The Alexandrian War by Aulus Hirtius

Julius Caesar’s 130-page account of his civil war with Pompey up until the latter’s defeat at the battle of Pharsalus is always published alongside three shorter accounts – of the Alexandrian War, the African War and the Spanish War – even though there is nowadays scholarly consensus that Caesar didn’t write any of these. No one knows for sure who did. Maybe his lieutenant Aulus Hirtius, who is recorded as writing the eighth and final commentary in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, wrote the Alexandrian War, but probably not the African and Spanish texts which are stylistically below Caesar’s standard and also incomplete.

The Alexandrian War

1 to 4: Military preparations

Julius Caesar had arrived with a fleet and army in Alexandria, in pursuit of Pompey. After disgustingly being presented with the head of Pompey, Caesar set about interfering in the civil war between King Ptolemy and his sister Cleopatra, and found himself under attack for his pains. He and his forces are penned into a specific quarter of the city and besieged by the Egyptian army led by Achillas.

Description of Alexandria, built of stone with little wood or flammable material. Caesar’s policy is to isolate his sector of the town and secure supplies of water and food. The Egyptians are highly educated and have copied Roman siege engines and manoeuvres.

The motivation of the Egyptians, namely resentment at the way the Romans keep coming here, first Gabinius (sent by Pompey to reinstate Ptolemy XII Auletes) then Pompey, albeit briefly; now Caesar. The population, from the richest to the slaves who they freed to fight, believe they are fighting for Egypt’s independence and to prevent her becoming a Roman province (as she of course did, after the death of Cleopatra in 30 BC).

Cleopatra was Ptolemy XII Auletes’s eldest daughter. His younger daughter, Arsinoe, slips out of the sector of the city which Caesar controls, going to join the Egyptian general, Achillas. However, the campaign doesn’t progress, the pair fall out and Arsinoe has Achillas assassinated, handing control of the army over to her favourite, Ganymedes.

5 to 9: the water supply poisoned

Ganymedes conceives the idea of tainting the Romans’ water supply, by clever engineering turning the water supplied to the buildings the Romans had occupied either salt or brackish. This panics the Roman troops who want to leave, but Caesar delivers one of his Great Speeches (as per the Gallic Wars) reassuring them and then taking the practical step of ordering them to dig wells. Soon enough they come across fresh water. It’s noticeable that the speech is markedly less clear and concise than Caesar’s speeches in The Civil War. One among many indications that this account was not written by Caesar.

The 37th legion arrives by ship with corn, men and weapons, but misses the harbour and a strong wind prevents them from entering Alexandria harbour for weeks.

10 to 25: Naval engagements

Caesar is taken out to his ships and then takes them to Chersonesus. Troops going ashore to fetch water are attacked and captured by Egyptians. Caesar wants to avoid battle and moors outside the city. But a Rhodian ship anchored further away than the others tempts the Egyptians to attack and this turns into a full scale battle, in which Caesar captures one enemy trireme and sinks one, with combatants on many of the others killed. If night hadn’t fallen he would have captured the entire Egyptian fleet.

Initially the Egyptians lose heart but Ganymede rouses them to fight back and rebuild the fleet Caesar had burned. They recall guard ships from the mouth of the Nile, find old ones tucked away in the dockyards, strip roofs to provide the oars for ships. In a short space of time they prepare 27 ships.

Caesar has 25 ships. He sails out of the Great Harbour to face the Egyptian fleet. There’s a battle and the 9 ships from Rhodes again distinguish themselves under their gallant leader Euphranor. He makes a little speech to Caesar promising not to let him down. The narrator explains that it is all or nothing for the Romans; if they are defeated their campaign is over; whereas the Egyptians can take setback after setback. Therefore Caesar rouses the troops and they incite each other, with the result that the Romans and allies win the battle, capturing a quinquereme and bireme and sinking 3 other ships to no Roman loss.

To fully control the port Caesar realises he needs to capture the island the Pharos is on and the causeway which leads to it. He lands troops on the island, ten cohorts of infantry and cavalry. There’s a problem finding a landing place, with Egyptian ships harassing them but once ashore they fight and turn the defending forces, and those in the defended positions panic and run, some throwing themselves into the sea and swimming the half mile back to town.

Caesar allows his men to loot the area, then demolish the buildings then set a garrison to defend the island and lighthouse. But when he tries to take the arch on the long causeway back towards the city, the Egyptians counter-attack and it turns into a rout. The fleeing Romans overload their own boats many of which sink. Caesar is forced to abandon his main boat when it becomes swamped, leaps overboard and swims further out to waiting ships, and from here directs the retreat onto smaller boats. Having secured this arch the Alexandrians fortified it with defence works and siege engines (22).

Frankly, I found it very difficult to follow what was meant to be happening in this description. I get that there was a causeway but I didn’t understand whether it had a kind of lock at the city end through which ships could pass, which the Romans were trying to seize. And I didn’t quite understand how the Alexandrians were able to take the Romans by surprise or get round them if it was a narrow causeway. In this as so many other descriptions in the Gallic and Civil Wars, even though the authors are eye witnesses, I find descriptions of physical layouts and battles often incomprehensible.

Caesar rouses his men who make daily skirmishes and sallies against the enemy fortifications. I have no idea what this looked like because I got no good visual sense of the defences in question.

A deputation of Egyptians asks Caesar to release their king who might become a conduit to negotiate a ceasefire. They’re fed up of being ruled by a girl. When he sends for the king the young lad bursts into tears and begs not to be sent away. And yet as soon as he joins his people on the outside he renews the war with new ferocity, leading the narrator to reflect on the nature of Egyptians: ‘they were a deceitful race, always pretending something different from their real intentions.’

The Egyptians learn that overland forces are coming from Syria and so try to block off the food supplies which are reaching the Romans by ship, stationing ships near Canopus. So Caesar exits the Grand Harbour and engages in a major battle off Canopus. Upsettingly, almost the only leader to die is the hero of the Rhodians, Euphranor, who destroys one ship but goes too far in his pursuit of another, is surrounded and sunk. C’est la guerre or, as the author puts it:

Fortune, however, very often reserves for a harsher fate those upon whom she has showered her most prolific blessings.

26 to 33: The last stages

Caesar had sent his loyal friend King Mithridates of Pergamum to Syria and Cilicia for reinforcements and food. Now Mithridates arrives, having marched back from Syria. He comes to the border garrison town of Pelusium, storms and takes it in a day. Then marches on towards the Nile Delta. Fights another engagement with the Egyptian army sent to stop him, initially having the best of it.

The King of Egypt sets out to confront him by sailing a fleet down the Nile. Caesar sails his fleet along the coast. The king camps on a bluff overlooking a tributary of the Nile. When Caesar approaches he sends some cavalry and light infantry to block his way. But Caesar’s German mercenaries cross the tributary and massacre this advance guard.

When he reaches the king’s camp he realises how well fortified it is. The king has built a fort next to a village and a defensive wall joining fort and camp and encompassing the village. Caesar attacks the fort and a weak spot where the walls of the camp touch the river, leaving a slight gap. Caesar notices they have left the highest part of the camp undefended and orders his men to storm it there. They succeed and from this high point attack downwards into the lower parts throwing the Egyptians into a complete panic. They throw themselves over the ramparts which then collapse crushing many. Many try to swim out to their ships in the river but drown and it is thought the king himself makes it to a ship which is then swamped by panicking sailors and sinks and he drowns. End of Ptolemy (31).

Then Caesar returns to Alexandria with his men triumphant and the remaining Egyptian army surrenders, coming towards him dressed as supplicants and offering him their sacred objects in submission and he makes his way through the former ‘enemy lines’ to the part of town his men held and received their congratulations.

Having secured Alexandria and Egypt, Caesar returns to his original aim which was to enforce the will of the recently dead king, Ptolemy XII Auletes. The older son being dead he instals the younger one on the throne to share it with Cleopatra. He leaves legions to enforce this settlement and maintain the new rulers in power (just as Pompey had left Gabinius after he had installed Ptolemy XII Auletes back on the throne) and departs for Syria.

Here’s a summary by modern historian, Robert C. L. Holmes with illustrations, which makes the battle of the causeway a little clearer.

34 to 41: Events in Asia

The narrative now switches to describe what has been going on during the civil war in other key Roman provinces. In Asia (i.e. modern-day Turkey) the king of Armenia appeals to the Roman governor, Domitius Calvinus, because Lesser Armenia and Cappadocia have been overrun by Pharnaces, king of Pontus. [It will be remembered from Plutarch and other sources that Pharnaces was the son of the great Mithridates who was such a thorn in the side of Rome from 88 to 63, when he committed suicide after this son of his, Pharnaces, overthrew him.]

Domitius sends messages to Pharnaces telling him to withdraw and assembles a force from various legions, including ones raised from native soldiers, then sets out for Armenia. He approaches the town of Nicopolis where Pharnaces has made camp. The two sides jockey for position, Pharnaces builds a long defensive trench in front of the town. Domitius has received envoys from Caesar, who is in a parlous condition back in Alexandria and demands reinforcements. But he knows he can’t turn his back on Pharnaces, who will attack him.

So there’s a full-blown battle and the Romans lose. The 36th legion acquit themselves well but the centre and the right flank (the Pontic legions and the entire army of King Deiotarius who had asked the Romans for help in the first place) fold and are annihilated. Domitius survives and withdraws the surviving forces back through Cappadocia to west Asia i.e. back towards the coast.

Pharnaces advances into Pontus, his ancestral kingdom, where he behaves like a tyrant, taking towns, brutally punishing their populations. The narrator singles out his fondness for identifying beautiful young men and having them castrated.

42 to 47: Events in Illyricum

Where was Illyricum? Illyricum was the Roman province which encompassed the east coast of the Adriatic and up into the mountains, sometimes referred to in translations as the Balkans, the territory which, under the emperors, came to be called Dalmatia. The Roman governors of the province consistently supported Caesar, but the natives sided with Pompey. The heavy fighting at Dyrrhachium in 48 was just south of the border of the province. Unlike Greece, Asia or Egypt it is described as a very poor province, with ‘very meagre prospects.

Illyricum in the Roman Empire

Caesar had been proconsul of Illyricum all through the Gallic war and at the end of each fighting season in Gaul had crossed back over the Alps to come and administer this province, so he knew it well.

At the outbreak of the civil war with Pompey Caesar had left it to be run by his quaestor Quintus Cornificius, who had acted wisely and discreetly, slowly taking fortresses built by rebellious natives and pacifying the province. Cornificius captured Marcus Octavius‘s fleet fleeing after the battle of Pharsalus.

Caesar now orders Aulus Gabinius to take newly levied legions and unite with Cornificius, but he arrives in the depths of winter and sustains many reverses, coming off worst when he attempts to storm fortresses in bad weather without food supplies. Gabinius is defeated while withdrawing on Salona, losing 2,000 troops, 38 centurions and four tribunes. He dies soon afterwards of illness.

Caesar had left Publius Vatinius in charge of Brundisium. When Vatinius learns that the Pompeian fleet of Marcus Octavius is raiding up and down the Illyrian coast, he repairs and knocks together a scratch fleet of ships and sails out to engage Octavius. He forces Octavius to abandon his siege of Epidaurus.

Vatinius engages Octavius’s fleet off the island of Tauris. Octavius has the bigger ships and more of them but Vatinius’s men are more fierce for battle. Thus, when the ships ram each other and become entangled it is Vatinius’s forces who storm the enemy ships and fight fiercely, sinking many of Octavius’s ships. Octavius abandons his own ship, swims to a small boat which is swamped by survivors and also sinks then, despite his wounds, to an escort vessel and, as night falls, escapes.

Vatinius rests his men and repairs his ships before sailing on to the island if Issa where he a) takes submission of the townspeople b) learns that Octavius has sailed to Africa, where most of the other Pompeian forces are now regrouping. And so Vatinius returns to Brundisium with his fleet and army intact, having rid Illyricum of its sea-borne attackers and secured it for Cornificius and Caesar.

48 to 64: Events in Further Spain

[Spain was divided into two Roman provinces, Hispania Ulterio and Hispania Citerior, which can be translated into slightly old-fashioned English as Further Spain and Hither Spain.]

This section is more enjoyable than any other part of the book for the simple reason that it is clear and comprehensible. The author gives a lucid, comprehensive and rational explanation of why the governor of Hither Spain, Quintus Cassius Longinus, was deeply hated by both the provincials and his own troops, for his systematic extortion of the former and his cynical bribery of the latter.

When Caesar orders him to bring an army across to Africa, to march through Mauretania to the border of Numidia, like a character in a Plautus play, Cassius is overjoyed because this means more opportunity for bribery, extortion, corruption and loot. He travels to Lusitania to raise more taxes, men and build ships.

He assembles his troops at a camp near Corduba and promises the ones coming with him 100 drachmas each, then returns to Corduba. That same afternoon he was entering the judgement hall when he is set upon by half a dozen Roman conspirators who stab him and his guards.

It’s interesting that they use the same technique as with Caesar i.e. one person buttonholes the victim with a document, a petition, distracting them and manoeuvring them into the optimum kill position, and then the others attack. Also interesting how difficult they found it to kill someone. It took about thirty stabs to kill Caesar, and even though there are half a dozen assassins here, they fail to kill Cassius.

Cassius is rescued by his bodyguard and carried home, most of the assassins flee to safe houses, but L. Laterensis goes to address the native troops and second legion, telling them that their hated leader is dead and they are both overjoyed.

So it comes as a dreadful disappointment to everyone to learn that Cassius has survived and is not that badly hurt. The legions promptly march to Corduba to show their loyalty to their commander, as they know what is good for them.

Cassius has the main assailants interrogated, and they reveal the names of plenty of other conspirators including some of the most senior figures in the province. Cassius has the junior ones executed or tortured but negotiates a ransom from the richer ones. His greed was legendary.

When Cassius hears that Caesar has triumphed over Pompey, he orders a levy of all the richest men in the province, told those he owed money to that he wasn’t going to pay it, extorted more loans, held a levy of knights i.e. leading businessmen to conscript them to the army unless they bought their way out. Then dispatched the legions he was planning to tranship to the embarkation point.

En route he learns that the native legion and the second legion have mutinied chosen Titus Thorius, a native of Italica, as their leader. He sent the quaestor Marcus Marcellus to secure Corduba but then heard that Marcellus had gone over to the mutineers along with some cohorts of the legion kept in Corduba to maintain it.

Thorius marches his veteran legion towards Corduba. They did so in the name of Pompey because they didn’t want the reputation of being simple mutineers. The people of Corduba beg them not to loot and pillage the city. The army realise they don’t need to proclaim their allegiance to Pompey and revert back to loyalty to Caesar (!), acclaim Marcellus their leader and camp near Corduba.

Cassius approaches with his loyal legions. He sends for help to king Bogud in Mauretania and Marcus Lepidus, the pro‑consul of Hither Spain. He lays waste the territory of Corduba. The two armies camp opposite each other by the river Baetis. Marcellus’s troops beg him to engage but he withdraws at which point Cassius sends his superior cavalry to harass the rearguard.

When Marcellus blocks access to the river for his troops, Cassius struck camp and marched to Ulia, a town he believed to be loyal. Marcellus besieges Ulia and Cassius’s camp but before the encirclement is complete Cassius sends out his cavalry to be free to forage.

King Bogud arrives with a legion loyal to Cassius and harasses Marcellus’s fortifications, though without a decisive blow either way.

Lepidus arrives with 35 legionary cohort and enforces a truce. In fact Marcellus immediately defers to his authority and goes over to him. Cassius is more suspicious and only agrees to submit if Marcellus’s fortifications are dismantled. To everyone’s surprise King Bogud attacks part of Marcellus’s defences and only an angry Lepidus’s intervention stops there being a massacre.

Lepidus and Marcellus are now unified and then Trebonius arrives to govern the province as pro-consul. Cassius posts his troops to their winter quarters and hastened to Malaga where he embarked on ship. His enemies say he wanted to avoid the humiliation of having to submit to Lepidus and Marcellus, and also avoid travelling through a province he had thoroughly pillaged and looted.

His ship foundered in bad weather at the mouth of the river Ebro and he was drowned.

65 to 78: Operations in the East leading up to the battle of Zela, August 47 BC

Having marched up from Egypt to Syria, Caesar learned of political unrest in Rome (as usual) but knew he had to secure the East before he returned. By this he meant leaving all the provinces:

  • organised in such a way that they would be immune from internal disagreements
  • had accepted a legal constitution
  • had no fear of aggression from without, either through peace treaties with neighbouring enemies or by having beaten and intimidated them

Syria, Cilicia and Asia would be easy but Bithynia and Pontus were still being tyrannised by Pharnaces.

So Caesar posts Sextus Caesar, his friend and kinsman, to command the legions and govern Syria, and sets off for Cilicia where he calls a conference at Tarsus and secures the peace and security of the province from its tribes and kings.

Then forced marches through Cappadocia to Comana. Here Caesar adjudicates a dispute between Ariobarzanes III (king of Cappadocia from 51 to 42 BC) and his younger brother, Ariarathes, granting the latter the kingdom of Lesser Armenia.

Deiotarius, originally tetrarch of western Galatia, had been rewarded by Pompey for his help against Mithridates with land in eastern Pontus and the title of king. Now he came to Caesar very shrewdly dressed in the clothes of a suppliant and begged forgiveness for siding with Pompey, saying he didn’t have much choice. Caesar is quite hard on him, saying he should have known who would triumph. But forgives him on condition he joins his native legion for the campaign ahead.

Caesar marches to Pontus and assembles his forces which are not large (four legions) but battle hardened. Pharnaces sends embassies of peace truckling favour by pointing out that he had refused to send auxiliaries to Pompey, unlike Deiotarius. The text quotes Caesar’s reply to Pharnaces in which he says they can’t undo the past outrages (the murders and emasculations) but Pharnaces must now:

  • withdraw from Pontus
  • release the household slaves of the tax‑gatherers
  • make all other such restitution as lies in his power to the allies and Roman citizens

Realising Caesar is pressed for time, Pharnaces delays. So Caesar marches to the town of Zela. Pharnaces occupies an old camp of his father on a nearby hill, Caesar camps 5 miles away. The text once again gives a confusing description of how Caesar moved his forces to take advantage of the terrain, especially as the notes point out that nothing in the description correlates to any of the natural features around Zela. Were these descriptions just made up?

Caesar moves up his army to the south side of a valley whose north side Pharnaces occupied and gets them to start building fortifications. If there’s one thing you learn from all these texts it’s that the Roman army spent far more time building camps and fortifications and entrenchments and siege works than actually fighting.

With mad confidence Pharnaces orders his army to descend the steep ravine and begin ascending the other side towards Caesar’s camp. The initial assault throws the Romans into confusion but they form up and start to repel the enemy who, once they are forced backwards down a slope, fall over their own reinforcements, drop their weapons and flee to the other side of the valley where they are now defenceless.

It is a complete victory and Pharnaces flees with a handful of men. Caesar is overjoyed at having such a quick victory in what he feared would be a long drawn out campaign. He made a present to his troops of all the royal plunder. He instructed the Sixth legion to leave for Italy to receive its rewards and honours, sent home the auxiliary troops of Deiotarus, and left two legions in Pontus with Caelius Vinicianus. Then he himself set out on the following day with his cavalry in light order.

78: good administration

The key to success was not just thinking strategically and winning battles. It was about the widespread and consistent good administration of the existing provinces and newly captured territories.

Thus Caesar marches east through Galatia and Bithynia into Asia, holding investigations and giving his rulings on disputes in all those provinces, and assigning due prerogatives to tetrarchs, kings and states. The Mithridates who had brought him such vital help in Egypt he made king of Bosphorus, which had formerly been under control of Pharnaces, and thus creating a buffer state ruled by a friendly king between the Roman provinces of Asia and ‘barbarian and unfriendly kings’ i.e. Pharnaces and the Parthians beyond.

Video

This video clarifies a lot of details which are obscure in the text, particularly about the fighting in Alexandria.

It clarifies that Caesar took refuge in the palace complex and demolished the surrounding walls and buildings in order to create a fortified base which he could hold against repeated attacks, despite sustained fighting in the streets around it. The video explanation is clearer than anything in the text.

Similarly, I found the naval battle which starts in section 10 hard to follow in the text:

In order to take some personal decision as to what he thought ought to be done, Caesar boarded a ship and ordered his whole fleet to follow him. He did not embark any of our troops, since, as he was going somewhat too far afield, he was loath to leave our entrenchments unmanned.

He ordered the entire fleet to follow him In order to take some personal decision as to what he thought ought to be done? Doesn’t make much sense. Taking the fleet off somewhere rather feels as if he has made a decision. At places like this, you strongly feel the narrator was not privy to Caesar’s plans. In The Civil War Caesar generally explains his thinking and strategy in such a lucid way they can easily be converted into bullet points. Not in this text. One more piece of evidence that it was written by someone close to Caesar’s operations, a trusted lieutenant, but not the man himself.

Were the Romans good governors?

The central topic of the Civil War was defeating Pompey. In this text, however, it’s much more about trying to establish good, secure and lasting administrations, starting in Egypt, but ultimately stretching all around the Mediterranean. It’s a simple question but I wonder whether it can be answered: were the Romans good governors and administrators? A little more precisely: did the provinces the Romans governed benefit from their rule?

The arguments against are very evident in these texts being:

  1. the process of being conquered involved mass slaughter, towns obliterated and country ravaged (as vividly depicted in the Gallic Wars)
  2. even when you’d been ‘pacified’ and accepted Roman province status, chances were that one of their civil wars would break out and you’d find your cities and land devastated all over again
  3. even in complete peacetime you might find yourself lumbered with a criminal like Quintus Cassius Longinus as a governor, with absolutely no court of appeal from his extortions

So the downsides are obvious. But what of the benefits? Someone somewhere must have done a definitive study of the simple question.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Civil War by Julius Caesar – 1

Fortune, which has great influence in affairs generally and especially in war, produces by a slight disturbance of balance important changes in human affairs.
(The Civil War Book 3 chapter 68)

I picked up this 1967 Penguin paperback of Julius Caesar’s Civil Wars, translated by Jane Gardner, in the sensible A format size (18 cm by 11 cm) with reassuringly browned paper, in a second hand bookshop for just £2. Though nearly 60 years old it has fewer scuff marks and scratches than a book I recently bought ‘new’ from Amazon, ‘destroyer of books’, whose cover was smeared, scuffed and scratched.

This Penguin volume actually contains four ‘books’:

  • The Civil War, the longest text at 112 short ‘chapters’ or sections (often no more than paragraphs), making up 130 Penguin pages
  • The Alexandrian War (78 sections, 42 pages)
  • The African War (98 sections, 49 pages)
  • The Spanish War (42 sections, 22 pages)

Only the first of these is nowadays thought to have been written by Caesar. The second is generally attributed to one of Caesar’s lieutenants, Aulus Hirtius, who had written the eighth and final book in The Gallic Wars, the final two by someone who was an eye witness but of lower military rank and a lot lower literary ability than Caesar.

However, the four texts are always included together because, whatever their shortcomings, they are clearly conceived as a set, taking the reader through the entire civil war, from Caesar’s crossing the river Rubicon a little south of Ravenna in January 49 BC, through to the final mopping up of Pompeian forces in 45.

