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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

“The Ides: Caesar’s Murder and the War for Rome”, by Stephen Dando-Collins

288 pages, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0470425237

The Ides: Caesar’s Murder and the War for Rome by Stephen Dando-Collins is a scholarly work reads like a novel; if all history was presented in this fashion there would be no drop-outs. The political machinations at the time of Caesar’s murder are fascinating, and Dando-Collins lays it out in wonderful detail, and his varied sources give differing accounts that, seemingly, leaves it up to the reader to ponder and decided whether or not Caesar’s murder was justified.

This is not to say that the book is without its flaws. Dando-Collins bias against Caesar is evident in many passages, but one comes to mind where he writes “The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that in putting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything…” (pg.229). Oh really? To be a Senator of Rome was to have a permanent price tag affixed to your toga. He constantly portrays the assassins as the light of democracy and republicanism and Brutus as nothing but “virtuous and noble”; he makes the same mistake of many other historians and judges Caesar from the perspective of 21st Century morals and mores: “By any definition, Caesar was a tyrant” Dando-Collins tells us, but what he fails to tell you is that the Senators of the Republic were all out to enrich themselves at the expense of the conquered peoples. Caesar was a threat to their way of life and their riches due to his reforms and the big tent of opening up the citizenship of Rome to lesser barbarians. Please, Stephen, don’t think for one minute they did it for the good of the Republic. Nor should your readers.

Democracy as worshiped by Cicero, a leading Liberator simpatico, was a government ruled as it ever was in Rome: by the Senators from a handful of patrician families. Caesar was a threat to the Republican Senate and the old way, but it was more corrupt than a benevolent ruler/king/dictator could ever be. Dando-Collins compares Caesar to Sulla and wonders why he couldn’t just relinquish the power after he accomplished what he set out to do, just like Sulla did when he eventually retired and died of old age. What Dando-Collins seems to forget is that Sulla could afford to do just that because he had already ruthlessly proscribed and killed all his enemies, whereas Caesar – magnanimously or foolishly – pardoned his.

I liked Dando-Collins’ choice of presentation, point of view and writing style as he attempted to describe the assassination of Julius Caesar. It is a very engaging, readable discourse on the Ides of March; much like a Roman citizen might have conveyed the chain of events when relaying the story to a later visitor. It is an absorbing read that will keep you turning pages and at minimum should provide you with a grasp of the assassination, along with some of the dynamic personalities and political forces that contributed to the notorious event. For the most part, Dando-Collins refers to and compares classical sources, and generally he clearly identifies which version he believes most credible. Reference notes are found throughout each chapter and indexed at the end of the book.

In the end, Dando-Collins apparently chalks the murder up to Caesar’s mental problems, and therefore he must have brought it onto himself (?) A bizarre justification for murder with no historical basis and detracts from an otherwise excellent book.

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