Julius Caesar: Selfish Autocrat or Progressive Hero?

Before we begin, let’s just briefly establish simplified definitions for some of the terms I’ll use in this essay. Patrician refers to the upper class, really the original tribes of Rome established during the time of the Kings. The Optimates was a political faction that, in simplistic terms, represented their interests at the expense of any beneficial reform. The Optimates, particularly Cato, could also be thought of as somewhat analogous to our modern Conservative factions. The Plebeians were the lower classes, or anyone not in the original tribes of Rome. The Populares faction in politics represented their interests, and might be thought of as similar to modern Progressives. Again, this is simplifying things a great deal.

I don’t have the time or space here to properly contextualize and describe all the necessary background information. I’ll share some sources embedded in the text below, but for the most part I’m expecting that if you read this you have some basic idea of the Late Republic and Caesar’s life. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History episodes “Death Throes of the Republic” (parts 1-6) are an excellent source for the Late Republic. And Historia Civilis has a fantastic playlist of topics regarding the Roman constitution.

This is another great source of Caesar’s political deeds before the Civil War.

I won’t mince words; my current opinion is that Caesar was the greatest and most fascinating man who ever lived. His entire life story is like that of a comic book hero; it’s just too grandiose to be real and yet it is. I’m not even referring to his military exploits exclusively, but also his achievements as Consul, ramming through badly needed political reforms which the conservatives held up for decades.* Nor am I limiting myself to his endeavors as an officer (civilian or military) of Rome. After all, this is the man who kept his cool under the captivity of pirates, demanded they ask for a higher ransom, and then hunting them down upon securing his freedom. That’s after he refused to divorce his first wife, Cornelia, on pain of death during the dictatorship of Sulla. Julius Caesar was a man who got screwed over or set back a lot in life, with both his inheritance as well as Cornelia’s dowry taken away from him during the Sulla years. What set him apart was his resolve to win back his proper lot in life of his own merit.

*(ASIDE: Rome in the Late Republican period was rife with extreme gridlock, petty partisan spitefulness, badly needed reforms the elites weren’t willing to enact, mounting discontent of the plebeians, and no reason for anyone to be loyal to Rome itself. By the way fellow Americans, any of this sound familiar?)

In Defense of a “Tyrant”

While he may have become more tyrannical in his methods over time, after reading more about the political climate in Rome, it’s my belief Caesar resorted to what needed to be done. The desperately neglected interests of the Plebeians, particularly land reform, had been purposefully thwarted by the Patrician class since before the Gracchi brothers. Caesar put up with a lot of bullshit from the Senate and Optimates faction before resorting to dictatorial strong-arming in his Consulship. The fact remains that he’d tried to do things by the book at first and only gradually resorted to extralegal actions when it became clear the Senate would sabotage his every act. While his motivations may have been suspect, and certainly his enemies would have seen him as a populist demagogue, the reforms he pushed for needed to happen for the Roman state to survive. In fact, one could argue that with all their bullying and attempts at sabotage, Caesar’s opponents created the very tyrant they so feared in the first place. It’s almost like something out of a Greek tragedy; if you ask me, Shakespeare should have done a play about Caesar’s time as Consul rather than Dictator.

In stark contrast, men like Cato (a prominent member of the Optimates faction) were content to let Rome continue to destroy itself over principle. Cato was like every unreasonable “letter of the law” originalist today, refusing to admit the situation had changed and the old ways just weren’t cutting it anymore. His actions, at least looking back from a modern perspective, strike me as either ridiculously prideful and stubborn, or else careless and snobbish towards the well being of the poor. If he had won the political disputes with Caesar, there would have been another populist like him to take up the fight. Or else the state would have collapsed due to widespread poverty and desperation by the masses. By denying a lawful, measured response from the legal means, Cato merely insured they would be replaced by the autocratic Julio-Claudian dynasty (and the Principate it established.)

Cato the Younger, Caesar’s most obstinate opponent in the field of politics.

