Friday, July 31, 2009

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

The first three parts of this essay can be accessed here, here, and here.

Before chasing after Pompey and those senators that had fled with him from Rome, Caesar laid the groundwork for ruling the Empire in the case of his eventual victory. After subduing Pompey’s legions in Rome, he returned and was given the powers of the dictator, which he used for a very short period of time to create a legal and social climate conducive to his future plans. He offered clemency to the populares who had opposed Sulla, inviting them back to Rome as full citizens as well as appealing to the masses by forgiving a portion of interest accumulated on outstanding debt. By Plutarch’s account, Caesar wielded the powers of a dictator for a mere eleven days before returning the appearance of sovereignty to what remained of the Senate and acting, himself, as co-consul. Having re-assembled the government of Rome to resemble its appearance before his coup, Caesar then left the city to pursue Pompey.

The war, at first, did not go well for Caesar. His legions, though zealous in their devotion to Caesar, had been at war for nearly eight years and were noticeably weakened because of it. The long and furious marches that were the hallmark of Caesar’s strategy in Gaul and then against Rome herself had taken their toll on both their stamina and numbers. Following Pompey into Greece (where the authority of the senate carried more weight than Caesar’s acclaim among the people of Rome), Caesar found himself in the unenviable position of defending against both Pompey’s now-well provisioned land army and the fleet at his disposal. Caesar ultimately decided that he had a better chance to of defeating Pompey deep inland where the legions could be better provisioned off of the lands they occupied. Moving north towards Macedonia where Scipio’s army lay, Caesar lured Pompey away from his nautical supply line. Finally, at Pharsalia, the two opposing armies camped in preparation for the final battle to decide Rome’s fate.

With Pompey’s army enjoying the advantage of both numbers and provisions, we must accept Plutarch’s conclusion that Caesar gained victory over his opponent by superior strategy. He writes:

When they were ready on both sides to give the signal for battle, Pompey commanded his foot, who were in the front, to stand their ground and, without breaking their order, receive, quietly, the enemy’s first attack, till they came within javelin’s cast…Caesar’s cohorts rushed out and attacked them, and did not dart their javelins at a distance, nor strike at the thighs and legs, as they usually do in close battle, but aimed at their faces. For thus Caesar had instructed them, in hopes that young gentlemen, who had not known much of battles and wounds…would be more apprehensive of such blows…and so it proved, for they were so far from bearing the stroke of the javelins, that they could not stand up to the sight of them, but turned about, and covered their faces to secure them. [595]

Pompey’s army essentially folded in on itself and was massacred by Caesar’s legions. After Pompey fled the battle, Caesar pardoned all the soldiers who had fought against him (and impressing them into his own army) along with the patricians, like Brutus, who had lost, in this final cataclysmic battle, their taste for warring with Caesar. He carried them all along with him into Egypt at Alexandria where he discovered that Pompey had already been murdered. Looking to replenish his coffers after the costly war with Pompey, Caesar demanded that the Egyptians give him an exorbitant amount of money owed to Rome by the Egyptian people. When they initially resisted his efforts to collect, Caesar summoned the deposed queen, Cleopatra, from her exile and forcibly reconciled her to her younger brother-husband that they both might rule in concert to promote stability.

Those who had enjoyed the greatest influence in Cleopatra’s absence chafed at Caesar’s micro-management of Egyptian affairs and began to plot his murder. Catching wind of this plot sooner rather than later, Caesar had most of them executed though one general, Achillas escaped to raise an army of Egyptians up against Caesar’s legions in Alexandria. After a protracted siege, Caesar’s forces eventually prevailed and the boy-king was, in Plutarch’s words, “never seen after” [596]. Cleopatra assumed the full mantle of rule and gave birth to a male heir by Caesar named Caesarion.

