Saturday, December 29, 2007

Why Did Caesar Cross?

A break from the biblical. . .

It's frequently noted, in the spirit of Schweitzer, that the Quest of the Historical Jesus is not unlike looking into a deep well and seeing your own, somewhat distorted, face staring back at you. The same can be said of the "Quest of the Historical Julius Caesar" (if you use that phrase, I expect royalties).

There is a general tendency in biographies of Caesar to attribute to him great or noble causes in his civil war (or, as Caesar would have it, "civil disputes."). Caesar fought for the betterment of Rome, for justice, for liberty, to collapse the antiquated Senate. Which is why it's so refreshing to find the contrary spelled out in the opening pages of Christian Meier's Caesar: A Biography.

Meier forgoes such romanticism in favour of the obvious: Caesar fought for Caesar, and for Caesar alone. That is what our sources uniformly attest to. On the banks of the Rubicon Caesar weighed his own misfortune against the potential misfortune of all men, and decided it was best to avoid the former at the cost of the latter. It was swiftness of thought, not purity of heart, that made Caesar great.

To be sure, Caesar's war was not with "Rome," per se--it was, at least to him, always a matter between him and his enemies (hence his mandate that those not against him were his allies, which led to a pattern of clemency that helped him tremendously in his victory). He was not out to actively harm civilians, so long as they kept out of it. But he was not terribly concerned about the obvious fact that his actions would be to their detriment.

Caesar's cause was always to avert his own misfortune--there was no other crusade behind it. It is, I suppose, difficult to accept the conscious decision to harm the many for your own gain, which no doubt influences the tendency to exonerate Caesar of such a choice. But it is not without reason that Cicero opined that the civil war lacked nothing save a cause.


Matthew D. Montonini said...


I enjoyed your post. I think to be responsible in our portrayal of historical figures we need to be as honest and as balanced as the evidence allows. It is not always attractive to see someone's "warts" but it is necessary.

Chris Weimer said...

I don't think this is a fair assessment. To be fair to you, though, I'm not exactly sure what you're citing. But you appear to be citing a false dichotomy. Caesar may have fought for himself, and it's true that given his personal safety and power, he'd probably not interfere too much with the Senate crew, but it's the fact that his enemies were the old guard, Cato Uticensis, the leftover remnants of hte boni e.g. the optimates. Our culture has exalted what the populares stood for in essence, though I'm sure you can find disapproval for many specific tactics. After all, the environment was foreign. But the truth remains that Caesar fought on the populist side, and his laws he promulgated after his became dictator were most often more noble in spirit than the strict conservatives, and clemency isn't only a personal victory, after all, Sulla did well with his purges. If it wasn't for Pompey and Crassus repealing Sulla's laws, the Republic had the capacity to last a lot longer than it did.

We must keep in mind that just because some go to one extreme in their portrayal of an historical figure, doesn't mean that we need to go into the opposite direction. It's not right to say that Caesar fought only for the Republic, but neither is it right to say that Caesar fought only for himself.

All the best,

Chris Weimer

Rick Sumner said...

Hi Chris,

I'm not sure that the question of whether Caesar's enemies were the "old guard" really mattered historically speaking. The system of the republic was simply the only way of life, in a manner we can't really grasp now. It's a time when even the tiniest change was seen as sweeping reform, concepts such as "old guard" feel a little anachronistic in that light. Which is my first problem with putting Caesar as the enemy of that guard: The idea of establishing a "new order" (for wont of a better term) is unfathomable in the world of the Republic. Such broad reform is something we expect from our revolutionaries today, it's tough to find room for such a vision in ancient Rome, even for Caesar.

I'm not sure that the laws he promulgated make much difference in assessing why he crossed the Rubicon. I have no doubt that Caesar loved Rome. And I'm certainly not disputing that his dictates were generally to Rome's benefit. But that only tells us how he ruled, not why he took a legion over the border. Again, the kind of sweeping vision required for that to become his motivation is difficult to fit in the ancient world.

At the end of the day, whether he loved Rome or not doesn't affect our appraisal here much; his war wasn't with Rome--he always spoke of it in terms of a battle between him, and his enemies. He wasn't fighting the Senate, he wasn't fighting the Republic, he was fighting specific members of it. Thus he could muse to Cicero that there was nothing more befitting a citizen than to keep out of "civil disputes".

It might be suggested that this was nothing more than subtlety, but if it was, it's about as subtle as a hammer. Surely Caesar, were he shooting for subtlety, would be aware that no one would accept that the civil war was nothing more than a small disagreement between nobles?

If we accept that Caesar was not naive enough to expect to manipulate people on that point, as I think we must, we're left with the conclusion that he truly believed it to be true. While he was (of course) aware of the effect his fight would have on people, he also considered it his fight, not theirs.

Which brings us back to where we began--it was a private dispute, Caesar against his enemies.

As an aside, I'm not sure that the Republic really did have the capacity to last. Once Gaius Marius opened the doors to the military, I think civil war was an inevitability. Even the "old guard" saw it coming.