The Death Of Caesar, by Barry Strauss
I must admit that I like historical true crimes literature, and this book certainly falls under that category. As the author is a noted classical scholar and a relatively prolific writer, it is unsurprising that he would attempt a somewhat revisionist history of one of the most celebrated matters of ancient history, namely the assassination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath. And, to be sure, the author does a great job with it, using his knowledge of the ancient texts to construct the historical problem, doing a fair bit of textual analysis of the available information and giving some plausible cases for what happened and what could have been done differently to preserve the Roman Republic, and how the assassination of Caesar kept imperial Rome from being more despotic than it could have been otherwise. The author finds some obscure figures whose importance has often been neglected, looks at Shakespeare’s play as an example of what is often understood about the assassination of Caesar, and presents his case for what happened in a masterful way. All of this is done in a way that emphasizes the complexity of the situation and the way that historical events often depend on human personalities.
This particular book is about 250 pages and is divided into several parts with smaller chapters within those parts. The author begins with Caesar’s return to Rome (I), the experience riding with Caesar after his victory in Anatolia (1), his awkward relationship with Rome’s “best men” (2), the decision made in a villa to make Octavian his heir (3), and Caesar’s last triumph (4) and the trouble it caused when he abused some of the people’s tribunes. After that the author examines the assassination itself (II) with a look at the birth of the conspiracy plot (5), the search for assassins among the Roman senatorial elite (6), the way that Caesar was lured to his death by a disaffected ally (7), and the murder in one of the Senate’s champers (8), along with the tension that followed the murder (9) and the memorable nature of the public funeral (10). The author then closes the book with a look at the aftermath of the murder (III) with a look at the struggle for Italy between various armies (11), the vengeance taken against the conspirators (12), and the final victory of Augustus that ended this period of crisis in Rome (13). All of this is followed with a warm acknowledgements section and a note on the sources that is well worth reading, along with an extensive collection of endnotes and an index.
One of the things that makes this book such a delightful read, apart from the author’s obvious understanding of the relevant texts and his excellent style, is the nuanced view of the author with regards to the question of Caesar’s assassination. The author demonstrates the way that Caesar politically bungled matters by attempting to delegitimize the Roman republic and its officials. He also points out that those who wanted to save the Republic were not savvy enough about the need to appeal to the common people as well as to the soldiers whose decision was critical in providing victory to one side or another. The author’s nuance and moral complexity, his discussion of the failures of nerve and strategy among Caesar and the conspirators, his respect for the cold and calculating Octavian, someone who is not the favorite figure of many in this period precisely because of his cold and calculating nature, and his intense study of the texts and desire to point out what they discuss and what biases they have make this a truly interesting read. It is easy to recommend this author in general though, for those who appreciate wrestling with ancient texts and seeking to understand the past for all of its complexity and reality.