Julius Caesar was a diplomat, politician, writer, lover and, above everything else, great military leader. In addition, he had an enviable relentless determination that few have matched. As a result, he was, is and still will be one of the most fascinating persons to have existed in this world. Christian Meier’s book ‘Caesar’ is a captivating story of a man so often misunderstood. The author puts it within the context of the ancient Roman society. Meier tries to dissect the ancient Roman society, its institutions and distinct features and shows how Caesar beat the odds to become such a revered figure. This book is thus an authoritative account of the life, challenges, career and legacy of Julius Caesar.
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Christian Meier opens his account with Caesar at Rubicon wondering whether he should or should not cross the river and thus start the war. According to the author, this scenario arises not only because of the political differences between him and his opponents, but also because of their different ‘realities’, absolutely incompatible and mutually incomprehensible. These differing realities were borne out of the “crisis without alternative” that Rome had to face at the time. The Republic had to grapple with serious socioeconomic problems that were simply not solvable within the construct of the Roman traditional governance system that consisted of a minority but extremely cohesive aristocracy. Only fundamental changes in this governance system could bring about solutions. However, not a single soul in Rome could have the audacity of questioning the propriety of the norm. At the time, there was simply no idea or cause that would be capable of offering another way of organizing society or government around which the cast out (referred to as “outsiders” by Meier) could join hands. In addition, in such a setting, there was no leader who could instigate changes without being confronted with his aristocratic peers. Many outsiders emerged (including Tiberius Gracchus) with little success. Enter Julius Caesar, the supreme outsider of all outsiders (p.3 & 76).
Julius Caesar did not come to prominence until he was forty. However, this perhaps had prepared him well enough for the tough challenges that he would have to face. First, he was an outsider and thus he mostly interacted with other outsiders. Some of the propertied outsiders that he interacted with were Crassus and Pompey. Caesar cunningly used their riches and influence to get into power. Although Caesar was always an outsider, Meier argues that Caesar had to rely on the conquest of Gaul (thereby increasing the size of the empire nearly two fold) to truly distinguish himself and thus expand the power required to be the leader of Rome. His outlawry and the ensuing march on Rome after the conclusion of his governorship tenure had been foretold. A great leader had indeed been found. He was very unique in every sense (pg. 133- 224).
Julius Caesar was unlike any leader at the time. This is because he was always ready to question the status quo. The author believes that this was due to the fact that he was not only the outsider but also an alien, unlike his aristocratic senatorial counterparts (p. 358). In the same breath, he was not opposed to the social order of the Roman Republic (at least in principle). However, he acted against this order since he put his interests first- ahead of the rules of the Republic (p. 219). This simply means that he could do anything to fulfill his heart’s desires even if it meant that he would break the laws of the land. However, the author writes that his overall desire was to fight for the freedom of the Romans so that they are manipulated by a propertied few. In addition, he wanted to free Senate from control of a small group of the much maligned sullans (pg. 358- 60, 64). All these contributed to his reputation as an agent of change in such a traditional society where no one had stood up so steadfast.
Caesar was steadfast in fighting the norm. The author argues that Caesar was fed up with the ancient Roman institutions that had been overstretched with time. This is because the institutions had been designed for city states yet Rome had control over the world wide empire. This expansion had necessitated change (only this change was not forthcoming). In its part Senate had not acknowledged the fact that these institutions were outdated. Therefore, he saw himself as the only person that could bring about this change. He had to cause a revolution; he had to be the revolution. True to his desires, he was able to challenge the status quo and bring about the change (pg. 12- 50, 195, 357- 61, 479- 91). As a result, his legacy as a revolutionist was cemented.
Caesar’s life was guided by two key principles: care and competition. This simply means that he based his results on honor and fame (pg. 449). In the same breath, Meier writes that Caesar viewed the world in only two angles: himself and his perceived opponents. Therefore, an individual was either his opponent, his supporter or, very unlikely, a neutral (pg. 359). This mindset that a person was either on his side or against dominated his leadership. Any perceived opponent was a threat. This is especially exemplified in the civil war. Caesar had successfully defeated his opponents at the war. However, rather than going away from the scene of battle, Caesar simply stayed put. This is because he had to totally eliminate his opponents. According to the author, Caesar saw it fit to stay there in order to defend himself which would consolidate his position and burgeoning reputation (pg. 431).
Julius Caesar was a great person, writes the author. This is exemplified earlier, at the time of crossing the Rubicon. Throughout his life and career, he showed a peerless ability and steadfastness. His mental strength was simply unmatched while his staying power was incredible at such a time. Meier argues that these qualities enabled him to rise from almost nowhere to become the revered figure until this day. His unshakable belief in himself made him perhaps the most prominent military leader to have ever existed in this world. On the other hand, this strong sense of belief was his downfall (Pg. 362- 481).
Evaluation of the Book
This is a good read for political or history students. However, it is quite challenging for other students who may not be having deep knowledge of Julius Caesar. This is because the author has written it as a story, with no references provided. This simply means that the key dates and facts have not been supported by historical literature. Therefore, it is hard to decipher when Meier is simply writing what he thinks (there are many instances where he tries to explain his own opinions and validations for his assumptions) or when he is writing facts (unless you have prior knowledge). The omission of references implies that some facts are not validated. The author could have at least included the sources of his facts and dates to validate his writing. Another problem with this book is that the author has spent so much time to discuss his own speculations; he pontificates and moralizes about his ideas. All these could have been avoided or limited at the very least.
Despite not supporting this book with much needed references (after all, he was not around at the time of Julius Caesar), it is quite clear that Christian Meier did an extensive historical research on Julius Caesar and what makes him such an enigmatic person. As a result, the reader is taken through a long path to gain an insight about this very iconic figure. Such an extensive research implies that the greatness of Caesar cannot be underscored.