And do you now strew flowers in his way
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood? Be gone!
The narrative of Julius Caesar and the fall of Rome that we get in elementary school is a nice, simple one, rather like that which we see in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones which no doubt drew some inspiration from it. We have the Republic, and all the blessings of liberty; and then we have Caesar, accomplished and ambitious, who leads his men across the Rubicon river and seizes Rome, intent on creating an empire — and while that goal is thwarted by his being stabbed, his young nephew Octavian finishes the job. Bad ol’ Caesar! Hopefully as we mature we gain some nuance – -realize the Republic had long failed to function, appreciate that Caesar was an ambitious man but presented legitimate appeal to the masses of Rome — but the early narrative of a grand dream being toppled by one man’s ambitions still sticks As Plutarch’s survey of the life of Pompey the Great, and Lars Brownworth’s history of Caesar’s rise to power demonstrate, though, late-Republican Rome had many such men.
This is an odd double review, in part because both volumes are slim (100 for Plutarch, 200 for Brownsworth) , and because their subjects are united. They came of age in a period in which the Roman republic had already begun perishing, divided by civil wars between Marius and Sulla. Pompey navigated those wars, hitching his star to Sulla and finding great military success: he and others in Rome regarded Pompey as Rome’s answer to Alexander, and in view of his driving pirates from the Med and settling the recurring problem with Mithradates, it’s easy to understand why. Plutarch’s biography of Pompey is worth reading for his ocassional editorializing: in the Marian-Sullan struggle, for instance, he comments that Rome had long given up hope for liberty, and would settle instead for an easier master. Caesar was too young to play a part in this drama, though his family did unite in marriage to the Marians and Caesar would use that heritage to great effect when he began his political ascendancy — including the death mask of Marius in a funeral procession to arouse attention to himself, and to proclaim that Caesar was a man who wanted to bring Rome together again, to settle old differences. The titans of the day were not Lucius and Sulla, though, but Crassus and Pompey — two rivals with two different power bases, and each opposed by one another and by Cato (who also loathed Caesar, for both personal and political reasons). Caesar proposed the three work together to fulfill their personal ambitions and overcome resistance, but their triumvirate was short lived (owing to Caesar being sent to Gaul, Pompey’s marriage link to Caesar dying, and Crassus losing his head trying to win glory in Parthia), leading to first personal and then open conflict between the two men. Despite Pompey’s iconic status, young Caesar’s charisma, bond with his troops, and generalship would win the day and forever changed the world, to the point that the kings of Germany and Russia bore his title until they were topped by treaties and revolution.
Reading these books back to back was a treat, giving me first a near-contemporary Roman’s look at the civil wars and Pompey’s rise, and then an historian’s far distant appraisal. Plutarch was writing no hagiography, and I enjoyed this work far more than Caesar’s The Gallic Wars, in part for the editorializing. As for Brownsworth’s biography of Caesar, it’s an incredibly readable narrative that reccommends itself to anyone curious about Caesar’s life, especially appreciating the context which he came to power and then death, but who shies away from larger volumes. Brownsworth has many other very accessible histories of the Byzantines, the Normans, the Vikings, and the Crusades.
The War that Made the Roman Empire, Barry Strauss. On the conflict between the manchild Marc Anthony and the boyking Octavian following Caesar’s death.
Romans without Laurels, Indro Montanelli. A humorous history of Roman society and its people from an Italian in translation.