The Case Against Julius Caesar
Warlords are not great
Julius Caesar wept.
The tears were brought on by an account of Alexander the Great. When his friends asked why he cried, Plutarch wrote that Caesar answered:
Do you not think…it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?
Eventually, Caesar did earn honors and display supreme skill. He achieved one of the most impressive battle records in his conquests. In Rome, he demonstrated extraordinary political and bureaucratic competence. He cleaned swamps (of both kinds) and extended the empire.
However, it’s debatable whether he attained the glory he yearned for.
Throughout history, Julius Caesar has been a controversial figure. He can be seen as the liberator of Rome or her tyrannical destroyer.
Yet the very name Caesar has become associated with royalty, power, and prestige in multiple languages: czar, kaiser. Summarizing the common view of Caesar, Shakespeare gave the following words to Cassius: “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus, and we petty men.” The classist and biographer Adrian Goldsworthy continued this assessment: Julius Caesar lived the life of a colossus. Even as some see him as complicated, many see him as great.
This attitude is mistaken.
Why Caesar Isn’t Great
At some point, vicious character and worthless acts remove the possibility of greatness.
The sense of greatness here isn’t domain-specific, but general. We can call people great in a relative way, such as “he’s a great strategist” or “he’s a great baseball player.” That is not what we’re concerned with here. When used in a general way greatness is a property of the whole person, their character, and history. Other terms can be used in a similar way. A good poker player isn’t a good person and so on.
When greatness is meant in this general way, evaluative questions, such as the meaningfulness of a person’s life and the wisdom of their actions must come into play.
For some acts, it doesn’t matter how competent the person was cruelty, creepiness, or waste remove any claim to greatness.
The case against Julius Caesar being great is straightforward. He was a power-hungry murderer. Such people are not great.
Let’s consider two episodes from Caesar’s life: the Gallic and Civil wars.
Plutarch says that the Gallic wars resulted in the death of one million and enslavement of another million people. Hundreds of cities were destroyed and hundreds of tribes eliminated. Modern historians question these figures, but regardless, the scale of death and destruction was immense for the time.
Greatness, the kind worth weeping for, demands that we do the right thing, for the right reasons. The Gallic wars fail on both accounts.
Consider how these wars began. As Caesar was serving governor, Gallic tribes requested passage through Transalpine Gaul. He denied the request. In response, they decided to move around Roman lands. While they were in the midst of doing so, Caesar simply declared war and attacked them.
In general, these wars were not waged as matters of self-defense, but as wars of expansion. So, by and large, the wars were unjust.
Moreover, Julius Caesar’s intentions were base. He pursued the wars out of ambition and concern for his social position.
Roman aristocrats engaged in military conquest for the same reason some students found useless nonprofits – resume building. The Roman aristocrat built their prestige for the sake of power and honor. Roman culture lusted after political and military glory, a cultural feature that in some sense “worked” but in another was gratuitous. One doesn’t need to be a moral saint in order to know that killing people for the sake of increasing prestige is erroneous and contemptible.
These wars were brutal.
Take the famous case of the Siege of Alesia. In 52 BC, Caesar and his men pinned Gauls in the well-fortified Alesia in order to starve them to death. At one point the Gauls pushed out their starving women and children, in a gambit to save food and in hope that their noncombatants would be fed. It’s better to be enslaved than starved. However, the Romans did not accept the dying women and children. Many of them simply starved in the no man's land between Roman and Gallic warriors.
To get a better sense of what this actually entails, we should reference modern sieges, like the siege of Changchun. In 1948 the communist Chinese laid siege to the nationalist stronghold of Changchun in Manchuria. Like the Romans, the communists did not accept or aid any fleeing civilians. One communist general, Lin Biao, described the fleeing refugees, saying they:
[K]nelt in front of our troops in large groups and begged us to let them through. Some left their babies and small children with us and absconded, others hanged themselves in front of sentry posts. The soldiers who saw this misery lost their resolve, some even falling on their knees to weep with the starving people, saying, ‘We are only following orders.’ Others covertly allowed some of them through. After we corrected this, another tendency was discovered, namely the beating, tying up and shooting of refugees by soldiers, some to death.
In The Tragedy of Liberation, Frank Dikötter reports that the besieged ate everything from pets, belts, bark, and even other humans. We cannot be certain that the siege of Alesia resulted in the same travesties. Yet this is the reality of siege warfare. Men, women, and children are slowly tortured and obliterated.
After the Gallic wars, Caesar moved on to another conflict, now known as Caesar’s civil war. Instead of deciding to give up his legions, as the Senate had asked, he marched them across the Rubicon and murdered people.
He could have simply complied with the request. There was precedent for such a thing: Pompey the Great showed that it is possible to give up one’s legions while retaining Roman honor.
