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Monday, April 8, 2013

“Caesar: A Biography”, by Christian Meier

507 Pages, The Folio Society

Few biographies place their protagonist so carefully within his world, in this case, the Roman Republic during its transition to despotism. Caesar: A Biography by Christian Meier is does just that (but, like most translations, it is difficult to know whether to credit the author or translator). It would be difficult to find a better guide to the historical period than this book which examines so far as the record allows the life of the most prominent citizen of the era.

Meier considers his book to be a “scholarly biography”, but one intended for a general audience (in omitting footnotes and even a bibliography, for example, he already sets his book apart from the usual scholarly studies). Meier has clearly done a great deal of research and thinking on the subject over a long period of time, and he readily presents the conflicting theories behind many events in and facets of Caesar's life. If you're looking for a detailed military analysis of Caesar the General and his campaigns specifically, this isn't it. The book is part biography, part character analysis; while the latter is always dangerous when dealing with a titanic historical figure like Caesar, Meier never stoops to the kind of superficial psychoanalysis that too often plagues biographies dealing with great figures from antiquity (such as Alexander the Great).

He bases his ideas on the ancient sources and the work of prominent scholars throughout history. Meier's many questions and hypotheses are always considered and balanced, and often more than intriguing – particularly interesting to me is the way in which he contrasts Caesar as a mover of events and as one being moved along by them at various times in this turbulent period. I often got the impression that I was reading the work of a scholar who was happy to free himself from the usual academic restraints and was simply letting all of his ideas and questions out of the bag, which was most refreshing.

Meier does a fine job of synthesizing the life and career of a complicated, restless man and the development of a very complex era into a readable and fascinating book; he covers all the various aspects of Caesar's life in a balanced way (the brilliant general, the ambitious politician, the shrewd diplomat, the writer, etc.). It's a bit plodding in spots, and it would help the reader to know the basic outline of the period before delving into the book, but overall it's a great read. This is one of the best biographies of Caesar available. My only gripes are the total absence of ANY references, but this was Meier's choice.

Nonetheless, Caesar is particularly recommended for students of political history as Meier strives, without being preachy or contentious, to highlight patterns in Caesar's rise (and the Roman Republic's fall) that continue to operate in our time – not the least of which is the inability of an elite to realize it is no longer relevant.

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