Thursday, 16 August 2012

Adrian Goldsworthy: An Overview


As a real – and by any standards a fairly significant figure in history – Julius Caesar must find it annoying that his name has been permanently associated with an frustratingly independent village in Gaul (France), let alone being permanently pestered by cartoon characters who indomitably resist the siren sound of Roman civilisation and display many of the weaknesses that ensured that the fall of Rome led to a new dark age. Alas, those of us born after Latin was taken out of the schools have our first introduction to Caesar and his era through the Asterix comic books. They are funny, witty and often entertaining (apart from the last one, which was ghastly) but they bear little resemblance to reality.

However, there has been a new outpouring of interest in ancient Rome and Adrian Goldsworthy, historian and novelist, is on the forefront of expanding a new generation’s horizons to admiration and understanding of the past. It says much about the failures to teach history in modern schools – or at least the schools I attended – that Goldsworthy manages to provide chronology and entertainment as well as education, and the schools provided nothing of the kind. If teachers were as capable as him, there would be more interest in history.

Goldsworthy’s first exploration of Rome is concentrated on the men who built, maintained and ultimately lost the Roman Empire. In the Name of Rome studies the Roman commanders in battle, ranging from Fabius (the delayer) to Belisarius, to whom I was first introduced through Eric Flint and David Drake’s six-book SF series. The book seeks to place their campaigns in context, explaining how they became prominent as wells as what tactics they used in their relentless pursuit of victory. And relentless the Romans certainly were; no other state could have carried on a global war after the staggering defeats the Romans absorbed in the Second Punic War. Famous names such as Pompey and Titus mingle with lesser-known Generals and Emperors, including Julian the Apostate and Belisarius.

One trait that does flow through the later days of Republican Rome is the jealous nature of its senior citizens. Many a Roman General found that he was to be used, praised and discarded by the Republic after he had served his purpose (to paraphrase Cicero’s statement about Octavian/Augustus). Scorpio was eventually hounded into exile; Pompey was regarded as a toothless fool as soon as he disbanded his legions and Caesar, faced with ruin by his jealous enemies back home, crossed the Rubicon and launched a civil war rather than submit to destruction. This trend tended to grow sharper even in the era of the Roman Empire, with successful Generals often forced into suicide or into campaigns of civil war.

One can quibble with the choice of featured Generals. Sulla, the first military officer to take power by force, isn't featured. Nor is Agrippa, Octavian’s trusty ally, while the inclusion of Julian is only explained by the writer’s desire to show just how far the Roman system had shrunk in the years between Octavian/Augustus and his era.

Overall, however, In the Name of Rome is an excellent introduction to Rome – and far more than just the primer it could be.

Goldsworthy’s second book, The Punic Wars, focuses on one of the best-known Roman wars, the (effectively) world war with Cartage. Here, Goldsworthy is up against tougher competition; I had actually read Nigel Bagnell’s volume on the conflict prior to discovering Goldsworthy’s volume. However, it provides a welcome introduction to one of the most significant conflicts of the ancient world.

This book was followed up by Caesar, a biography of Julius Caesar. I can honestly say that this biography is one of the best I have ever read, of anyone. Goldsworthy does far more than outline Caesar’s life; he places that life in context, while being very open about things that we simply do not know. This is important for several different reasons, the most important being that Ancient Rome was a very different society to anything currently existing today. Caesar, along with Pompey, Cato, Cicero and other names that resonate down the ages, was the product of a society many of us would find profoundly alien.

Goldsworthy does not stint in outlining what transformed Caesar from just another general to one of the greatest military and political leaders in history. Caesar was personable, devastatingly intelligent and capable of learning from his own mistakes. Goldsworthy outlines many of those mistakes for us, both to demonstrate what they meant for Caesar personally and how he learned from his experiences. More importantly, Goldsworthy dismisses the claim that Caesar had always aimed at revolution, at forging an Empire. Caesar was driven by ambition, yes (he would have been a very strange Roman if he had not been ambitious) but it is clear that he never sought the dictatorship purposefully. Instead, he was pushed into launching a civil war through political backstabbing that would otherwise have destroyed him.

The book is also one of the best histories of the final years of Republican Rome, a state that had been rotting away since the moment the Gracchi brothers were killed. Much of the final crisis that killed republicanism was caused by problems we might feel an uneasy kinship with today; a suffering poor, over-mighty politicians and a complete inability to come to grips with the true cause of the problem. At heart, Rome remained a city even when it was at the heart of an Empire. It is not surprising that the Republic suffered countless upheavals before the arrival of the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar.

Following Caesar, Goldsworthy moves forward several hundred years to chart the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Fall of the West is a largely chronographic account of Rome’s gradual decline, punctuated by heartbreaking moments when the Empire seemed capable of recovery. Goldsworthy attempts to puncture the myths that barbarians destroyed the Empire; simply put, the Empire fell because it had lost the energy that bound it together. It is difficult to imagine the Roman Republic, or the early Empire, suffering from the same malaise. However, the civil wars that brought down the Republic had their echo in the infighting within the Roman Empire, with one 50-year period suffering from 60 different claimants to the Imperial Throne.

