There are many Johnsons in this Marius

λέγεται δὲ τὰς Ἄλπεις ὑπερβάλλοντος αὐτοῦ καὶ πολίχνιόν τι βαρβαρικόν, οἰκούμενον ὑπ’ ἀνθρώπων παντάπασιν ὀλίγων καὶ λυπρόν, παρερχομένου, τοὺς ἑταίρους ἅμα γέλωτι καὶ μετὰ παιδιᾶς „ἦ που“ φάναι „κἀνταῦθά τινές εἰσιν ὑπὲρ ἀρχῶν φιλοτιμίαι καὶ περὶ πρωτείων ἅμιλλαι καὶ φθόνοι τῶν δυνατῶν πρὸς ἀλλήλους;“ τὸν δὲ Καίσαρα σπουδάσαντα πρὸς αὐτοὺς εἰπεῖν· „ἐγὼ μὲν <μᾶλλον ἂν> ἐβουλόμην παρὰ τούτοις εἶναι μᾶλλον πρῶτος ἢ παρὰ Ῥωμαίοις δεύτερος“.

…it is said that, whilst crossing the Alps, and passing by a small barbarian village, all together wretched and inhabited by a few men, his companions asked with laughter and jest “even here are there ambition for rule, contests for primacy, and the jealousies of the powerful towards one another?” Caesar, with all seriousness, said to them “I would rather be first amongst these, then second at Rome”.

Plutarch Caesar 13-14

First man at Rome, what a dream that was! The outsized success of Caesar’s nephew (the “grandson of a provincial banker” as per Syme) and Virgil’s masterpiece perhaps obscure how great a dream this might be. For all the vaunted divinity of the gens Iulia, the Caesareswould have had precious few consular ancestor masks to wear in any funeral,[1] and Caesar had yet to win his place in the fasti. The Claudii or Fabii they were not.[2]  This is not the place to go over Caesar’s biography or his life’s achievement, seemingly legions of books are published every year, a few of them are even worth reading, simply to state that Caesar was the kind of man who needed his brilliance reflected on the face of others.

This urge towards reconciliation, albeit on unequal terms, is key to understanding Caesar’s character and career. As a popularis (if we must use party terms) he had an ample support base, and through manipulation of the tribunate some constitutional trickery with which to achieve his goals. He could have tried to do what the brothers Gracchi, M. Aemilius Lepidus (the consul of 78, not our triumvir), or even L. Sergius Catilina attempted. I do not think Caesar’s aversion to this was just the shrewd judgement of history – if anything it is more in line with his character to believe that he could succeed where others had failed – or that his deal making with Pompey and Crassus was mere expediency. Pompey was, for all intents and purposes, a new man with his feel still wet from the Sullan slaughter (adulescentulus carnifex), but he was nonetheless the first man in Rome; Crassus may have stank from some of the same taint, but he was a member of the gens Licinia. A Plebeian gens to be sure but one from the hoary bearded days of the early Republic and with at least 7 consular masks in hanging in the atria. Patrician Caesar could think himself in good company.

Caesar’s clemency, already characterised by Cicero as being deceitful (clementia insidiosa Ad. Atticum 8.16), can be read in this light. By sparing his opponents after Pharsalus, Thapsus, and Munda he was not simply displaying his superiority, highlighting the impotence of the optimates, but stacking the stage with witnesses to his greatness. He wanted to be the culmination of Roman tradition, not its overthrower. Not for nothing did Caesar weep when brought the dead Pompey’s signet.[3] How radical was Caesar, really? The early manoeuvrings over land distribution had precedent not just in the (abortive) plans of the Gracchi but the traditional land grants of the Roman Republic, large commands had been issued before in times of great need, even the dictatorship – which Tacitus tells us was taken up when and as needed (dictaturae ad tempus sumebantur Annals 1.1) – had been recently revived by Sulla. True, as Tacitus tells us, these unusual offices were usually geared towards a specific task and thereafter surrendered but how often in the Fasti does one see rei gerundae causa entered (“for the sake of doing something”)? Caesar even had elected with him a magister equitum. This was not one-man rule. Ah, I hear you say, but did he not long for the kingship? That is true. It is equally true that as much as the Romans disliked the name “king”,[4] many of patricians drew their prestige from predating the Republic (and thus could handily survive its actual demise); king was an office of hoary antiquity.[5] It is not hard to detect Caesar’s sentiment here either: a descendent of Aeneas and of Ancus Marcius, why should he not be king? Even this was not an innovation comparable to, say, the kingships of the Diadochi after the death of the last Temenid.

