Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Noise of War: Caesar, Pompey, Octavian and the Struggle for Rome

A Noise of War: Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, and the Struggle for Rome, AJ Langguth (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994)

Mr. Langguth introduces his book with a quote from Plutarch concerning Gaius Marius:
Marius was once rebuked for granting Roman citizenship illegally to 1,000 men of Camerinum who had fought for him in a recent battle. Marius answered that the law spoke too softly to be heard in such a noise of war.
What follows is an examination of 51 years in the history of Rome, from 81 BC to 30 BC, covering the rise of Pompey, Cicero and Caesar, and how they eventually came into conflict and war, and how the Republic perished as a result.

The author begins with a confrontation between Lucius Cornelius Sulla and a 19-year-old Gaius Julius Caesar. Sulla is demanding Caesar divorce his wife, Cornelia, and take a different wife. Caesar refuses, and gives us an insight to his character: he doesn't back down. This confrontation with Sulla could have been fatal: Sulla already showed his easy use of proscriptions against his political enemies. Caesar escaped, and set his foot on a path that would take him eventually to sole control of Rome.

Along with Caesar, we are introduced to Cicero and Pompey, and we see how the careers of these three men, as well as others, intertwined to shape the destiny of Rome. A lot of what Rome was lay sacrificed on the battlefields of Gaul and Macedonia, as great men struggled to fulfill their ambition.

Mr. Langguth divides his book into year-by-year chapters, and we are able to see how events shaped themselves to lead to the seemingly inevitable result of civil war and the fall of the Republic. We are given interesting character portraits of the great men of Rome that are more or less unflinching. While Caesar comes off the most sympathetically, we do see that he is moved by personal ambition and belief in destiny, Pompey as a man who desires to be loved more than to rule, and Cicero is seen as a man who desires to preserve the Republic, but sometimes lacks the moral courage necessary. If any one figure is seen unsympathetically, it would be Cato the Younger, whom the author portrays as unbending and blindly attached to tradition, rather than a figure standing up for the mos maiorum.

If there is anything to be learned from the history of the fall of the Republic, it is that when two groups are so opposed to each other as to become entrenched in their hatred for each other, they lose the ability to compromise, and achieve a settlement. Political compromise was one of the proudest legacies of the early Republic, it was a precious part of the mos maiorum, and it is ironic that, while all parties fought to "preserve" the Republic and its traditions, it sacrificed such a central element to the traditions of their elders.

This book is a good survey of the fall of the Republic, although it does become a bit rushed with the advent of Octavian. We see the characters of this history, and have a clearer picture why things may have happened as they did. The noise of war, mentioned by Gaius Marius, finally engulfed Rome as Republic, and gave birth to Rome as Empire.