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Looking after Number One

Stephen Battlebury writes: A reading of John Williams’s wonderfully elegiac Augustus prompted me, for no particular reason, to search out an authoritative biography of the Roman’s predecessor, Caesar. One could be forgiven for thinking Gérald Walter’s two-volume opus (1952), comprising more than five hundred pages, a daunting or tedious prospect. Nothing could be further from the truth; it is a work that well repays the effort of reading. For sheer readability there can be few works of Roman history that match its easy accessibility or display such an appealing combination of erudition with a fresh and engaging prose style. Walter’s judicious consultation of primary sources, such as Suetonius and Dio Cassius (Caesar’s own dispatches in the Commentaries are treated with proper caution); his measured evaluation of historians’ use of these sources, his thoughtful exchanges with contemporary, or near contemporary, historians (primarily Jérôme Carcopino and T Rice Holmes) and his marked reluctance to take things at face value ensure a lively commentary in assessing Caesar’s motives and actions that continues to spark debate to this day.    

Walter consistently asks questions of himself and others, an appealing touch that lends charm to his narrative and when, as here, used sparingly avoids becoming a repetitive mannerism; and while this is no hagiographical tribute to Caesar, it clearly outlines ‑ when clarity is firmly based on sound documentary evidence ‑ the unique qualities and actions that shaped his destiny and ultimately the course of Roman history. Acknowledgement is made early in the work of Caesar’s shrewd reliance on influential individuals such as Crassus, reputably the wealthiest citizen in Rome at the time, to provide much needed financial backing (Caesar’s level of personal indebtedness was extraordinary). The future dictator’s cunning manipulative traits and his adroit agility in dropping one course of action in favour of another reveal an innate ability to transform youthful naïveté into hard-won maturity in the interest of political expediency and advancement.


Against a background of intrigue and nefarious deals worthy of an episode of Love/Hate or The Sopranos, a portrait of Caesar emerges as a vain, grasping and unscrupulous individual, a man, also, of vision, talent and unquestionable leadership skills, political to his very finger-tips, who would stop at nothing to satisfy his voracious ambitions. Political life, then as now, was fuelled by factional disputes and squabbles and Caesar did not distinguish himself by distancing himself from petty and vindictive outbursts. His first speech on becoming praetor was to accuse a political opponent, Catulus, of embezzlement and delay in reconstructing the temple of Juniper Capitoline which he had been in charge of over a fifteen year period. As Walter comments, “Caesar had a good memory, especially when it came to settling personal accounts”, though this is hardly a trait unique to politicians.

Marriage and the dissolution of marriages were but stepping stones to his objectives:

Caesar at first tried to renew the bonds of kinship [after the death of his wife, Julia, Pompey’s sister] which had united him to Pompey. He offered him his sister’s granddaughter, Octavia, to replace his [Pompey’s] deceased wife, and asked for the hand of Pompey’s daughter. Octavia was already married and Pompey’s daughter was engaged, but what did that matter? The marriage of the one could be annulled and the engagement of the other broken off.

Much to Caesar’s chagrin, Pompey decided to marry the daughter of Scipio Metellus and the latter in turn shared the consulship with his new son-in-law. If the foregoing highlights anything about the arrogance and seduction of power politics, Walter encapsulates that attitude in a single sentence: “the essential rule which Caesar never failed to observe in his political conduct: laws are made to be carried out by others”. Those of a cynical disposition might say such a rule is de rigueur in political life generally and in our subject’s particular case inexorably leads to Walter’s damning assessment: “An examination of Caesar’s total accomplishments as consul in the year 59 shows clearly that his first thought was to prepare for his own future.”

The author depicts a dynamic individual who ruthlessly subjugated his opponents and endured the hardships of arduous campaigning at a relatively late age (forty) solely to advance his burning political ambitions. That he could conduct military expeditions and engagements in tandem with his political career ‑ the two henceforth were inextricably linked ‑ should no more surprise us than his lack of military training. As Walter remarks, “it is perhaps one of the most striking phenomena in the history of the Roman Republic, this chance of gaining glory by startling military achievements which is offered to simple farmers, lawyers or bankers who, until they were called upon to command an army were completely ignorant of the most elementary principles of the art of war”.

