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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Character of Cæsar
By Theodor Mommsen (1817–1903)
From ‘History of Rome’: Translation of William Purdie Dickson

THE NEW monarch of Rome, the first ruler of the whole domain of Romano-Hellenic civilization, Gaius Julius Cæsar, was in his fifty-sixth year (born 12th July, 652 A. U. C.) when the battle of Thapsus, the last link in a long chain of momentous victories, placed the decision of the future of the world in his hands. Few men have had their elasticity so thoroughly put to the proof as Cæsar: the sole creative genius produced by Rome, and the last produced by the ancient world, which accordingly moved on in the track that he marked out for it until its sun had set. Sprung from one of the oldest noble families of Latium, which traced back its lineage to the heroes of the Iliad and the kings of Rome, and in fact to the Venus-Aphrodite common to both nations, he spent the years of his boyhood and early manhood as the genteel youth of that epoch were wont to spend them. He had tasted the sweetness as well as the bitterness of the cup of fashionable life, had recited and declaimed, had practiced literature and made verses in his idle hours, had prosecuted love intrigues of every sort, and got himself initiated into all the mysteries of shaving, curls, and ruffles pertaining to the toilette wisdom of the day, as well as into the far more mysterious art of always borrowing and never paying.  1
  But the flexible steel of that nature was proof against even these dissipated and flighty courses: Cæsar retained both his bodily vigor and his elasticity of mind and heart unimpaired. In fencing and in riding he was a match for any of his soldiers, and his swimming saved his life at Alexandria; the incredible rapidity of his journeys, which usually for the sake of gaining time were performed by night,—a thorough contrast to the procession-like slowness with which Pompeius moved from one place to another,—was the astonishment of his contemporaries and not the least among the causes of his success. The mind was like the body. His remarkable power of intuition revealed itself in the precision and practicability of all his arrangements, even where he gave orders without having seen with his own eyes. His memory was matchless; and it was easy for him to carry on several occupations simultaneously with equal self-possession. Although a gentleman, a man of genius, and a monarch, he had still a heart. So long as he lived, he cherished the purest veneration for his worthy mother Aurelia (his father having died early). To his wives, and above all to his daughter Julia, he devoted an honorable affection, which was not without reflex influence even on political affairs. With the ablest and most excellent men of his time, of high and of humble rank, he maintained noble relations of mutual fidelity, with each after his kind. As he himself never abandoned any of his partisans after the pusillanimous and unfeeling manner of Pompeius, but adhered to his friends—and that not merely from calculation—through good and bad times without wavering, several of these, such as Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Matius, even after his death gave noble testimonies of their attachment to him.  2
  If in a nature so harmoniously organized there is any one trait to be singled out as characteristic, it is this: that he stood aloof from all ideology and everything fanciful. As a matter of course Cæsar was a man of passion, for without passion there is no genius; but his passion was never stronger than he could control. He had had his season of youth, and song, love, and wine had taken joyous possession of his mind; but with him they did not penetrate to the inmost core of his nature. Literature occupied him long and earnestly; but while Alexander could not sleep for thinking of the Homeric Achilles, Cæsar in his sleepless hours mused on the inflections of the Latin nouns and verbs. He made verses as everybody then did, but they were weak; on the other hand he was interested in subjects of astronomy and natural science. While wine was and continued to be with Alexander the destroyer of care, the temperate Roman, after the revels of his youth were over, avoided it entirely. Around him, as around all those whom the full lustre of woman’s love has dazzled in youth, fainter gleams of it continued imperishably to linger; even in later years he had his love adventures and successes with women, and he retained a certain foppishness in his outward appearance, or to speak more correctly, a pleasing consciousness of his own manly beauty. He carefully covered the baldness which he keenly felt, with the laurel chaplet that he wore in public in his later years; and he would doubtless have surrendered some of his victories if he could thereby have brought back his youthful locks. But however much, even when monarch, he enjoyed the society of women, he only amused himself with them, and allowed them no manner of influence over him. Even his much-censured relation to Queen Cleopatra was only contrived to mask a weak point in his political position.  3
  Cæsar was thoroughly a realist and a man of sense; and whatever he undertook and achieved was penetrated and guided by the cool sobriety which constitutes the most marked peculiarity of his genius. To this he owed the power of living energetically in the present, undisturbed either by recollection or by expectation; to this he owed the capacity of acting at any moment with collected vigor, and applying his whole genius even to the smallest and most incidental enterprise; to this he owed the many-sided power with which he grasped and mastered whatever understanding can comprehend and will can compel; to this he owed the self-possessed ease with which he arranged his periods as well as projected his campaigns; to this he owed the “marvelous serenity” which remained steadily with him through good and evil days; to this he owed the complete independence which admitted of no control by favorite, or by mistress, or even by friend. It resulted, moreover, from this clearness of judgment that Cæsar never formed to himself illusions regarding the power of fate and the ability of man; in his case the friendly veil was lifted up which conceals from man the inadequacy of his working. However prudently he planned and contemplated all possibilities, the feeling was never absent from his heart that in all things, fortune, that is to say accident, must bestow success; and with this may be connected the circumstance that he so often played a desperate game with destiny, and in particular again and again hazarded his person with daring indifference. As indeed occasionally men of predominant sagacity betake themselves to a pure game of hazard, so there was in Cæsar’s rationalism a point at which it came in some measure into contact with mysticism.  4