Caesar’s eventual great enemy in the Civil War, Pompey, was himself a feckless and insincere fool in political matters at least as far as I’m concerned. By the end, Patrician and Plebeian alike were begging him to “save the Republic” and yet Pompey was too weak to act. Pompey had been a populares factionalist originally (like Caesar) but eventually threw his lot in with the elites and conservatives for various reasons, personal and professional. The one-two finish to their friendship came with the death of Crassus (who was an ally to both men, collectively making up the First Triumvirate) and the death of Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Without those two alive to temper both remaining triumvirs, their egos set them on a crash course. The difference is, Caesar had a bold vision for the future while Pompey, if he had won, probably would have languished in the dysfunctional status quo.   

Caesar’s Legacy

The question then becomes…what does all this matter? What does Caesar’s life and the outcome of the Civil War mean to us today? Several things. I’m gonna list them:

First of all, I think it shows the inevitable self-destruction of ego-driven societies. Rome was a highly aggressive society, both internally and externally. The children of great families would grow up looking at the masks and busts of their ancestors, with the pressure to live up to their past accomplishments. Politics wasn’t often conducted in a manner of cooperation in good faith. Instead, individuals competed for prestige through holding high offices. Dignitas was a personal value that high-born Roman men were endowed with. This amounted roughly to the respect a great man accrued from his privileged status and accomplishments. To suffer any kind of insult, loss of face or back down from a challenge could be seen as a threat to one’s dignitas, which in turn would diminish one’s standing in society. Caesar began his march on Rome to avoid any slights to his own dignitas, while his peers antagonized him due to jealousy and worry he was overshadowing them. In conclusion, the rigid values and great expectations placed upon Roman politicians made some kind of stand off inevitable given enough time.

Ego allows a man to soar or sink depending on his talents and decisions in life, but it’s a poisonous long-term force when applied to government or institutions. The concept of governing fairly often runs contrary to the greedy instincts we all inherit from evolutionary biology. In the short term, the two can coexist and any corruption or mismanagement doesn’t pose an existential threat to the entire system. However, in the long term, those cases of incompetent people getting elected, misappropriating funds, bribes and backroom favors all add up to where the State is too weak to adapt to changing circumstances. Eventually, every system becomes inefficient due to growing bureaucracy, corruption, mismanagement or subversion. When push comes to shove, a state which does not fulfill the basic needs of food, protection and meaningful social engagement (be it public entertainment, good jobs, etc) puts itself in a precarious situation. In the Roman Republic, the catalyst for this crisis was the influx of wealth from the newly conquered provinces. In the Western Empire to come, the catalyst came through frequent incursions from nomadic German and Hunnic tribes. In short, no government or institution is forever, and humans are at the end of the day, animals who trend towards fulfillment of basic needs. Individual human beings will only support an institution so long as their needs are being met.

This leads to the next point, which is that, when push comes to shove, individuals will put their own personal needs before the supposed “greater good” of the State. No matter how revered a Constitution is, or how strongly nationalism is felt, all bets are off when a man can’t feed his wife and kids. When individuals’ actions strengthen or seek to preserve the State, it is either because the current political system satisfies their needs well enough, or they are using the State apparatus to exploit others for personal gain. When it came right down to it, the Senators could care less about the Plebeians, and by extension Rome’s perpetual health. They only cared about their own status and wealth to the bitter end. If Caesar had not been the impetus for the Republic’s implosion, it would have come a few decades later at most when the disparity of wealth came to a head. There would have been another Sulla or Caesar who seized on the bureaucracy’s ineffectiveness and seized power for himself. Or barring that, a mass Plebeian uprising of some kind. The system was just too top-heavy, and its governing body too spiteful and gridlocked to get anything meaningful done.

Humans are not ants; for better or worse we are too individualistic to willfully subjugate ourselves to the will of an absolute monarchy to the extent necessary for eusocial efficiency. Human monarchs do not possess the hive-mind brilliance of an ant-colony; they are ordinary people as smart or as dumb as the Average Joe. So our great conundrum as a species is how do we balance the protection of a collective with the liberties of an individual. How much responsibility do we give one man or a small group of people to govern, while avoiding tyranny at one extreme and inefficient factionalism on the other? How much freedom do we give all men while avoiding anarchic lawlessness and societal collapse? Caesar’s life, and Rome itself, inspires all sorts of questions in this vein. They tried a Republic (really an oligarchy) as well as a Monarchy and both collapsed for due to a similar inability to adapt to changing situations.

