Anyone who went to high school on the college preparatory track in the '50s or '60s should feel grateful to A.J. Langguth. In one fast moving, lucid and dramatic book, he has told the story of those Romans we found so baffling in our teens: Caesar, whose "Commentaries on the Gallic Wars," with their graphic descriptions of siege warfare and the extermination of prisoners, bored us in Latin 2; Cicero, whose mellifluous speeches against Verres and Catiline tormented us in Latin 3; Brutus, Marc Antony and all the other noble Romans whom we met assembled over the protagonist's body in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" (English 3). What we encountered as difficult texts, that had to be unscrambled, word by word and line by line, he has turned into events to think about and flesh-and-blood people to investigate.
Langguth's theme is one of the most dramatic ones in world history. Like many historians before him, he tells the story of how the Roman republic collapsed, to be replaced by the empire of Augustus and his successors.
Starting in the early years of the first century B.C., with the dictatorship of Sulla, he brings his chief actors on stage at once. Caesar, the hard-eyed young aristocrat who refused to divorce his wife Cornelia at Sulla's command, comes first. He is flanked, here and throughout, by his two great rivals: Cicero, the "new man" from Arpinum whose schooling in Greek literature and brilliance as a public speaker made him a powerful political figure even though he lacked the military virtues Romans esteemed most, and Pompey, the ambitious young soldier who slaughtered lions and elephants, as well as men, in Libya, to instill fear of Rome, but wept when his men threatened to mutiny in order to defend him.
All three reached manhood in a time of crisis. The social and economic changes that accompanied Rome's expansion through the Mediterranean world and beyond had strained its political system and corrupted its public life. Appeals to ancient virtue and republican tradition sounded hollow to frightened aristocrats and embittered commoners alike.
Some leaders--such as the Gracchi and Marius, Caesar's uncle Marius--looked for support among the disenfranchised, promising to find them land, relief from debts and citizenship. Others--such as Sulla--sided with the patricians and the privileged, when they promised to defend against the mob.
Both sides treated politics as an extension of war by other means. Enemies were attacked by legal and illegal means, their lands and goods confiscated, their heads stuck up on spears in the forum. Military command took on more and more political importance, as volunteer soldiers gave their prime loyalty to the general who led and paid them--and promised a rich payoff at the end of a major campaign--rather than to the Roman state. Fear spread that Rome might undergo some unheard of disaster; that the ancient republic, with of tradition, its virtues from the earth.
Against this background Langguth lets the careers of his three protagonists unroll. Like a skilled weaver, he makes all three lives and fates--along with those of wives and relatives, friends and supporters--into a colorful and coherent tapestry. He follows the stunning rise of Caesar, showing how the young man whose best-known qualities were his sexual virtuosity and compliance became a ruthless military leader, one who shrank from no necessary measure, from torching the great city of Alexandria to executing or enslaving whole Gaulish nations who ventured to defend their own territories.
He traces Cicero's political and rhetorical achievements, laying out the political background to the speeches we read in school as examples of fine Latin and exposing the personal motives that often inspired Cicero's lofty, passionate arguments. And he describes--this time without the aid of personal testimony--Pompey's equally colorful adventures as general, master builder, impresario of spectacles and manipulator of the law, whose courage expressed itself in grand gestures like his disbanding of his own army before returning to Rome in 62 B.C.
Along the way we meet other fascinating figures: Crassus, the legendary rich general who met his death in Parthia, where his enemies made his corpse drink molten gold; Cato, the most upright Roman of them all, who defied a gang of gladiators, unarmed, to denounce his enemy Nepos in the Forum and eventually committed suicide by tearing out his intestines with his own hands to avoid capture and humiliation; and of course Antony and Brutus.