Having read numerous accounts of the civil war, I think the single most important fact (which often doesn’t come over) is that within a few weeks of Caesar entering Italy with his army of Gaul, his opponent, Gnaeus Pompeius, fled Rome and fled Italy. We know from Cicero’s letters on the subject that even at the time, his allies and supporters thought this was a mistake and so it proved to be, handing mainland Italy and the capital over to Caesar almost without a fight (this narrative describes a handful of sieges and confrontations before almost all the towns and cities and army units in Italy simply went over to Caesar’s side).

Pompey’s flight a) handed Rome and Italy over to Caesar and b) meant that the civil war would be fought on foreign soil, eventually in all the provinces Rome ruled, meaning (from west to east) Spain, north Africa, the Province (the south of France featuring the major port of Marseilles), Greece, Egypt and Asia Minor.

Despite Caesar defeating Pompey’s main army at the battle of Pharsalus in central Greece in August 48 and Pompey’s flight to Egypt where he was murdered a month later, in September 48 – nonetheless, forces loyal to Pompey and led by his sons fought on in Spain, Africa and Asia. This explains why the civil war(s) continued for another 3 years and why the main text, The Civil War, which ends with the death of Pompey, needed to be continued with the three subsequent shorter texts, and why each of them focuses on a particular arena of the later stages of the war.

Gardner’s introduction

Jane Gardner gets straight to the point with a solid factual introduction to the fraught background to the outbreak of civil war between Caesar and Pompey in 49 BC. I was struck by the way she goes back 80 years to start her historical background with two key events:

  1. The attempt by Tiberius Gracchus to implement major land reform, which led to his assassination by conservative elements of the Senate in 133 BC
  2. How Gaius Marius got himself appointed consul for five years in a row (104 to 100 BC) to deal with the threat from barbarian tribes who threatened to invade Italy from the north.

1. The killing of Gracchus was the first time the forces competing in the Roman state spilled over into political violence.

2. Marius’s career showed that the system of annually changing magistrates and proconsuls was becoming too limited for Rome’s farflung military needs. (Julius Caesar’s aunt married Marius. His father and brother supported Marius. He grew up in the shadow of Marius’s populares party and narrowly avoided execution when the dictator Sulla, representing the optimates, took power in 82.)

Gardner gives a good brief overview of the events which led to the formation of the Triumvirate which Caesar set up between himself, Pompey and Crassus (60 BC); how he used this to secure his posting as proconsul to Cisalpine Gaul (swiftly expanded to include Transalpine Gaul); how friction in the triumvirate led to its renewal at a big conference at Luca in 56; and how it was undone by two hammerblows:

  1. The death in 54 of Caesar’s daughter, Julia, who he had married to Pompey and acted as a family tie between them.
  2. The death of Crassus during his ill-fated campaign in Parthia 53.

In Gardner’s hands, the centre of the story is Pompey’s inability to make his mind up. The same self-knowledge teetering on reticence which led him to peacefully disband his army on returning from the East in 62 plays out less positively in his inability to really make his mind up how to behave in the growing political crisis of the late 50s.

In Gardner’s account it is Pompey’s lack of decisiveness which creates the crisis of uncertainty and vacillation which Caesar eventually cuts through by crossing the Rubicon and creating a state of civil war. If Pompey had grasped the nettle and agreed with Caesar’s suggestion that they both lay down their commands at the same time and meet to discuss their issues, peace could have been preserved. But Pompey left it to others – senators such as Marcus Marcellus and Lucius Lentulus – to make proposals and counter-proposals which Caesar found unacceptable, until it was too late.

Eventually Caesar felt his position was so threatened that he decided to make a lightning strike from Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), where he legitimately held command, into Italy proper, where he very much didn’t. The river Rubicon separated these two territories. So crossing the Rubicon with one of his legions was illegal and universally interpreted as an attack on the government and constitution of Rome.

How it was written

During the eight years of his command in Gaul Caesar had got into the habit of writing commentarii or reports on each campaigning season, summarising his military campaigns, in brisk no-nonsense factual accounts. He had these sent to Rome to, in effect, justify his (often dubious) actions. These were probably dictated to secretaries while he was on the move, amid the numerous other correspondence and paperwork he dealt with. There are eight of them, one for each year of his command, and taken together they make up the document known as The Gallic Wars.

Having established the habit and method for doing this, it seems likely Caesar simply continued it to document the new conflict, which continued more or less without a break from his Gallic campaigns.

The Civil War

Caesar’s paranoia: ‘What is the aim of all these preparations but my destruction?’

At the start of his narrative Caesar deals briefly with the politics, with his offers and attempts at negotiations with the Senate, but it quickly falls into another litany of towns besieged and Pompeian forces which come over to his side, very similar in feel to the Gallic Wars.

Admittedly there isn’t the total destruction, massacres, selling into slavery and hostage-giving which characterised the Gallic Wars. But it is a general’s view of things i.e. a long list of territories and cities and towns which need to be taken and then secured by posting loyal officers in them.

A note on the army

A cohort contained 480 men. A legion contained ten cohorts. When you add in officers, engineers and cavalry (120 men plus horses) a legion numbered about 5,000 men.

The text of The Civil War is divided into three ‘books’, volumes or parts, each of which is further sub-divided into short numbered sections, conventionally referred to as ‘chapters’.

Part 1: The struggle begins (87 chapters)

(N.B. These dramatic titles don’t exist in the original text. They are inventions of the editor of the Penguin edition.)

1 to 6: Intransigence at Rome

Haste and confusion characterised every transaction. (5)

Quick summary of the hasty and confused debates in the Senate at the end of 50 BC, with the anti-Caesar faction calling for JC to be sent an ultimatum to lay down his command before negotiations could begin about his future. Caesar wanted to be allowed to stand for the consulship in his physical absence. He wanted to be elected consul because it would give him immunity from all prosecution for a year. Most of the Senate refused this idea because it was unprecedented and unconstitutional. Caesar read this refusal as a deliberate ploy so that when he laid down his command in Gaul and returned to Rome as a private citizen, he would be vulnerable to prosecution by his many enemies for his many dubious actions in Gaul. Senators like Cato had made it crystal clear he would launch a legal action against Caesar the second he set foot in Italy. Hence Caesar’s demand that he be given a consulship / legal immunity. But the legitimists, traditionalists and his actual enemies all rejected this. Impasse.

Caesar also learned that the end of 50 and start of 49 was seeing widespread conscription of soldiers across Italy. Pompey’s mouthpiece in the Senate, Scipio, tells them Pompey is ready to defend the state. When the Senate meets outside the city (because Pompey as a proconsul [of Spain] is not allowed within the city limits) Pompey tells them he has command of 10 legions and is ready to defend the state. The Penguin notes tell us this presumably means the 2 legions he had withdrawn from Caesar ostensibly to be sent to the East but which hadn’t left Italy yet; seven legions loyal to Pompey in Spain; and one under Domitius. (The fact that so many of Pompey’s legions were in Spain explains why Spain would turn out to be a main crucible of the war).

Caesar goes to some lengths to single out the treatment of the tribunes of the plebs, Mark Antony and Gaius Scribonius Curio. When they continued to lobby the Senate in Caesar’s favour, the most vehement senators threatened them with violence, and they were roughly manhandled out of the building, convincing both to disguise themselves and flee north to join Caesar. In constitutional terms they had been deprived of their right of veto and Caesar tries to give his agenda a gloss of respectability by saying one of his war aims is the restoration of the tribunes’ rights.

Caesar describes his demands as moderate and just, and implies that all his enemies had vested interests of one kind or another, not least securing positions of power from which they could extract bribes. He says all the year’s appointments to governorships, proconsulships and so on were hurried and unconstitutional.

7 to 15: Caesar reacts

Caesar assembles his men and pleads his cause. The Senate has:

  1. seduced Pompey and led him astray, although they have always been friends and he has helped Pompey win positions
  2. removed the right of veto from the tribunes, something never done before
  3. declared a state of emergency when there is no emergency
  4. insulted his reputation and achievements as the pacifier of Gaul

So the troops all clamour to right these wrongs and protect his reputation. Caesar moves his legions south to Ariminum just within his province (of Cisalpine Gaul). Here he receives envoys from Pompey who remind him they have been friends and tell him to put his own grievances aside for the good of the state. Caesar adds to his list of grievances:

  1. having his command in Gaul ended 6 months early
  2. the voted will of the people that he stand for the consulship in absentia being overturned
  3. his proposal for a general demobilisation being ignored

(9) Caesar makes counter-proposals:

  1. Pompey should go to his allotted province i.e. Spain
  2. they shall both demobilise their armies
  3. there shall be a general demobilisation throughout Italy
  4. free elections to all magistracies
  5. a face to face meeting with Pompey at which everything can be settled

When these demands are presented to Pompey and the consuls at Capua, Pompey replies that Caesar must return to Gaul, disband his army and only then will Pompey go to Spain. But until he does so, the Senate will continue with a general levy of troops throughout Italy (10).

Caesar rejects these demands as unfair, not least because no date would be set for Pompey’s departure, so he would be left in Italy with his two legions indefinitely. And Pompey’s refusal to meet and talk indicates lack of goodwill. So Caesar places cohorts in the towns surrounding Arretium and the narrative becomes a description of towns seized for his side (Pisarum, Faunum, Ancona).

Iguvium comes over to him. He sets off to take Auximum which is held by Attius Varus and the narrative settles down into a long list of small Italian towns and little known Roman officers who hold them. Caesar is at pains to emphasise that when he took towns he thanked the populations and, more often than not, let the officers who’d opposed him go free, as in the case of Lucius Pupius.

(14) The ease with which towns go over to Caesar causes panic at Rome where the two consuls raid the treasury then travel south to join Pompey at Capua, where he is stationed with his two legions. Arguably, the authorities’ abandonment of Rome meant the war was lost from the start.

Caesar continues marching south towards Asculum which was being held by Lentulus Spinther who, hearing of his approach, flees; Lucilius Hirrus similarly abandons Camerinum. But Lentulus rallies the remaining forces of both and takes them to Corfinium, which was being held by Domitius Ahenobarbus.

16 to 23: The siege of Corfinium

Caesar moves with characteristic speed and comes across Domitius’s forces dismantling a bridge over the river before they’ve finished the job, fights them off, and forces them into the town. Domitius is an effective opponent. He reinforces the town defences, sends a message to Pompey telling him to bring legions to surround Caesar, and addresses his men.

Sulmo, a town 7 miles away, is being held by the senator Quintus Lucretius and Attius but Caesar sends Mark Antony there and the townsfolk gladly open their gates and the troops go over to Caesar, who incorporates them into his own forces and lets Attius go free.

Caesar spends days building siege works. Domitius receives a reply from Pompey who refuses to come to his help, saying it would jeopardise his cause and no-one asked him to go to Corfinium. So Domitius deceitfully tells his troops Pompey is on his way, while making a plan with his closest advisors to secretly flee the town.

Word leaks out and the soldiers decide to abandon such a two-faced leader, arrest Domitius and send messages to Caesar saying they’re prepared to surrender. Caesar is wary of sending his troops into the town that night lest they loot it, so he sends the envoys back and maintains the siege. At dawn Lentulus asks for a private interview, is let out of the town and taken to Caesar who takes the opportunity (in the narrative) to reiterate his demands. He:

  1. does not intend to harm anyone
  2. wants to protect himself from the slanders of his enemies
  3. to restore the expelled tribunes to their rightful position
  4. to reclaim for himself and the Roman people independence from the power of ‘a small clique’

Are these the demands of ‘a revolutionary proconsul who placed his own dignitas above his country’? Discuss.

In the morning Caesar orders all the senators and magistrates hiding in Corfinium to be brought to him. He protects them from the jeers and insults of the soldiers, berates them for giving no thanks for the benefits he’s brought them and then, quite simply, lets them go. He has all the soldiers in the town swear allegiance to him. The magistrates of the town bring him 6 million sesterces but Caesar simply gives it back to Domitius to prove he is not interested in financial gain.

24 to 29: Pompey leaves Italy

Pompey had already abandoned Rome. Now he moves quickly to Canusium and then onto Brundisium, then, as now, the port for ships to Greece.

Caesar follows him, picking up Pompeian forces who abandon their leaders on the way. Caesar discovers the two consuls and most of Pompey’s army have taken ship for Dyrrachium, leaving Pompey inside Brundisium with 20 cohorts.

Caesar immediately starts building a great breakwater to block the port, but continues to send envoys to Pompey requesting a face-to-face meeting. Characteristically, Pompey doesn’t grasp the nettle but hides behind the constitutional nicety that, in the absence of the 2 consuls (who have fled) he is not authorised to negotiate.

In Caesar’s version, it is Pompey’s inability to take responsibility and engage in the kind of face-to-face discussions they had during the triumvirate which condemns Rome to civil war.

Caesar’s patience wears out, he realises he’s never going to get a sensible reply, and finally decides to conduct an all-out war (26).

The ships which had ferried Pompey’s first contingent to Greece now return and Pompey makes plans to  embark the second and final cohort of troops. He fills the town with booby traps and a light guard on the city walls while the rest of the troops embark. At the last minute the guards are called and run down to the port, as the ships are setting off. Caesar’s men scale the walls, are helped by the townspeople to evade the traps, and some make it onto the water and capture two of Pompey’s ships which had gone aground on a breakwater.

Strategically, the best thing for Caesar would have been to pursue Pompey as quickly as possible but for the simple fact that Pompey had commandeered all the ships and waiting for new ones to be sent from Sicily or Gaul would lose the advantage. Meanwhile, most of Pompey’s legions were in Spain where a lot of the country’s nobles owed Pompey big debts of gratitude (for making them Roman citizens).

30 to 33: Caesar’s Senate

Accordingly Caesar sends lieutenants to Sardinia and Sicily which the Pompeian governors promptly flee.

Caesar’s noted enemy, Cato the Younger, governor of Sicily, makes a public speech about how Pompey had deceived him and the Senate into believing they were ready for war when they weren’t at all, and then flees to Africa, where the Pompeian Attius Varrus has taken control.

Having made his deployments Caesar goes to Rome and makes a long repetition of his complains directly to the remaining senators (32). He asks them to join him in governing Rome, otherwise he’ll do it by himself. But no-one volunteers to go as emissary to Pompey as they are afraid, and one of the tribunes has been suborned to filibuster events as long as possible, and so Caesar gives it up as a bad job and heads off for Gaul.

34 to 36: Resistance at Massilia

In the Province Caesar learns that Domitius has seized Massilia. Caesar makes a speech to the elders of Massilia who promise neutrality but meanwhile Domitius takes control, requisitioning ships from neighbouring ports. Caesar orders ships to be built in nearby ports then leaves Gaius Trebonius in charge of the siege of Massilia and marches on towards Spain.

37 to 55: The first Spanish campaign – Ilerda

The complex deployment and redeployment of Pompey’s lieutenants to the different provinces of Spain, which leads up to the siege of Ilerda, held by the Pompeian Lucius Afranius.

This is the first full-blown military encounter of the war and is described in Caesar’s usual technical detail, with siegeworks, attack and counter-attack. The river running past the town, the Sicoris, plays a key role, especially when there’s heavy rainfall and it and another river flood and wash away the bridges, leaving the Roman forces trapped between them, cut off from supplies of corn which, in any case, were short at this time of year. When a train of senators, magistrates, cohorts and cavalry arrive to join Caesar, they are prevented by the flooded rivers and attacked by Afranius’s forces.

All this is talked up by Afranius’s supporters and word spreads to Rome that the war is virtually over, which encouraged more to go over to Pompey’s side. But Caesar has boats made in a lightweight style he had seen in Britain, ferries enough of his troops over the flooded river to set up a base and then build a bridge from both sides. His cavalry attack a party out foraging Pompeians then fight off an enemy cavalry attack.

56 to 58: The naval fight at Massilia

The Pompeians under Domitius had built 17 warships while Caesar’s force under Decimus Brutus had hurriedly built far less at an island near Massilia. Domitius attacks. Caesar describes the composition and strengths of the opposing forces. Despite bad odds Caesar’s forces prevail.

59 to 80: Spain – a war of attrition

The situation swiftly changes:

  1. the bridge has allowed Caesar’s force full mobility
  2. five important local tribes switch allegiance to Caesar
  3. and promise to deliver corn, thus solving the crisis in provisions
  4. optimistic rumours that Pompey was marching through north Africa to cross into Spain to reinforce his garrisons prove to be untrue (60)

Afranius and his colleague Petreius worry that they’re going to be cut off and so decide to abandon Ilerda and move deeper into Celtiberia, where the reputation of Pompey will guarantee support. They build a bridge across the Ebro 20 miles away just as the river hemming Caesar in becomes fordable. (To be honest, it is pretty difficult making sense of these complicated and often obscure descriptions of flooded rivers, bridges and fords.)

Caesar’s forces protest that they are hanging around while the enemy gets away, so Caesar selects the weakest to stay behind and guard the camp and the strongest to ford the river, which they just about manage to do. He forms them up and they pursue the fleeing Pompeians. They come up to them within a few miles of mountains, where both sides make camp.

Next day Caesar takes his men by a roundabout route to get to the bridge across the Ebro first. Afranius’s forces at first jeer them for fleeing the battlefield until they slowly realise they are going to be cut off. There follows complex manoeuvring to seize the high ground and the first of the mountain passes. Caesar’s forces massacre some of the Pompeian cavalry. Caesar’s men are all for finishing them off but Caesar thinks he can win without bloodshed and gives himself a speech saying he wants to avoid the deaths of citizens if at all possible. His army mutters and disagrees.

Next day some of the Pompeians are harassed when going to fetch water, so the leaders decide to build a protective rampart from their camp down to the water and go to supervise it. In their absence there is a mutiny with soldiers of all ranks, up to and including Afranius’s own son, fraternising with Caesar’s forces, calling out to friends, asking if they will be well treated if they surrender.

When Afranius hears all this he is ready to fall in with the capitulation. Petreius, on the other hand, stays resolute and with a small cavalry bodyguard descends on the fraternising soldiers, killing as many of Caesar’s as he can. He then tours the army, begging them not to abandon Pompey their leader; has the entire army, by centuries, repledge its oath of allegiance to him; and calls for anyone harbouring Caesarian soldiers to hand them over, before having them publicly executed in front of his soldiers. By terrorising his troops, Afranius restores discipline.

In his own camp Caesar shows his famous clemency, ordering soldiers from the opposing camp to be not punished but protected. And many chose to stay on with his side and Caesar was careful to show them honour. The Pompeians are running out of food and finding it hard to access water so they decide to march back to Ilerda. Caesar harasses their rearguard all the way.

81 to 87: The Pompeians capitulate

Caesar forces the Pompeians to make camp a distance from water, sets up his own camp and starts making siegeworks. On the second day the Pompeians come out to offer battle but a) Caesar doesn’t want unnecessary bloodshed and b) he doesn’t think there’s sufficient space (2 miles) between the camps to enforce a decisive victory. In the event, despite being impressively drawn up, neither side offers battle and at sunset they both withdraw to their camps.

Caesar sends his cavalry ahead to secure the ford over the river Sicoris thus cutting off the Pompeians from their intended route. At which point, starving and thirsty, the Pompeian leaders sue for peace, at a public meeting held in sight of both armies. Caesar makes a long speech in which he recapitulates the wrongs he has endured and the broader historical picture in which he claims that an army has been maintained in Spain (which is at peace and hardly needs it) purely to attack him. He lists other innovations whose sole purpose has been to threaten and attack him at the will of a ‘clique’ in Rome.

In a magnanimous display of clemency Caesar announces his only condition for peace is the disbanding of this Spanish army and everyone can go free. The location of demobilisation is set as the river Var. The Pompeian army cheer, as they had expected punishment of some sort, and clamour to be demobilised sooner rather than later. Caesar promises to supply them corn till they reach the Var and compensate all soldiers for any property lost to his men.

A third of the army was disbanded in the next 2 days, the rest marched under escort to the Var and was disbanded there. Caesar is at pains to convey his consistent humanity and clemency.

Part 2: Securing the West (44 chapters)

1 to 16: The siege of Massilia

Caesar’s lieutenant Gaius Trebonius continues the siege of Massilia. Pompey sends Lucius Nasidius with a fleet of ships to help out. These join forces with Lucius Domitius and Caesar describes a big sea battle which the Caesarean fleet of Decimus Brutus wins.

Caesar gives a very detailed description of the siege works his men build against the wall of Massilia which eventually weaken it. Envoys from the city come out and plead for mercy from Trebonius and beg to wait the return of Caesar. The result is a ceasefire during which both sides slacken off. Until some of the besieged garrison, that is, make a sortie with firebrands and successfully burn down one of the besieging towers. This makes the besiegers return to construction with a vengeance and less inclined to forgiveness.

17 to 21: Spain – surrender of Varro

In Further Spain Pompeian governor Marcus Varro hesitates which side to support until he hears misleading news of Pompeian victories at Ilerda and Massilia, whereupon he comes down fiercely on the Pompeian side, persecuting towns and individuals said to sympathise with Caesar.

Caesar for his part wants to return to Italy but knows he must finish the job in Spain or it will remain a Pompeian stronghold in his rear. In the event the plans of the Pompeian governor Marcus Terentius Varro are overthrown as town after town of Hither Spain declares for Caesar till eventually Varro surrenders to Caesar without a fight all his forces and money.

Caesar holds councils at Corduba and elsewhere, rewarding towns and communities. He puts Quintus Cassius in charge of the province and travels back to Massilia.

22: Massilia capitulates

Two defeats at sea, the undermining of their walls, starvation and an outbreak of pestilence convince the inhabitants of Massilia (called Massiliotes) to surrender. Their governor Lucius Domitius escapes by ship. Caesar accepts Massilia’s submission, leaves two legions to guard it and hastens back to Rome.

23 to 36: Africa – Curio’s campaign

Caesarean Gaius Scribonius Curio’s campaign in Tunisia against the Pompeian Publius Attius Varus. Curio is over-confident of success, only taking 2 of the 4 legions Caesar gave him to Africa. Here he camps opposite Varus’s camp outside Utica and has an initial success when his cavalry routs some of Pompey’s.

Now a lot of Curio’s men came from the Pompeian forces which surrendered at the siege of Corfinium. Varus has one of his men ride up and down opposite Curio’s lines, reminding them of their original oath to Pompey. This gives rise to rumours and dissension within Curio’s army and his advisers are split between forcing an attack on Utica or withdrawing to their original camp, Castra Cornelia, along the coast.

Caesar depicts Curio giving a speech to his advisers saying he’ll take neither course of action, and then addressing his troops at length, saying it was their example of abandoning Pompey which helped turn over Italy to Caesar, how Caesar has won 2 provinces in Spain, plus Massilia, pointing out that they didn’t desert their general Lucius Domitius, it was Lucius Domitius who deserted them. And lastly asking whether he has been a good and fair general to them.

This rouses them so much that on the following day they brave a difficult ravine between the two armies to take Varus’s forces by storm and force him right back, to abandon his camp and take refuge in the town.

37 to 44: Curio’s last stand

Then Curio hears that king Juba of the Numidians is approaching and withdraws his legions from the advanced camp back to Camp Castra, and sends to Sicily for food. The camp would be very well positioned to stand a long siege, but when Curio hears the king himself has been distracted by a tribal war and is only sending his lieutenant, Saburra, with a smaller force he willingly believes it. At nightfall Curio sends all his cavalry to ambush Saburra at the river Bagradas, which they successfully do.

