Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.07.29

Richard A. Billows, Julius Caesar: The Colossus of Rome. Roman Imperial Biographies.   London/New York:  Routledge, 2009.  Pp. xv, 312; 6 p. of plates.  ISBN 9780415333146.  $120.00.  

Reviewed by Richard Westall (
Word count: 2816 words

Richard Billows has written a detailed and engaging biography of Julius Caesar that is primarily aimed at an audience unacquainted with the Graeco-Roman world and Classical scholarship. For this reason, the work is not merely a biography, but also an account of the period in which Caesar lived. Structured accordingly, this work is dedicated to providing a rather meticulous chronicle of the political and military history of the last century of the Republic, with some attention to the period's socio-economic realities, as viewed through the lens provided by the life of Caesar.

This book is divided into ten chapters of more or less equal dimensions. After a prologue, in which Billows sets the stage by asking how Caesar came to cross the Rubicon and unleash a civil war, the first chapter is dedicated to setting forth the background for the histoire événementielle of the first century BCE. The second chapter treats of the early years of Caesar's life and recounts the political and military history of the 90s and 80s BCE. The third chapter deals with the 70s BCE, providing a contrast between Caesar's traditional entry into Roman politics and the meteoric rise of Pompeius Magnus. The fourth chapter recounts the events of the 60s BCE, investigating Caesar's involvement -- or lack thereof -- with figures such as Pompeius and Catilina. The fifth chapter focuses exclusively upon the events of Caesar's first consulate in the highly controversial year 59 BCE. The sixth chapter follows Caesar abroad so as to narrate the conquest of Transalpine Gaul in the years 58-50 BCE. The seventh chapter provides a narrative for the political manoeuvres that transpired at Rome during this same period. The eighth chapter provides a respite from the increasing tension of the political and military narrative by focussing upon the literary contributions of Caesar, providing a brief analysis and contextualization of Caesar's oeuvre. The ninth chapter resumes the progression of histoire événementielle with an account of the civil war fought in the years 49-45 BCE. The tenth and final chapter narrates the events leading up to Caesar's assassination, offering an analysis of that event. An epilogue highlights the lasting influence exerted by Caesar even in death, arguing for his unique position in history as the charismatic leader of a political and social movement. The life of Caesar proves a vehicle for narrating the political and military history of the late Republic, whereas that traditional historical narrative in turn affords a proper understanding of Caesar. This is biography in the best of the Classical tradition, and as it must be written -- if the endeavour is to be attempted at all -- for any figure in the Graeco-Roman world.

Billows has written a learned book that is alternately a pleasure to read and quite frustrating. The narrative is replete with details, but proves anything other than tedious. The analyses that accompany this narrative are clear and frequently appealing. The documentation is focussed upon ancient literary sources rather than modern treatments. In short, this "biography" of Caesar will prove of interest and possible use for a general readership as well as for Classicists perhaps wishing to round out or review what they know from prior study of the subject. But the lack of direct citation of the sources is troubling, for it is always the authorial voice of Billows that readers hear. Exemplary is the fact that Caesar left extensive writings, but not once are readers given a direct quote from this invaluable source as to the man's actions and personality.1 Moreover, Billows is capable of indulging in historical fiction with alarming ease and lack of sufficient notice for the unwary reader. So, for example, he provides guest-lists for two dinner-parties held on the eve of Caesar's assassination. That attended by Caesar is imagined as having included Cleopatra.2 That held by C. Cassius is entirely hypothetical. Only in the end-notes does Billows notify his readers of the nature of this historical reconstruction (pp. 282 nn. 1-2). Undergraduates and the ingenuous will have a field day with items like this.

Readers are advised against looking to this work for any particularly new insights into the world of the late Republic. Billows is open to the critical ideas of an "outsider" such as M. Parenti (as regards the credibility of Cicero and later sources for the so-called "Catilinarian conspiracy") and advances credible (to a certain degree) reasons for viewing the political history of the last century of the Republic as dominated by two opposed political movements: optimates and populares. But, as is the case with all recent works of this sort dedicated to Caesar, he shows himself by and large willing to repeat what is to be found within the modern vulgate. Hence, to cite but one example, Billows writes that "Caesar and his officers were enormously enriched" by their conquest of Gaul in the 50s BCE (p. 164). The wealth of Gaul was described in glowing terms by contemporaries, and many of those who associated with Caesar did so for the sole purpose of being "covered in gold".3 But the account of Billows, like that of most of his predecessors from Mommsen onwards, accepts this evidence at face value. In the wake of the Bernard Madoff scandal and similar situations, we would do well to exercise a critical spirit and express scepticism over Caesar's financial gains from his arduous campaigning in the north. In a passage that has been consistently overlooked by modern scholars, Suetonius relates that Pompeius believed Caesar to be financially insolvent on the eve of civil war and for this reason to be desirous of a conflict.4 Even had the Romans maintained accounts as is done today and even if these survived, the situation would be complicated, as the proposed modern parallel with Madoff shows. Nevertheless, such a critical questioning of the evidence and hypotheses of this sort are what we might expect of a work that seeks to revolutionise our vision of the late Republic and prove a lasting contribution to the field. Billows has written a book that is highly readable and competently fashioned, but it is unlikely to prove a standard work of reference as was the case with R. Syme's Roman Revolution, M. Gelzer's Caesar, or E.S. Gruen's The Last Generation of the Roman Republic. On the other hand, introductions -- as this book is described on the back cover -- are perhaps not the place for the elaboration of new ideas nor poised to become classics in their fields.

