Life of a Colossus

So, it has been a while since I read a biography, and they are really starting to pile up on my shelf and Amazon wishlist. I decided to begin with the biography of Julius Caesar because he is such a looming figure throughout history and even in our modern culture. I grew up with references to Caesar; he was the chief foil in the Asterix books I loved, my Grandma’s dog was/is named Caesar, and his name lives on in the titles Tsar (Tzar, Czar, Csar) and Kaiser that are littered throughout our history textbooks. He has also inspired a great many of the other people whose biographies are on my list; Napoleon being the obvious example. In particular this book is a brilliant telling of a truly scary and inspiring human being. But it isn’t just Caesar who is inspiring. Goldsworthy has managed to construct one of the best biographies I have ever read. He has walked the fine line between too much and too little detail, an especially hard task when both the man and his world are so far removed from our own.

Goldsworthy begins the story of Caesar by describing the world he came into: one where the kingdoms that had risen up in the wake of Alexander the Great were fading, where the four century-old Roman Republic was unopposed in the Mediterranean but which was starting to reach the limits of what the Republican system would allow. Goldsworthy maps out both Rome and its territories. He explains the functioning of the Republican system, with its infighting Senate picked from the Equestrian class, the order of magistrates that serve “limited” terms with “defined” powers and responsibilities, and a mob of plebeians who were both powerful and powerless. We are introduced to the principal actors of the day, which includes such names as Cicero, Pompey, Crassus, Cato and Claudius. But this is just the groundwork.

At first the story of Caesar focuses on the goings-on in Rome while Caesar grew up, became a man, and embarked on his career (many of these side events have little to do with Caesar at first, but come back to affect him later). Goldsworthy readily and repeatedly admits that we don’t know much of the details about Caesar, one of the central points being when exactly he was born. Caesar’s journey to become Consul and his time as Consul is touched on briefly, but it is when Caesar is a Proconsul and goes off on his Governorship of Gaul that Goldsworthy really seems into his element. We learn in great detail about Caesar’s time in Gaul as he attempts to  “pacify” the Gauls and the Germans, fails to make headway in England, builds a never-ending stream of fortifications, roads and bridges, takes hostages, and caters for his army (apparently that last point is very important), all the while minding the political ramifications back home. Campaigns and battles are broken down to the slightest military maneuver (or our best guess at what happened during these battles based on the writings of Caesar, some of his men, and the scant archaeological evidence we have). I am sure by the end of the Gaul chapters most of us lay readers are eligible for some sort of degree in ancient warfare. For many the torrent of information about one battle or another may seem too much, but when you consider how Caesar’s mixture of skill, luck and daring contributed to his success, and how many others have drawn inspiration and knowledge from his campaigning, I believe the emphasis is more than justified. After all, Caesar become what he was largely through his military campaigns. The book is rounded out with the civil war with Pompey, and Caesar’s (relatively) short time as Dictator. I feel this section could have been longer, especially considering that many of us know of Caesar as a Dictator, and we have just gone through several hundred pages of build-up to this point, but this is just nitpicking really.

If you take a look at Goldsworthy’s page on Amazon, it is immediately clear that his expertise and interest lies with the Roman military. This is reflected in the book, as more than half the book deals with the period from Caesar becoming Governor of Gaul until the end of the civil war with Pompey. But if you don’t enjoy tales of military campaigns, or if you are willing to put up with the authors fascination with them, then there is a great detail of story and information for you regardless. Goldsworthy faces the horrific task of not only having to introduce us to Caesar, but inform us about an ancient world that many of us do not know about. This he does well. How did the Roman society and republic work? Who were Rome’s contemporaries and what challenges was Rome facing? Goldsworthy answers these questions and more, and he does it well enough that it is entertaining, interesting and sufficient to understand the man himself. Furthermore, something that I thoroughly enjoyed in this book was the constant stream of political commentary, both that of Goldsworthy as well as that of Caesar’s contemporaries. Alongside the account of Caesar’s actions, Goldsworthy offers glimpses of the political fallout for Caesar, his allies and his enemies. It gives you a real idea of the intention behind much of Caesars actions, and adds colour to a very political life that some biographies miss entirely. I really enjoyed learning about such a prominent historical figure, and this book was an amazing vehicle for doing so. Four out of five.