Caesar: Life of a Colossus

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.

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