Tyranny, liberty and the making of a global legend

December 14, 2007

Why was Caesar murdered? "Because he was a tyrant," said Brutus and Cicero, and their view was that of the senatorial oligarchy who for more than a century had claimed the right to eliminate - by violence, if necessary - any politician who championed the interests of the Roman people in a way that damaged their own.

What made "tyrannicide" morally acceptable? Well, a tyrant holds power illegally, but Caesar's powers came to him by the free vote of the Roman people. A tyrant holds power by armed force, but Caesar dismissed his bodyguard once the civil war was over. A tyrant oppresses the citizens by arbitrary arrests and executions, but Caesar behaved with conspicuous moderation and generosity, even towards those who had fought against him. A tyrant's death is an occasion for rejoicing but, as the conspirators discovered, the Roman people were deeply unhappy about the murder of Caesar, and soon voted supreme power to the triumvirs in order to avenge it.

You would never guess there was a controversy from reading Maria Wyke's elegant book. She swallows the oligarchs' version hook, line and sinker. The Gallic campaign was "to provide a foundation for civil war, a rung on the ladder to kingship, another step towards the destruction of the republic ... His self-interested ambition led him to usurp senatorial authority by force of arms. His designs on monarchy led to the establishment of the rule of emperors". As for the murder itself, "many of the specific details ... are most likely to have been preserved and embellished by his camp followers, as the stabbing of the dictator could easily be moulded into a tale about the vulnerability of the single victim, the cruelty of his numerous killers, and then the profound shock and grief of a people bereft of their leader". It could indeed, and not much moulding would be necessary.

Wyke's concern is with the "afterlife" of Caesar's career, but she does claim that her reception history "can serve to shed yet further light on the ancient public entity 'Caesar'". On the contrary, her failure to understand the contemporary issues means that her account of how they were replayed by the autocrats and republicans of future generations cannot be other than superficial. Of course it is a huge subject, and the author has to be very selective in her choice of examples, but she still finds the space to discuss computer games, Caesar's Palace at Las Vegas and Xena: Warrior Princess .

It's a good book of its kind - well written, well illustrated, accessible to undergraduates and the general reader, offering brief and undemanding broad-brush treatment. But it has weaknesses. The plan of giving separate chapters to particular episodes of Caesar's life results in some repetition and, in any case, breaks down where it matters most: by far the longest chapter, "Liberty and Tyranny", concerns not just one episode but the whole nature of Caesar's rule. Significantly, that is the one chapter for which the author does not give ancient source references in her bibliography.

For a book that bears the logo of both the Leverhulme Trust and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, one might have expected more in the way of first-hand engagement with the issues. It made me reflect on how the research assessment exercise makes authors ask not what the subject requires but what can be written in time.

T. P. Wiseman is emeritus professor of classics, Exeter University. His next book, Unwritten Rome , will be published in 2008.

Caesar: A Life in Western Culture

Author - Maria Wyke
Publisher - Granta Books
Pages - 285
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 9781862076624

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