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Unit V: Republican Rome ca. 200 to 44 B.C.

Bust of Julius Caesar
Bust of Julius Caesar, Musei Vaticani (Museo Pio Clementino, Galleria dei busti, inv. 713).
Photograph public domain, Wikipedia Commons.

Week 15: Political Writers at Rome
Polybius, ca. 200 - ca. 118 B.C.
C. Julius Caesar, ca. 100 - 44 B.C.
M. Tullius Cicero, ca. 106 - 43 B.C.

By class time this week, please have read and considered

Now we move over to the Roman world. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to show here the slow growth of the Roman republic, and its earliest forms of literature, as intriguing as all that is. The earliest Latin is pretty dry and procedural stuff, though — mostly law, and rather puzzling and obscure law as it goes.

When the Romans began seriously to look beyond the confines of Italy, and to conquer large portions of Greek territory (ca. 200 B. C.), their perspective on the world changed, and they became quite enamored of Greek art and culture. As the poet Horace (Q. Horatius Flaccus) would later say, “Greece, having been captured, took its captors captive.” The Romans in particular began to emulate Greek rhetoric — the rhetorical arts had a long and wild history in Greece, taking in such notable figures as Demosthenes and Aeschines, but also the Sophists, who were essentially rhetoric instructors. They also found Greek comedy intriguing, and developed a Roman comedy so entirely modeled on Greek originals that it was considered cheating to come up with a new plot. The comic playwright Terence (P. Terentius Afer) was accused of just this — contaminatio, it was called. The Romans also began to explore the other Greek forms of literature in fits and starts, including epic poetry (though the earliest efforts in this direction were pretty appalling), and also philosophy and history. In this earliest period there was one acute observer who was actually from Greece himself — a hostage named Polybius, who, during his many years at Rome (insuring that his hometown didn’t rise up in rebellion), wrote a historical study of the Roman way of life, and a penetrating account of their political structures, based on earlier theories of Aristotle. I have included a couple of the more interesting passages here for you to review. They are not required, and while they may come up in class, most of the attention will be focused on the following two authors from the first century B. C.

Bust of Julius Cicero
A portrait bust of Cicero.
Courtesy VRoma

This week we can only scratch the surface of the rich treasury of Roman prose. Probably the two greatest Latin prose authors of the first century B. C. — that is, the last century of the Republic — were C. Julius Caesar and M. Tullius Cicero. Political enemies much of their lives, they came from widely differing backgrounds, pursued entirely different careers, and had profoundly different prose styles. The translations here have tried to capture some of these differences, and it will not be hard to tell them apart. Cicero, something of a fussy grammarian and stylist, but a powerful speaker, was a champion of a dying ideal of the Republic in which every party played a balanced part; his prose reflects this ideal of calm balance and careful deliberation. Caesar was a man of the new order — he accomplished almost unimaginable things on the strength of his personal charisma and charm, and effectively brought Republic to an end. His spare, uncompromising prose style is a nearly perfect representation of his personality, with an intensity of focus that occasionally seems to lapse, just for a moment, into brutality. The passage here is from the first book of the Gallic War, which recounts his long and spectacular career as a provincial governor and conqueror in the area that is now France.

Gaius (abbreviated C.) Julius Caesar is one of the most enigmatic individuals in all Roman history. He was born to one of the most aristocratic of the few surviving Patrician clans (the Julii) and yet was himself something of a populist. He spent the first years of his career doing virtually nothing, and then, with lightning speed, rose to the top of the political and military pyramid to become the single most powerful man of the last century of the Roman republic. He was said to have been one of the most effective speakers of his day, but we have surviving from him not a single speech.

It was arguably his aggressive program of personal aggrandizement that led to the collapse of the Roman republic, and at his death the leading factions entered into a civil war that was only concluded through the establishment of the principate "the Empire" under his nephew and adopted son Octavian — later called Augustus. Caesar was driven by overwhelming personal ambition and a willingness to sacrifice almost any other good, including the good of the Roman state and people, to promote his own greatness.

For all that, however, he was a brilliant man — quick-witted, apparently affable, generous, and outgoing. He was also able to combine these characteristics with an unflinching sense of purpose. After being kidnapped by pirates as a young man, he apparently got along with his captors very agreeably — joking with them, even insisting that they raise the ransom figure to something more respectable, and promising to return to crucify them when he was done. The ransom paid, he was released; a short while later he returned in force and did indeed crucify them, exactly as he had promised.

The political and social climate of the late Republic led to the state of affairs that could produce a Caesar: a politician climbing the cursus honorum — the "ladder of offices"— would gain the public's attention and goodwill (and hence the vote) chiefly by putting on lavish entertainments. One could rise, through an ever-narrowing sequence of offices, to the rank of consul, the highest office in the state. Two consuls were elected each year for a one-year term. Throughout much of this climb, however, officials were expected to put on games for the people — and to pay for them from their private funds. Getting to be consul was a costly business.

