‘Caesar’ by Allan Massie

Allan Massie’s Imperial sequence of novels explores the psychologies of Rome’s rulers, and those closest to them, from the crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BCE to the establishment of the Flavian dynasty in 69 CE. The only gaps are the reigns of Claudius and Nero, although Massie hasn’t been writing the series in chronological order so we can hope that these volumes might yet be in the pipeline. Massie occupies a prominent place on the crowded shelves of books that have inspired my own ambitions to write about ancient Rome. The lonely exception is his Nero’s Heirs, which I have avoided since it covers the same events as my own novel, and I still don’t want to have to measure myself against it.


Caesar is third in the series and first chronologically. It is written in the person of Decimus Brutus, one of Caesar’s most loyal officers and friends, who fought beside him in Gaul and later in his wars against the Senate. Brutus is a richly drawn and complex character, tormented by the signature dilemma of his party at that time: does he remain faithful to the leader he loves, or does he reassert the ancient liberties of his class? As Caesar’s ambition spells the end of the Republic and the neutering of the senatorial order, Brutus, a man who would give his life for Caesar, quietly and inevitably becomes a man who would stick a knife into him. The unravelling of his loyalty is masterfully written. The exact moment of his decision to betray Caesar is never made explicit; the change of heart is seamless, yet somehow rendered with complete clarity.

Brutus’s moral journey is so convincing because he is presented as a fully rounded and flawed human being. He is a great soldier, and a man who prizes his honour above everything; he is also a drinker and a fornicator, partial to women and boys. He beds Cleopatra in one scene and takes a prostitute standing up against a wall in another. He is also a husband, and the arc of his marriage to Cassius’s daughter Longina is very skillfully drawn. It is a political marriage, of course, at first characterised by mutual contempt; but then, in a pivotal scene, Brutus finds her in bed with another man, and for the first time, they excite each other. From that point on they are in love. A turn like that is hard to carry off without prurience or clumsiness and Massie does it effortlessly. Brutus’s love for Longina is, perhaps, his real tragedy, and his separation from her as he faces his own death is deeply moving. By then, our sympathies for Brutus are well established, and we have felt for him at every step. There is a particularly strong scene of understated bitterness where he is humiliated by Octavian, who had recently been his lover and protege, but is now well on the way to becoming Rome’s new strongman.

The supporting characters are vibrant but a bit uneven. Antony is almost convincing as both drunken fop and man of steel. Casca is a boozy, cynical pederast who thinks ‘bugger me’ is a witty double entendre. The popular image of Marcus Brutus is turned on its head and he is presented as callow and barely formed, a man of straw. Cassius, as the beating heart of the plot, is suitably grim, scarily inflexible. But they all seem a little flat next to Brutus, and I think the main problem is one of voice. Brutus’s internal monologue works very well, but when it comes to the direct speech that connects us with the other characters, it must be said that Massie has a bit of a tin ear. Even Brutus himself loses something when he opens his mouth. Here’s a line of his taken more or less at random: ‘These are strange circumstances in which we meet.’ Did anyone ever speak like that? Some modern writers seem to think that giving their Romans this stilted formality will make them sound more authentic; but I lean more towards Monty Python’s vision of a rough-edged, demotic classical world where people talk like people and go around telling each other to ‘fuck off’. Here’s another line, this time from Caesar, toasting his friends: ‘…nevertheless I raise my cup of wine in token of my gratitude for your support.’ Caesar, we are constantly told in the novel, has an irresistible personal charm. Well, it doesn’t really sound like it from that. I might be more convinced if he had said something like, ‘…but anyway, thanks for your support, lads, and cheers.’

Massie’s Caesar is a void at the centre of everything: manipulative, enthralling, but emotionally unengaged and as remote as the moon. In today’s language he might be described as a sociopath. It is a striking portrait, and it might be an accurate reflection of how Caesar really was, but it is flawed by the character’s aforementioned lack of any visible charm. In conversation, he seems quite hard work, talking like a Whitehall mandarin and referring to himself in the third person even before the civil wars begin. We see the effects of his personal magnetism, but we never feel the thing itself. He does not seem like a man who would inspire love.

