Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

Pro Milone by Cicero (52 BC)

All five speeches in the Oxford University Press selection of Defence Speeches by Cicero are given extremely thorough and wonderfully lucid introductions by the volume’s editor and translator, D.H. Berry. Pro Milone has the longest introduction of the lot, at 12 pages of small font, i.e. a lot of content because there’s a lot to explain.

The trial of Titus Annius Milo, generally referred to as Milo, was held between 4 and 7 April 52 BC. He was charged with the murder of Publius Clodius Pulcher. While he was prosecuted by the usual number of three advocates – Appius Claudius Pulcher, Marcus Antonius and Publius Valerius Nepos – he was defended by just Cicero.

Publius Clodius Pulcher

For a change the background is fairly simple. From the late 60s onwards Clodius had established himself as a rabble-rousing tribune of the people who developed a wide popular following and developed tough street gangs to intimidate and beat up his opponents. He first clashed with Cicero when the latter testified against him at his trial for dressing up as a woman in order to infiltrate the rites of the goddess Bona Dea being held in Julius Caesar’s house (because Caesar held the office of pontifex maximus) in December 62.

From that point onwards Clodius sought revenge and his gangs took to intimidating Cicero on numerous occasions. In 58, Clodius was elected tribune of the plebs and passed a law declaring anyone who had put to death Roman citizens without a trial guilty of treason. This was targeted solely at Cicero who, as consul in 63 BC, had followed the advice of the senate and had five leading members of the Catiline conspiracy put to death. Despite the support of the senate, the letter of the law defined Cicero as a criminal liable to the death penalty and so he was forced to flee into exile in Greece. 18 months later, in 57, the political atmosphere in Rome changed and he was allowed to return.

During his absence Clodius’s street gangs for the first time met their match in equal and opposing groups of fighters organised by ex-gladiator Titus Annius Milo, who held the post of tribune. Milo arrested some of Clodius’s men, was attacked by his gangs, attempted to prosecute Clodius for violence and, when that failed, recruited gangs of his own to meet violence with violence.

In 56 Clodius brought Milo to court but the trial was broken up by brawling and not reconvened. When Cicero defended another tribune he used the opportunity to issue a rallying cry to patriots to gather round patriots such as Milo and against traitors such as Clodius. The two became close allies. Milo provided bodyguards to protect the builders who were rebuilding Cicero’s house (after Clodius had it demolished during his exile) from Clodius’s gangs who were attacking them.

In April 56 Cicero delivered a blistering attack on Clodius and especially his sister, the notorious Clodia, as part of his defence of Marcus Caelius Rufus (referred to as as Caelius) in the speech known as Pro Caelio. Clodius’s hatred grew even deeper and resulted in several violent incidents, but Clodius’s main enemy was Milo.

In late 53 both Milo and Clodius stood for office, Milo for consul, Clodius for praetor. Cicero strongly backed Milo’s campaign since, as consul, he would be able to control Clodius. But every attempt to hold elections was foiled by outbreaks of violence and 52 opened with no magistrates elected.

The murder of Clodius

It was only a few weeks into the year, on 18 January 52, that Milo and his entourage encountered Clodius and his followers on the Appian Way outside Rome heading in opposite directions. They passed in surly silence but the rearguard of both gangs provoked each other and started fighting. It spread and became a general melee. Clodius was wounded with a spear and taken to a nearby inn at which point Milo was faced with the choice between leaving a wounded and infuriated enemy alive or doing away with him for good. So he had his men drag Clodius into the road and finish him off, leaving the body.

Milo’s trial

Having been done various favours by Milo over the years Cicero felt duty bound to speak in his defence. His presentation was seriously hampered by booing and catcalls from Clodius’s followers and it is said that Cicero didn’t manage to finish. In any case the facts were generally agreed and Milo was convicted. He hurriedly went into exile in Massilia, modern Marseilles. Subsequently Cicero polished his text and had it published. It was his last surviving court speech and is widely considered his masterpiece.

What makes it twice as interesting is that it is the only speech by Cicero for which we have an independent and separate account, by a first century AD scholar named Quintus Asconius Pedianus (3 to 88 AD) and that Asconius’s account drastically differs from Cicero’s. Its existence suggests the extent to which Cicero manipulated the facts and distorted the narrative (lied) in his speeches.

Some people thought the best line of defending Milo would have been to claim that eliminating Clodius was in the interests of public peace and order. Marcus Junius Brutus wrote and circulated the speech he thought should have been given along these lines. But instead Cicero decided to base his entire long speech on the premise that Clodius knowingly set a trap for Milo, who was therefore justified in defending himself. However, according to Asconius the encounter on the Appian Way was an accident and the outbreak of violence was an accident.

Asconius’s version

Berry includes in this edition a translation of Asconius’s version, his summary of the events surrounding Clodius’s murder and of the trial itself (and of the trials of Clodius and Milo’s associates which followed). In fact he recommends that the reader read it first, before reading Cicero’s account. It is a trim ten pages long.

Berry points out the key substantive difference between Cicero and Asconius, namely Cicero says Clodius planned an ambush which Milo heroically defended himself from, while Asconius (and, in the event, the jury) believed it was sheer luck that led to a purely accidental meeting on the Appian Way.

But there’s another way in which Asconius’s account sheds light on Cicero’s –it is brief and to the point. It is arranged in a simple chronological order, dealing with the background, the events on the day, and the complex arrangements regarding Roman law which led up to the trial itself. In many places it reads like a Wikipedia article. Asconius doesn’t mention himself once.

All this is, of course, in striking contrast to what I’ve learned to think of as Cicero’s style, which is:

  • wordy, very wordy, gabby and verbose
  • rarely if ever addresses the facts, and if it does you barely notice because they are drowned in:
  • a never-ending stream of self-glorifying self-promoting references to himself, to his great achievement in saving the state during the Cataline crisis, to his importance as a mentor and role model for the young, to his tastes in literature, to the hard work he’s put in to becoming Rome’s leading advocate, and so on and so on
  • barrages of references to Great Romans From The Past: to Scipio Aemilianus and Gaius Laelius and Quintus Metellus and Cato the Elder, and so on and on, great names yoked into his discourse in order to boost it, make it sound more patriotic and weighty
  • cluttered and repetitive: his defence of Archias is short by his standards but still manages to repeat certain claims 3 or 4 times; arguments and related sub-arguments pop up unexpectedly, with no apparent logic and then, a few pages later, pop up again
  • melodrama: in every trial Cicero makes out that the entire future of Rome, and all its citizens and women and children and their great heritage is at stake! and that only acquitting the noble defendant – a man ‘who has done more for his country than any other man in history’ (76) – can save the nation from ‘national calamity’! This unrelenting hyperbole must have gotten pretty tiring.

In contrast to all this, Asconius’s style and presentation is a wonderful breath of fresh air and makes you realise that not all ancient writing needs to be as verbose, overwrought, self-indulgent and confusing as Cicero’s.

Here’s Cicero:

So give me your attention, gentlemen, and lay aside any fear you might have. For if you have ever had the power of judging loyal and valiant men, if you have ever had the power of judging meritorious citizens, and if specially selected men from the most distinguished orders have ever been given the opportunity of demonstrating, by their actions and their votes, that approval of valiant and loyal citizens which they have so often expressed in the past by looks and words; if that is how it is, then you have at this moment complete power to decide whether we who have always upheld your authority should linger on in adversity for all time, or whether, after being persecuted for years by the most degraded citizens, we are at long last to be revived by your good selves, and by your honour, your courage and your wisdom. (4)

Here’s Asconius:

Milo was travelling in a coach with his wife Fausta, the daughter of Lucius Sulla the dictator, and his friend Marcus Fufius. Following them was a large column of slaves and also some gladiators, including two well-known ones, Eudamus and Birria. These were moving slowly at the rear of the column, and started an altercation with Publius Clodius’s slaves. As Clodius looked back menacingly at the disturbance, Birria pierced his shoulder with a spear. Then a fight began, and more of Milo’s men ran up. The wounded Clodius, meanwhile, was carried into a nearby inn in the territory of Bovilla. (32C)

I appreciate that Cicero was working within a specific genre – the advocate’s speech – that oratory had a host of rules, that the audience expected a show of rhetorical fireworks and that, in this respect, Cicero’s over-ripe performances were following convention and pleasing the crowd. And that, by contrast, Asconius’s commentary is just that, a scholarly text conforming to a completely different set of conventions and required to be precise and factual. But my God, what a relief it is to turn from Cicero’s gluttonous grandiloquence to Asconius’s spartan diet of bread and water.

