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Imperial Caesar by Rex Warner

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Edited by Keith Currie, Thursday, 20 May 2021, 20:36

I, Caesar

 If Rex Warner is read at all nowadays, it is his translations from Greek, in particular Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. His novels languish. Few remain in print and of his historical novels, only the two focusing on Caesar’s life. I read The Young Caesar more years ago than I would like to admit, but only read its sequel, Imperial Caesar, many, many years later. Both novels taken together comprise the ‘autobiography’ of Julius Caesar’s life, written in a similar style to Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God. No third person objective and ironically detached version of events for a general audience here; this is an attempt to reveal Caesar’s inmost thoughts and motivation.

 ‘I cannot tolerate disorder and I know that without order there can be no liberty at all.’

 Where The Young Caesar featured a charming and talented young man on the make, this second volume is a much more sombre and serious affair. It amounts to a self-defence of the narrator’s life and career, his violence in politics, his ruthless and brutal conquest of the Gallic nations, a constant litany of why he was compelled to act as he did, in every case forced by his enemies to ignore the laws and promote himself, the only saviour of Rome.

 The reader might well feel disquiet at this apology for political self-promotion and authoritarianism, not to say the amoral imperialism in Gaul. And this despite Caesar’s own eloquent and persuasive rationale for his behaviour. Perhaps the reader is meant to feel so. Warner, after all, wrote a number of novels set in his own times which attacked both authoritarian behaviour and imperialism.

 There are many incidental delights in the novel. Caesar presents brief and incisive character appraisals of many of those involved in the fall of the Roman Republic, not just the famous, like Pompey, Crassus and Cicero, but the more minor players, such as Clodius and Vatinius. Sometimes he is not as astute as he thinks, failing to see the threat from men such as Brutus and Cassius. Only one character attracts his consistent enmity, the turncoat general Labienus, who fought so well under him in Gaul, only to fight equally hard against him in the civil war.

 I have only two quibbles with the novel. It is, I think, implausible for Caesar to produce such a lengthy volume on a single night, in fact the night before his assassination. Secondly, the conceit of his expectation of assassination seems rather laboured. These are minor criticisms. The book is still in print. Only Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March rivals it for a fictional portrait of the great dictator, the most famous Roman of all.

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