December 23, 2019 | Brian Chappell

The Commentaries

The Commentaries of Julius Caesar occupy an interesting place in Roman history and literature. They tell of military and political exploits, highlighting victories over backward savages and dainty political haters alike. In this way it reads like a bestselling thriller for popular audiences. But the real goal of all this writing is to present Caesar ipsem (“Caesar himself,” as he refers to himself in the narrative) as the man most singularly capable of subduing corruption, infighting, and national waywardness, bringing all of Rome under his wise and decisive care. He characterizes the attempts to limit his power as petty grievance and jealousy. The senatorial rallying cry to preserve the republic he dismisses as a cover for all-too-typical political machinations on the part of the slippery elite. He therefore portrays the resulting civil war as a necessary response as well as a grand opportunity to establish a glorious epoch. Even his rallying cry to the legendary Thirteenth Legion “exhorted them to defend from the malice of his enemies, the reputation and honor of that general, under whose command they had for nine years most successfully supported the state.” The response is rousing. The Thirteenth vows that “they are ready to defend their general…from all injuries.” Indeed Caesar is ready for war over his image. 

The situation Caesar describes is eerily redolent. The strong man who just wanted his military parade will see no end to his quest to rule. But this man is eminently capable and actually popular. And mercifully unlike (for now) our current would-be emperor, Caesar was a butcher. Like with other “great leaders” in Western history, we, mostly as students, have normalized extreme violence in the name of strength and victory. This is precisely Caesar’s agenda in this section of The Commentaries. He presents himself as the victim of violence, whose hand is forced toward war in order to make Rome great again. And when history is told within a patriarchal society, strong men become heroes, debate and compromise become weakness, and the mounds of the dead are forgotten. Caesar sought nothing less than his own deification, and he is still a legend in our consciousness – would that we awaken to the true costs of this kind of bad history.

All this connects with the theme of the public because Caesar represents the threat that charisma and might pose to democracy. If the other writers in this series demonstrate the meticulous task of telling the truth truthfully, then Caesar is offering self-promotion and a twisted version of events. He lays bare the choice, between the instant gratification of conquest and spoils, or the long and imperfect quest for democracy. In a world without news as we know it, his account is populist to the core, with all the deceits attached. Sound familiar?