When in Rome

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Review of ’The Assassination of Julius Caesar‘ by Michael Parenti, New Press £14.95; and ’Rubicon‘ by Tom Holland, Little Brown £20

What is history and who gets to write it? Why is it written and for whom? Henry Kissinger said ’history is the memory of states‘. In ancient history, scarcity of sources has been used as justification for only telling the stories of those who left written records and stone buildings. For Benedetto Croce history could be the ’story of liberty‘ written from the bottom up. These are two ends of a spectrum between the organised (and armed) interests of the ruling class, and the mass of people whose lives have tended to be voiceless and unrecorded. The Assassination of Julius Caesar and Rubicon are exponents of either end of this history-writing spectrum.

Holland‘s is a history of the Roman Republic established in 590 BC ending with the death of Augustus, Julius Caesar‘s nephew, in AD 14. With one word - Rubicon - Holland crystallises a long accepted view that the republic was ancient Rome‘s triumph and Julius Caesar was its tragedy and downfall. So crossing the Rubicon stream with his legions, in defiance of the Senate‘s orders, made his murder a public service by those determined to save the republic from a tyrant.

Parenti‘s much shorter book focuses on the possible interpretations of the career and death of Julius Caesar but asks much larger questions than Holland about why ’gentlemen historians‘ have chosen to accept particular sources, notably Cicero, as objective fact to be taken at face value.

He begins with an overview of prominent historians of ancient Rome, their class bias and ’male supremacist ideas‘ and concludes that because they tend to be solidly establishment, status quo supporting individuals, they feel free to talk knowledgeably about the ancient ruling class while presenting cardboard cutout versions of the plebeians and slaves. He highlights how anti-communist prejudice has lent weight to a sympathetic view of the propertied classes particularly over the treatment of slaves. From such historians, he mocks, ’the impression one gets is that Roman slavery was a kind of affirmative action programme‘.

He argues that Caesar was murdered by his peers because he carried out limited reforms that appalled the super-rich of Rome, who dressed up this act as a desperate measure to restore the republic rather than for their own interests.
The class bias of such historians allows them not to look too carefully at the motives of their sources, most notably Cicero, the darling of classicists down the ages and supposedly the ’most civilised man in history‘ - a slum landlord who declared any reforms to be mere demagoguery. A typical abuse of power concerned the ager publicus, publicly owned fertile farmland that had been cultivated by tenant farmers who paid a small rent to the city. There had been legal limits as to how much could be farmed by one family, but over the years great landowners had by fraud or violence expropriated it. Caesar incurred great hatred by intending to take some of it back.

Both authors want us to get a sense of Rome as a stinking haphazard mess, encircled by fine villas with its centre full of jerry-built slums, but it‘s Parenti‘s sense of social injustice that breathes life into his portrait of squalid tenement blocks with exorbitant rents and whole families crammed into each room. These firetraps periodically collapsed, to the chagrin of their owners. We get a memorable picture of Cicero complaining that two of his shops have collapsed and another shows cracks. It‘s so bad that the mice have moved on, ’to say nothing of the tenants‘. We don‘t need a written record to imagine how his tenants felt about this.

Holland has much of the same detail, but the lives of the poor plebeians and slaves are lost beneath the welter of Great Men and their Great Actions. Holland, like Cicero, understands Caesar‘s reforms as his attempts to please ’the mob‘.

Holland‘s view of the mob creates a problem for the reader. Here Rome swarms with mindless hooligans itching to riot and be pawns in the politicking of unscrupulous thugs like Julius Caesar. At the same time he tells us that all Roman free men, plebeian and aristocratic, are united in pride at their citizenship and love of their city with its glorious traditions of liberty. But we know that Holland knows about the rents, the desperate poverty, the unemployment, the theft of public land by the rich, etc - and yet we are to believe that these people identify with the tiny class of the super-rich as common inhabitants of Rome.

Holland is a classical scholar who wants to make ancient Rome accessible and his readers will come away with strong impressions of the turbulence and violence of Roman high society. Parenti pointedly remarked at Marxism 2003 that he is not a historian but he has produced a history that is ultimately more demanding, as he gives us a method for evaluating all kinds of history.