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.