Curio receives the triumphant cavalry back with their prisoners and loot as proof of victory and leads his infantry out in the middle of the night with the plan to force march to attack Saburra while the latter is still in confusion. What he doesn’t know is that King Juba very much is marching his way and that, when he hears of Saburra’s setback, he sends him 2,000 of his best cavalry and continues his infantry march to join him.

With the result that Curio’s force confronts Saburra’s forces in full battle order. Curio is victorious wherever he attacks but a) his on cavalry is slow and tired and b) his men are outnumbered. Reinforcements from the king continually arrive until Curio is surrounded. He sees a nearby hill and orders his men to gather there to make a stand, but enemy cavalry possess it first, at which point Curio’s men give up. His officers encourage him to flee the field but he says he couldn’t face Caesar after losing the army he gave him and so fights on till he’s killed.

Back at Camp Cornelia the rest of Curio’s forces panic and, when the quaestor Marcus Rufus tries to organise an orderly departure by ship, the men panic and swamp the boats, sinking many and discouraging the other ships from coming into harbour. Only a handful of officers and centurions make it aboard and so back to Sicily alive. The rest surrender to Varus.

Next day when King Juba arrives and sees cohorts of survivors in front of Utica he declares them his spoils of war and has them all executed. Varus is too weak and scared to prevent him.

End of Part 2. Part 3 is summarised in the next blog post.


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The life of Julius Caesar by Suetonius (120 AD)

Suetonius

Not much is known about Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, generally referred to as Suetonius. He was born around 70 AD, probably in a town in modern-day Algeria. He may have taught literature for a while, he seems to have practiced the law. He is recorded as serving on the staff of Pliny the Younger when the latter was governor of Bithynia in north Turkey in 110 to 112 AD. Subsequently he served on the staff of emperors, being in charge of the emperor’s libraries under Trajan and then managing the emperor Hadrian’s correspondence. Pliny describes him as a quiet and studious man devoted to his writing. He wrote The Lives of Illustrious Men, 60 or so biographies of poets, grammarians, orators and historians, almost all of which has been lost (except for short lives of Terence, Virgil and Horace).

The Lives of the Caesars, by contrast, has survived almost in its entirety (it is thought that only some of the opening sections of the first life, Caesar, are missing). As it says on the tin, The Lives of the Caesars includes biographies of the first 12 Roman emperors, being:

  • Julius Caesar
  • Augustus (ruled 31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37 AD)
  • Gaius (Caligula) (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)
  • Galba (68 to 69)
  • Otho (69)
  • Vitellius (69)
  • Vespasian (69 to 79)
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)

(It may be worth pointing out that Nero’s suicide in 68 led to a period of anarchy in which a succession of generals seized power. Three of them ruled for only a few months each –Galba from June 68 to January 69; Otho from January to April 69; and Vitellius from April to December 69 – before Vespasian seized power and stabilised the situation, ruling from 69 to 79. Which is why 69 came to be called The Year of Four Emperors.)

Suetonius realised that the genre of biography needed to strike out in a different direction from history, not least because of the overpowering example of Publius Cornelius Tacitus, whose Annals and Histories describe the reigns of the emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and the Year of the Four Emperors. (Taken together, Suetonius and Tacitus are our only major sources for this critical, formative period in the history of the western world.

So Suetonius departed from the strictly chronological approach of the historians, and of his younger contemporary, the biographer Plutarch (46 to 120), and a chose a different method. Suetonius only briefly covers the facts of the lives before moving to more personal, non-political material about his subjects, classified and arranged according to subject matter. Although this sounds dry the result is the opposite; the inclusion of lots of juicy gossip and anecdotes, delivered with a deadpan, non-judgemental expression.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition, the renowned classicist Michael Grant (1914 to 2004) points out that Suetonius’s main contribution to the genre was that he moved away from the traditional eulogistic treatment of dead great men to take a more ‘astringent’ and ‘disenchanted’ view (lovely words).

Above all, he avoids the heavy moralising of earlier writers (Sallust with his heavy moralising and Plutarch with his negative opinion of Caesar, both spring to mind). Suetonius assembles evidence for and against his subjects – then leaves it for the reader to decide.

Penguin still publish the translation they commissioned in the 1950s from the famous novelist and poet Robert Graves, a writer who is just as charming and gossipy as Suetonius (see his wonderful memoir Goodbye To All That).

The Life of Caesar

Just as with Plutarch’s life of Julius Caesar, Suetonius’s life appears to be missing the first section, about the great man’s family and boyhood. Why? Did Augustus suppress them as he is said to have suppressed Caesar’s juvenile writings, in order to manipulate and burnish the legend of his adoptive father?

The Life consists of 89 short sections which fill 40 pages of the Penguin translation.

(1) Aged barely 18, Caesar married Cornelia, daughter of the consul Lucius Cornelius Cinna, of Gaius Marius’s party. The dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla demanded that Caesar ‘put her away’ i.e. divorce her, but Caesar obstinately refused and had to go into hiding from Sulla’s wrath. Eventually friends of his persuaded Sulla to relent, at which he spoke the much quoted words: “Have your way and take him but bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy, which you have joined with me in upholding. There are many Mariuses in this fellow Caesar.”

(2) He went to serve in Asia as aide-de-camp to the provincial governor Marcus Thermus. When sent to  raise a fleet in Bithynia he spent so much time with king Nicomedes that a rumour spread he was having a homosexual relationship with him. [A reputation for philandering was to follow Caesar cf his affair with Cleopatra.]

(3) He was serving another commander in Cilicia (southern Turkey) when the death of Sulla in 78 BC opened up the political scene and he hurried back to Rome, He was offered a place in the revolt of Marcus Lepidus but doubted the latter’s chances and turned it down.

(4) He brought a law suit against Cornelius Dolabella but it failed and to escape the resulting ill feeling he headed off to Rhodes to study under the noted orator Apollonius Molo. But en route he was captured by pirates and held to ransom. When his family and friends coughed up the required amount (50 talents = 12,000 gold pieces) Caesar promptly hired some ships and soldier, tracked down the pirates and had them all crucified. Then continued on to Rhodes to study.

(5) On Caesar’s return to Rome he helped the Assembly undo aspects of Sulla’s constitutional reforms, for example restoring the veto of the tribunes of the plebs.

(6) During his quaestorship in 69 BC he delivered eulogies to his aunt Julia [the one who had married the general and ruler of Rome Gaius Marius] and wife Cornelia, in which he lost no opportunity to remind everyone that his extended family or clan, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas and through him to the goddess Venus.

He next married Pompeia but divorced her after the strange (and irritatingly ubiquitous) story about Publius Clodius Pulcher disguising himself as a woman to enter Caesar’s house during the women-only rites for the goddess Bona.

(7) As quaestor he was sent to help govern Spain, In Gades he was seen to sigh on seeing the statue of Alexander the Great, vexed that, at the same age as Alexander when he died, he had done nothing of note. [In Plutarch the same story is told except Caesar bursts into tears.] He had a dream of raping his mother which the soothsayers interpreted as meaning he was destined to conquer the Earth, ‘our Universal Mother’.

(8) He laid down his quaestorship and visited the citizens living beyond the river Po who complained that they weren’t granted full Roman citizenship and might have raised them in revolt had not the authorities brought in fresh legions. In other words, he was an impatient ambitious young man looking for a cause.

(9) He was elected aedile in 65 BC. Suetonius then reports that Caesar conspired with Rome’s richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus, to overthrow the government, to storm the Senate, massacre as many senators as possible, have Crassus installed as dictator with Caesar his Master of Horse or deputy, and a couple of other conspirators as consuls. Apparently Crassus got cold feet and the plan fell through. Suetonius mentions another conspiracy, with Piso, to raise rebellion in Rome, the Po valley and Spain simultaneously. Suetonius knows these are scandalous accusations and so names three other historians as his authorities. None of this is mentioned in Plutarch.

(10) As aedile Caesar put on spectacular shows. In fact he assembled so many gladiators for public fights that his opponents thought he was going to use them for political violence and rushed through a law limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome.

(11) Ambition. Caesar tried to get control of Egypt by popular vote following the outcry after Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, officially a friend and ally of Rome, was overthrown – but the aristocratic party foiled his attempt. [All this is context for his involvement in Egypt and Cleopatra 20 years later.] In revenge he restored statues of the anti-aristocratic Marius throughout central Rome. He also prosecuted bounty hunters who had brought in the heads of those proscribed under Sulla.

(12) He presided over the trial of Gaius Rabirius.

(13) He won the position of pontifex maximus, getting deeply into debt in order to bribe the people. Suetonius repeats the oft-told story that, on the morning of his election, as he set off to the polls, he told his mother he would return as pontifex or not at all [generally taken to mean he would be in so much debt that if he didn’t win the post, he’d be forced to flee the city.]

(14) The Catiline conspiracy Caesar spoke against the death penalty for the conspirators and swayed most of the Senate till Marcus Porcius Cato (also known as Cato the Younger) stood up and spoke sternly in favour of the death penalty. [A full transcript of these dramatic speeches, albeit probably made up, is given in Sallust’s Cataline’s War.]

Suetonius goes beyond previous accounts in adding the dramatic detail that when Caesar persisted in his call for clemency, a troop of Roman knights threatened him and even drew their swords and made  threatening passes with them so that his friends had to rally round and shield him. Only then did he yield the point, withdraw, and for the rest of the year didn’t revisit the Senate House.

This sounds like an artistic touch, like a deliberate prefigurement of his assassination 20 years later.

(15) On the first day of his praetor­ship he called upon Quintus Catulus to render an account owing to the people touching the restoration of the Capitol, but abandoned it when the aristocratic party of senators, who had been accompanying the newly elected consuls to the Capitol, returned to the Senate building.

(16) He supported Caecilius Metellus, tribune of the commons, in bringing some bills of a highly seditious nature in spite of the veto of his colleagues. Even when the Senate ordered him to cease and desist, he persisted until they threatened him with violence at which point he dismissed his lictors, laid aside his robe of office, and slipped off to his house.

All these stories bespeak the rebellious obstinacy of the man and the turbulence which surrounded him.

(17) He then got into trouble by being named among the accomplices of Catiline by an informer called Lucius Vettius and in the senate by Quintus Curius. Caesar strongly refuted the claims, not least by pointing out how he had alerted Cicero, consul and lead magistrate in Rome, of the conspiracy and so was decisive in getting is quelled. He secured the conviction and imprisonment of both informers.

(18) After securing the governorship of Further Spain he left hastily before formally confirmed in post in order to avoid his, by now, numerous and clamouring creditors. He restored order in the province but returned hastily to Rome to claim a triumph. He also wanted to be consul for the following year and couldn’t do both. After agonising, he entered the city, thus losing the triumph, in order to contest the consulship.

(19) Caesar was elected consul but not with the partner he wanted, as the aristocracy lobbied hard and bribed heavily to ensure that one of their party, Marcus Bibulus, was elected as his partner consul. The optimates then offered him the most trivial and demeaning governorship possible, of ‘woods and pastures’, which in practice meant guarding the mountain-pastures and keeping the woods free from brigands.

Frustrated, Caesar worked behind the scenes to reconcile the most successful general in the land, Pompey, and the richest man, Crassus, to come to a behind the scenes arrangement to share power and secure each other’s aims. This came to be called the First Triumvirate.

(20) As consul Caesar immediately passed a law that the proceedings both of the senate and of the people should day by day be compiled and published. He also revived a by-gone custom, that during the months when he did not have the fasces an orderly should walk before him, while the lictors followed him. He brought forward an agrarian law too and when his partner consul opposed it, drove him from the Senate by force, terrorising him into remaining in his house for the rest of his term.

Caesar had in effect made himself sole ruler. A joke went round that official documents, instead of being signed by the two consuls i.e. “Done in the consul­ship of Bibulus and Caesar” were marked “Done in the consul­ship of Julius and Caesar”. Many a true word spoken in jest. Suetonius gives examples of Caesar’s peremptory behaviour:

  • he divided public land among twenty thousand citizens who had three or more children each
  • when the tax collectors asked for relief, he freed them from a third part of their obligation but warned them from bidding too recklessly for contracts in the future
  • he freely granted to anyone whatever they took it into their heads to ask
  • Cato, who tried to delay proceedings, was dragged from the House by a lictor at Caesar’s command and taken off to prison
  • when Lucius Lucullus was too outspoken in his opposition, he filled him with such fear of malicious prosecution that Lucullus actually fell on his knees before him
  • because Cicero, while pleading in a court case, deplored the times, Caesar transferred the orator’s enemy Publius Clodius that same day from the patricians to the plebeians, something Clodius had vainly been striving for for ages
  • he bribed an informer to declare that he had been encouraged by certain men to murder Pompey, and to name them in public; however, the informer bungled the task and to cover this attempt to incriminate the entire body of his political enemies, Caesar had the would be informant poisoned

(21) As previously discussed, marriage in ancient Rome was an important way of creating political alliances. Caesar now married Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso, who was to succeed him in the consul­ship, and married his own daughter, Julia, to Gnaeus Pompeius, to cement their partnership.

(22) With these influential backers in place Caesar now lobbied to be awarded the governorship of Gaul, not the ‘woods and pastures’, figuring, like so many Roman governors, that it would a an excellent location in which a) to gain military glory b) fleece the natives and grow rich.

At first by the bill of Vatinius he received only Cisalpine Gaul with the addition of Illyricum but then the Senate, fearful that the people would lobby violently, decided to add Gallia Comata as well. Suetonius passes on a juicy anecdote that, later, among friends, he celebrated his success over his enemies and said he would use it to mount on their heads with a pun meaning a) clambering over their heads b) mounting their penises.

When someone insultingly remarked that that would be no easy matter for any woman, he replied in the same vein that Semiramis too had been queen in Syria and the Amazons in days of old had held sway over a great part of Asia.

(23) As soon as his consulship ended some praetors tried to bring legal proceedings against him for misconduct but Caesar managed to bribe his way out of this and thenceforward took pains to be on good terms with all succeeding magistrates, getting them to vow and even sign pledges not to prosecute him.

[This is how Roman politics worked. Academics explain the process of voting for candidates but not enough attention is paid to what appears to be the almost inevitable consequence of office which is someone will try and prosecute you. While canvassing for office candidates had to spend a fortune bribing the voters and, after leaving office, had to spend a fortune bribing succeeding officials not to prosecute them. Forget morality – it was just a crazily unstable system.]

(24) Suetonius has the motivation behind Caesar calling a meeting of the Triumvirate in Luca, in 56, being that Lucius Domitius, candidate for the consul­ship, was threatening to remove him from the generalship of the armies in Gaul. He called Pompey, Crassus and a third of the Senate to head this off and, in exchange for favours to his partners, had his command in Gaul extended by 5 years.

(25) Suetonius summarises Caesar’s 9 years in Gaul:

  • he reduced the entire area to a province and imposed an annual tribute of 40 million sestercii
  • he was the first to build a bridge over the Rhine and attack the Germans on their home turf
  • he invaded Britain, exacting money and hostages

In all this time he suffered only three setbacks:

  • in Britain, where his fleet narrowly escaped destruction in a violent storm
  • in Gaul, when one of his legions was routed at Gergovia
  • on the borders of Germany, when his lieutenants Titurius and Aurunculeius were ambushed and slain

[In fact, by Caesar’s own account, he suffered more close shaves than that.]

(25) After the murder of Clodius the Senate voted for just one consul to hold office and gave it to Pompey. This seems a little garbled. I thought Pompey was awarded sole consulship in light of the ongoing riots between the rival gangs of Clodius and Titus Annius Milo.

Caesar now began lobbying to be awarded the consulship at the moment he relinquished his command in Gaul in 50 BC. He began to campaign lavishly, he:

  • began to build a new forum with his spoils from Gaul
  • announced a massive feast in memory of his daughter
  • he announced massive gladiatorial games and paid for gladiators to be trained
  • he doubled the pay of the legions for all time
  • whenever grain was plenti­ful he distributed it to the people

Populism. When he had put all Pompey’s friends under obligation, as well as the greater part of the Senate, through loans made without interest or at a low rate, he lavished gifts on men of all other classes.

(28) How he curried favour with foreign princes, sending troops or money or hostages as appropriate. He paid for public works for the principle cities throughout the empire. [Plutarch doesn’t make mention of this global campaign. Is it a later inflation of the legend?]

Nonetheless, events moved towards their crisis. The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus proposed that, since peace was finally established in Gaul, Caesar be relieved of his command but forbidden from standing as consul in that year’s elections. The precise opposite of what Caesar wanted.

(29) The following year Gaius Marcellus, who had succeeded his cousin Marcus as consul, tried the same thing but Caesar by a heavy bribe secured the support of the other consul, Aemilius Paulus, and of Gaius Curio, the most reckless of the tribunes. He proposed a compromise, that he give up eight legions and Transalpine Gaul but be allowed to keep two legions and Cisalpine Gaul until he was elected consul.

(30) At the crisis intensified, Caesar crossed the Alps to Cisalpine Gaul and halted at Ravenna. When the Senate passed a decree that Caesar should disband his army before a given date and the tribunes Mark Antony and Quintus Cassius exercised their privilege and vetoed it, not only did the Senate ignore the veto but hounded the tribunes out of town with the threat of violence.

Why did he cross the Rubicon? Pompey later said it was he couldn’t afford to complete all the great works he’d promised and so wanted a state of disruption. Others said he knew he would be prosecuted for breaking umpteen laws during his first consulship. Cato hugely exacerbated the problem by taking an oath swearing he would impeach Caesar the minute he lay down his command. The simplest reason is he knew he would be tried, found guilty of something and permanently exiled.

(31) The story of how he decided to cross the Rubicon and sent his troops ahead but himself spent all day very publicly around Ravenna and in the evening attended a party, to allay suspicions. Only at the end of the evening did he harness a carriage and race to meet his troops.

(32) As he and his troops hesitated a being of wondrous stature and beauty appeared, snatched a trumpet from one of the soldiers, strode across the river and sounded the war-note with mighty blast from the other side. If only all corporate decisions were made that way.

(33) He harangued the soldiers with tears and tore his tunic and waved his hand around. This latter gave rise to a misunderstanding for he wore his senator’s ring on his left hand and the soldiers who couldn’t hear him thought he was offering them each a fortune to fight for him.

(34) He overran Umbria, Picenum, and Etruria, took prisoner Lucius Domitius, who was holding the town of Corfinium, let him go free, then proceeded along the Adriatic to Brundisium, where Pompey and the consuls had taken refuge. He tried but failed to prevent them sailing in a fleet across to modern day Albania but had no ships of his own to follow, so marched on Rome, taking it. Here he dealt peacefully with his remaining enemies, before setting off for Spain in order to defeat Pompey’s strongest forces, under command of three of his lieutenants – Marcus Petreius, Lucius Afranius, and Marcus Varro – which he did with surprising speed.

(35) Suetonius makes very light indeed of what happened next, describing Caesar’s assembly of a fleet, transport of his army across the Adriatic, the four month siege of Dyrrhachium, then following Pompey’s army into Thrace where he soundly defeated him at the battle of Pharsalum in one sentence. He followed the fleeing Pompey to Egypt where he arrived to discover he had been murdered by Egyptian officers who thought it would please him, and then became embroiled in an inconvenient war, bottled-up in the city of Alexandria. He was eventually triumphant over the army of the pharaoh who fled and was never heard of again, so that Caesar was able to leave Egypt in control of Ptolemy’s sister, Cleopatra.

Then he sums up the separate campaigns in Asia, Africa and Spain thus:

From Alexandria he crossed to Syria, and from there went to Pontus, spurred on by the news that Pharnaces, son of Mithridates the Great, had taken advantage of the situation to make war, and was already flushed with numerous successes; but Caesar vanquished him in a single battle within five days after his arrival and four hours after getting sight of him, often remarking on Pompey’s good luck in gaining his principal fame as a general by victories over such feeble foemen. Then he overcame Scipio and Juba, who were patching up the remnants of their party in Africa, and the sons of Pompey in Spain.

[Suetonius is a man in a hurry. All this is covered in vastly more detail in Caesar’s own account of the War in Alexandria, and whoever wrote the accounts of the campaigns in north Africa and Spain.]

(36) In all the civil wars Caesar suffered not a single disaster except through his lieutenant.

(37) Having ended the wars, he celebrated five triumphs, the first and most splendid was the Gallic triumph, the next the Alexandrian, then the Pontic, after that the African, and finally the Spanish, each differing from the rest in its equipment and display of spoils. He mounted the Capitol by torchlight with forty elephants bearing lamps on his right and his left. In his Pontic triumph he displayed among the show-pieces an inscription with just three words, “I came, I saw, I conquered,” not even bothering to describe the events of the war or the key battle (the battle of Zela, August 47 BC) but emphasising what he himself considered his outstanding quality which was amazing speed, of approach and attack.

(38) As examples of the astonishing liberality of these top leaders, Suetonius states that:

To each and every foot-soldier of his veteran legions he gave 24,000 sesterces by way of booty, over and above the 2,000 apiece which he had paid them at the beginning of the civil strife. He also assigned them lands but was careful not to dispossess any of the former owners. To every man of the people he gave 10 pecks of grain and the same number of pounds of oil plus the 300 sesterces he had promised at first, and 100 apiece because of the delay. He remitted a year’s rent in Rome to tenants who paid 2,000 sesterces or less and in Italy up to 500 sesterces. He added a banquet and a dole of meat, and after his Spanish victory two dinners for everyone.

[The reader is awed by the wealth of these super-rich people, but also at the kind of society in which this was a recognised convention or way of proceeding.]

(39) Having covered the war against Pompey and his heirs with laughable superficiality, Suetonius devotes twice as much space to describing the lavish games Caesar paid for. It is worth quoting at length because its impact derives from its scale.

1. He gave entertainments of diverse kinds: a combat of gladiators and also stage-plays in every ward all over the city, performed too by actors of all languages, as well as races in the circus, athletic contests, and a sham sea-fight. In the gladiatorial contest in the Forum Furius Leptinus, a man of praetorian stock, and Quintus Calpenus, a former senator and pleader at the bar, fought to a finish. A Pyrrhic dance was performed by the sons of the princes of Asia and Bithynia. 2. During the plays Decimus Laberius, a Roman knight, acted a farce of his own composition, and having been presented with five hundred thousand sesterces and a gold ring,​ passed from the stage through the orchestra and took his place in the fourteen rows.​ For the races the circus was lengthened at either end and a broad canal​ was dug all about it; then young men of the highest rank drove four-horse and two-horse chariots and rode pairs of horses, vaulting from one to the other. The game called Troy was performed by two troops, of younger and of older boys. 3. Combats with wild beasts were presented on five successive days, and last of all there was a battle between two opposing armies, in which five hundred foot-soldiers, twenty elephants, and thirty horsemen engaged on each side. To make room for this, the goals were taken down and in their place two camps were pitched over against each other. The athletic competitions lasted for three days in a temporary stadium built for the purpose in the region of the Campus Martius. 4. For the naval battle a pool was dug in the lesser Codeta and there was a contest of ships of two, three, and four banks of oars, belonging to the Tyrian and Egyptian fleets, manned by a large force of fighting men. Such a throng flocked to all these shows from every quarter, that many strangers had to lodge in tents pitched in streets or along the roads, and the press was often such that many were crushed to death, including two senators.

(40) Caesar reformed the calendar, adding a few days to make it last the 365 days of the solar year, with an extra day added every fourth year, such as we still do, 2,000 years later.

(41) He filled the vacancies in the senate, enrolled additional patricians, and increased the number of praetors, aediles, and quaestors, as well as of the minor officials. Half the officials were elected in the old way, half were directly appointed by him.