Suetonius gives us an anecdote about Caesar’s heir upon his deathbed, wherein he likened his life to being an actor. It has a very Shakespearian ring to it, and may even have inspired the bard’s own take,[6] but I cannot help but feel that in many ways these words would have been more apt for Caesar.[7] Not that he was any less genuine, but the performative nature of much of his actions could never have occurred within a vacuum. We all too often confuse Caesar the man with the Caesarian party, the person with the phenomenon.

supremo die…admissos amicos percontatus, ecquid iis videretur mimum vitae commode transegisse, adiecit et clausulam:

Ἐπεὶ δὲ πάνυ καλῶς πέπαισται, δότε κρότον

Καὶ πάντες ἡμᾶς μετὰ χαρᾶς προπέμψατε.

on (his) last day…he asked his admitted friends whether he seemed to them to have played the comedy of life well, and he added this bon mot:

since well (our part) has been performed, give applause!

and all of you dismiss us with grace

Suetonius Augustus 99

Look, I am not naïve. What I am suggesting is that Caesar was a problem of ambition and scale, not a new and unprecedented monster. To paraphrase our Plutarch, Caesar wished to be πρῶτος παρὰ τοῖς Ῥωμαίοις, οὐ μόνος, that is first, not only. Perhaps in time the Republic could have re-asserted itself – certainly the liberatores attempted a republican style solution in murder – just as it had done in the past against Sp. Cassius Viscellinus, M. Furius Camillus, Scipio Africanus, Marius, Cinna, Sulla, and even Pompey.[8] The liberatores treated Caesar as something unprecedented, monstruous, unreconcilable and look where that got them. Did the survivors (ha!) of Perusia, or Philippi, or even Actium feel as if a wise choice had been made? In “preserving” the Republic, they ended it. The blood of the tyrant watered the seed of destruction, not liberty (etc etc).

Ὁ μέγας αὐτοῦ δαίμων, ᾧ παρὰ τὸν βίον ἐχρήσατο, καὶ τελευτήσαντος ἐπηκολούθησε τιμωρὸς τοῦ φόνου…

However, his [Caesar’s] great guardian spirit, whose help he had enjoyed through life, followed him even in death as an avenger of his murder…

Plutarch Caesar 69

Gaius Octavius, later to take Caesar’s name and then to supplant it with something even grander – Augustus, was something else entirely. What was said of him by Cicero – that he was to be raised, praised, and displaced (laudandum adolescentem, ornandum, tollendum Ad Fam 11.20) – could typify Augustus’ own strategy towards the Roman state and constitution. I think we overemphasise to what degree he utilised the various outwards elements of the Republic whilst ignoring the practical reality of this disjunction. Superficially, Augustus looks like Caesar turned up to 11, in reality he was a different kind of beast. The free use he made of others’ wives whilst pushing ridiculous marriage and impropriety laws, his seemingly arbitrary combining of powers (at least Clodius went through the farce of an adoption to be eligible for the tribunate), the violating of Vesta’s temple and its opisthodomos to rouse the state against Antony, the attempt to pass on primacy within the state as if a family heirloom (first to Agrippa, then to Marcellus and Lucius…), the raising of a teenager to the consulate…

There is a bit in the Aeneid, near farcically humorous when read in an Augustan context. Book 10, our hero Aeneas has been removed from action and Turnus has been laying waste to the Trojan camp. All looks lost when, suddenly, Aeneas’ ship appears down the river and he is described:

iamque in conspectu Teucros habet et sua castra

stans celsa in puppi, clipeum cum deinde sinistra

extulit ardentem. clamorem ad sidera tollunt

Dardanidae e muris, spes addita suscitat iras,

and now he has the Trojans and his ramparts in view,

standing on the high stern, with his left hand he lifts

the burning shield. From the walls the Trojans raise

a shout to the sky: new hope freshened their fury

Aeneid 10.260-4

Why, besides the cinematic coolness of this scene, does this matter? The impact of Augustus’ reign and Virgil’s great epic is well known, as is the complex ways in which its hero, Aeneas, can at times foreshadow Augustus.[9] Virgil was writing an epic, not composing one in the traditional manner of Homer, and so was not at all reliant upon repetitive, formulaic, language. When he does reuse whole phrases there is clearly a reason behind them. Virgil here mirrors an earlier description of Augustus himself, on Aeneas’ shield.

