Julius Caesar; the Roman Emperor Who Fascinates to This Day

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In his massive biography of Julius Caesar, Adrian Goldsworthy presents the case that a man can indeed be great without being moral or even good. Such an argument might lead some to suspect that Mr. Goldsworthy is just the latest of many to have fallen for Caesar's charms.

However, though Mr. Goldsworthy says from the beginning that Caesar "was not a Hitler or a Stalin, nor indeed a Genghis Khan," the historian isn't smitten with his subject. But he does admire him, which in light of the ongoing debates about Caesar's legacy, is bound to rankle some.

"It is striking that while today's academics are supposed to be trained to examine the past dispassionately," writes Mr. Goldsworthy, "it is rare to meet an ancient historian who does not have a strong opinion about Caesar." While this is no doubt true, I don't find it particularly striking. There hasn't been an age since Caesar's in which historians haven't had a strong opinion of the man.

Even contemporaries such as Cicero had to admit that Caesar, tyrant though he was, possessed exceptional, nearly hypnotic, gifts. Not to mention that he was a delightful dinner-party guest (so long as your wife wasn't around).

To the post-Republic Romans, he was worshiped as a god, the progenitor of a line of divine emperors. In Christianized medieval Europe, Caesar became legend, a mythic colossus of a lost golden age. By the Renaissance and the rediscovery of knowledge, the man returned, suddenly humanized with all the charm, wit and ability, but without losing a touch of greatness. And so it went, until the great 19th-century German classicist Theodor Mommsen would say, "In all this Caesar is the whole and complete man."

Mr. Goldsworthy doesn't go that far. Caesar made plenty of mistakes and committed his fair share of atrocities. Of these and more, however, Mr. Goldsworthy is usually ready with a tolerable explanation, if not justification.

What explains this strange fascination with a man who lived 2,000 years ago? Indeed, historian Michael Hart, in his controversial book on the 100 most influential people in history, put Caesar at number 67, well below Augustus and Constantine.

Yet "hardly any other [historical] figure has left such an enduring impression on posterity," wrote Christian Meier in his 1982 biography. Will Durant was slightly more accommodating in his eight-volume "Story of Civilization" by calling volume three "Caesar and Christ."

For his part, Mr. Goldsworthy says that Caesar "remains one of a handful of figures from the ancient world whose name commands instant recognition." I think here Mr. Goldsworthy is being far too generous to other ancient figures, with the possible exception of Alexander the Great.

Unfortunately, Mr. Goldsworthy doesn't delve too deeply into the phenomenon of Caesar admiration (and condemnation). The aim, he writes, "is to examine Caesar's life on its own terms, and to place it firmly within the context of Roman society."

Nevertheless, it stands as a flaw, one that the author covers in his epilogue with a stale "each person will inevitably shape their own Caesar." One wonders if "inevitably" each person will shape their own Pompey or Brutus or Mark Antony. Maybe, but only by studying Caesar.

So what you won't get with this particular Caesar biography is much by way of historical context. Mr. Goldsworthy is very careful to separate what he calls "historical inevitability," the unfair hindsight a historian can bring to his subject, from what might be called the fog of the present.

Caesar did not set out to destroy the Roman Republic. He did set out to be the Republic's most respected and powerful man, much like every other Roman. Of course now we see what his ambition wrought, but this is the temptation Mr. …