Two versions of Cicero’s speech

Berry devotes several pages of his introduction to making a key point about the text. The version we have is a document Cicero heavily revised and reworked after the trial. Evidence for this comes from two sources. Firstly Asconius and the noted 1st century orator Quintilian both refer to the original version Cicero actually delivered at the trial – they’d both read it – and distinguish it from the text we have.

Secondly, Berry is the latest in a long line of scholars to detect a noticeable change in the text: the first two-thirds of the speech are favourable to the then-most powerful man in Rome, former general Gnaeus Pompeius, generally known as Pompey the Great:

  • ‘the wise and fair-minded Gnaeus Pompeius’ (2)
  • ‘a man of lofty and almost divine mind’ (21)
  • ‘a man of the highest principles’ (21)
  • ‘the exceptional carefulness of Gnaeus Pompeius’ (65)
  • ‘so very brave a man as Gnaeus Pompeius’ (66)

But around section 70, Pompey becomes more the focus of the speech and for the final third the references to him become notably hostile. Berry thinks this is because the first two-thirds are close to what Cicero delivered on the day, when the outcome of the trial still hung in the balance and it made sense to suck up to Pompey. The final third of the second version of the text was composed after it had become clear that Pompey in fact supported the prosecution and (tacitly, in the background) helped Milo be convicted. Hence the switch in tone from sucking up to critical.

The speech itself

It takes up 40 pages in the OUP edition and is divided into 105 sections. The central point is that Cicero chose to frame the events as Clodius having set a trap for Milo and so the response of Milo and his entourage was justified self-defence. He says:

  • it was Clodius who set a trap for Milo (6) and repeatedly tries to narrow the entirety of the case down to this one point, that either Clodius or Milo set a trap, and it was Clodius (31)
  • if it is agreed that Clodius set a trap, then it is no crime for a Roman to kill a criminal if his house is being burgled, or he is being assaulted or sexually attacked – a bandit may be lawfully killed (11) – and gives a roll call of Eminent Romans who have killed enemies but still been honoured (8, 9, 10)
  • it is a natural law which needs no encoding, that a man may use violence to defend himself if attacked (10)
  • he states and then repeats the claim that, by killing Clodius, Milo did the state and the people a favour, to ‘the benefit to our country, the benefit to you, and the benefit to all loyal citizens’ (30)
  • it was just the latest in a long line of services Milo has performed ‘for our country’
  • the senate has repeatedly spoken in favour of Milo (12)

Cicero asks who had the most motive for setting a trap? The obvious answer is Clodius, for Clodius was running for the office of praetor whereas Milo was running for consul and showed every sign of being elected. Now if they’d both been elected, Milo would have cramped Clodius’s (no doubt treasonous plans) at every turn – so Clodius had a clear and obvious reason for eliminating Milo. Whereas, now that he has been brought to trial for Clodius’s murder, Milo’s position is in deep jeopardy: in other words Milo had no motive for killing Clodius, quite the contrary, his murder has jeopardised his career and even his life (34).

Having established, to his own satisfaction, that the case boils down to which of the 2 men planned to ambush the other, Cicero compiles a dozen or more ways in which the time and location and make-up of the two entourages all favoured Clodius, so he was the obvious planner and trapper.

Cicero’s speech is laced with the usual references to Great Romans in order to big up his speech, to make it seem more weighty and prestigious by associating his case with Famous Men, something which really counted in this super-patriotic society.

In a related way, he continually makes the case sound as if it’s not about the guilt of just one man, but that the entire fate of the state – and therefore of the entire world (19) – is at stake. This is a familiar Cicero strategy, to make it sound as if the entire world will collapse if his man isn’t acquitted.

And both lines of argument are also connected with Cicero’s relentless flattery of the jury:

  • ‘specially selected men from the most distinguished orders’ (4)
  • ‘the most distinguished men from all the orders’ (5)
  • ‘the brightest luminaries from the most distinguished orders’ (21)

Indeed the final phrase of the entire over-ripe performance is unfettered sucking up to the jury of ‘those who are the best, the wisest and the most brave.’ (105)

Above all else, Cicero’s speech is full of endless references to himself, to his tangled history with Clodius – with an extended description of how it was Clodius’s intimidation which (unfairly) drove him into exile in 58 – and all after he had saved the state, single handed, by his own quick thinking (36 and 73 and yet again at 82).

There is something more than ludicrous about Cicero’s endless self glorification and self justification, his references to the way ‘the entire people of Italy was united by concern for his welfare’ (38), and the later passages which repeatedly refer to his exile and then ‘my restoration’ (39, 68 and 87 and 88).

The reader learns to shiver at the familiar words ‘And as for me, gentlemen…’ which introduce yet another variation on what a hero he was single-handedly saving the state during the Cataline crisis, how unjustly he was terrorised into exile by Clodius, and how ‘all of Italy’ and ‘the entire Roman people’ celebrated his return. One of the most frequent words in a speech by Cicero is ‘me’.

And so it comes as no real surprise, but is still vaguely ludicrous that the final passage in the entire speech is an extraordinarily long eulogy not to Milo, but to himself!

But as things are, Titus Annius, there is one consolation that sustains me – the thought that there is no duty of love, support, or devotion in which I have failed you. I have incurred the hostility of the powers that be for your sake; I have exposed my body and my life many times to the weapons of your enemies; I have abased myself as a suppliant before many people for your sake; I have risked my own property and possessions, and those of my children, by throwing in my lot with yours; and today, if any violence has been arranged, of if there is to be any life and death struggle, then I claim it as my own. What, then, does that leave? What more can I do for you, to repay your services to me, except to consider your own fortune, whatever it may be, my own? I shall not refuse it. I shall not say ‘No’. (100)

Several times Cicero refers to the tears in his eyes as he speaks (‘I can no longer speak for tears’, 105). This is a histrionic performance. He was on a stage. He was playing a tragic death scene, playing to the crowd, tugging the heartstrings of the jury, using every rhetorical and psychological and dramatic trick to align his own auctoritas and his noble self-sacrificing actions with those of Milo, trying to make them both out to be ‘saviours of their country.’

But wait! Cicero has more to say about himself! He always does:

How unhappy I am! What appalling luck I have had! You succeeded, Milo, in obtaining the help of these men in recalling me to my country; shall I be unsuccessful in obtaining their help to keep you in yours? What shall I say to my children, who count you as their second father? What shall I say to you, brother Quintus, who are now far away, but who shared those difficult times with me? That, in attempting to protect Milo’s welfare, I was unable to obtain the help of the very men who had helped Milo to secure my own welfare? Unable in what sort of cause? One that was approved by all the nations of the world. Unable to protect Milo’s welfare from whom? From those who had felt the greatest relief at the death of Publius Clodius. And on whose advocacy? My own. (102)

What terrible crime did I devise or what awful deed did I commit, gentlemen, when I tracked down, uncovered, exposed and expunged those indications of our impending destruction? All my troubles, and those of those close to me, derive from that source. Why did you want me to return to Rome? Was it so that I could watch the expulsion of those by whom my restoration was secured? I beseech you, do not let my return be more painful to me than my departure was! For how can I consider myself restored if I am to be separated from those who were responsible for securing my restoration? (103)

Subsequent trials

One last important thing: because it is so widely considered Cicero’s ‘masterpiece’ and is often read or studied by itself, a false impression is created of Pro Milone as sitting in splendid isolation like a statue on a plinth. It is salutary, then, to learn from the introduction (and from Asconius’s account, which devotes its last 2 pages to the fact) that the Milo trial was immediately followed by a succession of further trials, all related to the events of that day, and that Cicero was just as involved in these trials as in the Milo one.

