Monday, March 30, 2009


W. Jeffrey Tatum, Always I Am Caesar. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. viii, 198. ISBN: 978-1-4051-7525-8. $24.95 (pb).
Reviewed by: Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, Yale University and Dartmouth College (

Table of Contents

Caesar has always fascinated those who encountered him, whether in person or through the reception of text, memory and image. In Always I am Caesar, Tatum offers a wide lens onto Caesar and his times in "an attempt to understand central aspects of Caesar's life within a pertinent slice of Roman habits, concepts and expectations" (3). Although the book falls into the broad biography-cum-context category, Always I am Caesar is concerned with city and society as much as the man himself, and it delves most fruitfully into the culture and norms which converged to create the Caesar we know.

Was Caesar truly an incomparable genius, unwilling and unable to live as a citizen of the Republic? Or was he a rather less prodigious product of his time and culture, driven by the relentless competition among aristocrats and by the machinations of his enemies into civil war and dictatorship? As Tatum sees it, this familiar line of questioning reduces Caesar to an ideological choice between the noble and dark sides of empire, ignoring both generations of reception and the nuances of contemporary context. In Always I am Caesar, the question of Caesar's singularity becomes a springboard for separating Caesar the icon from Caesar the historical figure, and especially for elucidating his relationship to the society and culture which shaped him and in which he operated.1

Always I am Caesar originates in the De Carle Lectures, a series of public lectures which Tatum gave at the University of Otago in 2005. The lectures must have been a treat, since the book itself makes for highly enjoyable reading, written in commanding style and sharp prose, and peppered with modern quips and anecdotes which are often funny if not always decorous.2 There are three stemmata and three maps at the front,3 illustrations throughout, and a list of important dates in the back. The book is also of convenient size and modest price, and its formula of broad perspective and judicious detail will tempt many to assign or recommend the book to those seeking a fresh perspective or, more likely, an introduction to Caesar and the Late Republic. Further interest is addressed in handy and usually thorough Further Reading notes at the end of each chapter, which are then collected in a bibliography at the end of the book.

The book's eight chapters all follow a roughly similar formula, each discussing a single facet of Roman republican culture, before treating Caesar's particular instantiation of the feature. The formula has much to recommend it, not least the salutary effect of presenting Caesar as an actor within a pre-existing society, with many choices and endings open and available, rather than as the protagonist of a teleologically determined history. The structure also allows Tatum to cover a considerable amount of ground, as each chapter brims with sharp observations on the workings of central cultural phenomena as well as the more minute detail of Caesar's life. The result is an interesting mixture of socio-cultural history with bare-bones biography, which explores the dynamics of interactions between individual and society, impersonal currents and personal agency.

The first two chapters cover the traditional domains of Caesarian interest: politics and warfare. Chapter 1 begins with an exploration of Caesar's early career, "when it was by no means a certainty that he would manage to avoid failure or even to attain to mediocrity" (21), a reminder that the Sullan dictatorship and its aftermath left the young Caesar with less than certain prospects for the realization of any political ambitions. It then follows him, via an account of the Roman political system, up through his first consulship. Chapter 2 launches Caesar into Gaul and nearly unprecedented military success. Curiously, Caesar himself is relegated in this chapter to a few pages at the beginning and end. The bulk of the chapter is instead taken up with a good account of the Roman ideology of war and victory, covering the role of warfare in the social structures of the ancient state (43), the complex of gloria, virtus and honor (glory, courage and reward) which drove Roman aristocrats towards military exploits, the idea of 'just war' (48), and especially Roman militarism and imperialism.

Chapter 3 explores the Roman religious system: its reciprocality (do ut des), the Roman dedication to conserving the pax deorum (the state of affairs which kept the gods favorable to Rome), the question of belief and practice, and the difficulties inherent in understanding a religion which is no longer lived.4 The chapter concludes with a discussion of the political ramifications of religious actions, citing as examples the intricate legalities of Bibulus' spectio of 59 B.C., and, several years later, of Caesar's divine honors. Although there are many insights here into the interaction of politics and religion, and especially into the vividness of Roman ritual, what is lacking is a sense of the underlying mechanisms of the state religion, and especially of Caesar's function as pontifex maximus -- a role which surely had greater resonance and responsibilities than the extra clout it lent Caesar in the senate and assemblies.

