Nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize, there is a lot to dissuade the serious reader of Roman history in Michael Parenti's "The Assassination of Julius Caesar". A radical commentator on contemporary society and historical memory, Parenti applies a "Marxian-lite" analysis of the late Republic. In hearing a talk he once gave, one comment he made stands out; "One of the great pleasures of learning history is not the learning it but the unlearning of preconceived notions". To that end he has an axe to grind with historians of the era and, in the first chapter, he names names and takes few prisoners. The effect of all this is to put the reader off a bit. I was taken aback as Parenti railed against the "gentlemen historians" and the class based prism that they have used to interpret the assassination of Caesar.
The question Parenti sets out to answer is not who killed Caesar, that is well established, but why. His answer is that the conspirators were representative of the most reactionary elements of a conservative Senate and the wealthy class interests they defended. To Parenti the domestic policies of the late republic were the politics of class warfare. Landed interests expropriated land from citizen-soldiers away on war, voted themselves subsidies and lowered their own tax burden. Lower class citizens were denied a majority of the wealth flowing into the Republic (the result of new conquests) and deprived of their small farms with little but the tribunes to protect their interests.
Attempts by reformers such as the Gracchi were seen as a usurping of the republic's institutions, most importantly the Senate. To Parenti the senatorial exhortations to uphold the "rule of law" were natural; the Senate passed the laws, the laws benefited their class. The elimination of the threat of reformers became a quest for many of the ruling class and these self-styled "optimates" resorted to inciting the populace and "death squads" to eliminate those seen as radicals.
The book reserves a special chapter for Cicero, and it isn't pretty. An excerpt reveals the extent of Parenti's view of the Roman Senator; "A self-enriching slaveholder, slumlord and senator Cicero deplored even the palest move towards democracy". A hypocrite when it was warranted, Cicero was a staunch opponent of the Roman "masses" and of Caesar. The author paints Cicero as rejecting reforms such as the moderate package put forth by Caesar as consul, engaging in a never-ending quest to promote and protect the privileges of the ruling class. Parenti even casts doubt on the validity of the Catilinarian conspiracy, questioning the sparse evidence given as proof. Years later Cicero's words and deeds were to come back to haunt him when hunted down by the triumvirate he was assassinated.
Enter Gaius Julius Caesar a member of a noble Roman family and the greatest Roman popularis. To Parenti, Caesar is ambitious but not to the degree historians have made him to be. As a young man he rejects Sulla's offer to pledge himself to the reactionary cause putting his own life in danger. After Sulla's death in 78 BCE Caesar returns to Rome and continues his rise through the Republic's institutions. As consul he introduced land reforms to ease the burden for the lower classes gaining support among them but seriously and permanently alienating members of the ruling elite. The result was that when Caesar finally made his bid for power that resulted in his dictatorship for life he had acquired a strong faction of dissenters who looked to his overthrow.
Parenti paints a picture of an ambitious Caesar with a program that included debt reduction, land reform for the poor, granting of citizenship to allied peoples and a conciliatory attitude to those who opposed him. Rather than an ambitious politico who wanted a crown, Caesar as dictator, in the author's view, was implementing reforms that would make the Republic more representative of the populace. His conciliatory attitude did little to dissuade his enemies' hatred of him and the outcome of the assassination comes as a reactionary response to the attacks on elite privilege rather than any defense of Republican virtues.
To Parenti the villains are both the ruling elites whose greed incited them to oppose then finally murder Caesar and the latter historians who have bought forward the idea of Caesar as a destroyer of the Roman constitution and the lower classes as dirty masses without the ability to know what was good for them. The dictum of not imposing contemporary values on historical situations means little to Parenti, and he states it freely as he recalls the suffering of slaves and the disenfranchised. He need not have done this, the fact that reformers such as the Gracchi, Drusus Flacus, Rufus Sartininius, Clotius and the institution of the tribune existed shows that there were contemporaries who understood the unfairness of the oligarchic Roman Republic.
In the end "The Assassination of Julius Caesar" is necessary read for anyone interested in the fall of the Republic. Readers may not agree with Parenti's sometimes radical notions nor his attacks on historians- both ancient and modern- of that age, but this is a book that will stimulate. For its radical but intelligently argued positions and unabashed willingness to name names it is a great, intellectually stimulating work.
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