Far from his world falling apart when Milo was convicted – as his histrionic performance stated – Cicero merely went back to his study and knocked out another defence speech. And another. And another.

Thus, although Milo was found guilty in the trial we’ve been following, and packed his bags and went into exile overnight, he was, in his absence, the subject of three further trials:

  • Milo prosecuted for electoral malpractice (bribery) – convicted in his absence
  • Milo prosecuted under the law on illegal association – convicted in his absence
  • Miilo prosecuted under a different law about illegal violence – convicted in his absence

But the battle between Milo and Clodius’s followers raged on in the courts:

  • Milo’s gang leader, Marcus Saufeius – the man who actually supervised the attack on the inn where Clodius had taken refuge and his actual murder – was tried and acquitted by just one vote – and he was defended by Cicero and Caelius.
  • Saufeius was then immediately retried, under an alternative law about illegal violence, was again defended by Cicero, and again acquitted, this time by a larger majority.
  • Meanwhile, Clodius’s gang leader, Sextus Cloelius, was prosecuted for taking Clodius’s body into the senate building on the day of his funeral, which resulted in the building being set on fire, and was convicted by a near unanimous verdict.
  • A number of other Clodians were tried and convicted.
  • A Clodian ex-tribune, Quintus Pompeius Rufus, was prosecuted by Caelius for the burning of the senate house, convicted and went into exile – Cicero was delighted because Pompeius had been spreading the lie that Cicero had organised Clodius’s murder.
  • Then another Clodian ex-tribune, Titus Munatius Plancus Bursa, was prosecuted by Cicero, also for responsibility in the burning of the senate house, convicted and went into exile.

Plancus’s conviction, in particular, pleased Cicero. We have a letter to a friend in which he says the conviction of Plancus gave him more pleasure than the death of Clodius a) because he preferred justice to be done in a court of law than at swordpoint b) because it reflected well on his friend Milo but – and this is what is so characteristically Ciceronian about the letter and his reasons – because c):

I was especially pleased at the display of good-will towards me on the part of honest men in the face of an astonishing amount of pressure from a very grand and powerful personage [he’s referring to Pompey, who tried to defend Plancus]

As so often in his legal speeches, the whole thing ends up being about him. He goes on to say:

It is a great victory. No braver Roman ever lived than those jurymen who dared to find him guilty in spite of all the power of the very personage who had empanelled them [Pompey]. They would never have done that if they had not felt my grievance as their own.

There is something winningly boyish in Cicero’s complete inability to conceive of justice as an objective factual thing, and persistently see it in solely personal terms, of whether the great figures in the land, judges and juries are for him or against him.

Slavery

Few editors comment on it but I am continually appalled at the casual references to slavery in every one of these old Roman texts. I know slavery was universal and universally accepted, and the editors of all the books I’ve read generally take it for granted – but it never ceases to shock and upset me.

A moment in Asconius’s text is even more upsetting than usual, where he claims that, immediately after the fight on the Appian Way, Milo had travelled to Clodius’s country villa to find his son (presumably to kill him) but, finding the son had been taken away, interrogated the head slave, Halicor, by cutting off his limbs one by one, before going on to murder Clodius’s bailiff and two other slaves.

!

This incident is contained in the Asconius text that Berry includes in this edition and translates, but he nowhere mentions it and it doesn’t, of course, crop up in Cicero’s speech, which makes Milo out to be a noble and patriotic man, the saviour of his nation, a man who had ‘freed his country at his own personal risk’ (72).

But it’s moments like this, the steady trickle of throwaway references to how despicably slaves were treated in ancient Rome without free men blinking an eye, which make me feel physically sick and make all reference to the ‘civilisation’ of the ancient world seem like a mockery.


Related link

Cicero reviews

Roman reviews

The Life of Julius Caesar by Plutarch

Rex’s reservations

The translator of the Penguin edition of Plutarch’s Roman biographies, Rex Warner, offers little one-page introductions before every life.

In this one he points out that, as in the Life of Gnaeus Pompey, Plutarch gives little sense of the fraught and violent politics 60s and 50s BC Rome, nor conveys the issue of street violence and anarchy in pre-war Rome. Also, he is an anti-Caesarian with the result that many of his comments springing from an underlying assumption that Julius planned right from the start of his career to overthrow the constitution.

Caesar’s plan had been laid down from the very beginning. (28)

This leads Plutarch to undervalue the contingency of Julius’s actions. Sure, he was very ambitious, ran up huge debts in order to scale political heights, but up till 60 BC Caesar did nothing which was outside the norms of the constitution. Attributing some deep, fully-worked-out conspiracy to Julius also underplays the way he initially hitched his star to Pompey, by far the more important and impressive figure in the 60s.

Warner ends with a pregnant thought. Plutarch’s simple-minded assumptions that Julius always aimed at one-man rule or monarchy means he neglects discussion of what reforms Julius had in mind to preserve the Republic.

Then again, Warner adds, in his own voice, Julius’s oft-expressed wish, that once peace had been restored in Rome, he would set out to engage the Parthian Empire in the East strongly indicates that Caesar himself had no answer to the political and constitutional problems besetting Rome.

The Life of Caesar

it’s not the longest life of Plutarch’s lives, at 69 ‘chapters’. It starts very abruptly when Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power in Rome and tried to force Caesar to divorce his wife, Cornelia, because she was the daughter of Sulla’s enemy, Lucius Cornelius Cinna.

This happened in 82 BC when Caesar was, obviously enough, old enough to have been married (the traditional year of his birth is 100 BC so he’d have been 18). Therefore most commentators think the early part of the Life, which would have dealt with his family and boyhood and young manhood before this even, must be missing.

(1) When the text does get going it accurately describes Caesar as the nephew of Sulla’s enemy, Gaius Marius, the saviour of Rome from barbarian invasion at the turn of the century and the man responsible for a root and branch of the Roman army. Julius’s mother’s sister, Julia, had been married to Marius with the result that the old general became, apparently, a kind of father figure or hero to the boy.

When Julius obstinately refuse to divorce his wife at Sulla’s behest, he was forced to go into hiding, in the country of the Sabines, before taking ship for the East to hide out with King Nicomedes in Bithynia. [This account is obviously garbled because we know from other sources that Julius was officially serving under Marcus Thermus, praetor of Asia, 81 to 80 BC, when he was given formal instructions to go to Bithynia to raise a fleet to assist in the siege of Mitylene.]

(2) The kidnap by pirates Plutarch says Julius was captured by pirates near the island Pharmacusa. He was kept captive for 38 day and nonchalantly took part in their sports and games. He wrote poems and speeches and read them to the pirates who didn’t understand them so he called them barbarians and they laughed at his cockiness, as well as when he promised to have them all hanged.

When he was finally released on payment of a ransom by his family, Caesar bought ships, went back to their location and captured them all, taking them to prison in Pergamum. When he went to the praetor governing Asia to seek justice, the latter indicated he fancied their money i.e. would ransom them and set hem free – so Julius went back to the prison and, on his own authority, had them all crucified.

(3) Legend has it that, as Sulla’s power waned, and it became safe for Julius to return to Rome, he stopped off at Rhodes to study under Apollonius the son of Molon, the illustrious rhetorician with the reputation of a worthy character. Cicero was another of his pupils. Julius studied hard and reached the second rank but was content to go no further, preferring to focus on a career as a statesman and general.