hinc Augustus agens Italos in proelia Caesar

cum patribus populoque, penatibus et magnis dis,

stans celsa in puppi, geminas cui tempora flammas

laeta vomunt patriumque aperitur vertice sidus.

Here is Caesar [Augustus] standing on the high stern,

leading the Italians into battle, with the Senate,

the people, the household gods, the great gods, his happy brow

shoots out twin flames, and the star of his fathers’ [Iulii] shown

Aeneid 8.678-81

Why? Virgil clearly intends for the reader to recall these lines. I think Virgil aims to remind future generations of a fact lost, buried, after Actium (which is portrayed in the scene above). The clue is in the vastly different situations Aeneas/Augustus finds himself in. In Book 10, the Trojans find themselves against the bulk of Italy, not leading them as in the propagandic ecphrasis in Book 8. What happened at Actium? Was it really the unification of Italia against the Eastern hordes lead be treacherous Marc Antony and his unnamed harpy-queen? Eh, no. Until the last moment, more or less, the number of men of consular standing following Octavian was miniscule. Marc Antony was the man to back. Instead, Octavian is surrounded by men like M. Agrippa and T. Statilius Taurus, novi homines, men whose atria would stink of fresh plaster and shine with a conspicuous lack of consular ancestor masks. We often underestimate just how effective the propaganda of Augustus – and Virgil – has been. If Caesar was (an attempt at) the culmination of the Roman tradition; Augustus was a radical outsider.

So, what is the point? Have I just tried to get you to read ca. 2000 words just to call Augustus a billy-no-mates? Not really.[10] Let us put Caesar and Augustus in contrast. It was the latter who instigated true revolution, who went above and beyond any potential Roman precedent, who tore apart the state and wore its skin as some sort of fetish mask, parading its corpse to its former masters and their descendants. For all his propaganda (divi filius, indeed!) Augustus was an outsider (the “grandson of a provincial banker”) with an outsider’s disdain for the inherited mores of the Roman ruling class. Of course he was willing to put it to fire and sword to achieve his goals. 

Now then, here is my hypothesis. I do not believe that either the current PM or American President is very much like Caesar or Augustus. I find the numerous articles comparing Trump to Caligula or Nero somewhat nauseating. If your reading of history never digs up anything counter-intuitive, contra your political assumptions, then you are not engaging in anything like scholarship. Sorry #ClassicsTwitter. No, I do not think these to be perfect parallels, but they do furnish useful heuristics.

Let us turn to our current PM. Mr Johnson (I refuse to call him “Boris”, I am not his friend to use his Christian name, it is clearly the worst sort of marketing – I make memes, I do not suffer them) has been the subject of two previous blog posts (here and here) and given his classical proclivities I suspect he shall be again. Much muck has been made over his use of the Classics by people who could not conjugate δίδωμι, when it comes to his use of Caesar and Augustus specifically, I think this piece by Mary Beard is the kindest of them but still degenerates into “well akstualllllyy!11!” territory. Anyway, we are interested in what we can make of these parallels, not Johnson.

Look at the language used about him. The leader of the opposition has recently described him as “single biggest threat to the future of the United Kingdom” (where else?); the media was falling over itself to call him a dictator over the prorogation non issue; we are constantly being told that either he is a racist or an English nationalist (though why the latter is a bad thing, and why Scottish nationalism is a good thing, we are never told). In short, Johnson is consistently said to be a threat to the Res Publica Commonwealth, at least by the incontinent press. The new, arbitrary, establishment of tiers and the poor handling of covid-19 (20, now?) hardly help matters. If we look at the Caesar parallels, we can, perhaps, intimate why Johnson is not only unlikely to be the deathblow to the realm but is unlikely to even want to be. He is inextricably tied to it, just as Caesar was, and his personal values are far too aligned with the plaudits on offer. The archetypical insider.  Mr Johnson strikes me as this kind of man; one who needs to bask in the admiration of others. There is something about his character, his pally behaviour on HIGNFY, the over earnest way he “plays” sport, his prose style,[11] perhaps even his insistence on reading Greats rather than PPE at Oxford. laudandus, ornandus, tollendus indeed.

