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James Boswell, who knew a thing or two about hero worship, called Julius Caesar “the greatest man of any age.” Alexander Hamilton told Thomas Jefferson that Caesar was “the greatest man who ever lived.” Theodor Mommsen, in his History of Rome, called Caesar “the sole creative genius produced by Rome, and the last produced by the ancient world.” Jacob Burckhardt called Caesar “the greatest of mortals.”

That word “greatest,” superlative of all superlatives, has been much overused in our day. Some of us may have first heard it in connection with the Ringling Bros. Circus, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Tom Brokaw contributed “The Greatest Generation” for those Americans who fought in World War II. Then there was Muhammad Ali who, with characteristic modesty, called himself “The Greatest.” But in our era of easily assigned superlatives, one can’t help but feel how apposite, how comfortably, the word “greatest” sidles up to the name of Julius Caesar—to call him “the greatest” might even be an ­understatement.

Julius Caesar is generally, and rightly, regarded as one of the six most successful military commanders of all time, alongside Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Scipio Africanus, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon. Plutarch wrote that Caesar “above all men was gifted with the faculty of making the right use of everything in war, and most especially of seizing the right moment” to attack. Statesman as well as warrior, more than anyone else in history he embodied Carl von Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” He is a perennial favorite of empire builders who prize bold action and recognize that power politics requires genuine power. Napoleon took Caesar as a model and wrote a long commentary on his wartime adventures while exiled (and carefully guarded) on St. Helena.

In our time of distrust, if not utter contempt, for imperialism and for great-man theories in politics, Julius Caesar’s is not a name everywhere honored. Too many putatively great men of the past century—Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao—turned out to be merchants of mass death, villainous to the highest power. Yet Caesar’s career is of a different kind. Even now, two millennia after his dramatic assassination, the verdict on him is less than clear, the meaning of his extraordinary life not yet fully fathomed. Perhaps it never can be, but even thinking about him somehow enlarges one’s sense of the scope and grandeur of ­human ambition.

Caesar’s The Gallic War is widely known as a Latin school text—Gallia est omnis divisa partes tres. It has been assigned for generations because it combines simplicity of expression with perfection of style. “I certainly read Caesar with rather more reverence and awe than is usual for the works of men,” ­Montaigne wrote, “at times considering the man himself and the miracle of his greatness, at others the purity and inimitable polish of his language which not only surpassed that of all other historians, as Cicero said, but perhaps that of Cicero himself.” Of Caesar the author, Mommsen notes “the self-possessed ease with which he arranged his periods as well as projected his campaigns,” adding that “while Alexander could not sleep for thinking of the Homeric Achilles, Caesar in his sleepless hours mused on the inflections of the Latin nouns and verbs.” Caesar wrote both The Gallic War and his The Civil War while fighting those wars. As a test of his powers of concentration, Caesar was said, according to Christian Meier’s ­biography, to have been able to “dictate four important letters to his scribes simultaneously, and as many as seven unimportant ones.” He apparently could also compose on horseback.

Caesar’s mastery of language extended to the spoken word. Although none of his speeches have survived fully intact, Cicero, himself a master of oratory, remarked on the “chaste, pellucid, and grand, not to say noble” quality of Caesar’s eloquence as a speaker. “Do you know any man who, even if he has concentrated on the art of oratory to the exclusion of all else, can speak better than Caesar?” Cicero wrote to Cornelius Nepos. “Or anyone who makes so many witty remarks? Or whose vocabulary is so varied and yet so exact?” Caesar demonstrated this skill not just in the senate and earlier in Roman law courts, but in brief inspirational speeches delivered to his troops before battle, speeches so effective that these men came to feel themselves fighting less for Rome than for their commander.

Not that Caesar was without his flaws—­major flaws. The military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge, in his otherwise admiring biography of ­Caesar, catalogues some of these with impressive concision. So concentrated was Caesar on ends, means were of negligible interest to him. At war he was capable, as Dodge wrote, of “holocausts before which the devastations of Alexander shrink to naught.” He might lop off the hands of the men of an entire town that had shown him resistance, while selling its women and children into slavery. Dodge reckons that “the sum of his massacres in Gaul overruns a million souls, paying no heed to those who perished by a worse fate than the edge of the sword.” Caesar brooked no resistance even from men who otherwise supported him. He had no compunction in sending one of his own loyal soldiers, who complained that none of the booty of war should be shared with civilians, off to be executed, or about doing the same to a baker whose bread disappointed him.

