Sunday, July 27, 2008

On History


I have been studying history since before I went to school. With my mother’s help I learned to read at the age of four. From that time nearly fifty years ago I have viewed history as something that happened just before I was born.

So to me history is a vibrant flowing organism and I see all of it: ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Biblical events, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Crusades, the great medieval struggles which began in the Languedoc and in Switzerland and continued down through the American Revolution to the present, with places such as Bunker Hill, Bastille, the Berlin Wall and now Darfur, as one long struggle for freedom by those who want to live and love, work and trade in peace against those tyrants who use fear and the misuse of law to enforce their hegemony and perpetuate their illicit accumulation of power and prestige.

Given such a view I have always found history to be endlessly fascinating, and provocatively pertinent to our present information-rich, but often content-poor, era.

In The Eltonian Universe I will occasionally profile controversial figures from history, give my view of them and their accomplishments and ask for your perspective as well. For my first example I will pick one of the most powerful persons from one of the most colorful and well documented eras in history: Julius Caesar from the First Century B. C. and the end of the Roman Republic.


The HBO series Rome has inspired many to re-acquaint themselves with Roman history. And as aformentioned one of the most the colorful and controversial figures from that period was Julius Caesar. There are many who view him as either a hero, or a villain (original meaning: from the country estate – or villa: just another example of urban versus rural bias in etymology). Which was he?

In my view, Gaius Julius Caesar of the prominent Roman family Iolus was an out of control politician who did anything to enhance his own power. His savaging of the Gauls gave a whole new meaning to the word decimate. He declared himself dictator for life. He encouraged those who called him a God (the supposed founder of the family, Iolus, was purportedly the son of Venus). He slept around so prodigiously that the Roman historian Suetonius reported that during his lifetime it was said of him that he was “every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.” It is likely that he slept with the wife of every Senator that assassinated him.

Sure, he gave the Roman commoners part of the spoils gotten from raping and pillaging the Gauls as well as goods stolen from other victims of his foreign wars of aggression; that was only good politics. As for taking care of his troops, well any commander who didn’t share his booty with the troops ended up like Lepidus (a notosiously tight-fisted politician and general whose troops deserted him before an important battle).

Whatever else you may think about Caesar, good, bad, or indifferent, one fact about his life is not up for debate: before him Rome was a Republic; after him came the Empire with all of its excesses, including many emperors who were more like mad, out-of-control Caligula than the relatively quiet and thoughtful Marcus Aurelius.

In short he paved the way for the takeover of the Republic which was completed by his nephew Octavian, the Godfather of Rome, who in typical Caesarian modesty renamed himself Caesar Augustus. In my opinion Julius Caesar was one of history’s great villains. He has a month, a salad, and a pizza company named after him. Too much honor in my opinion.

As for his assassins; well, he declared himself dictator for life. He allowed himself to be worshipped as a God. His only direct heir likely came from a liaison with Cleopatra. Rome ruled by an Egyptian. Too much for the Roman patricians of the time. For the good of the Republic Caesar had to go. They viewed themselves as patriots not assassins. Shakespeare working for the royal families (Tudor and Stewart) of his day viewed them as -- there's that word, again -- villains. Our view today is heavily influenced by Shakespeare's powerful, but historically innacurate play.

What do you think? Julius as hero: the Fallen King? Or Brutus as hero: the reluctant defender of the Republic?

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