Julius Caesar: A Life
Patricia Southern 

Amberley Publishing
336 pages, 13 colour and 23 black and white illustrations
Hardback, £20

Numerous biographies have charted the extraordinary life and career of Gaius Julius Caesar. One of the most illustrious figures of the ancient world, his rise to power, fuelled by unrelenting ambition, military brilliance and considerable administrative capabilities, together with an eventful personal life, which included a liaison with the legendary Cleopatra, all combine to form an irresistible story. Patricia Southern, known for her expertise and prolific writing on ancient Rome, has now brought her skills to the task of telling it anew.

She begins by providing a useful portrait of the social and political milieu into which Caesar was born. Initially there may have been little to foreshadow the astonishing trajectory of his life. While the Julian clan was part of Rome's senatorial nobility, it was not of supreme importance. Caesar's father, a provincial governor, died young, and his only noteworthy relative was the general and statesman, Gaius Marius, who was married to his paternal aunt. Early on, however, Caesar showed his mettle by refusing to divorce his wife, Cornelia, as the dictator, Sulla, demanded, and he was a fugitive until he could return safely to Rome. Apparently Sulla warned there were 'many Marius's in that young man', but other well-known tales indicating his character were told too. While being held hostage by pirates he warned that though they had treated him well, he would wreak his revenge on them, and so he did, returning when freed to crucify them. In Spain as a young quaestor he was reduced to despair by a statue of Alexander the Great, bemoaning that at an age when Alexander had conquered the known world, he had accomplished little.

His career seemed fairly unremarkable until he was in his late 30s. Then came the consulship, the 10-year conquest of Gaul, the civil war and the defeat of his former friend Pompey, his surpassing political position and his political and social reforms. Ultimately, he had unprecedented distinctions and extraordinary powers conferred on him, including the Dictatorship for life. Supreme power, however, had brought with it envy and fear, and a determination on the part of his assassins to rid Rome of a tyrant. Yet, rather than prompt a restoration of the Republic, his end brought about its demise. In death, Caesar became divine, his image shaped and promoted by his grand-nephew and adoptive son, Octavian, later Augustus.

Caesar's life is well-trodden ground but it is clearly and skilfully set out here. Southern's account balances the sometimes complex legal and political arrangements of the times and the political manoeuvrings to which Caesar was party with his bold, relentless quest for military and political supremacy. What is impressively conveyed here, too, is the astonishing energy, verve and talent that propelled Caesar to a position of absolute power. Southern captures the ruthlessness, corruption and unbridled personal ambition that prevailed among Rome's ruling class in the dying days of the Republic.

The modern reader may wonder how little human nature has changed since those times. But viewed from a safe distance, Caesar remains a completely compelling figure.

Diana Bentley

 

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