Massie’s knowledge of the period is consummate and lightly worn. Caesar would serve well enough as an introductory history for anyone looking for something more accessible than Plutarch and Suetonius. Insights and observations abound; it’s remarked for example that tears, to the Romans, were the mark of a man rather than a sign of weakness, something that is borne out implicitly by the ancient writers themselves. As a novelist though, Massie also knows when to set accuracy aside, and he has a playful way with anachronisms, advisedly used and always hitting a mark. He employs the famous Tacitus quote, ‘You can think what you like and say what you think,’ even though it would not be written for another century and a half; there is a nod to modern psychology when Ceasar is accused of megalomania; and he even gets in a bit of Margaret Thatcher, with Caesar reportedly denying the existence of society.

Massie takes one more liberty with history, and it’s as poignant a use of dramatic licence as I know of. Before I get to it though, I want to mention something I noticed while re-reading Caesar’s own The Gallic War recently. In these commentaries he refers to Brutus as ‘young Decimus Brutus’. Now, this might mean nothing, but it’s noticeable that he doesn’t say, for example, ‘young’ Publius Crassus, although the two legates were about the same age. Could the modifier be paternal; affectionate? At the end of Caesar, with the great man reeling bloody under Pompey’s statue, we hear his last words, ‘Not you, my son,’ before he pulls up his gown to hide his agony. If we do see a chink in Caesar’s emotional armour, this is it, his anguish when he sees Brutus among the assassins, the man he has loved like a son, and whose betrayal hurts him more than all the daggers. In Massie’s novel though, Caesar is addressing not Marcus, but the other Brutus: Decimus.

‘Quartered Safe Out Here’ by George MacDonald Fraser


That title, which is taken from Kipling’s Gunga Din, is a misnomer, as George MacDonald Fraser was not quartered safe out anywhere during his war, not for long anyway. He went to Burma as a nineteen-year-old in 1945 to confront a desperate enemy ready to fight to the death, and he was lucky to get out of there with his skin. We should be grateful that he did. Twenty-odd years later he embarked on the immortal Flashman series of novels for which he will be best remembered. These volumes are more instructive of 19th century history than almost any other stack of books, as well as being wildly entertaining and highly addictive once you start on them. Quartered Safe Out Here is essential reading for anyone with a Flashman habit. Fraser writes with the same pace and literary verve he brings to his novels, and the pages practically turn themselves. There is a portrait of a real bona fide genius fearless headcase English officer, of the kind that often crops up in the Flashman books. There is even a teasing hint that the character of Flashman may have been in some small part based on Fraser himself: one of his comrades remarks on how brown he is and tells him that if he put on a dhoti he could easily pass for a native.

This book will also appeal to anyone interested in military history, particularly the soldier’s-eye-view kind. It’s packed with fascinating details of a WWII rifleman’s life: his daily routines; the gear he uses; the food he eats; how his section reacts when its corporal gets killed. The value of such memoirs is that they remind us that even though the overarching events may be momentous, to any given individual, war is always fought on a small and very personal scale. Fraser tells us that ‘up the road’, at the sharp end of a war, a soldier’s first loyalty is to his section, which is a unit of ten men. All experiences, hardships, and dangers are shared among these men, and the bonds that form are closer than any outside those of the nuclear family. The front line soldier does not give a lot of thought to the larger formations of company or regiment, and he does not worry much about the ‘big picture’. Fraser belonged to Nine Section, part of the Border Regiment. Its members were mostly Cumbrians, rough hewn, aggressive men, not well educated, sons of an historical breed noted for cattle theft, raiding, and murder. Their leisure time activities consisted largely of bitching, sniping, and thieving, and Fraser writes of them not so much with affection as with a fathomless respect, bordering on awe, for their courage and essential decency. They were, he says, the most honest men he has ever known, and the reason he wrote this book.