Yes, those of you familiar with this affair will know that there’s a sense in which Pompey dismissing his legions was a strategic misstep. If he wanted to be a dictator, he should not have done that. Further, the move wasn't only harmful to Pompey's ambitions. It hurt his men. Pompey was forced to scramble to do right by them without the leverage of an army parked outside Rome. It’s equally true that failing to march on Rome would have assigned a less than ideal fate to Caesar’s soldiers.
Nonetheless, such considerations clearly do not justify civil war.
It really can’t be overstated that the reason so many people died during the fall of the Republic is due to pointless power struggles. If the participants were smarter or less keen on killing people in order to maintain their auctoritas then regime change could have been much more peaceful.
None of this is to say that Caesar had no impressive attributes. He was exceptionally energetic and intelligent. He may not have been exceptionally virtuous, but he was competent in a way one wishes many politicians alive today were. That competency paid off not just for him but for many around him.
Nor is this to condemn Julius Caesar as a tyrant who destroyed a virtuous republic. The Roman Republic had been in death throes for at least fifty years before Caesar entered the stage. Though one may hope that it would have come to a more peaceful and dignified end.
The case against Caesar isn’t the case for Cato and Cicero (let alone Brutus). Many of the senators suffered from the same vicious ambition as Caesar did, without possessing the same brilliance. They were just as guilty as supporting, intentionally or not, a pointless civil war.
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Why Defenses of Caesar Fail
There are many defenses of the idea that Caesar is great. I’ll consider four, what I’ll call the just war, anachronism, excellence, and tragedy defenses.
The first is just the idea that the wars that Caesar engaged in were just. This must involve a case-by-case evaluation of both wars.
It’s easy to get lost in the historical weeds here. The quick case against the Gallic wars being permissible is that they don’t meet the standard principles of just war theory:
Just cause – war must be waged for virtuous causes.
Just authority – war should be engaged in by legitimate authorities.
Success – war should only be fought if there’s a reasonable chance of success.
Proportionality – war should be proportional to the cause.
Last resort – war should be used as a last resort.
Arguably, Caesar’s exploits meet the criteria of just authority and success. He represented the Roman empire and won the wars. There are libertarian, religious, and liberal criticism of the idea that the Roman empire was a just authority, but set those aside.
It’s more difficult to make the case that they meet the criteria of a just cause. There were several wars, of course, and some are easier to justify than others. It’s worth stating some general points. The Roman empire likely didn’t face an existential threat from Gallic tribes in the 50s BC. However, perhaps one can forgive the Romans for their paranoia. The threat was real at many points in the empire’s life.
More persuasively, as far as the case against Caesar goes, the Gallic wars did not begin in self-defense. Nor can it be said that the war was used as a last resort. Economic, political, and diplomatic measures to reduce conflict in Gaul were not taken seriously.
If we look at wars of expansion that are similar to the Gallic wars today, we don’t find them great. Even so, it’s not entirely implausible to attempt to excuse, if not justify, the Gallic wars.
However, Caesar's war is indefensible. The case for it being just can't really be made in self-defense. Self-defense for Caesar, maybe, but the defense of one man does not make for a just war. The Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero was correct when he wrote that Julius Caesar’s actions in the civil war:
[Overturned] all the laws of gods and men for the sake of the preeminence that he had imagined for himself in his mistaken fancy.
This episode of his life was simply a serious failure in action and intention.
The second defense claims that applying our standards of behavior is simply anachronistic. Caesar’s behavior is similar to the behavior of many, even if not all, Roman aristocrats of the day. The dynamics of civil strife, Gallic politics and the ancient Roman world rendered the moral landscape totally different from today’s ethical world. When we accuse others of failing to live up to our standards we simply aren’t taking into account their reality.
One understanding of this defense is just moral relativism. The problem with moral relativism is that it’s false! It’s an unmotivated philosophical theory. There aren’t principled reasons for privileging a culture as the ground of ethical reality, as opposed to an individual, subgroups within a culture, or even groups of cultures.
Even if moral relativism is true, then Caesar is still nothing more than a power-hungry ruler. According to our culture, Caesar is not great. The claim is made from the standpoint of our culture and should be evaluated from that position. We’re not ancient Romans evaluating his actions.
One is reminded of the story of the British response to Sati in India. Sati was a cultural practice of a widow immolating herself after the death of her husband, not always willingly. The British didn’t like this, because they believed (correctly) that it was wrong to burn people to death. In response to their attempts to repress the practice, it’s reported that several Indians asked a British official to respect their cultural traditions and refrain from punishing people partaking in the practice. The official responded that he would respect their culture and asked in return that the Indians do the same – in British culture, when someone burns another person to death, they are treated as a criminal and placed in prison.
In a similar fashion, we should say that even if moral relativism is true, we’ll proceed as if it were false. It makes little difference.
The third defense leans into Caesar’s apparent vices and construes them as virtues. It’s a Nietzschean argument. What made Caesar great was that he dominated others and impressed his will upon the world. The case against Julius Caesar is one that derives from slave morality, while master morality leaves room for a positive appraisal of his behavior.