I am writing this just having entered the new Tier 4 lockdown. This is obscene over stretch of government powers (and there is nothing so long lasting as temporary measures the government has awarded itself), and the hysteria has once again started over Johnson and his ambition. But let us keep things in perspective, the new measures are hardly proof of his dictatorial ambition, merely his ineptitude and our complacence. That is the real story here.

Where is that British spirit? It is a sobering thought. Whether speaking of the recent(ish) immigrants who partook in two world wars and crossed the ocean for a better life, the Huguenots who did likewise, a hardly obscure offshoot who declared independence over a stamp tax in 1776, Norman adventurers and chancers or, indeed, Hengist and Horsa’s founding stock itself? It is considered old fashioned to talk about this stuff now, perhaps even in bad taste, usually by the kind of people who would be happy to see citizenship scrapped and we subjects treated as happily swappable economic units for the all mighty GDP (always an obsession for the dyscalculic chancers who make up our fourth estate). Perhaps, in fact, the real story is not even our complacency, but that the kind of grand gestures of the Roman world – crossing the Rubicon, Philippi, Actium – are no longer needed. The truth is we are scarcely a nation, just an appendage to one of the worst and most dysfunctional health services in Europe.

I am tired, so tired I certainly no longer have it in me for any meaningful civil disobedience, so tired I can scarcely finish this post. I should end this on something with energy, or at least mention Trump – after all the man attracts considerably more hysteria than Johnson (indeed, I suspect much of this is our press playing copycat). Trump, it seems, is going through something of historical moment. Perhaps not Actium, nor even Perusia, but people are throwing around the word “Rubicon” a lot, and it seems all are awaiting with bated breath. Hmm. Look, it does not matter whether you believe that Trump lost the election or a seemingly 12 Σ event happened and Biden won in defiance of all norms, it seems obvious that Trump will be leaving office come January. Indeed, the Biden administration – in its masterful handling of the press (“the office of the president elect”, office? With a seal?), already reaching out to foreign powers for discussion, etc etc – is putting into play one of Caesar’s earliest lessons: There is a time for the trappings of power, and a time for its exercise. 

Where is Trump in all this? Where has he been? The oddly focused vigour with which he now actually accomplishes things serves only to highlight how little he has managed to accomplish. The military-press-political-insider complex (his “swamp”) remains as strong as ever, stronger really given its complete capture of every single American cultural institution (would Obama have let that happen?), his economy (and it was his economy you idiots) has been obliterated by the plague. The press and the twitterati are frothing at the mouth, after all this is his Caesar moment. Time for a coup. The culmination of his Nazi-Stalin-Giga-Hitler four years in office. But what has he done to warrant this suspicion? Utilised Obama’s illegal immigrant camps? Enforced a modicum of peace in the Middle East? Started no new wars? He is crass, to be sure, but that is no crime and a far shot from dictatorship. Future historians are,[12] if anything, likely to be wonder at the sheer gall of the press. Trump the president is not at all akin to Trump the farcical, fictional, character they have created.

Anyway, to return to our thesis, I think Trump – like Caesar – is far too attached to the norms (and plaudits) of the Republic to act the Augustus and overthrow it. I think he lacks even the energy, determination, and ambition of Caesar to cross the Rubicon. Perhaps I am wrong. But looking at the way the press has treated Mssrs Johnson and Trump I cannot help but wonder yes, but what about the next guy?

