Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.07.24

L. Canfora, Julius Caesar: the People's Dictator.   Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2007.  Pp. xvi, 392.  ISBN 978-0-7486-1936-8.  £24.99.  

Reviewed by Robin Seager, University of Liverpool (
Word count: 2467 words

This book presents a roughly chronological account of Caesar's life, but its structure makes it extremely difficult to assimilate as a whole. Certain features of its composition may deter both the student and the general reader. It comprises no less than forty-two chapters, some of them very short. The effect is at times extremely disjointed. References to ancient sources and modern scholarship are sporadic and somewhat eccentric in selection. The underlying conception of politics and society in the late republic is also at times distinctly old-fashioned.

The opening chapters trace Caesar's early career. The very first page introduces a beast one had hoped was long extinct: the 'party of the populares'. That Caesar's experiences under Sulla had a profound effect on him cannot be doubted. His refusal to become involved with M. Lepidus shows sound judgement, but the suggestion (5) that Lepidus and Pompey conspired to change the Sullan constitution lacks both evidence and plausibility. The account of Caesar's adventure with the pirates is sound, despite a tendency to highlight the remarkable nature of his behaviour while a prisoner. The next chapter bears an ominous title, 'The rise of a party leader' and displays a marked tendency towards exaggeration. Thus Pompey and Crassus are said (15) in 70 to have wanted to demolish the Sullan constitution, while Caesar's funeral oration for his aunt Julia is seen (16) as evidence of a monarchic cast of mind. As aedile Caesar is said (18) to have asserted himself as a leader against those (20) 'whom the populares termed "the party of the optimates"'. One does not tell the world that one's opponents are 'the best men'!

Chronological coherence is then cast to the winds. An account of Caesar's election as pontifex maximus, which wrongly assumes that the office had been affected by Sulla's reforms and consequently by Labienus' revival of the lex Domitia, is followed by a particularly disjointed chapter on financial matters. This leaps from 63, by way of the consular elections of 60 and Brutus' notorious loan to the Salaminians of Cyprus, to the value of the Gallic command in restoring Caesar's finances and his seizure of the treasury in 49! The next chapter begins with general reflections on electoral and financial corruption, allegedly to introduce Catiline, but C. immediately jumps to the elections of 54, then back to the links between extortion and treason in the Verrines, before returning to 63 and environs with the pro Murena and Comm. pet..

On the Catilinarian conspiracy itself he is right to emphasise (39) the seriousness for Caesar of the charge of involvement in Catiline's plans, but too ready to accept it. He suggests (41) that Caesar defended the Catilinarians partly because they enjoyed public sympathy. But by that time Cicero had convinced the plebs that the conspirators had planned to burn down their homes. C. then jumps to 59, dismissing (42) as fictional Plutarch's account of the confrontation in the senate between Caesar and his opponents, though the story is perfectly plausible. The narrative then leaps back to the 'first conspiracy', which C. takes seriously even though he is well aware of the bias of Tanusius Geminus. (He discusses only the accounts of Suetonius and Sallust.) The treatment of Sallust's version of Caesar's speech is fairly brief and largely adequate. But it was not Cato (55) but Cicero who arranged for the taking of minutes.

The next major section covers the 'first triumvirate' and Caesar's conquest of Gaul. On the formation of the coalition C. is misleading, claiming (64-7) that Cic.Att.2.3.3f. states that the agreement was to come into force on 1 January 59 and is thus in accord with Velleius' date of 59. In fact Cicero makes it clear that talks were still in progress and will surely have continued into January 59, which leaves Velleius' accuracy unimpaired. Since both Pompey and Crassus supported Caesar at the elections and negotiations began in 60, the view of Pollio as reported by Horace is also justified. C. unusually sees (69) the coalition as a long-term strategy for power-sharing with Pompey rather than a short-term arrangement designed only to secure specific goals for each participant. For him the struggle for supremacy arose (70) only after the murder of Clodius. This is true in the sense that Caesar was only then in a position to claim parity with Pompey and it was that claim that made confrontation inevitable.

