This week we looked at one of Rome’s most controversial figures, Julius Caesar.
Caesar stands as one larger than life, and inspires many different reactions. Many view him quite differently, and he begs the question, “Who was he?”
1. Some see him as a rare combination of political and military genius, not seen again until perhaps Napoleon. But some counter that he got carried away, went too far, and ended up assassinated. How much of genius could he have been? One could say the same about Napoleon, by the way.
2. Others see a man of the people, dedicated to helping Rome’s less fortunate and ending the reign of an elite’s aristocracy’s hold on Rome. But why then, did he himself amass a massive personal fortune?
3. Still others see a man bent purely on personal gain, dedicated to destroying whatever stood in his way. His killers did not commit murder, but performed a judicial execution on behalf of the state on a criminal. Those that disagree point out that no real Republic existed for Caesar to betray anymore. The patricians sought power just as Caesar did and cloaked that under the auspices of “preserving the Republic.”
4. Finally, some see Caesar as a man dedicated to preserving order in Rome after nearly a century of political strife. The Republic failed to prevent multiple small level civil wars, and so a “strong-man” needed to arise to bring stability to Rome. And yet others counter that Caesar went out of his way to antagonize the patricians, who (like them or not) surely were needed to ensure Rome’s stability.
Truth may reside in all these theories, but one struggles to make sense of them all, to find a coherent center. I believe that one way we can do this is to see Caesar as a gambler at heart. He had the ability to quickly seize the initiative and take great risks with great rewards that accompany them. He read people superbly, and at times could conceal his intentions. He had high levels of self-confidence. He would have identified with the Bob Seger song I referenced for this posts title. But like many gamblers, he did not know when to stop. The compulsive gambler must eventually lose.
We see different examples of this principle at work throughout his life. He married the niece of Marius, who lost a civil war with the dictator Sulla. Sulla had Caesar on a list for execution, but decided to spare him on account of Caesar’s mother — on one condition. Caesar had to divorce his wife, a relative of Sulla’s greatest enemy.
Caesar refused. No doubt his refusal stemmed in part from his love for his wife. But clearly another part had to do with the fact that Caesar would not back down to anyone. No one would tell him what to do. Or did he just want to see how far he could push the mighty Sulla?
Later on at his mother’s funeral he unveiled statues of his uncle (by marriage) Marius, whose likeness had been forbidden since Sulla’s time. It’s hard to know if he genuinely sympathized with the cause or just loved tweaking authority. His rejection of his patrician ancestry puzzles some. The patricians could have guaranteed Caesar wealth and status. But of course, it would have been wealth and status on their terms, not his. Siding with “the people” gave a him a blank slate upon which he would stand or fall by himself.
Other such “all or nothing” instances exist in his life. He went into massive debt to run for Pontiff, and had he failed he would have gone to jail disgraced. Naturally, he succeeds, and uses the power of that office to amass a new fortune. We get the phrase, “Crossing the Rubicon” from his life as well. He had no qualms about going “all in” even without the strongest of hands.
I’m a believer in the power of images/faces to reveal a lot about the past. What does Caesar’s face tell us?
Of course this is not the only bust of Caesar in existence. The one below, in fact, may be the only surviving bust from his actual lifetime, and perhaps it tells a different story:
One of the few that Caesar could not overwhelm with either his charm, force of personality, or force of arms was Cato the Younger. Cato opposed all that Caesar did, and not always because Caesar went outside the system. For a long time Caesar worked carefully within the Republic, but Cato still opposed every idea he had. Cato feared that Caesar had an insatiable attitude for recognition and control, so he must oppose even lawful and possibly good ideas lest they work and enhance Caesar’s reputation.
Even historians who do not like Caesar debate the merits of Cato’s stance. Did it antagonize and push Caesar further than he would otherwise have gone? Did it make him despair of the Republic as a whole? Could the Republic still function, as Cato thought, or had it died long ago, as Caesar believed? I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.
After Caesar assumed power in Rome, he acted in a number of highly provocative ways:
- He wore red boots. A bold fashion statement, yes, but also a political statement, since red boots were associated with the exiled and despised Tarquin kings from centuries earlier.
- He allowed himself to be named “Dictator for Life.”
- Some sources say that while presiding over the Senate, he sat on a throne of sorts overlaid with gold.
- He packed the Senate with his friends and supporters, making that institution politically useless.
- He had a fling with Cleopatra. This might cause eyebrow raising and gossip left to itself. But then Caesar put a statue of Cleopatra up amongst other heroes of Rome.
The question of whether or not Caesar plotted to assume kingship had deep implications. Rome’s Republic built itself primarily on the rejection of monarchy. Rome made a law stating that anyone who sought kingship could be killed. The conspirators believed, or at least said that they believed, that Caesar planned to do just that.
Others counter that Caesar already had all the power kingship could bring. Before his assassination he planned on a large-scale military expedition against Parthia that would have taken him out of Rome for perhaps a couple of years. Some argue that it made no sense for him to seek monarchy.
Perhaps the way to see through this dilemma is to see Caesar, for the sheer thrill of it, seeing just how far he could push things. Like most gamblers, he eventually went too far.
Many thanks for a great year,