Chapter 4 engages with the semantics of privately-funded public construction at Rome. The foray into the topography of the city has grown in importance and scholarly attention recently, and it is especially welcome to see it so well integrated into a discussion of Roman society. Tatum begins with the "mechanisms of public building in Rome" (85), noting the political, symbolic, and didactic functions of dedicatory inscriptions, but the highlight of the chapter is rather his acute discussion of Pompey's temple/theater complex as an example of the sort of statement available to Roman leaders, and of the ripple effect such statements inevitably had: Pompey's theater not only showed off his considerable resources, but through its deviation from a cultural norm (it was Rome's first permanent stone theater) demonstrated and enhanced his authority in society.

Chapter 5 points out the central importance of women in shaping Caesar's early life and career, while the bulk of the chapter explores Roman expectations of women's behavior. Although his claim that the disadvantages suffered by Roman women "were negligible in practice" (103) is perhaps overstating the case, the following survey of the influence deployed by Caesar's mother Aurelia in the service of her son's career is illuminating. Tatum concludes by considering the romance and political pragmatism behind the two most famous love affairs of Caesar's life: Servilia and Caesar's alleged paternity of Brutus the Liberator ('kai su, teknon'!), and Caesar's notorious affair with Cleopatra and the resulting parvulus Aeneas, Caesarion.

Chapter 6 marks the book's turn from contextualizing Caesar in republican society to closer scrutiny of more familiar concerns: the civil war, his assassination, and his heir. This chapter tackles the first of these, the minutiae of political maneuvering which led to the civil war in 49 B.C. Tatum opens with a salvo against Hobsbawm's dismissal of Great Men as a focus for the study of the past in favor of a Marxist focus on social or economic forces.5 On the contrary, this chapter asserts, "personnel matters" (123). Particularly arresting is Tatum's decision to build much of his account not on Caesar and his relentless ambition, as is customary, but rather on Pompey's campaign to assure his own supremacy in the state, and to advertise that position to the boni on the one hand and to Caesar on the other.

Chapter 7 treats the motivations for Caesar's murder and the social conditions that framed it. As in the previous chapter, Tatum insists that the assassination had more to do with the perceptions of a small circle of the aristocracy than with the mood of the mob, who adored Caesar as they had Pompey before him. Tatum begins with a brief survey of Roman notions of dying appropriately and of old age, and especially the role of a timely death as "an important safety valve in the pressurized world of the Roman senate" (147). This has the interesting effect of casting much of the resentment against Caesar and his post-war honors as a gradually worsening tension between a man late in his career and ambitious young aristocrats. Caesar controlled all resources and all access to any measure of glory, while his celebrated clementia temporarily put the lid on any resentment this restrictiveness caused -- a situation which only left young men like Cassius and Brutus to simmer. Clementia also obligated them to Caesar and formed an intractable moral conundrum -- how to betray a friend without forfeiting honor? As Tatum goes on to show, Greek philosophy, which saw the tyrant as dehumanized, became the shibboleth of the conspirators, enabling a way out of the moral bind and providing a self-identifying mark for recruitment.

Finally, chapter 8 deals with the aftermath of Caesar's death. From Mark Antony and his actions in the wake of Caesar's death to the rise of Octavian, Tatum suggests, the republic was effectively restored, and this equilibrium was precisely what Octavian saw as the obstacle to his own ambitions. As in the previous chapters, there is much cultural analysis here -- testamentary adoption, Octavian's deployment of his alleged paternity -- and a clear and refreshing view into the political morass following Caesar's fall. Tatum concludes with a few worthwhile thoughts on the transition from the war-torn republic to the principate and political stability. His final remark, appropriately enough, rounds out this consideration of greatness and its consequences: "Too many Caesars are definitely not a good thing" (188).

