BMCR 2007.06.27

Julius Caesar. A Life

, Julius Caesar : a life. London: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (xi, 172 pages) : illustrations, maps, plans. ISBN 0203015347 $30.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

This book names its target readership as the general reader and the student. Neither will come to any great harm should it fall into their hands, but its usefulness to students will be diminished by the absence of footnotes, not compensated for by occasional references to sources in the text, and a short and somewhat haphazard bibliography that leans towards the antiquated and the popular. There are reasonable maps, a stemma and a brief chronological table. The illustrations are a curious mixture of interesting and relevant busts and especially coins, pointless pictures of the Ara Pacis, and line-drawings of the principal characters, including ‘likenesses’ of several persons about whose appearance nothing is known, most notoriously Crassus.

The structure of the work is basically diachronic, while within individual chapters there is constant cross-cutting between specifically Caesar-centred narrative and sections intended to provide sufficient background information to establish a context for Caesar’s actions and render them intelligible. Throughout there is a tendency (of which examples will be cited below) to adhere to interpretations of certain events that are at best outmoded, if not actually discredited.

K. begins with a scene-setting chapter that presents some social and constitutional themes and briefly sketches the period from Ti. Gracchus to Sulla’s march on Rome. It is bewildering to read (4) that Cicero ‘ignored the existence’ of the equites, whose interests he so sedulously represented, while the old false distinction between land-owning senators and commercially active equites is revived, even though the ban on senatorial participation in trade was easily and regularly circumvented and many equites (certainly the vast majority after 70) owned land. Other topics, however, such as religion, the res publica, imperium, senate and assemblies, tribunician power, optimates and populares are satisfactorily, if succinctly, treated. The historical outline that follows is sound on Ti. and C. Gracchus. The treatment of Marius is less happy. K. takes too seriously (11) Velleius’ picture of Marius the simple ploughboy, and the account of the law on voting procedures is confusing. But the significance of the Numidian command is well brought out, though the enrolment of the capite censi did not constitute the establishment of a professional army. Sulla is handled better, though the size of the army with which he marched on Rome is exaggerated (16).

The second chapter introduces Caesar and traces his career to the middle of the seventies. An account of his family background serves as peg for some general reflections on Roman education, while the treatment of his relations with Cinna is interwoven with the history of the Cinnanum tempus, the civil war and Sulla’s dictatorship. This in turn leads to Caesar’s own difficulties with Sulla, his varied activities in the East, his prosecutions of Dolabella and C. Antonius and his adventures with the pirates. In all this there are few flaws. The statement (30) that Pompey was sent to Africa with an ‘honorary imperium‘ is certainly wrong, whatever it is intended to mean; indeed, ‘honorary imperium‘ is close to a contradiction in terms. Sulla’s famous warning of the danger inherent in Caesar, as cited by Suet. DJ.1, is weakened by mistranslation as ‘There are many signs of Marius in Caesar’. Sulla’s abdication of the dictatorship is dated (32) to 79, though it cannot have been later than the end of 81.

On the decade 73-63 K. exaggerates the importance of Caesar’s contribution to the passing of the Gabinian and Manilian laws, but otherwise deals well with Pompey’s special commands. His account of the trial of Rabirius (44) is not wholly convincing, but he rightly understands that the affair was never meant to be taken to a conclusion. His version of the Catilinarian conspiracy is basically conventional, but is marred by one serious error. In 63 the younger Cato was not known as Uticensis, nor does Cato Uticensis mean ‘Cato from Utica’ (47). On Caesar’s election as pontifex maximus, K. implies that Labienus’ revival of the lex Domitia was relevant, but Domitius’ law, Sulla’s annulment of it and Labienus’ re-enactment all applied only to other priesthoods, not the supreme pontificate.