(4) In 77 BC i.e. after Sulla’s death in 78, Julius impeached Dolabella for maladministration of his province. Having read a fair number of these texts by now, I’m getting the sense that Roman governors taking bribes, extorting money, imposing extortionate taxes and generally behaving very badly in their governorships was the norm. Anyway, Julius was a successful advocate and won popularity by espousing the popular or populares cause (as had his hero Marius) against the aristocratic optimates. Plutarch drops in the thought that Cicero suspected from the first Julius’s revolutionary intentions.

(5) In 68 BC Julius delivered a splendid encomium on his dead aunt. He won popular applause for the risk step of including image of her dead husband Marius in her funeral procession, as these had been banned under Sulla. Also in 68 his first wife died, and he delivered a funeral oration for her. In 67 he went to Spain as quaestor under Vetus. On his return he married a third wife, Pompeia. He continually spent huge sums of money, when he was curator of the Appian Way restoring it, and when he was elected aedile in 66 eclipsing all his predecessors with expenditure on theatrical performances, processions and public banquets.

(6) Julius hatched a plan to commission numerous busts and memorials to Marius and had them erected on the Capitol one night so the population woke up the next morning to find them everywhere. This was generally popular and revealed the hidden strength of the Marian party. In the Senate the leader of the optimates, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, accused him of undermining the government; but even here his action was broadly approved, and won him more popularity.

(7) In 63 the position of pontifex maximus or chief priest became vacant and Julius campaigned hard for it, against older more notable men. On the day of the vote, as he left his house he told his mother he would either return as high priest or go into exile. [I’ve seen this anecdote repeated in at least modern history books.] He was elected and now a solid cohort of enemies began to fear his rising power and popularity.

The end of 63, November and December, saw the Catiline conspiracy (described at length in my reviews of Plutarch’s life of Cicero and Sallust’s history). Julius played a notable role in the Senate debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero had caught red-handed. When everyone else was clamouring for their execution, Julius persuasively argued their lives be spared and they be sent under house arrest to safe houses around Italy.

(8) Julius’s speech was very powerful, as we can tell from Sallust’s reconstruction of it, and swayed men who’d previously expressed the opposite view. But it was then solidly opposed by Marcus Porcius Cato and Catulus and the conspirators were led away and promptly garroted.

Plutarch adds the graphic detail that, as Caesar exited the Senate house after the debate, many of the young men who at that time formed a bodyguard for Cicero ran with drawn swords to threaten him, then turned to Cicero for guidance and, when Cicero shook his head, desisted – a vivid example of the way civic life in Rome had descended into the thuggery of armed gangs.

But then, rather rather than condemn this action, Plutarch goes on to criticise Cicero for missing an opportunity to kill Caesar and accuses him of being scared of the people. All of the political leaders were scared, because when the Senate held a debate a few days later which went on longer than usual, a mob gathered outside and called for their hero, threatening to burn the place down if he wouldn’t come out.

It’s not this or that incident which impresses the reader, it’s the sense that late Republican Roman political life was so fraught, that there was so much tension and paranoia.

(9) Introduces us to Publius Clodius Pulcher, the wealthy scoundrel who fancied Julius’s new wife. Plutarch gives the oft-quoted anecdote that Clodius chose to dress up as a woman in order to infiltrate the women-only rites of the goddess Bona which are held once a year in the house of the praetor. Caesar held this position at the time and so, on the night in question, he and all the males had left the house, and it was filled with women celebrating the festival.

(10) And Clodius dressed up as a woman, was let into the house by a maid in on the secret and went looking for Pompeia. But he was caught out by another serving woman who told all the aristocratic women who promptly searched the house, found Clodius hiding and threw him out. Then went home and told all their influential husbands, demanding justice for the goddess and the city.

A tribune indicted Clodius who was brought to trial but the jurors were intimidated by the people who lobbied in his favour. Meanwhile, Julius immediately divorced his wife. When summoned to appear at Clodius’s trial he was asked why he’d done this if he trusted her and he made the famous reply that ‘Caesar’s wife ought to be above suspicion’. Clodius was acquitted by the jurors who spoiled their voting papers.

(11) At the start of 61 Caesar went to Spain to serve as praetor but was only allowed to go after he had paid off at least some of his creditors. He had racked up huge debts and so went to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who agreed to pay them off in return for help with his political projects. It was the start of the informal behind-the-scenes arrangement which, when it added Pompey, became known as the Triumvirate.

Plutarch gives the anecdote about Caesar reading a life of Alexander the Great then bursting into tears. When his friends ask why he replies, ‘Is it not tragic that Alexander had conquered a world of kings and I, at his age [33], have achieved nothing?’

(12) In Spain Caesar conquered tribes and administered justice fairly, in particular restoring fair relations between debtors and creditors. Though he also made a fortune through the usual channels. That’s it on Spain. Skimpy.

(13) On returning to Rome Caesar wanted a triumph but also wanted to stand as consul; the problem was that a general awaiting award of a triumph had to stay outside the city bounds while a man seeking election as a consul had to be inside the city, canvassing. So he asked friends to pass a law saying he could campaign in absentia i.e. staying outside the city waiting for his triumph while his friends campaigned for him. But this was vetoed by Cato the Younger who had found his vocation by opposing anything Caesar wanted. So Caesar abandoned the triumph, entered the city and got himself elected consul (in mid 60 BC). It was now that he negotiated the deal between Crassus and Pompey who had been rivals, to create what later became known as the First Triumvirate.

Plutarch makes it clear he’s one of those who believes this event and this date, 60 BC, to be the pivotal one in the road to civil war, because, without people realising it, they ‘changed the form of government’. Frustratingly, Plutarch doesn’t go into details or explain what he means by that. He’s not a theory guy. He’s a personal anecdote, superstition-loving sentimental guy.

(14) When Caesar took up his consulship at the start of 59, he brought forward laws appropriate for ‘a revolutionary tribune of the people’ i.e. land redistribution. Rebuffed by the optimates in the Senate he went before the popular assembly, flanked by Crassus and Pompey, and was acclaimed for his proposals.

Caesar wed his daughter Julia to Pompey. Then he married Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus’s daughter, Calpurnia, and got Piso made consul for the following year. Cato railed against this use of marriage alliances to bypass the forms of the constitution, complaining that:

it was intolerable to have the supreme power prostituted by marriage alliances and to see men helping one another to powers and armies and provinces by means of women.

When Caesar’s fellow consul tried to oppose his plans his life was threatened so he locked himself up in his house and daren’t go to the Forum. Pompey filled the Forum with soldiers to force Caesar’s laws through, then got Caesar awarded governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul. (As I know from other sources it was a bit more complicated than that, but Plutarch doesn’t do the complex aspects of events; he is interested in broad-brush, moral points).

So he points out that Caesar was instrumental in getting Cato arrested, in getting the notorious Clodius elected tribune who promptly raised a faction to get Cicero driven out of Italy (Cicero thought it wise to flee in March 58). All this is much more complex than Plutarch’s quick glosses of these events.

(15) Then Plutarch massively changes tack, by commencing to describe Caesar’s career in Gaul and pronouncing him one of the greatest generals of all time. This was because of:

  • the difficulty of the country he fought in
  • the extent of his conquests
  • the number and strength of enemy forces he defeated
  • the savage treacherous nature of the barbarian tribes whose goodwill he won
  • the reasonable and humane way he treated prisoners
  • gifts and acts of kindness to his soldiers
  • fought more battles and killed more of the enemy than any other Roman general

Plutarch gives the wild figures that Caesar took 800 cities by storm, subdued 300 nations, killed one million in battle and took one million prisoners. (In the Life of Pompey chapter 67, Plutarch repeats these figures but says it was 1,000 cities. Maybe these figures are just easy to remember. Maybe they don’t bear any relation to reality but are just lazy statistics.)

(16) Characteristically, rather than analysis, Plutarch gives some tall tales of some random acts of heroism Caesar inspired in some of his men.

