Reading The Roman Revolution 4: Caesar the Dictator

Chapter 4 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution considers Caesar’s dictatorship. Syme had a soft spot for Caesar. In chapter 2 where he describes the Roman oligarchy, he mostly decried his ambition: “Active ambition earned him a host of enemies. But this patrician demagogue lacked fear or scruple.” Compared to Pompeius or Crassus, Syme’s Caesar was closer to the stubborn, overconfident, and aristocratic Cato. Perhaps Caesar’s aristocratic family offered an excuse for his ambition. It was at least historically justified:

“Caesar and his associates in power had thwarted or suspended the constitution for their own ends many times in the past. Exceptions had been made before in favour of other dynasts; and Caesar asserted both legal and moral rights to preferential treatment. In the last resort his rank, prestige and honour, summed up in the Latin word dignitas, were all at stake: to Caesar, as he claimed, ‘his dignitas had ever been dearer than life itself.’ (BG 8.52.4: sibi semper primam fuisse dignitatem viatque potiorem)”

Lest we blame Caesar’s actions on his aristocratic obligations, Syme reminded us that “The very virtues for which the propertied classes were sedulously praised by politicians at Rome forbade intervention in a struggle which was not their own,” but only if “They pretended that the issue lay between a rebellious proconsul and legitimate authority. Such venturesome expedients are commonly the work of hot blood and muddled heads. The error was double and damning. Disillusion followed swiftly. Even Cato was dismayed.”

Syme doesn’t spend much time on the end of Pompeius and the Senatorial resistance to Caesar and moves on swiftly to Caesar’s rise the restorer of the Republic to dictator for life. That move was necessary, in part, because, the “cause of Pompeius had become the better cause. Caesar could not compete.” Without the support of the nobiles, it was impossible to restore the Republic and legitimize his rule. His only recourse was to depart Italy to campaign in the East. Syme rejected speculation on Caesar’s ultimate design for the state: “The present was unbearable, the future hopeless.”

Caesar’s death almost would have come as a relief, but the “Liberators knew what they were about … They stood, not merely for the traditions and the institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and the interests of their own order. Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words. They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.”

Syme goes on to offer a general statement on the work of history: “The tragedies of history do not arise from the conventional conflict of right and wrong. They are more august and more complex. Caesar and Brutus each had right on his side.”

“Without a party a statesman is nothing.”


The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

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