Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 3.

W. Jeffrey Tatum, Always I am Caesar. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xiv + 198, incl. 22 black- and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4051-7525-8. UK£14.99.

Tom Stevenson,
University of Queensland, Australia.

This is not the book I was expecting but nonetheless it is an important and lively contribution to Caesar scholarship. Always I am Caesar is not written primarily for an audience of academic specialists but for that ubiquitous creature, the educated general reader. Moreover, it is not a biography as such, although it surveys Caesar’s career in roughly chronological fashion. If, however, it lacks the footnotes and related apparatus of the usual scholarly fare, there can be no question about its depth, erudition, and soundness. Jeff Tatum’s treatment is masterly, with plenty of good solutions to the controversies of Caesar scholarship, and plenty of modern comparisons to enliven the reader’s experience. The book originated in a series of public lectures delivered at the University of Otago, and the resultant conversational tone surely facilitates wide accessibility. Of course there are limits. Specialists will appreciate the discussion, though the clipped treatment of important episodes is disappointing, as is the absence of detailed references. Non-specialists are certainly well served, though again they will probably find some parts difficult. When the audience net is cast as widely as is done here (‘accessible to all’, according to the back cover), there must be trade-offs.

In the ‘Introduction’ (pp. 1-17) Tatum emphasizes that there are multiple Caesars. The nature of our evidence and the variety of purposes for which Caesar’s example has been employed mean that he seems instantly available, but this availability is fragmented, and it is hard to put the bits together. Tatum therefore decides against writing an extended narrative and instead deals with Caesar’s career from different perspectives (p. 3). The approach makes sense and is interesting, though the perennial problem remains of distinguishing Caesar’s qualities from the typical attributes and instincts of his time and class (p. 4). His individuality continues to be elusive.

Chapter 1 is entitled ‘Caesar the Politician: Power and the People in Republican Rome’ (pp. 18-41). Caesar’s comparatively modest family background is used to buttress the view that his family, especially his mother Aurelia and her male relatives, might have wanted the young Caesar to become the flamen dialis, which may have been seen as the best that he could do (pp. 29-30, 101). This is an attractive idea, which suggests in turn that the precise nature of Sulla’s involvement deserves more consideration. The dictator quashed the appointment in a manner not completely understood, after which the young man supposedly refused to divorce his wife Cornelia out of loyalty to Sulla’s opponents, Cinna and Marius. His wife was Cinna’s daughter, his aunt Julia was Marius’ wife. Tatum explains this with reference to the abundant personal courage shown by Caesar later in his career (p. 31 [though cf. 101 for Vestal intervention on Caesar’s behalf, and 102 for Aurelian intervention]). It may have been so, but then again a reputation for pietas and resistance to Sulla would have worked in Caesar’s favour later in his career, and it might be wondered how problematic the women would have seemed to Sulla, given that they lived with a family heavily influenced by Aurelian lieutenants of his (pp. 101f.). Whatever happened, the episode links religious office, family aspirations and public standing in a way which seems consistent with the Aurelian help Caesar probably received to become a pontifex in 73 (pp. 8, 102), and then with the energy devoted to becoming pontifex maximus in 63 (pp. 35, 61ff.). It is slightly worrying that dignitas is described as ‘respect’ (p. 27), when it seems preferable to define this fundamental concept as ‘rank’ or ‘rank order’, so as to convey better the rigidly hierarchical nature of Roman society. This might seem a minor point, but the concept is plainly vital for understanding Caesar’s career and, if the alternate definition had been adopted, the Scipionic elogia could have been used to show not just the importance of service to the state and leadership in war (p. 28) but the importance of pre-eminence itself, which is manifest in the number of superlatives used. Subsequent conflict with Pompey might seem more natural too, if it was about being first in rank.