(17) Caesar won his men’s admiration and trust by 1. the free and open way he distributed honours and largesse, making it clear he wasn’t keeping it for himself 2. by showing over and over there was no form of danger or hard work he was unwilling to undergo himself.

Plutarch says Caesar was ‘a slightly built man, had a soft white skin, and was subject to headaches and epileptic fits’. He makes a very interesting point: that everywhere he went he was accompanied by a slave who was trained to write from dictation. And that in Gaul he made it a habit to dictate letters to secretaries while all of them were riding on horseback. Is that how he wrote (dictated) his commentaries on the Gallic and Civil wars?

(18) Plutarch summarises Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul i.e. against the migrating Helvetii, crossing the Rhine into Germany to fight Ariovistus (19). Plutarch’s account is like a very brief summary of Caesar’s own Gallic Wars, but with additional details thrown in. Caesar tells us the Germans delayed fighting because their holy women said they should wait till the new moon, but Plutarch adds the detail that the holy women could foretell the future by studying the whirls and eddies in river water and the sound they made. And so Caesar attacked and massacred the tribe of Ariovistus, king of the Suebi.

(20) In the winter of 58/57 Caesar put his troops in winter quarters and returned to Cisalpine Gaul where he spent the winter politicking, receiving political guests, giving them gifts, promising them more. In Plutarch’s view Caesar was taking money from conquered Gauls in order to buy and bribe Romans. Brief though it is, this is a useful insight because Caesar’s own account obviously paints him as punctiliously performing his duty, so Plutarch sheds a whole new light on his activities.

Back to the fighting: Plutarch gives a quick summary of Caesar’s campaigns against the Belgae in the far north who he massacred so much that lakes and deep rivers filled up with bodies. (This, I think, shades into the taste for the extreme and the grotesque which we’ve seen in other Plutarch lives.)

Then a quick paragraph summarising the campaign against the Nervii focusing on the climactic battle which was going against the Romans till Caesar seized a shield and plunged into the thick of the fight, prompting the tenth legion to come to his aid. Result: some 60,000 Nervii dead.

(21) The Senate declared 15 days of public rejoicing. The winter of 57/6 Caesar again spent in north Italy, giving money to clients to buy elections to positions where they could support him. He organised the conference at Luca where the Triumvirate was renewed with a third of the Senate and umpteen other magistrates present. In effect. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were running the state for their own benefit. They stitched up a deal whereby Pompey and Crassus would be consuls for the following year (55) while Caesar had his command in Gaul renewed for another five years. They had got their fiercest critic, Cato, out of the way, by having him posted as governor of Cyprus in 58.

(22) 55 BC. Brief summary of Caesar’s campaign against the Usipes and Tenteritae who had crossed the Rhine and were rampaging through Gaulish territory. They broke a promise, attacked and massacred his cavalry, so next time they send a deputation Caesar arrested it. As a result his implacable enemy Cato, now returned to Rome after his year in Cyprus, called for Caesar to be handed over to the Germans for oath-breaking. Another jaw-breaking figure: 400,000 Germans are said to have been killed. Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine in a record-breaking 10 days.

(23) Caesar took his legions across the Rhine. The Germans ran away and hid in the forests. Caesar ravaged far and wide. (Plutarch doesn’t mention this but Caesar wanted to take the fight into Germany and intimidate them against invading Gaul again). He ravaged far and wide for 18 days then withdrew his army and dismantled the bridge.

Plutarch gives a very superficial one-paragraph account of Caesar’s two expeditions into Britain (55 and 54 BC). What he adds to Caesar’s account is the fact that Britain was a legendary land and some contemporaries thought it didn’t even exist. In Plutarch’s view he found the inhabitants poor and wretched with nothing worth stealing, whereas Caesar gives an infinitely more detailed account, explaining the many trade links between north Gaul and Britain which exported, among other things, tin, furs and slaves to the continent. Slaves.

(The more you read about the ancient world, the more you get used to the idea that slavery was universal, a universal trade, a universal consequence of the unending wars, the basis of much of the economy [in mines and huge agricultural estates] reaching right into the most intimate spaces and relationships in domestic households [as per the playwrights Plautus and Terence]).

Back in Gaul Caesar received letters from friends telling him his daughter Julia, Pompey’s wife, had died in childbirth in August 54. Many contemporaries immediately worried about what would happen now this important tie between Caesar and Pompey had been severed.

(24) In the winter of 54/53 the whole of Gaul broke out in revolt. Very briefly Plutarch describes how the rebel army under Ambiorix (he calls him Abriorix) massacred the entire army of Caesar’s legates, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta. There followed the prolonged siege of the camp of Quintus Tullius Cicero, the orator’s younger brother who was serving as a staff officer with Caesar’s army.

Plutarch describes how Caesar marched to his aid with a force much smaller than the attackers, lured them away from the siege, built a camp, feigned weakness and fear till the Gauls attacked in their usual haphazard fashion – at which point the Romans sortied out of the camp and defeated them.

(25) Pompey lent him two of his Italian legions and Caesar travelled around the country deploying cohorts and commanders at key locations. All this was leading up to the outbreak of the greatest rebellion of all, in 52 BC, led by Vercingetorix.

(26) Plutarch gives a superficial account of the various tribes which joined Vercingetorix’s revolt and of Caesar’s marching his army through various territories, leading up to a victorious battle.

(27) Vercingetorix retreated to the stronghold of his people at Alesia. Caesar besieged it. But then all the other Gaullish tribes rallied and sent an enormous force against him of 250,000. So Caesar had to build a double row of fortifications, one set facing in, the other facing out.

Very superficially Plutarch describes Caesar’s victory over a) the attackers who melt away, and then b) the eventual surrender of the besieged town. Plutarch doesn’t give any details of the siege but devotes a paragraph to painting the scene of the defeated Vercingetorix riding a horse up to Caesar sitting in his commander’s chair, slowly riding round him, dismounting, stripping off his armour and sitting humbly at Caesar’s feet. Who cares whether this happened or not – it is like a sumptuous Victorian history painting and Plutarch is more of a painter than a historian.

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, September 52 BC, by Lionel Noel Roger (1899) Note the impressive Roman siege tower looming over the smoking ruins of Alesia at top left.

(28) Plutarch gives a rather simple-minded summary of the political situation. When Crassus killed in faraway Parthia in 53, the triumvirate became a duumvirate and the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey to be top dog came out into the open. Plutarch claims that Pompey initially thought Caesar was a toy dependent on him, and only came to fear him too late.

Meanwhile politics in Rome had declined into chaos. Voters were routinely and openly bribed and the venues for voting often ended up covered in blood and bodies. (Oddly, Plutarch nowhere mentions the notorious street gangs of the rivals Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo which dominate modern accounts of the period).

Intelligent people were already thinking the Republic could no longer function which is why Cato (of all people) made the desperate suggestion that Pompey be made sole consul for a year (52 BC). So Plutarch appears to contradict his own earlier statement about the triumvirate overthrowing the existing order, with this passage demonstrating that the existing order was collapsing from within. The only question was who would step in to run things.

Pompey had his governorship over Spain extended. He had never actually gone to Spain but ruled it through legates while remaining in Italy with four legions at his command. In the days of the Triumvirate this was so he could protect his partners’ interests. Now that Crassus was dead, to Caesar and everyone else it took on a different complexion and looked like Pompey wanted to make himself top dog in Italy.

(29) Caesar asked the Senate for permission to be allowed to stand for a consulship and to have his command in Gaul extended.

Plutarch adds detailed anecdotes to Caesar’s complaints that he had many enemies suggesting that he really did. These included the two consuls, Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus who, for example, had the inhabitants of Novum Comum, a colony recently established by Caesar in Gaul, deprived of their citizenship. Marcellus had a deputation from Novum Comum beaten with rods and told they weren’t real Romans and told to go back to Gaul and show Caesar their wounds.

These kinds of stories, along with the Clodius-Milo street gangs, the bribery, and the casual violence in the Forum, around the Senate, build up a picture of a state which really needed to be taken in hand and sorted out.

