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Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Caesar: Life of a Colossus

by Adrian Goldsworthy Adrian Goldsworthy
Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
Pub. Date:
Yale University Press
Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Caesar: Life of a Colossus

by Adrian Goldsworthy Adrian Goldsworthy
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Named 2006 Best Book of the Year by
“An authoritative and exciting portrait not only of Caesar but of the complex society in which he lived.”—Steven Coates, New York Times Book Review
“The best introduction to Caesar and his world that is currently available.”—Karl Galinsky, Bookforum
Tracing the extraordinary trajectory of the great Roman emperor’s life, Goldsworthy covers not only the great Roman emperor’s accomplishments as charismatic orator, conquering general, and powerful dictator but also lesser-known chapters during which he was high priest of an exotic cult, captive of pirates, seducer not only of Cleopatra but also of the wives of his two main political rivals, and rebel condemned by his own country. Ultimately, Goldsworthy realizes the full complexity of Caesar’s character and shows why his political and military leadership continues to resonate some two thousand years later. In the introduction to his biography of the great Roman emperor, Adrian Goldsworthy writes, “Caesar was at times many things, including a fugitive, prisoner, rising politician, army leader, legal advocate, rebel, dictator . . . as well as husband, father, lover and adulterer.” In this landmark biography, Goldsworthy examines Caesar as military leader, all of these roles and places his subject firmly within the context of Roman society in the first century B.C.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300126891
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 01/28/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 608
Sales rank: 169,243
Product dimensions: 6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Adrian Goldsworthy read history at Oxford and is the author of The Roman Army at War, The Punic Wars, and other books about the ancient world. He lives in Wales.

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Copyright © 2006 Adrian Goldsworthy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12048-6

Chapter One


'For, when Rome was freed of the fear of Carthage, and her rival in empire was out of her way, the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption, not gradually, but in headlong course. The older discipline was discarded to give place to the new. The state passed from vigilance to slumber, from the pursuit of arms to the pursuit of pleasure, from activity to idleness.' - Velleius Paterculus, early first century AD.

'The Republic is nothing, merely a name without body or shape.' - Julius Caesar.

By the end of the second century BC the Roman Republic was the only great power left in the Mediterranean world. Carthage, the Phoenician colony whose trading empire had dominated the West for so long, had been razed to the ground by the legions in 146 BC. At almost the same time, Alexander the Great's homeland of Macedonia became a Roman province. The other major kingdoms that had emerged when Alexander's generals had torn apart his vast but short-lived empire had already been humbled and had dwindled to shadows of their former might. Many of the lands in and around the Mediterranean - the entire ItalianPeninsula, southern Gaul, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, Macedonia and part of Illyricum, Asia Minor, much of Spain and a corner of North Africa - were directly ruled by the Romans. Elsewhere Rome's power was acknowledged, however grudgingly, or at the very least feared. None of the kingdoms, tribes or states in contact with the Romans could match their power and there was no real prospect of their uniting in opposition. In 100 BC Rome was hugely strong and very rich and there was nothing to suggest that this would change. With hindsight, we know that Rome would in fact grow even stronger and richer, and within little more than a century would have conquered the bulk of an empire that would endure for five centuries.

Rome's rise from a purely Italian power to Mediterranean superpower had been rapid, shockingly so to the Greek-speaking world, which had in the past scarcely regarded this particular group of western barbarians. The struggle with Carthage had lasted over a century and involved massive losses, whereas the defeat of the Hellenistic powers had taken half the time and been achieved at trifling cost. A generation before Caesar's birth, the Greek historian Polybius had written a Universal History with the express purpose of explaining just how Rome's dominance had been achieved. He had himself witnessed the closing stages of the process, having fought against the Romans in the Third Macedonian War (172-167 BC), then gone to Rome as a hostage, living in the household of a Roman nobleman and accompanying him on campaign to witness the destruction of Carthage. Although he paid attention to the effectiveness of the Roman military system, Polybius believed that Rome's success rested far more on its political system. For him the Republic's constitution, which was carefully balanced to prevent any one individual or section of society from gaining overwhelming control, granted Rome freedom from the frequent revolution and civil strife that had plagued most Greek city-states. Internally stable, the Roman Republic was able to devote itself to waging war on a scale and with a relentlessness unmatched by any rival. It is doubtful that any other contemporary state could have survived the catastrophic losses and devastation inflicted by Hannibal, and still gone on to win the war.

Caesar was born into a Republic that was some four centuries old and had proved itself in Rome's steady rise. Rome itself would go on to even greater power, but the Republican system was nearing an end. In his own lifetime Caesar would see the Republic torn apart by civil wars - conflicts in which he himself was to play a leading role. Some Romans felt that the system had not outlived Caesar, many naming him as its principal assassin. None doubted that the Republic was no more than a memory by the time that Caesar's adopted son Augustus had made himself Rome's first emperor. For all its earlier, long-term success, the Roman Republic was nearing the end of its life by the close of the second century BC with some signs that not everything was functioning properly.

