Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Some thoughts on Adrian Goldsworthy's "Caesar: Life of a Colossus".

Let me begin by stating that Adrian Goldsworthy's "Caesar: Life of a Colossus" is one of my favourite popular history accounts of any aspect of Classical History (another being Tony Perrottet's "Route 66A.D, which I also hope to write about in the future).

Weighing in at some 674 pages (including bibliography and notes) it is a substantial tome for being, as Goldsworthy himself states, a non-academic/scholarly work. Nevertheless, the narrative of Caesar's live is sprightly and gallops from his birth in 100 B.C.E until his untimely murder in 44 B.C.E with great speed and a hint of restlessness - qualities documented to be held by Caesar himself - and so the relative length is inconsequential in most respects.

Goldsworthy splits Caesar's very full life into three general sections: (i) - The rise to the Consulship 100-59 B.C.E; (ii) - Proconsul 58 - 50 B.C.E and finally (iii) - Civil War and Dictatorship 49 - 44 B.C.E, with each section having a few clear and relevant subsections. Carving Caesar's life up into three large and unruly chunks initially seemed to me as oversimplification, but having read this work several times now, I think it facilitates an easier understanding of a complicated life. Caesar's life can be understood, in it's most basic form, as working towards and attaining the Consulship, his time as Proconsul and finally the Civil War and death and so Goldsworthy, I believe, is sensible to divide it for ease of understanding.

Each section is well written and is very detailed for a popular history account, but certainly would never be boring to the layman. Goldsworthy admirably mentions facts from a variety of ancient sources regarding almost every part of Caesar's life, and despite his claim that the work is non-scholarly, he will often remark upon current academic debate, or the veracity of the ancient sources. The result is an easily readable work that touches upon the depths of modern scholarship without becoming too bogged down. That said, Goldsworthy is a scholar, and for anyone with a grounding in classical history, it's clear to see - more on this later.

From the outset Goldsworthy states that he plans to only follow his primary subject - events that are not directly influenced by or have an effect on Caesar will not be mentioned, or indeed skimmed over. The primary reason for this, one suspects, is to retain some structure to the work. The Late Republic is literally a quagmire of events, counter-events, stories, tales, anecdotes and everything in between. For the historian it must be very tempting to include all of these things, yet Goldsworthy sticks notably well to his aim of following only Caesar. One never feels lost in the Late Republic depicted by Goldsworthy (which of course could have been very, very easy), only acutely aware that Caesar is the focus.

One of the great strengths of the work is the middle section regarding Caesar's time as Proconsul in Gaul. Goldsworthy is primarily a military historian (his other publications are heavily based on the Roman army at various periods), and as a result his account of Caesar's "pacification" (Caesar's own term) of Gaul is excellently rendered, fully detailed and highly readable.

He follows Caesar's own account of the war very closely, referencing it at almost every point, but he's aware of the works purpose, and so does not hesitate to question Caesar's words, nor use alternative sources (which in turn he analyses for their veracity). The upshot is a wonderfully complex yet exciting and easily consumed section on Caesar's Gallic Wars.

The beginning and end sections are also of a very high quality, but it is the section that they sandwich that shines the most, as does any section where Goldsworthy gets to roll up his sleeves as a military historian.

Goldsworthy holds a very interesting scholarly line throughout the work, which, although not explicit, is clear to anyone with a classical background. He is keen to stress his disagreement with the now discredited idea of a party system in Rome akin to those in modern democracies, instead going to great lengths to impose upon the reader the idea that Rome was dominated by personal ambition and rivalry. This is an important point to highlight, for understanding this is key to understanding both Caesar and the Late Republic more generally. I recall studying this particular aspect of Roman history in a course entitled "Rivalry and Disorder" and ever since I've been at a loss to explain how crucial it is in understanding the period.

Caesar is treated as an individual who desires unparalleled glory and respect. His enemies are also depicted as individuals, and the transient nature of political ties in Rome is highlighted on many occasions, not to mention the impossibly complex system of patronage and family relations. Goldsworthy performs above par in trying to explain the sheer wealth of connections, grievances and everything else that existed between the Roman elite.

He also is at great pains to emphasise the un-inevitability of events - Caesar was not always aiming at revolution, but only came upon the decision when forced into a corner. Further to this, Goldsworthy makes it clear that despite all the violence and problems facing the Republic, it still managed to function, and the disease that eventually ended it was never chronic until quite late in it's life cycle - a notion that goes against much scholarship, which often reads a certain inevitability to the Republic's demise, sometimes going as far back as the mid 1st Century B.C.E.