Meanwhile, Caesar used the wealth he’d gained in Gaul to win important supporters and to build striking monuments such as the Basilica Pauli Aemilii in the centre of Rome. Pompey was now alarmed at his power and so supported moves to have Caesar replaced in Gaul. He had tribunes pass a law sending more legions to Syria and asked Caesar to return the legion he’d loaned him a few years before i.e. Caesar lost 2 legions, Pompey none. It wasn’t paranoid of Caesar to see a conspiracy against him in all these actions.

Plutarch adds the interesting detail that these returning legions spread false rumours that Caesar was unpopular with his troops. This encouraged a false sense of security in Pompey, a confidence that he could not only rustle up troops in Italy whenever he wanted but that if Caesar’s troops returned they would all defect to him. This was a catastrophically wrong assumption. Stuck in Rome among politicians, he believed that resolutions passed in the Senate or people’s assemblies meant something, gave him strength when, of course, they were just hot air compared to Caesar’s battle-hardened army.

(30) Yet Caesar’s demands seemed reasonable enough. He suggested both he and Pompey surrendered their commands and put things to a vote of the Senate and people. Curio read out this proposal to the Senate and was applauded. Marcus Antonius (who I’ll refer to by his familiar English name of Mark Antony) was serving as a tribune of the plebs and reads a letter of the same effect to that assembly.

Yet the optimates in the Senate rejected the proposal and Pompey’s father-in-law, the phenomenally aristocratic Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, counter-proposed that Caesar be declared a public enemy if he did not lay down his command by a specified date, while Pompey would not have to do the same. It was this political impasse which meant there could only be a military solution.

(31) Caesar makes a milder proposal that he give up Transalpine Gaul but maintain governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and just two legions. Cicero was very active in shuttling from one group of supporters to another and Pompey was inclined to accept the figure of 6,000 soldiers left to Caesar. But this was opposed by the consul, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, who went out of his way to insult Antony and Curio, who he drove out of the Senate with threats of violence. This forced them to disguise themselves and escape Rome in carts.

[So you could argue that the civil war broke out and the Roman republic crashed to an end because Lentulus was an idiot. And Cato, too, who was just as intransigent. There are always people like them, determined to push their principles or their cause beyond the bonds of compromise or expediency required to make democracy work, triggering disasters far worse than anything they claim to be working to prevent.]

Plutarch brings out something which is obscure in Caesar’s account which is that by forcing Antony and Curio flee, Lentulus was depriving them of their right of veto and attacking their constitutional right as tribunes of the plebs. Caesar was to use this point repeatedly in the half dozen or so places where he states his case in the account he wrote of what ensured, The Civil War. Lentulus gifted Caesar a way of expanding the argument from being solely about Caesar’s dignity and rights into a broader one about attacks on the tribunes and the constitution. Idiot Lentulus gifted Caesar a propaganda coup.

(32) With the expulsion of Antony and the declaration of Caesar as a public enemy the political crisis had reached a climax. Plutarch explains how Caesar, realising that a sudden surprise move would be far more effective than some laboriously contrived campaign, decided to act quickly. He gives a characteristically dramatic account of the evening Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

He himself spent the day in public, attending and watching the exercises of gladiators; but a little before evening he bathed and dressed and went into the banqueting hall. Here he held brief converse with those who had been invited to supper, and just as it was getting dark and went away, after addressing courteously most of his guests and bidding them await his return. To a few of his friends, however, he had previously given directions to follow him, not all by the same route, but some by one way and some by another. He himself mounted one of his hired carts and drove at first along another road, then turned towards Ariminum. When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it.​

Great dramatic moment.

(33) Total panic in Rome, among the population and the politicians. Lentulus was roundly criticised by all sides for what his intemperate action had triggered. Once, in a speech to the Senate, Pompey had boasted that all he had to do was stamp his feet and armies would rally to his call. So the senator Favonius shouted at him to stamp his feet now.

In fact Pompey commanded at least 2 legions while Caesar only had one (though he had sent messages to Gaul for the legions there to join him). Pompey might have defeated Caesar if he had marched to confront him straightaway. Instead he let himself be carried away in the panic of the time, declared a state of anarchy and left the city, along with his legions, advising the Senate to follow him.

In Cicero’s letters we read how this single fateful decision lost Pompey huge amounts of goodwill and trust at a stroke.

(34) Plutarch describes how the consuls and Senate abandoned Rome which became like a ship in a storm which has lost its helmsman. Caesar besieged Corfinium. Plutarch supplies a characteristically theatrical anecdote, telling us that the town’s commander, Domitius, took poison provided by his slave but, when he heard of Caesar’s policy of blanket forgiveness to beaten opponents, Domitius bewailed his decision – at which point his slave admitted it wasn’t poison he gave him after all, Domitius was delighted and went out to greet Caesar and hand over Corfinium.

(35) Plutarch very quickly describes how Caesar took other towns and added their garrisons to his. How he marched to confront Pompey who, however, fled to Brundisium on the south-east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece. Caesar, having no ships, could not follow so turned back to Rome, having conquered Italy in 60 day without bloodshed. [Plutarch makes no mention of the elaborate siege of Brundisium, which lasted over a week.]

Entering Rome Caesar addressed what remains of the Senate in calm and reasonable terms and asked them to send envoys to Pompey to negotiate peace, but they refused out of fear. Caesar broke into the state treasury despite the protests of its guardian, Metellus.

(36) Unable to cross the sea to Greece, Caesar secured his rear by marching his army round the coast to Spain, to take on the legions there which were loyal to their commander, Pompey. In two brisk sentences Plutarch gives a flying overview of Caesar’s campaign in Spain i.e. despite hardships he defeated the Pompeian generals Afranius and Varro. [Compare and contrast with the thorough account in Caesar’s own Civil War.]

(37) Back in Rome, Caesar adopted the extraordinary and ad hoc power of ‘dictator’ for just 11 days during which he passed important laws: bringing home exiles, restoring the civic rights of the children of those proscribed by Sulla (a continuation of his restoring the statues of Marius), lowering interest rates to relieve the burdens of the debtor class, and other public-spirited reforms. (According to a note from Warner, Plutarch is wrong, here; Caesar was made dictator while he was still in Massilia en route back to Rome, by a decision of the praetor Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.)

Caesar then resigned the dictatorship, had himself appointed consul and set out for Brundisium again.

He took ship to Greece and captured Oricum and Apollonia. Plutarch devotes a colourful paragraph to imagining the complaints of the legions who have marched all the way from Gaul, moaning about being taken for granted and used like tools.

(38) Plutarch then wastes an entire chapter describing an unlikely escapade in which Caesar decides he has to go back to Brundisium to collect his troops but does so by disguising himself as a slave aboard a merchant vessel which, in the event, is unable to make it from the mouth of the river into the open sea because of tides and wind. [Not very likely and not mentioned in any other source. Moments like this in Plutarch have the feel of fairy tale rather than history.]

(39) Antony arrived from Brundisium with reinforcements but Pompey was well situated and able to receive supplies by land and sea. The complete lack of detail about the campaign in Greece makes you wonder whether Plutarch even had Caesar’s own account as a source. Maybe he was just really bored and fast forwarding through the whole story.

Similarly he doesn’t explain anything about the vital defeat at the battle of Dyrrichium but uses it solely to give an impressionistic portrait of panic-stricken troops. In Plutarch’s account, after this defeat Caesar spent a sleepless night before deciding to leave Pompey by the sea and march inland to attack the army of his father-in-law Scipio (which was marching back from the east to help Pompey).

(40) This looks to Pompey’s people like flight, and rumours spread that Caesar’s men are tired out and starving and that a pestilence has broken out. For these reasons Pompey thought it best to let Caesar’s army wear itself out.