Slave morality revolves around the victim. It’s a Christian morality focused on reducing harm and oppression. However, it’s not grounded in compassion, but in resentment of the powerful. In contrast, master morality revolves around excellence and domination. The master isn’t concerned with moral rules for they are nothing more than weapons the weak use to manipulate the strong.
Of course, there’s much to say about this kind of defense. There’s an argument that a kind of Nietzschean excellence is underrated today. But as it’s used here, the argument isn’t that plausible. It’s essentially the thought that “might makes right”. The problem with this view is that actions must be judged relative to a principle or value, if they are to be judged at all. There’s nothing to merely “impressing one’s will on the world.” In the words of G. K. Chesterton:
The worship of will is the negation of will. To admire mere choice is to refuse to choose.
To worship domination as such is empty. Instead, one must explicitly commit to some set of values or principles and then evaluate actions accordingly. I submit that not engaging in unjust wars and killing innocent people are good principles.
The final defense of Caesar refers to tragedy. Nature is red in tooth and claw. It’s the story of mothers and their children consuming other mothers and children. Human society is not much different. History is the story of gang warfare. Before Caesar entered Gaul, the Gallic tribes were busy killing and enslaving one another. Indeed, part of his explicit strategy took advantage of this dynamic and involved using tribes against one another. If Caesar hadn’t murdered people, then others would have filled the vacuum. If Spartans hadn’t enslaved Helots, then the Helots would have enslaved someone else. The ancient world was nasty and its inhabitants were not smart enough to transcend their lot.
On this line, our judgment of Caesar is too harsh. He lived in a tragic world that had made little philosophical, cultural, and technological progress. We can see this as an improved version of the earlier three defenses. Caesar’s actions are more understandable in the ancient world and his traits are more admirable because they’re what was needed to survive and help others.
Yet if we take this argument seriously, we’re not left with the conclusion that Caesar was great. Instead, he’s more of a tragic figure. Not tragic in the classical Greek sense – he’s not doomed to a necessary fate, but tragic in the sense that he is a paragon of the imperfect ancient world.
Truly great and heroic figures are the few who managed to transcend their time or wield the imperfections of their time well. The ancient Greek Epaminondas engaged in pointless city-state wars, but at least he freed the enslaved Messenians. Philosophers like Diogenes the cynic are impressive because they exited the game altogether. Though he may not have liberated the enslaved, he rejected the world of gang warfare. Exit can be admirable.
By chasing after martial honor, so many allegedly great figures simply spent themselves in a foolish way. War can be heroic, but usually, it is for losers.
Nonetheless, this final defense of Caesar is the one that I find most plausible. It’s true that the Roman world was tragic and that was no fault of any individual Roman. We should not take sanctimonious pleasure at their vices.
Moreover, one can argue that the Romans, unlike others, built state capacity. It was, typically, better to be conquered by them than by less civilized people. For many, Roman culture, markets, and competence improved their lives. We should reject cultural relativism – Roman culture really was better than others in some ways. Julius Caesar can take credit for being an effective ambassador. But this judgment is a relative one, not an absolute one. We have absolutely better heroes today – ones who didn’t kill thousands of others for pride. Moreover, the Roman generals to some extent took advantage of moral luck. Perhaps Caesar would have been a Vercingetorix or Arminius in another world.
Concluding the Case
Sometimes we admire people because they’re excellent along a single dimension, even if not all. For example, we admire political or entrepreneurial figures because “they get stuff done.” Such attitudes are mistaken. The details of what gets done actually matter.
In general, military excellence, power, and aggression are overrated. They’re indicative of a tragic situation and lack of intelligence, rather than the presence of virtue.
Often, the people who are invisible are underrated. They managed to exit pointless prestige competitions.
This isn’t a case for overturning statues of Julius Caesar or similar figures. There are many reasons not to do that. Nor is it a case for the idea that we are morally superior today. Modern civilization is clearly better in many regards, but to justify the judgment that it is better overall requires further argumentation.
One suspects that engaging in that argumentative project may itself be indicative of vice. We shouldn’t think so well of ourselves.
Politicians today are largely driven by ignoble intentions. Like many ancient aristocrats, they would rather remain in power than resign in old age even to ideological allies and even when staying in power harms their political project. Arguably, many ordinary citizens are not so different. Instead of exiting political games, we fuel them. When we do exit political games, for most of us, the way we choose to spend our time instead just isn’t that virtuous. A subset of people, Caesar-like, commit sins of domination, while most choose sins of submission.
Our world is tragic too. Though we don’t live in the ancient world of constant competition and warfare, that reality isn’t so far away.
We should be vigilant that such a world is not brought about again. This requires applying high standards to who we praise.
Julius Caesar wasn’t great and, for that matter, neither was Alexander.