Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman – Book Review

I love me a good historical biography and I really enjoyed this account of one of the greatest figures in history.

As with any serious historical non-fiction, you can’t just skim over it casually and it requires your full concentration, but it was so absorbing I finished it in a space of three days, abandoning the usual distractions of TV and internet. It also helped that it was written in a very straightforward, accessible language.

In the preface, the author states that his aim was not to praise Caesar nor to bury him, but simply to tell his story as it happened. While it’s true that overall the biography keeps a neutral tone and doesn’t gloss over Caesar’s mistakes and the less-than-admirable episodes, I still got an impression that the author had quite a bit of liking for his subject. It’s not hard to see why though.

Caesar was a truly great man, a skilled politician, a brilliant orator and a general. He was capable of both careful, cautious planning, and acting boldly when he needed to (there are so many occasions in the book when Caesar sprung surprises on his enemies by doing something completely unexpected that no one tried before). His psychological hold over his loyal armies was exceptional, with numerous occasions when he was able to bring his men back from the edge of mutiny by, paradoxically, not giving in an inch. He also had a policy of clemency and forgiveness towards his enemies that was unusual by the standards of the day, even if it was calculated and politically motivated most of the times (on the other hand, he rarely if ever showed mercy to the same person twice, and never had a problem destroying an entire city if he felt it was necessary).

Plus he just had style. There’s an anecdote early on about the time when young Caesar got captured by the pirates on his way to Rhodes, and raised his own ransom by more than half because he found the initial sum insulting. It is fair to say that his ambitions and military exploits brought a huge amount of death and suffering, but on the other hand, you can’t really separate his actions from the world he lived in, in which war and conquest was a normal part of life. Romans were just much better at it than most.

The biography can be said to be roughly split into three sections: Caesar’s early life, his campaigns in Gaul (modern France), and the civil war which ended with his rise to the ultimate power (which in turn ended with one of the most famous assassinations in history). Unfortunately, the only good source on the childhood of Caesar available to the modern historians begins with his sixteenth year, but the author does a great job evoking the time and place in which Caesar grew up, and making educated guesses as to what his childhood might have been. This section of the book also has the most interesting details about the society of ancient Rome: politics, education, structure of the Roman households and family life, the ancient view of homosexuality, religion etc.

The middle chapters on Gaul were probably the least compelling (though still interesting) partly because they shift much of the focus away from Rome and its political life, but then it comes back with the vengeance in the last third. As an aside, it was interesting to see how many details the TV show Rome (one of my all-time favourites) got wrong and right about that period. Pompey’s death, for instance, was pretty much spot-on in the series.

I wish the book gave more details of personal nature, such as Caesar’s relationships with the people closest to him, but I guess these details could be hard to come by when the person in question lived more than 2,000 years ago. It was rather amusing to read though that, just like many men throughout the ages, Caesar was quite self-conscious about his baldness and tried to hide it by combing his hair over. Some things never change, haha.

The only thing that really annoyed me was the amount of grammatical errors in my edition of the book, just really stupid stuff like saying “really” instead of “rally”. I found at least five and that’s absolutely unforgivable in a professional publication. Grrrrr.

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