Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Death of Caesar - Barry Strauss

I guess I should have reviewed this a month ago, but oh well. The Death of Caesar is, as you might guess, about the assassination of Julius Caesar. Strauss looks at what Caesar had been up to that might have convinced people they needed to get rid of him, as well as looking at the people involved in the conspiracy, and who they chose to include or exclude from their group. He also goes into the fallout from it, the attempts of the conspirators to frame their actions in a positive light - we saved the Republic! - the responses of those who opposed them, and briefly at the end, the civil wars that ensued (or resumed, since it hadn't been that many years since Julius had thrown the empire into civil war himself).

That part about open war felt a little undeveloped, almost tacked on at the end. Possibly because that has more to do with Octavian's rise. Although, if Brutus and Cassius were trying to argue they acted to save Rome from a tyrant and restore the power of the Senate, once they're forced to squeeze provinces for every cent they can use to bribe legions to their side to fight other Romans, they've lost their argument. Not that they apparently cared about the provinces. They were acting to preserve the power of their so-called "elite", and weren't too happy with Caesar giving Senate seats to his best commanders and wealthy, influential people from the provinces. More that the situation of open conflict they found themselves in, where it came largely down to who could pay the soldiers enough to earn their loyalty, meant the Senate wasn't likely to regain the whip hand any time soon.

I do wonder about the suppositions and assumptions Strauss has to make. He's working from roughly a half-dozen official histories of the killing, ranging from Suetonius, to Plutarch, to Nicolaus of Damascus. Some of these were written decades after the fact. They're working from sources that no longer exist now, but that means we can't assess the accuracy of those. Strauss talks about how Nicolaus was commissioned by Octavian, which certainly slanted his writing, and the others would have had biases as well. So I wonder about the base Strauss has to draw from for his conclusions and theories. He seems to do a good job of considering a range of possible motivations or approaches, but I'm probably not suitably well-versed on the topic to say that for certain.

'Although Decimus later said that he acted to save the Republic, he was a hard-nosed man, the sort to be moved by fear, honor, and self-interest. And Decimus wasn't alone - other friends of Caesar also joined the conspiracy. That took more than a public relations misstep on Caesar's part - it took a crisis of trust. Caesar abused their friendship by breaking the unwritten rule of Roman life, that loyalty would be rewarded. Indeed, he convinced important friends they were better off without him.'

1 comment:

SallyP said...

This sounds interesting. I have to admit to having a certain admiration for Octavian...I do tend like pragmatists.