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7 December 2022

Why Rome had no culture wars

The clash between Caesar and Cato offers lessons for today, but also reveals the gulf between modern and classical thought.

By Rowan Williams

It is ironic that, with the future of classical history and languages as subjects for study at school or university increasingly precarious, there should be such a flood of books and broadcast series exploring the Greek and Roman world. In recent years we have seen contributions from scholars with a genius for communication – Mary Beard, Emily Wilson, Bettany Hughes – as well as contemporary readings of classical philosophy and poetry, and new novels, dramas and even sitcoms drawing on classical narratives. It is as if we have never quite shaken off the Victorian conviction that the challenges of the modern world can be illuminated by studying ancient Greece and Rome.

Josiah Osgood’s book reflects another classical legacy, going back to Plutarch in the first century of our era: it is a “binocular” biography, putting together two contrasting figures so as to draw out insights for moral or political discernment. Plutarch paired off Greeks and Romans, while Osgood’s subjects are both Romans, who were intensely and protractedly involved in each other’s careers, but the goal is not so different. We are invited to think about the strengths and weaknesses of powerful individuals in order to sharpen our diagnoses of political pathology or risk.

The book is presented as a narrative that will help us see the dangers of political polarisation: what happens when two sides have backed themselves into a corner where their projects appear to be completely incompatible? The shadow of all those opinion pieces warning of the risks of civil war in the United States falls over these pages, and while Osgood does not overdo the contemporary resonances, they are unmissable – and not only for North America.

Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Porcius Cato (“Cato the Younger”) had both grown up during a traumatic and brutal civil war, fought between factions within the small group of wealthy aristocrats who dominated Roman politics. Since both came from families of historic power, they and their relatives were on the front line of the struggle, Caesar’s family especially. By the second quarter of the first century BCE, both had established themselves as significant political presences in Roman public life. They could hardly have been more different in temperament and style, however.

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Caesar had made his name primarily as an inspired military commander; he consolidated Roman military and fiscal control of what is now France, and, eventually, of both western and eastern Mediterranean territories. He is one of the formative figures in the development of a Roman “empire” (imperium translates as “command”) that could make claims to global reach. But his unique mixture of flamboyance and cool (sometimes ruthless) intelligence meant that reactions to him were always sharply polarised. Cato, who adhered doggedly to the severest austerity in his personal life (dress, diet and so on), made his reputation as a fanatically precise and efficient administrator, known for his uncompromising honesty in public and financial affairs. He was deeply suspicious of the higher profile of the army – and of charismatic commanders such as Caesar – that was emerging in the wake of new imperial adventures. He did not set out to be liked and generally wasn’t; but no one could challenge his integrity, and he performed near miracles in cleaning up the public finances of the republic.

The differences, though, were not only temperamental. If both were determined not to allow the bedlam of their early years to return, their commitments were sharply at odds. Cato’s priority was to make the political system work; he was identified with the tight-knit elite of patrician families who furnished the membership of the Roman senate and believed that the ideal government was one managed by boni, “good men” like themselves. For Cato and his allies, the optimates (the Latin equivalent of the Greek aristoi, “the best” – hence our word “aristocracy”), what mattered was to root out the endemic corruption that had soiled the reputation of senatorial governance, to consolidate foreign policy and stabilise control of the extensive territories conquered by Roman armies, and to guarantee a dependable system of election within the institutions of the republic.

Caesar, in contrast, made friends among the populares, the group who sought to defend and increase the powers of the people’s assembly in Rome against the senate, and who courted support by arguing for land reform, extended citizenship and various protections for the plebeians of Rome, the ordinary traders and workers. Cato’s circle was wary of the role of the army in politics; Caesar and his allies were happy to exploit it. From the first, the two men regarded each other with hostility; Caesar wrote a long polemical memoir of Cato after the latter’s death which gives some sense of the bitterness of their relationship.

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At the simplest level, the disagreement between Cato and Caesar is not ideological; it is a plain contest of power and class interest. We might expect that someone like Cato, deeply sympathetic to Stoic philosophy with its ideas of universal human equality, would stand with the populares; but Stoicism (most of whose adherents did not challenge slavery as an institution) was not a political reform movement. Theoretical equality did not translate into what we would think of as democracy, since Stoics assumed that only some human beings possessed the wisdom needed to administer a complicated political and social order.

Similarly, we might think that a politician committed to the cause of the common people would be unhappy with the notion that the military should decide public issues. But soldiers could very easily be cast as defenders of the masses against a self-serving aristocratic clique – especially as the army became increasingly central to the state.