Indeed, it may be questioned whether there was need of yet another biography of Caesar. It might have been thought that the market is already saturated. No fewer than nine books dedicated to Caesar's life (or death) have appeared in English in the last decade, one of these also published by Routledge!5 Of these works, two distinguish themselves for their being accessible to general readers and for their being written in a style that is equally engaging: Goldsworthy has shown a talent for the description of military encounters whereas Tatum is quite good at providing a tableau of the political situation. In the midst of this abundance, Billows's work struggles to distinguish itself. Moreover, the price of this book in the hard-cover edition (and in that for "kindle") will make it inaccessible to the general public. The price of $120.00 -- which comes to nearly $0.36 per page -- seems disproportionate to production costs, and is most certain to curtail the work's diffusion. Was yet another biography of Caesar opportune?

The question becomes all the more acute when Billows's work is compared with the "classics" produced by his predecessors in the twentieth century. The most important of these are Meier and Gelzer, both available in English translations.6 Written in the same style and available in paperback format, Meier's biography of Caesar suffers from the absence of footnotes, which is no great loss for a work aimed at the general public. The biography of Caesar written by Gelzer, on the other hand, is written in a style that is perhaps less "lively", but has a wealth of documentation that far surpasses what is provided by Billows For example, Billows mentions a six-line poem by Caesar in which he compared the comic playwrights Menander and Terence (p. 35). The poem is not cited, either in the original Latin or in English translation. Moreover, without any supporting proof, the piece is cited as an example of the juvenilia written by Caesar. Turning to Gelzer's biography, we find not only an ampler bibliography on the subject, but also citation of the original poem and the thesis advanced -- convincingly for this reviewer -- to the effect that the poem belongs to Caesar's later years.7 Gelzer's work was last revised in German for the sixth edition of 1960, upon which edition the English translation of 1968 is based. Despite its obvious lack of reference to the last half-century of scholarship, however, that treatment indisputably remains the standard scholarly biography of Caesar. Without the scholarly apparatus of footnotes -- ever to be preferred to the solution of end-notes adopted in the present instance -- and reference to modern treatments of various points of detail, Billows's work cannot expect to replace that written by Gelzer. There is urgent need of an updated version of Gelzer, but Billows's book does not meet this need.

Billows places a great deal of interpretative weight upon what he identifies as the two political movements of the late Republic: the optimates and the populares. The thesis is seductive and not without a certain appeal. However, questions obtrude upon this reconstruction. What is the Latin or Greek for "political movement"? In the absence of a linguistic description, can such a social phenomenon be said to exist? The reviewer has grave doubts, in view of the last half-century's research into the language of politics and the democratic nature of the Republic.8 By the standards of the contemporary Anglo-American world, the political landscape of ancient Rome was extraordinarily fragmented and highly susceptible to rapid changes of allegiance. Moreover, the factiones identified by our sources cannot be equated with "political movements", as the very notion is part of a denigratory rhetoric aimed at the destruction of political opponents and the positive political identities of optimates and populares are far more nebulous than the word "movement" would imply. Hence, Billows's attempt to resuscitate the nineteenth- and twentieth-century notion of political parties fails to convince despite its aesthetic appeal.

Billows deals with military campaigns in summary fashion, thereby avoiding the problems that emerge when one enters into the details. It is as though Caesar's enemies were mere cannon-fodder waiting to be killed so as to illustrate his greatness as a general. Unwary readers will be surprised to find that there is a long-running debate over the location of the battle of Pharsalus. And they will come away with no idea of what John Keegan has evocatively termed "the face of battle". Popular images from cinema and cable television are all too likely to fill this lacuna for Billows's readers. That is a shame, for the details of military life reveal much about the nature of the Roman achievement and the limits to which it was subject.9 Similarly, soldiers fill the legions of Caesar and his contemporaries as if by magic.10 There is no sense here of the disruption caused by mobilization, such as what has been experienced in the United States and (to a lesser degree) Great Britain in the wake of the attack upon the Twin Towers. Yet, some 50 legions under arms in the early 40s BCE surely affected in visible fashion the human landscape of the towns and countryside of Italy.

