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Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy

Book Review by Favonius Cornelius

Caius Julius Caesar. Probably every educated person in the world is familiar with the name, for the man's life played a large role in shaping the western world as we know it. Few people in history can claim such an importance. Dissecting the aspects and times of this man has been an academic pursuit since right after his death to the modern day, so it takes a sharp mind and an expansive grasp of the history of the Romans to say something new, or put the story in a different perspective. I've read many of them, so it is with no small pleasure that I can confirm Adrian Goldsworthy's new book Caesar, Life of a Colossus succeeds in providing exactly that. Not a new age reinterpretation, ideological sermon, nor conservative rehash; Goldsworthy's book is a firm accounting and fair assessment, based on fact and sensibility of interpretation of the ancient histories.

Goldsworthy makes it clear from the start that his biography is focused on the man and less so on those around him. Even though, the tenor of the book might cause some to claim it as pro-Caesarian for this. Goldsworthy in his accounting does indeed point out the actions of Caesar which deserve acclaim as moments of true brilliance, but he does not brush over the man's failures. The focus is due to the expansive topic which requires it if the text is not to come off as a meandering record of events, and due to the need to address previous notions of other writers and historians over the centuries who have all made their opinions known. Care and due diligence is required for a story such as this. That being said, the author does not flirt too much with topics of current contention within the circles of historical academia and sticks with the running beliefs.

Naturally, the accounting of Caesar's life is a chronologically ordered affair from childhood to assassination. In relating Caesar's childhood, Goldsworthy must conjecture more than in later events of Caesar's life due to the less copious coverage by the ancients. In part he does so with obvious history, relating factors and cultural norms known to be true for all young Romans of higher standing and social rank, allowing the reader to imagine what the boy Caesar might have been like based on this rather than making firm statements which cannot be proven. Also mentioned is the background of Rome, the troubled times of bloodshed and political instability in the wake of the Gracchi and as the giants Marius and Sulla wrestled over the lives of average Romans. Surely these discordant times had an effect on young Caesar's view of the world. Even at this age Caesar is brought to the fore of Roman politics by the curious choice of Cinna to make him Flamen Dialis, or later his refusal of Sulla's order to divorce his dear Cornelia in favor of a more appealing union to the current regime.

We then come to Caesar's life as a young man beginning his career, and far better documented. In the wake of such unusual times where tradition was thwarted often, where men such as Pompey were raised to the highest offices without at all attending to the crusus honorum, Goldsworthy does well to point out how remarkably standard (though accomplished), Caesar's progress is during this stage. In fact short cuts in a rise to influence undoubtedly were available to Caesar but he does not make any efforts to thwart the traditional roles of a budding statesman, all of which shows a man who despite the influence of turbulent times does not descend with them (yet), in opposition to the romanticized prophetic anecdotes some of the ancients are guilty of employing, or views of Caesar as always having a tyrannical heart. As an amusing side note, Goldsworthy does cover well the episode of Caesar's stay at the Bithynian court and rumored 'entertaining' of the king Nicomedes, but in my opinion does not enough emphasize Caesar's constant womanizing after this time as a form of deflating the gossip which would haunt the man for the rest of his life and beyond.

While Caesar's early career may have been standard, Goldsworthy does not spare the detail in how Caesar's actions in higher offices were rather ambitious and as scandalous as his womanizing. While Pompey and Crassus battled politically, Caesar resorted to bolder and bolder acts to place himself in the public limelight: daring not only to give a funeral oration for Julia, but also parading his relation to Marius, throwing astounding spectacles as an aedile, and his remarkable success and boldness in challenging the biggest names in Rome for and actually securing his position as Pontifex Maximus. His expenditures through this surely put him in financial need, and I find Goldsworthy's conjecture of an earlier and genuine friendship or at least amicable association with Crassus, beyond the rich man's usual support farming, to be compelling. Equally compelling is the author's distancing of Caesar from any involvement in the Catiline conspiracy, for after so long leading a standard and involved political life, Caesar would stand to gain little or nothing from such revolutionary acts. In my opinion however, Goldsworthy avails himself of a touch of modern naivety; when Caesar accepts a 'love note' from Servilia in the senate during the debate of the Catalline conspiracy, he passes it off as a romantic Caesar, whereas I believe this was a calculated ploy to throw Cato off by a display of anger, while Caesar earned political points simply by acting in a level headed and contrary manner. The author's account of Caesar's consulship and the rise of the triumverate is standard and he does not spare the fact or severity of how his actions during this time were Caesar's first step into illegality.

Caesar's next ten years of his life, and a sizable chunk of the book, are devoted to the Gallic Wars and a lot less on the political happenings in Rome during their time, both staying true to the declared focus on Caesar, and Goldsworthy's considerable background as a military historian. Whereas the particulars of Caesarís earlier political wrangling leaves room for expansion in the book, I can detect no lack of loving care here. Rightly so, for whatever the readerís views of the ancient acceptance for atrocity, whatever views of Caesar the man personally, his genius shines greatest during these years. It is no small feat to be able to juggle a hostile political situation back in Rome which threatens to remove his command with every year, deal with the load of commonplace administrational work that comes with the an extended proconsulship of three provinces, personally oversee the training and leadership of a mostly recruit army, embark on an invasion and conquest of all Gaul employing great engineering accomplishments on the fly, with expeditions into the mystical lands of the Germans and Britons, all still with the time to still dictate in pristine Latin form a regular book and letter correspondence with Rome. While certainly Caesar is a worthy subject for a book, Goldsworthy could have easily made another excellent text just with the level of detail he puts into the Gallic Wars. The author also seems to strongly believe that Caesar originally intended to invade the Balkans and Dacia, but does not give much rationale than a few starting troop dispositions. Additionally he does not address a classic military question of this war, Caesarís constant failure to supply with certainty his troops; was it a real lack of planning, or was such a thoughtful and talented commander forcing his troops to march at the door of starvation to dive them foreword?

After so much effort put into the Gallic War, I canít help but feel that Goldsworthy lost some of his steam with the conclusion of the book detailing the civil war between the forces of Pompey and Caesarís adherents. Correctly however his tone is sober in assessment of both factions. He points out how the politically desperate often flocked to Caesarís cause, but also how lackluster the support for the Pompeians was with the rest of Italy, or how their own personal foibles dissipated their efforts. The detail and work is sufficient in this last section, but I think a better framework of the political relations between Caesarians and Pompeians, and also Caesar and the foreign nations, and particularly Caesar's rationale for crossing the proverbial Rubicon, might have propelled the text forward with more vigor. Also looked for is a deeper analysis of the post-war plans of Caesar, or where they are admittedly vague, a presentation in richer detail the possibilities bantered about by todayís historians.

Admittedly, Caesar has always been something of an icon for me, a tragic one in truth. Some of the most profound accomplishments and polyglot brilliance all rolled up into one man can amaze even the most jaded with the dual reality of bloodshed and strife. Goldsworthy captures this, and though I have read this tale many times before, I feel as if Iíve walked away with something fresh and new, all written with a flowing presentation, making this book one of the greats on Caesar, and well worth a read.

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Book Review of Caesar: Life of a Colossus - Related Topic: Caesar


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