C. then speculates about the career and opinions of Pollio before reverting to 59. Caesar's extortion law is grandiosely interpreted (81) as part of a lifelong policy of upgrading the provinces. An account of Clodius' activities in 59 and 58 is then interposed; though superficial, it does maintain (86) that Clodius had a policy of his own and was not merely Caesar's creature. We next return to 59 and the lex Vatinia. C. rightly argues (89-91) that Gaul was a considered choice and that the command was of immense political importance, though his suggestion that Caesar wanted to be seen as the new Marius is unconvincing. The account of Luca (94-5) somewhat exaggerates Caesar's initiative. He did not invite Crassus to Ravenna and it is significant that it was he who had to cross Italy to meet Pompey. Nor were the provinces of Pompey and Crassus decided on at Luca. The account of the Gallic war is generally sound; the treatment (118-120) of the remains of the anti-Caesarian tradition, especially Plin. NH 7.91-9, is particularly interesting. Elsewhere there is an overlong anthology (105-6) of modern judgements on the treatment of the Usipetes and Tencteri, while at 107 Catull. 11.10-12 is cited with Haupt's deplorable emendation, though the translation happily approximates rather to the correct reading horribilesque.

The next major section runs from the preliminaries to the civil war to the formation of the conspiracy. The growth of anarchy at Rome is rightly seen (127-8) as a threat to Caesar because it strengthened Pompey and brought him closer to the optimates. C. also realises the importance of the ratio absentis and does well to highlight Caesar's presentation (BG 7.1.1) of his own recruitment in Gaul as a public-spirited response to the s.c.u. But the narrative shows no clear understanding of Pompey's ambiguous machinations in 52 to 50. The claim (133) that Pompey was not ready to negotiate runs counter to the obvious fear of the optimates that he was all too likely to make some new deal with Caesar and their consequent eagerness to force him to commit himself. C. rightly insists (134-5) that Caesar's real ground for going to war is to be found in his famous remark on the field of Pharsalus, but then says that this contradicts his statements on the defence of tribunician power and his own dignitas. This is true of tribunician power, but the threat of prosecution was precisely what Caesar's dignitas could not countenance.

The narrative is henceforth increasingly interrupted by digressions of varying relevance. C. first discusses (137-9) the theory that Caesar was or believed he was born to be king, charitably concluding that such a view is 'risky'. He offers a just appreciation of the careful planning of the invasion, which was presented to his troops as a fait accompli, brings out well (145) the chronological inconsistencies between Caesar's own account and the other sources, and suggests plausibly that Antony and Q. Cassius headed for Ariminum because they knew in advance that Caesar would invade. After two chapters on such topics as Caesar's policy of conciliation, the blanket labelling of the opposition as 'Sullan', Cicero's private opinions of Pompey and the Pompeians, and the attitudes of various individuals, including Matius, Pollio, Brutus and Lentulus Spinther, C. returns to Pompey's strategy, but offers no real insight into Pompey's thinking and above all neglects his greatest problem, his inability to give orders to his fellow-commanders. He does note (175) the importance of the reversal of the constitutional position in 48. But despite the grant of supreme command Pompey continued to have great difficulty in controlling his fellow generals.

After brief accounts of Caelius' praetorship and Dolabella's tribunate C. prefaces a long and interesting treatment of the Alexandrian war with a prehistory of the Egyptian situation. On Pompey's death (192-3) he is inclined to take seriously the versions of Pompey and even Dio, who suggests collusion with Caesar. Yet earlier (179) he claims that Caesar had wanted to take Pompey alive. He rightly insists (195) that Caesar's prime concern was money, notes the absence of Cleopatra from Caesar's account, and is generally sensible about the motives of various Egyptians. For Caesar a nationalistic government was the least desirable option, a dyarchy better, a dependent Cleopatra the best. On Caesarion C. accepts (203) Caesar's paternity. The roles of Mithridates and Antipater give rise to one of C.'s best discussions, on the assessment of the Jewish contribution in different sources. He argues convincingly that Caesar was aware of and acknowledged it. The archive of favourable decrees assembled by Josephus was designed to combat a tendency, beginning with the Bellum Alexandrinum, to suppress Antipater's value to Caesar's cause.

Caesar's eagerness to secure control of the Eastern provinces, especially Syria, need not, as C. suggests (218), indicate that he was already planning a Parthian war. The treatments of Caesar's interview with Deiotarus, Zela and his attitude to Pharnaces (223-5) are all good, as is that, after an account of problems at Rome in 47, of the African war (232-5). C. then turns to the incipient dynasty. He suggests (237-8) that Caesar probably made a will in favour of Sex. Caesar and notes the chronological link between the murder of Sextus and the emergence of Octavius. No source actually claims that Caesar summoned the youth to Spain, where Octavius was not involved in any military activity (249-51). That Caesar chose him as his successor at an early stage was a myth that Augustus worked hard to foster (252); the hostile picture of Sextus in Appian is obviously taken from Augustus' memoirs. Indeed C. believes (253) that Nicolaus wanted to suggest that Octavius was close to Caesar as early as 47, while Sextus was still alive. The section ends, somewhat anticlimactically, with a brief account of the various literary works dedicated to the canonisation or damnation of Cato.