Osgood traces the interweaving stories of Caesar and Cato through to the new civil war that raged between 49 and 45 BCE. The defeated Cato died by suicide, unable to tolerate the idea of living on under Caesar as dictator; but Caesar’s victory was short-lived. He was assassinated barely a year after the war ended. The history of the civil war further complicates the picture: Cato, lifelong enemy of anything like monarchical power, resistant to the military control of politics, ended up actively supporting Caesar’s military rival, Pompey – who was a warlord in the same mould as Caesar. Osgood sums up the quarrel between Caesar and Cato as “the contest between military domination and political freedom”. But “political freedom” was always the freedom of a largely hereditary elite; “military domination” was what Pompey had been seeking for a good many years. 

The difficult truth – which the Roman state found itself confronting time and again, well into the imperial period – was that the governance of the Roman republic had solidified a historical class divide, and was consequently vulnerable to just the kind of violent and self-destructive stand-offs that surrounded the lives of Cato and Caesar. It was fated to be unstable; dictatorial authority was always waiting to cut the knots, create effective systems of control and defence, and impose a simplified common loyalty to a single leader. By the middle of the first century CE, nobody much wanted to go back to the murderous confusion of the republic, whatever idealised versions of it were being promoted by senatorial rhetoric.

Osgood does his best for Cato, a singularly charmless hero, and gives him due credit for consistent honesty and spectacular administrative skill; but he cannot quite make the Stoic a social democrat. He is clearly not seduced by Caesar, and does not let us forget – for example – the genocidal body count of the Gallic Wars, when under Caesar’s command the Roman army conquered Gaul (present-day France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland). It is not too hard, though, to see why the Roman populus loved Caesar. I was glad to see Osgood referring briefly to Thornton Wilder’s rather neglected historical fantasia, The Ides of March, which gives what must be the most credible picture in modern literature of Caesar’s terrifying personal energy and brilliance.

Are there lessons to be learned for today’s politics? Osgood portrays a society traumatised by sociopathic billionaires, out-of-control militias, savagely contested electoral processes and naked corruption; no prizes for making contemporary connections. And he returns at the end of the book to how a “chain of disaster” can be made by repeatedly undermining trust in the possibility of negotiating with an opponent.

It is illuminating here to read Osgood in tandem with the political thinker Charles Sabel’s recent work on “humble government” – the restoration to politics of a sense of limited and pragmatic objectives, and of cooperation and alliance-building to deal with shared problems. Sabel is in effect warning us that politics must repudiate messianism, the projection of totalising hopes and fears. But this reminds us that the polarising conflict described so evocatively by Osgood is not quite the kind that feeds the current debate.

There are no “culture wars” in republican Rome, no supposedly fundamental disagreements about what constitutes the good life for human beings (Cato’s Stoicism, as we have seen, is not a political programme). There is pure clash of interest. This is not quite the whole of our problem today – though we have certainly seen in UK politics how rhetoric around culture-war issues can discourage us from asking who benefits when attention is diverted from questions of interest and economic justice. 

It won’t do to look to the classical world as if its differences from us were only skin-deep. Slaves, gladiators, exposed babies, random capital punishment in the army – the parameters are radically alien to us, and they were not things that Cato and Caesar would argue about. One implication of this is that the idea of duty or loyalty to a human community beyond one’s own class or ethnicity is, in the Roman context, little more than an abstract ideal. Nothing much in classical thought gives us a clear purchase on concepts of universal human dignity, the claim of another human subject not only to justice but to reverence – though you might derive something from, say, Sophocles’s almost throwaway phrase about deinon: the dimension of the uncanny, the wonderful and the terrible that is intuited in human reality. 

[See also: Philip Larkin is a love poet who doesn’t trust love]

We moderns all stand on the far side of a divide from Cato and Caesar; we have been taught to think about our duty to a unified humanity endowed with what we clumsily refer to as “rights”. Our own polarising arguments all take this for granted in different ways, whether they are presented in religious or secular, conservative or progressive, terms. As Uncle Kolya puts it in Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago, the typical Roman ruler is “untouched by the suspicion that any man who enslaves others is inevitably second-rate”.

The Jewish and Christian contribution to human ethical culture did not improve things rapidly, but it did introduce a kind of conceptual disturbance, of which our rights-based culture is a distant ripple. And it is in following through the implications of this – not claiming control over the other but securing their well-being – that we shall find the resources necessary to push back against the mindless zero-sum theatrics of modern ideological warfare.

The story that Osgood tells so clearly, learnedly, and engagingly does indeed illuminate the lasting costs of polarised conflict. But it may also be in noticing and delineating the gulf between ourselves and the ancient world that we may adopt some sharper diagnostic tools for resisting the contemporary varieties of all-or-nothing stand-offs in politics – the confrontations that block the way to patient problem-solving for the sake of a common good.

Uncommon Wrath: How Caesar and Cato’s Deadly Rivalry Destroyed the Roman Republic
Josiah Osgood
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £25

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special