After the defeat of Pompey at ­Pharsalus in Thessaly, Caesar cultivated and acquired a reputation for clemency, forgiving many enemies, foreign and­ Roman—including, unfortunately for him, ­Marcus Brutus, who earlier had aligned himself with Pompey against Caesar. Caesar may not have been naturally vindictive, but Roman clemency needs to be highly qualified. When, as a young man, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and released only after arranging for his own ransom, he pledged revenge by crucifixion. Later, after having captured these same pirates, before crucifying them as promised, he is said to have shown clemency because, as Suetonius writes, “he first mercifully cut their throats.” Such was mercy in antiquity, an age of proscriptions, poisonings, beheadings, and crucifixions, not to speak of decimations, the act of killing one in ten of one’s own troops for dereliction of duty. One recalls, too, when Marcus Crassus quelled the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 b.c., he had the 6,000 or so slaves he captured crucified at intervals of forty yards over a 120-mile stretch of the Appian Way—human billboards advertising his victory.

“Caesar’s much-vaunted clemency,” writes Peter Green, “can be dated, with some confidence, to 51 b.c., no earlier”—or, in other words, beginning after his successes in the Gallic Wars. “His record of mercy in the Civil War [against Pompey],” Green holds, “was simply a proof of his far-sightedness. It was more convenient for his purposes to make friends than enemies, especially if those friends could be of use to him.” Besides, clemency is, as Ronald Syme writes in his book on Sallust, “the virtue of a despot, not of a citizen and an aristocrat,” for it “is the mercifulness of someone who can put you to death. That is to say a god, a tyrant, a master of slaves.” Resentment at Caesar’s lofty clemency may well have been among the motives of his assassins.

A man of many appetites, Caesar’s sexual escapades are best chronicled by Suetonius, who was a connoisseur of the salacious. Suetonius writes that Caesar’s “affairs with women are commonly described as numerous and extravagant,” and then goes on to catalogue the wives of Roman patricians he seduced, including Servilia, the mother of ­Brutus. (Some, Caesar perhaps among them, believed ­Brutus was his child.) His most famous love affair was of course with Cleopatra, who gave him his only son, Caesarion, later murdered at the command of ­Caesar’s adopted son and heir Octavian, who is said not to have wanted any more Caesars around other than himself. Suetonius also devotes a few paragraphs to rumors of Caesar’s supposed youthful liaison as the catamite of Nicomedes, King of Bithynia. Montaigne, cribbing from Suetonius, repeats the stories of Caesar’s sex life but makes plain, rightly, “the inequality” of Caesar’s appetite for sex and for ­power, the latter, not being merely vastly stronger than the former, but unlike it, “not being susceptible to ­satiety.”

What makes Julius Caesar’s military career all the more extraordinary is that it did not begin until he was forty, and lasted less than fifteen years until his death at fifty-five. Plutarch has Caesar in Spain, at the age of thirty-one, bemoaning the limitations of his scope of action. “Do you think,” he reports Caesar saying, “I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that ­Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?” There is some doubt that he ever said any such thing, for Alexander was a king and a tyrant, both terms of the highest abuse in first-century b.c. Rome, and thus scarcely likely to serve as a model.

If anyone was on an Alexander program, it may have been Gnaeus Pompeius, whose early military victories in Spain and Africa earned him the sobriquet Magnus, so that he became—for some the title was used ironically—Pompey the Great. By twenty-five, Pompey had already had his first triumph, the ceremonial parading of victorious commanders in Rome, their victims and booty displayed in tow. Superior military organizer though he was, Pompey was plagued by a tic of hesitation that proved his ultimate undoing in battle against Caesar. Yet Pompey sought applause and fame rather than power and influence, whereas Caesar, the more ambitious man, sought and eventually gained all four.

