Bust of Julius Ceasar.
Thursday, February 14, 2008

Plutarch—Julius Caesar

The statue above is supposed to be Julius Caesar. I have no idea how close to the actual person ancient portrait statues actually were, or how many of them were actually made while the subject was alive.

Caesar generally gets more press than his contemporaries, outside of Antony and Octavius (Augustus). He’s got at least two plays (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra) named after him, he has a computer game named after him, and he is one of the possible rulers in civilization or civ games (Civilization II, III, IV, and Civilization: Call to Power). I always play as Julius Caesar when I play civ games. So Caesar is someone with an appeal to a wide audience. That audience, however, is not made up solely of fans. I’ve seen shows on the History Channel in which Caesar is depicted as a villain, and a mass murderer. On the other hand, a popular author like Colleen McCullough sees Caesar as very much a hero. Earlier interpretations see him as a supremely gifted politician and manipulator of people, although a sexless one (Shaw), or as a more ambiguous figure (Shakespeare). Plutarch takes a decidedly anti-Caesarian tack.

Unlike a modern biographer, or even a modern novelist like McCullough, Plutarch does not go into detail about Caesar’s early life, and we do not learn what life was like in Aurelia’s insula, as we do in McCullough. Plutarch opens with an incident at the time Sulla, and then gives an account of Caesar being held by the pirates, and Caesar’s punishment of the pirates (by crucifixion). Plutarch indicates his opinion of Caesar when he describes Cicero as being “the first who had any suspicions of his designs upon the government.” We learn from Plutarch that Caesar was profligate. He ran up a debt of 1,300 talents. (Assuming a talent of 55 pounds at 12 troy ounces a pound that is 1,092,000 troy ounces. If the debt was silver, it was worth $18,695,040; if the debt was gold, it was $985,966,800 at current (February 15, 2008) prices ($17.12, and $902.90 for silver and gold). So we are definitely talking big nums here.*

*As of 1/21/2014 that would be $21,719,880 in silver and $1,356,493,320 in gold.

Plutarch portrays Caesar as being indifferent to niceties in his food. He was no Lucullus. Shaw follows this tradition in making Caesar abstemious. Where Shaw departs from Plutarch is in making Caesar immune to the charms of Cleopatra. He did manage to produce a son, Caesarion, with Cleo, and this has no place in Shaw’s play.

Caesar’s battle at Alesia occupies a considerable place in his commentaries (VII:63-90), yet Plutarch gives only a couple of paragraphs to the battle. This is a shame because the battle was a masterpiece in which in Caesar circumvallated (built a wall around) Alesia, and upon the discovery that a relief column would arrive completed a contravallation (built an outer wall) in an incredibly short time. He had close to 60,000 troops but his opponent, Vercingetorix, had 80,000, giving a 4:3 ratio in favor of Vercingetorix. The 80,000 troops had fled into Alesia. So rather than force a confrontation, Caesar had resorted to a siege, and the circumvallation. This was intended to starve the Gauls into submission. When women and children were released into the no man’s land between Alesia and the Roman camp, they were not allowed to pass, because that could be used by the Gauls to breach the Roman works, and so they starved in that no man’s land. When the Romans found that messengers had been sent for a relief column, they built a second wall that faced outward from Alesia. Ultimately as many as 250,000 Gauls arrived. This gave a ratio of about 5:1, and should have ensured an easy victory. These are Gauls, i.e., French, troops, however, so even though they fought as well as you could expect from troops under such a heavy handicap, they lost badly and decisively. Vercingetorix, the failed commander is for some reason venerated in France.

Immediately after his brief description of Alesia Plutarch says that “Caesar had long ago resolved upon the overthrow of Pompey, as had Pompey, for that matter, upon his.” Plutarch does recognize that both Caesar and Pompey were ambitious and sought political power. His hero, insofar as he can be said to have a hero, is Cato, who is more purely republican than either Caesar or Pompey.

We get a more detailed account of Pharsalia than we do of Alesia. We also get an instance of Roman reliance upon prophecy. It’s impossible to read Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s consultation with the augur without Herodotus’ account of Croesus and Solon in mind, and perhaps both Caesar and the augur were aware of the connection. Caesar is told by the augur that the action will be decisive. Well aware that a decisive action, like the destruction of a great empire, can cut both ways, Caesar asks if the event will be a happy one. The augur, who is aware of the duality of battle, which is a zero-sum game, and that one person’s happiness in battle is the cause of another person’s unhappiness, gives an equivocal answer. If Caesar is happy, the event will be for the worse; if Caesar is unhappy, the event will be for the better.

(A zero-sum game is one in which one player gains at the expense of the others, and his gain (positive number) exactly equals the opponents losses (negative number). Poker is an example of a zero sum game.)

We are given several examples of prodigies connected with the victory at Pharsalia. Later, at the time of Caesar’s death we will be given several more.

When we come to Egypt, we get a bit that sounds like someone denouncing either the war in Vietnam or the war in Iraq. “As to the war in Egypt, some say it was at one dangerous and dishonourable, and noways necessary, but occasioned only by his passion for Cleopatra.” Well, at least no one ever accused Bush of having the hots for one of Saddam’s wives or mistresses. Plutarch gives another source of responsibility, namely “the ministers of the king” especially Pothinus the eunuch. He does not give a positive reason for the war, such as the possible strategic importance of a friendly Egypt in the Med, or an abundant supply of grain for the masses in Rome and throughout the empire.

Unlike Shaw, who writes about a sexless Caesar who is immune to the sexual and political charms of Cleopatra, he mentions their dalliance, and their son, Caesarion.

Plutarch attributes a burning of the library at Alexandria to Caesar. The fact that Strabo worked at Alexandria 25 years later may indicate that Plutarch was motivated by anti-Caesarian prejudice. It may also be that the books were replaced from elsewhere. There was a second attack under Aurelian in 270-275 AD, a third under Theophilus in 391, and an alleged attack by the Muslim invaders in 642. The fourth attack is supposed to be a fabrication by Europeans, but I’m inclined to find it credible. Of course, that may be just my own prejudice talking.

Plutarch’s Caesar uses his epilepsy to political advantage, “afterwards he made the malady from which he suffered the excuse for his sitting,” though Plutarch is quick to indicate his disbelief, “But this was not the reality.” (Here is an abstract on Caesar’s epilepsy.)

As Plutarch nears the end of Caesar’s life we get the incidents that Shakespeare will re-use in his tragedy. There is the incident of the soothsayer, Calpurnia’s dream, an the incident which strikes dread into the soul of anyone who has ever written a line of verse, the death of the poet Cinna in which the crowd decides to “tear him for his bad verses” (III, iii).

Plutarch takes a pro-republican stance, and seems to condemn both Pompey and Caesar equally, but it should be remembered that at the time of Caesar and Pompey the republic was thoroughly corrupt. Spengler, in The Decline of the West, postulates that a late stage of development, as a civilization declines, sees politics dominated by money. This, in my view, goes hand in hand with the spread of the vote. As more and more people get the vote power moves not towards the people, but towards those who can move the people. That means those who can reach the people, either directly, through bribes, and panem et circenses, as in Rome, or indirectly through advertising, and through the creation of special interest programs. (For example, farm subsidies, special education programs, which benefit teachers and teacher unions, not students, tax laws, which benefit lawyers and accountants, pro-union laws, and so on.) These have the effect of moving power not towards the voters, but towards the men with the money, towards Crassus and Soros.

Caesar merely put the stake through the heart of the corpse.

Next up Cato.