  Gifts such as these could not fail to produce a statesman. From early youth, accordingly, Cæsar was a statesman in the deepest sense of the term; and his aim was the highest which man is allowed to propose to himself,—the political, military, intellectual, and moral regeneration of his own deeply decayed nation, and of the still more deeply decayed Hellenic nation intimately akin to his own. The hard school of thirty years’ experience changed his views as to the means by which this aim was to be reached; his aim itself remained the same in the times of his hopeless humiliation and of his unlimited plenitude of power, in the times when as demagogue and conspirator he stole towards it by paths of darkness, and in those when as joint possessor of the supreme power and then as monarch, he worked at his task in the full light of day before the eyes of the world. All the measures of a permanent kind that proceeded from him at the most various times assume their appropriate places in the great building-plan. We cannot therefore properly speak of isolated achievements of Cæsar; he did nothing isolated.  5
  With justice men commend Cæsar the orator for his masculine eloquence, which, scorning all the arts of the advocate, like a clear flame at once enlightened and warmed. With justice men admire in Cæsar the author the inimitable simplicity of the composition, the unique purity and beauty of the language. With justice the greatest masters of war of all times have praised Cæsar the general, who, in a singular degree disregarding routine and tradition, knew always how to find out the mode of warfare by which in the given case the enemy was conquered, and which was consequently in the given case the right one; who, with the certainty of divination, found the proper means for every end; who after defeat stood ready for battle like William of Orange, and ended the campaign invariably with victory; who managed that element of warfare, the treatment of which serves to distinguish military genius from the mere ordinary ability of an officer,—the rapid movement of masses,—with unsurpassed perfection, and found the guarantee of victory not in the massiveness of his forces but in the celerity of their movements, not in long preparation but in rapid and bold action even with inadequate means. But all these were with Cæsar mere secondary matters: he was no doubt a great orator, author, and general, but he became each of these merely because he was a consummate statesman.  6
  The soldier more especially played in him altogether an accessory part; and it is one of the principal peculiarities by which he is distinguished from Alexander, Hannibal, and Napoleon, that he began his political activity not as an officer but as a demagogue. According to his original plan he had purposed to reach his object, like Pericles and Gaius Gracchus, without force of arms; and throughout eighteen years, as leader of the popular party, he had moved exclusively amid political plans and intrigues: until, reluctantly convinced of the necessity for a military support, he headed an army when he was already forty years of age. It was natural that even afterwards he should remain still more statesman than general; like Cromwell, who also transformed himself from a leader of opposition into a military chief and democratic king, and who in general, little as the Puritan hero seems to resemble the dissolute Roman, is yet in his development, as well as in the objects which he aimed at and the results which he achieved, of all statesmen perhaps the most akin to Cæsar. Even in his mode of warfare this improvised generalship may still be recognized: the enterprises of Napoleon against Egypt and against England do not more clearly exhibit the artillery lieutenant who had risen by service to command, than the similar enterprises of Cæsar exhibit the demagogue metamorphosed into a general. A regularly trained officer would hardly have been prepared, through political considerations of a not altogether stringent nature, to set aside the best-founded military scruples in the way in which Cæsar did so on several occasions, most strikingly in the case of his landing in Epirus.  7
  Several of his acts are therefore censurable from a military point of view; but what the general loses the statesman gains. The task of the statesman is universal in its nature, like Cæsar’s genius: if he undertook things the most varied and most remote one from another, they had all, without exception, a bearing on the one great object to which with infinite fidelity and consistency he devoted himself; and he never preferred one to another of the manifold aspects and directions of his great activity. Although a master of the art of war, he yet from statesmanly considerations did his utmost to avert the civil strife, and when it nevertheless began, to keep his laurels from the stain of blood. Although the founder of a military monarchy, he, yet with an energy unexampled in history, allowed no hierarchy of marshals or government of prætorians to come into existence. If he had a preference for any one form of services rendered to the State, it was for the sciences and arts of peace rather than for those of war.  8
  The most remarkable peculiarity of his action as a statesman was its perfect harmony. In reality all the conditions for this most difficult of all human functions were united in Cæsar. A thorough realist, he never allowed the images of the past or venerable tradition to disturb him; with him nothing was of value in politics but the living present, and the law of reason: just as in grammar he set aside historical and antiquarian research, and recognized nothing but on the one hand the living usus loquendi and on the other hand the rule of symmetry. A born ruler, he governed the minds of men as the wind drives the clouds, and compelled the most heterogeneous natures to place themselves at his service;—the smooth citizen and the rough subaltern, the noble matrons of Rome and the fair princesses of Egypt and Mauritania, the brilliant cavalry officer and the calculating banker. His talent for organization was marvelous. No statesman has ever compelled alliances, no general has ever collected an army out of unyielding and refractory elements, with such decision, and kept them together with such firmness, as Cæsar displayed in constraining and upholding his coalitions and his legions. Never did regent judge his instruments and assign each to the place appropriate for him with so acute an eye.  9
