On an already well-trodden topic,1 Julius Caesar and the Transformation of the Roman Republic is an excellent beginner’s biography of Caesar. By balancing the important socio-political developments of the first century BCE with a biography of Caesar, Stevenson guides the reader through a pivotal period in Roman history. With a strong focus on Caesar’s political career, Stevenson’s monograph is a welcome contribution to the core reading of any course concerning Caesar or the end of the Roman Republic. More informed readers will critically engage with the main thesis of the book, which argues that Caesar never actively sought kingship in order to supplant the conservative oligarchy.
The book is easy to navigate, with excellent use of sub-headings, concluding sections after each chapter with recommendation lists for further reading, and a clear linear progression that makes for easy browsing. The bibliography is more than adequate for undergraduates and general readers, who are also assisted by a list of ancient writers with recommended translations. Students will certainly appreciate the familiar textbook style, and the aforementioned further reading sections at the end of each chapter may prove useful as a literature review for those preparing lectures or courses on Caesar.
The first two chapters introduce Caesar as an historical figure and explain the social, economic and political landscape of Rome at the dawn of the first century BCE. Stevenson points out that ancient writers tended to view Caesar from one of two extremes: either as an extraordinary man who eliminated a corrupt faction in the senate opposed to popular measures or as a selfish man obsessed with sole power (p. 9). Many historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth century portrayed Caesar in a positive and heroic manner. Mommsen for example portrayed Caesar as a visionary who saw a need for a monarchy to overthrow a corrupt oligarchy; it is well known that this portrayal owed much to Mommsen’s personal disdain for the Prussian Junkers, whom he equated with the Roman optimates.2 Stevenson finds fault with such approaches, which tend to judge Caesar’s character in terms of the political situation of a scholar’s own era. Instead, Stevenson chooses to analyse Caesar’s life within the context of his time, focussing on the contemporary concepts used to describe him and to explain his political rise (e.g. through concepts of dignitas and clementia (pp.13-14).
Chapters three to five encapsulate the life of Caesar up to his first consulship in 59 BCE. In discussing the early life of Caesar, Stevenson gives a general overview of the typical experience of a young Roman noble in the late Republic: his education, military service and early steps within the cursus honorum. Stevenson points out that Caesar’s conduct in politics in his early years suggests that he was not in a strong position to believe that he could later challenge for higher ranks in politics (p. 42). His becoming flamen Dialis would have effectively secured his position for life, though as a flamen he would have been unable to embark on a military career, and therefore unable to hold magistracies. Inevitably, Sulla prevented Caesar from becoming flamen Dialis, and he took up military service in Asia in 81 BCE. Caesar’s career during the next decade is described by Stevenson as “…regular, though decidedly energetic” (p. 60). What is remarkable about Caesar’s attempt to run for the flaminate, and later his successful election as pontifex maximus, is that there is little evidence to indicate Caesar was, by modern standards, religious. Here Stevenson does well to acquaint the reader with the pervasive nature of religion in Roman society, and to counsel against drawing anachronistic distinctions between religion and politics, hence questioning Caesar’s devoutness.
Chapters six to eight cover Caesar’s years in Gaul (58-50 BCE). Stevenson emphasises the personal ambition of Caesar during these years to surpass the dignitas of Pompey as the first man in Rome through military gloria. As a general Caesar was decisive and bold; as a leader he was charismatic and energetic. Stevenson regards him as an orthodox strategist and argues that much of his success must be attributed to the professionalism and fighting qualities of the legionaries under his command.
By 56 BCE the relationship between Pompey and Crassus had broken down, but through personal meetings with the other triumvirs Caesar managed to convince them to renew their alliance. Stevenson points out that, in his negotiations with Pompey and Crassus for equal shares in power, Caesar demonstrated that at least at that point he did not have designs for political supremacy (p. 92). At this point any biography of Caesar intended for a general audience must venture away from the man himself, in order to explain the rapidly changing political scene in Rome which would inevitably spoil the cooperation between Caesar and Pompey. Here Stevenson balances well the activities of Caesar abroad with the turmoil in Rome, and readers are informed of the looming conflict and the opposing perspectives of Caesar, Pompey, and the optimates.
Stevenson details the military strategy of Caesar during the Civil War in greater detail than in the Gallic wars,perhaps because it is during the Civil War that Caesar best demonstrated both his brilliance and his recklessness. Plutarch recalled that Pompey’s caution was later criticised by Caesar himself, and many of Pompey’s colleagues grew tired of his strategy of attrition and forced him to commit to battle, a battle they ultimately lost.3 However, Stevenson defends Pompey’s strategy, noting “yet so far Pompey had not put a foot wrong with inexperienced forces” (p. 128). Stevenson cautions readers against viewing Pompey as indecisive and over-rated and Caesar as decisive and invincible. The situation on the ground was far more precarious than such an assessment suggests, and fortuna had a lot to do with the eventual outcome. As was the case in Gaul, Caesar’s veteran legions proved a deciding factor in his success at Pharsalus and again at Alexandria and at Thapsus.
