremacy engendered, remind me once again of what Julius Caesar achieved. Much of the Gallic Wars had to do with restraining and subduing the warlike Germanic peoples. One might almost say, that such restraint was prerequisite for the Graeco-Roman civilization to properly develop, disseminate, and flourish, for a few critical centuries.

Perhaps I will add more about Caesar, and Cleopatra, and Cicero and Antony, in the future. For now, I ask you only to suspend judgement, to never judge out of context, and to read at least some of the following books:

Shakespeare's Tragedy of Julius Caesar; Antony & Cleopatra.

Julius Caesar's War Commentaries, on both the Gallic War and the Civil War.

Plutarch's Life of Caesar, of Antony, of Brutus, of Cicero, of Marius, and others.

Suetonius's biographies of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and others.

The Letters to His Friends of Marcus Tullius Cicero. Also, the Philippics, Scipio's Dream, and much more.

James Anthony Froude: Caesar: A Sketch.

Theodore Mommsen: A History of Rome.

Mary Harrsch's Julius Caesar pages.

The Perseus Project site devoted to Julius Caesar.

Suzanne Cross's very informative Caesar pages.

Back To Russell Towle's home

Contact Me