Book Review - Caesar by Adrian Goldsworthy - A Warning for Our Times?
I purchased this book from Waterstone’s book store years ago on a trip to London. If you ever have a chance to visit Waterstone's, take the opportunity. I sat in front of their history section for two hours working my way through an amazing array of books on every historical subject. It is an amazing book store. Even though I purchased the book in London before it came out in the U.S., it is now available here in the U.S. in every format you could want. Anyway, I picked up the book the other day after years of sitting on my shelf. In my defense, I have about a thousand plus books and it takes time to get to them. For those of you who have not read anything by Goldsworthy, he is an excellent historian that writes for the non-scholar in an engaging style that delivers historical facts, context, and an entertaining story.
Julius Caesar was an extraordinary individual by any definition, not just as a military commander but as a politician, ruler, and writer. Goldsworthy covers all this and the negative aspects of Caesar. He points out when Caesar made mistakes, but his luck and ability pulled him out of danger. He highlights the brutal impact Caesar's conquests had on millions of non-Romans. History at its best. I highly recommend this book.
But the reason I am writing this review is that Goldsworthy's book has a message for us today. Caesar's career followed the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire. He tipped the balance, ending the Republic. But it is clear from Goldsworthy's book that the Republic was rotting and would have collapsed sooner or later, and that is where the implications for our present lie.
Rome was ruled primarily by the Senate, with two Consuls elected by the people who held office for one year. There were a variety of other lesser, though important, offices as well. I won't go into detail to avoid boring you, but the power rested long term in the Senate. There were many differences from our Senate today. A senator was not elected but appointed based on wealth, usually property holdings. The Romans had a variety of magistrates, or political offices, that allowed many checks and balances. The Romans were afraid of one individual obtaining too much power. This system worked for a while.
It got to the point that the Senate would rather allow problems to fester and grow worse than allow an individual to solve them, thereby gaining the favor of the people and thus more power. We should remember that there were no political parties in ancient Rome. Politics was all individual and personal. Alliances were frequently made, factions came and went, but politics was about individual success and achievement. Questions such as who shares in the wealth of the growing empire, just the elites or everyone, became more and more urgently in need of answers.
It became more common for individual senators and groups of senators to block legislation, even sensible legislation that would benefit the Roman Republic as a whole in order to avoid any individual Senator or Consul from receiving credit. Laws such as granting land to army veterans who fought in Rome's successful wars, laws to organize and administer newly conquered provinces, were stopped at every turn. They even had a version of our modern filibuster. A Senator who held the floor could speak as long as he wanted. If he spoke until the end of the day, the normal end of the senate session, a vote would be avoided. This tactic was used many times.
As frustration grew over the Senate's inability to pass meaningful legislation in order to prevent politicians from getting what they believed to be their just recognition, these politicians turned to armed thugs and the "mob" to intimidate and apply pressure on senators and magistrates to do their bidding. Elections grew more and more violent. The courts, very different from our own courts, also became more of a political weapon to attack one's enemies.
Eventually, Caesar came and put an end to the Republic.
Any of this sounding familiar? It is always too problematic to provide a close comparison between our times and historical events. There are too many variables and cultural differences to make it clear cut, but one can see a larger, strategic picture forming. Big events appear to have similarities. We can see that in the U.S.'s current situation and the dangers inherent in those events. Frankly, none of the individuals playing a large role in our political stage can even be compared to Caesar or any of the major figures during the end of the Roman Republic. We have grubby little worms without courage or backbone, and there lies the danger. At least with Caesar, Rome got an able leader who improved everyone's condition. We would not be so lucky.
(p.s. I am NOT advocating the destruction of democracy in America.)