Stevenson argues that Caesar’s policy of clementia contrasts with any interpretation that he sought to remove the corrupt nobility (pp. 157-60), and suggests that it was perhaps a decision of expedience given his earlier portrayal as a defender of the libertas of the Roman people against an obstinate oligarchy.4 Though clementia was, in part, intended by Caesar to distance himself from the dictatorship of Sulla, it undermined his intended position as a democratic ruler. According to Stevenson, his extension of clemency to fellow senators was viewed by many nobles as exercising tyrannical power. Unlike Sulla, Caesar did not retire from his autocratic position. Dictator perpetuo, and with it a permanent autocracy “meant the suppression of noble competition and popular determination. This was the end of libertas, and it was this fact, rather than any specific political or religious affront, which fuelled the conspiracy [to assassinate Caesar]” (p.160).
In the final chapter Stevenson asserts his case that Caesar did not seek kingship. He argues that Caesar operated within the confines of the political system of his day, seeking at first to climb the cursus honorum by conventional means and then to surpass all his contemporaries in dignitas. His goal was by no means different from that of other aspiring Roman nobles; however, such were the stakes in surpassing Pompeius Magnus that he became a de facto autocrat. Any notion that Caesar gained his position in order to reform politics is dispelled by his ad hoc and limited reforms. Stevenson ends by posing a philosophical question regarding the role of individuals in shaping history. Here, in agreement with Badian, he opposes Meier’s view that Caesar must be held accountable for precipitating the events that led to the destruction of the Republic.5
The intended audience for the book has clearly limited Stevenson’s case in refuting Caesar’s desire for monarchy. It is easy to argue against any grand scheme for monarchical rule during Caesar’s early career. Yet, in the last years of his life, when Caesar gained unparalleled honours and did little to deny them, it is far more difficult to argue against his desire for such powers. It is true that he shrugged off the title of Rex and symbolically refused the diadem,6 but he was denying the title and guise of a monarch only: as Stevenson states, he held monarchic power in all but name (p. 170). An argument in favour of Caesar’s desire for monarchical powers is strongest in the few years leading up to his death, but it is precisely here that Stevenson no longer examines Caesar’s possible motives, apart from his attempts to avert being overtly portrayed as a king.7 Surprisingly little evidence is examined outside literary sources. Stevenson notes that Caesar began funding the building of the Forum Iulium through proceeds from his Gallic campaign, but very little is said of the impact that such a large scale project would have on Caesar’s image in Rome, nor what political statements may have been implied in its construction. Those who are aware of Caesar’s building programme and iconography as dictator may feel their scepticism insufficiently addressed in Stevenson’s analysis of Caesar’s ambition.
Julius Caesar and the Transformation of the Roman Republic is excellently pitched for undergraduates and general readers; it is clearly presented, well mapped, and maintains a clear and consistent thesis – a further lesson for students to emulate. Stevenson gives a brief but useful introduction to the Roman world of the first century and a balanced overview of Caesar’s life within the socio-political landscape of his day. More knowledgeable readers may feel that Stevenson’s main argument is weakened by this contextual approach, but should not be deterred from it, as it still offers a well-constructed analysis of Caesar’s political machinations and motivations. Ultimately this book will be a staple of future reading lists concerning Caesar and the end of the Roman Republic.
1. In the previous decade at least fourteen books concerning Caesar were published in English alone: R. A. Billows, Julius Caesar: The Colossus of Rome. (London 2009); 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, trns. M. Hill and K. Windle (Edinburgh 2007); A. Kamm ed., Julius Caesar: A Life (London 2006) A. Goldsworthy, Caesar: Life of a Colossus (New Haven 2006); J. Osgood, Caesar’s Legacy: Civil War and the Emergence of the Roman Empire (Cambridge 2006); A. Riggsby, Caesar in Gaul and Rome: war in words (Austin 2006); G. Woolf, Et tu, Brute? The Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination (London 2006); M. Wyke, ed., Julius Caesar in Western Culture (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). There are equally numerous treatments of Caesar outside of English. More recent publications on Caesar include: L. Canfora, Jules César: le dictateur démocrate (Paris 2012); M. Wyke, Caesar in the USA (Berkley 2012); M. Koortbojian, The Divinization of Caesar and Augustus: Precedents, Consequences, Implications (Cambridge 2013).
2. Th. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht Vol. III (Leipzig 1888). J. Froude, Caesar: A Sketch (London 1879) also offered a highly favourable depiction of Caesar.
3. The comment of Caesar, Plutarch, Pompey 65.5. Pompey’s senatorial colleagues chomp at the bit for battle, Plutarch, Pompey 67.1-4.
4. Caesar, Commentaries on the Civil War Book 1.
5. C. Meier, Caesar (Berlin 1982) = C. Meier, Caesar: A Biography, trns. D. McLintock (New York 1996). E. Badian Review of Meier 1982 in Gnomon 62 (1990) 22-39.
6. Suetonius, Life of Julius 79.2 Caesarem se, non regem esse. Caesar rejected the diadem from Antony according to Plutarch, Caesar 61.3-4.
7. The comments of R. Syme, The Roman Revolution (Oxford 1939) pp. 52-4 on the brevity of Caesar’s dictatorship and his possible motives are still worth noting here.