The discussion of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in Chapter 2, ‘Conquests and Glories, Triumphs and Spoils: Caesar and the Ideology of Roman Imperialism’ (pp. 42-60), is commendably abreast of recent scholarship on Roman imperialism and on the Gallic War itself. Insights of various kinds abound: the subjugation of women is traced to the realities of ancient warfare (p. 42); different Romans had different attitudes to war (p. 51); it need not have been political opportunism which saw Caesar’s enemies brand him a war criminal (p. 59). The writing keeps pace with the campaign. Caesar is said to have ‘ripped through Gaul like an undergraduate through a case of cheap beer’ (p. 57). Perhaps the extraordinary decision to attempt the conquest of all Gaul at the end of the first campaigning season deserves more comment (p. 57). It relied heavily for success on the loyalty of Gallic allies and on the traditional tribal hatreds preventing unity. How many generals would have risked everything on foundations so slippery? To what degree did Gauls conquer Gaul?

Chapter 3, ‘Pontifex Maximus: Caesar and the Manipulation of Roman Religion’ (pp. 61-79), examines Caesar’s religious offices and attitudes. Once more, Tatum is thoroughly abreast of recent scholarship, and his account seems both refreshing and reliable. Among numerous significant points: the famous anecdote of Caesar tripping out of his boat at the start of the Thapsus campaign -- teneo te, Africa! -- should not be treated with the usual cynicism, for it illustrates a perfectly respectable interpretation of an omen (p. 64); the importance of ritual in Roman religion should not overshadow questions about attitude or belief (p. 70); Caesar was criticised as dictator or tyrant, but not as god (p. 77); the Roman people certainly embraced the idea of Caesar as a god after his death (p. 78). On the other hand, the office of pontifex maximus was probably not ‘the head of the state religious apparatus’ (p. 67) in this period; Augustus seems to have made it so in the wake of Caesar’s example.[[1]] An apologetic tone (‘I must be a bit technical’, p. 71) is employed when explaining Bibulus’ religious actions in 59, especially as regards the distinction between spectio and obnuntiatio (pp. 72f.). Tatum remains cautious about whether Caesar was seen as a god incarnate before his death (p. 75), though in my view the legislative process for making him a god of the Roman state was well and truly under way (Cic. Phil. 2.110).

Caesar’s building programme is analysed in Chapter 4, ‘The Stones of Rome: Caesar and the Sociology of Roman Public Building’ (pp. 80-98). Discussion focuses initially on the Pantheon inscription as a reflection of the politics of claiming credit for the construction of public buildings (pp. 80-84). The point is well made that Roman public building, especially ex manubiis, was dynastic in its implications (p. 86). Naturally, then, the Forum Julium, including its centrepiece, the Temple of Venus Genetrix, is in dialogue with Pompey’s theatre complex (pp. 89ff.). Yet the dialogue is cumulative rather than overbearing. Not only should emphasis be placed upon the co-opting of Sullan and Marian elements -- Venus, Honos and Virtus, Felicitas and Victoria may be associated equally with Pompey and Caesar (pp. 89ff.) -- but Tatum reminds his readers that at the time of its planning, the new Forum would have served as a dynastic monument for the grandson whom Caesar’s daughter Julia was expecting to Pompey (p. 92). Similarly insightful are the cogent arguments against over-interpretation of triumphal ornaments along allegorical lines. Sometimes it is better to see them as symbols of conquest rather than subtle propaganda (pp. 94f., cf. 118).

The fifth chapter, ‘My True and Honourable Wife: Cornelia and Pompeia, Calpurnia and Cleopatra’ (pp. 99-122), deals with Caesar’s women. Aurelia his mother is described as a woman of ‘unimpeachable traditionalism’ (p. 101), who engineered the co-opting of Caesar into the college of pontiffs in 73 (pp. 8, 102 [dated 74 BC], 189). Pompeia his second wife, Sulla’s grand-daughter, was respectable and rich (p. 108). She was divorced in the wake of the Bona Dea scandal, not for her proclivities or sex appeal, but because she had hurt Caesar politically (p. 109). Tatum is right to insist that the reason given for this was not that ‘the wife of Caesar must be above suspicion’ but that ‘the wife of the pontifex maximus . . . ’ (p. 109). In 59 Caesar entered an enduring marriage with Calpurnia, though he spent much of his time away from her and readily proposed a new marriage alliance with Pompey in 54 that would have seen him divorce Calpurnia (p. 110). His most famous Roman lover was Servilia (pp. 110f.); his most famous non-Roman lover was Cleopatra (pp. 113-20). Tatum seems particularly concerned to cast doubt on thoughts of a romantic or emotional basis to these relationships: Caesar’s parting words to Servilia’s son were a curse (p. 112); Cleopatra was attractive but his treatment of her need not imply passion (pp. 114-19), which was really felt by Antony (p. 120). The Caesar who emerges from this analysis is one who may not have found love (p. 120). Cold-blooded or hot blooded? Readers must decide.

