BMCR 2007.05.35

Caesar, Life of a Colossus

, Caesar : life of a colossus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. 583 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780300126891 $35.00.

Adrian Goldsworthy’s recent biography of Caesar adds a large (519 pages) book to a formidable pile. Goldsworthy’s extensive body of work on the Roman army has greatly advanced our understanding of Roman military behavior, particularly the interplay of physical and psychological factors, and his The Roman Army at War remains the most indispensable work on its subject. This biography, while animated by a similar interest in studying human activity with a strong sense of cultural immediacy, is a more traditional sort of work, sketching an outline of Caesar, “a great man,” against his many contexts — Roman society, the politics of the senate, Gaul, the army.

The book is friendly to both specialist and non-specialist, and those Roman historians who are inclined to sit down in a comfortable chair with a big book in their own field will find here a comprehensive and very readable review of Caesar’s life and times. But this is also to say that there is not much here that seems to be new. Many questions that have been subjects of recent scholarly debate are, of course, touched upon, but this is a biography, and so the narrative structure and pacing derive from Caesar’s life — from, that is, the most detailed of the ancient sources. This leads, as the book proceeds, to the sensation that one is on a long guided tour, uncertain precisely where the guide will turn next, or why. In many ways this is a good thing. Goldsworthy does well to shake the reader free of the casual determinism that comes with reading about the most familiar and famous historical figures, and to remind us of the many gambles, strange turns, and unlikely incidents in Caesar’s career. Besides, an unpredictable succession of subjects is rather appropriate to a life of an energetic Roman aristocrat, in that we must wander as Caesar’s career in fact did. Given its size and its generally useful endnotes, this book would be a very good gateway for historians or classicists seeking information about a variety of Caesar-related topics — but for that purpose it is rather too long to do other than dip in, here and there, by means of the index and footnotes.

As a biography that, in following Caesar, covers many topics in Roman history in considerable depth, this is an impressive achievement. Goldsworthy, in the first cohort of academic prose stylists, is highly readable, managing to be very informative without being in the least overbearing. I recently purchased the book as a birthday gift for my father-in-law, a history buff and an avid reader prone to cross-country train journeys, as well as a fan of the “Rome” television series who might profit from a more nutritious historical meal.

Still, the academic reader may be reminded why chronological cross-sections and subject studies are generally more useful than biography. The fundamental aim of the book seems to be to put the “great man” (page 1) in a detailed Roman context, perhaps to bridge non-specialist biography and academic Roman history. I do not consider myself the sort of historian who is antagonistic, on principle, to studies of powerful men, but I must confess to frustration with Goldsworthy’s attention to the question of “greatness,” especially inasmuch as it required recurring reference to Napoleon. It’s a slippery thing, and, if it is to be defined other than simply as “extremely successful,” I’m not sure I understand why Caesar was, in particular, great.

Rather than taking away a new sense of Caesar’s life, character, or historical role, I experienced the book as a sequence of studies of Roman history, centered on Caesar. The sections on his early life are, necessarily, dependent on frustrating sources, and the repetition of phrases such as “it is quite possible” and “on the balance it seems likely” can make for heavy going. Yet the narrative momentum of Caesar’s life, once underway, is often interrupted by potted biographies of other senators (that of Crassus is notably well-wrought) and by long chapters on Roman politics that shade from “context” into case study (I am not sure that any writer could make the dense intrigues of the 60s into prose that I would find compelling, and Goldsworthy does yeoman’s work) and thus create a problem of scale — they are too lumpy to be easily digested into Caesar’s context and yet still too small to leave the uninitiated reader with a good understanding of, for example, Catulus, or Catiline and his crew. (To that end, it bears mentioning that, while the black and white photographs and occasional diagrams are helpful, some sort of graphic representation of the senatorial interrelationships, both familial and political, would have been welcome.) Another problem of the relationship between history and biography is that certain fun little bits of information turn up in odd places, but they read as Goldsworthy’s interjections into the breathing-pauses of Caesar’s own narration (e.g. Catullus’ scandalous verses on Caesar, mentioned during a winter lull in the narrative of the Gallic Wars). I find digressions such as this to be quite pleasant, but they contribute to the kitchen-sink exhaustion that may overtake some readers. Similarly, the drumbeat of military-political events becomes so dominant in the middle and latter stages of the book that even well-known events that must have affected Caesar personally — most important of all being the death of Julia, in 54 — read like speculative diversions from the “real story.” Both of these instances, these parenthetical events on the route-march to greatness, lead to the sense that, as far as narrative structure is concerned, the great man is still imposing his will on his biographers.

Many sections of the book are very good, marked by lively prose and a judicious sense of historical detail. In particular, Goldsworthy is masterful on military matters and makes many useful observations on Caesar’s battles and campaigns. Goldsworthy’s renderings of important events, even much-discussed incidents (e.g. the shield-grab at the Sambre), make for much better illustrations of Roman generalship in the context of this book than they do in a chrestomathy of battlefield incidents or a capsule description of Caesar’s leadership. Goldsworthy does very well indeed in describing the fascinating process of bonding, of growing trust and mutual military enthusiasm, between the amateur/aristocrat general, fresh from the forum, and his army. However, the large central section on Caesar in Gaul (over a third of the book) had the effect, for this reviewer, of replacing all memories of Caesar the senator and Caesar the politician with Caesar the general. Goldsworthy does well to emphasize the astonishing nature of the transformation from upstart politician into brilliant military leader, yet the transformation remains mysterious (as, given the weakness of the sources, it may always be). Yet this middle section, on Gaul, works so closely from the text of the de Bello Gallico, and at such length, that I found myself wishing that Goldsworthy had written a commentary on that work instead. As I’m sure Goldsworthy would agree, the ambitious reader would do better to read Caesar’s own description of the battle than a reconstruction, however skillful. (An interesting, and very welcome, innovation is the use of numerals for even the smallest of numbers: once one is accustomed to this usage, the campaign-descriptions, shot through with repeated reference to the mileage of military maneuvers, seem easier to manage.)

This review may do a disservice to Goldsworthy, since I have not read many representatives of that genre of context-heavy biographies of major historical figures, the books to which Goldsworthy’s Caesar might more fruitfully be compared. Given his deep knowledge of the subject — especially its military dimensions — and his lively and effective prose style, his book should measure up well against the better biographies of Napoleon, Churchill, or Wellington — whom he variously invokes by way of comparison to Caesar — with which many of its intended readers may be familiar. An enjoyable epilogue on the ramifications of Caesar’s personality in modern popular culture nods to these broad horizons, and to the extra-historical context that Caesar’s greatness would demand. But as a work of Roman history this book is at once highly informative and somewhat ungainly, and it adds little to our understanding of Caesar or his period. Goldsworthy’s tome makes a better case for the richness of Roman culture, politics, and warfare as subjects of historical inquiry than it does for the peculiar greatness of Caesar. There are many trenchant observations, many good chapters (and perhaps there could have been several tight little books instead of one rather sprawling one), and there is much that even an expert in some of the areas covered by Goldsworthy could learn about other subjects gathered up between the same set of covers. So, while seeking to ignore those appraising, over-the-shoulder glances — of Napoleon at Caesar, Caesar at Alexander, Alexander at Achilles — that disrupt Caesar, Life of a Colossus from time to time, I will no doubt find frequent use for this book in my work as a Roman historian, turning to it for refreshment, and for introductions to many of the aspects and incidents of Caesar’s life and times.