Book Review: “Caesar: Life of a Colossus” by Adrian Goldsworthy — Rome, If You Want To

I bought.  I read.  I conquered.

After two and a half months, I finally finished Caesar: Life of a Colossus by Adrian Goldsworthy.  It was quite the task, but ultimately very satisfying.  I found the parts of the book that dealt with Caesar’s military campaigns in present day France to be the toughest to get through (move to a new place, subdue native peoples, forge alliances, repeat), but it wasn’t until reading Goldsworthy’s work that I understood just how much of Caesar’s life was spent on the battlefield as opposed to in the great meeting halls of Rome.

There were a handful of assorted facts that stood out for me.  I’ll share the most interesting with you:

* Caesar may have been the first recorded metrosexual.  From his earliest days as a public figure, he had a reputation for putting inappropriate focus on his appearance.  He even had his standard issue senator’s toga altered to be more flattering.

* Caesar was also a notorious womanizer.  Over his lifetime, he had four wives (all of whom he was unfaithful to) and prolonged affairs, most notably with Servilia, mother of Brutus (his future assassin), and Cleopatra.

* Because of the high mortality rate for women in childbirth and the political power that it could provide, remarriage under any circumstance–including divorce–was not frowned upon.  If anything, it was encouraged.  In the most bizarre instance of this cultural norm, Caesar convinced his daughter Julia to break off her engagement with another man to marry the recently widowed Pompey.  Pompey was old enough to be Julia’s father, and even though Caesar was six years Pompey’s junior, he thus became his father-in-law.

* Caesar led an expedition across the English Channel to Britain.  It was almost a catastrophic failure.  Caesar and his men made it as far as present day London before deciding to turn back for the continent.

* Goldsworthy refers to Pompey as a “maverick”.

pompey1mccain2

* In his younger days, Caesar was captured by pirates and held for ransom.  He gave his captors nothing but grief during his incarceration, refusing to ever be afraid of them or listen to their demands.  He eventually talked them into letting him go free.  He returned later that week with a fleet he had rallied from a nearby port, and oversaw their sentencing and execution.

* Cicero, remembered today as a great orator and prolific author, was a politician as well.  He was consul and later a senator.  He was also the most self-serving, double-dealing, sycophantic, untrustworthy slimeball of his generation.  He would say, do, or write anything if it guaranteed his continued survival.

* Caesar’s last words are likely not to have been, “And you, Brutus?” (“Et tu, Brute?”), but rather “And you, too, my son?”.

* Romans loved birthday parties.  (This was my favorite factoid)

The most astonishing thing about the book is how thoroughly researched it is.  Most of what Goldsworthy uses to flesh out his narrative are primary sources, documents written by the historical figures themselves.  It’s mind-blowing to realize that this stuff has survived for over 2,000 years.  Caesar’s assassination was so well-documented that Goldsworthy is able to recount who was involved in the plot, how the trap was set for Caesar, what was done to keep his closest allies busy as the moment drew near, and even who among the conspirators drew first blood.

If you’re interested in this era of history, reading Goldsworthy’s book might be a daunting way to start.  While he brings Caesar’s world to vivid life, it is nonetheless solely focused on him.  Other interesting individuals and some key events known to even the most casual of history buffs are given little attention.  Alternately, Goldsworthy can go on for pages at a time explaining how Caesar’s legions organized themselves on the battlefields of Gaul.  The minutia can become overwhelming.

I’ll have to peruse my shelves tonight for my next selection.  In the meantime, enjoy this scene from HBO’s series Rome, with Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and Tobias Menzies as Brutus.  It’s fiction, of course, but the characterization of the elder Caesar here fits well with Goldsworthy’s assesment.

~ T

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One thought on “Book Review: “Caesar: Life of a Colossus” by Adrian Goldsworthy — Rome, If You Want To”

  1. I had this same conversation with my dad last week. He wanted me to go upstairs and change the laundry around, but really, Iron Chef was about to come on and he wanted to make certain that he had control of the remote should I return with mind to change it. I refused to go, like Brutus, and then excused myself for a bowl of ice-cream. Upon returning, he had the remote.

    “CURSE YOUR NATIVE WIT!!!” I cried, rageful.

    “I scream, you scream….” he cackled wickedly.

    “FOR ICECREAM, yes father, as you’ve often told me. Still, do not presume your screams will be answered.”

    I sat down, seething with a quiet prayer, a promise. Vengeance.

    Then, we remembered that Smallville was on and things lightened up.

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