Ancient History & Civilisation





The Making of a Superpower

The story of Rome began with a rape. A princess, a consecrated virgin, was surprised and ravished. Various accounts were given of the fateful assault. Some said that it happened in her sleep, when she dreamed that a man of miraculous beauty led her down to a shady river bank, and abandoned her there lost and alone. Others claimed that she was seized in the middle of a thunderstorm, while collecting water from a sacred grove. One story even told of a mysterious phallus which sprang up from the ashes of the royal hearth and took, not the princess, but her slavegirl. All were agreed, though, on the resulting pregnancy; and most – a few curmudgeonly revisionists aside – had no doubt that the rapist was a god.*1 Mars, the Spiller of Blood, had planted his seed in a mortal womb.

Two god-like boys were duly born of the rape. These twins, the offspring of their mother’s shame, had no sooner been delivered than they were dumped into a nearby river, the Tiber. Still the wonders did not cease. Swept along on the floodwaters of the river, the box to which the two babies had been consigned eventually ran aground below a steep hill named the Palatine. There, in the mouth of a cave, beneath the dripping, fruit-laden branches of a fig tree, the twins were discovered by a she-wolf; and the wolf, rather than devouring them, licked them clean of mud and offered their hungry mouths its teats. A passing swineherd, witnessing this miraculous scene, came clambering down the slopes of the Palatine to their rescue. The she-wolf slunk off. The two boys, rescued by the swineherd and given the names Remus and Romulus, grew up to become peerless warriors. In due course, standing on the Palatine, Romulus had seen twelve eagles: a sure sign from the gods that he should found, there on the summit of the hill, the city which ever afterwards bore his name. It was he who ruled Rome as its first king.

This, at any rate, was the story told centuries later by the Roman people to explain the origins of their city, and the sheer glorious scale of their martial achievements. Foreigners, when they learnt of it, certainly found it all too plausible. That Romulus had been fathered by Mars, the god of war, and suckled by a she-wolf appeared – to those brought into bruising contact with his descendants – to explain much about the Roman character.1 Even a people like the Macedonians, who under Alexander the Great had themselves conquered a vast empire, almost to the rising of the sun, knew that the Romans were a breed of men quite unlike any other. One brief, opening skirmish, fought to indecisive effect in 200 BC, had been enough to bring this home. Five centuries and more had passed since the age of Romulus – and yet there still clung to the Romans, so it appeared to their opponents, something of the chilling quality of creatures bred of myth. The Macedonians, retrieving their dead from the battlefield, had been appalled by the shambles they discovered there. Bodies mutilated and dismembered by Roman swords had soaked the earth with blood. Arms with the shoulders still attached, severed heads, reeking puddles of viscera: all bore witness to a pitch of violence more bestial than human. No blaming the Macedonians, then, for the panic they had felt that day, ‘when they discovered the kind of weapons and the order of men they had to face’.2 A dread of lycanthropes, after all, was only natural in civilised people. The wolvish nature of the Romans, the hint of claws beneath their fingernails and of a yellow stare behind their eyes, was one that people across the span of the Mediterranean, and far beyond, had learned to take for granted. ‘Why, they admit themselves that their founders were suckled on the milk of a she-wolf!’ Such was the desperate rallying cry of one king before his realm too was dragged down to ruin. ‘It is only to be expected that they should all of them have the hearts of wolves. They are inveterately thirsty for blood, and insatiable in their greed. Their lusting after power and riches has no limits!’3

The Romans themselves, of course, saw things rather differently. It was the gods, they believed, who had granted them their mastery of the world. The genius of Rome was for rule. Yes, there might be those who excelled in other fields. Who, for instance, could rival the Greeks when it came to the shaping of bronze or marble, the mapping of the stars or the penning of sex manuals? Syrians were pre-eminent as dancers; Chaldaeans as astrologers; Germans as bodyguards. Only the Roman people, though, possessed the talents sufficient to conquer and maintain a universal empire. Their achievements brooked no argument. When it came to the sparing of the subjected, and the crushing of the haughty, they reigned supreme.

The roots of this greatness, so they believed, reached back to their very beginnings. ‘The affairs of Rome are founded upon her ancient customs and the quality of her men.’4 From the earliest days, the measure of the city’s prowess had been the readiness of her citizens to sacrifice everything in the cause of the common good – even their lives. Romulus, building a wall around his foundation and ploughing a furrow, the pomerium, to hallow all that lay within it as ground sacred to Jupiter, king of the gods, had known that more was needed to render Rome truly inviolable. So Remus, his twin, had willingly offered himself up as a human sacrifice. Jumping across the boundary, he had been struck down with a shovel; ‘and thereby, with his death, he had consecrated the fortifications of the new city’.5 The primal earth and mortar of Rome had been fertilised by the blood of the war god’s son.

