Saturday, 25 August 2001

Christian Meier: Caesar (1982)

Translation: David McLintock, 1995
Edition: HarperCollins, 1995
Review number: 925

The transition of the Roman government from Republic to Empire is one of the pivotal moments of world history, and Julius Caesar is the key figure of this period. Luckily, there are many sources dealing with his life which are contemporary or nearly so (including Caesar's own writings), and it is on these that Meier draws for his study of the man.

The basic problem that afflicted the Republic, though, as Meier continually stresses, this was not understood by contemporaries, was that its political structures were not really scalable to cope with the demands of a large empire rather than a small city state and its surrounding farms. Order in the city was breaking down, a process culminating in the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey. Caesar, by the way that he used this unrest to accumulate power (and he was not alone in doing this), precipitated the rapid changes to archaic institutions which enabled himself and his great nephew Octavian (Augustus) to rule as effective Emperors, even if both were shy of the title.

The important issue which arises from Caesar's life and which any biographer must attempt to answer is why he was the man who had this pivotal role. Traditional answers to this tend to be in terms of his personal greatness, the gifts that he had; to Meier, the answer lies more in that he was an outsider to the traditional career paths for Roman nobles by temperament if not by birth. To me, it seems that this point is laboured rather than proved, and this would be my major criticism of the book. It is difficult, in particular, to see why Meier's observation applies better to Caesar than to, say, Pompey or Clodius, and so I was not convinced.

I found the style of the translation a bit abrupt, and there are some strange details, such as using the spelling Juppiter rather than the usual English version, Jupiter.

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