Caesar: The Life of a Colossus

by Adrian Goldsworthy
583 pages,
ISBN: 0300120486

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Master of All He Surveyed
by David A. Furlow

"Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world like a colossus," the conspirator Cassius says of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play. "And we petty men walk under his huge legs and peep about to find ourselves dishonorable graves." Caesar has long fascinated dramatists, and, more recently, has won the favour of film-makers, novelists, and television producers. Long before Michael Douglas wooed Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rex Harrison's intelligent, utterly self-confident Caesar showed how a middle-aged man could win a youthful Elizabeth Taylor's affections in 1963's Cleopatra. During the 1990s, Caesar dominated Colleen McCullough's six Masters of Rome books, producing some of the most widely read historical fiction since the works of Robert Graves and Mary Renault. Last year, in HBO's 12-part Rome miniseries, the Belfast actor Ciaran Hinds brought to life a cynical, calculating man of swift action, dark passion, and subtle humor. But what of the real man—the most important of all the Caesars?
Caesar—perhaps the only sculpture surviving from his lifetime...most accurate representation. Mark Antony—seems always to have been faithful to Caesar Marcus Junius Brutus—one of the main leaders of the assassins who killed Caesar.

In a new, easily readable biography, Caesar: The Life of a Colossus, British military historian Adrian Goldsworthy shows how Caesar, primum inter pares (first among equals) in Rome, achieved his greatness as he raced toward the Ides of March. "In his fifty-six years," Goldsworthy writes, "he was at times many things, including a fugitive, prisoner, rising politician, army leader, legal advocate, rebel, dictator—perhaps even a god—as well as a husband, father, lover, and adulterer. Few fictional heroes have ever done as much as Caius Julius Caesar."
Goldsworthy begins by revealing the reality of life in late Republican Rome, a world situated halfway between myth and history. When Caesar presents the oration at his aunt Julia's funeral, he describes how their family, the Julii, had "descended on her mother's side from kings, and on her father's side from the immortal gods . . . [going] back to Venus . . . [so] our blood has both the sanctity of kings, who wield the greatest power amongst men, and . . . the gods, who in turn hold power even over kings." While modern politicians proudly proclaim their proletarian origins as the sons and daughters of coal miners, apothecaries, and paper-mill electricians, Caesar, the ultimate politico, presented himself as a demigod divinely ordained to hold sway over kings and rule Rome.
The young Julius Caesar soon made his mark as an aspiring orator, an ambitious attorney, and an adventurous imperialist. He travelled east to Asia Minor to begin his military career as a young officer assigned to the staff of a Roman governor. At nineteen, he won the civic crown (corona civica), a decoration awarded only to a man who risked his life to save a fellow citizen. Impressed with the young man's bravery, the governor dispatched Caesar to the court of the elderly Hellenistic king, Nicomedes of Bithynia. Goldsworthy describes how gossip soon spread that King Nicomedes had seduced the young Roman, who acted as the king's cup-bearer at a drunken feast and let himself be "led by the royal attendants into the royal bedroom, dressed in fine purple robes and left reclining on a golden couch . . ." These tales probably began as libels of envious young men who resented Caesar's favour at the court of a foreign king who had been a friend of Caesar's father. But the rumours soon provided Caesar's opponents with the opportunity to hail the young officer as the "Queen of Bithynia", and eventually led the poet Catullus to claim that Caesar was not only "every woman's man" but also "every man's woman." One can almost hear Carl Rove, in a toga, whispering that senators Pompey and Cato should engage in a little gay-baiting on the eve of the consular elections. Given the Roman prejudice against homosexuality, Caesar's vehement denials of effeminacy, and the consul's "almost insatiable" lust for beautiful, aristocratic women (like Star Trek's Captain Kirk, the proconsul was fond of bedding alien queens and princesses), Goldsworthy casts doubt on the idea that a youthful Caesar was "experimenting with his sexuality." But he frankly acknowledges the limitations of his ancient sources, and admits that "absolute certainty is impossible."