Billows is primarily concerned with political and military history, but he does incorporate some of the more important findings of social and economic history into his narrative and analyses. Hence, he shows great sophistication in his treatment of the interest of various members of the gens Iulia in extending the Roman franchise to the citizens of the various city-states of the Italian pensinsula (e.g. p. 40). Similarly, he exhibits commendable caution in accepting the testimony of Cicero and later authors as regards the programme behind the so-called "Catilinarian conspiracy" (pp. 88, 94-96). Yet, he shows a dismaying tendency to relate statistics from ancient authors as though they possess the same empirical value as statistics used in most of the Western world today, even though frequently using qualifiers on the order of "reportedly" or "said to have numbered". As was well shown at the outset of the last century and as has been recently re-stated with great clarity and force, the Graeco-Roman use of numbers is better described as rhetorical rather than empirical.11 Whether dealing with the claim that the Senate had 300, 600, or 900 members (e.g. pp. 36, 52, 241) or the allegation that Caesar purchased for HS 100,000,000 the land upon which he built the Forum Iulium (p. 177), the historian needs to be aware that certain figures recur too frequently in the literary sources to be anything other than conscious rhetorical representations.12 Likewise important and neglected is the need to contextualize those few numbers transmitted by the sources. How many readers are likely to understand the value of 1,300 talents (p. 63)? Even a minimalist table for currencies in an appendix would have been of use.

The most serious and extraordinary omission from this work is any reference whatsoever to the epigraphic or archaeological evidence. The evidence of monuments, funerary deposits, and coins would have manifestly enriched Billows's narrative, as is shown by a comparison with W.J. Tatum's biography of Caesar and the recent exhibition dedicated to Caesar in Rome, Italy.13. The testimony of inscriptions would have been no less eloquent an addition to this work. As it stands, the reviewer can find only four instances in which reference is made to the epigraphic evidence and even that is extraordinarily perfunctory (pp. 265 nn. 11-12, 268 n. 39, 280 n. 23). Yet, without the evidence of the Fasti, we should not know the date of the battle of Pharsalus.14 Without the evidence of inscriptions from the Greek eastern Mediterranean, we should not know how contemporaries in the provinces viewed Caesar's victory at Pharsalus, praising him as a "saviour and benefactor"15 and instituting a new era commencing with that victory.16 Instances of epigraphy's contribution to our knowledge of ancient history are legion, their absence from this work altogether baffling. It is as though the last two centuries of scholarship had never transpired.

The production of this biography is overall of high quality. Copy-editing was excellent, even if one might quibble about using forms such as "Chalkedon" and "Kyzikos" in a work dedicated to Roman history. Errors such as "Roscius of America" (pp. 267 n.65, 289) and "Herrenius" (p. 290) are fortunately extremely rare. Yet, in view of the size of Routledge, the publisher's inability to use appropriate diacriticals in the (surprisingly few) French and German titles appearing within the bibliography is not only annoying, but also inexplicable. The only evident problems emerge in the genealogies and maps provided at the outset (pp. xvii-xxii). On the one hand, unwary readers may assume that Octavian was the natural son of Julius Caesar or find various marriages hard to reconstruct. On the other hand, it would have made more sense to provide two maps for the Forum Romanum and environs (pre-54 and post-46), to indicate Dyrrachium and Antioch-on-the-Orontes rather than Philippi and Actium, and to eliminate infelicities on the order of "Temples of Jupiter Optimus Maximus" and "Homea Galbana". Perhaps, in view of the Barrington Atlas of the Classical World, the failure to show readers the location of most of the cities and regions mentioned in the text is not an irremediable loss. However, geographical notions within the written text are not always as clear or correct as they might be. Hence, the central Italian city of Corfinium -- located roughly 150 km due east of Rome -- is described as being situated "in the northern Appenine region" (p. 205). Knowledge of that fact is crucial to a proper understanding of the diverse strategies followed by the protagonists in the first months of 49 BCE. These errors and infelicities reflect as much Billows's lack of attention to the artistic and archaeological evidence as any failing on the part of the publisher.

"Light" reading for lovers of ancient history, Billows's biography of Caesar is appropriate to a general audience wanting detail but lacking a basic knowledge of the subject. It may even prove of use to those desperately seeking to put lecture-notes into order at the last minute. Stylistically a pleasure to read and crammed full of details, it has something to offer these categories of readers. However, it was never intended nor should be misconstrued as a serious contribution to scholarship on the subject. The work of Gelzer endures.