(42) Details of more of his reforms, including how long citizens were allowed to live overseas, who was allowed to travel. He made a partial attempt to sort out the problem of indebtedness which seems to have been one of Rome’s most enduring social problem. He dissolved all guilds, except those of ancient foundation. He increased the penalties for crimes.

(43) 1. He administered justice with the utmost conscientiousness and strictness. Those convicted of extortion he dismissed from the senatorial order. He imposed duties on foreign wares. He denied the use of litters and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days. 2. He enforced the laws against extravagance, setting watchmen in the market to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law. Sometimes he sent his lictors and soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even if they had already been served to the guests.

(44) Caesar’s grand public schemes involved:

  • to build a temple of Mars bigger than any in existence
  • to build a theatre of vast size, sloping down from the Tarpeian rock
  • to reduce the civil code to fixed limits and the vast, prolix mass of statutes down to only the best and most essential
  • to open to the public the greatest possible libraries of Greek and Latin books
  • to drain the Pontine marshes
  • to build a highway from the Adriatic across the summit of the Apennines as far as the Tiber

Militarily, he planned to check the Dacians, who had poured into Pontus and Thrace then to make war on the Parthians by way of Lesser Armenia.

[Remember I mentioned that Suetonius departed from the basic chronological methodology of his predecessors by adding descriptions of his subjects’ characters by category? Well, sections 45 to about 77 of the Life of Caesar do just that, pausing the (often very superficial) account of Caesar’s life story to look at a range of his qualities or characteristics.]

Before I speak of Caesar’s death, it will not be amiss to describe briefly his personal appearance, his dress, his mode of life, and his character, as well as his conduct in civil and military life.

(45) “He is said to have been tall of stature with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes. Sound of health, except that towards the end he was subject to sudden fainting fits and to nightmare as well. He was twice attacked by the falling sickness​ during his campaigns. 2. He was overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out.”

[Hence his reputation, as a young man, of being a dandy.]

“His baldness was a disfigurement which troubled him greatly since he found that it was often the subject of the gibes of his detractors. Because of this he used to comb fhis thin hair forward from the crown of his head. Of all the honours voted him by the senate and people he welcomed none more gladly than the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times since it covered his baldness.”

(46) He is said to have built a country house on his estate at Nemi at great cost but then torn it down because it did not suit him in every particular even though he was, at the time, poor and in debt. It was said that he carried tesselated and mosaic floors about with him on his campaigns [!].

(47) “He was an enthusiastic collector of gems, carvings, statues, and pictures by early artists. Also of slaves of exceptional figure and training at enormous prices, of which he himself was so ashamed that he forbade their entry in his accounts.”

(48) “He was so punctilious in the management of his household that he put his baker in irons for serving him with one kind of bread and his guests with another. He inflicted capital punishment on a favourite freedman for adultery with the wife of a Roman knight, although no complaint was made against him.”

(49) His early ‘friendship with King Nicomedes dogged the rest of his career, giving rise to no end of homophobic quips and insults.

(50) His affairs with women were described as numerous and extravagant. He seduced the wives of many senators and even Pompey’s wife Mucia. “But beyond all others Caesar loved Servilia, the mother of Marcus Brutus, for whom in his first consul­ship he bought a pearl costing six million sesterces.” Some people said that Servilia prostituted her own daughter Tertia to Caesar.

(51) That he behaved the same in Gaul is suggested by one of the many bawdy songs his soldiers sang about him in the Gallic triumph: “Men of Rome, keep close to your consorts, here’s a bald adulterer.”

(52) He had affairs with foreign queens, the most notable of course being Cleopatra. It is said that he would have followed her in a barge up the Nile to Ethiopia but his soldiers rebelled. He lavished her with presents and titles and she bore his son, Caesarion.

The extraordinary suggestion that Helvius Cinna, tribune of the commons, admitted to friends that he had a bill drawn which Caesar had ordered him to propose to the people in his absence, making it lawful for Caesar to marry what wives he wished, and as many as he wished, “for the purpose of begetting children.” [He sounds like an African dictator.]

That he had a bad reputation both for shameless vice and for adultery is suggested by the fact that the elder Curio in one of his speeches called him “every woman’s man and every man’s woman.” [Bisexual and shamelessly promiscuous.]

(53) He drank little, was never drunk, and cared little about food.

(54) In Gaul and Spain he shamelessly sacked towns which had surrendered in order to loot them. At first this was to pay off his monster debts but eventually he accumulated so much god “he didn’t know what to do with it”. In his first consul­ship he stole 3,000 pounds of gold from the Capitol, replacing it with the same weight of gilded bronze. He made alliances and thrones a matter of barter, for he extorted from Ptolemy alone nearly 6,000 talents. Later on he met the heavy expenses of the civil wars, his triumphs and entertainments by the most bare-faced pillage and sacrilegious looting of temples.

(55) Caesar equalled or surpassed both the greatest generals and the greatest orators in history. His prosecution of Dolabella placed him in the first rank of advocates and Cicero asked in his Brutus whether his readers knew of a better speaker than Caesar, of anyone who spoke so wittily with such a wide yet precise vocabulary.

(56) Caesar left memoirs of the Gallic war and the civil war with Pompey. The author of their continuations into a history of the Alexandrian, African, and Spanish Wars is unknown; some think it was Oppius, others Hirtius, who also supplied the final book of the Gallic War.

Cicero thought the accounts were “naked in their simplicity, straightforward yet graceful, stripped of all rhetorical adornment, as of a garment” and obviously written to supply material to others.

The orator, poet, playwright, literary critic, and historian Gaius Asinius Pollio thought they had been left incomplete and that Caesar intended to revise and polish them. Also that they were flawed because Caesar was biased in the description of his own accounts and too readily believed his subordinates’ accounts of their doings.

(57) He was highly skilled in arms and horseman­ship, and of incredible powers of endurance. He moved at incredible speed, sometimes covering 100 miles in a day, sometimes arriving at his destination before the messengers sent to warn of his coming.

(58) He was careful and cautious, about crossing to Britain, about crossing the Rhine, about crossing from Brundisium to Dyrrachium.

(59) No regard for religion ever turned him from any undertaking, or even delayed him.

(60) He joined battle, not only after planning his movements in advance but on a sudden opportunity, often immediately at the end of a march, and sometimes in the foulest weather, when one would least expect him to make a move.

(61) He rode a remarkable horse with feet that were almost human for its hoofs were cloven in such a way as to look like toes. This horse was foaled on his own place and the soothsayers foretold that its master would one day rule the world.

(62) When his army gave way, he often rallied it single-handed, planting himself in the way of the fleeing men and grabbing them one by one and turning them to face the enemy.

(63) He was famous for his presence of mind in a crisis.

(64) “At Alexandria, while assaulting a bridge, he was forced by a sudden sally of the enemy to take to a small skiff. When many others threw themselves into the same boat, he plunged into the sea, and after swimming for 200 paces, got away to the nearest ship, holding up his left hand all the way, so as not to wet some papers which he was carrying, and dragging his cloak after him with his teeth, to keep the enemy from getting it as a trophy.” [This seems to derive the War in Alexandria.]

(65) He valued his soldiers neither for their personal character nor for their fortune, but solely for their prowess, and he treated them with equal strictness and indulgence.

(66) When they were in a panic through reports about the enemy’s numbers, he used to rouse their courage not by denying or discounting the rumours, but by falsely exaggerating the true danger.

(67) He did not take notice of all his soldiers’ offences or punish them by rule, but he kept a sharp look out for deserters and mutineers. This he chastised them most severely, shutting his eyes to other faults.

(68) His men were fantastically loyal to him and looked after each other. When captured they refused to go over to the other side. They fought fanatically.

(69) They did not mutiny once during the ten years of the Gallic war. In the civil wars they did so now and then, but quickly resumed their duty. Caesar discharged the entire ninth legion in disgrace before Placentia, though Pompey was still in the field, reinstating them unwillingly and only after many abject entreaties, while insisting on punishing the ringleaders.

(70) How he handled the Tenth Legion which clamoured to be released from duty and which he humiliated by calling them ‘citizens’, making them beg to be reinstated as citizens again.

(71) His rescue of Masintha, a youth of high birth, against king Hiempsa.

(72) His friends he treated with invariable kindness and consideration.

(73) He readily forgave his enemies including Gaius Memmius, Gaius Calvus and the poet Valerius Catullus.

(74) Even in revenge he was merciful. Suetonius claims that when Caesar tracked down the pirates who had held him captive and had them crucified, he ordered their throats cut first so they didn’t really suffer.

(75) He repeatedly spared the lives of enemies, promoted some to high offices, in battle refused to kill his prisoners when the opposition killed theirs, and so on.

(76) On the other hand, he was intolerably puffed up with pride and accept excessive honours, such as:

  • an uninterrupted consul­ship
  • the dictator­ship for life
  • the censor­ship of public morals
  • the forename Imperator
  • the surname of Father of his Country
  • a statue among those of the kings
  • and a raised couch in the orchestra

He allowed honours to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man:

  • a golden throne in the House and on the judgment seat
  • a chariot and litter carrying his image in the procession at the circus
  • temples, altars, and statues beside those of the gods
  • an additional college of the Luperci
  • and the calling of one of the months by his name

He ruled by personal whim appointing officials with total disregard for law and precedent.

(77) A selection of some of his ‘arrogant’ sayings such as that the ‘state’ was a name without a body and that Sulla made a mistake when he lay down his dictatorship.

(78) The event which caused most ill feeling was when the Senate approached him in a body with many highly honorary decrees and Caesar received them before the temple of Venus Genetrix without rising. Some think he was held back by Cornelius Balbus, others that he felt one of his epileptic fits coming on and didn’t dare rise, but the story is widely attested as a prime example of him arrogantly thinking himself above the state.

(79) Kingship The events and rumours which led people to think he seriously aimed at becoming king, the one thing anathema to all Romans:

  • at the Latin Festival someone placed on his statue a laurel wreath with a white fillet tied to it symbolising kingship. When two tribunes ordered that the ribbon be removed from the wreath and the man taken off to prison, Caesar rebuked and deposed them. He claimed this was because he had been robbed of the glory of refusing it but from that time on he could not rid himself of the odium of having aspired to the title of monarch
  • the famous quip, when asked if he wanted to be king, that “I am Caesar and no king”
  • at the feast of the Lupercalia, when Mark Antony several times attempted to place a crown on his head as he spoke from the rostra, he put it aside and at last sent it to the Capitol, to be offered to Jupiter Optimus Maximus
  • reports that he planned to move to Alexandria, taking with him the resources of the state and leaving Rome in the charge of deputies
  • the rumour that at the next meeting of the Senate Lucius Cotta would announce as the decision of the college of fifteen priests that, since it was written in the Sybilline Books that the Parthians could only be conquered only by a king, Caesar should be given that title

(80) Examples of the resentment of the people at Caesar’s adoption of absolute power [Suetonius doesn’t give us details of when he made himself dictator and the powers it gave him]. Thus:

  • when Caesar admitted foreigners into the Senate, a placard was posted telling no-one to point out the way to the Senate House “to a newly made senator”
  • rude verses were made up and sung accusing Caesar of promoting Gauls
  • Caesar appointed Quintus Maximus as consul in his place for three months, but when Quintus was entering the theatre, and his lictor called attention to his arrival in the usual manner, a general shout was raised: “He’s no consul!”
  • someone wrote on the base of Lucius Brutus’ statue, the man who drove the last kings from Rome: “Oh, that you were still alive”

Thus there was widespread popular feeling against Caesar and this encouraged different groups of conspirators to coalesce into one big conspiracy, which eventually totally 60 men. Various times and places were discussed until a meeting of the Senate was called for the Ideas (15) of March and the plan coalesced.

(81) Just as much as Plutarch, Suetonius takes bad omens seriously enough to record them in detail:

  • at Capua settlers in the new colony found in some old tombs a bronze tablet saying that when these bones were moved, a son of Ilium shall be slain at the hands of his kindred and avenged at heavy cost to Italy [son of Ilium because a) that was the Greek name for Troy b) Caesar’s family, the Julii, claimed descent from Aeneas, a prince of Troy]
  • the herds of horses which he had dedicated to the river Rubicon when he crossed it, and had let loose without a keeper, stubbornly refused to graze and wept copiously
  • when Caesar was offering sacrifice, the soothsayer Spurinna warned him to beware of danger, which would come not later than the Ides of March
  • on the day before the Ides of March a little bird called the king-bird flew into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel, pursued by others of various kinds from the grove hard by, which tore it to pieces in the hall
  • the night before his murder he dreamt now that he was flying above the clouds, now that he was clasping the hand of Jupiter
  • his wife Calpurnia dreamed that the pediment​ of their house fell, and that her husband was stabbed in her arms

Which is why he hesitated to go to the Senate House that morning but Decimus Brutus, who was in on the conspiracy, kept urging him not to let the Senate down, so eventually he left his house and set off. Several people handed him notes warning him of the conspiracy but he merely held onto them without reading.

Finally, it is said that he laughed at Spurinna and calling him a false prophet, because the Ides of March had come and he wasn’t harmed – but Spurinna replied that they had indeed come, but they had not gone.

(82) Description of the precise order of who stabbed him where. Compare and contrast with Plutarch. What always amazes me is that in a such a heavily militarised society where almost every adult male had served in the army, it took 23 stab wounds to kill him. Everyone fled the scene leaving the body and it was left to three slaves to place it on a litter and carry it home to his wife.

The conspirators had intended to drag his body to the Tiber, confiscate his property and revoke his decrees but they forebore through fear of Marcus Antonius the consul, and Lepidus, the master of horse. [Unlike Plutarch’s version where they ran out of the Senate House crying “Liberty! Freedom!”]

(83) Suetonius has Caesar’s will being opened and read at Mark Antony’s house: he allotted three quarters of his fortune to his sisters’ grandson, Gaius Octavius, and Lucius Pinarius and Quintus Pedius to share the remainder. At the end of the will he adopted Gaius Octavius into his family and gave him his name. To the people he left his gardens near the Tiber for their common use and three hundred sesterces to each man.

(84) Suetonius gives a very different account of Caesar’s funeral which omits Antony’s inflammatory reading of the will and displaying the bloody toga to the mob, which infuriated them. Suetonius gives s detailed description of the gilded shrine which was made after the model of the temple of Venus Genetrix, within which was a couch of ivory with coverlets of purple and gold, and at its head a pillar hung with the robe in which he was slain. And that Antony had the decree of the Senate read out by which Caesar was deified, to which he added very few words of his own [unlike Plutarch, where it is Antony’s sustained impassioned speech which rouses the crowd to vengeance.

While his friends debated where the pyre should be lit, in another supernatural moment;

on a sudden two beings​ with swords by their sides and brandishing a pair of darts set fire to it with blazing torches, and at once the throng of bystanders heaped upon it dry branches, the judgment seats with the benches, and whatever else could serve as an offering.

Angels, apparently.

(85) Inflamed with anger the mob ran to set fire to the houses of the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, but were repelled. They came across the harmless poet Helvius Cinna in the street and, mistaking him for the conspirator Cornelius Cinna, tore him to pieces and paraded his head on a spear. [Suetonius doesn’t mention it but it was this incident which persuaded the conspirators to flee Rome, thus handing the city over to their enemy, Mark Antony.]

The people set up in the Forum a solid column of Numidian marble almost twenty feet high and inscribed upon it, “To the Father of his Country.” At the foot of this for years afterwards they made sacrifice, made vows, and settled disputes by an oath in the name of Caesar.

(86) Some of his friends thought Caesar no longer wanted to live due to failing health. This would explain why, despite the mounting rumours and ominous portents, he dismissed the armed bodyguard of Spanish soldiers that formerly attended him and went to the Senate unprotected.

It is reported that he said that it wasn’t for his own sake that he should remain alive – he had long since had his fill of power and glory – it was because if he were killed, the commonwealth would have no peace but be plunged into strife under much worse conditions. Which is precisely what happened.

(87) Everyone agrees Caesar himself had a horror of a long lingering death and wanted one which was sudden and unexpected.

(88) Caesar was 56 when he died and was swiftly deified, not only by a formal decree, but also in the hearts of the common people. At the first of the games which his heir Augustus gave in honour of his apotheosis, a comet shone for seven days in a row.

It was voted that the hall in which he was murdered be walled up, that the Ides of March be called the Day of Parricide, and that a meeting of the Senate should never be called on that day.

(89) Hardly any of his assassins survived him for more than three years or died a natural death. They all perished in various ways — some by shipwreck, some in battle; some took their own lives with the self-same dagger with which they had stabbed Caesar.

Comparisons

In comparison with Plutarch, Suetonius really skimps on the details of both the political intrigue and the military campaigns. Instead you get the character profiling about his horse and haircut and so on in chapters 45 to 77. For the intense debate in the Senate about the Catiline conspirators, read Sallust. For Caesar’s achievements in Gaul read his own account, ditto the civil war with Pompey. Cicero’s letters give a vivid feel of what it felt like living under Caesar’s dictatorship i.e. stifled and numb.

Like Plutarch, like plenty of commentators at the time and ever since, Suetonius seems conflicted in his opinion about Caesar, supplying plenty of evidence that he was an extravagant and arbitrary dictator, but also lamenting the impiety of his murder.


Related link

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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Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


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Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

Prologue

The prologue explains that there were once two little boys, identical twin sons of a merchant of Syracuse, named Menaechmus and Sosicles. One day the father took little Menaechmus on a business trip to Tarentum but while walking through a carnival together they got separated. A trader from Epidamnus found the little boy and took him home with him. The father fell sick with grief and died. His father i.e. the boys’ grandfather, back in Syracuse, renamed Sosicles Menaechmus (the name of the lost boy, who he had always preferred).

So we have now got identical twins both named Menaechmus, one living with his grandfather, one growing up far away in Epidamnus.

(Incidentally, you can see how the title The Brothers Menaechmus is a pastiche of Elizabethan or olde worlde word order. In modern English it would simply be The Menaechmus Brothers or, if this was a brat pack movie, The Menaechmus Boys.)

The years passed and the boys grew to manhood in their separate cities. Back in Epidamnus, Menaechmus reached manhood and the trader gave him a wife and dowry and, when the trader died, Menaechmus inherited his large estate, where he now lives. Anyway, that’s the back story, and now the play begins.

The plot

Enter Peniculus

Enter Peniculus, a prime example of the stock character, the parasitus. The editor and translator of this edition, E.F. Watling, has previously explained that the best way to understand this character type is as a kind of dinner companion for hire – educated men who go from patron to patron ingratiating themselves, trying to get invitations to dinner where they amuse with their witty conversation (the other characters call him a ‘table companion’).

As a result the parasitus is associated with comic speeches about food and Peniculus is no exception, entering to make a speech on the comic premise that, if you wanted to lock people up, to make them secure, you’d do better to give them stunning feasts each day rather than put them in chains. Who would willingly run off and lose the chance of a daily feast?

Thus Peniculus explains that he is Menaechmus’s ‘bond slave’ but willingly reports for duty at his villa for love of the amazing spreads.

Menaechmus the adulterer

Peniculus arrives just as young Menaechmus emerges from his villa, yelling back through the open door at his wife (a very characteristic position for a Plautus character). This opening speech establishes that he is not a noble character but a bad tempered adulterer. He accuses his wife of asking endless questions about his movements and spying on him. In the next breath he justifies her suspicions by revealing that he’s going to meet his mistress, Erotium, tonight and – in a comic manoeuvre – has smuggled out of the house his wife’s dresses by wearing it under his toga.

It’s at this point that Peniculus comes forward, they greet each other, shake hands and Menaechmus shows off to Peniculus his cunning little prank i.e. displays himself wearing the gown.

Menaechmus’ mistress, Erotium

Scared of Menaechmus’s wife, they move shiftily over to the house next door (as in so many of the plays, the set consists of two neighbouring houses) because, lo and behold, right next door is the house of Menaechmus’s mistress, Erotium. He knocks on the door, she comes out he declares his eternal love for her and gives her his wife’s gown, then declares they’re going to have a party at her place, Menaechmus, Peniculus and her, so can she get her cook to start cooking. And with that Menaechmus declares his off to town and exists, followed by his lackey Peniculus.

Erotium calls out her cook, Cylindrus, gives him three pounds and bids him go to the market to buy grub for lunch. When he hears one of them is Menaechmus’s table companion’ he complains that people like him can do the work of of eight men, but off he goes anyway, grumbling.

Quite obviously Menaechmus having a mistress is not designed to make any highfalutin’ moral or ethical points but to maximise the amount of confusion to be caused by the comic conceit of the identical twins: I predict not only his wife but his mistress will be thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the twin.

Enter Sosicles and Messenio

And sure enough enter Sosicles, or that was his original name until his brother was abducted and his grandfather renamed him Menaechmus. He’s just arrived by ship accompanied by his slave Messenio and a group (number unspecified) of slaves carrying his baggage.

Messenio is the grumpy sort of slave and complains to his master, and thus informs the audience, that Sosicles has been traipsing round the entire Mediterranean searching for his brother, calling in at the Danube, Spain, Massilia, Illyria, all over the Adriatic, the Greek colonies and the entire coast of Italy (p.111).

Messenio goes on to explain that the inhabitants of the place they’ve arrived at, Epidamnus, have a bad reputation.

Obviously they’ve arrived in front of Menaechmus’s villa while Messenio makes a long speech about how they haven’t a hope in hell of finding Menaechmus, he must be long dead. At which point Erotium’s cook, Cylindrus, arrives back from the market. When he sees Sosicles he of course thinks he is Menaechmus, the guest for the planned lunch party, waiting outside his mistress’s house. And so into the first of many comic misidentifications and misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding 1 Sosicles and Cylindrus

Cylindrus, of course, thinks Sosicles is Menaechmus arrived for lunch and engages him in casual conversation. Sosicles, of course, is completely bewildered at being addressed familiarly by a strange slave, and when he assumes he (Sosicles) lives next door, with his wife, Sosicles thinks he must be mad and gives him money to buy a sacrifice to make at the shrine of the god of lunatics. Of course, Cylindrus thinks Sosicles is mad – with Sosicles’ slave Messenio chipping in from the sidelines.

Misunderstanding 2 Sosicles and Erotium

Cylindrus goes in the house and is replaced by Erotium who appears and, of course, calls Sosicles ‘darling’ and carries on a normal conversation with him (p.115), reminding him that he a) brought her a gown of his wife’s b) asked her to prepare lunch for him and his table companion (p.116). Obviously, Sosicles thinks she is mad, though is puzzled how she knows his name.

N.B: It’s important to remember that the twins both have the same name. Menaechmus was always the name of the boy who was abducted, the other one, Sosicles, was renamed Menaechmus by his grandfather. So they both have the same name. When I refer to Sosicles in this summary it is to clarify who is who, but he isn’t referred to as Sosicles in the play.

All these confusions give Messenio the opportunity to say he warned his boss about Epidamnus – looks like the reputation is true, it really is full of lunatics.

After conferring with his slave Sosicles takes the decision that he’s going to play along with this pretty woman. If she wants to give him a free lunch and witter on about his non-existent wife, then, sure, he’ll play nice. So he apologises to Erotium for being confused and she, now mollified, invites him into her house. Messenion warns him to watch himself but Sosicles reckons he’s on to a good thing, a free lunch and then maybe some afternoon delight.