Asimov once noted (roughly phrased) that ‘a strong emperor is only strong if he allows no strong subordinates. A strong general will seek to overthrow the emperor and take his place. Weak generals will lose battles and wars; an Emperor-General will be so tied up with fighting that he won’t be able to stabilise the Empire.’ This was true of the Roman Empire in its later years. The career of Julian the Apostate, for example, nicely illustrated this trend. When a subordinate, Julian was constantly threatened with execution by the Emperor; when Emperor himself, he had to divert his attention to campaigning and not to governing the Empire.

What did this do to the Empire? Troops fought civil wars instead of defending the borders. The Empire’s capital was often where the Emperor was instead of Rome. The bureaucracy expanded rapidly, often outside the requirements of the empire or indeed of its ability to fund it. There was a general loss of competence that eventually doomed the Empire to fall apart. Ironically, one might make the case that the consequences would be less disastrous if the fall took place much earlier. The Roman Empire might have become a handful of major states that would be far stronger than their later followers.

Having studied the fall of the Roman Empire, Goldsworthy then looks back at one of the most famous love stories in history – Antony and Cleopatra. The book focuses on Antony as he climbs his way up into Caesar’s confidence and how Cleopatra managed to assert herself in Egypt. It is clear that the martial customs of the Egyptians rulers probably played some part in their decline; brothers would marry sisters, fathers would marry daughters. Still, Cleopatra was something special by their standards; if history tells us true, Cleopatra was the first of her line to genuinely care about her position as more than a source of wealth or power. Indeed, she was the first to speak Egyptian!

Cleopatra’s life was dominated by the struggle for power – and later the struggle to keep the favour of a powerful Roman. Her famed meeting with Julius Caesar was a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide in her favour. It seems likely that she did seek to seduce Caesar; quite simply, she had nothing else left. Goldsworthy casts doubt on just how far Caesar allowed himself to be seduced. At first, he was very canny with what he gave her; later, when she was in a better position, he was willing to give her more. He also gave her a son, Caesarion.

Antony’s character, as painted by Goldsworthy, isn't quite what legend suggests. Antony was born to power, ran up huge debts, and was basically lazy. Caesar rarely chose to employ him on the battlefield (despite a reputation for military skill echoing down the years) and in some ways Antony was a dangerous man to leave behind when Caesar gave chase to Pompey. Not because of disloyalty – there is no suggestion that Antony was ever disloyal – but because Antony was not particularly subtle in wielding power. He made enemies, including Cicero (who would later be killed at Antony’s instructions.) However, he did manage to bring Caesar reinforcements that turned the tide and led to Pompey’s final defeat.

Like Cleopatra, he was in Rome when Caesar was assassinated. The plotters saw fit to lure him away before they struck, assuming that the burly Antony’s first reaction would be to fight. Unlike Cleopatra (who could not play any role in politics, at least in Rome) Antony was rapidly drawn into the political infighting between the remaining plotters, Caesar’s loyalists and – most surprisingly of all – Octavian/Augustus Caesar. Following the path of treachery and deceit is confusing, I must say, but that was probably true of the people at the time too. Eventually, Octavian and Antony (with the forgotten Lepidus) formed the Second Triumvirate, which asserted its power with a purge that rivalled one carried out by Stalin. Cicero was murdered, along with many others.

Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra takes on centre stage as Antony moves into the middle east and prepares to wage war on Persia. Cleopatra seduced him, deliberately approaching him in a manner she believed he would find attractive. It is easy to blame Cleopatra for this (the Romans certainly did) but she had little choice. One thing the book makes clear is that Cleopatra’s position was insecure; the Romans could bolster her throne, or tear her down with ease. As Rome needed Egypt’s crops for the invasion of Persia, Rome had a strong vested interest in keeping Egypt under control. Cleopatra needed Antony more than Antony needed her.

Was there love? It’s hard to say, Goldsworthy admits. There is no strong evidence for any men in Cleopatra’s life apart from Caesar and Antony (one assumes that Antony found the fact that Cleopatra’s other lover had been the most powerful man in the world very exciting.) Certainly, Antony kept her close, even when it produced a political backlash; they produced three children together. They may even have been married, although Goldsworthy states bluntly that the evidence is inconclusive (and Cleopatra’s children could not take a role in Rome.)

Antony’s failings as a general became clear in the ill-fated invasion of Persia. Antony blundered badly; his common touch was true, but his planning was almost non-existent. The defeat led to the final round of fighting between Antony and Octavian, resulting in Antony’s flight from the battleground and eventual suicide. Cleopatra followed him into death a few weeks later and Egypt was annexed as a Roman territory. It was so prosperous that anyone given control might become a threat to the new Roman Empire.

What can one make of Antony, as Goldsworthy paints him? He was indolent, in a sense; he rarely chose to act of his own accord. The one major time he did ended in disaster. He may have conceded the war with Octavian long before the fateful battle. The Romans claimed that Cleopatra had sapped his fighting spirit. Looking at his history, one might counter that Antony’s flaws had become clear before he met Cleopatra.

And Cleopatra? Goldsworthy outlines everything we know about her, painting a far more complex picture than we might expect from her portrayal in movies and fictions. She was someone who tried to keep her kingdom together with a very weak hand, and did far better than might be expected.

So, in conclusion, what can I say about Goldsworthy’s work? If you only want one author to introduce you to Rome, in all its glory, Goldsworthy is the man.

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