While classical scholars may have been arguing since the Renaissance about the true character and accomplishments of the Roman general and politician Gaius Julius Caesar, for the past four hundred years educated people around the world have drawn conclusions about him largely from the portrait created by William Shakespeare. In the English playwright’s tragedy Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600), the title character is an aging, imperious, self-absorbed egomaniac, already thinking of himself as a god, unwilling to listen to advice, blind and deaf to warnings that his days are numbered. The constancy of character that he brags of is little more than willful obstinacy. Shakespeare makes it easy to see his faults and understand why men like Brutus could be led easily to join a conspiracy to rid Rome of this dictator and restore republican government. There is a ring of truth to Brutus’s explanation to the crowd gathered outside the capitol after the assassination that he struck Caesar down because Caesar was too ambitious, despite Mark Antony’s clever rebuttal that eventually incites the populace against the conspirators.

As Adrian Goldsworthy demonstrates admirably in Caesar: Life of a Colossus, the real Julius Caesar was a much more complex character, and the Republic he had a hand in bringing down was not as idyllic as Shakespeare’s Brutus would have audiences believe. The man who emerges from the pages of Goldsworthy’s lengthy yet highly readable biography is a complex figure whose ambition is tempered with a strong dose of political realism and a strain of personal bravery that earned him the admiration of soldiers and fellow statesmen, even among those who begrudged his ascent to power.

Further, the image of Caesar fostered by some historians as the genius destined to rule the Roman Empire is one created with the virtue of hindsight and ignores the truly precarious nature of Roman politics in Caesar’s time. Goldsworthy’s aim is to present Caesar as a man of his age, examining events of his life in the context of Roman society as it existed when the young nobleman was coming into prominence among his senatorial colleagues. To do so he recreates the story of the Roman Republic during the era now described as the first century before the Christian era. The Romans, however, would not have calculated time that way. In their estimation, they were in the sixth century since the founding of the Eternal City and had been living under a republican form of government for some time. They had developed an elaborate system of checks and balances that virtually prohibited any one senator from gaining too much power or influence over his colleagues. The top officials, known as consuls, served for only a year and then were forced to wait a decade before standing for reelection to this post. However, over the years the Romans had continually extended their domain into the regions along the Mediterranean shores, and retiring consuls were almost guaranteed a provincial governorship. In that post, they were both civil chief and military commander of a region, with an implied if not expressed dictate to enrich the coffers of Rome during their tenure away from the city. If these governors increased their personal wealth at the same time, the rulers of the Republic would politely look the other way.

Relying on a variety of extant accounts from the period and on the histories written within two centuries of Caesar’s death in 44 b.c.e., Goldsworthy weaves the story of Caesar’s rise to power in this republican system. By this time, the high-minded Republic had degenerated into a kind of New York City underworld where senators acted like dons, controlling large groups of thugs that served to enforce their dictates. Offices were bought and sold, laws bent or even ignored so that favorites of powerful senators would be given every opportunity to rise quickly to positions of great power, with the chance for personal profit being a welcome byproduct of political appointment. For a young man to succeed in this world, however, he needed to do something to stand out from the dozens of others seeking professional preferment.

Caesar apparently learned to play the political game from an early age, demonstrating a tendency to set himself apart from his contemporaries in several ways. He was fastidious and iconoclastic in dress and demeanor. He was personally brave and openly ambitious. He was not above bending the law, or even breaking it, when such actions served his advantage. At the same time, he realized that no one who had been successful as a military or political leader had done so without a considerable amount of lucksome of his contemporaries might have called it being under favor of the godsor without a strong patron. Throughout his career Caesar moved ahead at full steam, so to speak, acting as if every advance might be his last should luck turn against him. To hedge his bets,...

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