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Five Books on Julius Caesar, genocidal maniac

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Peter Stohard recommends five books on Julius Caesar:

Julius Caesar was a populist politician and general of the late Roman Republic who immortalized himself not only by his beautiful writing about his military exploits, but also by the manner of his death. Here, British journalist and critic Peter Stothard, author of The Last Assassin, chooses five books to help you understand both the man and what motivated him and some of the people who have been inspired by him in the 2,000 years since he died.

Interview by Benedict King

Perhaps, before we discuss your selection of books about Julius Caesar, you might briefly outline who Caesar was. As a non-Classicist, I think he conquered Gaul and Britain, and brought the Roman Republic to an end by crossing the Rubicon. He was then assassinated and said: ‘Et tu, Brute?’

Yes, he did conquer Gaul—between 58 and 50 BC—killing maybe a million Gauls in the process, also getting too rich and too powerful for traditional Roman politics to cope with him. No, he didn’t conquer Britain—even though his skill as a self-propagandist has often led people to think that he did. He had two goes at invading Britain, 55 and 54 BC, and was knocked back both times—more by the weather than the Britons.

And yes, he did cross the Rubicon, which was a shallow stream between Gaul and Italy. By crossing it with his army, in January 49 BC, he broke the rules designed to keep victorious armies away from Rome, began a civil war and gave the world a new term for an act from which you couldn’t go back.

Four years later, he might have said something like, ‘Et tu Brute,’ when he saw that one of his assassins on the Ides of March was the much loved son of his mistress. But, if he did, it would have probably been in Greek. It was quite usual for educated Romans to speak Greek. More importantly, he was a great writer in plain and elegant Latin. With words he established his place in the minds of his fellow Romans and of millions of people later by saying what he’d done—just as his death defined him for other writers.

By being assassinated he set a standard for thinking about the motives and consequences of assassination. For Romans, how you died was a very important summation of how you had lived. His death cemented what he’d written about what he had done. And the consequences of his death meant that no one ever forgot him.

Your book, The Last Assassin, deals with the pursuit of Julius Caesar’s assassins by his supporters, most notably his adopted son, Octavian, who would go on to become Emperor Augustus. What does that campaign to get back at his assassins tell us about the early establishment of his myth and reputation?

Caesar had many friends, as people who get to the top always do. But it turned out that some of those friends, for various reasons, were also his greatest enemies, so much so that they were prepared to kill him.

They each had slightly different motives, some of which are related to aspects of Caesar’s own character. Some hated him because they hadn’t become as rich under his watch as they felt he’d promised them they would be, or they’d hoped to be. One of them didn’t like him because he’d slept with his wife. Some didn’t like him because he pardoned them and made them feel, by his famous clemency, that somehow he was holding that over them. They felt ashamed of having been pardoned.

Others killed him because they were jealous of other people who hadn’t been as close to Caesar in the hard days in Gaul, but who seemed to have done almost as well as they had. There were lots of different personal reasons. One of them was upset that Caesar had stolen some lions he had planned to put in a circus show.

But they all had this fear that Caesar, even if he wasn’t yet a tyrant in 44 BC, was going to become a tyrant and a single autocratic ruler of Rome. There had been brief periods in Roman history when there had been single autocratic rulers before, but the assassins had this idea that he was going to be different. They couldn’t know that, of course, but they thought he would become a kind of hereditary monarch and impose a different kind of tyranny that they wouldn’t be able to get rid of.

So, they argued amongst themselves, probably suppressing their personal motivations, as to whether it was the right thing to kill a man like Caesar, who had done a great deal for Rome, but who was now on the brink, or over the brink, of establishing a tyranny. Sophisticated arguments were brought to bear about whether they should kill him, or whether the civil war that would probably follow from his death would be even worse.

So, there were these discussions about the evil consequences of tyranny versus a civil war. That discussion was conducted at quite a high philosophical level, but was brought together with a whole lot of those personal motivations for killing him. The philosophical arguments and the individual personal motivations taken together address the issue of who Caesar was.

Let’s move on to the books you’re recommending about Julius Caesar. First up is Et Tu, Brute?: the Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination by Greg Woolf. Tell us about why you’ve chosen this one.

Having to choose five books about Julius Caesar has been a great challenge. Caesar is someone whom you have to look at through many different lenses and prisms. He is not an easy character to see straight up. Looking at him might be compared to looking at the sun. He wasn’t the sun, except to some of his most extreme admirers. But if you try to look at him from one sole direction, it is rather blinding. So, the books I’ve chosen—and Greg Woolf is a very good introduction to this—try to look around Julius Caesar, to look at the ways different people saw him at the time and have seen him since. Woolf’s is a good account of how Caesar got to the Ides of March and what happened on the day. It’s quick and short and a very good start. But there’s also a long section on how the assassination reverberated through history, across Europe and across the Atlantic.

If he didn’t say ‘Et Tu, Brute?’ what did he say?

Et tu, Brute?’ was one of Shakespeare’s many contributions. If he said something like it, it is more likely he said the Greek words, ‘kai su, teknon’, which means ‘and you, my child’ and has been variously interpreted to mean ‘even you, who I’ve loved so much’ and ‘even you, the son of my mistress’ or ‘you, too, are going to be assassinated in your turn.’ Maybe it meant ‘I’ll see you in hell’ or a version of ‘up yours, Brutus.’ The Greek phrase has been interpreted in many different ways and Shakespeare’s ‘Et Tu, Brute?’ was just a convenient way of Shakespeare saying what a Roman might have said.

And just before we get on to the next book: we all know how Caesar died, but where did he come from? Was he born into a senatorial Roman family or did he pull himself up by his bootstraps?

He was born into a good family. All the people we’re talking about in the story, all Caesar’s assassins, were part of the elite, if you like, although the man that I have recently become most interested in, Cassius Parmensis, the last surviving assassin, wasn’t one of the top ones, which in some ways made his eyes a good lens through which to watch the action.

Caesar was a member of one of the elite families which had been rivals, squabbled and cooperated with each other, and fought against each other for hundreds of years, and had made Rome the extraordinary conqueror of so much. Gradually, it turned out that the bigger Rome’s empire, and the bigger the army its generals had, the more impossible it was to control them from the centre. So, Caesar, out in Gaul, with a lot of legions, was a lot more powerful than the Senate, which was supposed to be his master. So the system risked toppling over under its own weight.

But there were still people who thought they could prop it up, that the problem was not the system but Caesar himself. These people were also within the elite—not among the people or the army, who largely loved Caesar, as the assassins found to their cost. These killers thought that, if they could just get rid of Caesar, they could go back to divvying up power in Rome between themselves, as they’d always done.

Let’s move on to American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964 by William Manchester. This is the life of the American general Douglas MacArthur, who was the ruler of occupied Japan after the Second World War. Why have you chosen this book?

This book is a great example of . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

30 November 2020 at 3:49 pm

Posted in Books, History

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