I love to work in the non-fiction section of the library. Wait, let me widen that statement, I love to work in the library, but the non-fiction area calls a siren song to me. Recently, while actively roving the floor, I spied a new book titled The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss. I did a quick online search to validate Barry Strauss as an authority in Roman history and was pleasantly surprised to find out that he is the department chair for the Cornell University history department. He is an expert in military history, with several books published regarding this very subject. He has been the recipient of many academic fellowships which have taken him across the globe and is an honorary citizen of Salamis, Greece simply because of his knowledge and skill in retelling history. The Death of Caesar follows behind these other acknowledgements and milestones.
‘Crossing the Rubicon’ is a phrase used in the English language today because of Caesar. Meaning: to make a decision at a crossroads. For several centuries these words have held value in everyday life; this is one simple example of the influence and importance of Julius Caesar in popular culture. Caesar crossed the real Rubicon River in 49 BC Italy igniting a civil war with another prosperous Roman, Pompey, ultimately leading to his reign as Caesar. His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar, and he was a military genius who fought and won against larger Germanic and Gallic tribes to increase Rome’s reach into the British Isles and Germany. The tragedy of Caesar, though, is in his defining his success in a town awash in ego’s and ambitions. Caesar was a populist, a man of the people, but he came to close to defining himself as King. Barry Strauss writes, “Hatred is one of a ruler’s greatest dangers, especially hatred from the common people. Hatred stirs conspiracies, while hatred by the people makes conspirators think they can get away with their plans” (Strauss, 63).
This, then, is the timeless plot of the book: conspiracy, murder, and revenge. Strauss writes it so fluently as if we all could be there, as if the sources of understanding the situation weren’t ancient, and as if we might understand a bit about each of the conspirators and why they were vested in the death of Caesar. Details in the book are vivid: the funeral of Caesar– seven days of festivities ending in a riot. The stories of Rome are littered with events like this though, almost like a place that wins a national basketball championship every year and celebrates by turning over cars and lighting apocalyptic fires in the streets. This is what makes Roman history so alive: the absolute debauchery and violence of a society that held itself up as civilized.
The story of Julius Caesar is one for the ages. Society still struggles with power and corruption – between those who take too much and those who are infinitely powerless. Connecting to these struggles make us better people. I recommend this book for everyone. It’s an easy read to get through with only two hundred or so pages and you’ll come away more informed on one of history’s great lessons.
~a post from Heather