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Caesar: Politician and Statesman Paperback – 1968
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No one interested in history should lack this thoroughly documented masterwork, the culmination of forty years of scholarship devoted to the last days of the Roman Republic. (Boston Globe)
The book which students of Roman history have needed…a book which at every point gives access to the ancient sources. It is a wise book, written by one of the wisest of Roman historians. (Times Literary Supplement)
Text: English (translation)
Original Language: German --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Counted by some historians, if not most, as the first great biography of Julius Caesar is Matthias Gelzer's Caesar: Politician and Statesman. Originally written in 1921 and revised twice, once in 1960, adding exhaustive notes, the latest printing of that edition (its fifth) came in 1997. initially conceived in 1917 and first published in 1922, Gelzer was researching and writing his work in the declining days of the first world war and rise of the subsequent Weimar Republic. By the mid 1930's Gelzer was revising his text in the midst of the ascension of the Nazi party. A later revision in the late 1950's began as West Germany had begun to exercise its independence once again. It is interesting to note that both the writing and subsequent revisions all occurred at moments of substantial political change in Europe, a fact which undoubtedly influenced Gelzer's choices. Some writers contend the fact that German forces and Caesar’s legions had both ravaged the French countryside in their respective campaigns gave Gelzer even more of a reason to downplay military matters in his biography. This may be a reason for his focus, not necessarily on the military aspects of Caesar's achievements but more on the political choices, maneuverings and machinations of the politician himself. Having said that, this is not a work of presentism as has become almost the fashion in modern biographies and histories. Gelzer never attempts comparisons with contemporary notions of the nature of democratic republican institutions.
Neither is this a work of popular history or one guided by Marxist historiography. Although Gelzer does observe the social and economic problems of the late republic and their political and social repercussions, particularly between the political classes and the rich and poor, he does not stretch those influences to a level of determinism so prevalent in modern historiography, a shining example of which lies within the pages of Parenti's Assassination of Julius Caesar (The New Press, 2003) where he insists that Caesar’s assassination be viewed as part of the social and economic calamity of the late Roman republic between “opulent conservatives and popularly supported reformers.”
This work is a detailed treatment of the life of Caesar and a reference book of great value to anyone desirous to engage in a thorough studying of the period of the last decades of the Roman Republic. It is particularly essential to the serious student of the Republican period offering as comprehensive an analysis as the great historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly Mommsen, although certainly more objective with regards to his view of Caesar. This book has, since its publication, held great influence to historians of the Roman classical period. It is not surprising that Syme, in his monumental Roman Revolution relied on the prosopographical work of Gelzer. This book thoroughly satisfies the authors goal "to give the educated public a lively picture of the complete political career of one of the great statesmen of the past". This statement not only reflects his objective but may also reveal his overall view of Caesar, although Gelzer does not hesitate to point out the flaws, obvious or obscure, in relation to his subject. Caesar is an evaluative work of immense proportion encompassing everything we know about the man without engaging in psychoanalysis of his every action in an attempt to explain the contemporary, or popular, if you will, perception of megalomania attached to him.
Organized in six chapters, Gelzer begins his work with a history of the fractured political atmosphere in Rome to about the middle of the 70's BCE intertwined with the early life of Caesar up to his late 20's and early thirties. His detailed descriptions of political life in Rome, its administrative curiosities and bureaucratic structures, personal, provincial and political relationships, class struggles and factional politics are all dealt with in a way that deftly places the protagonist in context. Gelzer pays special attention to the oligarchy in whose hands the struggles of internal politics took shape and affected the entire population in Rome and her burgeoning empire. "The Roman state itself suffered the greatest damage from the demoralizing repercussions of the new imperialist policy on the social conditions of Italy". In this background, Gelzer introduces the reader to the Julii and the childhood and upbringing of Caesar, descriptions of the machinations of his family to secure for him a future, his early career as a soldier as well as his oratorical education.
