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Caesar: Life of a Colossus

Welcome to the complete Julius Caesar - and to the end of the Roman Republic

The astute observer will note that there has been a glut of Caesar-related books and biographies in recent years. A simple search for "Julius Caesar" on reveals 2,876 results under "Biographies and Memoirs." So, upon the release of Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus, the most obvious quesiton that comes to mind is "Why another one?"

In short: because this one is different. Better. More comprehensive. Any one of countless superlatives can be applied to this book, from "immensely readable" to "filled with useful context and information."

To better answer the "why," why not let author Adrian Goldsworthy, an Ancient Historian who lives in Wales and specializes in military history and the Classics, and a man with whom I was fortunate enough to speak just last week, address the question himself?
The more I looked at [the military side of Caesar's career], the more I thought, "Well, it's all very well seeing that in isolation, but the Romans wouldn't have done that. So, I wanted to write a biography that covered all of Caesar's life, and I didn't really see one out there.

There are some very good books on Caesar, but they tend to cover either the politics or the military side of things; they don't look at both. And, whereas today we divide them, that just wasn't there in the Roman Republic. As a Roman Senator, you'd go off and command an army, you'd come back and you were a magistrate in the city, you'd do each of those things in turn, and the two would feed off of each other - so I think, to understand it properly, then you really need to look at the man's life in the full.

The other thing was to try and bring it to life. I do believe that, in some of the other books on Caesar, he and the people around him sort of become representations of political ideas. They don't become living, breathing human beings; they don't become living, breathing human beings, and it's such an incredible story that it's just worth telling that way.
The characters do indeed come to life in Goldsworthy's biography, which not only focuses on the complete man - the serial womanizer (who was often accused of being homosexual) and massive debtor, the political genius with the flair for drama and showmanship, and with the excessive concern for style and fashion, and the incredibly successful military leader - that was Caius Iulius Caesar, but on the context surrounding the Republic immediately before his birth, during his periods of maturation and of magistracies, and after his death.

Written in extremely clear British prose, Adrian Goldsworthy's biography contains enough information to please a Classicist or scholar of Ancient History, while also being readable enough, and including enough basic background information, that the casual reader will not be turned off by excessive details, technicalities, or "AcademicSpeak."

The narrative begins with a contextual recounting of Caesar's birth and the state of the decaying Republic at that time - a period which, in the wake of the Gracchi reforms, was experiencing ever-increasing upheaval, including the bloody civil war (and subsequent proscriptions) which resulted in Rome's first dictator since the mythical Tarquinius Superbus of the 6th century BC - a general named Sulla, who killed off the most talented and exceptional of Rome's leaders, weakened the power of the plebeinan tribunate, and doubled the size of the Senate to 600 men (packing it largely with his own men), before he voluntarily gave up his dictatorial powers.

The book follows Caesar's rise to public prominence, relying on the many ancient sources still available from the period which Goldsworthy refers to as "one of the best-documented in Roman history." Cicero, Suetonius, and even Catullus are called upon in this narrative, although, once Caesar received, and departed for, his gubernatorial assignment in Gaul, the most complete source available is that which he himself wrote: De Bello Gallica or the Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Known at the time for the deeds which they recounted, Caesar's Commentaries are perhaps best known now for their simple, straightforward Latin prose (which any student who has gone on to translate Cicero, Tacitus, or Livy grows to look back on with fondness and nostalgia).

Goldsworthy, though, parses the Commentaries for the insights they provide not only into the military activities they describe, but also into the man himself - both of which are masterfully illuminated by the military historian author. Campaigns are effortlessly described, and individual battles are paired with maps for easier understanding.

Caesar's successes in his nine-year campaign in Gaul form the middle third of the book, with the remaining space saved for his crossing of the Rubicon river, the ensuing civil war, his assassination, and the final war which resulted in the Principate of Augustus - the beginning of Imperial Rome. While a scholar of ancient history may yearn for more elaboration on the end of the Republic, that is not the main subject of the book, and Goldsworthy takes care to cover everything which could be reasonably included in a biography of Caesar.

Any reader - from layperson to professional Classicist - can be edified and enlightened by this fact-filled, immensely readable work, and can gain unprecedented insight into the man who killed so many in Gaul, but spared so many in Rome; who rose to prominence in Sullan Rome, after barely escaping death in the proscriptions, and spurning an offer of marriage alliance to the dictator; and who was a demanding and amazingly successful military leader, shown amazing loyalty by his men, many of whom were promoted, regardless of birth, to positions usually reserved for the sons of Rome's elite.

In the end, Goldsworthy accomplishes with this book exactly what he set out to do: it "looks at the man's life in the full," and it "brings it to life" - and it does both in absolutely outstanding fashion.

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