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By Julius Caesar
“De Bello Gallico” and Other Commentaries
FIRST PUBLISHED IN THIS EDITION, 1915
BY THOMAS DE QUINCEY
The character of the First Caesar has perhaps never been worse appreciated than by him who in one sense described it best; that is, with most force and eloquence wherever he really did comprehend it. This was Lucan, who has nowhere exhibited more brilliant rhetoric, nor wandered more from the truth, than in the contrasted portraits of Caesar and Pompey. The famous line, “Nil actum reputans si quid superesset agendum,” is a fine feature of the real character, finely expressed. But, if it had been Lucan’s purpose (as possibly, with a view to Pompey’s benefit, in some respects it was) utterly and extravagantly to falsify the character of the great Dictator, by no single trait could he more effectually have fulfilled that purpose, nor in fewer words, than by this expressive passage, “Gaudensque viam fecisse ruina.” Such a trait would be almost extravagant applied even to Marius, who (though in many respects a perfect model of Roman grandeur, massy, columnar, imperturbable, and more perhaps than any one man recorded in History capable of justifying the bold illustration of that character in Horace, “Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae”) had, however, a ferocity in his character, and a touch of the devil in him, very rarely united with the same tranquil intrepidity. But, for Caesar, the all—accomplished statesman, the splendid orator, the man of elegant habits and polished taste, the patron of the fine arts in a degree transcending all example of his own or the previous age, and as a man of general literature so much beyond his contemporaries, except Cicero, that he looked down even upon the brilliant Sylla as an illiterate person–to class such a man with the race of furious destroyers exulting in the desolations they spread is to err not by an individual trait, but by the whole genus. The Attilas and the Tamerlanes, who rejoice in avowing themselves the scourges of God, and the special instruments of his wrath, have no one feature of affinity to the polished and humane Caesar, and would as little have comprehended his character as he could have respected theirs. Even Cato, the unworthy hero of Lucan, might have suggested to him a little more truth in this instance, by a celebrated remark which he made on the characteristic distinction of Caesar, in comparison with other revolutionary disturbers; for, said he, whereas others had attempted the overthrow of the state in a continued paroxysm of fury, and in a state of mind resembling the lunacy of intoxication, Caesar, on the contrary, among that whole class of civil disturbers, was the only one who had come to the task in a temper of sobriety and moderation (unum accessisse sobrium ad rempublicam delendam)....
Great as Caesar was by the benefit of his original nature, there can be no doubt that he, like others, owed something to circumstances; and perhaps amongst those which were most favourable to the premature development of great self—dependence we must reckon the early death of his father. It is, or it is not, according to the nature of men, an advantage to be orphaned at as early age. Perhaps utter orphanage is rarely or never such: but to lose a father betimes may, under appropriate circumstances, profit a strong mind greatly. To Caesar it was a prodigious benefit that he lost his father when not much more than fifteen. Perhaps it was an advantage also to his father that he died thus early. Had he stayed a year longer, he might have seen himself despised, baffled, and made ridiculous. For where, let us ask, in any age, was the father capable of adequately sustaining that relation to the unique Caius Julius–to him, in the appropriate language of Shakespeare
“The foremost man of all this world?”
And, in this fine and Caesarean line, “this world” is to be understood not of the order of co—existences merely,‘ but also of the order of successions; he was the foremost man not only of his contemporaries, but also, within his own intellectual class, of men generally–of all that ever should come after him, or should sit on thrones under the denominations of Czars, Kesars, or Caesars of the Bosphorus and the Danube; of all in every age that should inherit his supremacy of mind, or should subject to themselves the generations of ordinary men by qualities analogous to his. Of this infinite superiority some part must be ascribed to his early emancipation from paternal control. There are very many cases in which, simply from considerations of sex, a female cannot stand forward as the head of a family, or as its suitable representative. If they are even ladies paramount, and in situations of command, they are also women. The staff of authority does not annihilate their sex; and scruples of female delicacy interfere for ever to unnerve and emasculate in their hands the sceptre however otherwise potent. Hence we see, in noble families, the merest boys put forward to represent the family dignity, as fitter supporters of that burden than their mature mothers. And of Caesar’s mother, though little is recorded, and that little incidentally, this much at least we learn–that, if she looked down upon him with maternal pride and delight, she looked up to him with female ambition as the re—edifier of her husband’s honours,– looked with reverence as to a column of the Roman grandeur and with fear and feminine anxieties as to one whose aspiring spirit carried him but too prematurely into the fields of adventurous strife. One slight and evanescent sketch of the relations which subsisted between Caesar and his mother, caught from the wrecks of time, is preserved both by Plutarch and Suetonius. We see in the early dawn the young patrician standing upon the steps of his patrimonial portico, his mother with her arms wreathed about his neck, looking up to his noble countenance, sometimes drawing auguries of hope from features so fitted for command, sometimes boding an early blight to promises so dangerously magnificent. That she had something of her son’s aspiring character, or that he presumed so much in a mother of his, we learn from the few words which survive of their conversation. He addressed to her no language that could tranquillise her fears. On the contrary, to any but a Roman mother his valedictory words, taken in connexion with the known determination of his character, were of a nature to consummate her depression, as they tended to confirm the very worst of her fears. He was then going to stand his chance in a popular electioneering contest for an office of the highest dignity, and to launch himself upon the storms of the Campus Martius. At that period, besides other and more ordinary dangers, the bands of gladiators, kept in the pay of the more ambitious or turbulent amongst the Roman nobles, gave a popular tone of ferocity and of personal risk to the course of such contests; and, either to forestall the victory of an antagonist, or to avenge their own defeat, it was not at all impossible that a body of incensed competitors might intercept his final triumph by assassination. For this danger, however, he had no leisure in his thoughts of consolation; the sole danger which he contemplated, or supposed his mother to contemplate, was the danger of defeat, and for that he reserved his consolations. He bade her fear nothing; for that his determination was to return with victory, and with the ensigns of the dignity he sought, or to return a corpse.
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