Philip Freeman’s Julius Caesar and the busting of myths

When you think of Julius Caesar, what comes to mind? Shakespeare’s play? Ides of March? Betrayal? But what do you really know about him? Did you know that Caesar was a prolific writer and a brilliant orator? And Caesar could be as charitable and forgiving as he was merciless and cruel? Much of what we know about Caesar comes from Shakespeare’s play as well as the various myths and ‘urban legends’ (Caesar wasn’t born by Caesarian section!) surrounding him. Philip Freeman’s biography, Julius Caesar, debunks many of these stories and fables and paints a proper portrait of this fascinating person in Roman history.

The early chapters about Caesar’s youth, education and early years as a teenager and young adult — these are, in my opinion, the most interesting since they are often ignored by historians. However, these early chapters set the context for Caesar’s future motives and actions. The middle chapters provide us with an extensive and exhaustive account of Caesar’s conquests of Gaul, and the many challenges he faced not only on the battlefield but also in his political life. Freeman rounds out the book with excellent commentary on Caesar’s final years and the dissolution of the first triumvirate. Each chapter of the book connects not only forward through Caesar’s timeline but also back. Freeman introduces “characters” that are rarely mentioned in standard history texts who crossed Caesar’s path – some as allies and others are formidable adversaries.

Freeman’s book is just as much as a biography of Caesar as it is an extensive study of the inner workings of the political world of Ancient Rome. Freeman maps out the major players in Rome’s political scene and links them to Caesar. Not only does Freeman spend a large amount of time on Caesar, but he also fills in the gap with pertinent and necessary information about Caesar’s friends, family and adversaries since many of them played a huge part in how they shaped Caesar’s political ambitions and military life. Freeman also provides, where necessary, important explanations about Roman law or Roman civil life. He doesn’t leave the reader in the dark and illuminates succinctly – providing just enough detail to hold our interest without bogging us down with minutiae.

The author has combed many sources in writing his book, and the effort is a well-written account of Caesar’s military and political life. The author is quite clear in his introduction that he wishes to dispel many of the myths propagated by Shakespeare and other historians. The bibliography is quite good (pp. 383-89) and in it Freeman explains his methodology as well as the sources he used in writing his book.

After reading Freeman’s biography, I learned a lot of things about Caesar that I had never known. Caesar could be described as one of the first grass roots politicians that one might read about today, who work not to embolden the political establishment but to provide a voice for the people and to enact laws and legislation that work for the good of all. While Caesar’s motives were not always so noble, Caesar understood the power of the people and sought to empower them by showing them the extent of their power and sway over Roman politics — much to the horror of Caesar’s contemporaries. Being a man from that very populace (did you know that Caesar’s family did not belong to the patrician class?), Caesar knew the problems and difficulties faced by Rome’s poor and disenfranchised — most of whom were military veterans who fought in many of Rome’s wars!

Caesar was more than just a general and a fighter. He had a first class education and was a brilliant orator, writer and leader. Caesar had a keen understanding of human psychology even before psychology was invented, and through the book, Freeman shows how Caesar expertly managed “to play” his adversaries and friends, either through bribes, strategic marriages, or brilliant orations which had the power to move men. The fact that Caesar could compel his armies to fight against sometimes impossible odds is testament to his powers as an orator. Throughout the book, Freeman humanizes Caesar in ways that Shakespeare never could. Freeman moves past Shakespeare’s dramatics and create a Julius Caesar that we can all relate to and even admire.

While we will never know what Caesar might have accomplished had he avoided or survived his assassination, there can be no doubt that Rome would have changed immensely. Caesar’s ideas, as Freeman relates, were quite feared by the patricians of Rome, who worked hard to make sure power, money and status remained firmly in their grasp. Would Caesar have been the tyrant the conspirators feared? Freeman’s biography ends with Caesar’s death, with Caesar dying at the feet of a statue of Pompey. The irony is all too telling.

A brilliant read! Anyone looking to learn more about ancient Rome during the tumultuous Republican years of Rome should read this book. The writing is clear, concise and quite readable. Freeman’s style is accessible to all and should be required reading to anyone studying ancient Rome and Julius Caesar.

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