The approach of Chapter 6, ‘Great Men and Impersonal Groundswells: The Civil War’ (pp. 122-44), is to be heartily applauded, for Tatum refuses to write about faceless movements or ‘impersonal groundswells’. He does not deny their influence on historical causation but thinks instead that ‘in history the personnel matter’ (p. 123). As a result, the hatreds and manoeuvres of Caesar and his enemies take centre stage. The subsequent discussion is much to the taste of this reviewer but it may form the least successful part of the book for non-specialists. Once more an apologetic tone pervades the writing. The technicalities of the Roman constitution become a ‘bother’ (p. 128), as does the relationship between imperium and the pomerium (p. 133). Yet the narrative and interpretation of the complicated negotiations of the late 50s are expertly handled, with personal dignitas given its rightful place of importance (pp. 134-44). Tatum stops short of blaming Caesar, though he is clear that the conqueror of Gaul could not endure losing the political struggle over his return conditions (p. 141). My attitude to Caesar at this point is less careful.

In Chapter 7, ‘Great Caesar Fell: Philosophy, Politics, and Assassination’ (pp. 145-66), it is held, conventionally enough, that Caesar was assassinated because he prevented competition for power according to traditional aristocratic norms; and he gave every indication that he intended to go on doing so in perpetuity. The problem for the conspirators was that everyone was implicated in his regime, either as Caesar’s supporters or as recipients of his clementia, which entailed public acknowledgement of being in his debt as to a friend (pp. 145-54). Tatum follows David Sedley in arguing that the conspiracy began and was promoted among those who had arrived at a philosophical rejection of tyranny (esp. pp. 160-63). Greek ethical doctrines were needed to circumvent the binding power of Caesar’s clemency and friendship (p. 165). Tatum anticipates a couple of objections: it would be wrong to think that Greek philosophy was convenient rather than substantial in contemporary aristocratic circles (p. 161), and wrong to imply a ‘bumper sticker mentality’ on the part of a man like Cassius (p. 163). Nevertheless, it remains difficult to think that those at Rome required quite the same levels of ethical persuasion as those in Italy and the provinces.

The eighth and final chapter, ‘The Evil That Men Do: Caesar and Augustus’ (pp. 167-88), is a not-inevitable discussion of the rise of Augustus, which argues that Augustus (in contrast to Caesar) knew how to share power and prestige without losing primacy (p. 178). In spite of being more ruthless and successful in pursuit of power than Caesar (p. 172), Augustus nonetheless became the princeps, who was superior in auctoritas (p. 178). Caesar’s example continued to be debated, certainly not shunted aside, though it was neither ideologically nor practically acceptable under the Empire (p. 181). Along the way it is held that the Liberators were far from being naive, though they underestimated popular feeling (pp. 168-71), and (contra Roller) that imperial oaths of loyalty to the house of Augustus carried the message that the civil war was dead and gone rather than constantly alive (p. 183). Both views appear typically sound. The book concludes with a lamentable preference for the mediocrity of peace over the brilliance of conflict, on the grounds that ‘Too many Caesars are not a good thing (p. 188).’

It will be obvious that I have approached Tatum’s book as a specialist work and found a generally animated, thought-provoking and reliable discussion based on thorough knowledge of the ancient sources and modern literature. Yet the book is in many ways introductory, and perhaps even primarily introductory, for it tends to avoid close argument, unapologetic treatment of detail, acknowledgement of sources, and even innovation.  Senior undergraduates, research students and academics will find it less useful for these reasons. This is, of course, a product of the attempt to garner a wide audience. I think this aim will be met, and that the book has done about as well as could be expected, but the point is that there are noticeable trade-offs, and specialists will probably now look forward to the more academic follow-up.


[[1]] Cf. G.W. Bowersock, 'The Pontificate of Augustus', in K. Raaflaub and M. Toher (edd.), Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate (Berkeley 1990) 380-94.