The events of this book take place in the late Roman Republic during the years of Caesar's life, from 100 to 44 B.C. At this time, Rome is the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean area. The city enjoys luxuries and entertainments from many lands and a hitherto unknown degree of material comforts. Yet the strains accompanying its transition from city-state to world power have racked Rome with social and political turmoil for years before Julius Caesar's birth.
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Isenberg writes in a clear and lively style, presenting Caesar's life and deeds in chronological order. He frequently supplies background information to help the reader understand events. For example, the biography describes the Roman army's organization and structure in the section on Caesar's conquest of Gaul. The author deftly weaves this information into the narrative so that the story keeps moving while the reader learns a good bit about Roman life.
The author does an excellent job of distinguishing historical fact from legend. He mentions the myths surrounding Caesar's life—such as the story that he was born by the first "Caesarian" surgery and the tale in which he morosely compares his own achievements to those of Alexander at the same age—and points out which are uncertain and which are almost certainly false.
In the course of a 150-page book, it is impossible to explain all aspects of Roman society thoroughly enough to fully evaluate Caesar's role in it. But Isenberg neglects to explain a few key details that could have easily been included. The book refers to Caesar becoming a "dictator" at two different times in his later career, but fails to mention that in ancient Rome "dictator" was a legitimate, if unusual, government office in which one person was temporarily allowed extraordinary powers in order to deal with crisis conditions. Without this knowledge, a reader may be led to make harsh judgments about Caesar that are not...
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Some features of Roman society seem quite strange today. Many represent nothing more than colorful differences in customs, but others carry definite moral implications. Depictions of slavery, the gladiatorial games, and violence and assassination in political life will not shock anyone vaguely familiar with Roman history, but a parent or teacher may wish to further explore some of the issues involved. Such exploration could serve to stimulate further reflection about the role of force and violence in all societies, including our own, and to counteract the popular view of ancient Rome as an incredibly cruel and violent place. It is particularly important that students see Roman society from a balanced, historical perspective because the values of contemporary society reflect Roman values. Indeed, so many contemporary Western political and social ideals derive from those of Rome that in the recent past every educated person studied classical history and literature.
Roman attitudes about slavery should be considered in historical context. Slavery was widespread in virtually all ancient lands. It originated as a giant advance over the previous practice of simply executing defeated enemies. In Rome, at least, slaves participated in a wide range of occupations, ranging from brutal labor in mines and ships' galleys to serving as physicians and teachers. These slaves had certain legal protections, and neither a racial basis for slavery nor racial discrimination...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why did Julius Caesar think that Gaul should be conquered?
2. How did Caesar gain the loyalty of his troops?
3. What other great men of history would you compare with Caesar?
4. What was the attraction of the gladiatorial games to the common people in Rome? Do we have anything like this today? If so, what are the similarities and differences?
5. How did Caesar's family history and background influence his career?
6. Why did so many of the senators think Caesar had to be done away with?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Although Caesar had far fewer soldiers than the Gauls had, he was able to defeat them. How? Consider geographical, political, and military factors.
2. Do you think that Caesar's desire to help the people of Rome was sincere, or was he motivated only by his own drive for power? Support your position with examples drawn from his life.
3. If Caesar were alive today, do you think he would be a Republican or Democrat? Give reasons based on his writings, speeches, and actions.
4. Rome offered many different kinds of amusements. What are some of the things an upper-class Roman might do for entertainment? Describe some of them, and compare them to entertainment we have today.
5. According to legend, both Caesar's wife and a soothsayer warned him not to go to the Senate on the Ides of March. Why did he disregard these warnings? Do you think he had any idea of what awaited him there?
6. When Caesar came into power in Rome, he pardoned most of his political enemies. Thus they lived and plotted his assassination. When his nephew Augustus came to power, he followed the usual Roman practice and executed his surviving enemies. What conclusions do you draw from this?
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For Further Reference
Caesar, G. Julius. The Conquest of Gaul. Translated by S. A. Handford. New York: Penguin, 1983. Latin students will probably have the chance to read this in the original. Even in translation, it provides a unique opportunity to see one of the great military campaigns of history through the eyes of its victorious general.
Duggan, Alfred. Julius Caesar. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969. Duggan's book is a clearly written biography for the general reader that provides somewhat more background on Roman institutions and previous history than does Isenberg's.
Evory, Ann, and Linda Metzger, eds. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 11. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. This reference entry gives basic data about Isenberg's career and publications. "Memorial Rite to Honor I. M. Isenberg, U.N. Aide." New York Times (August 15, 1979): 13. A short obituary of Isenberg concentrating on his connection with the United Nations.
Robison, C. A., Jr. "Review." New York Times Book Review (November 1, 1964): 24. Although short, this is the longest review of Caesar in a general periodical. It especially commends the many illustrations.
Suetonius. Twelve Caesars. Translated by Robert Graves. New York: Penguin, 1957. Suetonius (circa A.D. 69-121+) drew on written sources and personal "interviews" no longer available to biographers. Although he includes a considerable amount of unsubstantiated...
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