Although Nine Section might have been a very small world in itself, what was at stake for its members could not have been higher. Fraser had comrades shot down beside him, fought hand to hand with Japanese, and was bloody near blown up by his own side, in actions that warrant a few bland words in the regimental history, if any at all. So you can understand why he wasn’t losing sleep over the big picture: his own little picture was big enough. He writes rivettingly about his feelings in the heat of combat, or the moment before stepping into a Japanese bunker. They range from near-paralysing fear to joy. The fear needs no explanation, the joy he makes us understand.

The Fourteenth Army he fought in was known as the forgotten army, fighting a forgotten campaign that dragged on for months after the war in Europe had been won. On this, Fraser can be quite as sardonic as Robert Graves, author of arguably the greatest of all war memoirs, Goodbye To All That. When he notes that modern youngsters will have heard of D-Day and Alamein, but not the Battle of Imphal, he adds, ‘There’s no reason why they should; it was a long way away.’ Any reasonable enemy would have surrendered along with Germany, but the Japanese preferred to go down fighting. Those left behind in the hospitals would kill themselves rather than be taken, and Fraser tells us of his own experience, near the very end, of facing a half starved, half naked foe rushing at him out of a bush with a bamboo stake and no very friendly intention. Fraser hated his enemy then, viscerally, and he still does, he says, writing fifty years later. He prefers to avoid even the current generation of Japanese, polite and decent though he is sure they are. On the day Nine Section’s corporal was killed, Fraser says that the strongest emotion he felt was the delight of shooting a Japanese soldier. And he mentions several incidents where his own side killed prisoners in cold blood and readily accepts that they were war crimes. These things do not trouble him.

Before the Enola Gay, the Japanese looked set to continue the fight through Malaya, China, the Pacific approaches to Japan, and then the mainland itself. There was talk of the war going on until 1950. The use of the atom bomb was obscene and barbaric, Fraser believes; and also justifiable, because it prevented all of that. He does not accept that any Allied soldiers should have been made to fight on and lay down their lives when this other solution, dreadful as it was, was at hand. I am not qualified to comment, but I imagine that when he says this, he is thinking specifically of the men of Nine Section. And I can only speculate on why he waited five decades to write this book, but it might be because he wanted to set down for the record who these men were, and their deeds, and their voices, while he still could.

On the subject of their voices – and this is really just an aside – I would like to quote one of Fraser’s examples of the Cumbrian dialect they spoke: ‘Est seen a coody loup ower a yet?’ which means, ‘Have you seen a donkey jump over gate?’ Varieties of English and language change is of some interest to me professionally, and it is with mixed feelings that I think about the levelling out of British dialects that we’ve seen since WWII due to the mass media and motorways. In an earlier life, in the 90s, I worked on a call centre that covered all of north west England, and I had to deal with the amazing array voices from the Scottish borders down to the Welsh, and out east to the Pennines. But it was only the older people who were ever hard to decode, the people of Nine Section’s generation. The young Cumbrians did not speak like they did; their English was standard.

And it is on the men of Nine Section that this piece should finish. Fraser wrote his book because of them; because of Tich, Nick, Grandarse, Forster, Steele, Stanley, Wedge, the Duke, and Parker. The following might explain why – and this is another piece of speculation, but this time from someone who knows what he’s talking about: Fraser himself. He has given some thought to his section being presented with a hypothetical choice in August 1945 either to fight on, knowing that it might take years and that they would likely not all survive; or to have the war ended by the atom bombs, and knowing the horrors that would be visited on Japan as a result. Fraser believes they would have sat silent for bit, then griped and bitched and sniped for a bit, then strapped on their gear and picked up their Lee Enfields and got back up the road.