In 105 BC a group of migrating Germanic tribes called the Cimbri and Teutones had smashed an exceptionally large Roman army at Arausio (modern Orange in southern France). The casualties from this battle rivalled those of Cannae in 216 BC, when Hannibal had massacred almost 50,000 Roman and allied soldiers in a single day. It was the latest and worst of a string of defeats inflicted by these barbarians, who had been provoked into fighting by the first Roman commander to encounter them back in 113 BC. The Cimbri and Teutones were peoples on the move in search of new land, not a professional army engaged in an all-out war. In battle their warriors were terrifying in appearance and individually brave, but they lacked discipline. At a strategic level the tribes were not guided by rigid objectives. After Arausio they wandered off towards Spain, not returning to invade Italy for several years. This temporary relief did little to reduce the widespread panic at Rome, fuelled by folk memories of the sack of the city in 390 BC by large, fair complexioned and savage warriors - in that case Gauls rather than Germans - but the Romans retained a deep-seated fear of all northern barbarians. There was widespread criticism of the incompetent aristocratic generals who had presided over the recent disasters. Instead they insisted that the war against the tribes must now be entrusted to Caius Marius, who had just won a victory in Numidia, ending a war that had also initially been characterised by corruption and ineptitude in high places. Marius was married to Caesar's aunt and was the first of his family to enter politics, and had already achieved much by being elected as one of the two consuls for 107 BC. The consuls were the senior executive officers of the Republic, charged with the most important civil responsibilities or military commands for the twelve months during which they held office. Ten years were supposed to elapse before a man was permitted to hold a second consulship, but Marius was voted into the office for five consecutive years from 104 to 100 BC. This was both unprecedented and of dubious legality, but did have the desired result, as he defeated the Teutones in 102 BC and the Cimbri in the following year.

Marius' successive consulships violated a fundamental principle of Roman public life, but they could be interpreted as a necessary expedient to guide the State through a time of crisis. In the past the Republic had demonstrated a degree of flexibility, which had helped the Romans to deal with other emergencies. Far more disturbing was the recent tendency for political disputes to turn violent. In the autumn of 100 BC, a senator called Memmius, who had just been elected to the consulship for the following year, was beaten to death in the Forum by the henchmen of one of the unsuccessful candidates. This man, Caius Servilius Glaucia, along with his associate Lucius Appuleius Saturninus had employed threats and mob violence before to force through their legislation. They were widely believed to have arranged the murder of another of their rivals in the previous year. Memmius' lynching was blatant and prompted a swift backlash. Marius, who up until this point had been content to use Saturninus for his own purposes, now turned against him and responded to the Senate's call for him to save the Republic. Arming his supporters, he blockaded Saturninus and Glaucia's partisans on the Capitoline Hill, and soon forced them to surrender. Marius may have promised the radicals their lives, but the general mood was less inclined to lenience. Most of the captives were shut in the Senate House when a crowd mobbed the building. Some climbed onto the roof and started tearing off the tiles, hurling the heavy projectiles down into the interior until all the prisoners had been killed. To protect the Republic, normal law had been suspended and violence was crushed by greater violence. It was a far cry from the, admittedly idealised, picture of the perfectly balanced constitution presented by Polybius, although even he had hinted that Rome's internal stability might not always endure. To understand Caesar's story we must first look at the nature of the Roman Republic, both in theory and in the changing practice of the closing decades of the second century BC.


Tradition maintained that Rome had been founded in 753 BC. For the Romans this was Year One and subsequent events were formally dated as so many years from the 'foundation of the city' (ab urbe condita). The archaeological evidence for the origins of Rome is less clear-cut, since it is difficult to judge when the small communities dotted around the hills of what would become Rome merged into a single city. Few records were preserved from the earliest periods and there were many things that even the Romans did not know with certainty by the time they began to write histories at the beginning of the second century BC. The tales of the City's early days probably contain some measure of truth, but it is all but impossible to verify individuals and particular incidents. Clearly, Rome was first ruled by kings, although it is hard to know whether any of the seven individual monarchs recorded in tradition were actual figures. Near the end of the sixth century BC - the traditional date of 509 BC may well be accurate - internal upheaval resulted in the monarchy being replaced by a republic.

