Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Commentaries of Julius Caesar


Our book today is the Commentaries of Julius Caesar, the seven lengthy pieces of breathless historical fiction Julius Caesar had sent back to Rome (allegedly to the Senate whose alleged employee he allegedly was, although lo and behold, copies also found their way to eager publishers in the bookshops at the foot of the Janiculum) during the years of his illegally prolonged tenure making illegal brushwars all over the province of Gaul.

Let us tell you a thing or two about Gaius Julius Caesar, boys and girls. With the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, no figure in history has been so monumentally distorted as this one. For proper visualization purposes (and bowing to the Youtube generation), we need to you to cast your imaginations to 'The Office's scheming Dwight - but not Rainn Wilson, the relatively normal-looking guy who only looks ghastly every week because his chief comedic foil, John Krasinski, is so good-looking - no, rather the UK version, Mackenzie Crook - that's the face of Gaius Julius Caesar: ferret-eyed, gaunt-cheeked, explicitly, visibly duplicitous.

His father - an honorable man - died when he was young, more's the pity. His mother was a formidable woman who was entirely preoccupied with the enormous obstacles she faced simply staying alive and keeping her family in political play. This left young Gaius often in the care of his aunt, who was married to a monster named Marius.

In the generation before young Gaius, Marius had allowed all his military victories (which were hard-won and magnificent - Like Grant and Wellington, he was more of a large-scale systematic butcher than a great military genius, but it got the job done) and the acclaim of the Roman people to push him closer and closer to megalomaniacal insanity - and then finally to embrace it, marching his army (a tool he had entirely reshaped and forged in loyalty not to the Republic but to himself personally) on Rome and plunging the City into a week of purges and bloodshed.

From this monster young Gaius soaked up lessons like a sponge: laws mean nothing, the Republic has no purpose other than your own personal enrichment, oaths are made to be foresworn. By making the legions permanently-staffed and funded things addicted to loot and loyal to individuals who could provide it, by flouting the law when it sought to rein in personal ambition, and most of all by ignoring, emasculating, or outright murdering the ruling aristocracy, Marius had laid the groundwork for a future in which these things would be done not just in times of national emergency but always, by everyone who could and felt like it. Gaius Julius Caesar saw this groundwork and surged into that future.

The way things worked in the Roman Republic, a nobleman served some pro forma time in the military and then began his climb up the ladder of civic advancement - quaestor, aedile, praetor, propraetor, consul, and proconsul. Each of these positions carried a wider scope of authority and called for a greater expenditure of money. Roman politicians weren't paid - quite the reverse: they spent to get to the top, to the consulate. Quaestors might get off lightly, only needing appease their private backers. But aediles, now that's where the sheer cost of succeeding in Roman politics began to separate the men from the boys; aediles had to sponsor public events and shows out of their own pocket, and although in the richest families could absorb these expenses with ease, most office-holders had to borrow heavily on their future prospects.

In fact, all Roman positions looked - and borrowed - heavily against the future, for a very good reason: the future could pay off anything. Consuls and proconsuls were assigned the government of each of Rome's many provinces, and while they were there, they controlled not only the lawful supervision of the province but the flow of its taxes and other revenues (and all the bribes that went along with them) - with virtually no Senatorial oversight from Rome. In this way one man could find himself poised directly at the spigot of a great geyser of money. He could, in short, find himself in a position not only to pay off his debts but also to make himself quite wealthy.

None of that was good enough for Gaius Julius Caesar, none of it happened fast enough, for one reason: money. Boys and girls, there has never been a human being in the history of mankind who could borrow money he couldn't pay back like Gaius Julius Caesar. If you were a junior aedile with deep pockets, a slum whore with a heart of gold, or a hognut vendor in the Livestock Forum, it didn't matter: Gaius Julius Caesar gently wanted whatever you didn't absolutely need for catsmeat sausages and your monthly rent. By the time he was a first-year praetor, he was, in modern equivalents, a staggering 2 million dollars in debt. By the time he reached his consulship, he was a mind-numbing three-quarters of a billion dollars in debt. In other words, even a normal run as governor of a province wouldn't come close to covering the debts he'd amassed on his climb to that august position. And even if he positively racked his province to wring from it every last drop it could yield, there was a risk: provinces could and often did petition the Senate to prosecute their governors for abuse when his term was over. Even in Rome, Caesar never lacked for enemies slavering to bring him to court.