Caesar’s Morality

Caesar’s own actions are slightly less straightforward; historical assessment goes back and forth as entire books have been written seeking to determine his true motives. On the one hand, as an elected Consul and even Dictator, Caesar enacted beneficial reforms which had been badly needed for generations. However, he achieved these means by subverting the political process, belittling his fellow Consul (Bibulus), illegally conquering a foreign country and becoming a King in all but name. Personally, I choose to believe that Caesar would not have killed Pompey nor seized absolute power if left to his own devices. I believe that he invaded the city out of necessity in order to preserve his dignitas, and once that happened events spiraled out of control. Once Pompey and the others retreated and built up arms, there could be nothing left to do but continue the fight or else be killed. And, after going through the decades of political struggles, grueling military campaigns and brushes with death, I wouldn’t be surprised if Caesar felt he’d earned power. We can only speculate about that, but what’s certain is that he’d learned firsthand during his time as Consul that seizing absolute power was the only way to get anything done. It may be naive of me, but I see Caesar’s payout to the people of Rome as further proof of his sincere desire to better the lives of the average citizen.

Caesar’s famous clemency may be a virtue, for it allowed his enemies to keep their lives. However, by the social attitudes of the time (remember dignitas) this act might have been less charitable to the Ancient Romans than they might seem to us. Being spared by Caesar robbed those men of honorable death and forced them live as subservient instruments of another man’s glory. This was an existence completely alien to, and in fact utterly humiliating for a respectable Roman aristocratic male to endure. That and it got the man killed, with his old enemies merely biding their time until an assassination could be carried out. After his death, Caesar’s successors Marc Antony and Octavian went right back to Sulla’s strategy of proscriptions against potential rivals. To my knowledge, no other significant ruler/general in history ever emulated Caesar’s clemency, at least not to any significant degree.

And thus, Caesar’s life story is the perfect example of how no one is or has ever been purely black or white–everyone’s morality is a shade of gray.

I personally believe that Caesar’s reaction to seeing the severed head of Pompey was genuine. The man had been Caesar’s friend and son-in-law at one point, and if nothing else Caesar was a nationalistic patriot of Rome. To feel disgusted that some foreigners had dared disrespect a Consul of his beloved State is well within Caesar’s MO.

What’s in a Name?

This last point is far less serious than what I wrote above, but I just have to share this observation and I don’t know when I would ever get the chance if not here.

For me, as a teen when I was first getting into the subject of Roman history, the names of the key belligerents in the Civil War were honestly the first thing that stood out. Something about the name “Caesar” felt so powerful and appropriate for the role he ended up playing in history. I immediately thought of “seizer” as in one who seizes, and it felt like such a fitting name for the Dictator of an Empire which annexed so much territory. (I know that etymologically the words “Caesar” and “seizer” are unrelated, but I was a teenager.)

Pompey (technically “Pompeius” as the former is an anachronistic Anglicization–say that three times fast), on the other hand, sounds almost like a children’s nursery rhyme character. It sounds like a woman’s name, similar to Nero’s wife Poppaea. But it kind of fits for his role in history as well. Based on what I’ve read and seen in depictions, Pompey was a man who first and foremost sought power and glory. In my opinion, he only cared about the pomp, frills and luxuries of being the biggest man in Rome, but not in the work of governing a state and leading a society in a bold new direction. I recall a great quote from some guy on YouTube (slightly paraphrased): “Pompey had to call himself ‘the Great.’ Caesar made his own name synonymous with power and greatness to where all Roman Emperors adopted it as their own, and rulers up to 2,000 years later were calling themselves ‘Kaiser’ and ‘Czar’ in order to evoke his stature.

Pompey Magnus (more like “Punchable faces” am I right?)

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