Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I am coming to the end of Mommsen's History of Rome and am increasingly puzzled by his judgments on the the individuals who play out the ruin of the Republic and the foundation of what he calls the military monarchy.

Mommsen seems to value men and events by their success in founding what we would call "states." He gives an almost normative significance to the "unification of Italy," seeing that as the great achievement of the Republic, and the acquisition of the provinces as almost accidental. In this he seems to reflects the values of the century that saw the unification of both Italy and his own Germany, and their acquisition of dependent colonies in what Eric Hobsbawm has called the Age of Empire.

I suppose that accounts for his worshipful treatment of Gaius Julius Caesar:

Of mighty creative power and yet at the same time of the most penetrating judgment; no longer a youth and not yet an old man; of the highest energy of will and the highest capacity of execution; filled with republican ideals and at the same time born to be a king; a Roman in the deepest essence of his nature, and yet called to reconcile and combine in himself as well as in the outer world the Roman and the Hellenic types of culture--Caesar was the entire and perfect man.

This is quite remarkable language for one whose primary achievement seems to me to have been the final annihilation of the Republic. And while the virtues of the Republic even at its best were far from those later espoused by Christendom, its final century was admittedly one of such chaos and violence that it is understandable that there should be a certain relief in the recognition of its ultimate failure and return to monarchical rule.

Nevertheless, what still surprises is that Mommsen retains something of the moralistic outlook in his treatment of the last of the party of the senate, Cato the Younger. In the narrative that precedes his suicide before Caesar's advancing armies, Cato is ridiculed mercilessly, leaving us unprepared for the encomium Mommsen supplies him on his death:

The constitutional struggle was at an end; and that it was so, was proclaimed by Marcus Cato when he fell on his sword at Utica. For many years he had been the foremost man in the struggle of the legitimate republic against its oppressors; he had continued it, long after he had ceased to cherish any hope of victory. But now the struggle itself had become impossible; the republic which Marcus Brutus had founded was dead and never to be revived....There was more nobility, and above all more judgment, in the death of Cato than there had been in his life. Cato was anything but a great man; but with all that short-sightedness, that perversity, that dry prolixity, and those spurious phrases which have stamped him, for his own and for all time, as the ideal of unreflecting republicanism and the favourite of all who make it their hobby, he was yet the only man who honourably and courageously championed in the last struggle the great system doomed to destruction.

Just because the shrewdest lie feels itself inwardly annihilated before the simple truth, and because all the dignity and glory of human nature ultimately depend not on shrewdness but on honesty, Cato has played a greater part in history than many men far superior to him in intellect. It only heightens the deep and tragic significance of his death that he was himself a fool; in truth it is just because Don Quixote is a fool that he is a tragic figure. It is an affecting fact, that on that world-stage, on which so many great and wise men had moved and acted, the fool was destined to give the epilogue. He too died not in vain. It was a fearfully striking protest of the republic against the monarchy, that the last republican went as the first monarch came--a protest which tore asunder like gossamer all that so-called constitutional character with which Caesar invested his monarchy, and exposed in all its hypocritical falsehood the shibboleth of the reconciliation of all parties, under the aegis of which despotism grew up. The unrelenting warfare which the ghost of the legitimate republic waged for centuries, from Cassius and Brutus down to Thrasea and Tacitus, nay, even far later, against the Caesarian monarchy--a warfare of plots and of literature-- was the legacy which the dying Cato bequeathed to his enemies. This republican opposition derived from Cato its whole attitude-- stately, transcendental in its rhetoric, pretentiously rigid, hopeless, and faithful to death; and accordingly it began even immediately after his death to revere as a saint the man who in his lifetime was not unfrequently its laughing-stock and its scandal. But the greatest of these marks of respect was the involuntary homage which Caesar rendered to him, when he made an exception to the contemptuous clemency with which he was wont to treat his opponents, Pompeians as well as republicans, in the case of Cato alone, and pursued him even beyond the grave with that energetic hatred which practical statesmen are wont to feel towards antagonists opposing them from a region of ideas which they regard as equally dangerous and impracticable.

This unexpected and decidely mixed tribute precedes the characterization of Caesar as "the entire and perfect man"--surely still an extreme judgment, even from countryman and near-contemporary of Marx and Nietzsche.

Mommsen's regard for Julius Caesar was such that he seems not to have been able to bear to bring his narrative to his death, and the final chapter (which I have not yet completed) details and credits him with the creation of the Principate, which I would have thought more properly attributable to Octavius. Both Caesars, however, were surprisingly careful to avoid the title of "king," and grasped how the retention of form could satisfy republican scruples. Thus only could Octavius have caused to be inscribed across the Roman world the great lie of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti:

Ín consulátú sexto et septimo, bella ubi civilia exstinxeram per consénsum úniversórum potitus rerum omnium, rem publicam ex meá potestáte in senátus populique Romani arbitrium transtulí. Quó pro merito meó senatus consulto Augustus appellátus sum.

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