After pacifying Egypt, Caesar moved northward again, visiting Syria and then Asia Minor, taking the time to put down a rebellion led by Pharnaces, king of Pontus on his way. He returned to Rome for a time, receiving again the absolute powers of a dictator (this time for a year) and was elected consul again the following year. While many of Pompey’s allies among the optimates had returned to Rome after Caesar’s victory at Pharsalia, two influential senators, Scipio and Cato had fled further west in northern Africa were they rallied outlying areas of the Roman Empire to their cause. In time, Caesar returned to Africa and sought to crush the final spark of the rebellion against his authority. He defeated Scipio, who had allied with the Numidian King Juba and turned to pursue Cato who was nearby in Utica. Cato, understanding the futility of opposing Caesar now that the army they had raised had been defeated, committed suicide, thus depriving Caesar of his final victory over what remained of the optimates. Caesar returned to Rome, celebrating three triumphs, one for each of his major victories over the Egyptians, the Pontians, and the Numidians. He would only return to the battlefield one last time, to subdue some of Pompey’s sons in Spain the following year.

Upon this final victory, Caesar was again declared dictator of Rome but this time, the powers were bestowed for life. He held his final triumph on Rome, celebrating his victories in Spain but the people were less enamored this time. Though perhaps they were just tiring of the spectacle of the triumph, Plutarch suggests that it didn’t settle well with them that they were essentially celebrating the defeat of Romans by Romans. To temper their displeasure, he re-displayed images of Pompey that had been removed from the Forum upon his defeat and, both forgave and enriched his former enemies until, it seemed, all of Rome owed Caesar personally by virtue of his generosity.

For all of the power of which he seemed to now be in possession, Plutarch makes little mention of Caesar’s political agenda after he is crowned dictator for life. Of the many plans he laid out for future implementation, only one does Plutarch attribute to him actually accomplishing.

…his reformation of the calendar in order to rectify the irregularity of time was not only projected with great scientific ingenuity, but was brought to its completion and proved of very great use…Caesar called in the best philosophers and mathematicians of his time to settle the point, and out of the systems he had before him formed a new and more exact nethod of correcting the calendar, which the Romans use to this day, and seem to succeed better than any nation in avoiding the errors occasioned by the inequality of the cycles. [600]

While he could alter the flow of time, or at least the standard by which it was measured, Caesar’s ultimate goal of being named King of Rome proved terminally elusive. Plutarch recounts several efforts made by Caesar and those who supported him the most vocally to use his unlimited powers as a springboard for a new monarchy. Yet, it is the people of Rome, by Plutarch’s retelling of it, that denied Caesar this final honor, describing a number of occasions where the symbols of royalty were offered to Caesar but, upon registering the people’s displeasure, he declined. It was the threat of this monarchy emerging that drove some of those elevated by Caesar’s own rise to power from being his grateful friends to beginning a plot against his life.

This conspiracy, eventually led by Caesar’s most trusted lieutenant, Brutus. Brutus came from a family with a historical legacy of killing tyrants and restoring democracy and so, as Caesar unsuccessfully inched his way closer and closer towards having himself declared king, Brutus came under more and more pressure from the people of Rome to stop him. At the age of fifty-six, Caesar was brutally murdered by Brutus, Cassius and others of the Senate. They fell upon him with daggers, inflicting, according Plutarch, twenty-three stab wounds and Caesar died, fittingly enough, at the feet of a statue of Pompey that he had erected in the Senate.

After initial chaos, Brutus and the other senators managed to establish calm in the city and quickly passed a number of decrees to put the whole affair behind them.

The day after, Brutus with the rest came down from the capitol and made a speech to the people, who listened without expressing either any pleasure or resentment, but showed by their silence that they pitied Caesar and respected Brutus. The senate passed acts of oblivion for what was past, and took measures to reconcile all parties. They ordered that Caesar should be worshipped as divinity, and nothing, even of the slightest consequence should be revoked which he had enacted during his government. [601]

This calm was supplanted though in time by outright hostility when it was revealed that Caesar had left a small piece of his fortune to every Roman citizen. The two people who benefited the most directly from Caesar’s legacy, Marc Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavian began consolidating this resentment into a new political faction; just as Caesar had done with that of Marius in his own time. In time, all those responsible for Caesar’s murder were driven from the city by fear of the people and would within just a few years, be killed, whether by the hand of a Roman soldier or by their own. The generational struggle that guided Caesar into politics would continue and, under Octavian (known later as Caesar Augustus), see the Roman republic finally dissolved for a more authoritarian style of rule known to posterity as the Great Age of Caesars.

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