The subtitle of this remarkable study — A people’s history of ancient Rome — already indicates the purport of it. Parenti isn’t overawed by the historical canon on Caesar and asks this simple question: “what did Caesar stand for that made a group of prominent senators want to kill him?”
To answer this question Parenti recounts some of the preceding history. He looks at the way the Roman democracy worked and what forces were behind it. After the Etruscan kings that reigned until 509 BC the Roman society created a constitution with a complicated system of checks and balances. Both the aristocracy and the normal population were represented. I deliberately use normal population because the word plebs (from Latin plebeius) has become a derogatory term.
Parenti describes how during the Republic the aristocracy and the newly rich gathered enormous wealth and opposed even the shadow of a modest reform to alleviate the burdens on ordinary people. Two spheres of influence emerged: the optimate and the populare. Parenti argues that most historians through the ages willingly follow the biased contemporary reports because they mostly have the same conservative class instincts. Almost nobody is interested in finding out how this so rejected plebs really lived and loved and worked. The cliché that they only lived on free bread and circus games is of course — but it needs to be reiterated — utterly grotesque.
Julius Caesar is often described as the dictator that ended the Republic and therefore the democratic system, but senators were all too happy to cede their power to a dictator (e.g. Sulli) if only this dictator acted in their own spirit. Parenti does not try to sanctify Caesar. Caesar loved power and money, etc. But as a shrewd statesman he must have known that the unscrupulous grabbing for money of the rich was counterproductive in the long run.
So, far from being a Marx avant la lettre, Caesar proposed modest changes to guarantee a decent life to the poverty stricken population. It was not to be.
While reading I made these three considerations.
My knowledge of the history of the Roman Republic was limited and this study certainly stimulates my interest. At the same time it is a warning to always read very critically. For more than 2,000 years the dominant view has been that Caesar’s murderers were really men who loved democracy, liberty and the rule of law. In reality they were wealthy aristocrats trying to safeguard their own prerogatives. In other words the optimates view of history written by members of that class in the Roman world (like Cicero) has been accepted uncritically by ‘gentlemen’ historians down to this day.
And it made me think of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, once again. The eternal rewriting of history to please the oversensitive feelings of the ruling classes and the sheer impossibility to find something like the truth when all the damaging reports have been destroyed and only ‘correct’ historical documents survive. Even today, in our information society, it is extremely difficult to prove for instance police crimes (e.g. read what journalist Mark Covell and others went through when they were beaten up by police at the G8 top at Genoa in 2001: article in the Guardian).
Finally, it seems like fighting a losing battle. This excellently researched study has to fight a lonely battle against all the films and tv-programmes, books, even Shakespeare’s plays, that portray Julius Caesar in a biased way.
We can only be grateful that books like this one are being written and published.