Misunderstanding 3 Sosicles and Peniculus

The table companion Peniculus has been at some public meeting all morning and arrives in a bad mood to spy Sosicles emerging from Erotium’s house, obviously drunk, with a laurel wreath at a rakish angle on his head and calling back to Erotium that he promises to take the gown (the one Menaechmus gave her that morning) to a dressmaker’s in town to have it adjusted.

When Peniculus steps forward to castigate Sosicles for starting (and finishing) lunch without telling him, Sosicles, naturally enough, says he’s no idea who he is or what he’s talking about. As in every one of these encounters, they each think the other must be mad. Peniculus vows revenge, swearing he’ll tell Menaechmus’s wife all about his affair.

Misunderstanding 4 Sosicles and the maid

Erotium’s maid pops out of her house and asks Sosicles one more favour. Can he please take these gold bracelets, the ones he stole from his wife and gave to Erotium, to a goldsmith and have some gold added and reshaped. Sosicles is no longer bewildered, he is master of the situation and milking it for all he’s got, so he willingly accepts gold bracelets.

Then the maid takes things a bit further by asking if he can get her some pretty little gold earrings, please. Then next time he pops over she’s be everso nice to him (flutter eyelashes). Sosicles says, Sure, where’s the gold? But when the maid says she doesn’t have any, she was hoping he’d buy her some as a gift he loses interest and, realising it, the maid goes back into Erotium’s house.

At which point Peniculus emerges from Menaechmus’s house with the latter’s wife. He has told her everything. She is furious and asks herself how much longer she has to put up with this insulting behaviour? They spot Menaechmus coming and hide.

Misunderstanding 5 Menaechmus and wife

Sosicles had exited the stage in one direction. Now from the opposite direction enters the real, or original, Menaechmus. He delivers a page long soliloquy about what a pain it is being patron to a number of clients; he’s wasted his whole morning sorting out litigation around a client of his, an obvious crook, but in a patron-client society that’s what you have to do. He laments not having got away earlier for lunch although hopes the gift of the gown he stole from his wife will placate her. His wife is hiding behind a bush and hears him say this!

She steps out and accuses him of being a slimeball, egged on by the irate table companion Peniculus (‘That’s the way to talk to him’). Menaechmus desperately back pedals, disclaiming any knowledge of a mistress or stolen gown. This goes on for some time with Menaechmus until the furious wife finally says he’s not getting back into their house till he returns the gown, and goes into the house slamming the door!

Misunderstanding 6 Menaechmus and Erotium

Oh well, if his wife’s locked him out at least Erotium will give him a warm welcome. She’s pleased to see him back so soon but, of course, when he asks for the gown she is confused: she gave it to him not half an hour ago. His insistence that she give it back infuriates her and she slams the door in his face. Oops. Now he’s locked out of both women’s houses. He says he’ll go back into town looking for a friend to cheer him up.

Misunderstanding 7 Sosicles returns

Menaechmus’s wife looks out the door and sees Sosicles return with the famous gown. She thinks he’s come to make up with her. But when she confronts him, Sosicles is, of course, completely non-plussed and denies any knowledge of her. At which point, understandably, she reverts to her former fury. When she tells him that an hour ago he promised to find the gown and give it back to her he has no idea what she’s on about. All Sosicles knows is he spent a nice time with Erotium who gave him a gown to be altered. Who’s this madwoman ranting at him?

She’s so furious she sends a servant to fetch her aged father. He’ll sort out her faithless husband! When he arrives he tells his daughter off for being a scold and keeping such a tight watch on her husband i.e. he takes Menaechmus’s side. But then…

Misunderstanding 8 Sosicles and the father

Then the father actually confronts Sosicles, thinking he’s Menaechmus and, like everyone else, thinks the latter must have gone mad when he denies all knowledge of him. In fact it occurs to Sosicles that if people keep accusing him of being mad, maybe there’s some advantage to actually behaving mad, so he starts ‘gaping and flinging himself about’ (p.133) and starts to rant and rave and claiming to hear the gods’ instructions telling him to beat this ‘bitch’ and the ‘old goat’ i.e. wife and father.

Terrified, she runs back inside the house leaving her father to grapple with Sosicles who pretends to be hearing instructions from Apollo himself telling him to run the old man over with a (non-existent) chariot and horses. They grapple till Sosicles falls to the floor. The father thinks he’s had a stroke so says he’d better hurry and fetch a doctor. Once he’s gone Sosicles gets up, dusts himself off, declares everyone here is mad, and decides he’d better get back to his boat while the coast is clear.

Misunderstanding 9 Father, doctor and Menaechmus

The father returns, out of breath, with a doctor who is just asking the symptoms of the patient when the real Menaechmus enters. Obviously he knows nothing of the encounter which just ended in which his identical twin feigned madness and fell to the floor. So he hasn’t a clue what the father is describing and the doctor is quizzing him about and answers all the latter’s impertinent questions rudely (‘Jupiter and all the gods blast you and your silly questions’, p.137). But he quickly becomes so angry, and answers so sarcastically, that he does himself appear mad, just like his twin had. So the doctor suggests Menaechmus is brought over to his house so he can supervise his treatment (hellebore seems to be the recommended drug). They exit to go and get some strong slaves to grab, bind and take Menaechmus away.

They both exit leaving Menaechmus alone. He sits down and a) wonders what on earth has possessed these two to accuse him of being mad and b) what the devil is going to happen now he’s locked out by both his wife and mistress.

Misunderstanding 10 Menaechmus and Messenio

Messenio is Sosicles’s slave. Last time he saw his master he told him to see the slaves and baggage settled at an inn, which he’s achieved. Now he re-enters and goes up to Erotium’s door because that’s the last time he saw his master, going in to have lunch with Erotium. But before he can knock on her door, he witnesses the father returning with four strong slaves. And then sees them set on Menaechmus, with a view to binding him and carrying him away.

Menaechmus calls for help and Messenio comes to his rescue and there’s quite a fight with our pair finally getting the better of the foursome who run away. Now, of course, Messenio not only expects Menaechmus to recognise him but asks for a big reward: will he set him free?

(I commented in my review of Captivi how almost all the plays include a slave who performs adroit services for his master and promptly asks to be freed, wondering if this was a reality of Roman life or just a hilarious staple of stage comedy.)

Menaechmus, of course, has now idea who Messenio is and thought he was a good samaritan coming to his aid. He tells him to his face he’s no idea who he is but, by all means, go free. Messenio takes this as meaning he has been liberated and cries tears of joy. He says he’ll go and get the purse of money, baggage and slaves from the inn and rushes off. Menaechmus refuses to be fazed by this but has no idea what he’s talking about.

He knocks on Erotium’s door with a view to trying to get the famous gown back and give it to his wife, completely unaware that Sosicles went off with it some time ago.

Misunderstanding 11

On the way to the inn Messenio has bumped into his real master, Sosicles. Now they enter arguing. Sosicles of course knows nothing about Messenio rescuing him from the four slaves and giving him his liberty. Oh no he bloody well didn’t, says Sosicles.

The catastrophe

In classical literary theory, the catastrophe is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

It’s at this moment, just as Sosicles is telling his slave Messenio he has no idea what he’s talking about, that Menaechmus walks out Erotium’s front door and comes face to face with his identical twin, Sosicles. The comedy is dramatised by being seen through the eyes of a third party, Messenio.

The two brothers are slow to recognise each other but it is Messenio’s comic intervention, claiming to be the slave of each in turn and getting them muddled up, which is played for a few more laughs.

In fact it is Messenio who takes Sosicles aside and points out that this other fellow may well be his long lost twin brother. He suggests they ask him a few more questions and Sosicles readily agrees. The play then mutates into a kind of courtroom drama with Messenio playing the role of interrogating counsel as he asks Menaechmus a series of questions which confirm that he is indeed the little boy from Syracuse who lost his father in a crowd, was kidnapped and adopted by a stranger who raised him here in Epidamnus.

At each answer Sosicles cries out in wonder with Messenio impatiently telling him to wait his turn to question the witness. Presumably a) the conceit of being a courtoom was meant to be funny as was b) the idea of a slave like Messenio impersonating a magistrate.

There’s still a smidgeon of doubt at which point Menaechmus asks Sosicles what their mother’s name was. Sosicles replies Teuximarcha. All doubts are removed, they both realise they are each other’s twin brother and embrace in tears.

The resolution

If you remember, Sosicles has been on a vast 6-year-long odyssey round the Mediterranean looking for his long-lost brother. Now that quest is at an end. Menaechmus resolves to accompany him back to the family home in Syracuse. He says he’ll quickly sell up all his property here then they can depart. Oh and Menaechmus asks Sosicles to give Messenio his freedom, as a favour to him, seeing as how he stoutly defended him in the battle of the four slaves.

1. It is very striking that the catastrophe did not involve either of the women, Menaechmus’s wife or mistress. Surely there was a world of comic potential, not to mention some kind of reconciliation with his wife, waiting to take place here. But it simply doesn’t happen. As if the women really are just pawns in the plot, who can be dispensed with as soon as they’re not needed; as if the only reconciliation which counts is male, among men, between the brothers, and to some extent Messenio.

2. The very last passage of the play is when Messenio cheekily asks the brothers if he can be their auctioneer, they say yes, and this gives Plautus the opportunity to show the cheeky slave impersonating an auctioneer, using his patter to quickly describe the contents and effects of Menaechmus’s house – everything must be sold off, including his wife (‘should there be any purchaser’) – before quickly bringing the play to an end with the traditional request for the audience’s applause.

Roman slavery

As in most of the other plays the thing which catches my attention most is the ubiquitous condition of slavery, of ordinary, everyday, commonplace slavery which everyone took for granted. Messenio is given a speech in which he describes how he’s made a conscious decision to be a good slave, which he defines as one who attends to his master’s welfare, plans his business and organises his affairs as effectively in his absence as in his presence. OK. Then goes on describe what life has in store for slaves who are worthless, idle or dishonest, namely:

floggings, chains, the treadmill, sweating, starving, freezing stiff. (p.138)

Is this an accurate description? It brings home the way a master would be friendly with, spend most of his life with, joke, laugh, cry, share his ups and downs with a person who he also order to do everything for him, run errands, fetch and carry, serve and please and who, if he (all the slaves in these plays are men) upsets, irritates his master or falls short, can be submitted to a staggering range of physical punishment and abuse.

And, as in so many of the plays, the top thing on Messenio’s mind was winning his freedom. As soon as he’s helped Menaechmus fight off the four slaves, he asks for his freedom. Is this what it was like? Did slaves think all the time of how to get free, and pester their masters for requests to be freed? Did they ever make such requests? Was there a recognised time or occasion which might merit it? Were there social conventions and forms of words?

Interestingly, Messenio says that, if he is freed, his one-time master becomes his patron. Is that how it worked. Was ‘freedom’ the exchange from one recognised form of hierarchical relationship for another? Did a freed slave remain within the orbit and indeed the service of his master/patron, only with freedom of action?

Messenio, after he thinks Menaechmus has freed him, hurries to say he still wants to take his orders and go home with him and carry on living with him. Was this meant to be funny because it indicated what a poor notion of freedom Messenio had? Or was it a commonplace situation, that freed slaves continued to live in their former master’s houses but on new terms? How was that managed by everyone concerned, not least the other slaves who remained in their unfree condition?


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Related link

Roman reviews

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 1

High speed and racy

As the corny ‘triumph and tragedy’ subtitle suggests, Holland isn’t aiming at originality or depth. He is aiming at writing a gripping, gung-ho, boys’ own adventure narrative history of the Roman Republic, and he does it very well indeed. Rubicon won a history prize, was shortlisted for several others, and opens with no fewer than five pages of laudatory reviews from a host of famous historians and authors (Ian McEwan, A.N. Wilson, Beryl Bainbridge Joanna Trollope), many of whom chose it as their book of the year. It was even described as ‘gripping’ by Boris Johnson, than which there can be no higher praise.

Despite all this puffery, for the first 40 or so pages I was quietly horrified at the casual speed with which Holland skips through Rome’s prehistory and early history:

In a memorable manoeuvre on page 6, we are in the 360s BC in one sentence and then, two sentences later, in the 260s BC. A century flashes past in the blink of an eye.

Rome’s epic conflict with Carthage, the three Punic wars which lasted off and on from 264 and 146 BC, are dispensed with in just two pages (7 and 8) with the third and final Punic war and the destruction of Carthage knocked off on just one page (page 34). By page 10 it is already the 140s BC and Rome has conquered Macedon (the most important kingdom in Greece), Sicily and a good deal of Spain i.e Holland has skipped over400 years of history in a few pages.

The Achaean War, which marked the final ascendency of Rome over Greece and climaxed in the brutal destruction of Greece’s most prosperous city, Corinth, in 146 BC (the same year Carthage was razed to the ground) is dealt with thus:

Meanwhile, just in case anyone was missing the lesson, a Roman army spent the same spring of 146 rubbing it into the noses of the Greeks. That winter a ragbag of cities in southern Greece had presumed to disturb the balance of power that Rome had established in the area. In a war that was over almost before it had begun, a Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp, and the ancient city of Corinth reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. (p.35)

As you can see, instead of detail or analysis the reader gets a cheerfully brisk, slangy summary, which sounds like a stagey narrator of a novel, mixing a kind of tabloid journalism with dated schoolboy slang (‘rubbing their noses in it’). ‘A Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp.’ How would you characterise that sentence? Prep school patois? Anyway, the book is like this from start to finish, written in a deliberately irreverent, casual, prep school slang and hyper-vivid vernacular. No wonder Boris liked it so much.

I thought Mary Beard’s history of Rome often skipped through military and political events without fully explaining them, but Beard feels like the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with Holland’s speed of light race through Rome’s early history.

The last century of the Republic

Things begin to make sense around page 40 when you begin to realise that Holland is very much not writing a complete history of the entire Roman Republic (509 to 31 BC). Indeed, Holland has skipped through the 650 or so years between Rome’s (legendary) founding in 753 down to the 90s BC in little more than 40 pages. (An approach confirmed by the timeline at the end of the book: this is seven pages long and whereas the first page covers the 620 years from 753 to 133 BC, the remaining six pages settle down and cover 123 BC to 14 AD in granular detail. There’s the strategy of the book, right there.)

No, it’s not at all a history of the Roman Republic – it’s a racy account of the Republic’s final century from, say, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 down to Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC.

Why? Because:

  1. the last 100 years of the Roman republic is the period we have by far the best documentation for
  2. during which we know most about the characters of political leaders, because they and their supporters or enemies left copious writings, histories, speeches and letters
  3. and it’s also by far the most dramatic period, when then republican system began to break down, leading to a series of dictators and civil wars

The last twenty years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history… (p.xxv)

Holland’s account deliberately skips the legendary founding (753), the era of kings (753 to 509), the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud (509) and the long evolution of Rome’s complex political and military administration (500s to 140s), in order to get to the juicy stories, melodramatic events and larger-than-life characters of its ill-fated last century.

Thriller style

Holland or his publishers realised there was a gap in the market for a history of Rome written as page-turning thriller. It really is written in a kind of prep school variety of lurid airport novel prose. As well as processing the content, it was entertaining to try and categorise some of the effects involved:

Ending paragraphs with a sentence. Then completing it in the next paragraph, for dramatic effect

  • No wonder that Sulla loathed him. / Loathed him and dreamed of winning the same greatness that Marius had won. (p.65)
  • Free Gaul prepared itself for war. / As did Caesar. (p.245)
  • Whatever happened the Republic would endure. / Or so everyone assumed. (p.257)
  • It was Caesar who had taught the Gauls what it meant to be a nation. Now that achievement threatened to destroy him. / Or so it seemed. (p.278)

Melodrama

  • Devastation shadowed the Mediterranean. (p.34)
  • The legions moved in for the kill. (p.34)
  • It was a moment pregnant with menace. (p.73)
  • The resulting goldrush was soon a stampede. (p.42)
  • Long-held grudges, never entirely extinguished, flared back into flames. Warfare returned to the Samnite hills. (p.50)
  • Various tribunes began to strip Lucullus of his provinces one by one, snapping at him like wolves on the trail of a wounded beast. (p.165)
  • The news spread like wildfire. (p.256)
  • Senators on the make, their nostrils filled with the scent of power, scrabbled for advancement. (p.260)
  • But still the whisperings would not be silenced. They could be heard throughout the feverish, troubled capital. (p.289)
  • As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world. (p.313)

Bombastic descriptions

  • Throughout the monarchies of the East, assorted royal poodles would jump whenever the Romans snapped their fingers… (p.37)
  • The arteries of empire were hardening with gold, and the more they hardened, so the more Rome squeezed out. (p.42)
  • The cities groaned under punitive exactions; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontier, petty princelings snarled and snapped. Over the wounds of the ruined province [Asia in the 80s BC] Roman flies buzzed eagerly. (p.155)
  • The longing of the Romans for glory, which burned brightly within them and lit their city and indeed their entire empire with its flame, also cast flickering and treacherous shadows. (p.206)
  • The scent of [Pompey’s] failure hung like carrion-perfume over Rome. In the Senate scavengers whined and snarled with excitement. (p.256)

Pop psychology

  • Sulpicius was not a man lacking in principle. Causes mattered to him, even to the point of destruction. (p.67)
  • Pompey always had a nose for where the richest opportunities might lie. (p.91)
  • As ever with [Sulla], opportunism was the obverse of an icy conviction. (p.101)
  • Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web. (p.140)
  • Pompey could fuss with territories as though they were counters on a gaming board, rearranging them as he pleased, handing out crowns, abolishing thrones, the still-boyish master of the fates of millions. (p.179)
  • As the two rival armies sparred nervously with each other, jabbing here, feinting there, [Anthony] was always in the thick of the action, dashing, tireless, the most glamorous and discussed man on either side. (p.319)
  • The female of the Ptolemaic species had always been deadlier than the male. (p.328)

And the sometimes obsessive iteration of stock phrases

  • The Venetian fleets, taken by surprise, were wiped out. (p.273)
  • The invaders were summarily wiped out. (p.273)
  • The garrison of one legionary camp was ambushed and wiped out. (p.277)
  • The senators in Pompey’s train, impatient for action, wanted Caesar and his army wiped out. (p.320)

Above all Holland’s really obsessive reiteration of his central idea, repeated literally hundreds of times, that all Roman aristocrats were bred and trained and lived for ‘glory’ – a word which appears on every other page.

It is Roman history rewritten by Lee Child. Or maybe by the scriptwriters of Dallas, with an occasional dash of Barbara Cartland or Jilly Cooper or writers who glory in posh, stereotyped and simplified characterisation.

A tiny epitome of this is Holland’s frequent use of the word ‘whore’. In the olden days we described these as ‘prostitutes’ and I remember the good work of the English Collective of Prostitutes back in the 70s and 80s in trying to change the law to protect its members. In our value-neutral, woke times we nowadays refer to them as ‘sex workers’. Holland’s insistence on using the word ‘whore’ is a small symptom of his determination not to write some fuddy-duddy, academic tome but a rollicking Texas barnstormer of an airport novel, where men are men and women are either high society hostesses or whores, goddamit!

  • The necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-price whores. (p.14)
  • [Naples] ancient streets had recently begun to fill with tourists, all of them keen to taste the Greek lifestyle – whether by debating philosophy, complaining to doctors, or falling in love with a witty, well-read whore. (p.48)
  • Throughout his life Sulla deployed his charm as a weapon, on politicians and soldiers as much as on whores. (p.70)
  • Sulla, who had spent his own twenties running after whores… (p.103)
  • It would have been as insulting for Cato to be labelled a demagogue as for a matron to be confused with a whore. (p.233)

Key players

But precisely because he does focus entirely on the action-packed 1st century BC, and dwells on the lurid and blood thirsty and over-the top personalities of the key players, you do certainly emerge (slightly punch drunk) with a much more vivid sense of the characters of the successive strong men who plunged the Republic into civil wars and internecine bloodshed.

In Holland’s account the swing year is 89 BC, a year of two wars. In Italy the widespread revolt of the Italian allies and confederates against Rome, demanding equal rights and freedoms under the law, had amounted to a cruel civil war, with ethnically identical Italian people massacring each other the length and breadth of the peninsula.

But the so-called Social War coincided with the revolt of King Mithradates of Pontus in Anatolia, which hugely raised the stakes. For a ruling class constantly athirst for glory, the prospect of victory in the Social War overlapped with the potentially huge riches to be won by whoever was chosen to go and reconquer the East.

Gaius Marius makes his first appearance on page 56 as the 60-year-old leader of the Roman army sent against the Italian rebels during the Social War, 91 to 87 BC. Marius was fabulously rich and successful, having held the consulship a record six times (p.65).

Gaius Pompeius ‘Strabo’ (p.58) ‘treacherous and brutal’ (p.117) very unpopular in Rome but led successful campaign against the Italians and so was a necessary ally for Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (p.62) took over command in the Social War from Marius, leading a huge army of 13 legions which besieged and massacred the Italian rebels.

It’s with this cast that series one of Rubicon – having scooted through the previous 500 years of Roman history in the blink of an eye – really gets under way. For as Sulla brought the Social War to an end he fell into rivalry with his old commanding officer, Marius, about who would lead the army to Asia to defeat Mithradates. Sulla was elected war leader, but Marius politicked against him.

Sulla’s first march on Rome Briefly, Sulla was still campaigning against the Italians when he received the news that command of the army about to be sent to the East to fight Mithradates, and which he had lobbied hard to be given, had been rescinded and given to his arch rival, Marius. Not only that, but the staff officer who brought the message was to replace him in his command against the Italians. When Sulla announced this to his assembled troops and introduced the staff officer his men promptly stoned the messenger to death and clamoured for Sulla to lead them on a march on Rome. No Roman had done this before. Armies were meant to be in the trust of a consul, until he was replaced and handed over command.

The model of insurrection Sulla marked the advent of a completely new type of conflict, war, leadership and politics. The later civil war between Caesar and Pompey and then between Caesar’s assassins and the second triumvirate, followed the model of military insurrection, seizure of the capital and paying off of personal scores established by Sulla. There are two eras in the history of the Republic – Before Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC, and Afterwards (p.71).

Sulla’s coup Sulla busted laws and conventions by a) leading his legions on Rome b) crossing the holy boundary, the pomerium, within which no Roman was meant to bear arms (p.72) c) actually sacking the city, commanding his troops to retaliate with fire arrows against civilians chucking roof tiles down on them. And once he had established martial law and set his soldiers at all key points d) he set about executing his opponents. Lists were published and opponents hacked down in public buildings or the streets.

Sulla’s arch enemy Marius fled south and then across the sea to Africa, where he planned a comeback and revenge.

Lucius Cornelius Cinna was one of the two consuls elected in 88 BC after Sulla had taken Rome. Cinna publicly criticised Sulla but then was forced to make a pledge, along with his fellow consul Octavius, not to remove any of Sulla’s legislation (p.70).

Having massacred his opponents or driven them into exile, Sulla finally sailed with his army for the East to deal with Mithradates’ rebellion. Cinna, one of the two consuls he left behind, promptly reneged on his promise not to tamper with Sulla’s laws but was forced out of Rome by his fellow consul Octavius who stayed loyal to his absent master. Once Sulla was out of Italy, Marius returned, joined forces with Cinna, and they marched on Rome and seized power. Cinna’s fellow consul, Octavius, was hacked down in his consul’s chair and his head brought to Cinna who displayed it from the public Rostrum. These were not the ways of the old Republic.

