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Book review: A fascinating look at Caesar

Goldsworthy offers a vivid portrait of complex leader

Published: Sunday, Jan. 7 2007 2:59 p.m. MST

CAESAR: LIFE OF A COLOSSUS, Adrian Goldsworthy, Yale University Press, 592 pages, $35

If you have only witnessed Julius Caesar on theater stages, movie screens and television, Adrian Goldsworthy's "Caesar: Life of a Colossus" will open your eyes to an extraordinarily gifted yet complicated man.

Goldsworthy's exhaustive and comprehensive portrait traces Caesar's life from birth through his assassination, with impartiality and lucidity. This is no boring history book; he presents his subject in both positive and negative light.

"Caesar was not a moral man," Goldsworthy writes. "Indeed, in many respects he seems amoral. It does seem to have been true that his nature was kind, generous and inclined to forget grudges and turn his enemies into friends, but he was also willing to be utterly ruthless."

Some aspects of Caesar's life will undoubtedly come as a surprise. Not only was he a charismatic orator, conquering general and powerful dictator, he was also a high priest of an exotic cult, a captive of pirates, and a seducer of myriad women, many of whom were the wives of senators and associates who later became his enemies.

There is also mention made of a suspected early homosexual affair with the aged Nicomedes, a scandal that would dog Caesar throughout his life. And, of course, his affair with the enchanting Cleopatra is given several pages.

The author's detailed explanation of Roman military tactics — the short sword for close fighting, formation of battle lines and sieges, etc. — is, in and of itself, reason enough to read the book. The vivid descriptions of Caesar's campaigns, his atrocities and clemencies in Gaul and the intrigues of the civil war against the armies of Pompey makes for engaging and enlightening reading.

One of the more illuminating and entertaining aspects of Goldsworthy's book is the time he spends discussing characters that orbit Caesar throughout his life. They are names many of us know — Cicero, Cato, Pompey, Mark Antony and Brutus. And these are just a few of the individuals that receive detailed attention.

The infighting, treachery, murder and adultery that permeate their relationships will make you wonder how the Roman senate ever got anything accomplished, and some will draw the conclusion — which is not too difficult to do — that the Romans were the first Mafiosi.

Ultimately it is Goldsworthy's ability to combine scholarship with storytelling that brings the complexity of Caesar's life and times to light.

"Caesar: Life of a Colossus" must certainly rank high in the catalog of Caesar biographies and will probably — if there's any justice — be the definitive history of the man for years to come.


E-mail: gag@desnews.com

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