The final section takes the reader from the conspiracy against Caesar to the 'triumph of Caesarism'. C. presents a speculative view of the pro Marcello (263-5), assuming that Cicero must know something, but that the relevant passage was added later, since the conspiracy was not formed until after Munda, from which Caesar had not been expected to return alive. Thereafter Caesar was trying to establish his personal position within a new order (270), which provoked correspondingly marked reactions. C.'s analysis (271), following Napoleon, neglects the extent of senatorial dissatisfaction. Caesar made too many mistakes that Augustus had to learn from. It was also after Munda that the crescendo of monarchic honours began, culminating in the perpetual dictatorship. Eager as ever to detect traces of the elusive Pollio, C. speculates (275-6) that the verdict iure caesus in Suet. DJ 76.1 is his, but to no conclusive effect. Equally inconclusive is his discussion of Caesar's plans (276-8). But a strong case may be made for the view that Caesar had at least decided on some form of monarchy, even if he had not yet hit on an appropriate title.

C. bases his discussion of the feast of Lupercal on Nicolaus, who claims the involvement of Cassius and Casca and perhaps implies that of Antony. That even he was by now unhappy at the way things were developing cannot be ruled out. Cicero's suggestion that but for events at the Lupercalia Caesar would still be alive is an overstatement, but the perceived provocation undoubtedly consolidated and focussed the efforts of the conspirators. C. considers all possible interpretations, tentatively concluding (285) that Antony was deliberately trying to arouse hostility against Caesar.

The chronological sequence is then once more broken by a review of the development of Caesar's dictatorship from 49 (287-93). The claim (290, 293) that Caesar was simultaneously dictator and consul at the beginning of 48 is false. Caesar had abdicated his first dictatorship well before his consulship began, as correctly recorded in C.'s chronological table (359). His second tenure did, however, overlap with his consulship in the latter part of the year.

C. believes the story of Cassius' plan to murder Caesar in 47 (299, cf. 222). Whatever the truth of that, it cannot be doubted that Cassius was the originator of the eventual conspiracy and that he had gathered a core of adherents round him before the recruitment of Brutus (306-7). Further details of C.'s analysis are confusing. He sees Cassius as leader (309) of a group whose orientation might be called 'Pompeian', while Brutus brought in the 'Caesarian' side, yet (308) says that Brutus obviously cannot be termed a 'Caesarian'! The pragmatic Cassius was prepared to concede first place to Brutus, who got his way on crucial issues (e.g. the sparing of Antony) and was always wrong. C. also considers some who did not join, such as the Catonians Statilius and Favonius. Favonius' motive may be his Stoicism; C. cites Seneca's criticism of Brutus for disregarding Stoic teachings. The discussion of Cicero's position (317-21) is also largely sensible. Other topics canvassed are the question of whether Caesar wanted to die, his awareness that his death would lead to chaos (which C. rightly ascribes to foresight, not determinism), the role of D. Brutus and the various accounts of the actual murder.

It is hard not to agree with C. (334) that Antony must have had his suspicions. His subsequent hesitation may well have been genuine, if he was waiting to observe public reactions to the 'liberators'. C. is justly scathing (337-9) in his condemnation of the way in which they lost the advantage of surprise and allowed their opponents to recover from their initial confusion. He states bluntly that they should have thrown Caesar's body in the Tiber instead of leaving it as a source of emotional capital on which Antony was quick to cash in. Finally C. briefly considers two verdicts, Livy's alleged comparison of Caesar to the wind, cited by Seneca, and Cicero's attempt at a balanced judgement in the second Philippic. The book ends with an extremely detailed chronological table which cites far more sources than appear in the narrative and a disappointingly brief and idiosyncratic bibliography.

In short then, though C.'s views are sometimes antiquated and perverse, there is also much in this book that is interesting, stimulating and worthy of serious consideration. It is the more to be regretted that its staccato yet convoluted structure makes its more valuable contributions difficult to track down and evaluate and may lead to their being neglected altogether.

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