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Was Julius Caesar a Good Person?

The artistic approach of the English classic playwright William Shakespeare, who chronicled Julius Caesar, was based on historical sources, but with a strong preference for embellished fiction. For Shakespeare, it was important to express not the real characteristics of the prototype of his character, but the character himself, as the embodiment and sharpening of a complex of specific psychological traits. Shakespeare based many of his works on historical subjects, and Julius Caesar in his canon is just one of the historical characters. Comparative biographies made by the Roman historian Plutarch will certainly prove to be much more valuable for understanding the psychology of Caesar’s historical personality than Shakespeare’s brilliant but still artistic drama.

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Plutarch based his biographies on the compilation and organization of several historical sources. Taking from the scientific works of his predecessors and contemporaries, for example, Titus Livy, Plutarch created a full-fledged biographical canvas from heterogeneous elements1. Caesar’s life is an influential biographical story full of dramatic twists and turns and deep symbolism. Plutarch’s work, which is chronologically close to the dates of Caesar’s life, is probably capable of allowing the closest approach to the historical personality of Caesar. Written merely a century after his death, it originated in a historical setting that Caesar himself directly influenced and shaped. The historical proximity of the author of the biography to the era of Caesar’s life allows us to get closer to the actual characteristics of his personality with good and bad manifestations.

The biography of Caesar is the story of a slow and steady ascent to the top of the bureaucratic political structure of the Roman Empire. In his youth, Caesar was captured by pirates and spent several months in captivity. However, Plutarch describes his stay as a manifestation of his outstanding spirit2. Caesar pushed around pirates, joked with them, recited poetry to them as he was also an outstanding writer and orator. Caesar presided over the court, and then was elected pontiff for life, that is, the great priest.

Caesar became famous for fighting conservative senators, emphasizing the exhaustion and crisis of the idea of republican rule. After founding a triumvirate with other influential politicians, Caesar unleashed a civil war as a result of which he defeated the troops of his political opponents. The prolonged war was caused by the collapse of the triumvirate and the need to oust Caesar’s main adversary, Pompey, and suppress continued waves of resistance. Caesar concentrated in his hands not only the powers of the consul, but also appropriated the title of commander-emperor. Caesar’s government was accompanied by reforms in all spheres of public life. Due to the ongoing conflicts between Caesar and the senator, the dictator was killed, and the title of emperor passed to Caesar’s great-nephew Guy Octavius.

Speaking about the characteristics given to Caesar by Plutarch, it is remarkable that neither for the author nor for the contemporaries of Caesar themselves are Caesar’s political strategies secret or unobvious. His maneuvers are understandable to the plebeians of Rome and find support from them. Caesar’s power is concentrated in the ability to tune the people to their side, not only by his manipulativeness, but also by the openness of his ambitions. Caesar is vain, but he bases his fame on it. Caesar is an extremely contradictory character since on the one hand, he is a tyrant who seized power, on the other – a brave reformer and an incredibly gifted person.

Caesar was mercilessly cruel to his rivals and oppressors, but he is also described as a merciful emperor. Reforms aimed at democratizing the estate system in Rome and replenishing the aristocracy can be considered as improving the depleted civil apparatus. Caesar introduced laws in an effort to maintain a balance in domestic and foreign policy and to fill the crisis zones in the structure of the Roman state. To avoid a credit crunch, with the outbreak of the civil war, Caesar escaped the full support of both creditors and debtors. Financial regulations were enforced by Caesar through anti-luxury laws. Caesar enjoyed strong support from the people in the provinces, giving them civil rights comparable to the legal status of the Romans. It makes sense to perceive Caesar’s actions as diplomatic, performed by a subtle psychologist who knows collective social impulses and knows how to interact with them.

One of the main characteristics of Caesar as described by Plutarch is vanity. The desire for the recognition of the crowd, the pleasure in the manifestation of reverence, obviously represents the clear passion of Caesar. His craving for fame pushes him into the struggle for power and gives him strength. Caesar feeds on the energy of the crowd, and proves that the preferences of the people are an undeniable advantage in the political struggle. Cicero, one of Caesar’s main rivals, turns out to be unable to set his soldiers on Caesar and recalls them at the last moment – perhaps just because he was afraid of the anger of the Roman citizens. Caesar wins support from the people also because it pleases the vain side of his personality. One can say that many of Caesar’s manifestations of power are also manifestations of narcissism, the desire to create an impressive picture in the minds of witnesses of his life.

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Throughout his political career, Caesar seeks to turn the Roman political system into a one-sided monarchical hierarchy in which everything is subordinated to his personality. The cult of personality accompanies the later activities of Caesar, who proclaimed himself emperor for life and was the first to mince his name on a gold coin. According to the characteristics of Plutarch, it is noticeable, first of all, that Caesar stands out from other patricians and demonstrates this, receiving strong support from a large number of plebeians. Caesar’s alliances with various partners are also key to Caesar’s successful ascent. Caesar was a brave man, extremely purposeful and diplomatic. However, it is difficult to say whether these characteristics are synonymous with a good personality. Plutarch describes both examples of Caesar’s mercy and exceptional cruelty – his biography is filled with numerous executions. Caesar’s statement “Oh, Cato, I hate your death, because you hated to accept salvation from me,” speaks of him as a power-hungry personality striving for recognition3. His pamphlet, Anticaton, written after the suicide of his proud rival, only proves this characterization.

Historical leaders and politicians are more likely to be judged as talented or talentless. Caesar’s democratic reforms give reason to think of him as a good person, but the tyrannical constraint of power does not give full right to assert this. Thus, it is difficult to base a judgment of a political personality even on realistic and factual conclusions. Ancient authors emphasize the dynamism of Caesar’s personality and thinking, his exceptional strategic abilities. However, it is obvious that Caesar’s talents do not automatically equal his positive qualities as a person.

References

Al-Abdullah, Mufeed. “The Ambivalent Alliance of Caesar and Caesarian Forces in Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” International Journal of Language and Literature 8, no. 1 (2020): 25-37.

Plutarch. “Caesar.” The Internet Classics Archive. Web.

Footnotes

  1. Mufeed Al-Abdullah. “The Ambivalent Alliance of Caesar and Caesarian Forces in Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” International Journal of Language and Literature 8, no. 1 (2020): 25-37.
  2. Plutarch. “Caesar.” The Internet Classics Archive. Web.
  3. Plutarch. “Caesar.” The Internet Classics Archive. Web.

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