(41) But his squabbling advisers demanded action, and Plutarch singles out Favonius and Afranius who shame Pompey into fighting. Plutarch gives a scrappy half-hearted ‘explanation of how, having taken the town of Gomphi, Caesar was able to provision his army and the availability of wine suddenly cleared up the mystery illness they’d been suffering from.

(42) Both armies come into the plain of Pharsalus, like everyone who something bad is about to happen to, has a prophetic dream. Plutarch follows Caesar in mocking the absurd over-confidence of Pompey’s entourage of politicians. They were so confident of victory that they devoted their energies to squabbling over who would hold which high office when they returned to Rome as victors.

Domitius and [Publius Cornelius Lentulus] Spinther and Scipio disputed earnestly with one another over Caesar’s office of Pontifex Maximus, and many sent agents to Rome to hire and take possession of houses suitable for praetors and consuls, assuming that they would immediately hold these offices after the war.

They are bolstered by the disparity between the armies: Pompey’s 45,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry against Caesar’s 22,000 and 1,000.

(43) Plutarch describes the omens on Caesar’s side.

  • Caesar told his army that several legions were on their way to join them, and should they wait to share the glory of a great victory? To which they obviously shouted ‘No!’
  • Caesar made a sacrifice and the seers told him it signified a revolution in the current status quo.
  • The night before the battle a fiery torch was seen moving in the sky above their camp which then fell to earth into Pompey’s camp.

On 9 August 48 BC Caesar broke camp and prepared to march for Scotussa.

(44) He was interrupted by his scouts with the surprise news that Pompey had moved his army down into the plain and offered battle. Plutarch summarises the battle lineup of both sides. The anecdote about brave centurion Caius Crastinus.

(45) Plutarch captures the central fact about the Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 8 August 48 BC, which is that, seeing the size of Pompey’s cavalry on his right, Caesar drew a percentage of cohorts from all his other legions and lined them up to create a fourth line on his right.

All Roman armies traditionally fought with three lines of infantry. Caesar’s decision to create a fourth line meant that, as Pompey’s cavalry fought its way through Caesar’s cavalry on the right, it was suddenly surprised by highly motivated infantry which it didn’t expect to find there. Moreover, the infantry had been carefully instructed to thrust their javelins up into the faces of the cavalry who were mostly young men and vain of their looks.

Amazingly, this tactic produced confusion and then flight. With the cavalry in retreat, Caesar’s fourth line then swivelled to attack Pompey’s centre from the rear, which, as a result of the unexpected pressure, began to collapse.

But by this time Pompey had realised the battle was lost and had fled the battlefield at sight of his cavalry in confusion. He sat in his tent until told that the enemy were mounting the walls of his camp, at which point he changed into mufti, took horse and fled the camp through a rear gate.

Plutarch leaves Pompey at that point, telling the reader he will describe Pompey’s flight to Egypt and murder in his Life of Pompey, which he does very well and very movingly.

(46) Caesar was angry and upset when he entered Pompey’s camp. He exclaimed: ‘They made me do this.’ Many of the dead were servants. Most of the defeated soldiers Caesar incorporated into his own army. Caesar was delighted when Marcus Junius Brutus was found and delivered to him alive.

(47) Plutarch lists some of the omens and prophecies of Caesar’s victory. Plutarch devotes a fair amount of time to relishing superstitious signs and omens around all his great men.

(48) Caesar gave the Thessalanians (inhabitants of the broader region around Pharsalis) their freedom, then set off in pursuit of Pompey. He went to Asia where he made Cnidius a free city, and remitted a third of Asia’s taxes.

It was when he arrived in Alexandria that he was presented with the severed head of Pompey by officers of the young pharaoh, Ptolemy, and turned away in disgust. Then ha was given Pompey’s signet ring and wept over it. Presented with Pompey’s companions who accompanied him to the end, Caesar forgave them and accepted them into his side.

He spends more time describing Egyptian politics, well, the slimey character of king Ptolemy’s chamberlain Potheinus. The dead king, Ptolemy Auletes had been declared a ‘friend’ of Rome during Caesar’s consulship in 59 BC. To achieve this he had promised a king’s ransom and Caesar now intended to collect it from his son.

(49) Cleopatra sneaks into the palace wrapped in a sleeping bag carried by her loyal servant Apollodorus the Sicilian. She inveigles her way into Caesar’s affections. At a banquet Caesar’s servant learns that Potheinus and the Egyptian general Achillas are plotting to assassinate Caesar. Caesar has Potheinus killed but Achillas escapes and raises an army which prompts The Alexandrine War, difficult to fight because it is street fighting.

Again, very briefy, Plutarch mentions the Egyptian attempts to cut off the Romans’ water supply, then to cut off supplies by ship, so that Caesar set fire to the ships in the harbour. He moves on to the fight to secure control of the Pharos which controlled entrance to the Great Harbour. The king went over to Achillas, prompting Caesar to a full scale battle, which he won. Then he departed Egypt, leaving Cleopatra as queen. Nine months later she bore his son, Caesarion. It’s all told like that – very fast and superficial. Plutarch is in a real hurry. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he realised he couldn’t compete with Caesar’s own accounts of the Gallic Wars and the Civil War.

(50) Very quickly Plutarch describes Caesar marching against King Pharnaces II of Pontus (June 47 BC), who had driven out the Roman forces and was allying with all the princes and tetrarchs, and defeating him at the battle of Zela. In announcing the swiftness and fierceness of this battle to one of his friends at Rome, Amantius, Caesar wrote three words Veni, vidi, vici – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

BattleOfZela

Caesar’s route from Alexandria to Pontus, 47 BC

(51) Caesar returned to Rome. He arranged to be made consul for the following year, 46. He became unpopular through a series of unfortunate events:

  • his soldiers had mutinied and killed two men of praetorian rank, Galba and Cosconius, but instead of court martialling them he had them demobbed, paid 1,000 drachmas and allotted land in Italy
  • the irresponsible behaviour of the deputy he’d left in Rome, Publius Cornelius Dolabella
  • the greed of Amantius
  • the drunkenness of Antony
  • Corfinius built over and refurnished the house of Pompey on the ground that it was not good enough for him

Caesar would have liked to have acted more firmly against these powerful reprobates, but he needed allies.

(52) Cato and Scipio had escaped to Africa where they’d allied with King Juba. Caesar sailed to Africa via Sicily. There were repeated engagements as Caesar was short of provisions. The Numidian cavalry were quick, Plutarch tells of one occasion when Caesar’s cavalry were dismounted and enjoying an entertainment by a dancer playing the flute when the Numidians attacked, killing many and only Caesar rushing out the camp with infantry saved the day. In another attack Caesar grabbed the standard bearer who was running away, turned him round and pointed him towards the battle.

(53) The Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 BC. Scipio was feeling confident. Leaving Afranius and Juba in camps of their own he begins building a camp beyond a lake near the city of Thapsus. But while he was still building it Caesar’s army moved with incredible speed, emerging from nearby woods to overpower the soldiers and defeat them, then marching on to also take Afranius and Juba’s camps. In one day he defeated three armies and killed 50,000. Plutarch gives a characteristically anecdotal (and macabre) addition by saying that one tradition says Caesar began to have an epileptic fit as he deployed the forces and victory was overseen by subordinates.

(54) Caesar’s long-time enemy Marcus Porcius Cato was in charge of the city of Utica. Caesar marched there only to find Cato had committed suicide, which vexed him. Plutarch considers whether he would have shown him mercy, as he did Brutus, Cicero and other opponents. Caesar wrote a book called Anti-Cato which suggests not. Then again it was intended as a rebuttal of Cicero’s book in praise of Cato so…

(55) Caesar now returned to Rome where he held an unprecedented four triumphs, and put on lavish public feasts and processions. A census was taken which showed the number listed had dropped from 320,000 to 150,000 indication of the disruption caused by war. [According to Suetonius’s Life of Caesar, this was not a census of all the people, but a revision of the number of poorer citizens entitled to receive allowances of grain from the state.]

