Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Michael Parenti - The Assassination of Julius Caesar (*)

In the last twelve months I’ve been privileged to read a number of Roman historians and historians of Rome. Some ancient, some modern. While almost all of them have been fascinating, they all left me feeling something was missing. Most Roman history seems to be the tales of great men. Men who were motivated we are told by greed or altruism, madness or intelligence. The figures of Cicero, Caesar, Augustus and many others stride across the pages as men who are often dismissed with a single word – cruel, kind, intelligent or instance.

The beauty of Parenti’s work is that he shows how no one in ancient Rome, and certainly not those in the senate, did anything because of their personal nature. He shows absolutely how everyone was motivated by a much more modern notion.

Until Tony Blair buggered it up, there was a simplistic explanation of what happened in Parliament. The Tories did the work of big business, and the Labour Party did the work of the trade union bureaucracy. The Roman senate was little different – there was the party (or grouping?) of Optimates who considered the needs of the aristocracy, and the Populares, who in some way considered the wants of the poor (except the slaves).

So Parenti tells the story of these groupings, in the run up to Caesar’s time, in the context of the forces at play within the lowest levels of Roman society. Simultaneously he destroys those Roman historians (modern as well as ancient) who have taken for granted the accounts of past history. But his real story is reserved for the lives of the people who made it possible. The slaves and plebeians whose work created the wealth that we see portrayed in the works of Tacitus or Suetonius. Unsurprisingly it is a story of poverty, unemployment, hunger and the occasional rebellion. In particular it is the tale of men and women who were often portrayed as a rabble, but had as much, if not more understanding of politics than those who governed them.

For Parenti, Caesar is a figure to be rescued – a flawed champion of the poor, one of a long line of men who entered the senate with at least some notion of principle, or some belief that the world could be improved for the poorest (except the slaves). Parenti’s Caesar is one who mobilised the poor to challenge the status quo, and paid for it with his life.

But Parenti doesn’t simply put Caesar on a pedestal. He argues that he was a warmonger, a slaver, and a plunderer. But he points out how this didn’t distinguish him from any of those in the Roman senate.

No student, amateur or professional can afford not to consider this work. Even if you are the most conservative or revisionist historians I hope you spend much of your working life refuting some of Parenti’s points. As a taster, I offer this quote from the end of the work. I hope it inspires you all to further reading.
We hear that we must avoid imposing present values upon past experience, and we must immerse ourselves in the historic context under study. But few historians immerse themselves in the grim and embattled social experience of the Roman proletariat. If anything, they see the poor – especially the rebellious poor – through the prism of their own class bias, the same bias shared by ancient historians from Polybius and Cicero to Tacitus and Velleius.
(*) Full title: "The Assassination of Julius Caesar - A People's History of Ancient Rome" By Michael Parenti.

Related reviews
Tacitus - The Histories
Suetonius - The Twelve Caesars
Tom Holland - Rubicon
Beard - SPQR
Beard & Crawford - Rome in the Late Republic


maeve66 said...

Hmmm. I have read other works by Parenti, though not since high school (Democracy for the Few, or whatever it was called, pushed on me by the Eurocommunist mother of a friend/crush of mine), and in fact, I've started this book. I was annoyed by it, because I think the analysis he offers has already filtered down even to the mass cultural level: it didn't seem at all new to me, or necessary, to rescue Caesar -- most of the historians he's quoted are from the 1960s or much, much earlier.

I mean, I take his point (and yours) that historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own class position, without a great deal of effort on their part. Being determines everyone's consciousness, after all, if you agree with Marxist theory. But it's a little much to quote Edward GIBBON to prove your point. There have been more recent histories.

One caveat -- I am sure that you've read more than me in this area. But seriously, Caesar-as-some-kind-of-flawed populist is a common trope these days in popular fiction, and I tend to assume that these sorts of authors get their basic facts from as recent history as they can. Two, particularly, who tell these events as historical fiction and/or mysteries are Colleen McCullough (okay, something of an idiot and a romance writer, but her facts will stand up, for the most part) and Steven Saylor, whose research background is much more respectable, and whose politics are most likely quite good (unlike McCullough's).

Anyway, I didn't finish the Parenti, because it didn't seem like anything new whatsoever. Maybe now I'll go back and finish it and see if later in the book, he makes more substantial political gruel. If I do, I'd be interested in discussing it with you, either here, on this blog, or via e-mail.

I like his son's work much better -- Christian Parenti? Parenti père was obviously at least a CP fellow traveler and hopeless Democrat-supporting liberal, at least during the 80s, but Parenti fils is actually left, a socialist, and independent. He's a journalist and a writer, and has some good collections out.

Resolute Reader said...

I think you're a little harsh on Parenti (snr). His criticism of "gentlemen historians" includes Gibbon. Of course. He was the archetype of the Gentleman Historian. But he certainly doesn't ignore more contemporary historians who are guilty of the same errors and mistakes (and flawed historical outlook).

Of course there are other authors who write about Caesar in the same way. My point is that it's not that common, and it's certainly not particularly true of ancient sources. Parenti's method of looking at ancient history, is one that is seldom applied to the period, and one that most students of the era may well miss, unless they are lucky to have a good tutor or stumble across a marxist work. I'm sure there are those that will pick holes in Parenti. But for those interested in history from a Marxist or left wing position, he's on our side, and deserves our support as well as our comradely criticism.