‘Rubicon’ by Tom Holland


I heard this book before I read it. When it was published in 2003 it was serialised for Radio 4’s Book of the Week and I used to listen to it in the car on the way to work. I didn’t know much about the Romans then, but I knew who the big hitters were, and I think it was the cast of characters in Rubicon that first grabbed me: Spartacus and Crassus; Pompey and Caesar; Cicero and Cato; Antony and Cleopatra; Augustus. It amazed me that these people could all have lived at the same time, through the same stories, in relationships that swung anywhere between loving each other and killing each other. Later, when I actually read the book, I immediately felt that once wasn’t enough. I went from the last page straight back to the first and read it through again; something I’ve never done with any other book. And Rubicon planted a seed in me. Over the course of the next few years I read, re-read and absorbed into my bones several dozens of books about ancient Rome, an obsession that eventually led me to write a book about it myself.

Rubicon is about how Rome went from being a republic where people were citizens to a monarchy where people were subjects. This is one of the great stories, and Holland treats us to a real immersive experience, recreating the Roman mindset as convincingly as he spins the narrative and as vividly as he rounds out the characters. In the Republic, noblemen were raised for excellence and relentless competition. The only measure of a man was victory: in the law courts, which were not dissimilar to a gladiatorial arena; or in the polling pens; or on the battlefield. This hothouse atmosphere produced a breed that was extraordinarily able and self-confident, and that by 100 BCE – the year Julius Caesar was born – had come to dominate the whole of the Mediterranean.

But the culture was built on a paradox: ambition was the cardinal virtue, but it was always cut off short. Hundreds of years before, the Romans had cast out their kings, and they didn’t want them back; so, while you were expected to be a high achiever, you had better not aim too high. The consulate was the highest political office, and there were two of them. Supreme power was always shared. In addition, the term of office was just a year, then you had to wait ten years before you could be consul again. That was the genius of the constitution – no one could get too big.

The system worked until Rome began to rule foreign territories directly; then, as the empire grew broader, the political ceiling began to look a bit low. By the 80s BCE, aristocrats like Crassus and Pompey became rich enough to raise their own legions – all in the name of the Republic of course. And as Rome took on its ‘civilising mission’ in earnest, a new office had to be instituted: the proconsulate. A proconsul would typically be away from Rome for years, campaigning in places where Republican civic values had little currency, and with a huge army that might become more loyal to him personally than to the Senate and people. From the 80s to the 40s BCE the Republic dropped in and out of chaos as politics revolved more and more around strongmen while conservatives in the Senate strove to maintain the status quo. The Republic had always been characterised by bitter rivalries, but when Cato – the staunch defender of back-to-basics values – went head to head with Caesar, the flamboyant and popular conqueror of Gaul, the stakes were very much higher. In the old days, Caesar would, like any other citizen, have had to submit to a prosecution for his unconstitutional acts, and this probably would have ruined him. But in the old days he wouldn’t have had what amounted to a private army of eight legions behind him. On one level then, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and went to war with the Senate because he could, and because it was a matter of personal survival.

But there was more in the mix than that – there was foreign exoticism, and the lure of kingship, even divinity. The peoples Rome conquered were used to having kings, and some of them were happy to worship their lords as gods. This must have been heady temptation to a man like Caesar, infinitely ambitious, and removed from the grounding atmosphere of Rome for years. When the civil war took him to Egypt, he became genuinely besotted with Cleopatra, and the attraction was more than just physical – he was making love not only to a queen, but a living goddess. Both were anathema to any true Republican; but that’s not what Caesar was any longer, if he ever had been. There was scandal when he had a son by Cleopatra, and outrage when he brought her back to Rome. There were rumours of him moving the capital to Alexandria, where Caesar himself was now worshipped as a god; and talk that he meant to crown himself king. This was all too much for the spirit of the Republic, or what was left of it: thus followed the Ides of March in 44 BCE.