Born of the patrician family of the Julii, nobility of fading repute, a family claiming a relation to the goddess Venus, Julius ­Caesar (born in 100 b.c.) came of age during the civil war between Sulla and Marius. A favorite aunt of his, Julia, married Marius. ­Caesar’s first marriage was to the daughter of Cornelius Cinna, who joined Marius on the losing side against Sulla and was eventually put to death for it. Sulla wanted Caesar to divorce his wife, but Caesar, demonstrating his early intransigence against authority, refused. (Caesar would eventually marry three times: In republican Rome, marriage, like war, could also be politics by other means.)Much of Caesar’s early career was spent in opposition to the Sullan faction in the Roman Senate, attempting to secure the supreme place he felt was his by right of birth and even more by right of talent. On paper—make that on parchment—he sought the support of the populares (the people) and was opposed to the optimates (the senatorial oligarchy), but ultimately Julius Caesar appears always to have been in business for himself.

Accounts of Caesar’s youth are a touch blurry. His father died when he was fifteen; his mother was the important figure in his early life. His was the traditional training of the Roman aristocrat: athletics, horsemanship, off to Greece for training in oratory. Along with high birth, skill at oratory and a history of military victory were the path to Roman dignitas, or the highest political and social standing. Theodore Ayrault Dodge describes Caesar as a boy erect of carriage, with a “manner open and kindly,” and with “countenance singularly engaging and expressive, if not handsome.” Suetonius reports that he “was of imposing stature—white-skinned, slim-limbed, rather too full in the face, and with dark lively eyes.”

The Alcibiadean exhibitionist in Caesar emerged early. Plutarch refers to his riding at full gallop “with dropped reins and his hands joined behind his back.” His vanity about his looks was notable, from his rather louche dress—a belt hanging loosely round his toga—to his careful shaves and manicures. He was a sedulous spendthrift, early and often in heavy debt. His baldness pained him, and his was the first prominent comb-over—more precisely in his case, comb-down—in history. His epilepsy, which ­Plutarch describes as “his distempers,” and Shakespeare as “the falling sickness,” did not slow him in any ­significant way.

Caesar’s climb up the Roman pole, or cursus honorum, began early but was far from smooth. From quaestor to aedile to praetor to consul—technically administrative posts all, but necessary steps on the run to Roman power—up he climbed, ending, briefly before being assassinated, as Dictator for Life. Caesar’s too obvious ambition turned off other insiders who preferred to keep him outside. Sulla was the first to sense the danger to the senatorial oligarchy that the young Caesar represented. “Beware of that boy with the loose clothes,” he warned his fellow oligarchs, prophetically telling a follower that he would “one day prove the ruin of the party which you and I have so long defended.” Cicero, from early in Caesar’s career, was wary of his unbounded ambition.

At stake in that career was the future of the republic. The Roman senators, led by Marcus Porcius Cato, viewed themselves first as the preservers, then as the on-the-run defenders of the Roman res publica. The entrenched Roman oligarchy had known threats before: from the brothers Gracchi, from ­Marius, and from Sulla himself, whose personal power and ­cruel proscriptions threatened the republic even while ostensibly fighting for it. After Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus and subsequent death in Egypt, ­Metellus Scipio’s defeat at Thapsus, and Cato’s suicide, ­Julius Caesar was now without rivals, and posed the ­greatest threat of all.

Even before Caesar’s rise, evidence was beginning to accumulate that the Roman Empire was becoming too vast and unwieldy to continue in business under traditional republican political arrangements. One such arrangement was the republic’s seemingly admirable term limits of one year for each of its two consuls, with a ten-year stint required between holding a second consulship. At the end of their terms, the two consuls went off under the title proconsul to govern one of the ever-increasing number of Roman provinces, often enriching themselves there by plunder. Elections to the various magistracies, including that of consul, were becoming corrupted by bribery and unredeemable promises. The Roman citizen-soldier, the finest in the ancient world, perhaps the finest ever, was more and more being replaced in the Roman army by foreign auxiliaries and mercenaries fighting under the Roman eagle. Empires, as ­Montesquieu held, seem at their most stable when they are expanding; they apparently cannot bear too lengthy periods of peace. Peace, somehow, in Rome was an encouragement to civil war.

