(Josephine Quinn’s article appeared in The New York Review of Books, 3/22.)
edited and translated from the Latin by Kurt A. Raaflaub
Pantheon, 793 pp., $50.00
Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970
When Julius Caesar was thirty-one years old in 69 BCE, so the story goes, and serving as a junior Roman magistrate in Spain, he once stood lamenting before a statue of Alexander the Great because he had achieved so little at an age by which Alexander had already conquered the world.
He had good reason for concern. Although his recent election as a quaestor—one of the officials responsible for finances—had given him a lifetime seat in the Senate, Roman politics were more of a funnel than a ladder: twenty quaestors who had been elected at thirty years old could compete nine years later for eight praetorships, and then, three years after that, for just two annual consulships. To rise, you needed political friends, name recognition, and, in order to buy elections, a great deal of money.
Caesar was already admired as an orator, but he was best known for his debts, and he was good at making enemies, especially among the powerful conservatives in the Senate. Furthermore, while he had ably fulfilled the standard military duties of a young Roman nobleman, he had attracted attention only for his first assignment overseas at the age of about twenty: a trip to Bithynia in northern Anatolia, where he had become friendly—many said extremely friendly—with its king, Nicomedes. Whether or not the rumors were true, this was the first hint of a lifelong tendency to test the bounds of Rome’s unwritten moral and legal codes.