The political system of the Roman Republic evolved gradually over many years and was never rigidly fixed. Resembling more modern Britain than the United States of America, Rome did not have a written constitution, but a patchwork of legislation, precedent and tradition. The expression res publica, from which we have derived our word republic, literally means 'the public thing' and can perhaps best be translated as 'the State' or the 'body politic'. The vagueness ensured that it meant different things to different people. Caesar would later dismiss it as an empty phrase. The looseness of the system permitted considerable flexibility, which for centuries proved a source of strength. At the same time its very nature ensured that any new precedent or law, whether good or bad, could easily modify forever the way that things were done. At the heart of the system was the desire to prevent any one individual from gaining too much permanent power. Fear of a revival of monarchic rule was widespread and most deeply entrenched among the aristocracy, who monopolised high office. Therefore power within the Republic was vested in a number of different institutions, the most important of which were the magistrates, the Senate and the Popular Assemblies.

Magistrates had considerable power, the most senior formally holding imperium, the right to command troops and dispense justice, but this was essentially temporary and lasted only for the twelve months of office. It was also limited by the equal power of colleagues holding the same office. There were two consuls each year and six praetors holding the next most important magistracy. A man could not seek re-election to the same post until a ten-year interval had elapsed, nor could he stand in the first place until he had reached the age of thirty-nine for the praetorship and forty-two for the consulship. There was no division between political and military power and the magistrates performed military or civil tasks as necessary. The most important duties and military commands went to the consuls, the lesser to the praetors. Most senior magistrates were sent out to govern a province during their year of office. The Senate was able to extend a consul or praetor's imperium as a pro-magistrate - proconsul or propraetor respectively - on an annual basis. This was frequently necessary to provide the Republic with the number of provincial governors needed to control a large empire, but it did not alter the essentially temporary nature of power. An extension of more than two years was extremely rare. Therefore, while the offices themselves wielded great power, the individual consuls and other magistrates changed every year.

In contrast the Senate's importance was based less on its formal functions than its sheer permanence. It consisted of around 300 senators and met when summoned by a magistrate, usually a consul when one was present. Senators were not elected, but enrolled - and very occasionally expelled - in the Senate by the two censors, who every five years carried out a census of Roman citizens. It was expected that these would enrol anyone elected to a magistracy since the last census, although there was no legal obligation to do this. However, there were comparatively few offices to hold, and many senators, perhaps half, had never been elected to a magistracy. Senators had to belong to the equestrian order, the wealthiest property-holding class listed in the census. Their name, equites or 'knights', derived from their traditional role as cavalrymen in the Roman army. However, the vast majority of equestrians never sought to enter public life and the Senate tended to be drawn from an informal inner elite within the class. Wealthy, and given a prominent role in guiding the State, they were therefore men who had a strong vested interest in preserving the Republic. Debates were dominated by the ex-magistrates, for procedure dictated that the former consuls be asked their opinion first, followed by the former praetors and so on down to the most junior posts. Individuals who had served the Republic in a prominent position possessed huge influence or auctoritas (see p. 524) and the collective prestige of the Senate as a body was based to a large extent on the inclusion of such men. The Senate did not have the power to legislate, but the decrees resulting from its debates went to the Popular Assemblies for approval with a very strong recommendation. It also acted as an advisory council for the magistrates when these were in Rome, decided which provinces would be available for each year, and could grant imperium as a pro-magistrate. In addition, it was the Senate that received foreign embassies and despatched ambassadors, and also sent commissioners to oversee administrative arrangements in the provinces, giving it a critical role in shaping foreign affairs.


Excerpted from CAESAR by ADRIAN GOLDSWORTHY Copyright © 2006 by Adrian Goldsworthy. Excerpted by permission.
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A conversation with Adrian Goldsworthy
Q:  What is new about your book?
A:  The overall approach is new. As far as possible I have tried to write this as if it were the biography of a twentieth-century statesman, looking in as much detail as possible at every aspect of his life. One of the biggest differences with Meier—and also Gelzer, who wrote the most important biography of Caesar before Meier—is that I have tried to cover each stage of his life in equal detail. Their focus was always on the politics. Yet Caesar spent a very large part of his life at war—he was on campaign for no less than thirteen of the last fifteen years of his life. We need to understand Caesar the soldier as much as Caesar the politician because the two were so closely intertwined.
Q:  What are the parallels between Ancient Rome and our own times?
A:  It would be wrong to claim exact parallels between Rome in the first century B.C. and the modern world, but there are undeniable lessons to be learnt from the turbulent history of these years. One of the most important is to show the fragility of political systems. Caesar lived in the last decades of the Roman Republic, a system which was already three centuries old at the time of his birth. But less than twenty years after his death, his adopted son Octavian had turned Rome into what was a monarchy in all but name. There is perhaps a lesson for modern democracies in the danger of allowing entrenched lobby groups, political parties, and other interests to stifle real debate. 
Q:  Where was Caesar headed at the time of his assassination?
A:  Caesar was about to set out on a series of campaigns against the Dathians and Parcians, in what is modern Iraq.

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