There was a temporary protection, but it was absolute: the consulate. Sitting consuls (much like American presidents, although in practice, if not technically in theory) were immune from prosecution.

But we get ahead of ourselves: in 59 b.c. Gaius Julius Caesar was thinking of a lucrative province, a seed-ground from which to pay his debts and maybe even amass a fortune. But his enemies in the Senate tried to stymie him: when the assignment of provinces was handed out, he was given an empty brief, made governor of 'fields and forests' - just that, generally, with no specification. It meant ruin, and Caesar knew it better than anybody.

That's the tormenting thing about his whole career: at every stage, just before every enormous, world-worsening choice, it's possible, just possible, for even his worst detractors to think that horrible squeak-crack of an all-purpose excuse, that he did what he did out of pure self-preservation. Had he lived to write his memoirs, that's certainly what he himself would have maintained. Even absent that unbearable volume, there's evidence aplenty: everyone who knew him in the last decade of his life encountered the same thing: a deeply distasteful caul of self-pity.

But it isn't true. It isn't true, and it must be rejected, although we here at Stevereads are the only ones currently doing the rejecting. At every single crisis of his life, Gaius Julius Caesar had one set of choices, and one only: I can either be true to the traditions of right and rule and law that have given my whole world and the world of all my ancestors its structure and integrity, or I can do everything, conspire everything, arrange everything, and aim everything for myself, only for myself, for my own needs and my own bank account. The past, present, and future, the world and everything in it, v.s. just me, just me alone.

It's not a choice the present modern American world would have even a second's hesitation making, but once upon a time it was more difficult, and Caesar was the first to break faith with it. He chose himself always, in everything, against anything.

He got his 'forests and fields' appointment, and he did what he always did: he immediately thought - and acted - outside the law.

Not outside the law, exactly, but outside the sway of the Senate, which amounted to the same thing in the eyes of the aristocracy. The Senate was the ruling body of Rome, yes, but the actual grotty business of lawmaking often fell to a semi-official individual called a Tribune of the Plebs. This individual wasn't strictly part of the Senate but could, with the support of the popular assemblies, tell that august body what to do. There's no equivalent in American politics, only near equivalents: imagine Oprah or Rush Limbaugh having not just popular but actual political standing on the issues of the day, although that still doesn't really capture the element of danger that was always present whenever the general populace (the plebs) of Rome was involved.

In any case, a Tribune of the Plebs could push through laws and loopholes, and Caesar had a tame one in his pocket. Using this man, Caesar had himself appointed governor of both Nearer Gaul and Illyricum, and a little later he got Further Gaul as well, and his proconsulship was extended for five years.

And what years they were - years of constant aggression against unoffending tribes, years of near-constant warfare everywhere, breaching the Rhine, even famously and ridiculously venturing to Britain. Constant warfare was necessary - not to protect Rome and pacify the province, as Caesar would steadily maintain, but to justify the existence of his command in the first place.

It was towards the end of this period that the Commentaries were probably written, just prior to the crisis that would forever destroy the old world of Rome. Caesar was at the heart of that crisis, of course: in order to stay solvent and continue to stave off his million creditors (not to mention avoiding prosecution by his million enemies), Caesar knew he had to stand for consul in 48. But the law was clear: he had to return to the City in person, without his army. From Gaul he attempted to push through a change in this state of affairs, again using Tribunes of the Plebs to get it done. But they were stopped, largely by the efforts of Lucius and Sextus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and Caesar was commanded to return alone.

