Most of modern posterity looks back on Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) through William Shakespeare’s eyes: the quintessential story of a tyrant struck down in the name of freedom. Shakespeare’s play actually presents a more complex although not necessarily more accurate picture. Readers searching for the last word on the great man can now pick up Caesar: Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2006, $35).
Oxford professor Goldsworthy is a prodigy, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Roman warfare. Only 37, he has written seven books on the subject and hosted a string of BBC documentaries, including this year’s Hannibal.
Every historian of Rome has read every surviving document because so few remain, but the 1st century BC is perhaps the best documented. Besides Caesar’s detailed accounts of his campaigns in Gaul and two years of the civil war, his officers later wrote four books on his remaining operations. That still leaves plenty of holes in Caesar’s life, but Goldsworthy is an old hand at filling holes. Thus nothing is known about Caesar’s early education, but several ancient writers discuss the education of young Roman aristocrats, so the author tells us what probably occurred. These extrapolations appear regularly, often during critically important events. When information is missing, Goldsworthy lets us know which existing evidence is biased, incomplete, copied from another writer or perhaps (one is never sure) fabricated. Caesar: Life of a Colossus is a scholarly work, but its prose is lively and accessible, and readers are never allowed to forget that too much information is gone forever.
Ancient Rome did not resemble any modern nation, nor did it resemble the Rome of Hollywood movies (although the HBO series Rome, which fictionalizes its waning republican period, is remarkably accurate). As a result, any biography of a Roman must first explain Rome, and it is not a pretty picture. The republic was a democracy of sorts. All Roman citizens could vote, and high government officials were elected, but only the elite could serve. No political parties existed, so candidates for office financed their own campaigns. By the 1st century BC, these had become wildly expensive, and victors were increasingly anxious to recoup their investment.
Popular writers credit Caesar with destroying the Roman republic, but Goldsworthy maintains he merely gave it the coup de grâce. A member of an ancient but not terribly prominent aristocratic family, he arrived on the political scene in the 70s with little wealth and no powerful patron. By 59 BC, he held the highest office, consul, and was one of the most powerful men in Rome. Goldsworthy stresses that the 41-year-old Caesar owed none of his success to military prowess. He rose by mastering the cutthroat world of Roman politics: charming the electorate with charisma and immense outlays (his debts were crushing). Inevitably he acquired powerful enemies as well as influential supporters. Ironically the two most influential were genuine military heroes, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, with whom he formed what every Latin student knows as the First Triumvirate.
After their year of service, consuls traditionally became governors of outlying provinces. No one knows Caesar’s intentions as he rode off to govern Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul (Northern Italy and the French Riviera) in 58 BC, but it’s reasonable to assume he yearned to match the military glory of his fellow triumvirs.
Caesar had no problem finding opportunities to fight. The Helvetii, a Swiss tribe, had decided to migrate west. This was more a threat to Gaul than Rome, but Caesar plunged in with enthusiasm. After driving shattered remnants of the Helvetii back into their mountains, he turned on a German tribe that had crossed the Rhine. The presence of Roman armies in central Gaul disturbed tribes in the north, called Belgae by the Latins. When they began making threatening noises, Caesar crushed them. After it became clear Roman armies were there to stay, Gallic tribal leaders began to chafe, and Caesar spent the last half of his decade conquering the Gauls.
News of Caesar’s victories (accompanied by an avalanche of loot) thrilled Romans and most of the Senate, which showered him with honors. It did not impress his enemies, who accused him— justly—of exceeding his authority. Enemies also announced their intention to prosecute him for his actions as consul in 59 BC.
When Caesar’s enemies opposed his intended return to Rome to run again for consul in 49 BC, he defied them and came back with his army, a move that led to civil war. Caesar won, but it took three years and campaigns in Spain, Macedonia, Egypt and North Africa to do it. When he returned after a final victory, he had less than a year to live.
Goldsworthy’s Caesar is a surprisingly attractive character. Ancient warfare routinely involved pillage, atrocities and mass murder of civilians and opposing warriors. Caesar had no objection when there seemed a clear strategic benefit, but he otherwise showed remarkable restraint, often pardoning opposition leaders who later turned against him, including Marcus Junius Brutus. For 300 years after his departure from Gaul the province remained loyal, tranquil and prosperous. During his final years as dictator, he showed little thirst for blood. His reforms, many of which were never carried out, seem positively progressive.
Goldsworthy points out that Caesar’s victories were small potatoes compared to those of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Tamerlane or even his contemporary, Pompey. His additions to the empire included only most of France and the Low Countries, although he performed brilliantly during the civil war. What makes Caesar unusual among great generals is that his accomplishments did not evaporate after his death. The changes wrought during his few years in power strike us as reasonable in light of the disorder and corruption of the previous 50 years. They also struck most Romans that way, and his assassination was the work of a minority. Perhaps the only general who enjoys a similar record is George Washington—and his military victories were even smaller potatoes.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.