Having returned to Rome, Marius arranged to hold an unprecedented seventh consulship but was an old man, exhausted after a life of fighting, took to debauchery and was dead in a few weeks. And so Cinna now emerged as the regime’s new ‘strongman’ (p.117). He arranged, contrary to all the rules, to hold the consulship for three years in a row, precisely the kind of sustained grip on power which the constitution was supposed to prevent.

In other words, all restraint had been lost and Roman politics had descended to warlordism and gang warfare. Political life had been ‘brutalised’ says Holland, in a phrase which reminds me of the immediate post-war years in the Weimar Republic. Once that element of street violence has entered the political domain it is very hard to remove it because you’ve shown people who are prepared to use it, that it works.

When, after three years of campaigning against Mithradates and rebellious Greek cities, Sulla wound up his affairs in Greece and gave notice of returning with his legions to Italy, Cinna tried to rouse Rome’s home legions to resist him, but the troops mutinied and, in confused circumstances, Cinna was killed. So both Marius and Cinna were dead.

On Sulla’s second march on Rome he was joined by the glamorous and fabulously successful young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who was to become known as Pompey the Great (p.90).

Also to his side came the scion of one of Rome’s most noble families, Marcus Licinius Crassus (p.89). Crassus’s father had opposed Marius and been murdered, as had his brother, and his entire family estates confiscated.

Marius had died but had been replaced by his confident and able son, who had rallied the anti-Sulla forces. In other words Rome’s ruling class was by the late 80s BC completely polarised between the group Holland calls ‘the Marians’ and Sulla and his supporters. The conflict between the two parties got mixed up with a final rebellion by the Samnites in the mountains east of Rome who took advantage of the confusion to launch an attack on Rome itself. Sulla hastened his march and, with crucial help from Crassus’s wing of the army, defeated the Samnites at the Battle of the Colline Gate, before marching into Rome for a second time, posing as its saviour and its undoubted ruler (p.92).

About 6,000 Samnite fighters had been taken prisoner or turned themselves in. Sulla ordered them penned up in the Field of Mars an then systematically slaughtered. Then he set about executing all his political opponents, first and foremost every member of the Marian party (p.99). An entire section of Rome’s political class was annihilated. Bounty hunters were paid to track down abscondees, who brought back their severed heads for Sulla to inspect before releasing the fee.

Huge estates were confiscated or passed into the hands of leading figures in Sulla’s party, most notoriously his vital left-hand man at the Colline Gate, Crassus. Sulla himself became the richest man in Roman history (p.101).

Sulla’s conservative revolution

Throughout his course of actions Sulla was convinced he was reforming the Republic and returning it to its purity. Holland describes how he set about trying to purify and rationalise the constitution. He did this by redefining the cursus honorum. He change the numbers of the main posts of office which aspiring politicians had to progress through (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul, censor), set age limits under which they could not be held, defined the number of years gap between holding them. Since one of the political attacks on him had come from a tribune he passed a law declaring that anyone could still be elected tribune, but that anyone who had held the tribunate was ineligible for any further office In this and numerous other adjustments to the rules, he tried to ensure that the kind of bitter conflict which had led to his own rise, could never take place again.

In 81, with no warning, Sulla resigned his posts and abdicated his authority. He served as a conventional consul for one more year and then abandoned public life altogether. So feared was he, and so thoroughly had he extirpated his enemies, that he felt safe to abandon power, a move which puzzled later generations and historians to this day. He returned to the hard living of his youth, holding huge parties, frequenting the demi-monde, before dying, possibly of liver failure, in 78 BC (p.111). At which point the baton was passed on to a new, younger generation, two leading luminaries of which were Pompey and an ambitious young man named Julius Caesar.

Competition and glory

‘The clash of wits, the fight for pre-eminence, the toiling day and night without break to reach the summit of wealth and power…’ (Lucretius)

One massive point which comes over again and again is that Roman society was based on unbridled and unrelenting competition, especially for the ‘glory’ associated with victory in war.

  • It seemed self evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, towards a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. (p.24)
  • Competitive elections were crucial to the self image as well as the functioning of the Republic. (p.25)
  • A system that encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated a dynamism so aggressive that it overwhelmed all who came near it. (p.30)
  • …a state where ruthless competition was regarded as the basis of all civic virtue. (p.34)
  • the Roman desire to be the best (p.34)
  • Traditional Roman morality…fostered competition as the essence of life. (p.62)
  • In Rome a man was reckoned nothing to be nothing without the fame that accrued from glorious deeds. (p.64)
  • …a society where prestige was the principle measure of a man’s worth. (p.76)
  • Competition for honours had always been the lifeblood of the Republic (p.
  • …the Roman appetite for competition and glory. (p.109)
  • Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining characteristic of a citizen. (p.111)
  • Child rearing, like virtually every other aspect of life in the Republic, reflected the inveterate Roman love of competition. (p.115)
  • Because he had simultaneously neutralised the tribunate and doubled the size of the Senate, [Sulla’s] legacy was one of increased competition. (p.123)
  • As they had always done, established families dominated the competition. (p.123)

Competition for military glory and the prestige of holding high office was drummed into every upper class boy from the youngest age. This culture of unrelenting competition served Rome well for centuries, transmitted to its army which never gave up, accepting defeat after defeat but always coming back with more men and arms and, ultimately, conquering all enemies.

However, Holland repeatedly makes the obvious point which arises from the Sulla era which is that, in the bitter rivalry which developed between Marius and his successful general Sulla, somehow this all-consuming competitiveness which had once been such a positive motivating force, turned rotten, spilled over from politicking into military coup, seizure of the capital itself, bloodbaths of enemies, and so on.

And once all these taboos had been broken, once all restraint had been lost, the same pattern was to recur again and again during the Republic’s last half century.

The Roman constitution

Holland regularly stops his headlong narrative to give explanations of various aspects of Roman political and social culture and the Roman constitution. Obviously, Mary Beard refers to this from time to time in her chronicle of Rome but, as is her way, often only explaining an isolated aspect of it in order to illustrate a broader point, more often than not leaving the reader frustrated. Holland is much more straightforward. He stops the narrative and explains stuff. I found this surprisingly useful.

And the way he does this – intermittently – is probably wise because the whole point of the Roman constitution (we learn) was that it was a chaotic, rickety inheritance of roles and positions and posts and elections, which had accumulated over the centuries, which the Romans themselves didn’t fully understand and outsiders found baffling i.e. you couldn’t really sit down and write one definitive description, it’s best approached from different angles and perspectives. And it changed over time. And during the period Holland describes, new laws were continually adjusting and tinkering with it.

  • The Republic was as full of discrepancies and contradictions as the fabric of the city, a muddle of accretions patched together over many centuries…the Republic was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work…The constitution was a hall of mirrors… (pages 24 to 25)
  • It was the nature of the Republic to thrive on complexity (p.94)
  • Then constitution, subtle and finely modulated as it was, had evolved to restrain any violent change. (p.99)
  • The Republic had many different traditions, confused and confusing and defying codification. (p.137)

Central to the system was the hierarchy of posts the politically ambitious could seek, the cursus honorum (course of offices), mentioned above, the one which Sulla comprehensively reformed.

The cursus honorum

Military service Anyone seeking political office was expected to have seen military service. The aspiring politician would serve in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Military promotions or honours would improve his political prospects. A successful military career might culminate in the office of military tribune to which 24 men were elected by the Tribal Assembly each year.

Consuls Having ejected kings, the Romans took steps to ensure power was never again vested in one individual who ruled for a lifetime by vesting the most senior power in the state as residing in two consuls who were elected to serve for just one year (p.2). The minimum age was 42. Years in Rome’s history were identified not by a number but by the names of the two consuls elected for a particular year. Consuls were responsible for the city’s political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. They were accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of twelve lictors who bore on their shoulders the bundle of strapped rods called fasces, symbol of their power (p.64). Candidates for the consulship had to put their names forward by the start of July (p.224). Every consul, once he had finished his year in post, was given a governorship aboard (p.225).

Aedile Aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals.

Quaestor A quaestor served for a year as assistant to a more senior magistrate (p.101). Twenty quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to a governor in the provinces. They could also serve as the paymaster for a legion. Some of the quaestors were tasked with supervision of public games (p.198).

Praetor Junior in rank only to the consuls, a praetor was charged with administering the city’s laws, convening and presiding over sessions of the Senate (p.104). During the republic, six or eight praetors were elected each year to serve judicial functions throughout Rome and other governmental responsibilities. In the absence of the consuls, a praetor would be given command of the garrison in Rome or in Italy. Also, a praetor could exercise the functions of the consuls throughout Rome, but their main function was that of a judge. They would preside over trials involving criminal acts, grant court orders and validate ‘illegal’ acts as acts of administering justice.

A praetor was escorted by six lictors. After a term as praetor, the magistrate would serve as a provincial governor with the title of propraetor, commanding the province’s legions, and possessing ultimate authority within his province(s).

Two of the praetors were more prestigious than the others. The Praetor Peregrinus was the chief judge in trials involving one or more foreigners. The Praetor Urbanus was the chief judicial office in Rome with the power to overturn any verdict by any other courts, and serve as judge in cases involving criminal charges against provincial governors.

Tribune The tribunes has right of veto over bills they disliked and power to convene public assemblies to pass bills of their own. The post was considered sacrosanct and so tribunes were not allowed to leave Rome during their tenure (p.27).

The Senate A body of about 300 older men, elected to the Senate because they had held one of the other ‘magistracies’. The Senate didn’t actually make any laws but debated legal and political matters and issued decrees which had no binding force but the magistrates did well to take into account (p.37). During Sulla’s reign of terror he executed or drove into exile so many senators that the number fell to 100 but during the period of his reforming rule, he packed it with new blood, expanding its number to 600, and demolished the old Curia building and had a grand new Senate House built.

Censor The censorship was the single most powerful and influential position or magistracy, responsible for overseeing the census, held every five years to produce a detailed assessment of every household, its wealth and income and number of slaves and dependents, on which the elaborate hierarchies of Rome were based (p.96).

N.B. This series of posts is only one part in the jigsaw of the constitution. I haven’t mentioned the priesthoods, for example the priest of Jupiter, the father god of Rome, a post Julius Caesar held while still a boy. Or the pontifex maximus, the most prestigious post in the entire state, which a man held for life and came with a mansion on the Via Sacra, in the Forum, in the heart of Rome (p.199).

Nor any of the assemblies with their various rules for elections, the importance of ‘tribes’, tribunes or tribunals, or the densely structured economic and social hierarchies which applied to every citizen and determined their rights and votes and place in the grand scheme.

As Holland’s narrative proceeds, the scale of the bribery involved in each subsequent set of elections grows and grows in scale (e.g. p.225).

Other learnings

Rome was a squalid maze

Surprisingly, ancient Rome was a shambles of narrow dirty alleys and wiggly roads packed with people, horses and carts. Since the consuls only ruled for a year there was no long-term town planning which meant the city became a byword for narrow roads and alleys, temples, houses and tenement blocks called insulae looming over alleys full of mud and excrement (pages 15 to 18).

Clutter was the essence of the Republic. It spread everywhere that Sulla cared to look. It could be seen in the very appearance of Rome itself. (p.106)

Cicero has a famous quote on the state of Rome, when criticising the senator and moralist Cato the Younger (born 95 BC) which Holland translates as:

‘He addresses the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s shit-hole.’ (quoted on page 196)

[The more restrained H. H. Scullard translates this as Cicero complaining that ‘Cato talked as if he were in the republic of Cato, not in the sink of Romulus’, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard, page 117. L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters gives it as: ‘He talks as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s dunghill‘, page 39.]

As well as pausing his narrative to describe various aspects of the culture or constitution of Rome, Holland also stop periodically to give a page or two on the history and social and political function of various famous locations around the city. These are always interesting and the vivid thriller style which sometimes seems out of place in his political history works very well to bring these Roman places and the milling noisy crowds who filled them to life.

The Circus Maximus (pages 20, 122)

Right at the start of his account Holland explains how the legendary Romulus was said to have built his camp on what was to be named the Palatine Hill while Remus built his on the Aventine Hill a few hundred yards south. The triumph of Romulus marked the Palatine as the seat of Rome’s richest, later the hill of the emperors, while the Aventine became associated with the poor. It was to the Aventine that the disgruntled plebs went during the series of secessios – in effect, general strikes – when they were campaigning for equal civil rights.

The shallow valley between the two hills had been the site of games and then chariot races from time immemorial. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome, measuring 2,037 feet in length and 387 feet in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. As such it was one of the two big spaces in the city where citizens could meet and mingle and enjoy a sense of civic community. It was where politicians in power, magistrates or victorious generals could receive the cheers or boos of huge crowds (p.20). Games were organised by the class of magistrate called the aediles.

On page 122 Holland gives a brief but vivid description of the chariot races held in the circus. Although the building was huge the track itself was quite narrow with only width for four chariots and the turn at the end of each lap required the charioteer to steer close to the huge metal poles which defined the turn, the metae, without actually touching them with his chariot’s wheels, which would almost send chariot and him ricocheting to certain death.

The Forum (p.85)

Along with the Circus Maximus, the Forum was one of the two open spaces in the city where citizens could mingle freely. Originally a marsh, it was drained to provide a meeting place for squabbling tribes from the hills and so could be said to be the place where Romans learned to sort out their differences through political means. Like the rest of the city it was a jumble of discordant monuments. (p.85)

The Field of Mars (p.93)

Holland gives an excellent description of the Campus Martius and its central role in the republic’s political processes. It was originally, in this plain outside the city walls that citizens were taken and administered the oath which turned them into soldiers. Here they were ranked by wealth and status. At the top were those who could afford their own horse and so were named the equites. Below the equestrian class were five further classes ranked by wealth until you reached the lowest class, people who couldn’t even afford a slingshot and were named the proletarii.

Worth stopping a moment to consider this word: in the census the poorest citizens were defined as those who had little or no property except for their children. The Latin term for these was proles or ‘offspring’. So while the richest citizens could offer horses and arms, the poorest could only offer their proles as future Roman citizens available to colonise conquered territories – and so this class was called the proletarius (producer of offspring), singular, or proletarii in the plural.

Anyway, Holland explains how the Field of Mars evolved into the location of elections for the many magistrate positions or assemblies. The key building was the Ovile or ‘sheepfold’, an enclosure with gates and barriers, where citizens lined up to vote, richest at the front, poorest at the back. Exemplifying the Roman love of complexity, the precise order or procedure for voting was different in the case of each election or magistracy, with strict rules and protocols to be observed.

Holland gives a vivid description of the scene at a typical election, the hoisting of a flag, the blowing of trumpets, the enormous queues of shuffling citizens, the dust raised in the hot air, the tension for election days creating ‘one of the greatest excitements of Roman civic life’ (p.95). Then appearance of the candidates in their specially whitened togas (as Mary Beard tells us the word ‘candidate’ derives from the Roman for white, candidus, referring to these specially whitened togas). The milling crowd, the jeers and chatter and then, when the winning candidates were announced, cheers from their supporters and they were escorted off from the Ovile to the Capitol Hill to take up office.

In passages like these, Holland’s strategy of eschewing scholarly detail in favour of vivid description and atmosphere works very well indeed.

The Rubicon

The River Rubicon which Julius Caesar so grandly crossed with the Army of Gaul, thus decisively plunging the Republic into civil war, thus giving us a phrase we have used for centuries to indicate taking an irrevocable decision…this river was in fact so small and insignificant that nobody in later centuries, and even today, knows where it actually is.


Credit

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland was published in 2003 by Little, Brown. All references are to the 2004 Abacus paperback.

Roman reviews

The world of Stonehenge @ the British Museum

This is an awe-inspiring exhibition, in at least two senses of the word:

  • it is huge and includes a whopping 430 exhibits, far more than the human mind can reasonably process and relate to
  • and it chronicles the strange and fugitive world of late Stone Age and Bronze Age spirituality, life and society, over a huge time period and a very wide geographical range

Stonehenge © English Heritage

The exhibition is about much more than Stonehenge. The Stonehenge material represents only about 10 or 15% of the content. Sure, Stonehenge provides the central structure to the exhibition, but timewise it covers a much longer period, opening nearly five thousand years before the earliest workings at Stonehenge, in around 10,000 BC, and ending thousands of years after it had ceased to be an active religious monument, about 1000 BC.

Similarly the exhibition isn’t restricted to the stones and burials mounds in Wiltshire but ranges far, far further afield, introducing us to breath-taking archaeological discoveries from Wales and Ireland, from religious offerings at Grimes Graves in Norfolk to a blizzard of recent archaeological discoveries made in the remote Orkney Islands. There are countless strange and haunting objects like the beautiful carved balls, about the size of a tennis ball but carved from stone with a variety of geometric markings, made in eastern Scotland. There are objects from sites in Brittany, north Germany and Denmark, Spain and as far afield as Switzerland and Italy, all accompanied by elaborate commentary and explication.

So the story of Stonehenge is just the central thread or scaffold which the curators use to structure a far-reaching investigation of all aspects of late Stone Age and Bronze Age cultures, not only in Britain but further afield. As the catalogue puts it:

Stonehenge itself acts as a useful gateway and reference point for exploring the chronology of this ancient world. (Catalogue page 18)

It’s tempting to call it a portrait of an age or a window into a distant world except that, as the exhibition makes very clear, in the ten or so millennia it covers, Britain and Europe moved through a whole series of eras and worlds, each with their own distinctive economic, technological and artistic characteristics.

Keeping track of the multitudinous series of changes, trying to process the 430 objects with their huge variety of shapes and sizes and meanings and contexts, while also trying to keep a grip on the key stages of Stonehenge’s evolution, proves a daunting challenge. It was too much for me to really take it all in but I found it helped if I kept in mind the three really huge changes or revolutions in human society which occurred during the period 10,000 to 1,000 BC.

Three revolutions

1. Britain becomes an island

10,000 years ago Britain was joined to the continent by an extensive body of land. To put it another way, what are now the British Isles were then one more wiggly peninsula sticking out into the Atlantic, like Scandinavia or Spain. This extensive stretch of land is called Doggerland by modern scholars (after Dogger Bank which was once a stretch of high land and is now a notable shallow area of the North Sea). Modern research suggests it was a fertile area of tundra which was populated by large mammals and humans who would have access to good fishing.

Around 6,200 BC this vast stretch of land was flooded, slowly at first and latterly by a series of tidal waves, separating Britain from the continent. The people who lived on it must have moved west into Britain or east into Europe unaware that their descendants would become cut off from each other.

Map of north-west Europe about 10,000 years ago showing the extensive area of low-lying land which joined Britain to Holland and Denmark and which archaeologists refer to as Doggerland

2. The agricultural revolution

After the great separation, Britain was inhabited by a tiny number of hunter gatherers, maybe as few as 5,000. Imagine the native Americans of North America moving carefully through the forests of ancient Britain, living in awe of the natural world.

Then, about 6,000 years ago, the culture of farming arrived in Britain, marking the beginning of the Neolithic period (New Stone Age). There has been prolonged debate in the world of archaeology about whether the secrets of agriculture were spread to the native inhabitants or whether it was newcomers and immigrants who brought it with them. Modern DNA analysis of bones suggests the latter.

Agriculture can support a far larger population than hunting and gathering. Agriculture also produces surpluses which can feed non-productive members of the community, in the classic model of the Fertile Crescent, kings, priests and soldiers. There’s no direct evidence for any of these groups but the immense amount of physical labour required to quarry, transport and erect the stones of Stonehenge a) required the availability of people who weren’t required for agricultural work and b) someone to conceive, design, organise and supervise the work.

Each of the huge sarsen stones in the henge required at least 1,000 people to transport from their source 25 kilometres away. It took generations to complete the full design. What kind of society was able to do that?

As well as social change, the advent of agriculture leads to a profound psychological and cultural transformation. Hunter gatherers move through the landscape, placating its animals and spirits, knowing they are as transient as all the other forest creatures. With agriculture come roots, in multiple senses. People now believed that they owned the land, and monuments like the henge became markers of communal ownership and identity. In turn they became special places for burying the dead and for interring objects related to them. Multiple layers of meaning build up around ancestral land in a way which wasn’t conceivable for the hunter gatherers who moved through it without leaving a trace.

3. Bronze Age

The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from around 2500 to 800 BC. It was heralded by the arrival of the Beaker People, so-called because suddenly British graves are full of beakers of a size and shape which weren’t found earlier. The Bronze Age is generally sub-divided into an earlier phase (2500 to 1200 BC) and a later one (1200 to 800 BC). It is followed by the so-called Iron Age.

The arrival of the knowledge of how to smelt metals and shape them into treasures and weapons, about 4,500 years ago, transformed British society. In a nutshell, society became more selfish and violent. We know from their grave goods that neolithic peoples had some treasured possessions, axeheads, necklaces of teeth and the like. But the existence of Stonehenge and other comparable structures suggest that their culture or religion was communal and led to the creation of shared, communal edifices.

The latter part of the exhibition shows how all this changed with the advent of precious metals. Relatively small objects acquired immense value. In a sense religion became personalised. Instead of going into the creation of communal buildings which embodied shared beliefs and rituals, metal goods allowed religious feelings to be inscribed on images and objects which could be owned, shared, traded and gifted. The solstice positions which took such an immense effort to inscribe into a vast building and into the landscape, 500 years later was being inscribed into shiny portable objects. The entire concept of the religious and spiritual must have fundamentally changed.

And so Stonehenge fell out of use. It still existed as an awe-inspiring testament to the past, like a great cathedral, but now instead of being the focus of communal beliefs, it becomes surrounded by graves of the newly rich with all their precious metal goods, much like medieval kings and princes wanting to be buried inside a cathedral, for the prestige. The emphasis changed from building communal monuments to raising mounds in cemeteries for the purpose of celebrating powerful individuals. The 40 plus burial mounds which surround Stonehenge indicate a switch of focus away from community to family and status.

Not only is gold portable, it is stealable. The exhibition ends with a corridor packed with evidence of a new wave of violence which swept through Britain, testifying to the rise of a more selfish, fracture, war-torn society.

Earlier sections of the show displayed primitive but beautiful objects in a variety of decorative styles. The corridor of death showcases lots of swords and skeletons displaying signs of violent ends. One of the most startling things in the whole exhibition is a wall of skulls and bones, embedded in something like dried mud and attached to a very big panel stuck on the wall. It looks like an art installation but it is here to memorialise a big battle fought at the river Tollense by up to 4,000 men, aged between 20 and 40 sometime in the 1200s BC.

The wall of bones from the battlefield of Tollense, north Germany, where a major battle took place in the 13th century BC, used to indicate the way the advent of metal smelting signalled the descent into a more acquisitive, violent society

The final corridor of the exhibition is full of swords and shields and battle helmets and skulls with holes in them. A new age had dawned.

Stonehenge’s complexity

Use of Stonehenge as a chassis for the show adds multiple further layers of complexity because Stonehenge – on the face of it the series of concentric stone circles familiar to all of us – is, in archaeological terms, itself fantastically complicated: not only is there lots that is still uncertain about the henge itself, but it lies at the heart of what, with every passing year, is being revealed as a bewilderingly complex landscape covered with ancient ruins, burials, tracks, pits, roads, barrows and so on.