Julius Caesar, a true freelance, was the wrong man at the wrong time—wrong, that is, if saving the republic was the name of one’s desire. No party or faction in Rome was strong enough to resist him. Alea iacta est, the die is cast, Caesar is supposed to have said when he crossed the Rubicon and brought his legions into Rome. Caesar was an inveterate gambler, tossing the dice on many occasions, a gambler upon whom fortune seemed never to frown. But he had more than fortune alone going for him. He had an indomitable army, the support of the sprawling Roman population, and an apparently unslakable appetite for power. After the crushing effect of lengthy civil war, one-man rule must have been viewed by most Romans as a relief. The only thing in question was whether he, Caesar, wished to rise to the abominable title of king—though many felt he was already that without the title.

Given the roll of honors lavished on Julius Caesar after his victories in Gaul and his crushing defeat of the shaky partnership of Pompey, Cato, and Metellus Scipio, the title of king might have seemed a downgrade. These honors included a life-dictatorship; the title imperator before his name, pater patriae after it; a statue of him set among former kings; a ceremonial chariot to carry his statue in religious processions round the circus; a golden throne in the senate; divine status (divus Iulius), with all its accoutrements; and other honors that, as Suetonius writes, “as a mere mortal he should certainly have refused.” Far from refusing these honors, Caesar not only accepted them all but sometimes in doing so showed his contempt for them.

In The Roman Revolution, Ronald Syme declares Caesar “stands out as a realist and an opportunist,” lacking “fear or scruple,” and refers to him as “a Sulla but for clementia, a Gracchus but lacking a revolutionary programme.” Caesar’s military ­victories—first over the Gauls, then over Pompey & Co.—combined with his political savvy meant, as Syme writes, “the lasting domination of one man instead of the rule of the law, the constitution and the senate; it announced the triumph soon or late of new forces and new ideas, the elevation of the army and the provinces, the depression of the traditional governing class.” Caesar did not champion one class above another, and once established as dictator, was himself above party. Whether or not he intended it, he paved the way for the generations of emperors that followed him. “About Caesar’s ultimate designs there can be opinion,” Syme contends, “but no certainty.” He adds: “The question of ultimate intentions becomes irrelevant. Caesar was slain for what he was, not for what he might become.” Maximum Leader is what he was.

Alongside the immense significance of ­Julius Caesar’s military and political career is the richness of the surrounding cast of characters in play during the time of his rise. Anyone with a literary eye cannot but be swept up by the possibilities they suggest. The morally dithering Brutus (The Noble Conspirator, as a recent biography of him by Kathryn Tempest is titled); the rigidly virtuous Cato (“the Don Quixote of the aristocracy,” Mommsen calls him); the crucially hesitant Pompey (whose “ancient habit of procrastination,” as Theodore Ayrault Dodge describes it, eventually did him in); the contriving ­Marcus Crassus (in whom the desires for money and for power fought to a standstill); the dissolute Antony (given, in Plutarch’s phrase, to “gross amours” and “impudent luxury”); the ultimate trimmer Cicero—what boldly outlined and cogent types they all seem.

Joseph Addison wrote Cato, a play said to have greatly influenced the thinking of the American founding fathers. Shakespeare of course got two plays out of the subject. Cicero stands out as, among other things, the first intellectual in politics—and perhaps a salutary warning that intellectuals generally do well to stay out of politics. (Mark Antony, it will be recalled, had Cicero killed, his head and right hand—the one that wrote the attacks upon him—nailed to the speaker’s place in the forum.) Brutus died at Philippi at the end of his own sword. Antony, overestimating himself and underestimating everyone else, expired in Egypt with, so to say, his pants down.

The only character that doesn’t emerge with crystalline clarity in this splendid cast is Caesar himself. If one wishes to understand the mind and motives, the heart and soul, of Julius Caesar, perhaps the last place to go, the biggest disappointment of all, is Shakespeare’s eponymous but ultimately mistitled play. The true title of the play should have been not Julius Caesar, for Caesar has scarcely more than a cameo role in the proceedings, but Marcus Brutus, for the central conflict, the truly tragic figure in the play, is Brutus. Caesar is of course assassinated, but Brutus, in the play and in life, comes to understand the logical end of his actions to be his own suicide. Worse: The assassination of Julius Caesar turned out to be a highly dramatic but ultimately pointless act, leading not, as Brutus and his co-conspirators hoped, to a return to republican values, but to the ­Julio-­Claudian dynasty of chiefly unsatisfactory emperors that followed soon enough, beginning with ­Octavian (later Augustus), his adopted son, and running through ­Tiberius, ­Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and the rest. But Shakespeare has put his impress on ­Caesar, not all of it historically accurate. Doubt resides even about the long-famous last words ­Shakespeare put in ­Caesar’s mouth, “Et tu, Brute?” Two rival candidates for ­Caesar’s last words are “You, too, my child” and “See you in hell, punk.” I prefer to think he said the latter.

