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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

“Caesar: Life of a Colossus”, by Adrian Goldsworthy

608 pages, Yale University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0300120486

Ever since the great German historian Theodor Mommsen portrayed Gaius Julius Caesar as Rome's "perfect man", the dictator has been the subject of many biographies. There are some excellent scholarly materials on the general, such as Mattias Gelzer's translated Caesar: Politician and Statesman and Christian Meier's Caesar. Some more contemporary biographies geared toward the layperson, such as The Education of Julius Caesar by Arthur Kahn and The Assassination of Julius Caesar by Michael Parenti, present the general as a popular reformer. With Caesar: Life of a Colossus, by Adrian Goldsworthy, an excellent combination of the scholarly and popular is presented.

Goldsworthy explains technical and historical terms concisely and comprehensively (there is also a glossary included). Detailed end-notes and a thorough bibliography are included. The author's writing style is both lively and engaging. Although sympathetic to Caesar, Mr. Goldsworthy is objective, both with the general and his adversaries. He portrays both Caesar and Rome in the late Republic in a vivid and understandable manner.

Two interesting aspects that Mr. Goldsworthy ponders are Caesar's view on religious matters and the impact that the general's personal life had on political events. Our historical resources are meager on these two subjects, so Mr. Goldsworthy makes some educated guesses. Caesar was Pontifex Maximus, though some of the ancient sources and modern historians portray the dictator as a skeptic. Still, Mr. Goldsworthy speculates on how religion impacted Caesar's life and actions. For the scholar, Stefan Weinstock's Divus Julius presents the official political-religious aspects of Caesar's reign, as well as his successors' contribution to the cult of Caesar. There is also some discussion on the role that Caesar's family played in his formation, particularly the women in his life, such as his mother Aurelia and his daughter Julia. Again, the primary sources are limited, but the author tries to piece together the familial relationships.

Caesar has been a complicated subject for biographers through the ages, as critical assessment of him has tended to depend almost entirely upon the political prism of the times. Objective biographies of the man have been rare, and even the classical sources are tinged with bias one way or the other. Life of a Colossus succeeds largely because Goldsworthy presents Caesar's accomplishments dispassionately and never divorces the man from his times, allowing the reader to reach the inevitable conclusion himself. A true colossus, Caesar requires no embellishment to convince the world of his greatness.

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