What we call Stonehenge is a series of monuments, of concentric rings of standing stones, earthworks and ditches believed to have been built and extended over a 1,000 year period between 3000 to 2000 BC. Stonehenge itself consists of an outer ring of vertical sarsen standing stones, each around 13 feet high, seven feet wide, and weighing around 25 tons, topped by connecting horizontal lintel stones. Within this circle is a ring of smaller bluestones (though I can’t say they look any different in colour from the outer sarsen stones). Inside these are free-standing trilithons, two bulkier vertical Sarsens joined by one lintel. The stone circle is surrounded by a circular earth bank and ditch which have been dated to about 3100 BC. Radiocarbon dating suggests that the first bluestones were raised between 2400 and 2200 BC.

Stonehenge © English Heritage

But there’s a lot more to it than that. Right inside the ditch and bank is a circle of 56 pits, each about a metre in diameter, known as the Aubrey holes. These may have contained standing timbers creating a timber circle or they may have been used to erect a bluestone circle. No conclusive evidence exists either way. Both at the immediate site and in the area around the henge there are numerous other archaeological sites and remains, many of which remain puzzling.

Recent discoveries

A little further afield over 20 burial sites and barrows have been identified, plus the Lesser Cursus and the structure called Coneybury Henge, and new discoveries are continually being made. Only recently has the ‘avenue’ which leads off from the north-east of the circle been traced all the way to the River Avon and here, in 2008 a previously unknown circular area was discovered which probably housed four further stones, most likely as a marker for the starting point of the ceremonial ‘avenue’.

In 2014 investigations using ground-penetrating radar equipment revealed as many as seventeen new monuments around the nearby settlement of Durrington, 2 miles north-east of Stonehenge, which itself has been shown to be a highly populated centre in the period between 2600 and 2400 BC.

In 2020 a geophysical survey at Durrington uncovered a number of pits, some natural sink holes and others apparently modified to hold massive timbers, interpreted as belonging to a 1.2-mile-wide circle 10-metre pits of Neolithic age. If this interpretation is correct, this would be Britain’s largest prehistoric monument.

In 2021 initial excavations to build a long tunnel in which to bury A303 have revealed a treasure trove of Bronze Age finds. Basically the entire area is riddled with burials and evidence of numerous other buildings, banks and ditches and barrows. It is holy ground, criss-crossed with memories, legacies, multiple layers of succeeding generations and cultures.

Dagger from the Bush Barrow grave goods (with replica handle) 1950 to 1600 BC. Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photograph by David Bukach © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The sun

Throughout the changing eras, the curators emphasise the mystical and religious aspects of the  changing populations and cultures. At the heart of many of these belief was the sun. Obviously the sun has been worshipped by almost all societies as the source of warmth and light, but it has a special significance for agricultural societies which need light and heat to grow the crops on which they depend and so a central theme running through the exhibition is the importance of images and symbols of, and materials believed to be connected with, the sun.

Stonehenge itself was aligned in such a way that the north-east ‘entrance’ to the site precisely matched the direction of the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, something which is open to all kinds of interpretations. Some people think it was a device for measuring the solstices, for marking time and agricultural processes, or maybe it had a religious purpose i.e. was used to invoke the sun or celebrate the advent of spring. Maybe it was a way of humanising, of bringing down to a human scale, the vast impersonal forces of nature. All these theories and more abound.

And it wasn’t a one-off. The curators describe a number of other neolithic henges and constructions which were deliberately orientated around the angle of the sun at its solstices, for example the communal enclosure at Larkhill which was built some 700 years before Stonehenge. Knowledge of the sun’s movements and worship of it at specially constructed sites existed for almost a thousand years before building began at Stonehenge.

The sun acquired a kind of new importance or urgency with the arrival of metal smelting at the start of the Bronze Age. The curators explain that burnished metal reflected sunlight and could be thought of as not only reflecting it but in some sense capturing it and partaking of its qualities. None more so than gold and the later part of the exhibition is awash with dramatic gold jewellery, necklaces, torcs and helmets. These included the objects known as lunulae, from the Latin meaning ‘little moon’, crescent-shaped early Bronze Age necklaces or collars.

Lunula, 2400 to 2000 BC from Blessington, County Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The wall labels tell us that the inner and outer edges were very finely decorated but the main body of the lunula was left plain in order to better reflect sunlight. If you own an object, a bracelet, necklace, mirror which reflects sunlight, do you in some sense own that bit of sunlight?

Religion and spirituality

Huge stones like the standing sarsens at Stonehenge are commonly interpreted by modern scholars as connecting the earth and the sky – bigger, higher and heavier than any human being, connecting human time and celestial time.

But it wasn’t the big shiny things that took my imagination, it was the eerie and peripheral objects. And I warmed more to many of the pre-metal age objects, less flash and shiny, but more earthy and mysterious.

In the fen country of Somerset a neolithic walkway made of wood has been discovered. Crossed beams of coppiced alder wood which does not rot when it is waterlogged supported a narrow walk of planks. It has been dated to 3,800 BC. So far so practical. But it seems that well-hewn axe heads and other precious objects were deliberately included in its foundations – offerings to the water gods or vouchsafing the builders’ seriousness?

General view of the first part of the exhibition showing the remains of a neolithic wooden trackway across Avalon marshes in Somerset, c.3800 BC. Next to it is a case displaying some of the axe heads found at its base. On the wall on the right is an animation showing oxen and a cart they would have pulled, reconstructed from skeletons found in a neolithic grave.

Five highlights

The curators are at pains to highlight a handful of really outstanding loans which lift the show into the blockbuster category. Thus, in chronological order:

The Bad Dürrenberg shaman

One of the earliest cases hold the deer skull and antlers and necklaces of teeth and other accoutrements associated with the skeleton of a woman buried near the modern German town of Bad Dürrenberg and a haunting artist’s impression of what she would have looked like.

Artist’s impression of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman in her full regalia c.7000 BC © State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt

This woman was aged between 25 and 35 when she died some 9,000 years ago and was honoured with a very rich burial indicating the privileged place she held in her society. She was buried in a sitting position with the body of a baby between her legs. Both bodies were covered in ochre paint. Why?

The grave contained a great diversity of animal remains including a necklace made from the teeth of many species and a polished boar tooth talisman, all presumably with symbolic importance long ago lost.

Analysis of the woman’s skeleton has revealed that her uppermost cervical vertebra was malformed and that blood vessels in the lower skull area could have been spatially restricted. Or, as the curators put it, she would have had the ability to make herself faint and ‘to enter trance states’.  This rare ability, they guess, was the cause of the respect with which she was interred.

This is the oldest burial site in all Germany, but the exhibition correlates it with similar finds of hollowed out deer skulls found at the neolithic treasure trove of Star Carr in North Yorkshire. Headdresses were made by removing the lower half of the deer skull, cleaning away the brain and blood and boring two holes in the bone, probably for straps, so that the wearer could become half human, half deer, and – presumably – able to communicate with the animal world or perform spells and magic to propitiate it.

Seahenge

In 1998 the tops of a circle of tree trunks was spotted emerging from the mud at the coastal Norfolk village of Holme next the sea. Archaeologists set to work and we now know it was built around 4050 BC on a saltmarsh, at a position halfway between sea and land. It was quickly nicknamed Seahenge or the ‘Stonehenge of the Sea’.

Seahenge consists of a large upturned tree stump surrounded by 54 wooden posts. The oak posts, some up to 3 metre tall, were tightly packed in a 6.6 metre diameter circle with their bark-covered sides facing outwards. Inside the circle was a large oak tree oak, its roots upturned towards the heavens like branches. Collectively the circle creates a giant tree. A narrow entranceway was aligned on the rising midsummer sun and it is thought the monument was used for ritual purposes.

Seahenge at the time of excavation © Wendy George

Nobody knows why it was built where it was or what its purpose was. Perhaps the central upturned trunk was used in funerary rituals to support a dead body. Perhaps entering the circular shrine brought worshippers closer to the otherworld.

it is one of the coups of the exhibition that many (not all) of the original trunks have been brought to London and re-erected in the British Museum. It is accompanied by a special soundscape commissioned from Rob St John, which plays quietly from concealed loudspeakers so that you walk into (and then out of) its ambient zone.

The Nebra sky disc

The Nebra Sky Disc from about 1,600 BC is the oldest surviving representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. It is a phenomenal and awe-inspiring object, one of the top treasures in the exhibition.

Sky Disc, Germany, about 1600 BC. Photo courtesy of the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology Saxony-Anhalt, Juraj Lipták

The shapes of beaten gold are supposed to represent the moon in its various phases. The dots clearly represent stars and experts have realised that the distinctive rosette of stars between the round and crescent moon represents the Pleiades. these stars play a key role in an ancient rule, known from a 2,700 year old Babylonian text, that allowed the shorter lunar year to be synchronised with the longer solar year. the rule is that a leap month should be added every third year if a crescent moon a few days old appears next to the Pleiades in the springtime sky.

Other treasures

3,500 years ago the appearance of new objects and symbols in a range of locations across Europe suggest that a more complex model of the cosmos was emerging. In Scandinavia images of the sun, the horse and the ship acquired religious force. In central Europe two waterbirds connected by a boat-shaped body below a sun became widespread. Examples of both are included from a hoard found in Denmark and dating from around 1,000 BC.

A grave within spitting distance of Stonehenge, the Bush Barrow site, includes the ‘gold lozenge’ which is the finest example of Bronze Age gold craftsmanship ever found in Britain, buried across the chest of the Bush Barrow chieftain.

The gold lozenge of the Bush Barrow grave goods, 1950 to 1600 BC Amesbury, Wiltshire, England. Photographs taken by David Bukach. © Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

The exhibition includes two rare and remarkable gold cone-shaped hats from around 1600 BC, the Schifferstadt gold hat from Germany and the Avanton gold cone from France. They are decorated with elaborate solar motifs that reflect the religious importance of the sun during this era. Only four examples of these hats are known to have survived. Serving as headgear during ceremonies or rituals, perhaps they endowed the wearer with divine or otherworldly status.

The Schifferstadt gold hat, c. 1600 BC, which was found with three bronze axes Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Historisches Museum der Pfalz Speyer

Respect

I attended the press launch of the exhibition where we were treated to an address by the curator, Neil Wilkins. He said many interesting things about the purpose of the exhibition and some of the star exhibits, but one stood out for me. He said that among its many purposes, one aim of the exhibition was to introduce us to specific ancient individuals. He said he and his fellow curators wanted us to meet these people and take them on their own terms and try to enter their world(s).

He was referring to the powerful image of the Bad Dürrenberg shaman, but to others as well. To the man widely called the Amesbury Archer, a man whose grave, found close to the henge, contained the richest array of items ever found in a Bronze Age burial site in the UK. No fewer than 39 of these objects – copper knives, gold ornaments and flint tools – are in the show. Even more arresting is that modern DNA techniques show that the archer originally came from modern-day Switzerland or Germany. What an odyssey he had been on!

Another treasure I haven’t mentioned yet is the Burton Agnes drum. This is a carved chalk cylinder or ‘drum’ dated from 3005 to 2890 BC which was found in 2015 near Burton Agnes in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The Museum has described it as ‘one of the most significant ancient objects ever found on the British Isles’ because of the skill of its creation and decoration. But the real point is that it was found in the grave of three children who were carefully buried so that they appear to have been touching and maybe even holding hands. And the ‘drum’ contains in its top three perfectly drilled holes, presumably relating to the dead children. What? Why?

These are the kind of people Wilkins was describing in his address, people like us and deserving of our respect.

This, I reflected as I listened to his presentation, seems to me to mark a shift in museum culture. God knows I’ve been to numerous exhibitions and museums over the decades and seen countless skulls and skeletons of the ancient dead. But Wilkins’ address made explicit a new mood, a new feeling which runs through the exhibition and which gently brings out the humanity of all these long dead people.

These are not exhibits, they are people. Subtly, alongside the wood and metal remains, we are introduced to individuals. Due to DNA analysis we know more about them than ever before. We know that the Amesbury Archer was buried along with his great grandson. We know about the physical complaint which was the Bad Dürrenberg shaman’s blessing and maybe her curse. We can accurately date the three children found with the Agnes Burton drum.

It may sound silly but I found Wilkins’ words very moving. He was indicating the way that the exhibition may well document the big social changes over this huge range of time, and the awesome human effort involved in creating the henge, and the cosmological beliefs associated with it; it certainly gives exhaustive scholarly explanations of the hundreds of objects on display – all done in what you could call the traditional museological style.

But at the same time it introduces us to a number of long-dead individuals who, although we don’t know their names or ethnicity or lives or histories, doesn’t make them any the less human and valid. They lived their lives in this country, among family and friends and community, struggled to find food, to survive in an often hostile environment, crafted religious and domestic objects, created communal buildings and edifices, had deep experiences, laughed, cried, got sick and died.

And I found this idea, that transcending the information and the countless objects it contains, this exhibition enables personal encounters with people dead nearly 10,000 years, far more moving than any of the more obvious symbols of neolithic and bronze age spirituality. Call it the religion of humanity.

Stonehenge at dawn © English Heritage


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Other British Museum reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 3 Historical overview

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is divided into roughly three parts – the early legendary period (1200 to 500 BC), the republic (509 to 30 BC) and the empire (30 BC to where Beard chooses to end her account, in the year 212 AD).

It’s sort of predictable that most of the earliest history of ancient Rome, its foundation and early years, would be shrouded in legend and probably mostly fictional. It’s a more interesting point, and one Beard repeats a number of times, that a good deal of what you could call the early historical period, the 600s, 500s, 400s and even 300s BC, were still heavily distorted and fictionalised and glamorised by the authors of the first centuries BC and AD.

They projected the administrative ranks and classes and issues, the epic battles and even the grand architecture of the Rome of their own time, back onto earlier periods which probably consisted of little more than chieftains living in basic huts and leading cattle raids against nearby communities.

It was a world of chieftains and warrior bands, not of organised armies and foreign policy. (p.117)

For a fundamental learning to emerge from the first 200 pages of this book is that the first century BC and the first century AD were the classic period for great Roman writing, including the first extensive historical writing (Livy), detailed discussions of the Roman constitution and politics (Cicero),  Catullus’s love poetry, Caesar’s accounts of his war in Gaul, plays, poetry and so on (p.214).

The point being that modern historians think that many aspects of the accounts written during these centuries about the founding and early history of Rome hundreds of years earlier are very misleading. The rulers, warriors, wars and battles of the early centuries were exaggerated to heroic proportions, mixed with legend, and highly moralised to provide improving, educational stories to a 1st century audience.

It is clear that much of the tradition that has come down to us, far from reality, is a fascinating mythical projection of later Roman priorities and anxieties into the distant past. (p.100)

(This core idea, and the word ‘projected’, recur on pages 97, 100, 108, 141, 205).

The traditional, grand and impressive history of the founding and early years of ancient Rome, as it was written up by Rome’s first century propagandists, was repeated for centuries afterwards, inspiring all subsequent histories, countless poems and paintings and plays throughout the Western tradition. It was only in the twentieth century, with the advent of modern archaeological techniques, that virtually all these stories came, not so much to be questioned (historians had been sceptical about some of the taller tales even at the time) but to be definitively disproved by the evidence in the ground.

This process goes on to the present day, with ever-more advanced technology and computer analysis (and DNA analysis of bones and remains) contributing to a comprehensive overhaul of our image of ancient Rome. If you Google books about ancient Rome you’ll quickly discover that ones published even as recently as 2000 are now considered out of date because the archaeology is moving at such a pace and shedding ever-newer light on Rome’s origins and early development.

Now, Beard does take a lot of this on board. Her narrative frequently grinds to a halt while she tells us about important, recent archaeological discoveries, complete with photos and descriptions. The problem for the reader is that Beard doesn’t give a good clear detailed account of what the traditional story actually was before setting out to question and undermine it. She’ll write that the famous story about x has been thrown into doubt by recent finds under the Forum and you, as the reader, go: ‘Hang on, hang on, what famous story about x?’

In fact she uses the word ‘famous’ very liberally and often to describe things I’ve never heard of. I appreciate that this is because they are ‘famous’ in the world of Classics and ancient history, but surely the whole point of the book is to try and bring this world to outsiders, to people who know very little about it apart from the handful of clichés and stereotypes we call ‘general knowledge’.

What follows is my notes for myself on the key events from the traditional version.

1. Aeneas 1200 BC

Ancient legends associate Rome with the arrival of Aeneas, exile from Troy, around 1200 BC (ancient Greeks and Romans dated the Trojan War to what we now call the 12th or 11th centuries BC). Aeneas settled in central Italy and founded the line which led, centuries later, to King Numitor the maternal grandfather of the twins, Romulus and Remus.

Numerous variations on the Aeneas legend exist and were extensively reworked in the historical period i.e. from the 2nd century BC onwards. The version best known to the post-Roman world derives from the Aeneid, the great epic poem by Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC to 19 AD). The Aeneid is maybe the most influential poem in Western literature (p.76).

The first six of the poem’s twelve books describe Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Rome, the second six describe Aeneas’s settlement in Italy in the region of what would (a lot later) come to be Rome. This process of settlement involved Aeneas in fierce fighting against local tribes (the Rutulians led by their king, Turnus) until he finally won the war, gained the territory and the hand of the beautiful Lavinia, daughter of another powerful local king, Latinus.

But Aeneas was not the actual founder of Rome. He founded a town he named Lavinium after his wife. It was his son, Ascanius, who was said to have founded another town in the area, Alba Longa, whose king, Numitor, some 400 years later, was to the maternal grandfather of the twins Romulus and Remus (p.77).

2. Romulus 750s BC

Beard speculates freely about the origins and meaning of the Romulus and Remus legend about the founding of Rome. Characteristically, she doesn’t explain it very well so I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a clear understanding. Various versions are found in ancient texts, many of which contradict each other, but the consensus story is that:

Numitor was king of Alba Longa, a town a little south of what was to become Rome. He was overthrown by his brother Amulius. Numitor had a daughter, Rhea Silvia, who was a vestal virgin. She was made pregnant by the war god Mars and gave birth to twins. Seeing as they were descendants of the rightful (overthrown) king, Numitor, Amulius ordered the twins to be abandoned on the banks of the river Tiber (as Moses, Oedipus, Paris and so many other figures of legend are abandoned as children). Here they were discovered by a she-wolf who suckled them and kept them alive in a cave (later known as the Lupercal) until they were discovered and adopted by Faustulus, a shepherd and raised (like Paris) as simple shepherds. In time the twins grew into natural leaders of men and found themselves caught up in a conflict between Numitor and Amulius. They joined the forces of Numitor and helped restore him to his rightful throne of Alba Longa, during which process they were recognised as Numitor’s grandsons. Then they set off to found a city of their own, deciding to build it on the defensible hills by the Tiber where they founded Rome. They each set about building a citadel of their own, Romulus preferring the Palatine Hill (above the Lupercal cave), Remus preferring the Aventine Hill. When Remus mockingly jumped over the early foundations of Romulus’s wall, Romulus killed him (various versions supply other reasons why the pair fell out so badly). Romulus then went on to found the city of Rome, its institutions, government, military and religious traditions and reigned for many years as its first king.

Interpret this legend how you will. The story of founding brothers who fall out, with one murdering the other, is as old as Cain and Abel (p.64). And on this telling, Romulus and Remus are repeating the fraternal falling out of their grandfather and his brother, Numitor and Amulius. In my opinion these myths may be attempts by ancient peoples to structure and rationalise the kind of civil strife early societies were prone to.

Did any of this actually happen? Almost certainly not. The earliest written record of the legend dates from the late third century BC i.e. some 500 years after the events it purports to describe. Far from being a real person who founded Rome, Romulus is almost certainly a legendary invention and his name the result of what historians and linguists call ‘back formation’ i.e. starting with an established place and inventing a legendary figure who you claim it’s named after. Almost certainly ‘Roma’ came first and Romulus afterwards (p.71).

The suckling by the she-wolf is precisely the kind of odd, distinctive and uncanny detail of ancient myth which defies rationalisation. A quick amateur interpretation for a self-consciously warrior race like the Romans would be that the twins imbibed wolfish aggression and ferocity from their animal wetnurse. Same with their parentage, a vestal virgin (holiness and piety) impregnated by the God of War (speaks for itself).

Incidentally, what Beard refers to as the ‘famous’ statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf is a fake, in the sense that the figures of the suckling boys were made in the fifteenth century, a thousand years after the sculpture of the wolf.

Statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, currently in the Capitoline Museum. The statue is thought to be Etruscan, maybe from the fifth century BC while the twins are from the 15th century AD.

By the 1st century Roman historians had calculated a year for the founding of their city (in the third year of the sixth cycle of Olympic Games, p.71) and dated events ab urbe condita (AUC) or ‘since the city was founded’. Six hundred years later, in 525 AD when the monk Dionysius Exiguus first devised the system of dating events around the birth of Christ, into either ‘before Christ’ (BC) or ‘in the year of our Lord’ (anno domini or AD), he calculated the AUC date to be 753 BC, a Christian-era date which became enshrined in later tradition.

By contrast, during the republican period itself, historic events were dated by referring to the name of the consuls in power during a particular year. In the imperial period, government officials date events as in year 1, 2, 3 etc of each individual emperor. You can see why both these methods would eventually become very cumbersome, complicated and confusing. It’s surprising it took so long for the Christian authorities, in the shape of Dionysus, to come up with what, to us, appears the obvious, improved system.

3. The monarchy 750s to 509 BC

Seven improbably long-lived kings are said to have filled the period from 753 (the traditional date for the founding of the city) to 509 (the traditional date for the overthrow of the monarchy) (p.93, 96). Maybe seven kings to match the seven hills the city is supposedly founded on (?). Archaeologists and historians think the last 3 in the list were real people, but there’s debate over whether the first 4 were real or figures of legend:

  1. Romulus
  2. Numa Pompilius
  3. Tullus Hostilius
  4. Ancus Marcius
  5. Tarquinius Priscus
  6. Servius Tullius
  7. Tarquinius Superbus

4. End of the monarchy / founding of the republic 509 BC

The outrageous behaviour of the last king, Tarquin the Arrogant, prompted the population of Rome to rise up, overthrow him, and establish a republic. The spark for the revolution was, from an early point, associated with the legend of the rape of Lucretia.

Lucretia was a noblewoman in ancient Rome. She was raped by the son of the last king, Sextus Tarquinius and, out of shame, committed suicide by stabbing herself (p.122-3). Lucretia’s noble family and their allies rose up against Tarquinius and drove him and his family out of Rome although he didn’t give up without a fight, sparking a war against him and his followers which lasted up to a decade (p.125). As with other early legends there are no contemporary accounts, in fact the first written accounts of the story are only given by the Roman historian Livy (born 60 BC) and Greco-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (born 59 BC) 450 years later.

There followed a period of transition during which it was agreed that the new republic would be ruled by an elected leader called a ‘consul’, himself advised by a ‘senate’ of elders and aristocrats. This quickly evolved into the notion of two consuls, each elected to serve for one year, a system Rome was to keep for the next 1,000 years. Collatinus, the husband of the raped suicide Lucretia was one of the first consuls (p.127).

Quite soon the Senate invented another innovation, the ability to elect a single leader, a ‘dictator’, to manage the republic during time of war. This was necessary because the early accounts describe how Rome was plunged almost immediately into a long series of wars with neighbouring tribes and people in Italy, for example the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Aquians, the Veii, the Senones, Umbri, Picentes and the Marsi.

5. The Conflict of the Orders 400s to 200s BC

In its earliest days political power was held by the wealthiest families, described as ‘patricians’ (Latin patricii) and sharply distinguished from the majority of the population who were described as ‘plebeians’ or ‘plebs’. Membership of the patrician class was hereditary and could only be achieved by birth.