Of Caesar’s innate ability to transform himself from a youthful and inexperienced political aspirant with little or no military training into one of the most formidable military leaders the world has known due recognition is given and documented with copious examples of his often audacious behaviour. Many of these will be familiar but most still have the power to startle and impress. It was not uncommon for Caesar and his troops to cover vast distances at a punishing pace. When campaigning against the Helvetii he took just eight days to cover the seven hundred miles or so between Rome and Geneva. In the same campaign, sensing a weakening of his troops’ resolve before battle, he sent away all the horses, including his own “in order to make the peril equal for all, and flight impossible”. He was to display other examples of superhuman fortitude and endurance, to say nothing of his tenacity, in his later campaign against the Arvenii. When told that snow six feet deep impeded his passage “he simply replied it must be removed, and his soldiers removed it” enabling him to advance upon his foe creating the maximum element of surprise and terror. These achievements are all the more remarkable when one considers the pampered, one might say sybaritic, lifestyle Caesar indulged in while resident in Rome, which also accounts for the precariousness of his finances.

Walter is at pains to emphasise that Caesar’s attitude towards the Gauls was entirely provocative from the start. He pointedly disregarded conciliatory overtures from the Helvetii, dissembling and delaying time after time in order to organise his troops. The kernel of his military philosophy is quoted in the work as recorded by Dio Cassius: “We must defend ourselves not only against the actions but even against the projects of those who threaten us; we must oppose the growth of their power before it has harmed us and we must not wait till they have injured us before we take revenge.” Such an aggressive policy was contrary to the wishes of the Roman senate and, perhaps more importantly, caused severe disquiet at a later date among the elite of Caesar’s army, the military tribunes or prefects. Openly, according to Dio Cassius, this apprehension spread to his non-commissioned officers and legionnaires who were claiming that “merely to satisfy Caesar’s personal ambitions, they were going into a war which was neither just nor sanctioned by a public decree”. The unrest first surfaced after the defeat of the Helvetii when Caesar directed his attention to the pursuit of Ariovistus, leader of the Germans. It was a serious crisis, threatening his ability to prosecute war. Morale among his army was at an all-time low. His soldiers had left fertile land where they were well-provisioned to endure more forced marches, by day and often by night, along impassable roads into hostile territory. Walter takes up the story:

It is hard to believe that ‘the finest army in the world’ or at any rate the most experienced and the best disciplined of all the armies of antiquity ‑ an army which could claim so many brilliant victories ‑ should have reached such a state of moral collapse. Yet, Caesar’s own testimony is there [in the Commentaries], clear and indisputable . . . The only thing for us to do is to try to discover the causes of this extraordinary crisis.

And, one might add, the only thing Caesar had to do was extirpate those causes. That is exactly what he set out to do, but “his sole weapon in this battle was the spoken word”. We have witnessed earlier in the work how tentative and wary Caesar had been in the Forum when facing the formidable forensic skills of Cicero. To be sure both Cicero himself in the Brutus and Quintilian in Institutio Oratoria are fulsome in their praise of the Roman leader’s oratorical and writing abilities. Quintilian goes so far as to suggest he could have rivalled Cicero. Be that as it may, the stakes had never been so high. In a remarkable passage in Vol I, Walter depicts the almost messianic oratorical skills Caesar deployed to rally his troops. With the reader’s indulgence it is a passage worth quoting at length:

The fact that Caesar did not dare to appear before the assembled army and speak directly to his soldiers proves better than anything else how critical the situation seemed to him . . . he only called the centurions. Here is his speech. Its tone was violent from the start. Caesar himself tells us so: ‘He began by reproaching them vehemently for pretending to know where they were being led and what was being planned, and for reasoning like cowards.’ His words were those of a leader addressing his subordinates. He spoke as a soldier to soldiers. Above all he wanted to remind them of their profession. Why did they find themselves in an unknown country, a thousand miles away from their native land? If some of them had been obliged to come ‘in obedience to orders’, others, and they were the majority, were there by their own choice and ‘because of the honours and advantages which can be gained in war’. But every one of them had come there to fight, and for that reason alone; ‘Why have the people sent you here, why have they sent me, for that matter? . . . Most certainly not so that we might grow fat in unproductive idleness; so that in passing through the towns of our allies and the lands we have conquered we should do them more harm than their enemies . . . Rather, we were sent here to protect our possessions and attack those of our enemies . . . To argue that we ought not to go to war is simply to say that we ought not to be rich, that we ought not to rule over others, that we ought neither to be free nor to be Romans.’

This was merely the preamble to a stirring and chilling speech in which Caesar clinically and systematically dissected the cancer that had ravaged his army. Apart from demonstrating how closely he monitored the legions in his command, this episode clearly reveals him to have been a master rhetorician. He marshalled and manoeuvred his words and arguments with a swift precision as if they were shock troops he urgently needed to outflank the enemy or to plug a perilous gap in his defences. Small wonder such a man has been viewed in awe by succeeding generations as a larger than life character, the Colossus of Shakespearean drama.

Whether Caesar, in the last year or so of his life, was of unsound mind as has been suggested by one commentator is debatable. His physical health had certainly deteriorated. The festivals and triumphs, statues and dedications in his honour contributed to his apotheosis and no doubt distracted him and dulled his senses to more sinister realities. His deification appears to represent a surrender to his former life of sensuous indulgence. At any rate he could no longer endure the debilitating, if disciplined, life of campaigning that had eroded his health while it had established his reputation. As his life drew to a close, as the day of his assassination approached, he was a worn and weary man, beset by plots and intrigues, plagued by doubts and increasing infirmities.

 In Walter’s opinion Caesar’s “chief quality was his ability to adapt himself with extraordinary rapidity to the most difficult and unforeseen circumstances”, which doesn’t entirely negate the criticism of an earlier commentator, Theodore A Dodge, who, although he rated him as the greatest man in antiquity, observed that “more than half of Caesar’s campaigns were consumed in extricating himself from the results of his own mistakes”. Some readers might wish for more detailed analysis of those military campaigns and set pieces, such as are documented by JFC Fuller in his Caesar: Man, Soldier and Tyrant, or more recently by Graham Webster in The Roman Imperial Army. (The latter work, although primarily focused on the early years of the Empire, is an invaluable source of information about equipage and fortifications and devotes a chapter to the composition of the army). However we must bear in mind the words with which Walter prefaces his work: “My one care in presenting has been to maintain uninterrupted contact with Caesar and his times, and to keep close to the ancient sources” and “as for the earthly creature, deified, and seen as the perpetual symbol of the will to power which will torture the world for as long as there are men to inhabit it ‑ such a subject is outside the range of this book which, I repeat, is only a simple historical account.”

Simple it may be in Walter’s modest account but comprehensive it also certainly is, with detailed notes, references and bibliography to gladden the heart of the most fastidious pedant. In relation to these scholarly appendices, while end notes are infinitely preferable to footnotes, it would be regrettable if they were overlooked as in many instances they contain nuggets of information as interesting as that contained in the main body of the work.

Lamentably, despite copies of Walter’s work being available online, or in well-stocked second-hand bookshops or libraries, this work (and that of a fellow biographer of Caesar, Matthias Gelzer) is out of print in English editions, sharing the fate of Williams’s Stoner until publication of that work by an enterprising publisher on the Continent propelled it into the bestseller lists there and beyond. While a work of close historical research, even one as lively as this, may not expect to enjoy the same level of popularity as a work of fiction, it does deserve to be better known and enjoyed by readers other than academics or students of ancient history. Who knows, if reissued, it might prompt translation of additional work by Gérald Walter and garner a share of the retrospective attention rightly accorded Williams’s work? Kind publishers please note.

17/1/2020