Sed Vitae Caesaris
At last reading Ronald Syme’s famous book, The Roman Revolution (Oxford, 1939), a history of the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the principate. It begins slowly, with a grim overview of the career of C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus) and a bit of Republican background. Once Caesar has been assassinated, though, the plot picks up. Everybody knows that the history of the years 44 to 31 bc2 is the stuff of tragedies, but in Syme’s book, with the wealth of prosopographical detail, one feels the busy-ness of the scene, how everyone knew the Republic was going to perdition and nobody could or would do anything about it. This comment on Brutus is typical:
Whatever be thought of those qualities which contemporaries admired as the embodiment of aristocratic virtus (without always being able to prevail against posterity or the moral character of another age), Brutus was not only a sincere and consistent champion of legality, but in this matter all too perspicacious a judge of men and politics. Civil war was an abomination. Victory could only be won by adopting the adversary’s weapons; and victory no less than defeat would be fatal to everything an honest man and a patriot valued. But Brutus was far away. (147f.)
That’s the real question, then, isn’t it? What do you do, as an honest man and a patriot, when your country is bent, not on self-destruction, but on the destruction of those values which make it worth defending? But there is room for neither philosophy nor morality in politics; no, and never has been, I suppose.
- The title of this post is from Hirtius’s conclusion to Caesar’s de Bello Gallico, 8.praef.2; Hirtius completed the commentary, bringing the narrative not to the end of the civil war (ad exitum non quidem civilis dissensionis), to which he could see no end (cuius finem nullum videmus), but to the assassination of Caesar (sed vitae caesaris).
- That is, from the assassination of Caesar on 15 March 44 to the battle of Actium on 2 September 31.