1.   Cf. p. 261, the sole instance, where it is Cicero's judgement of Caesar that is cited. A similar criticism was expressed some years ago with regard to CAH Vol. 14: F. Millar, "Emperors need their voices", Times Higher Education 14 Sept. 2001.
2.   A tempting and natural question arises: What did Cleopatra have to say to Calpurnia on this occasion? That would most certainly have been an interesting conversation, as the reviewer has had the chance to witness in modern Rome and elsewhere.
3.   E.g. C. Trebatius Testa, as is indicated by the humorous language at Cic. Fam. 7.13.1: Audi, Testa mi: utrum superiorem te pecunia facit an quod te imperator consulit? Moriar ni, quae tua gloria est, puto te malle a Caesare consuli quam inaurari.
4.   Suet. Iul. 30.2.
5.   M. Griffin, ed., A Companion to Julius Caesar (Oxford 2009); W.J. Tatum, Always I Am Caesar (Malden 2008); P. Freeman, Julius Caesar (New York 2008); L. Canfora, Julius Caesar: The People's Dictator, tr. M. Hill and K. Windle (Edinburgh 2007) [= Giulio Cesare: il dittatore democratico (Bari 1999)]; A. Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus (New Haven 2006); A. Kamm, Julius Caesar: A Life (London 2006); J. Osgood, Caesar's Legacy: Civil War and the Emergence of the Roman Empire (Cambridge 2006); G. Woolf, Et tu, Brute? The Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination (London 2006); M. Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome (New York 2003); P. Southern, Julius Caesar (Stroud 2001); R. Jimenez, Caesar Against Rome (New York 2000); idem, Caesar Against the Celts (New York 1996); cf. M. Wyke, ed., Julius Caesar in Western Culture (London 2006). With the exceptions of Griffin 2009 and Freeman 2008, these all appear within the bibliography provided by Billows. Naturally, a similar profusion can be discerned within French, German, and Italian publications. Worthy of being drawn to readers' attention are two works in particular that offer sound, detailed introductions: Y. Le Bohec, César chef de guerre: César stratège et tacticien (Paris 2001); E. Baltrusch, Caesar und Pompeius (Darmstadt 2004).
6.   C. Meier, Caesar: A Biography (New York 1982); M. Gelzer, Caesar: Politician and Statesman, tr. P. Needham (Cambridge, Mass. 1968).
7.   Gelzer, op. cit., p. 140 n.1 (= pp. 126-127 n. 158 in the German edition of 1960).
8.   E.g. J. Hellegouarc'h, Le vocabulaire latin des relations et des partis politiques sous la République (Paris 1963); F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor 1998).
9.   P. Erdkamp, Hunger and the Sword: warfare and food supply in Roman Republican wars (264-30 B.C.) (Amsterdam 1998); J. Roth, The logistics of the Roman army at war (264 B.C.-A.D. 235) (Leiden 1998).
10.   Cf. P.A. Brunt, Italian Manpower 225 B.C.-A.D. 14 (Oxford 1971); N. Morley, "The transformation of Italy," JRS 91 (2001) 50-62.
11.   W. Scheidel, "Finances, Figures and Fiction," CQ 46 (1996) 222-238; E. Wölfflin, "Sescenti, mille, centum, trecenti als unbestimmte und runde Zahlen" Archiv für lateinische Lexikographie und Grammatik 9 (1896) 177-192; idem, "Zur Zahlensymbolik," loc. cit., 333-351; idem, "Das Duodecimalsystem," loc. cit., 527-544.
12.   The reviewer admits to a similar "sin of youth", in "The Forum Iulium as Representation of Imperator Caesar," Römische Mitteilungen 103 (1996) 198-224, but finds incomprehensible Billows's lack of awareness of contemporary historiographic debates.
13.   Giulio Cesare : l'uomo, le imprese, il mito [esposizione Chiostro del Bramante, Rome, 23 ottrobre 2008 - 3 maggio 2009], a cura di Giovanni Gentili (Cinisello Balsamo, Milano 2008).
14.   Inscr. Ital. 13.1.190f., 208; characteristically absent from the chronological table provided by Canfora 2007/1999.
15.   A.E. Raubitschek, "Epigraphical Notes on Julius Caesar," JRS 44 (1954) 65-75.
16.   W. Leschhorn, Antike Ären: Zeitrechnung, Politik und Geschichte im Schwarzmeerraum und in Kleinasien nördlich des Taurus. Historia Einzelschriften Heft 81. Stuttgart 1993.

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