The fifth century i.e. the 400s BC, were marked by a series of administrative reforms which slowly and arduously gave the plebeians equal power and say with the patricians (although it wasn’t until 366 that the first plebeian consul was elected).

The conflict between the patricians and plebeians in Rome is referred to as the Conflict of the Orders although, as Beard points out, the Latin ordines translates better as ‘social ranks’ (p.146). In our post-Marxist times it’s tempting to call it the Class War but that would also be wrong because a key point that emerges from Beard’s account is that the plebs in question weren’t necessarily poor: in fact many of them were richer than the patricians, it was more a question of nouveaux riches ‘new men’, who’d acquired military glory and/or wealth but were excluded from running the city by virtue of not being born into the right families.

The conflict took place over a very long period, from soon after the foundation of the republic, around 500 BC, down to 287 BC when patrician senators finally lost their last check over the Plebeian Council.

Really major moments were marked by a secessio when the entire population of plebeians left the city causing what was, in effect, a general strike. The first of these took place in 494, prompted by the plebeians’ widespread indebtedness to rich patrician lenders, and it successfully led to the establishment of a new body, the Concilium Plebis, and a new office of state, the tribunes of the people (tribuni plebis). There were at least five secessios.

Some of the main constitutional reforms from the period include:

450 BC drafting of the Twelve Tables, an early code of law (pages 139 to 145).

445 Lex Canuleia removing the ban on marriage between patricians and plebeians (lex is Latin for law, hence English words like ‘legal’)

443 BC The offices of the Tribuni militum consulari potestate were established. A collegium of three patrician or plebeian tribunes, one each from specific Roman tribes (the Titienses, the Ramnenses, and the Luceres) would hold the power of the consuls from year to year, subject to the Senate.

367 BC one of the consulships was opened to plebeians (p.148).

342 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two consuls to be a plebeian.

339 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two censors to be a plebeian

326 BC the system of enslavement for debt was abolished, establishing the principle that the liberty of the Roman citizen was an inalienable right (p.148).

300 BC half of the priesthoods (which were also state offices) must be plebeian.

287 BC Third Secession led to the Hortensian Law stating, among other things, that all plebiscites (measures passed in the Concilium Plebis) had the force of laws for the whole Roman state, removing from the Patrician senators their final check over the Plebeian Council. By depriving the Patricians of their final weapon over the Plebeians, it ensured that the Roman state didn’t become a democracy but rested firmly under the control of the new Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy.

The conflict marked the breakdown of the old aristocracy of birth and its replacement by an aristocracy based on i) the holding of political offices and ii) wealth, particularly land-based wealth. In Beard’s words, the Conflict of the Orders:

replaced a governing class defined by birth with one defined by wealth and achievement. (p.167)

The upshot of the Conflict of the Orders was not popular revolution but the creation of a new governing class, comprising rich plebeians and patricians. (p.189)

So it didn’t remove the hierarchical, class-based nature of Roman society, nor did it significantly improve the lives or prospects of the poorer members of society.

6. Consolidating power in Italy – Rome’s wars

This was a world where violence was endemic, skirmishes with neighbours were annual events, plunder was a significant revenue stream for everyone and disputes were resolved by force. (p.162)

Military campaigning was a defining feature of Roman life…the Roman tradition [viewed] war as the structuring principle of history…The Romans directed enormous resources to warfare and, even as victors, paid a huge price in human life…somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent of the Roman adult male population would have served in the legions each year…(pages 176 to 177)

It was a world of political conflict, shifting alliances and continuous, brutal interstate violence…(p.194)

The ancient world consisted of tribes, kingdoms and empires almost continually at war with each other. Rome was to eventually emerge as the most effective fighting state in the Mediterranean region. But first it took a century of fighting their neighbours to emerge as the strongest power in central, and then all of, Italy. And then the series of Punic Wars (264 to 146) to wear down and eliminate their main rival in the central Mediterranean. Carthage. Here are some of the key moments:

Conquest of Veii 396

396 BC Roman forces led by the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus conquered the nearby town of Veii. This probably involved relatively small numbers on both sides but was mythologised by later writers as a heroic conflict up there with the Trojan wars. For Beard its significance is that Rome didn’t just beat another city, it annexed it along with all its land. Soon afterwards, the Veii and three local tribes were included in the list of tribes who were allowed to become Roman citizens. Conquest and assimilation were to be the basis for Rome’s winning formula. It is no coincidence that around the same time as this Roman soldiers first earned a salary (from the Latin for ‘salt’) i.e. they stopped being glorified private militias and became something much more organised, centrally funded and administered (p.155).

Gauls take Rome 390 BC

Brennus was a chieftain of the Senones tribe of Cisalpine Gauls (where Cisalpine means this side of the Alps i.e. in Italy, as opposed to transalpine meaning the other side of the Alps i.e. in modern France) (incidentally that explains the newish word cisgender, meaning someone whose sense of personal identity aligns with their birth gender, as opposed to transgender meaning someone whose sense of personal identity is different from their birth sex: you can see how cis and trans retain the sense they had in ancient times of this side and that side of a border, in this case a psychological one to do with gender identity.)

Back to Brennus: in about 390 BC he defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia and went on to take Rome, holding it for several months (pages 138 and 155).

Brennus’s sack of Rome was the only time in 800 years the city was occupied by a non-Roman army before the fall of the city to the Visigoths in 410 AD and beard spends some time describing the how the memory grew in shame and trauma over the years, was exaggerated and lamented by 1st century writers, and routinely used as a benchmark of scandal and humiliation with which to attack contemporary politicians.

Latin War 341 to 338 (p.158)

The Samnite wars (p.158)

Fought against communities in the mountainous parts of central-south Italy (p.158).

  • First Samnite War 343 to 341
  • Second Samnite War 326 to 304
  • Third Samnite War 298 to 290

By the end of the Samnite wars over half the Italian peninsula was under Roman control, either directly or through alliances (p.159).

(334 to 323 Alexander the Great conquers from Greece to India, p.158)

Pyrrhic war 280 to 275

From the incursion of Pyrrhus in 280 BC to the final crushing of Carthage in 146 Rome was continuously at war with enemies in the Italian peninsula or overseas (p.175).

The Greek king Pyrrhus invades southern Italy but, despite a series of victories, his forces become so depleted that he moved on to Sicily (278 to 275) before returning to the mainland and being conclusively defeated by the Romans. He survived the final battle and withdrew the remnant of  his forces back to Greece (p.174).

The Pyrrhic War was the first time that Rome confronted the professional mercenary armies of the Hellenistic states of the eastern Mediterranean. Their victory sent waves around the eastern Mediterranean. As a result of the war, Rome confirmed its hegemony over southern Italy.

First Punic War 264 to 241

Rome against Carthage, fought almost entirely in the contested island of Sicily (p.175).

Second Punic war 219 to 202

When Hannibal Barca marched a Carthaginian army from Spain around the south of France and then over the Alps. This is covered in detail in Richard Miles’s book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, from which I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t a one-year campaign, but that Hannibal and his army criss-crossed Italy for fifteen years (p.175). The campaign was most famous for the epic Battle of Cannae in 216 where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army, inflicting a reputed 70,000 casualties (p.180-2).

First Macedonian war 215 to 205

The Macedon wars were triggered by fears that their king would cross the short stretch of sea to Italy to come to Hannibal’s aid. So a Roman army was sent to fight him (p.176).

Second Macedonian war 200 to 197

Syrian war 192 to 188

Under Scipio Asiaticus the Romans defeated Antiochus ‘the Great’ of Syria (who had, as it happens, given a refuge to Hannibal in exile from Carthage) (p.176).

Third Macedonian war 172 to 168

Final Roman victory in this war effectively gave Rome control over all mainland Greece (p.176 and 196). The Greek historian Polybius commented that, in the 50 years up to 168 Rome had conquered the entire known world (p.199). When Aemilius Paulinus returned from defeating king Perseus of Macedon, was given a ‘triumph’ in 167, it took three days for the procession of loot to pass through Rome, including so much silver coin that 3,000 men were needed to carry it in 750 huge vessels (p.201).

War in Iberia 155 to 133

Carthage occupied southern Spain, not least to exploit the vast silver mines there which were worked by up to 40,000 slaves (p.196). Hannibal was the son of the Carthaginian general who first conquered it, which explains why he set out from Spain, not Africa, to attack Rome. During these years Rome sent legions to finally defeat and expel the Carthaginians from southern Spain.

Third Punic war 149 to 146

Short struggle which ended with the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio breaking into Carthage, burning and razing it to the ground, carrying off the population that survived into slavery. For which Scipio acquired the name ‘Africanus’ i.e. African (Carthage being in north Africa, under what is the modern city of Tunis) (p.209).

War with Jugurtha 118 to 106

Described on pages 264 to 268 as an example of the way Rome’s old constitution struggled to cope with managing a Mediterranean-wide empire. The mismanagement of the war led Sallust to compose The War Against Jugurtha a devastating indictment of Rome’s failure to quell this north African ruler.

The Social War 91 to 87

From the Latin bellum sociale meaning ‘war of the allies’, when Rome went to war with its several of its autonomous allies or socii (pages 234 to 239). The allies had for some time wanted full Roman citizenship, an issue which became more and more bitterly divisive. Things came to a head when the consul Marcus Livius Drusus suggested reforms grant the Italian allies Roman citizenship, giving them a greater say in the external policy of the Roman Republic. The Roman senatorial elite rejected his ideas and he was assassinated. At which point the allies realised there was no hope of reform and communities across Italy declared independence from Rome. When the rebels took Asculum, the first city to fall to them, they slaughtered every Roman they could find. The wives of the men who refused to join them were tortured and scalped. To which Rome replied with equal brutality. And so four long years of what, in many places, was in effect a civil war. According to Beard, the Social War was:

one of the deadliest and most puzzling conflicts in Roman history (p.234)

After defeating the various allies, Rome did indeed grant citizenship to all of peninsular Italy, at a stroke trebling the number of Roman citizens to about a million. The Social War led to a complete Romanisation of Italy (p.217) and the nearest thing to a nation state that ever existed in the ancient world (p.239).

Civil wars

Which brings us to the era of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC), Roman general and statesman who won the first large-scale civil war in Roman history and became the first man of the Republic to seize power through force. He was the first Roman general to march on Rome and take it by force, in 88, doing so to outlaw his enemy Gaius Marius. He did it again on his return from campaigning in the East, installing himself as dictator in Rome and embarking on a reign of terror which involved issuing proscriptions, or prices on the heads of thousands of men including a third of the Senate (pages 217 and 243). The point is that a general occupying Rome by force and bloodily wiping out his political opponents set a terrible precedent for the decades to come.

First Mithradatic war 89 to 85

The Greek king Mithradates VI of Pontus was to prove a comically irrepressible and obstinate foe (p.242).

Second Mithradatic war 83 to 81

It was during this war that General Sulla was appointed dictator by the Senate.

Third Mithradatic war 73 to 63

Revolt of Spartacus 73 to 71

Beard refers to Spartacus’s slave revolt three or four times (pages 217, 248, 249) but is not interested in the details of battles or outcomes. She uses it mainly to demonstrate modern ideas about the social make-up of the Italian countryside, in the sense that the rebellion can’t have lasted as long as it did if it was just slaves. Quite a lot of the rural poor and maybe lower middle classes must have joined it (page 217 and again on page 249).

Pompey the Great

During the 70s Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was manoeuvring to become the most powerful Roman general. In the scope of his ambition based on his enormous achievement in remodelling Rome’s entire possessions in the East, Beard thinks ‘Pompey has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor’ (p.274). Complex politicking led in 60 BC to Pompey joining Marcus Licinius Crassus (the man who led the army which finally defeated Spartacus) and Julius Caesar in a military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate (p.218 and 279). The point about it was the way it aimed to circumvent all the careful checks and balances of the old republican constitution in order to vest absolute and permanent power in the hands of just three men.

The 50s were a decade of complex jockeying for power as the two main players fought for Rome in their respective arenas, Caesar conquering Gaul, Pompey in the East. Crassus died at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae in 53 against Rome’s long-time eastern enemy, the Parthian Empire. His death began the unravelling of the uneasy partnership between Pompey and Caesar.

Julius Caesar

In 49 Caesar marched his army back into Italy and crossed the river Rubicon, committing to war with Pompey, a civil war which led to Pompey’s death in 48 but which dragged on until the last of his supporters were vanquished in 45.

At which point Caesar had emerged as by the far the most powerful politician and military figure in Rome and was looking forward to consolidating his power and implementing a widespread programme of reforms, when he was assassinated in March 44, plunging Rome into another 15 years of civil war.

P.S.

It’s worth reiterating and emphasising that Beard’s book is not a military history. She doesn’t give detailed descriptions of any battles, doesn’t detail the progress of any specific campaign or war. She only mentions wars as ammunition for discussions about the historical and social questions and issues which is what she’s far more interested in. So to repeat an example given above, she refers to the Spartacus rebellion 3 or 4 times but gives hardly any detail about the man himself, about the life or conditions of gladiators, doesn’t give any sense of the campaigns or battles involved in the three-year-long conflict. Instead it’s only briefly mentioned in the context of broader discussions of poverty, social ranks, relationships with Rome’s Italian allies and so on. If you’re looking for good accounts of ancient Roman wars, battles, generals and so on, this is emphatically not the book for you.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The legacies of Rome

At the start of Mary Beard’s comprehensive but pedestrian history of ancient Rome she gives some examples of the ‘legacy’ of Rome as reasons why people should know more about ancient Rome and read her book. I critiqued her reasons for being arbitrary, superficial and not really justifying her case. Nonetheless it does broach an interesting subject: just what should be included in the legacies left by Ancient Rome to later ages and the present day? Over the week it took to read Beard’s book, I began to make a list of aspects of the legacy of Rome which live on in the modern world. Can you add any more to my list?

Roman Catholicism, the religion of power

Surely the biggest legacy is the Roman Catholic church, founded and spread across the eastern Mediterranean but given its definitive organisational and liturgical form after it was decriminalised by the Emperor Constantine in 313 and then made the official state religion of the empire by the emperor Theodosius I in 380.

The language of the Latin Mass, Christian theology and practices, and the organisational structure of the church, which dominated the religious lives of everyone in the West till the Reformation, and still dominate Western Catholics and huge numbers of peoples living in countries colonised by Catholic Spain and Portugal to this day.

Apparently there are some 1.34 billion Catholics in the world today. Their spiritual lives, personalities and imaginations are shaped by concepts and terms crystallised in the series of church councils supervised by the Roman authorities, by a hierarchy based in Rome, almost every detail of which is based on Roman words for officials. Pope. Saint (‘sanctus’). Vatican. Mass. ‘Deus’ (Latin for God) used in countless phrases.

Moral exemplars and great lives

From the Middle Ages through to the Enlightenment it was possible to argue that Latin was the universal language of scholarship, of philosophy, science and law. As part of the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, and the promotion by various national groups of their national languages, this became steadily less and less true. It was possible to argue that the study of Latin disciplined the mind.

But modern justifications for studying Latin tend to overlook three aspects of the content of Latin literature:

  • the supposedly moral teachings embedded in Latin literature
  • examples of characters from literature
  • examples of characters from history

The moral teachings are straightforward. Roman moralists explicitly praised honesty, civic duty and heroism. Similarly, most Roman literature is moralistic in the sense that it embodies these values, it shows how true heroes followed their sense of duty and patriotism, maybe the most obvious example being Aeneas who turns his back on the chance of true love with Dido of Carthage in order to obey the orders of the gods, sail to Italy and found the predecessor of Rome.

But there are also the non-fictional real people from Roman history. A lot of figures from Roman history were used as examples of (mostly heroic) behaviour to later generations. The Romans themselves began this tradition, projecting back onto 5th and 4th century figures the stern devotion to civic duty they valued in their own 1st century society. But many of these figures continued to play a role in literary, philosophical, moral and political debates for centuries after the fall of Rome.

The story of Horatio holding the bridge single-handed against the Gauls is a typical example of straightforward patriotic heroism, which schoolboys from Cicero’s time down to the present day are taught to emulate. There are other Roman heroes, for example Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a legendary 5th century character, who was chosen to save Rome when it was threatened by neighbouring tribes and, once they had been defeated, retired back to his modest life on a farm (in a year traditionally dated 458 BC).

The early years of the French Revolution were packed with the imagery of Republican Rome, with paintings, frescos, badges and mottos of the families who overthrew the last Roman King, Tarquin the Arrogant, and of heroes of republican virtue.

More complex are what you might call the ‘debatable’ figures, huge and impressive figures from the historic era whose lives and fates became examples and talking points to later generations. The most obvious example is Julius Caesar: was he a military genius set to save the republic from civil war or was he poised to become an autocratic dictator? Were the assassins right to murder him?

Beginning during the Roman period itself and for the subsequent 2,000 years, Roman historical figures  have been used as guides to contemporary behaviour and politics all across the developed world.

Latin, the language of power

Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, Latin was the language of scholarship and intellectual authority. I’m not sure exactly when that can be said to have come to an end (during the eighteenth century?)

Scholarly works on any subject are no longer written in Latin as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries. But academics, journalists and other types of authors still signal their superior education (and, by implication, superior wisdom) by deploying Latin tags, little phrases which signal membership of, or exclusion from, the club of the well educated. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list of Latin tags which is intimidatingly long. More fun is this list of 50 common Latin tags. But a few points emerge from reading both, which is the different types of tag, depending on source and context.

Latin quotes

‘Veni, vidi, vici’ is just a famous quote, comparable to ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’.

Latin terms from philosophy

Philosophy and the law, two of the most conservative subject areas, still use Latin to name key concepts. Thus ‘ad hominem’ is a technical term from philosophy, describing a particular type of argument (in this case meaning, ‘at the man’, meaning it’s an attack on the speaker not their argument). Here’s a handy list of philosophical fallacies which all have Latin names.

Legal Latin

And, of course, the Law is packed with legal jargon, much of which, to this day, remains in Latin, the language of power – see this list of Latin legal terms. Forbiddingly long, isn’t it?

Latin mottos

Countless hundreds of thousands of business and organisations around the world adopt Latin mottos because it makes them sound smart. It is a tiny contribution to their authority, to their reason for existing. Members of organisations can be rallied round mottos as much as around flags or brands. If you search the list of Latin phrases for ‘motto’ (click control and f, then type motto into the search box) you get 659 results. At the end of my road where I grew up was a memorial to the Royal Air Force so I read ‘per ardua ad astra’ (‘through adversity to the stars’) every day to and from school. ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘out of many, one’) is on most American coins and bank notes.

Winnie the Pooh loquitur latine (speaks Latin)

This meme from the Mondly web page instantly indicates why people like using Latin tags. Swank , defined as ‘behaviour, talk, or display intended to impress others’.

Comic meme indicating how using a Latin tag is a cheap way to impress (source: Mondly.com)

English words derived from Latin

A staggeringly high number.

About 80 percent of the entries in any English dictionary are borrowed, mainly from Latin. Over 60 percent of all English words have Greek or Latin roots. In the vocabulary of the sciences and technology, the figure rises to over 90 percent. About 10 percent of the Latin vocabulary has found its way directly into English without an intermediary (usually French). (Dictionary.com)

Latin discrimination

There’s a handy Wikipedia article about the Latin influence in English. It ends with a section explaining the thesis that familiarity with longer Latinate words associated with education and the professions and a range of specialisms gives children confident in reading and handling these kinds of words a measurable educational advantage.

David Corson in The Lexical Bar (1985) defended the thesis that academic English, due to its large portion of Greco-Latinate words, explains the difficulties of working class children in the educational system. When exposed at home mainly to colloquial English (the easier, shorter, Anglo-Saxon words), the differences with children who have more access to academic words (longer, more difficult, Greco-Latinate) tend not to become less by education but worse, impeding their access to academic or social careers.

Romance languages derive from Latin

Apparently, some 900 million people speak a Romance language, being Spanish (543 million), Portuguese (258 million), French (267 million), Italian (68 million), and Romanian (24 million). Regional Romance languages also exist, including Catalan, Occitan and Sardinian.

The ideas, words, phrases and concepts these people use to identify themselves and operate in the world derive from the language of a small town in central Italy.

Roman architecture of power

The United States Capitol

Nations round the developed world adopted the architectural language of power perfected by the Romans. Sure it was copied from the ancient Greeks, but the enormous reach of the Roman Empire a) brought a consistency of look and design b) spread it from Carlisle to Egypt. It has been used to make politicians feel powerful and important and to intimidate populations since we regained the ability to build such imposing edifices i.e. the last 200 years or so (the US Capitol was constructed in the early 1800s).

Roman statues of power

Statues by the ancient Greeks tried to capture the idealised version of their gods and heroes. By contrast Roman statuary, particularly portrait busts, really focus on capturing the individuality of the subject. The Greeks depicted horses (as on the frieze of the Parthenon) and men riding horses, but the Romans made this subject into an important symbol of power and leadership. Not many equestrian statues survive from ancient Rome, but the ones that do became models for medieval and especially Renaissance sculptors to create three dimensional icons of power and authority. Cities round the developed world are littered with variations of these metal men on horseback.

Bronze copy of the ancient Roman statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, in the Palazzo Nuovo in Rome

Senates

Take the idea of a ‘senate’ as the upper house of a bicameral legislature. The name comes from the ancient Roman Senatus, derived from senex meaning ‘old man’, indicating an assembly said to be experienced and wise and therefore qualified to review and amend legislation sent through from a purely elected chamber. Apparently, 63 modern nations have a senate and senators.

Censuses

From the Latin census, from censere meaning ‘to estimate’. The census played a crucial role in Roman administration because it determined what class a citizen belonged to for both military and tax purposes. Beginning in the middle republic, it was usually carried out every five years and supplied a register of citizens and their property from which their duties and privileges could be listed.

Censuses to establish facts about the population began to be reintroduced to western countries during the nineteenth century (although the sweeping review of the country he’d just conquered which was ordered by William of Normandy and which resulted in the Domesday Book was obviously a striking example of a medieval census).

Roman calendar

On page 104 Beard makes the simple point that the calendar we all use and take for granted was invented by the Romans. This may be, literally, their most workaday legacy. On page 292 she explains that fixing the antiquated Roman calendar was just one of Julius Caesar’s many reforms.  The fundamental problem all early calendar makes have is that the two obvious natural systems of timekeeping are out of synch– the twelve lunar months add up to just over 354 days whereas the solar years lasts 365 and  a quarter days. Using know-how he had picked up in Alexandria, Caesar established a year with 365 days with an extra day added to the end of January every four years. Although the words day, month and year are of Germanic origin (Old English dæg, monað and gear in which the g is pronounced as a y) the names of the months themselves are resolutely Roman:

  • January is named after the Roman god Janus who had two faces so he could see the future and the past
  • February is named after an ancient Roman festival of purification called Februa
  • March is named after Mars, the Roman god of war
  • April takes its name from the Latin word aperire meaning ‘to open’, just like flowers do in spring
  • May is named after the Greek goddess Maia
  • June is named after the Roman goddess Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and the wife of Jupiter, king of the gods
  • July is named after the Roman reformer of the calendar, Julius Caesar
  • August is named after the first emperor, Augustus
  • September is named for the Roman number seven as it was originally the seventh month, before July and August were added
  • October was the eighth month before July and August were added
  • November was the ninth month
  • December was the tenth month

(Source: British Museum blog)


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

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