  He was monarch; but he never played the king. Even when absolute lord of Rome, he retained the deportment of the party leader: perfectly pliant and smooth, easy and charming in conversation, complaisant towards every one, it seemed as if he wished to be nothing but the first among his peers.  10
  Cæsar entirely avoided the blunder of so many men otherwise on an equality with him, who have carried into politics the tone of military command; however much occasion his disagreeable relations with the Senate gave for it, he never resorted to outrages such as that of the eighteenth Brumaire. Cæsar was monarch; but he was never seized with the giddiness of the tyrant. He is perhaps the only one among the mighty men of the earth who in great matters and little never acted according to inclination or caprice, but always without exception according to his duty as ruler; and who, when he looked back on his life, found doubtless erroneous calculations to deplore, but no false step of passion to regret. There is nothing in the history of Cæsar’s life which even on a small scale can be compared with those poetico-sensual ebullitions—such as the murder of Kleitos or the burning of Persepolis—which the history of his great predecessor in the East records. He is, in fine, perhaps the only one of those mighty men who has preserved to the end of his career the statesman’s tact of discriminating between the possible and the impossible, and has not broken down in the task which for nobly gifted natures is the most difficult of all,—the task of recognizing, when on the pinnacle of success, its natural limits. What was possible he performed; and never left the possible good undone for the sake of the impossible better, never disdained at least to mitigate by palliatives evils that were incurable. But where he recognized that fate had spoken, he always obeyed. Alexander on the Hyphasis, Napoleon at Moscow, turned back because they were compelled to do so, and were indignant at destiny for bestowing even on its favorites merely limited successes; Cæsar turned back voluntarily on the Thames and on the Rhine; and at the Danube and the Euphrates thought not of unbounded plans of world-conquest, but merely of carrying into effect a well-considered regulation of the frontiers.  11
  Such was this unique man, whom it seems so easy and yet is so infinitely difficult to describe. His whole nature is transparent clearness; and tradition preserves more copious and more vivid information regarding him than regarding any of his peers in the ancient world. Of such a person our conceptions may well vary in point of shallowness or depth, but strictly speaking, they cannot be different: to every inquirer not utterly perverted, the grand figure has exhibited the same essential features, and yet no one has succeeded in reproducing it to the life. The secret lies in its perfection. In his character as a man as well as in his place in history, Cæsar occupies a position where the great contrasts of existence meet and balance each other. Of the mightiest 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,—Cæsar was the entire and perfect man. Accordingly we miss in him more than in any other historical personage what are called characteristic features, which are in reality nothing else than deviations from the natural course of human development. What in Cæsar passes for such at the first superficial glance is, when more closely observed, seen to be the peculiarity not of the individual but of the epoch of culture or of the nation: his youthful adventures, for instance, were common to him as to all his more gifted contemporaries of like position; his unpoetical but strongly logical temperament was the temperament of Romans in general.  12
  It formed part also of Cæsar’s full humanity that he was in the highest degree influenced by the conditions of time and place; for there is no abstract humanity,—the living man cannot but occupy a place in a given nationality and in a definite line of culture. Cæsar was a perfect man just because more than any other he placed himself amidst the currents of his time, and because more than any other he possessed the essential peculiarity of the Roman nation—practical aptitude as a citizen—in perfection; for his Hellenism in fact was only the Hellenism which had been long intimately blended with the Italian nationality. But in this very circumstance lies the difficulty, we may perhaps say the impossibility, of depicting Cæsar to the life. As the artist can paint everything save only consummate beauty, so the historian, when once in a thousand years he falls in with the perfect, can only be silent regarding it. For normality admits doubtless of being expressed, but it gives us only the negative notion of the absence of defect; the secret of nature, whereby in her most finished manifestations normality and individuality are combined, is beyond expression. Nothing is left for us but to deem those fortunate who beheld this perfection, and to gain some faint conception of it from the reflected lustre which rests imperishably on the works that were the creation of this great nature.  13
  These also, it is true, bear the stamp of the time. The Roman hero himself stood by the side of his youthful Greek predecessor, not merely as an equal but as a superior; but the world had meanwhile become old and its youthful lustre had faded. The action of Cæsar was no longer, like that of Alexander, a joyous marching onward towards a goal indefinitely remote: he built on and out of ruins, and was content to establish himself as tolerably and as securely as possible within the ample but yet definite bounds once assigned to him. With reason, therefore, the delicate poetic tact of the nations has not troubled itself about the unpoetical Roman, and has invested the son of Philip alone with all the golden lustre of poetry, with all the rainbow hues of legend. But with equal reason the political life of nations has during thousands of years again and again reverted to the lines which Cæsar drew; and the fact that the peoples to whom the world belongs still at the present day designate the highest of their monarchs by his name, conveys a warning deeply significant, and unhappily fraught with shame.  14

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