July 30, 2007

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Ancient historians were not unbiased. Our sources for the late Republic are primarily nostalgic gentlemen who longed for an imaginary past of genteel order and were hostile to honest work and social justice. Parenti tries to balance the score by telling the story of Caesar from the people's side.

Unfortunately, Parenti doesn't undertake the work needed to construct a picture of Julius Caesar's actual policy, and so we're left idly cheering for the Left against the perfidy of the Right. Parenti does a fine job on Cicero, to be sure, but he's hardly the first to view Cicero as a vacillating trimmer.

What's missing here is a serious effort to figure out what Caesar intended to do -- how he envisioned reconstructing the Roman world. This may be impossible -- it's conceivable, for instance, that he had plan but had not yet confided it to anyone at the time of his assassination. And it's bound to be difficult, not only because our sources are incomplete but also because Augustus worked long and hard to make it appear that his own plan was Caesar's.

Parenti deplores the Roman reliance on slaves and freedmen, without noticing how vital these legal and social institutions would prove after the Republic to constructing a comparatively uncorrupt civil service. Honest administration had always defied Republican regulators, because the temptations of wealth and power were simply overwhelming. A slave could wield the power of a king and live in the comfort of a deity and yet, because slaves could not own property or bequeath estates to their children or sue in the courts, a slave was hard to bribe. Augustus built a civil service of educated slaves and freedmen; understanding what Caesar intended is the key to constructing a true people's history of the end of the Republic.