his way to the summit of Roman society despite the everyday threat of assassination
Caesar: The Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld & Nicolson £25
Adrian Goldsworthy's book is over 500 pages long; it is hard to pick up. Equally, I found it hard to put down. For the last month my mental life has been dominated by the character of Caesar and I still haven't got him out of my system. There is evidence here of a man whose only god was himself, who pursued his own interests with a manipulative ruthlessness, a confirmed womaniser, and who was quite understandably eliminated before he could cement a dictatorship which threatened to turn a democratic republic into imperial fascism.
On the other hand, he was daring, had a deep understanding of human nature, was endowed with a supreme practical intelligence and the highest leadership qualities, and brought a stability to Rome without which it could scarcely have grown into the great pax Rotnana from which our modern world was eventually to evolve.
The book divides itself naturally into four parts: Caesar's early life and the beginnings of his rise to prominence, his generalship in the Gallic wars, his civil war with Pompey and his assassination. It comfortably inhabits that broad middle ground which meets the needs of those who, like me, want their history to be interesting and entertaining, while being confident that the scholarship is sound.
I am now going to be selfishly selective and focus on the first two parts. Except for one remarkable incident, he appears to lose both his touch and his luck in the civil war — despite his ultimate success, and I have read too many accounts of his assassination to be gripped by another, however well-written.
The Republic of Caesar's early years was creaking. All the checks and balances built into its constitution were in place, but they were open to manipulation. It was not party political, but faction political. The key players were manoeuvring for power as individuals by building client supporters, operating a web of reciprocal favours, working and abusing the system — often with impunity. For this, large quantities of money were needed. You either had it, or you had sponsors who could provide it — perhaps to benefit themselves or because they believed that the political success of their client would bring them rich returns.
Caesar himself built up immense debts in early life, and his sponsors must have had nerves of steel.
Goldsworthy had the talent to place my imagination in the Republic. I lived there for several days. I began to wonder what my own best course to climb the political ladder would be: whom would I bribe? to whom should I toady? what route should I take?
I concluded that I would have been a failure: not because of my moral sense but because I am not a big-risk taker. I could not live either with immense debt or the fear that on any day an opponent might slaughter me. My best bet would have been to have changed sex, become a Vestal Virgin, and kept my head down.
Caesar's leadership in the Gallic Wars was a model, and one which many, including Napoleon, sought to imitate. He knew, as Tolstoy did, that success in war depends largely
on morale and loyalty. And, step by step, he built this: he took care with supplies, he minimised casualties, he was a Nightingale to his wounded. His focus was on his centurions rather than on their seniors, for the morale of the centurions was the morale of the ranks. He was ready to make the key leadership gestures such as fighting on foot to rally his men. And he was similarly judicious with cementing local alliances — pardoning former enemies, for the most part, but not
hesitating to destroy a whole tribe when he deemed it salutary. Many of his battles were masterpieces of tactics. Of course he made mistakes, and of course his daring was often rewarded with luck. But a man lucky so often must be doing something right. If the tradition that he claimed that he would rather be first in a village than second at Rome be not true, it ought to be. It is the sine qua non of the true leader, and unquestionably Caesar's fundamental characteristic.
The remarkable incident, to which I referred, came later, when Caesar, after dallying far too long with Cleopatra, returned to find his legions in a mutinous state, whining for discharge. He did not rush down, all ballistas blazing, but went quietly, and gave his men a free discharge and a promise that all they were owed would be paid. Within an instant they were demanding to reenlist. The Xth, his crack legion, even voted to be decimated if Caesar would accept them. It is an admirable example of a leader who has built up moral capital, and knows just how to exploit it.
Truly, he did bestride the narrow world "like a Colossus", but we might also apply the words that Shakespeare referred to Brutus, "the elements so mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'This was a man!'" So what has happened to the three pages of nuggets I noted on your behalf, while reading the book? No room — you'll have to read it for yourself.