Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Great Books: Plutarch's Biography of Caesar (Part 3 of 4)

The first two parts of this essay can be read here and here.

Before Julius Caesar left for Gaul, he had been and done many things. He was from a noble (if not celebrated) patrician family. He had become the high priest of the Temple of Jupiter and, years later, the chief priest of all Rome. He had gained considerable rhetorical skills studying under Apollonius at Rhodes and had put those skills to the test advocating for both himself and others in very high profile cases before the senate. He had been elected to a number of high-ranking positions within the Roman government. It can be said, in these areas, that in Rome, Caesar had few peers and no equals. The same could not be said, however, about his military exploits. Despite his early stint in the military while hiding from Sulla and his successful conquests in Spain that earned him the title of Imperator but no triumph, Pompey was the great general of Caesar’s day and, had Caesar not gone to Gaul, that is probably still the way that history would remember him. With four legions under his command and a five year mandate, Caesar forsook all of his other identities and poured himself into becoming a new man in the eyes of the Roman people; a man fit, ultimately, to rule them not as first among many but as one above all.

Despite the ambition he displayed, it is valuable to remember that unrest in Gaul actually posed an existential threat to the Romans. The fragmented nature of the Gallic culture made it impossible for Rome to make one peace with one leader in order to settle the issue. Thus, the early history of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul reads almost like a laundry list of the various tribes and kingdoms that he had to bring to heel. As Plutarch notes,

For he had not pursued the wars in Gaul full ten years when he had taken by storm above eight hundred towns, subdued three hundred states, and of the three millions of men, who made up the gross sum of those with whom at several times he engaged he had killed one million and taken captive a second. [583]

Plutarch is quite thorough in his accounting of Caesar’s time in Gaul but, for the sake of brevity, we can narrow his accomplishments down to three. First, he brought the peoples of Gaul who were sympathetic to Roman interests (and influence) firmly under Roman authority whether by means of diplomacy, intimidation or promise of security. Second, he galvanized those who were not under one leader and, in time, defeated them outright, taking that king, Vercingetorix, prisoner and ritually killing him at the climax of his later triumph in Rome. Finally, he repelled the Germanic tribes that threatened Roman interests in Gaul and, in fact, pushed them back further into their own homelands than every before, expanding Rome’s boundaries, unifying a large swath of what is now Europe under one banner. These, along with a host of other minor victories, are the unvarnished facts of what Caesar accomplished during his time in Gaul.

Those facts, however, don’t underscore plainly enough the effect that his victories had back in Rome itself. Plutarch trumpets Caesar’s generosity throughout this section, leaving the reader with the distinct impression that, back home, certain people were becoming very wealthy as Caesar slowly bled Gaul dry of all of its accumulated riches, both material and human. Thus, the intended purpose of giving Caesar his legions and his mandate in the first place (to remove him from the day-to-day of Roman politics and to diminish his memory among the people) had the exact opposite effect. Caesar, by the people’s account, made Rome safer by not only eradicating the threat of a Gallic invasion but by pushing the Germanic tribes further away and taking part of their lands as a buffer against future attacks. He flooded certain channels of the city with riches and slaves, creating the impression that Caesar sought not to enrich himself but enrich Rome through his efforts. Most damningly for his enemies (present and future), he established an impeccable reputation as a brilliant and visceral general who could credibly be compared to any of Rome’s great military leaders, living or dead.

Near the end of his first five year mission, Caesar acquired, through his influence with Pompey and his allies in the senate, a second five year mandate to continue his war. In all, Caesar spent about eight years in Gaul and would no doubt have continued campaigning for the final two had external events not dictated another course of action. Plutarch writes that, upon returning from his expedition to Britain, Caesar:

…found letters which lay ready to be conveyed over the water to him from his friends at Rome, announcing his daughter’s death, who died in labour of a child by Pompey. Caesar and Pompey both were much afflicted with her death, nor were their friends less disturbed, believing that the alliance was now broken, which had hitherto kept the sickly commonwealth in peace, for the child also died within a few days after the mother. [587]

Crassus, we later discover, had died in Parthia some time before and so, as Plutarch puts it, “if the one of them wished to make himself the greatest man in Rome, he had only to overthrow the other.” With the senate so long having been weakened by the influence of the First Triumvirate on the people, Rome’s actual governance fell into the hands of fewer and fewer people until only two remained. Pompey, being in actual possession of the city, threw his influence behind that of the senate, believing reasonably that their efforts combined would be enough to quell Caesar’s threat to their sovereignty. Once achieved, it would have been a simple enough matter to finally extinguish the senate’s authority and establish himself as king of the new Roman empire. Plutarch, more lyrically, paints the situation with unmistakable verity.

So that after so many times stained the place of election with blood of men killed upon the spot, they left the city at last without a government at all, to be carried about like a ship without a pilot to steer her; while all who had any wisdom could only be thankful if a course of such wild and stormy disorder and madness might end no worse than in a monarchy. Some were so bold as to declare openly that the government was incurable but by a monarchy, and that they ought to take that remedy from the hands of the hands of the gentlest physician, meaning Pompey, who, though in words, he pretended to decline it, yet in reality made his utmost efforts to be declared dictator. [589]

Emboldened by this new found prestige, Pompey prematurely ended Caesar’s term in Gaul, demanding he return the legions with which Pompey had supplied him in order to continue his efforts. Seeming at first to be compliant, Caesar returned the legions but sent a generous gift with each soldier, creating something of a fifth column within Pompey’s troops; men under Pompey’s banner but sworn in their hearts to his enemy. From there, the two began a game of offering compromises that neither would desire, each trying to seem more magnanimous in his mercy than the other. In time, though, the senate brought an end to this game and declared that Caesar would be considered an enemy of Rome unless he surrendered his troops and returned to Rome for trial. Caesar immediately mustered his troops and rode for Rome. Caught surprised by the swiftness of his advance, Pompey and his optimates compatriots from the senate were forced to leave the city in order to muster the troops necessary to eventually meet Caesar on the battlefield. And so it was that Julius Caesar made himself “the master of all Italy without bloodshed in the space of sixty days” [591].

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