He never quite joins Erich S. Gruen in "The Last Generation of the Roman Republic" in believing that the Republic was essentially functional right until the last, but Goldsworthy's refusal to take events as inevitable pushes him somewhat in this direction. In some respects this is a difficult decision - was the Republic resilient or not, and did it run relatively normally right up until the civil war? It's not entirely clear to me, nor in this work. One simultaneously gets the impression that the rot had set by the close of the 2nd Century B.C.E, but also that it was not as clear as all that. It's been a while since I've read Gruen, but my memory indicates that I found him very convincing on this idea, even if I didn't support him whole hog. Perhaps I will post about it in the future.

Goldsworthy also challenges a popular belief that the professional army, with armies loyal to Generals and not the Republic, brought about the end of the Republic. He stresses the individual ambitions of the soldiers in many cases, and without denigrating their obvious loyalty to Caesar, they themselves clung to him in the hope of self betterment as much as heartfelt loyalty. This notion is occasionally clouded as Goldsworthy does reference the intense ties soldiers now had to their Generals instead of the state, but I think it's clear that he doesn't put the fall of the Republic squarely at the feet of the new professional army - an avenue of thought I agree with.

He also, refreshingly, will offer a simple alternative to a heated scholarly debate - the idea that Caesar's womanising may simply be down to a love for sex, and Pompey's consecutive marriages to younger women may be a result of his despair at ageing. It's often tempting to read these particular parts of Caesar's and Pompey's characters as having greater political dimensions, especially with respect to how often private affairs were dominated by things such as public image and ambition. Goldsworthy's more "simple" conclusions are elegant, and should never be rejected purely because they might seem base and unscholarly.

His view is very anti-holistic, but is cohesive enough to be easily read and enjoyed. Given the absolute social milieu of the period, that is worthy of praise in itself. Again and again Goldsworthy challenges generally held ideas and facts about the period - urging a deeper understanding.

One of the most fascinating aspects is that everything is set into context, Caesar into his society, his actions with respect to past Romans, Roman society into the world more generally - the list goes on. He emphasises that it's important to understand Caesar in his world - not through the confusing glasses of retrospect, Hollywood cinema and the slightly bent interpretations of the Principate from which many of our ancient sources come.

The work, as a popular historical account, has no substantial downsides. It is, perhaps, a little lengthy for it's target audience and, although this may seem contradictory, the period really requires some background knowledge, which Goldsworthy can never fully provide (not a criticism per se), and it lacks a certain appeal to those already well versed in Caesar's life as it's not a ruthlessly detailed scholarly text. Walking the line between scholarship and popular history is, I imagine, quite difficult, especially for the scholar. That said, however, it is detailed enough and offers a fresh enough perspective to be interesting even to the hardened scholar. The fact that it holds within it much academic debate (although it's not explicitly referenced) adds to the inherent interest of the work to academics. The work was never intended to be groundbreaking scholarship, and so levelling a criticism based upon it's lack of academic debate seems unfair. In many ways it trumps scholarship, as it contains witty and refreshing prose about a topic that hardly lacks written volume.

The greatest success of the work, in my opinion, is it's basic challenge to the commonly held image of Caesar. Goldsworthy wants his readers to see past the idolised Caesar and get a feel of the real Caesar - as much as one now exists and we are able to grasp of it.

I think this idea is wonderfully symbolised by the front cover of the work, where the idolised bust of Caesar is halved - showing that there was much more to the man than one may superficially think, and also that, despite this, the idolised image of Caesar exists for a reason - the man is an idol. Goldsworthy's respect of this fact is one of the most endearing things about this work. Caesar was of course a real man, who the book tries to uncover with great vigor, but the magnitude of Caesar as a man, character, image and symbol, magnified by over 2000 years, is so all encompassing it's sometimes hard to see through it.

Goldsworthy admits that Caesar is difficult to pin down, as I mentioned in the above paragraph, but he tries admirably to understand Caesar in context to the greatest extent that we can. Some things can never be known, nor fully understood, and it's certain that retrospect will colour all conceptions of the man himself, but insomuch as he was a man, I certainly feel much closer to knowing him having read Goldsworthy than I was before, and that is, to my mind, certainly the greatest marker of the success of this work and of any biography more generally.


Related bibliography: Adrian Goldsworthy, "Caesar: Life of a Colossus", Phoenix (2007).

Addendum: An interesting academic review of the work can be found here: It's interesting and in many ways quite valid. It is perhaps a little academically cynical regarding Caesar's status as a "great man", but is nevertheless a thoughtful and comprehensive review.

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