The second chapter, "Early Political Career" describes just that, but not only that. Gelzer goes to great lengths to describe a disintegrating Republic at the heart of which was the factional intrigues and political maneuverings which in large part allowed ambitious men their opportunities. Gelzer offers here a concise and carefully analyzed description of Roman political structure, both at home and in the provinces. For centuries politics was a closed business, the sphere of the oligarch, aristocrat, and upper class gentleman. This had all changed in the closing decades of the second century BCE and by Caesar's time the opening was so large that even high born men could develop, with increasing success, a personal political career which cut at the heart of the traditional political structure. Gelzer explains that for a brief period, Sulla changed all that. To Gelzer, what Sulla revealed was a structurally weak form of republican government in the midst of change. What was clear was that in general there was a true lack of understanding of the role of the orders within the government. What was the true authority of the Tribunate? In whose hands did real policy power rest? Sulla, recognizing the confusion reestablished oligarchic order and control but his policies did not long survive his death. While speculative at best, it seems clear that had Sulla's policies stuck fast, Caesar, as well as other ambitious politicians of the upper class in Rome, would never have been successful with a program appealing to the populares.
Gelzer also provides a tremendous amount of insight into the personalities of the political players, their personal animosities towards each other and their often shifting alignments, particularly as they related to Caesar.
The chapters on the consulship and proconsulship are really the meat of the work. Gelzer superbly, and with great care in his use of source materials, presents a portrait of two Caesars; the politician and the brilliant military leader and what political processes Caesar either engaged in or initiated which led to his reemergence in Italy in 49 ahead of his army. According to Balsdon, in his review of Gelzer's work, "It is easy to be misled by Cicero and by historians of antiquity into believing that Caesar's policy from 59 BC onwards had been carefully planned from as early as 65 BC or even 68 BC, and - worse still - into believing that his personal weight and importance in the politics of the sixties was already disproportionately great. Gelzer, of course, was never misled in this respect."
Within these important chapters Gelzer deals primarily with the events and consequences of the period from 59 BC to 47 BC , certainly the best documented with regard to Caesar's career. He describes for the reader Caesar's activities, from early prosecutorial work, his service as military tribune to his election as Consul and then his masterful political effort at getting himself selected as Proconsul. He also deftly reveals Caesar's dealings with his associates and enemies alike, ie. Cicero, and the intriguing personalities of the period who either supported or defied, and in some cases both, Caesar's ambitions and rise to power. It is interesting to note that Gelzer's treatment of the supporting characters in his outline is that he doesn’t engage in mini biography of each individual. He allows their actions and words to reveal their personalities. This allows the work to move well, without digressions which could disable the narrative. As Consul, Caesar, the practical politician who, having been elected to the highest office in Rome, began a political program aimed directly at the opposition of the oligarchic senate. Throughout the book, but particularly in chapter two, Gelzer provides interesting examples of Caesar's brilliant political maneuverings.
Here we see a master politician who played the political game with extraordinary skill. Gelzer opens this chapter with Caesars tumultuous relationship with his co-consul for 59 BCE, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, who Caesar successfully dominated through his adoption of popular initiatives and support of the plebeian causes, particularly the agrarian laws which he reformatted to enhance his position. Gelzer does not here offer a judgment in relation to Caesar's motives, in fact he, in some cases, praises the consul for his reforms. He simply shows us a politician who recognized what issues were important, first to himself and secondly to the Republic. It is striking the degree to which both Cicero and Caesar's actions were so similar and perhaps suggests a reason for their political ambivalence towards each other.
According to Gelzer, Caesar's successes lay in the fact that one of his great attributes as a practical politician was a skill, practiced and perfected, of making all his opponents appear to be on the wrong side of a moral issue. This worked to his advantaged time and again, particularly in relation to policies favoring plebeian causes at the expense of the oligarchy. This didn’t always work and Caesar faced challenges and failures but was willing to alter his program, unlike most of his oligarchic enemies. ie. Cato. In fact, one conclusion of Gelzer's is that the oligarchy in the end lost to Caesar because they could not find a way to deal with him.
Gelzer provides a unique look into the fully developing Caesar. From the early years as able and adroit politician to what can be viewed as a developing statesman, or at least possessing statesmanlike qualities. To Gelzer, this transformation occurred with his successful command in Gaul. Not only did this command offer Caesar a wide experience as a military commander but it also provided him with an opportunity to hone and eventually master the administrative skills he would bring back with him to Rome.