A few years later, when Cilician pirates seized the ship on which Caesar was sailing to Rhodes, the young patrician boldly scorned their demand for a ransom of 20 silver talents, an enormous amount of money. Such a low price demeaned his immense value, Caesar told them, and he suggested that they ask instead for 50 talents. The pirates did so. While the Roman citizens and Greeks of Asia Minor raised that king's ransom, Caesar's bold bravado won the respect of his captors. He treated his abductors "like a royal bodyguard," the Roman biographer Plutarch wrote, and "laughingly threatened to crucify them all." Soon after his friends paid the 50-talent ransom that secured his freedom, Julius gathered a force of special-operations soldiers, sailed back to the pirates' lair, took them prisoner, seized their wealth (including the 50 talent ransom, which he pocketed), and had his abductors crucified. But even as he carried out his threat, Julius showed a measure of generosity to his foes, for he ordered each pirate's throat cut before crucifixion, sparing them lingering, painful deaths. It was a small favour, but a kindness other aristocrats would not have bestowed upon their enemies. Goldsworthy observes that this tale "encapsulates the legend of Caesar . . . always in charge whatever the situation . . .who mocked his captors, scorned the ransom they demanded, and never once lost his poise."
The author has the expertise to tell the story of Julius Caesar's protean life. After earning a Doctorate in Ancient and Modern History at St. John's College, Oxford, he authored scholarly but accessible books about Rome and its empire: The Complete Roman Army, The Fall of Carthage, and In the Name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. In recent years, the young historian has analysed Hannibal's annihilation of the opposing Roman army at Cannae, the Roman defeat at Adrianople, and other decisive battles as a talking-head/expert on BBC-2's Time Commanders.
Goldsworthy puts that expertise to good use in describing Caesar's campaigns to master the ancient world. The section on the conquest of Gaul is accompanied by maps of France, the Low Countries, Germany, and Britain that show every border Caesar crossed, every river he forded, and every people he encountered. When Caesar goes into battle, Goldsworthy quotes Caesar's Commentaries, critically assesses them for "spin", and independently analyses the course of each conflict. While Caesar, a politician writing for the benefit of the plebes and patricians back home, could write that the Tenth Legion swiftly carried out his commands, Goldsworthy examines what motivated the legionaries who fought so far from home and shows how their generalissimo constantly sought to win his soldiers' respect, affection, and loyalty. Using a series of well-drawn illustrations, Goldsworthy demonstrates precisely why, where, and how Caesar came, saw, and conquered.
Although sympathetic to his subject, Goldsworthy does not shy away from candidly discussing the casualties, massacres, and corruption that cast Caesar in a terrifying light to many modern readers. Goldsworthy acknowledges that Caesar's armies killed hundreds of thousands of people (if not more) and enslaved additional hundreds of thousands during his conquests of Gaul and parts of the Mediterranean. He talks of massacres and details Caesar's role in bringing on a civil war that ended with his assumption of dictatorial powers. But he also puts those facts in the context of their time. Goldsworthy paints a compelling portrait of an age when a superpower's citizens viewed massive enemy death tolls as a vindication of their military might rather than a matter of sorrow and shame. He reveals a tottering republic where corruption was rife, chaos constant, and assassination a common political tool. Caesar strives for ultimate power, but so do the Senate's high and mighty patricians. Unlike his rivals, Caesar repeatedly makes it his policy to spare, forgive, and rehabilitate his defeated opponents—a policy that leads to his own assassination on the Ides of March.
Throughout this biography, Goldsworthy employs a straightforward narrative style much like the voice Caesar employed in his own writings. He does not clutter his pages with footnoted minutiae, nor does he quibble with other academics over ambiguous texts. He provides extensive primary-source references to assist a reader interested in learning more, but he does so in endnotes that do not distract from the story. The sources include not only Greek and Roman historians, but Caesar's own Commentaries. Aware that many modern readers are unfamiliar with the ancient world, Goldsworthy provides them with ample guidance: a detailed chronology; a helpful glossary of Latin terms, Roman weapons, and ancient political institutions; and eighteen pages of black and white photographs that establish, inter alia, that the real Caesar resembled neither Rex Harrison nor Ciaran Hinds.
Adrian Goldsworthy's biography fulfills its promise, bringing Caius Julius Caesar to life as a man who was great but not good, and one who truly towered over the ancient world like a colossus. •

David A. Furlow is a senior partner and trial attorney in the Houston office of the Thompson & Knight law firm. He writes and speaks about Atlantic colonial history, appeared as an expert on The History Channel's broadcast of the Warrior Queen Boudica documentary on March 10, 2006, and is now writing a book about Boudica's rebellion against the Roman Empire.

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