“The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome”
By Michael Parenti.
The New Press, 2003,
Hardcover, 276 pages, $24.95.
Karl Marx observed that “The history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Michael Parenti’s “The Assassination of Julius Caesar” is a unique look at how Marx’s observation played out in ancient Rome during the last century of the Roman Republic.
Parenti views Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. at the hands of reactionary Roman senators as the culminating act of nearly a century of murder and terror carried on by the private death squads of Rome’s wealthy class against popular reformers and their supporters. With Caesar’s death came bloody civil war, dissolution of the Republic, and the rise of autocratic-style government which would rule Western Europe for many centuries to come.
The Roman Senate, though a conservative institution itself, still reflected many of the divisions of society. It was polarized into two major political factions: the “optimates” (very wealthy and reactionary) and the “populares” (popular, more democratic).
The wealthy class’s purge of popular reformers began in 133 B.C. with the killing of the elected tribune Tiberius Gracchus and the massacre of hundreds of his supporters. Gracchus had advocated moderate land reform. The optimates simply suspended the rules of the Senate and had their hired thugs do the dirty work.
In the years that followed, leading to Caesar’s death, other popular reformers rose up and were violently struck down by the aristocracy of Rome.
Julius Caesar was a “popularii,” the most prominent member of the populares faction. While not without personal weaknesses, he nevertheless led a struggle for popular reforms. Parenti believes the Roman leader sought power in order to break the grip of the conservative oligarchy.
During his last consulship, 46-44 B.C., Caesar initiated many reforms, including the founding of new settlements for his army veterans and the poor of Rome; enacting strict usury limits on the creditors of Rome; giving large rent breaks for middle and low income families; setting up public works projects to lower unemployment at home and abroad; and granting Roman Jews the right to practice Judaism (the first Roman ruler to do so).
Opposing popular interests was the famous orator, Marcus Tullus Cicero. Cicero is often painted as a principled Roman. Others see him differently. Friedrich Engels viewed Cicero as “the most contemptible scoundrel in history.” Parenti observes that Cicero was “A self-enriching slaveholder, slumlord, and senator. Cicero deplored even the palest moves toward democracy.” He had total disregard and contempt for the common man. Cicero denounced the working people as “the artisans and shopkeepers and all that kind of scum.”
What we know of ancient Rome, for the most part, has been written by both ancient and modern historians who are sympathetic to the privileged classes. Parenti also observes that most of the written sources used by those historians came from the writings of wealthy reactionaries such as Cicero. Poor people didn’t write history nor keep written records, the wealthy did. One expert has estimated that American and British ancient historians are 95 percent Ciceronians and a mere handful are sympathetic to Caesar.
The political struggles described by Parenti were conflicts among freemen. One-third of the population lived in slavery, however, and were generally treated with contempt. Cicero himself suggested that “it was preferable to lighten a ship in an emergency by throwing an old slave overboard rather than a good horse.”
Parenti is critical of historians such as Edward Gibbon and Jerome Carcopino who downplay slavery in their accounts of the period, and who speak of “benevolent masters” and slaves who were “treated with consideration.” He notes these “happy slaves” launched three major rebellions during the last two centuries of the Republic, which led to a level of open warfare involving thousands of armed warriors on both sides. The most famous rebellion, of course, was that of Spartacus and his valiant followers, 74-70 B.C.
Michael Parenti has made an important contribution to understanding class struggle in ancient Rome. Some of his history has frightening parallels to modern times, including 21st-century America. Parenti has demonstrated how class-biased historians have distorted or blinded our understanding of Roman society. The author has written a book that is very useful to the student of history, very informative to the general reader, and invaluable to the modern activist.
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