Posts Tagged ‘Roman Republic’

Caesar: Life of a Colossus

April 17, 2012
Cover of "Caesar: Life of a Colossus"

Cover of Caesar: Life of a Colossus

There are, perhaps, only a handful of names from the ancient world that are still well known to this day. Among these, Gaius Julius Caesar must surely be one of the most familiar, even to those who don’t know much about history. A strong case could be made that Caesar was the most influential secular figure in ancient times. The changes he made to the Roman state shaped the course of history and politics for the next two millennia. We still use the calendar he introduced in Rome, with only minor changes. His name is synonymous with king or ruler in many languages (Kaiser, Tsar, Czar, and possibly Shah). Caesar truly was a colossus among men.

Yet, in many ways, Caesar was an enigma.  We know a lot about his policies and military campaigns from his own books and the writings of his contemporaries, yet his motives and ultimate designs remain a mystery. Did Caesar plan all along to overthrow the Roman Republic, or was he improvising, or was he an ambitious aristocrat in an age in which all the conventions were breaking down. Was he planning a major new campaign of conquest in the East when he was assassinated? Why did some of his supporters assassinate him? Did he intend to make himself King?

Adrian Goldsworthy attempts to answer these questions and more in his comprehensive biography of Julius Caesar, Caesar: Life of a Colossus. He begins by exploring the world of the late Republic in which Caesar was born. Even in his youth, there were signs that the Republic no longer worked as well as it did in centuries past. There were class struggles, military coups, and increasing lawlessness and egregious lust for power among the ambitious Senatorial Class. As he grew up, Caesar learned to play the game of power as well as any of his peers, becoming a prominent young lawyer and politician. Then he embarked on his remarkable military career.

Goldsworthy notes that while he made some mistakes early in his conquest of Gaul, Caesar learned from them and soon became one of the greatest generals in ancient history. Although he was from the highest nobility, he developed a unique rapport with his men, who were willing to follow him anywhere.  Caesar’s most controversial decision was to cross the Rubicon into Italy with his army, thereby seizing power and provoking a civil war. Goldsworthy explores Caesar’s motivations for this fateful decision and concludes that Caesar was more interested in preserving his safety and honor than in becoming dictator.  Nevertheless, he did seize absolute power after he emerged victorious over his enemies.

Caesar could be ruthless at need but, according to Goldsworthy, he was not a cruel man, and whenever possible, he preferred to pardon former opponents and sought their support. This proved to be his undoing, since several of his assassins, including Brutus and Cassius, were just such former enemies.

Goldsworthy deals with each portion of Caesar’s life in as much detail as possible. He tries to stick, as close to the known facts as possible, but any biography of a person who lived so long ago must necessarily include much that is speculation.  He also takes the opportunity to correct popular misconceptions about life and war in ancient times, which Hollywood and popular entertainment has been all too apt to spread. Overall, Colossus is a solid and readable biography about a most remarkable man.

Is America in Decline?

January 28, 2012
Bust of Emperor Augustus wearing the Corona Ci...

Our Future?

No says Daniel W. Drezner in Foreign Policy and Robert Kagan at The New Republic. Both articles are well worth reading. I am inclined to agree with both these men. We do have many problems, but Americans have always been adept at overcoming crises and the fundamentals of the American economy are still very strong. America is the leading power in the world, without any real competitors and seems likely to continue in that role for some time to come. I am not afraid that America will cease to be a superpower, or that some other nation will surpass us. My fears for my country are quite different.

If I were to explain it in terms of Roman history, (which I really shouldn’t since modern America and ancient Rome are very different nations and societies, still), I would say that I do not believe we are living around 400 AD, with the barbarians crossing the border and preparing to sack Rome. Rather, I would say that we are around 130 BC. This was the beginning of a long period of political unrest and civil war that ultimately destroyed the Roman Republic and established the autocracy we know as the Roman Empire.

The causes and events associated with the breakdown of the Republic are rather complicated and I won’t relate them here. The one development that is worth mentioning, however, is that about this time Roman politicians ceased to follow the rules. More and more they began to operate outside the unwritten Roman constitution, even to the point of building their own armies. More and more, the ruling elite of Rome was less interested in the good of the nation and more concerned with maintaining their own wealth and power.

At that time Rome was master of all the lands on the Mediterranean. Although the empire had not yet reached its furthest extent, Rome was a superpower with no competitor.Unfortunately, the Roman rise to power had destroyed the small farmers who had been the backbone of the Republic. The longer wars meant that they had to neglect their lands and many went into debt and lost their land. Beginning with the Gracchus brothers, many politicians tried to enact policies to help the poor, either because they were sincerely  interested in helping them, or they hoped to use them to gain power. The Senate refused to consider any real reforms, so the populist leaders began to work around them, sometimes in ways that were unconstitutional. In response, the elite began to use unconstitutional means, including murder, to maintain their power. Eventually the Republic was wracked by civil war until Augustus Caesar took power and became the first Emperor.

Rome was still a Republic, in theory. They still had elections and Augustus pretended to pay attention to the Senate, but he ruled over everything and everyone knew it. By that time, however, the Romans didn’t mind losing their freedom. They were just happy the wars were over

I think you see where I am going with this. The thing that causes me the most anxiety is the increasing lawlessness of our political elite. When we have a President who simply ignores the constitution or a Speaker of the House who simply laughs at the idea that the Constitution might not allow something like Obamacare, I begin to sense we are on the same trajectory ancient Rome was on. It seems to me that our leaders are no longer willing to follow the rules.

It may be, decades from now, or sooner that America will be ruled by a Caesar. We will still have elections. Congress will still meet and pretend to pass legislation. But everything will be under the control of Caesar and everyone will know it. America will probably still be a superpower a century from now. I am not sure it will still be the kind of country I would want to live in.

Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire

November 27, 2011

It has been said that he who does not study history is condemned to repeat it. With this in mind then, the history of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire must be especially instructive for the great powers of our own era.  While it is not true that history repeats itself and cultures very widely over the centuries, yet the same virtues and vices cause the rise and fall of empires.

Simon Baker presents us with the story of just such an empire rising and falling in his book Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. This book, a companion to a series of documentaries on BBC, chronicles the rise and eventual fall of the Roman Empire. Simon Baker does not present a continuous narrative of all the centuries that Rome ruled the world. Rather, he focuses on about six key events or turning points of Roman history. He manages to present enough of the background history so that the reader who is not acquainted with ancient history is not at all lost.

I am not sure if it was the author’s intent but if there is one lesson that I learned from reading Ancient Rome, it would be the importance of leadership. When the Roman Republic had good leadership, with Senators willing to make sacrifices for the common good, the Republic flourished and rose to rule the known world. When the Senators became corrupt and self-serving, the institutions of the Republic no longer worked. Then Julius and Augustus Caesar transformed the Republic into the one-man autocracy we call the Empire.

The Empire worked well enough under good emperors such as Augustus and Hadrian. Under bad or incompetent emperors such as Nero, the system did not work so well. The lack of any firm rules for succession caused the Empire to nearly fall apart in the third century but, fortunately, the Emperor Diocletian was able to pull the Empire back together and Constantine gave it a reboot with a new capital, Constantinople and a new religion, Christianity.

The Western half fell to the Germans in the fifth century, but contrary to the speculations of many historians over the centuries, there was nothing inevitable about that fall. The Goths were not trying to overthrow the Roman Empire. They were fleeing the depredations of the Huns and seeking a safe place to live. Wise leadership by the Romans would have enabled the Goths to become assimilated as Romans. However, there were no wise rulers in Rome and so the end came.

 

 

 

 


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