Friday, July 8, 2011

Caesar: Life of a Colossus - Part 2

Legendary Commander

Once Caesar becomes consul and leaves to govern over Gaul (modern France), the book really kicks into high gear and doesn't relent in awesomeness until the final page. That is not to say that the first third is bad by comparison, just that it is difficult to read if you don't have a basic understanding of ancient Roman politics. Anyways, the other two-thirds of the biography focus on Caesar's famous campaigns in Gaul, his execution of the Civil War against Pompey, Cato, and Scipio, and then, finally, his brief reign as head of Rome before his assassination at the hands of Brutus and Cassius.

Wars in Gaul

Caesar's campaigns in Gaul were the stuff of legend. Through sheer grit and determination, Caesar managed to wrest control over the entire region from enormous barbarian armies and into Rome's sphere of influence. It was not uncommon for Caesar to face armies that outnumbered his own ten times over. It was also not uncommon for supposed allies of Rome to support these enemy armies due to resentment of Roman power. People in the region feared Rome's expansion and, while they would play meekly when Caesar and his legions were around, many would support anyone willing to take on Caesar and hopefully kick him out of Rome.

But none succeeded. Only the famed chieftain, Vercingetorix, came even close. The fact is that Caesar was a masterful commander who had that perfect blend of love and respect from his men. He knew how to discipline them and he also knew how to make them work for his approval. By the end of the Gallic wars, these were soldiers who would follow their commander to Hades and back. Another contributor of Caesar's epic victories was his careful working of enemies against each other. Though most of them resented Rome's presence, most tribes were more than eager to jump on old foes with Roman help, even if they might have been better served by allying together against the threat of Caesar.

The Civil War

But what was, perhaps, even more amazing was Caesar's war against those who represented the old Roman Republic, led by Pompey the Great. This war ended with Caesar having fought his enemy in every continent known at the time, with battles in Italy, Greece, Egypt, modern Tunisia, and Spain. Goldsworthy depicts one battle after another at a breakneck pace, making the pages fly while simultaneously managing to make each conflict clearly understandable. At the same time, we are given points of view of every major player: of Mark Antony, monitoring the city of Rome while Caesar is away; of Pompey, whose army dances just out of reach of Caesar's in an effort to deprive it of supplies and morale...

And, of course, we are given the grand focus on Caesar himself who somehow managed to write entire books about his campaigns while controlling an army of tens of thousands and fighting all over the damn world. At one stage, he even managed to find the time to write a book on the obscure subject of Latin grammar. This restless energy came to define him and is part of what makes Caesar such a fascinating figure. When the wars died down and Caesar was finally able to return to Rome, he put that energy to use in creating policies that would restore Rome to its former grandeur while simultaneously giving power back to the people. But, sadly, it was this very noble objective that put Caesar in the target sights of Rome's most prominent senators.


It is important to note that, while this biography definitely comes down on the side of making Caesar sounds like a benevolent, genius, powerful badass, it is also fair in how Caesar is represented. Goldsworthy doesn't shy away from pointing out the times where Caesar allowed massacres to happen, crucified people to make examples out of them, and made no effort to truly restore power to the senate after taking control of Rome (it was this, in addition to the pro-poor policies, that brought on Caesar's assassination). This gives us a balanced view of the man that indicates that, while this was a man loved by his soldiers and the people of Rome, he also would be considered amoral by our standards and extraordinarily opportunistic.

In the end, I loved this biography in every part. I had enough knowledge of Roman politics to understand and enjoy the first third, and I had more than enough interest in ancient military warfare and examples of leadership to sail through the rest. In short, this was a biography fully designed to appeal to my own personal interests, and thus is near the top of my favorite biographies of all time.

However, I fully recognize that anyone without an interest in the diplomacy and warfare of ancient times wouldn't care for this book in the slightest. For those people, I would not recommend it. But if your lack of knowledge on Roman politics is the only hurdle, then I would recommend this book regardless. Goldsworthy does a fair job of describing how the Roman state worked and this is effectively supported by a very helpful glossary. And, if that first third proves too difficult to understand easily, then I would actually suggest skipping it to get to Caesar's campaigns. It is through these that we really get a measure of the man as well as a more exciting and better paced tale.


  1. I really enjoyed this review! The truth is, I don't know much about ancient Rome, and I liked learning more about it. Plus, you have an excellent way of writing, and I don't believe I've mentioned it in awhile.

  2. Hail, Inquisitive Loon! ;-)

  3. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.