Friday, July 8, 2011

Caesar: Life of a Colossus - Part 1

More than perhaps any other, Julius Caesar stands out in ancient history as one of the most well-known figures of the time. And, boy, it was a time for legends. The average person still remembers stories of Hannibal's elephants crossing the mountains into Italy. We still, today, talk of Alexander the Great's conquest of the known world, pushing himself to the limit and beyond in an effort to surpass the efforts of the gods. But it is debatable that even Alexander could match Julius Caesar's influence on history. Caesar brought Gaul under his heel, marched on Rome, successfully fought a bloody civil war across three continents, and replaced the Roman Republic with an empire that lasted over a thousand years. He revolutionized warfare, was one of the first benevolent rulers, and did what was unheard of up to this time: created policies that benefited the freedoms and plight of the average citizen instead of the wealthy. It was for this reason that he was assassinated; people in power just couldn't handle the concept of presenting laws and legislation that specifically helped the blue-collar members of society.

The Writing

Part of what made this biography so appealing was the skilful description of a time far beyond our memory. Though we do have a fair amount of source material of Caesar's life and his era, it is important to note that the sources of the ancient world were often incredibly biased, had little problem plagiarizing the crap out of each other, and were flexible on the facts. Despite this hurdle, Adrian Goldsworthy succeeds in giving us a narrative that is often genuinely exciting to read. It is very rare for a biography to bring you into the writing so well that you feel as if you are there; this is far more common in the tales of fiction. But Goldsworthy accomplishes this nonetheless. I felt as if I could see battles unwinding before my eyes. I could see Caesar dismounting from his horse, talking to his men, bonding with them, and preparing to face foes with numbers far outstripping his own.

Consul of Rome

The biography follows Caesar's life chronologically. This works out so that the first third of the book follows the political life at Rome, the peculiar and bloody squabbling of senators, and Caesar's slow rise to power as a Consul of Rome (one of two heads of executive power). I honestly must point out that this is the toughest portion of the book to follow, at times. Unless you have a preexisting base of knowledge about Roman politics, it can be difficult to make sense of some of the events as they occur. Thankfully, this hurdle is largely handled by the existence of a very helpful glossary at the back of the book.

Part of what makes it a bit tricky to follow was that ancient Roman political life was very bizarre compared to our own, and this biography makes that fact quite clear. It was not uncommon for senators to gather gangs and kill one another if there was a sufficiently intense reason for disagreement. In Rome, there was an omnipresent fear of one man gaining enough influence with the people to appoint himself monarch by force. This fear was so overpowering that it could make senators do things that would be really weird by our standards. For example, it was absurdly normal for important and helpful legislation to be blocked just because people feared that the person who had presented the laws would gain too much popularity. This caused senators to bar going to war to defend Roman territory, assigning missions to oppose pirates, and even allowing the census to be taken properly.

It was in this background of backstabbing and obstruction of sane policy-making that Caesar came to power. Given this backdrop, it makes sense that Caesar would consider the benefit of overthrowing said government later in life. For all of its nostalgic glamor, the Roman Republic of Caesar's time was rife with flaws and, at times, seeming to barely hold itself together.

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