Monday, June 12, 2006

Julius Caesar, War Criminal?

I have just finished reading Chronicle of the Roman Republic by Philip Matyszak. This tome looks like a coffee table book. I am sure many treat it this way. However, I went beyond the pictures and enjoyed it. Matyszak uses biography to inform the reader about the history of the Roman Republic in an entertaining and informative style.

Matyszak is not a fan of Julius Caesar. He actually accuses him of war crimes due to his actions in the Gallic War. Commenting on Caesar's The Gallic War, Matyszak wrote that "it is a work of propaganda. It masks the war's horrendous cost in human life and suffering (one historian describes it as the greatest human and social disaster until the settlement of the Americas.) It also hides the fact that the war was fought for Caesar's enrichment and glory. Contemporary Romans were well aware of this, and there was a movement in Rome to hand Caesar to the Gauls as a war criminal." (P. 206.)

I have several problems with this interpretation. For one, the Romans were gaining an ever increasing empire. The conquest of Gaul was probably inevitable. If Caesar had not done it, someone else would have. The bothersome Gallic tribes stood between Rome and the Spanish provinces and they had an annoying tendency to raid Roman soil. Right or wrong, their conquest was almost certain.

Second, Caesar did not do well politically in Rome. There was a reason he marched his legions on Rome. Despite his military accomplishments and his skill in making alliances with great men such as Pompey and Crassus, Caesar's enemies were ready and had the means to politically destroy him, financially ruin him, and expel him from Rome. The "war crimes" charge was just another argument on a long list of complaints that many had of Caesar and I doubt many took it that seriously.

The reason I think few took it as a serious reason is my final argument why viewing Caesar as a war criminal is inappropriate. War was different in the ancient world. There was no Geneva Convention back then. There were no rules for war other than those decide on by the combatants and which they then had the power to enforce. The Roman Republic itself had practiced brutal war repeatedly before Caesar and had even practiced genocide on the Carthaginian culture after the Third Punic War. As there was no UN or other international governing body then, there can technically be no war crimes charge.

Matyszak wrote, "History has been kinder to Caesar than he deserves. Caesar replaced an elected constitutional government - however imperfect - with military dictatorship. Over a million Gauls died to further his ambitions, and another million were enslaved." (p. 208.)

Any attempt to judge Caesar by modern standards is flawed. The rules were different then. Caesar did what many respected Romans did in his era. Caesar (and other Romans) were actually more merciful and trustworthy than some of the opponents they fought. Any attempt to judge Caesar as a war criminal based on 20th or 21st century law is ex post de facto and clearly an inappropriate application of international law.

It is also hard to mourn the passing of the Roman Republic. It represented only the interests of the aristocracy of Rome. If you were a slave, a woman, or a plebe (the majority of the people in the Roman Republic), did it make any difference if you lived in a Republic or an Empire? It can be argued that Caesar saved the Roman Empire by destroying the Republic. Could have a corrupt and bickering Roman Senate have successfully governed what became the Roman Empire? Probably not. And I think the world benefited from the civilization that Rome gave to the world.

Maybe I am just a modern day Caesar apologist. However, I see no benefit or justice in sticking Julius Caesar with a war crimes charge. He was a great man and I think he did more good than harm. However, I will not judge Matyszak too harshly either. This is a great book and I am glad I read it.

8 comments:

History Student said...

Hello:

Interesting article. I agree, it is innapropriate to judge historical figures based on modern day laws and principals but we can judge them on basic human values and dignity.

I was just talking to someone yesterday about how we have to take all history books that deal with judging why events happened or the motives behind why a certain figure did what they did. The reasoning being that the perspective to which history is writtenm changes with several variables (authors background, where the author lives, era in which the author lived or lives,). For example, I know that in the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire" Gibbons has been accused of being too leinient towards Christianity. Well, during his time frame (I believe late 17 hundreds, in America) that was the religion and I assume that he was a Christian.

The saying "history is written by the victors" can be applied to the above though as well.

-Jordan

Ralph Hitchens said...

I too am of the belief that Julius Caesar did more good than harm. Viewed from a broad perspective, he represented the tradition of reform begun by the Gracchi and carried forward by his uncle, Gaius Marius. The oligarchy against which he struggled was in its death throes, but he carelessly gave it the opportunity to kill him before it collapsed.

Yasser said...

I agree with what history student said. It is an interesting paradox - while it is true that first hand sources are very biased because of proximity, second and third could be even more because of prevailing values during their time.

Maty Matyszak said...

Actually, the move to declare Caesar as a war criminal was the result of a particular event in which Caesar massacred a camp of Germans who believed that at the time a ceasefire was in effect. While there was no Geneva convention about at the time, even by the rudimentary standards of the day, this was a bit below the belt.
While Gaul would indeed have probably fallen under the sway of the Romans anyway, the Romans already held the bit that connected them with Spain (it was as governor of this province that Caesar launched his invasion - without permission, incidentally, of the Roman senate.)
As to the conquest there are ways and ways of conquering a country - Caesar's technique was particularly brutal, and his motives even less creditable than even those of the prevailing standards of his day.

Maty Matyszak said...

(But I'm glad you enjoyed the book!)

Mister said...

I think most students of history will agree that you don't want to apply modern legal standards in the assessment of historical figures. But your review suggests to me that the author was primarily doing exactly that. Could it be that the charge of "war criminal" was being applied as a useful metaphor to underscore that Caesar's conduct of the Gallic campaign was more vicious than the norm? I don't know, but your review does make me want to check out Prof Matyszak's book to see if this is anachronism or metaphor being applied here.

It's probably worth noting that our era is not the only time period in which this hero of history was regarded poorly. When George Washington's generation spoke of a general becoming a Caesar, it was with a note of horror in their voices.

It is interesting to me that you ping Prof Matyszak for applying the modern label "war criminal" to a historical figure, but then do the same thing when you dismiss the seriousness of Caesar's dismantling of the Roman republic because they didn't measure up to our standards of an egalitarian democracy.

Steve Muhlberger said...

It's not inappropriate to point out that insofar a JC was a hero or a great leader, he accomplished what he did by devastating and plundering a whole region -- Gaul -- to gain the funds and the reputation to make himself dictator for life. What would you call a person like that today?

It's also worth pointing out that in the late republic this kind of behavior was SOP for the ambitious. If you like Caesar or late republican Rome, at least be honest about what it is you like.

Heidi in Seattle said...

Julius Ceasar destroyed the republic. He did infinitely more harm than good. Preservation of a flawed republic is more important than the promises of a populist.