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Great Caesar!

A biography of Julius Caesar, by Plantagenet Somerset Fry

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Julius Caesar
Aedile
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Conspiracy of Catiline
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"It was not difficult to imagine how lost and empty the Roman people must have felt when they heard about his death. People felt much the same when President Kennedy was assassinated ...."
Foreword Great Caesar

By age 39, Julius Caesar had been a widower, divorcé, governor of Further Spain, captured by pirates, hailed imperator by adoring troops, questor, aedile, consul, and (named, if not installed as) pontifex maximus -- a lifelong honor usually reserved for the end of a man's career. What was left for his remaining 17 years? That for which Julius Caesar was most well known: the Triumvirate, military victories in Gaul, the dictatorship, civil war, and, finally, assassination. [See Timeline.]Plantagenet Somerset Fry, author of Great Caesar, a biography of Julius Caesar, extols the virtues of the greatest man of all time. Julius Caesar was a general, a statesman, a lawgiver, an orator, an historian, and a mathematician. His government (with modifications) endured for centuries. He never lost a war. He fixed the calendar. He created the first news sheet, Acta Diurna, which was posted on the forum to let everyone who cared to read it know what the Assembly and Senate were up to. He also instigated an enduring law against extortion.

That Great Caesar is short -- only 185 pages -- is an asset, since Fry's journalistic style makes it hard to put it down this biography of Julius Caesar. He adroitly weaves in explanatory detail, making the complex simple, especially in the cases of Marius, Sulla, the Gracchi, the Catilinarian Conspiracy, Clodius, and the preceding six hundred years of Roman history.

In Fry's account, two strands dominate Roman history and Julius Caesar's career:

  • opposition to kings
  • class conflict
Caesar traces his ancestry to Romulus, putting him in as aristocratic a position as possible, but his association with his uncle Marius' populism (excuse the anachronism) puts Caesar in political hot water with many of his social class.

Under the penultimate king (Servius Tullius), patricians (the privileged class) developed -- just in time to take over as ruling class when the Romans, fed up with kings, drove out Tullius' murderer and successor, Tarquinius Superbus.

At the start of the Republic, the Roman people were mainly farmers, but between the fall of monarchy and the rise of Julius Caesar, Rome changed dramatically. First it mastered Italy; then it turned its sights to the Carthaginian hold on the Mediterranean, to gain supremacy over which it needed a fighting naval force. Citizen fighters left their fields prey to "greedy land speculators," although if all went well, they returned home with ample booty. Between slaves and the conquered wealth, the hard-working Roman became the luxury seeking spendthrift. Real work was carried out by slaves. A rural lifestyle gave way to urban sophistication.

The governing style that developed as an antidote to monarchy had included severe limitations on the power of any one individual. But by the time large-scale, enduring wars became the norm, Rome needed powerful leaders whose terms would not end mid-battle.

But the conservatives resisted change, seeing the downfall of the Republic in every nuance of reform. Thus Caesar's murder was incorrectly hailed by them as the only way back to the old values.

"The conspirators achieved precisely the opposite of what they hoped by their frightful deed. When they rushed from the hall into the streets screaming that they had brought freedom, they expected to be greeted with cheers and thanks. Instead they met sullenness, shock, sorrow, astonishment.... When the conspirators pulled their daggers out of his body, they thought they had stemmed the tide of monarchy. Instead the monarchy they dreaded was established."
P.175

Fry's admiration leads him to gloss over blots on Julius Caesar's escutcheon, making Caesar an innocent bystander in Pompey's gory murder (Caesar does not seem to have ordered it) and merciful in his crucifixion and decimation orders. Caesar's womanizing appears a virtue. Any culpability in the Civil War is treated as no more than inevitable. Still, it's hard to reject Fry's evaluation of Julius Caesar as the greatest man of all time, and, as such, perhaps he should be excused personal failings.

Supplementing the almost story-like presentation are a timeline, bibliography (to 1971), glossary, maps, and intriguing photographs.

Great Caesar, by Plantagenet Somerset Fry


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