There is a considerable divergence of opinion among scholars in relation to the characterization of Caesar as a statesman as there is with regard to his personal goals. Elmer Louis Kayser defined a politician as "one who strives for place, for the sake of place; a statesman one who uses place for the attainment of constructive ends. We assume that a politician is a master of the devices of his craft , that a statesman has the mental endowment as well as the desire to set up and strive for worthy, even monumental, objectives". To Mommsen, "Caesar was a statesman in the deepest sense of the term, and his aim was the highest which man is allowed to propose to himself". In contrast Guglielmo Ferrero, more cautiously tells us Caesar's achievements rested with his" grandiose imagination, the prodigious lucidity of his intellect, his indefatigable activity, his inexhaustible fund of nervous energy," but failed to find in him any great plan for solving the problem of "the crumbling fabric of the Roman state", adding the qualifying statement that "if we must deny that his work had any organic, still more any miraculously prophetic, significance, this does not affect our estimate of his greatness." Sir William Tarn holds an opinion closer to Ferrero, stating "on what is known, he was a good general, a clever politician and a useful, but not a great, statesman."
It is unclear if it can be stated with firm conviction that Caesar was a great statesman. He was tremendously talented, ambitious and, when need be, charming. He cultivated his political ambitions with great care and mastery. He could be enlightened and intolerant. He was a maestro of propaganda. He could wait for just the right moment to act in accordance with his ambitions and be as impatient as a child when his plans were frustrated. Certainly Gelzer's appraisal seems to be that he was no worse than the conditions of his own time. Gelzer shows us a great politician, whose main objective was to preserve his own position, whichever form that took at whatever time in his career. Is it possible, given the abbreviated career of Caesar, to demonstrate, with reasonable certainty, that level of talent required for successful management of public affairs, the very definition of statesmanship?
In chapter 6, The Civil War, Gelzer provides a narration of Caesar's entrance into Rome and the devastating events that followed. While he offers a good deal of information as to the military exploits of Caesar he remains primarily focused on the political aspects of the period down to 46 BCE. Here he primarily, yet carefully, relies on Caesars own words to illustrate the motivations and eventual decisions made. This could not have been an easy choice, given that Caesar's writings with regard to the Civil War were meant as a justification for his actions. Those actions, however, came at great cost to Caesar. Gelzer writes;
"Caesar's invasion of Italy was a military success, but it also had the (for him) undesirable consequence that the legitimate government fled before him. The man who had previously done everything to put his opponents in the wrong before public opinion now appeared as the revolutionary: his intention to carry out his plans as least formally by constitutional means was thwarted. At one blow he lost the sympathy of peace-loving citizens which his previous willingness to compromise had won him."
He also reveals the disintegrating, if not completely destroyed, relationships between the main political players in Rome at this time. Even with Cicero, a sometime ally, Caesar's actions produced the realization that the Republic, under Caesar's complete control would fare no better than it had under a Sulla or Cinna. Caesar did not live long enough to justify this fear but as Gelzer rightly points out; "no one believed that Caesar was capable of better things". Caesar was well aware of this and in a letter to Oppius and Balbus wrote;
"I shall be glad of your advice, and all the more so because I had already decided on my own to show as much clemency as possible and to attempt a reconciliation with Pompey. Let us do our utmost to win back public opinion in this way and to enjoy a lasting victory; for the others could not escape hatred for their cruelty and, with the exception of Sulla, whom I have no wish to imitate, were unable to maintain their victories for any length of time. Let this be the new way to be victorious, to secure ourselves by mercy and generosity. I have some ideas on how to bring this about and much more can be discovered".
Gelzer goes on to reveal that that hoped for reconciliation never came about and the conditions at Rome further degenerated into a factional crisis never seen before and which would, by 44 BCE see the Republic crumble. This leads the reader to the final chapter in which he summarizes the extraordinary career of Caesar and his eventual assassination. He does not veil his appreciation of the brilliance and tactical strengths of Caesar and in some instances reflects an admiration bordering on awe. Rightfully so. He is at the same time, throughout the book, unafraid to point out Caesar's willingness, violently, when necessary and sometimes unnecessarily, to act purely as conqueror, even if that meant taking it to Rome. In relation to those personalities surrounding Caesar Gelzer, tries, and in most cases succeeds, in maintaining a sense of objectivity although when he disapproves of actions and particular individuals it is certainly clear and in most cases thoroughly sourced.