By the time one had risen through the ranks this way, and had served his year as consul, therefore, he would typically be deeply in debt; the reward was in the chance to become a proconsul — one who had the authority to act on behalf of the consul in remote places, often for several years at a time — effectively the highest rank of provincial governors. This position — unlike everything that had come before — could be massively profitable, since the proconsular governor was able to collect taxes. A portion of this had to be sent back to Rome; the rest financed the operations in the field and, inevitably, paid the proconsul and his staff very well.

Counting on this plum, Caesar risked an enormous amount of his own money and that of his ally Crassus on games and public display, and in in 59 B.C. was elected consul. At the end of the term he was in dire financial straits. At this point, however, enemies in the Senate attempted to give him a trivial appointment as proconsul, instead of one of the more lucrative appointments; due to the death of another candidate and some fast legal footwork, however, he was given the position of governer of Gaul.

At the time, Roman Gaul consisted chiefly of the northernmost part of Italy (Cisalpine Gaul — that is, Gaul on This Side of the Alps) and a small amount north of the Alps and extending along the Mediterranean coast. Caesar took charge of this province, and, by ruthless military campaigning and political maneuvering over the better part of five years, managed to push the boundaries of the Roman-controlled Gaul nearly to the Rhine and the Danube, and even made a major expedition into Britain.

Throughout the process, he wrote dispatches back to the Senate and people, always mindful of creating and maintaining a public image. These carefully-worded messages were eventually collected as his Gallic War, widely read to this day for its lively account and its brisk Latin prose. They show him as a soldier, as a manager of people, and as a gambler of sorts, but seldom as a human being. For such a look into the life of a Roman, we must turn to Cicero's letters; Caesar's accounts are pure public relations.

And they are dazzling public relations, too. It could well escape the casual reader's notice that in the field, Caesar was really a mediocre strategist. One cannot miss the point that he was a brilliant tactician. Through sheer incompetence-which seldom is clarified by his terse prose-he often got himself (and his men) into absurd situations that a seasoned commander would surely have avoided; but somehow he always managed to produce some some ingenious solution that allowed him to wriggle free. Caesar tells about his exploits in the third person, in a fairly dry prose style, but one must never lose track of the fact that his point was grooming his public image. By careful control of his narration, he shows his victories as more spectacular, and his blunders less egregious, than the events, viewed objectively, would seem to bear out.

Finishing his career in Gaul, Caesar returned home to receive a triumph; by refusing to leave his legions behind, he defied a senate decree and sparked a civil war that was the beginning of the end of the Republic. His eventual victory in that war left the aristocracy in ruins, but put Caesar firmly in control of Rome, and gave him certain extraordinary powers — he became dictator for life — which lasted until he was assassinated by a group of disenchanted Senators in 44 B.C., an action that started another civil war and brought the Republic finally to an end. Caesar's only other surviving work is an account of the Civil War, but it is even more slanted, and not nearly as polished, as the work you have here.

The passage here is from the very beginning of the Gallic War, and makes up about half of the first book (of seven written by Caesar). It recounts how the Helvetii ran afoul of Caesar, and how he dealt with them. It shows a highly intelligent, manipulative leader, working out a sequence of political and military puzzles. Through its dry tones one can almost miss the enormity of the human cost — but consider the figures given in the last section.

Part of my point in making the selection I have made is to highlight the question of who or what kind of person a hero is — we have been discussing this in the past, and comparisons will become clearer as we go along. I would also like to shed some light for the first time on issues of style. I had thought originally to include at least one of Cicero’s speeches, since that is what he is most noted for; yet he was such a widely learned writer that there are few forms of writing he left untouched. He wrote rhetorical theory and philosophy in addition to his speeches. All of these are worth reading, and someone who would welcome a little extra reading might want to check out the Pro Milone (Defense of Milo), which will help tie together a number of the strands in these letters, and also some of the subsequent readings of other authors. But here I am merely having you read two letters, and they are of a very different sort.

As you read these, read them slowly and carefully. The passages are not, in terms of what you have had to read in the past, particularly long, but their style is really open to view somewhat.

Consider in particular for discussion:

  1. What kind of figure does each of these writers hold up to idealize? Caesar seems out to idealize himself — how does he portray himself? What are his virtues? What, by way of contrast, does Cicero emphasize in his own character?
  2. What do we mean by style? You can tell it’s there, but can you tell what it is?
  3. How do the styles of these two monumental prose stylists reflect the personalities behind them?

We will have one encounter with other Roman poets, and then will dive into our reading of the Aeneid. You may want to do yourself a favor by getting a head start on it. The translation I have recommended is quite straightforward, and though it cannot possibly do justice to the language of the original, it does preserve matters of structure and theme. Not to let the cat out of the bag, Vergil (some spell it, less correctly, Virgil) was modeling his work on that of Homer; the structure of the Aeneid directly reflects the structure of the Iliad and of the Odyssey. While you are reading it, consider how it does so; how and why, on the other hand, does it feel so different? What is Vergil’s political angle, if any? Is he promoting Rome, or attacking it from an obscure vantage point? Let all this roll around in your head as you read it, and we should be able to have some good discussions when you are finished.