But there is another reading of the assassination of Caesar, which brings me to why I have just read this book again. Recently I listened to a lecture by Michael Parenti, who gives us a class-based analysis of the late Republic that is not entirely convincing, but certainly fresh and interesting. He portrays Caesar as a progressive politician – kind of an ancient FDR – concerned for the welfare of the lower economic classes, and he offers a compelling list of Caesar’s reforms in support of this. In contrast, Caesar’s enemies in the Senate are shown to be a landed oligarchy fighting to hold onto their wealth and privilege. It is certainly true that much of Caesar’s conflict with the Senate revolved around land grants to veteran soldiers in reward for military service. His conservative enemies were very much opposed to parcelling out land to the proletarii in this way. Parenti also points out another truth: anyone who tried to share out the economic pie more fairly in ancient Rome, from the Gracchi brothers through to Caesar himself, tended to get murdered by ‘aristocratic death squads’. There isn’t much in Rubicon, or in anything else I’ve read for that matter, to support this reading, but it is certainly something I want to explore further. It seems anachronistic to read history in terms of modern progressive ideals, but if you look up the 2nd century BCE Gracchi brothers (or, indeed, John Ball in the 14th century, or the Levellers during the English Civil War), you will see that these ideas are not as modern as we might think. Here’s Parenti’s lecture.


The thing about the Republic is that it died hard, and it lingered. Octavian, who later rebranded himself Augustus, became Rome’s new strongman through a combination of civil war, massacre and patronage. But he became legitimate by posing as a defender of Republican values and going to war against Mark Antony who, in the manner of his old mentor, had set himself up as a god opposite Cleopatra. When he established what would become the Roman monarchy in 27 BCE it was a masterpiece of spin. It had a Republican constitution and all the same old offices. Augustus was, on paper, a proconsul, but his province ranged across the empire, and it gave him twenty legions. His term of office was limited: everyone understood that it would just keep getting renewed. When he died forty-one years later, democracy, such as it had been, was barely a memory.

Having re-read this book, I now find myself lining up some other old favourites, particularly Caesar’s commentaries, which tell us, in his own words, how he conquered Gaul and then brought down the Republic. Caesar’s work, like that of all the ancients, is weird, and sometimes repulsive; but still, to me, fascinating. The Romans were different from us, and will always be mysterious; but they are not unknowable, and I can think of no better book than Rubicon if you want an introduction to them. It’s an irresistible blend of scholarship and accessibility, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to learn more about history, or just enjoys a barnstorming read.

‘Boomerang’ by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has written a short, funny, very judgemental, and sometimes glib book about the 2008 financial crisis, and particularly how it affected Europe. He is an old fashioned ‘if you wanna know, go,’ kind of journalist who gets his boots dirty and talks to as large and varied a bunch of people as he can. It was interesting to read a book of this kind that didn’t focus on the cynical Wall Street bankers, but on the naive Old Worlders who lost their heads when, as Lewis puts it, they found themselves alone in a dark room with a pile of cash.

Lewis begins his tour in Iceland, whose problems, he concludes, can be boiled to down to alpha male attitudes. He finds the lack of communication between Icelandic men and women extraordinary, and notes the almost non-existent part played by women in pre-crisis public life. This is a country where tough trawlermen, whose whole lives were based on danger and risk, took advantage of the unlimited cheap cash that became available on world markets from 2002 to turn their country into an enormous assets bubble. One of his interviewees describes Icelandic banking in these terms: Imagine that I have a dog and you have a cat, and we each borrow a billion from foreign banks that are throwing money at us. Then I sell you my dog for a billion and I buy your cat from you for a billion. Hey presto, now we’re Icelandic bankers and asset billionaires. What ensued was the most rapid expansion of a banking sector in history, all based on nothing. Lewis calls this phenomenon a shift from Nordic Pragmatism to Asshole Capitalism. When it all crashed in 2008, Iceland, a country of 300,000 people, was stuck with banking losses of $100 billion. Lewis does the maths for us – that’s $330,000 for every man, woman and child.