With Cicero, for example, Gelzer reveals a man who cleverly steered himself between the ever-present traditional Roman values of the aristocratic elite and the seditious reformers and upstarts, primarily from the ranks of the lesser classes. Gelzer's view of the man is essentially that while he did his best to defend traditional values of the aristocracy, coming from the "outside" he worked diligently to gain access. Cicero was a competent politician whose real flaw was in over-estimating his own influence and, in some cases, abilities, clearly demonstrated in his final letters to Brutus urging him, unconvincingly, to return to Rome. Gelzer makes it clear that had Cicero developed a Caesar-like ambition to power, as opposed to mere "position" his influence would certainly have been greater, particularly in the closing years of the Civil War. Moreover, unlike Caesar, whose program was devoid of any real philosophical motive, Cicero could not stray from his devotion to traditional Republican ideals. Cato is here dealt with as stalwart. In opposition to nearly all of Caesar's policies and programs and really stood as the truest defender of the traditional values of Republic Rome. It remains unclear as to Gelzer's view of Cato, personally. He does make it clear that he is the absolute opposite of Caesar.
With Cicero, Gelzer reveals a man who cleverly steered himself between the ever-present traditional Roman values of the aristocratic elite and the seditious reformers and upstarts, primarily from the ranks of the lesser classes. Gelzer's view of the man is essentially that while he did his best to defend traditional values of the aristocracy, coming from the "outside" he worked diligently to gain access. Cicero was a competent politician whose real flaw was in over-estimating his own influence and, in some cases, abilities, clearly demonstrated in his final letters to Brutus urging him, unconvincingly, to return to Rome. Gelzer makes it clear that had Cicero developed a Caesar-like ambition to power, as opposed to mere "position" his influence would certainly have been greater, particularly in the closing years of the Civil War. Moreover, again, unlike Caesar, whose program was devoid of any real philosophical motive, Cicero could not stray from his devotion to traditional Republican ideals.
In the end, Gelzer shows us a man of enormous personal ambition who was willing to play every side of every issue, even, in some instances at the expense of his most ardent supporters. As a politician with great ambition in Rome towards the last decades of the first century BCE, it was quite common for ambitious politicians to adopt measures best suited to their class, status and party. What is different about Caesar, and what Gelzer shows, was his indifference to what commonly motivated politicians. His was a personal ambition, pure and simple and he would adopt any position which worked towards his personal political ends. Here was a man ruthlessly pursuing absolute power with a personality which could not allow him to accept good counsel or outside checks on his ambitions. Gelzer only softly judges the actions, one way or the other, simply pointing out what Caesar was doing and why he thinks he did it.
There has been much controversy in relation to Caesar's actions as to whether or not he had a plan from early on in his career to set himself up as sole ruler of Rome. Much has been written about his programme. Gelzer warns us not to read so much into every small action of Caesar , and equally must tread carefully with regard to his personal, political, and military actions without sufficient and reliable sources to back it up. As difficult as it may be to avoid seeing patterns and plans we simply do not know what was going on in his thoughts.
The fact that this is a translation--from German, mind you--adds a layer of stiltedness to a narrative already rendered somewhat stilted by its venerable age. The book's readability and worth are not helped by Gelzer's Prussian adherence to an event-driven narrative ("Caesar did this. Then Caesar did that. Then Caesar did some other thing.") Occasionally Gelzer will throw in an unsubstantiated opinion (he will suddenly refer to Caesar as the greatest an of his age, but without explanation, for example) but this is not very useful.
The reason Gelzer's book remains so valuable--especially to those who wish to read further--is in his meticulous reference to the sources from which we have our information about Caesar. Numerous footnotes point readers toward every source for evey assertion made in the narrative, complete with opinions about the trustworthiness of the source and why Gelzer leans toward accepting or rejecting one or another version of events. If you count yourself among these readers, this is a must-have. If you are a casual reader with a casual interest in Caesar, Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus is a much better choice.
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