Rome, by Robert Hughes

Summary: a shoddy swan song

You pick up a book by as renowned an art historian as Robert Hughes you think you can be confident in his erudition. With Rome, you will be disappointed.

I would not class myself as an expert on ancient Rome, but I have read a few books by proper authorities. Which seems to be more than can be said for Hughes. Perhaps he did once. But if he did, he did not bother checking any details and instead consigned his misrememberings to the page with gay abandon.

Rome was Hughes last published book. It put me in mind of John Keegan’s The American Civil War, and Christopher Hibbert’s The Borgias: shoddy final books by authors who had quite properly earned distinguished reputations for earlier work.

I read a review of this book by Mary Beard who suggested skipping the first five chapters – the ones that deal with her area of specialism, ancient Rome – so riddled with errors are they. But even if he is less slapdash with the facts in later chapters, presumably the ones that were closer to his professional specialism, I still found it is difficult to trust an author who doesn’t know the difference between architecture and engineering, and despite being a product of Australian Catholic schools, doesn’t seem to understand some of the most basic tenets of Christianity either.

Caesar, by JFC Fuller

Summary: a concise biography, particularly insightful on the military aspects of Caesar’s career.

JFC Fuller was a military theorist, highly influential, in particular, on the Wehrmacht’s use of armoured warfare. However, as a man with pronounced fascist leanings he was excluded from allied military command during the Second World War.

So, instead he wrote.

Among his oeuvre then is this biography of Caesar. Perhaps Fuller was drawn to the subject because of his far-Right leanings: Mussolini also loved Caesar and thought himself his bloated successor.

Given Fuller’s professional interests there is a strong focus on the military aspects of Caesar’s career. But additional entertainment is to be had from Fuller’s waspish sense of humour: how terrible it would be, Fuller muses, if some newly discovered piece of papyrus were to suggest that one of history’s most erotic scenes – the delivery of Cleopatra to Caesar’s bedchamber in a laundry basket – was a myth? Or, discussing Caesar’s prospects in his unrealised plans to invade Parthia, Fuller reckons that Caesar would likely have been routed by the arrows of the Parthians, just as Crassus had been earlier, and Antony would be later: So the Ides of March was probably the luckiest thing that could have happened to Caesar: at least his military reputation survived.

There is an interesting duality to Caesar’s military career: throughout his life, from the Cataline conspiracy to the civil wars, Caesar showed a marked reluctance to shed Roman blood. By contrast Caesar’s conduct of the Gallic Wars, and his later campaigns in Spain, were practically genocidal in their ferocity, and they provided the slaves whose trafficking ensured Caesar’s fortune. For Caesar, it seems, like the British and French imperialists of later centuries, war was merely the logical extension of racism.

A sub theme in this book is Caesar’s relationship with Decimus Brutus, cousin of the more famous, Marcus. It was Decimus Brutus, who convinced Caesar to attend the Senate on the Ides of March. He has been a close lieutenant to Caesar during the Gallic and Civil Wars, and Caesar adopted him alongside Octavian in his will. And yet as every reader of Shakespeare will know Decimus also put a knife into Caesar on the Ides. So, it seems likely, as Robert Harris suggested in his Cicero novels, that Caesar’s last, plaintive cry, “You too, my son?” related to Decimus rather than Marcus.

Overall, not as good as Adrian Goldsworthy’s account of Caesar’s life, but not without merit.