Gaius Julius Caesar: Assessment

Gaius Julius Caesar (13 July 100 - 15 March 44 BCE), Roman statesman, general, author, famous for the conquest of Gaul (modern France and Belgium) and his subsequent coup d'état. He changed the Roman republic into a monarchy and laid the foundations of a truly Mediterranean empire.


Julius Caesar stimulated the transition of the Roman republic into a Mediterranean empire, bringing the fruits of empire (relative peace and some prosperity) to more than sixty million people, about one third of the world's population. This conclusion leads us to the final question: was Caesar responsible for this transformation? The conquest of Gaul, the war against Pompey, and the autocracy of Caesar are events that move so swift and sure as to appear as if Caesar had a deliberate plan to start a monarchy as an answer to all the world's problems.


Some historians have chosen this perspective, and the most eloquent of these historians was the German Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), in his Römische Geschichte, the only study of ancient history to receive a Nobel prize.

Mommsen was one of the founders of the liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei (German Progressive Party) and cultivated a bottomless hatred for the conservative Prussian nobility. His view of the fall of the Roman Republic was colored by his deep rooted disillusionment with German liberal politics. The populares were, in Mommsen's view, a political party like his own party, and as a corollary, the optimates represented the Roman conservatives, who showed a remarkable resemblance to the Prussian Junkers. Caesar was, for Mommsen, the incarnation of the "heroic legislator" (an idea of the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau): the Roman politician had swept away the pieces of a corrupt nobility and had created an empire that served the needs of all of its inhabitants. In its constitution monarchy and democracy were balanced - something Mommsen would have appreciated in his own country.

Mommsen wrote that Caesar's

aim was the highest which a man is allowed to propose himself - the political, military, intellectual, and moral regeneration of his own deeply decayed nation [...] The hard school of thirty years' experience changed his views as to the means by which this aim was to be reached; his aim itself remained the same in the times of his hopeless humiliation and of his unlimited plenitude of power, in the times when as demagogue and conspirator he stole towards it by paths of darkness, and in those when, as joint possessor of the supreme power and then as monarch, he worked at his task in the full light of day before the eyes of the world. [...] According to his original plan he had purposed to reach his object [...] without force of arms, and throughout eighteen years he had as leader of the people's party moved exclusively amid political plans and intrigues - until, reluctantly convinced of the necessity for a military support, he, when already forty years of age, put himself at the head of an army.

A century later, the judgment pronounced in this florid prose is dated. No historian will agree that Caesar was the leader of a people's party that can be compared to Mommsen's liberal Fortschrittspartei. But it cannot be denied that many of Caesar's measures indeed protected the ordinary people against the selfish policy of the nobles. This can easily be illustrated by pointing at Caesar's measures on taxation and citizenship. However, was the improvement of the position of the people Caesar's aim or just a tool to establish a strong base for a personal regime?

The latter is the opinion of great historians like Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) and Jérôme Carcopino, who maintained in their Caesars Monarchie und das Pinzipat des Pompejus (1919) and Histoire Romaine (vol. 2, 1936) that since his youth, Caesar's sole aim was the establishment of an oriental monarchy in Rome. He did not really care for the people but used them.

When these books appeared, the German historian Matthias Gelzer had already shown that perhaps it was wrong to focus on Caesar's policy. Men make history, but not in the circumstances of their choosing, and Caesar was perhaps nothing but an exponent of a larger process. Gelzer thought that it was wrong to regard men -even powerful men like Caesar- as initiators of social changes: there had to be deeper causes. In his book on the nobility of the Roman Republic (Die Nobilität der Römischen Republik, 1912), Gelzer pointed out that the fall of the Republic was not just the establishment of a monarchy by one man (consciously striving at it or not), but a social revolution in which the old, Roman aristocracy was replaced by a new oligarchy that enrolled its members from all parts of Italy and even the provinces. For this process, Gelzer coined the term Römische Revolution.

