CUP (2021) 700pp £44.99 (ISBN 9781108837842)

Another Caesar biography? In recent years we’ve had at least four major Lives plus yet more reception studies. Here are another 600-plus pages with voluminous footnotes, and an introduction that digresses through our 17th century interregnum, nuclear strikes and behavioural science.

Yet it’s well worth ploughing on. What Morstein-Marx attempts here is nothing less than a reset of earlier thinking about the end of the Republic and Caesar’s role in its downfall. M-M., heavily influenced by his former teacher Erich Gruen, sets out to strip away the later teleologies—both Roman and modern—that portray Caesar as a dangerous demagogue. The evidence that he mounts is compelling in its detail, and especially in its careful handling of the principal contemporary sources. (Suetonius and Plutarch, we must remember, were writing over a century and a half later, equivalent to today’s military historians opining on the Crimean War.)

This is a refreshingly Republican Caesar. An outstanding general and leader of men but not out of his time or place. It was the later historians who started labelling him as an aspiring autocrat, a tyrant from birth, a Marian revivalist, a putative world king. In fact his early career—the aedileship, some high spending electioneering—was not that exceptional. Indeed he made some difficult calls that did not fit the populist narrative: not supporting the death penalty for the Catiline conspirators, blocking a command for Pompey, conceding his own praetorian triumph.

His consulship, in 59 BC, is often seen as the start of the Republic’s collapse. In fact, much of it was constitutional. The agrarian land bill was controversial but long overdue. Caesar offered the Senate every chance to put their amendments: in fact it was Bibulus’s extended ‘obnuntio’ that blocked it that was unconstitutional. A five-year command in Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum was not unprecedented: Pompey had been given a similar 5 year remit in Spain.

Throughout Caesar’s Gallic campaigns the Senate was supportive, voting him additional troops and blocking attempts to keep him this side of the Alps. There were setbacks—ships lost in the Channel, a disaster in Belgium and defeat by the Arveni at Gergovia (52) but by the end Gaul (and Belgium) were subjugated and Britain invaded too. Caesar well deserved his first triumph (Pompey had already enjoyed three), and a second consulship was not that unusual.

It was Pompey, supported by Cato and the diehard conservatives in the senate, who wanted him to give up either the second consulship or his commands. Caesar’s refusal to compromise on this fuelled the mistrust between them; in turn Pompey rejected the next compromise that they both lay down their commands. It was, M-M. believes, not Caesar but the Senate’s Final Decree and declaration of tumultus that took the Republic across the Rubicon into civil war. Historians do differ on this but what M-M. brings out so clearly are the numerous moments when the key players could have made different choices, and could have reached out for peace. It is hard to disagree with Cicero: a second consulship could hardly have been worse than the ensuing twenty years of civil war.

As it was, after crossing the Rubicon in early 49, Caesar in fact moved cautiously: he did not head straight for Rome but down the east coast, still aiming to meet and reach peace with Pompey in the south. In his own words this was not yet bellum, rather a (special?) military operation. In city after city he was very careful to exercise clemency. When he did finally enter Rome, four months later, he declined to have Pompey declared a public enemy and again proposed a settlement. Received understandably warily but with no settlement in sight, Caesar then headed for Spain in pursuit of Pompey. After the battle of Pharsalus M-M. concedes there was less clemency about than he had shown in Italy.

It is after Munda (March 45) than the canvas enlarges. We tend to fast forward to the assassination, ignoring that in the intervening months Caesar was planning his Parthian campaign, the biggest mobilisation of the Roman army since the second Punic war. Six legions were sent to join the ten already in Egypt and Asia Minor. Critics complained that he had not set about the ‘restoration of the Republic’ but this was to be the great patriotic war, avenging the appalling defeat at Carrhae. And he did not neglect domestic the home front before departing: veterans were resettled, domestic bills put forward, and crucially, he started to exercise his new power to appoint three years’ worth of magistrates together.

Later critics highlight three particular controversies that hardened the mood against him. Caesar insulted the Senate by rejecting the offer of a 10-year consulship and a perpetual dictatorship; he accused the tribunes of placing a diadem on his new statue; he brushed aside Antony’s offer of a crown at the Lupercalia. Each of these incidents was indeed open to serious misinterpretation, and they remain disputed. But the more likely immediate cause of the coup in March 44, M-M. suggests, was poor politics: his mishandling of the election slates. Caesar loyalists were left to compete against each other as well as against the already disaffected Pompeians.

So M-M. does us all a service by putting Caesar back into proper context. If he had a model, it was not Marius (or indeed Sulla whose massacres and proscription he eschewed) but Scipio. Caesar was a successful general, and certainly better at military than political campaigning. Even so, he clashed with Cato and other reactionaries rather than with the Senate as a whole. As civil war beckoned, he retained some support there and at least at the start believed himself to be constitutionally in the right. A warmonger or out-and-out demagogue would not have explored the successive compromises for peace that were offered to Pompey.

The historians (and playwrights) saw him as a tyrant, the first real emperor, the founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But all that is hindsight. The Republic was not in fact on life support before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. There simply was not enough mutual trust left between its principals and their political allies. It was not the Republic’s fall that started the long civil war (to 31) but the reverse.

Sir Michael Fallon
Defence Secretary 2014-2017