In Greece, it wasn’t the banks that sunk the country but the government. Lewis characterises Greek culture as a kind of Hobbesian state of nature where everyone is simply out for themselves and civic identity is non-existent. No one pays any taxes and no politician asks them to because that would make them unpopular. Public sector workers get paid fourteen months salary every year to keep them sweet, then retire at fifty on fat pensions – and this is after the crash. When Greece joined the Eurozone in 2001 it was on the understanding that they would maintain a deficit of no more than 3%. The actual figure was 15% but they cooked the books with the help of some financial conjurors from Goldman Sachs. Still, anyone with a calculator could have seen there was something very fishy about the Greek economy. This raises the questions: how were the Greeks ever allowed in? How did the Germans let it happen? Some kind of answer to this is essayed, indirectly, later in the book.

Next stop, Ireland. Ireland was another giant bubble, this time based on real estate. Irish banks borrowed immense sums from overseas and lent it all out to anyone with a trowel and a bag of cement. Lewis talks to developers who built houses that no one wanted to live in, or multi-storey luxury hotels and leisure complexes in the middle of the Bog of Allen, one of the bleakest places in Europe. ‘We can stop at ghost estates on the way,’ says Lewis’s driver, taking him out of Dublin. ‘But if we stop at every one of them, we’ll never get out of here.’ In 2008, when the cracks began to show, the Irish government paid Merrill Lynch to advise them. The problem was that Merrill Lynch was making a ton of money trading with the Irish banks and didn’t want to kill their golden goose. So they suppressed their own damning report on the Irish banks and said instead that they were sound. This raises another question: why aren’t the Merrill Lynch consultants in jail? This one doesn’t get answered at all and probably never will. The Irish bankers, unlike their Wall Street counterparts seem to have been stupid rather than wicked. They all went down with the ship and are now bankrupt, disgraced, and afraid to show their faces in public. Meanwhile, the losses they ran up now belong to the Irish taxpayer, their government having guaranteed the banks just before the crash to shore up confidence.

Germany’s problems were of a different sort. The German people didn’t go mad with cheap credit. Their property market was static. Their bankers were paid modest salaries and didn’t borrow enormous sums. What the German banks did do was stoke the fire, lending limitless sums to the out of control banks in Iceland and Ireland, and the out of control government in Greece. The other thing they did was buy all the toxic subprime being pumped out by Wall Street and marked AAA by the rating agencies. Because the Germans trusted everyone. They were playing by rules that, unknown to them, no longer existed: rules that belonged to an age when banking was based on good faith. The Germans, according to Lewis, believed that as long as they checked all the boxes, so long as all the paperwork was in order, then nothing could go wrong. This might be the explanation as to why they gave the Greeks the Euro. Meanwhile the traders on Wall Street were shaking their heads in wonder at the idiots in Dusseldorf who were buying their junk right up to the moment of the crash.

Lewis’s book, for all it’s humour and invective, is in the end, a morality tale. He believes that the crisis happened because we lost our sense of a common purpose, and put personal short term gain ahead of a shared long term good. He talks to a neuroscientist who explains the layers of our brains: Outside there is a human layer that deals with reason and abstract thought; under that there is a mammalian layer that deals with social interaction; and at the centre is a reptilian core that always assumes an environment of scarcity and wants to grab as much as it can as fast as it can. So, what happened was, we stopped being people and went back to being lizards. Lewis stops short of connecting this with the ideology of neoliberal economics, the abhorrence of regulation and collective activity, and the notion, expressed by Hayek’s evangelist, Margaret Thatcher, that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ But he does leave us with a great story, a true story, told to him by the neuroscientist. This is The Parable of the Pheasant.

boomerang-the-meltdown-tour-michael-lewisThe neuroscientist was on sabbatical and found himself staying in rooms at Blenheim Palace, family seat of the Churchills. The winter had been harsh and the shooters on the estate had been enthusiastic and accurate. This resulted in a total pheasant wipeout, except for one lonely survivor. This bird was now able to eat as much seed as he wanted, with no one to stop him, and that is exactly what he did. He grew enormous. If he did encounter any competition for food, he was easily able to scare it off. He ate and ate and eventually became so fat that he was no longer able to fly. He had become quite famous in the area by then, and the locals had even given him a name: Henry. Then one day, Henry was nowhere to be found. A fox had got him.