Suetonius tells us that when Julius Caesar was on the run from the dictator Sulla (he was the nephew of his great rival, Gaius Marius, and refused to divorce his wife, the daughter of Cinna – Marius’ colleague), claimed he could see many Marius’ in Caesar. Racist, fascist, Nazi, Russian plant, incompetent, dictator, tyrant…do these words mean anything anymore? They are increasingly looking like the strictures of a dying polity; one whose elites have failed their citizenry time and time again. Empty words applied to people without any reference to deed or action.  I am, as I said, tired beyond all exhaustion but it is easy to imagine someone looking at all this (in either country) and feeling not tired, but angry, driven, not weary. The feeble columns of our political norms have been shattered and like Sulla I am growing to fear the coming man.

Satis constat Sullam, cum deprecantibus   amicissimis et ornatissimis viris aliquamdiu denegasset atque illi pertinaciter contenderent, expugnatum tandem proclamasse sive divinitus sive aliqua coniectura: vincerent ac sibi haberent, dum modo scirent eum, quem incolumem tanto opere cuperent, quandoque optimatium partibus, quas secum simul defendissent, exitio futurum; nam Caesari multos Marios inesse.

It is known that Sulla had long denied the wishes of his most loyal and eminent men, and when they forcefully persisted he, at last worn out, proclaimed (either divinely inspired or else conjecture) that they had won, and might have it their way, so long as they knew that he, whom they had wished so eagerly to be safe, would one day be a death to the aristocracy, which they had defended alongside him, for “in this Caesar, there are many Mariuses”.

Suetonius Julius Caesar 1


[1] Just four in my cursory count (I do not have institutional affiliation, where are the fucking “Classicists” when you need something useful???): A Sex. Julius Caesar in 157, his son (grandson?) in 91, a L. Julius Caesar in 90 and his grandson, our Caesar’s cousin, another L. Julius Caesar in 64. His own father died having “only” achieved being elected praetor.

[2] Prosopography has yielded some truly fascinating insights into Roman history and cannot be merely be dismissed as the fetish of a class obsessed British academy. How many of the early/mid Repulican gentes make it to the empire? Where were the Furii, Pinarii, Valerii etc etc? Do any Republican families besides the Anicii produce any emperors in late antiquity? The social upheavals this entails are, if anything, underappreciated.

[3] The anecdote is from Plutarch’s Pompey and whilst it may seem hammy to us, it is certainly in line with the expected behaviour of a Roman noble and Caesar specifically: Καῖσαρ ἐλθὼν εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἄγους τοσούτου καταπεπλησμένην τὸν μὲν προσφέροντα τὴν κεφαλὴν ὡς παλαμναῖον ἀπεστράφη, τὴν δὲ σφραγῖδα τοῦ Πομπηΐου δεξάμενος ἐδάκρυσεν· A well known TV series from the early noughties is probably the most famous bit of modern reception, note too the use of Catullus 101 during the funeral: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY2Cr_7_BIU

[4] “nomen regis audire non poterat” Cicero Republic 2.52 Of course this did not stop people, like Spurius Cassius, occasionally giving it a damn good go.

[5] Again, we concentrate overmuch how by the Second Punic War the old Patrician/Plebeian divide had weakened in favour of a new nobilitas based on fiscal potency and success on the cursus honorum. True, to an extent, but have you ever known a snob not to seize upon the slightest pretext for superiority? Decent from the city fathers was a scarce, and thus increasingly valuable, commodity.

[6] All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts – As You Like it Act II Scene VII.139-42

[7] Caesar’s dictatorial predecessor, Sulla, was said to have been fond of actors and actresses to an unseemly degree. There is some argument to be made that this conditioned his political comportment: Garton, C. (1964). Sulla and the Theatre. Phoenix, 18(2), 137-156

[8] Pompey’s relationship with the Republican aristocracy, much like his settlement of the East and its nachleben, is something I have yet to find satisfactory reading on. It strikes me that his wish to be accepted was an incredible weakness on his part.

[9] “For a country to have a great writer…is like having another government. That’s why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.” Solzhenitsyn (1968) The First Circle ch. 57, tr. M. Guybon. Clearly, The Julio-Claudians, Flavians, and Antonines disprove this.

[10] Yes, really.

[11] Incidentally, not at all bad, just clearly an affectation. His Dream of Rome is actually a considerably better example of using his classical training on offer than any of his detractors have managed to produce.

[12] What a fucking bugman phrase. Who cares? Our current crop of historians are semiliterate baboons at best, why would the future be better?

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