In response, he led his legions across the Rubicon onto Italian soil, and civil war began.

And what about the book itself, the Commentaries, we hear you asking? Regardless of what you think of its author, is the book itself any good?

Good might be stretching things, although as the first example in history of the campaign biography, it's certainly interesting. Caesar throughout refers to himself in the third person, and he is always the calm center of wisdom in the midst of chaos. He is never hurried, never mystified, and most of all never wrong. The style is sparse to the point of being epigrammatic, Caesar's conceit being that the work was just a collection of notes for some future historian to use in writing the Gallic War's full history. But sparse or no, the pages brim with euphemisms, evasions, and lies. Take for instance Caesar's dealings with the two rival chieftains of the Treveri, Indutiomarus and Cingetorix. Indutiomarus proposes an alliance with Caesar, and Caesar agrees. Here's the version of events in the Commentaries:

Caesar was well aware of the reason for Indutiomarus' words, and of what was holding him back from the path he'd initially taken. Nevertheless, to avoid being forced to waste the campaigning season among the Treveri when he was eager to go to Britain, he told Indutiomarus to come to him with 200 hostages. Once they arrived, including his son and all his relations (Caesar asked for these by name) he reassured Indutiomarus and urged him to remain loyal. At the same time, he contacted the leaders of the Treveri and one by one convinced them to support Cingetorix. He did this because Cingetorix, whose loyalty to Caesar had always been plain, deserved the favor, but also because he thought it important for Cinegetorix to be as powerful as possible among his own people. Indutiomarus took this reduction of his influence very poorly. Previously he had been hostile in his intentions toward us, but now he was aflame with indignation.

Translation: Caesar betrayed Indutiomarus, after an ostentatious show of good faith, in favor of a lesser rival Caesar knew he could control. One additional reason for the 'indignation' of Indutiomarus, a reason never mentioned by Caesar? He never got his hostages - including his son - back.

And what about the book's climax, the great 'rebellion' (as if that word could possibly apply to resisting invaders in your own country) of Vercingetorix? Even in Caesar's own account, the desperate heroism of the man comes through. True, in the Commentaries he hever had a chance, despite having united almost all the tribes of Gaul and with stirring oratory and personal valiance convinced them that he represented their last and best chance to repell the Romans. In Caesar's version, there are no surprises: Caesar is calmly prescient of everything and always ready with a cunning counter-strategy and overwhelming military force. From this book a reader would never guess how close Vercingetorix came to pulling it off.

Maybe that's just as well - certainly it's the way of the world: the victors write the histories, and they take no pains to besmirch their own reputations. Certainly nobody did this more industriously or more successfully than Caesar, which is why generations of schoolchildren are still being marched through this execrable piece of hypocrisy, while the lays and ballads of the Gauls have fallen to silence.

5 comments:

brian said...

Steve, have you watched HBO's Rome yet? I now can't help but picture how different it would have been if Gareth had played Caesar. Different, but certainly not in a bad way.

brian said...

Although, Ciaran Hinds WAS fabulous as Caesar.

steve said...

yes, he is - especially the Ides of March scene, that absolutely electric look on his face when he first realizes that he's being ATTACKED, not opposed (the moment when he violently discards his toga). But that's my point: producers and directors ALWAYS get somebody who's fabulous. Gawd forbid we ever see a Caesar who DESERVED to be killed.

Sam said...

I read Caesar's history of his Civil War and that oily impression of self-serving lies shows up all over the place. The habit of his that really sets the teeth on edge is when he boasts about his incredible humility. Evidently, he never did anyting except he was reluctantly forced into doing it, since every action he took was contrary to his modest nature. Ick.

Great post--Hopefully there'll be one on the Gospel of Matthew coming soon, so we can be set straight about this Jesus of Nazareth dude.

steve said...

Jesus is dreamy! The sooner you realize that, Sam, the better. IF you know what I mean.