With a public audience in mind it may seem appropriate that the book be "unencumbered by scholarly apparatus like footnotes or citations" (12). And yet therein lies the chief frustration of the book, for, as Tatum himself announces, this means that the reader "is more or less forced to take [his] word for it" (12). For the general reader, who will find here a more informed and responsible account than in other similar works on Caesar, citations and footnotes may matter little. But the rudimentary scholarly apparatus reduces the book's usefulness for an academic audience. Always I am Caesar is packed full of informative and acute observations, on everything from philosophy to old age to epigraphic practices -- but without annotation, how can scholars and students alike suitably judge the picture Tatum so ably presents? Faith alone should not suffice. The suggestions for further reading offer an excellent starting point for inquiring young minds, but they cannot compensate for the fact that the student is rarely told where the weaknesses, conjectures, or controversies are in the main text, or even from which ancient author a particular quotation is taken.6 In sum, this is a stimulating and enjoyable book, which deserves a wide readership, but the format is not without its flaws, and these, regrettably, may inhibit the book's utility.

Nevertheless, in Always I am Caesar Tatum has produced a highly enjoyable account of Caesar and his world. These twin foci between them generate a considerable energy, which illuminates many areas of Roman life, politics and culture, as well as the multifaceted personality of Caesar himself. It is a welcome contribution to one of the most well-tilled corners of Roman history and will hopefully provoke many minds into considering old questions in new ways.7


1. The final chapter of Andrew Riggsby's 2006 Caesar in Gaul and Rome discusses Caesar's own construction of his uniqueness in comparison to his peers. Caesar the author and scholar is the one aspect of Caesar's life that is missing from Always I am Caesar, a lack which is especially regrettable in light of the growing attention in scholarship to the Commentarii and to Caesar's self-fashioning in them.

2. E.g., on p. 57, when speaking about the Gallic campaign: "One cannot say that the campaign was intelligent. Caesar ripped through Gaul like an undergraduate through a case of cheap beer."

3. The stemmata: The family of Julius Caesar (ix -- note the tentative inclusion of Sex. Julius Caesar, cos. 91 as Caesar's uncle); Caesar and the Aurelii Cottae (x); and Cato and his connections (xi). The maps include a map of the Mediterranean in the time of Caesar (xii); a map of the Republican city of Rome, reproduced, without page reference, from Rosenstein and Morstein-Marx (2006) A Companion to the Roman Republic, Oxford; and a map of the Roman forum during the Republic, reproduced from the same Companion.

4. Tatum rightly cautions against the possible distortions of Roman religion when viewed through a Judaeo-Christian lens, but his assertion that there is no contemporary "paganism on the ground" (66) on which we might lean to understand the Romans ignores the one billion or so polytheists of South Asia. The statement is all the more surprising since Tatum himself uses older Western impressions of Buddhism (65) to illustrate how misleading our views of unfamiliar religious practice can be. None of this is meant to suggest that modern polytheist cultures hold the key to the Roman religious imagination, only to point out that we should not restrict ourselves to the West in search of useful critical paradigms.

5. Hobsbawm, E.J. 1962. The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, New York. The reference is missing from the Bibliography.

6. There is a good discussion of the sources and their treatment in pp. 12-16, but as Tatum informs the reader, he will not "cite ancient authors (or other ancient documents) by chapter and verse, though I will regularly refer to them and often quote them (and naturally, I will rely on them constantly)" (16, emphasis original).

7. A few typographical errors: Tiber is misspelled Tibur on p. 46; there are several italicizations missing on p. 88; Aphrodite is referred to as a god on p. 91, but Minerva as a goddess on p.89; Capitol is spelled Capital in the quotation on p. 97; 'my' ought to be 'by' on the first line of p. 111; and the coin reproduction on p.177 is too dark to be useful. Orlin's 2005 Temples, Religion, and Politics in the Roman Republic (Brill), might usefully have been added to the Further Reading note for chapter 4, and Brunt's 1977 Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (Norton, New York) to the note on chapter 6, if only as a less dense version of Brunt 1988. There is, curiously, no mention at all of the conference of Lucca, though the so-called First Triumvirate is amply discussed.

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