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