Wednesday, May 11, 2011

He was an outsider

A couple of weeks after I wrote my blog 'River crossing' I wrote an e-mail to professor Fik Meijer (University of Amsterdam). I asked him "Why did  Julius Caesar  cross the Rubicon and wanted to stay at the top in old Rome and was not satisfied that his consulship finally ended?" He wrote that there is not an easy (in dutch "niet zo maar") answer on this question. He pointed me at the biographies on Caesar of Luciano Canfora and Christian Meier.

Best biography on Caesar (100-44 BC)
Last week I finished reading Christian Meier's 'Ceasar. A biography' (1982). Bookjacket "Of the maybe half a dozen books on Ceasar that are worth reading, Meier's is the best."

Points of interest in Meier's biography on Julius Caesar:
  • Caesar's world was dominated by two principles: care (latin 'cura') and competition. This accorded with his thinking in term of honour (latin 'dignitas') and fame. (p. 449)
  • In Caesar's eyes no one existed but himself and his opponents. It was all an interpersonal game. He classified people as supporters, opponents or neutrals. (p. 359)
  • Compared to his aristocratic senatorial peers Caesar was an outsider and alien. (p. 358)
  • In Caesar's time the old institutions, designed for a city state, had been "overstretched", as Rome now ruled over a world-wide empire. In a way the Senate didn't recognise that their institutions were out of date and had to be transformed. The ancient thinking about social structures was static. (p. 12, 50, 195, 357, 361, 479, 483 and 491)
  • For Caesar the senators were mainly Sullans: the heirs of the winning party of the civil war. Not representatives of the whole commonwealth. He could only see them as selfish instruments of the interplay of forces. Caesar had no feeling for the power of institutions to guarantee law and security. (p. 358-9, 449)
  • Civil war, by crossing the Rubicon:
    • Caesar was not in principle opposed to the Roman order. He acted against it because he put his own interests above the rules of Rome. (p. 219)
    • He wanted to free the Roman people, Senate from the small clique of Sullans. (p. 358-360 and 364)
    • Must be an "expression of the greatness" of Caesar's personality. Throughout his career he displayed an extraordinary ability and strength of mind, staying power and steadfastness. (p. 362 and 483)
    • Plea for his personal right, for the honour he was owed on the basis on his achievements. It was Caesar's claim for honour against the defence of the Republic.
  • After he won the civil war Caesar was not able to remove from the scene because he had not eliminated his opponents. He had to defend himself and consolidate his position. (p. 431)

Crossing Rubicon? Personal honour more important than Republic
The career of Caesar can't be understood without Sulla (138 BC - 78 BC). Sulla was the first Roman general who crossed the Rubicon for a march (91 and 87 BC) on Rome with his army. After his victory Sulla eliminated his opponents. Caesar belonged to the circle of Sulla's victims but relatives obtained a pardon for him. It made him an outsider.
Caesar crossed on his turn the Rubicon (49 BC) after the Senate refused him the honours he owed after he conquered Gaul. For him the Senate was a biased set or clique of opponents who refused to him the honours he felt entitled to. His personal honour (latin 'dignitas) was more important than the Republic. The Republic was low on his list of priorities.

Old Rome's static social structures
I read this biography because I want(ed) to understand why Caesar was so selfish. In a way I want to understand why our democracy is or should be worth fighting for.
The ancient roman world is strange to us. It's a world of Others. For Rome the social structures were static. And they didn't notice that themselves. And for us? We know that we have to adapt. We know that we have to fit social structures and conditions if it's urgent. We know - don't we?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great bio and an interesting question in view of EU's new tax and budget pact. Wonder where it leaves David Cameron?