This title was borrowed by Oxford professor Ronald Syme (1903-1989), who is considered to be one of the greatest historians of his age, although his contribution to the study of history is limited to the introduction of the techniques and results of German scholarship into the Anglo-Saxon world. His book on the The Roman Revolution appeared in the week that the Second World War broke out, and this is significant: being confronted with tyrants like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, Syme was unable to share Mommsen's enthusiasm for heroic legislators and one-person rule. As his title shows, Syme agreed with Gelzer's thesis that Caesar was an exponent of a larger process, in which the old aristocracy was replaced by a larger nobility.

Gelzer, however, had created a new problem: if we are to regard Caesar's acts as part of a larger process, we must explain how this process came into being. In spite of his declared ignorance of sociology, Syme borrowed the concept of competitive elitism from Mommsen's brilliant pupil Max Weber (1864-1920). Competitive elitism was Weber's concept of democracy: there were several factions, which were contending with each other to gain power, and (combinations of) these factions balanced each other. The people that mattered were the members of the faction elites, and it has sometimes been argued that Weber in fact vindicated oligarchy.

Syme was of the opinion that the Late Republic had indeed several competing elites. He pointed at the Licinius family, which grouped around Lucullus and Crassus; the kinsmen of Cato; the Julius and Marius families; the relatives of Pompey; and of course the Octavii. In his reconstruction of the events, the optimates and populares were not political parties (as Mommsen had thought). These words signified two approaches to legitimacy. Optimates thought that a decision was legitimate when it was made in the Senate, the populares tried to reach their aims in the People's Assembly. The family factions that Syme postulated were free to use both ways, and in fact did use both ways. The Julian faction had a tendency to have its policy validated in the People's Assembly, but in 49 Caesar was anxious to receive ratification in the Senate; on the other hand, Cato's faction used optimate ways, but Cato was not above increasing the number of recipients of the grainn dole.

Caesar, in Syme's opinion, was a Roman aristocrat who was able to surpass his fellow aristocrats because he found support outside Italy. An important instrument to gain this support was his lavish distribution of citizenship; this was not an aim in itself, it was just a tool. Caesar simply wanted to be the first among his equals.

Syme writes:

"They would have it thus," said Caesar as he gazed upon the Roman dead at Pharsalus, half in patriot grief for the havoc of civil war, half in impatience and resentment. They had cheated Caesar of the true glory of a Roman aristocrat - to contend with his peers for primacy, not to destroy them. His enemies had the laugh of him in death. Even Pharsalus was not the end. His former ally, the great Pompeius, glorious from victories in all quarters of the world, lay unburied on an Egyptian beach, slain by a renegade Roman, the hireling of a foreign king. Dead, too, and killed by Romans, were Caesar's rivals and enemies, many illustrious consulars. [...] Cato chose to fall by his own hand rather than witness the domination of Caesar and the destruction of the Free State.

That was the nemesis of ambition and glory, to be thwarted in the end. After such wreckage, the task of rebuilding confronted him, stern and thankless. Without the sincere and patriotic co-operation of the governing class, the attempt would be all in vain, the mere creation of arbitrary power, doomed to perish in violence [...] Under these unfavourable auspices, [...] Caesar established his Dictatorship. [....] In the short time at his disposal he can hardly have made plans for a long future or laid the foundation of a consistent government. Whatever it might be, it would owe more to the needs of the moment than to alien or theoretical models.

Syme's dislike of one-person rule was shared by most people after the Second World War. As a consequence, Caesar has more or less disappeared as a subject worthy of study; of course there were publications about (aspects of) his career, but there were no great innovations. At the moment, most historians will agree with Syme and disagree with Mommsen.

On the other hand, Syme's view wears out rapidly. It can be argued that his "factions" resemble the cliques that ran universities in the first half of the twentieth century. Syme's belief in family loyalty seems not very realistic and has already been challenged. Future generations of historians will certainly find new ways to evaluate Caesar. In fact, they must.