Although several biographies have been written about Julius Caesar and the most brilliant minds—Bacon, Montaigne, Pascal, Montesquieu, and others—have commented on him, no one has fully captured the great man in print. Bacon allowed that “he was, no doubt, of a very noble mind; but yet as aimed more at his particular advancement than at any merits for the common good.” Montesquieu called Caesar “a man with many great qualities, with no defects—although many vices . . .” and went on to contemn him as the man who, in forming his triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, ultimately brought about the destruction of the republic. On the credit side of the Caesarian ledger, Goethe thought ­Caesar “a great fellow,” planned to write a play about him, and held his assassins in contempt. Nietzsche, perhaps no surprise, hailed Caesar as the very type of the Ubermensch and referred to him as “an ornament to the world.” Mommsen, everywhere else a critical spirit, quite lost it when writing about Caesar: “A statesman of genius,” he called him, “the mighty magician” and “master of the world,” a man fit “to contend with nature herself.”

Peter Green makes the point that there is a different Caesar for different ages. Over the centuries, Julius Caesar has gone back and forth in reputation from bloodthirsty monster to magnanimous genius. Ages of monarchy revered him—the very words “czar” and “kaiser” of course derive from the name Caesar—republican eras not so much. The grand Winston Churchill and the preposterous Benito ­Mussolini both admired him. After World War II, with Hitler now in the books and Mao and Stalin still afield, one-man rule was anathema, and Caesar (and Caesarism) not in good odor.

How is Caesar accurately measured, his worth properly weighed? He hasn’t made the task easy by having, in effect, written his own history in The Gallic War and The Civil War. In those works, he portrays himself in the third person. In the words of Keith Fairbank, Caesar crafts his own self-image as “this cool, collected leader who moves quickly and deliberately, deals decisively with political and military challenges, is concerned for and close to his troops, and has things firmly under control.” Fairbank adds that the self-described Caesar is “a man of action, well informed, sharp in his assessments and decisions, ready to seize control of the situation, caring for his men and admired by them, and always bringing his plans firmly but justly to the desired end.”

Ronald Syme thought that one could write a ­biography of Cicero, “but probably not of Caesar.” He doesn’t specify why, but it may well be that the legend of Caesar gets in the way. His success seems almost fabled, the good fortune he counted upon never letting him down until, of course, that day in the middle of March when it did. He was, as Christian Meier notes, “able to realize almost everything that lay with him.” He was also a man without close friends. Others might do his bidding on the battlefield and in the senate, but in Meier’s words, “He ultimately owed everything he accomplished to himself, to his art as a commander, a leader of men, and a diplomat, to his untiring energy—and to his good fortune.”

Julius Caesar was one of those rarest of rare human beings whose talent was up to his ambition, and in his case that ambition was towering. Syme writes that by the year 44 b.c., when Caesar was fifty-five years old, he “had no competitors left. And he had wrecked the playground.” His vast success—all his foes routed, little world left to conquer—had put an end to the high-stakes game that had given his life meaning. There was talk around this time of his going off on a mission to defeat the perpetually troublesome Parthians, but another military victory at this stage would have added little to his renown. “My life has been long enough, when you reckon it in years or in glory,” he said. He is also supposed to have declared, at a dinner party at the home of ­Marcus Lepidus on the evening of March 14, that “the best death is the quickest.” The following day, in the theatre built by his now dead rival Pompey where the senate was about to convene, Julius Caesar, the divus Iulius, discovered that thanks to his assassins, that wish, too, had come true. 

Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Charm: The Elusive Enchantment.

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