“The Death of Caesar” is Barry Strauss’s latest work on the politics and warfare of the Classical World. Strauss is perhaps today’s most prominent author writing histories of this type—highly readable, not too lengthy, cogent analyses that are designed for the general modern reader. Among other topics, Strauss has covered the Trojan War, Salamis, Spartacus, and now Caesar. This is actually the second book in which Strauss has focused on Caesar—“Masters Of Command” includes the life Caesar as one of its three foci, and “The Death of Caesar” focuses on, unsurprisingly, his death.
Strauss’s special talent, in my view, is that he writes compellingly, boiling down the facts at hand (which are usually spotty, unclear and disputed) to their essence, while at the same time adding his own analytical framework to pull it all together. He manages to do this without his framework feeling obtrusive and while drawing the reader in, creating highly compelling portraits of individuals and how they fit into history. This is the third Strauss book I’ve read, and I remain impressed by his talents to bring all these threads together.
In “The Death of Caesar,” Strauss weaves together all the known ancient sources (and discusses Shakespeare, from whom we get a lot of our impressions of the death of Caesar). Strauss also swiftly shows for each ancient source what his angle and bias was, and mentions where the sources radically differ (which is often). And he emphasizes some sources not frequently relied on, such as Nicolaus of Damascus.
As I say, Strauss approaches his histories within a framework, not just as a list of happenings. In “The Death of Caesar,” part of Strauss’s framework is the accepted fact that revolutions betray the moderate. Brutus, Cassius and Decimus (the latter restored to his position as one of the three leaders of the conspiracy) wanted a revolution to result from killing Caesar, but a revolution bearing Romans into the past. They wanted to cause a revolution to retain the Republic. The conspirators thought a surgical strike against Caesar, followed by compromise and moderation, would be the best path to accomplish their goal.
But revolutions are like fire—once lit, they often cannot be controlled by their makers, and their path does not favor those who want either compromise or a return to past modes of action. This is true both of those rare revolutions that seek to restore the past (perhaps better thought of as a coup), or the more common revolutions to create the future. As Strauss says, “Roman history, alas, did not provide support for this plan [of moderation]. It showed, rather, that in order to stop a domestic political movement by violence, you had to kill or at least drive out a man’s followers as well as the leader.” The American Revolution is the exception. Most revolutions throughout history have ended in bloodbaths that drown their creators, followed by unpleasant structural changes to the society unfortunate enough to experience the revolution.
Another part of Strauss’s framework is to show that Caesar’s policy of clemency toward his enemies in the just-finished Roman civil war against Pompey ultimately did Caesar no favors. The proud men who received clemency frequently did not return the favor with gratitude but with resentment. Strauss’s point is the same as that of Tacitus, whom he does not cite, but who wrote: “Good turns are pleasing only in so far as they seem repayable; much beyond that we repay with hatred, not gratitude.” And it angered those who had always been loyal to Caesar to see their former enemies not only forgiven, but frequently elevated above them. This was one of several such miscalculations by Caesar—but then, miscalculations are easy to see in hindsight, and if Caesar had ultimately installed himself as a formal king with success, none of these steps would have been held against him, but rather praised as wise foresight.
Strauss frequently analyzes the behavior of the men and women who are the actors on his page. These individual behaviors are interesting, because they show that people of the Classical World were both exactly the same as us and very different. As for being the same, we see the same archetypes in any period of history. We see the greedy, the principled, the ambitious, the brawler, the drunk. But Romans were different in the framework in which behaviors were embedded (though Strauss does not note this). Because of the interposition of two thousand years of Christianity, any description of the behaviors of people seems like a funhouse mirror version of our world. In modern Western culture, despite its headlong descent to a post-Christian society, we still retain many visceral Christian concepts of virtue—how we are to behave. We know we are expected to forgive our enemies, to be modest and kind, and to turn the other cheek. We don’t do that, for the most part, and the ambitious and powerful do it even less, but it is still part of what we expect in a virtuous person. But in the Classical World, a man who did anything but punish his enemies and reward his friends, or who turned the other cheek, would have been regarded as insane. Strauss quotes the dictator Sulla, “No friend ever served me and no enemy ever wronged me whom I have not repaid in full.” Of course, this is still the way of most successful politicians—look at the Clintons. But we tend to hide it, and to honor those who avoid following their own nature and instead abide by the Christian virtues. St. Francis of Assisi would not have been admired in Rome, but we admire him. This is a key difference in understanding those times.
Naturally, in today’s world, Strauss writes for an audience who knows little or nothing about Caesar. This is the inevitable consequence of the deterioration of education and the denigration of Western culture for the past few decades. We are forced to pretend that all cultures are equal and equally important to us, and that the Iroquois and Mansa Musa are relevant to our modern society and institutions, when they are most assuredly not. As a result, historical stories and details that every educated person would know in 1950, nearly nobody knows today. This poses a difficulty for Strauss, in that he can’t dumb his book down too much, or it becomes a remedial text, but he can’t assume that his readers know much. I can’t say his balance is wrong, but to a reader who does know something about the topic, it seems remedial sometimes. For example, when Strauss notes that Caesar conquered Gaul, he then writes a paragraph defining Gaul, and then mentions that Caesar also invaded Britain. But I’m not sure how else Strauss could do it.
Occasionally, Strauss’s writing seems a bit melodramatic. He is addicted to the word “surely,” used as a modifier to show the likelihood of something—he uses it thirty-eight times in a relatively short book, several times twice in a paragraph. He reminds us six different times that Brutus was descended from a man who expelled Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome. And in a short section on Cato the Younger, Strauss abruptly totally stops discussing Cato and switches to talking solely about Brutus again. So perhaps a good editor might have helped. But these are minor gripes in what is really a major accomplishment—bringing a seminal event in Western history and Western culture to the current under-educated generation, and making it relevant with its lessons to the present day. For ultimately what the events surrounding the death of Caesar show is that there is no thing new under the Sun.