(56) Then Caesar set out for Spain to fight the sons of Pompey. [This war certainly drags on, doesn’t it?] It was resolved at the epic Battle of Munda 17 March 45 BC, where Caesar admitted he really had to fight and was nearly defeated. Of the two sons of Pompey the younger escaped, and the head of the elder was brought to Caesar. He held another triumph in Rome to mark this victory in October 45 but it displeased the people. It was one thing conquering other nations, quite another flaunting the killing of Romans.

(57) Caesar has himself declared dictator for life. Senators and tribunes sycophantically competed to lard him with extravagant titles, which further alienated the people. But Caesar impressed by his clemency and forgiveness. There were no proscriptions and blood baths as per Sulla 40 years earlier. Instead he forgave and promoted former enemies, for example, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Pompey’s statues had been taken down but Caesar had them restored. His friends advised a bodyguard but Caesar insisted the affection of the people was the best protection. He distributed cheap grain and founded colonies for ex-soldiers, notably at the sites of ruined cities of Carthage and Corinth.

As sole rulers go he was, then, a singularly enlightened, fair and public spirited one.

(58) He won over the reluctant nobles (optimates) by promising consulships and praetorships. Plutarch dwells on Caesar’s immense ambition, his determination to outdo all other rulers and even himself. He planned to head east, conquer Parthia, then journey round the Black Sea conquering all the kingdoms, then return through Germany (conquering them) to Gaul, thus a tour of the empire. He planned to dig a canal through the isthmus of Corinth, reroute the Tiber, clear obstacles to shipping along the Italian coast. He was overflowing with plans for public works.

(59) He reformed the calendar.

(60) What made him generally unpopular was the rumour that he wanted to be made king. He denied it. When a crowd cried out Rex Rex, he said, ‘Non Rex sum sed Caesar’ – ‘I am not a king, I am Caesar’ (with a play on the fact that Rex was, improbably enough, a proper name in Rome).

There was the story that the whole Senate traipsed up to him as he sat on the rostrum to award him further honours but instead of getting up he remained seating, very discourteous. Caesar made the excuse that he felt his falling sickness coming on and didn’t want to embarrass himself. The fact that we are arguing about it 2,000 years later shows it struck a nerve.

(61) The story how at the Feast of the Lupercal (15 February) 44 Antony ran into the forum and offered Caesar a diadem, as of a crown. A handful of people clapped but when Caesar pushed it away everyone clapped. Was this a spontaneous event or a carefully contrived plan to test the water.

Then it was discovered that his statues had been decorated with royal diadems. Two tribunes went round tearing these down but Caesar had them arrested and spoke insultingly of them.

  1. Wanting to be king just doesn’t sound like the man you get to know by reading the Gallic Wars and the Civil War. Maybe he had been corrupted into considering kingship by his time in Egypt. But so much of the rest of his behaviour (consulting the Senate, giving pardoned enemies traditional magistracies) militates against wanting sole rule, that it isn’t consistent, it doesn’t make sense.
  2. In the event, the anti-monarchists struck their blow and ended up with another 15 years of civil war before getting someone considerably more monarchical than Caesar.

(62) Plutarch begins to describe the famous conspiracy against Caesar by profiling Brutus and listing the pressure he was put under by colleagues and conspirators to do something decisive, despite the mercy and many favours Caesar had shown him.

(63) Plutarch retales an impressive list of ill omens and prophecies including two different versions of the dream his wife Calpurnia was said to have had the night before his murder, and the prediction of the soothsayer about the Ides of March (which simply means the 15th of March). On that day Calpurnia begged him to delay that morning’s meeting with the Senate and he was swayed and influenced by her obvious distress.

(64) A different Brutus, Decimus Brutus, arrives to accompany Caesar to the Senate where, he tells Caesar, they were planning to vote to make Caesar king of all the provinces outside Rome. [This seems wholly unlikely to me, that either the Senate would offer this or Caesar would consider it). Decimus uses all the arguments he can think of to encourage Caesar to attend, because he is part of the conspiracy.

(65) Stories about a) a slave and b) the philosophy teacher Artemidorus, who both tried to hand Caesar notes warning him not to go, but either couldn’t get through the throng surrounding Caesar or Caesar was too busy to read the note.

(66) Plutarch is clearly trying to create psychological or literary effects, what with his chapter on evil omens, then the chapter on ill-fated attempts to warn Caesar, and now a chapter saying how ‘fated’ it was that the attack took place in one of the new buildings erected by Pompey in the Field of Mars. Poetic justice.

Caesar’s loyal lieutenant, Mark Antony, was a strong threatening man and so the conspirators arranged for him to be detained in conversation outside the Senate House by Brutus Albinus. Caesar entered the senate and was approached by a man named Tillius Cimber with a petition on behalf of his brother in exile. He accompanied Caesar all the way to his seat, and Caesar became thronged with other complainants and was becoming irritated when Tillius pulled down Caesar’s toga, exposing his neck, and that was the sign for the conspirators to stab Caesar.

He was said to receive 23 wounds in all till he lay convulsing at the bottom of a huge statue of Pompey whose base was covered in blood. It’s always seemed strange to me that it took so many dagger thrusts and he still didn’t die immediately but dodged and evaded. When he saw Brutus holding a dagger he is said to have given up resisting and covered his face with his toga.

(67) Brutus stepped back from the warm corpse and gave an eloquent speech to the Senate explaining why they’d done it, but the majority of the senators panicked and ran out, spreading rumours through the city. Rumour spread fast causing panic among the entire population, many running home and locking their doors. Antony and Lepidus went into hiding. Brutus and the chief conspirators walked to the Capitol holding their daggers, to proclaim that ‘liberty’ had been restored.

Next day Brutus made a speech to the people explaining what they had done and why which was greeted in silence. The Senate passed an act of amnesty in a bid to calm things. It was decided he was to be declared a god and no change made to any of the laws he had passed. Brutus and colleagues were given foreign provinces to govern in the usual fashion.

The question is really, not so much what motivated the conspirators, that’s obvious. It’s why the attempts to return to ‘normal’ republican government failed.

(68) It was when Caesars body was displayed in the forum that a great moaning of lamentation went up. And when his will was read it became clear how generous Caesar had been to the entire Roman population. The crowd constructed a funeral pyre from materials to hand and then turned into a mob and ran to attack the houses of the murderers. This mob stumbled across the harmless Caius Helvius Cinna and, mistaking him for one of the conspirators, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, tore him limb from limb.

In other words assassinating the ‘tyrant’ did absolutely nothing to still the street violence which had stained the 50s with blood. This lynching so terrified Brutus, Cassius and the rest that they fled the city. The rest is told in Plutarch’s life of Brutus.

(69) Summary: Caesar was 56 when he was struck down. Plutarch, with his spooky view of the world, is struck by the way that the fate that looked after Caesar in life pursued every one of the conspirators to untimely ends. [But then I realised some time ago that so did the triumvirs, first Crassus, then Pompey, then Caesar, all ignobly murdered with daggers and swords.]

Plutarch likes melodrama, such as the fact that after his side lost the battle of Philippi Cassius killed himself with the same dagger he’d used to kill Caesar. And that a great comet shone over Rome for a week after the murder, and for the entire summer the sun never properly shone but the land was covered in a fog and fruit and vegetables didn’t ripen properly.

And Plutarch ends his life on a spine-chiller: the story of the larger than life ghost – was it of Caesar –which appeared to Brutus on the eve of defeat at Philippi. Scooby, Scooby-doo!

Thoughts

Plutarch’s life of Caesar adds anecdotes and a big dollop of supernatural superstition to the record but skimps on any kind of political analysis and really skips over Caesar’s awesome military record, covering it with superficial speed and half heartedly. I think this is the worst of Plutarch’s lives. Maybe by 100 or so AD when he was writing them, the story was too well known and had been covered by too many other writers, to really engage him.


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