Next come Caesar’s praetorship, Spanish governorship and consulship. The account of the aftermath of Catiline is sound (though K. underestimates and gratuitously insults Clodius), as is that of Pompey’s return from the East. It is, however, rash to take it for granted that Crassus was the mystery-man who bribed the Bona Dea jury. Caesar’s activities in Spain and his return are also well treated. The story of the formation of the coalition, Caesar’s election, his consulship and the first part of Clodius’ tribunate (which is rather awkwardly split between this chapter and the next) is largely reliable, but some extremely debatable notions are stated as facts: the old discredited interpretation of the significance of siluae callesque (53), the view that the lex Vatinia contained a precise terminal date of 1 March 54 (58), and the casting of Clodius as Caesar’s agent in 58 (59). The beneficiaries of the Campanian land law are said (57) to have been described by Cicero as ‘Caesar’s army’. If this is a reference to Cic. Att.2.16.2, the sense of ‘army’ is literal, and Cicero is reporting a remark made to him by Pompey.

The Gallic war is then narrated down to the first invasion of Britain. K. offers no general comments on the nature of Roman imperialism, which might have helped the reader. Treatment of the latter part of Clodius’ tribunate follows the account of the campaigns of 58. The description (71) of Pompey’s withdrawal from Rome after the fake assassination attempt of August 58 as ‘an uncharacteristic demonstration of spinelessness’ hardly does justice to the great man’s exaggerated fear of attempts on his life. K.’s narrative continues to switch between Gaul and Rome, but the treatment of Roman politics is at times so sketchy (e.g. on the ‘conference of Luca’) that the novice may find it hard to follow. The account of 55 and the second consulship of Pompey and Crassus is better, while few would quarrel with the dismissal of the first invasion of Britain as ‘an inglorious exploit’.

The verdict on the second expedition is equally sour (83): ‘He had at least proved that it was possible to invade Britain’. K.’s treatment of events in Gaul continues to be lively and essentially sound, that of Roman politics somewhat breathless. He rightly says (88) that the establishment in 52 of a five-year gap between urban magistracy and provincial tenure ‘could have caused problems to Caesar’, but does not explain how. In a not always clear account of the in-fighting over Caesar’s recall that preceded the civil war, K. rashly assumes that Caesar had bought Curio and, more importantly, fails to explain what Curio was doing, which contributes to his rather generous verdict (99) on Caesar’s efforts to preserve peace. These seem less impressive when set against the fact that Curio consistently pursued a policy calculated, surely with Caesar’s approval, to force Pompey into war or an implausibly ignominious political capitulation.

The treatment of the peace negotiations in the early stages of the war is, however, reasonable enough, but nothing is said of Pompey’s greatest problem in 49, his inability to give orders to other recalcitrant republican commanders. Nor is the importance of the change in Caesar’s constitutional position between 49 and 48 fully brought out. But the importance of Spain and the corn-growing provinces is rightly highlighted, though it might be added that Caesar was constrained to deal with Spain first, since he had as yet no fleet to follow Pompey. Dyrrachium and Pharsalus are then dealt with clearly and effectively.

K.’s account of the remainder of the civil war is largely clear and reliable, though the treatment of Pompey’s fatal decision to make for Egypt is a little thin. His description of Caesar’s autocratic behaviour and his measures in general is also sound, but the suggestion (133) that Cicero was ‘amused’ to receive thank-you letters from foreign kings for proposing the mythical decrees that confirmed their titles is a grave misjudgement. Fortunately the orator’s response to the fleeting consulship of Caninius Rebilus is better understood.

K. sensibly avoids getting bogged down in speculation about Caesar’s ultimate plans, and offers no interpretation of the Lupercalia incident, perhaps wisely, since none is wholly convincing. But he states clearly the essential truth that Caesar was consciously engaged in establishing some form of monarchy, whatever he may eventually have wanted to be called. Cassius is rightly singled out as the instigator of the conspiracy, and the truth about the motives of the conspirators, Caesarians and republicans alike, is at least implied in the assertion that their mistake was to assume that, if they killed Caesar, everything would be as it was before.

The final chapter provides a very sketchy account of the period from Caesar’s murder to the establishment of the principate of Augustus, which offers no explanation of the political manoeuvres that led up to the formation of the triumvirate and is in passing very unjust to Sex. Pompeius. But the final summary of Caesar’s character and the breadth of his interests and achievements is accurate and fair.

K. writes in a lively and mostly lucid style which the general reader may well enjoy. As for students, even if they should use the work with caution, they will derive far more benefit from it than from the last book left in the library when they get round on the day after deadline to writing their essay, which is all that students ever seem to read nowadays.