Remus was the first to die for the good of the city – but certainly not the last. Five kings followed Romulus on the throne of Rome; and when the sixth, Tarquin the Proud, proved himself a vicious tyrant more than deserving of his nickname, his subjects put their lives on the line and rose in rebellion. In 509 BC, the monarchy was ended for good. The man who had led the uprising, a cousin of Tarquin’s named Brutus, obliged the Roman people to swear a collective oath, ‘that they would never again allow a single man to reign in Rome’. From that moment on, the word ‘king’ was the dirtiest in their political vocabulary. No longer subjects, they ranked instead as cives, ‘citizens’. Now, at last, they were free to show their mettle. ‘They began to walk taller, and to display their abilities to full advantage – for it is the nature of kings that they will hold good men in more suspicion than the bad, and dread the talents of others.’6 No longer was there any need, in a city liberated from the jealous gaze of a monarch, to veil its citizens’ yearning for glory. The measure of true achievement had become the praise of the Roman people. Even the humblest peasant, if he were not to see himself reflected in the mirror of his fellows’ scorn, was obliged to shoulder his duties as a citizen, and prove himself a man – a vir.

Virtus, the quality of a vir, was the ultimate Roman ideal, that lustrous fusion of energy and courage which the Romans themselves identified as their chiefest strength. Even the gods concurred. In 362 BC, a century and a half after the downfall of Tarquin the Proud, a terrifying portent afflicted the centre of Rome. Below the Palatine, in the level expanse of paved ground known as the Forum, a great chasm opened up. Nothing could have been more calculated to strike terror into Roman hearts. The Forum was the very hub of civic life. It was where statesmen addressed the people, where magistrates dispensed justice, where merchants hawked their goods, and where virgins consecrated to the service of Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, tended an eternal flame. That a gateway to the underworld had opened up in a place so fundamental to Roman life clearly betokened something terrible: the anger of the gods.

And so it proved. A sacrifice was demanded: ‘the most precious thing you possess’.7 What, though, was Rome’s most precious possession? The question provoked much scratching of heads – until at length a young man named Marcus Curtius spoke up. Manliness and courage, he told his fellow citizens, were the greatest riches possessed by the Roman people. Then, arrayed in full armour, he climbed onto his horse, spurred it forward and made straight for the abyss. Over its edge he galloped. He and his horse plunged together into its depths. The chasm duly closed. A pool and a single olive tree were left to mark the spot, abiding memorials to a citizen who had perished that his fellows might live.

So highly did the Roman people prize this ideal of the common good that their name for it – res publica – served as shorthand for their entire system of government. It enabled the blaze of an individual citizen’s longing for honour, his determination to test body and spirit in the crucible of adversity and emerge from every ordeal triumphant, to coexist with an iron sense of discipline. The consequences of this, for the Republic’s neighbours, were invariably devastating. By 200 BC, when the Macedonians experienced for the first time the wolf-like savagery of which the legions were capable, Rome was already mistress of the western Mediterranean. Two years previously, her armies had delivered a knockout blow to the one power that had presumed to rival her for the title: a metropolis of merchant-princes on the coast of North Africa by the name of Carthage. Rome’s victory had been an epochal triumph. The death struggle between the two cities had lasted, on and off, for over sixty years. In that time, war had reached the gates of Rome herself. Italy had been soaked in blood. ‘The convulsive turmoil of the conflict had brought the whole world to shake.’8 Ultimately, though, after a trial that would have seen any other people suing desperately for terms, the victors had emerged so battle-hardened as to seem forged of iron. Small surprise, then, that even the heirs of Alexander the Great should have found the legions impossible to withstand. King after king in the eastern Mediterranean had been brought to grovel before Roman magistrates. Weighed against a free and disciplined republic, monarchy seemed to have been found decisively wanting. ‘Our emotions are governed by our minds.’ So the ambassadors of one defeated king were sternly informed. ‘These never alter – no matter what fortune may bring us. Just as adversity has never brought us low, so have we never been puffed up by success.’9

The man who spoke these words, Publius Cornelius Scipio, was certainly in a position to know. He was the epitome of success. His nickname, ‘Africanus’, bore stirring witness to his role as the conqueror of Rome’s deadliest foe. It was he who had wrested Spain from the Carthaginians, defeated them in their own backyard, and then brought them to accept the most abject terms. A few years later, on the state roll of citizens, the name of Scipio appeared resplendent at the top of the list. This, in a society such as Rome’s, was an honour like no other. Hierarchy was a defining obsession of the Roman people. All were officially graded according to a sliding scale of rank. The status of a citizen was calibrated with severe precision. Wealth, family and achievement combined to pinpoint precisely where, within the exacting class system of the Republic, each and every Roman stood. Even at the summit of society, status was ferociously patrolled. The highest-ranking citizens of all were enrolled in their own exclusive order: the Senate. This required of its members, in addition to riches and social standing, a record of service as magistrates sufficient to qualify them to be the arbiters of Rome’s destiny. So sensitive, and so influential, were their deliberations that ‘for many centuries not a senator breathed a word of them in public’.10 As a result, unless a statesman could make his voice heard among their counsels, he might just as well have been dumb. Yet the right of a senator to speak to his fellows was not a given. The men called first in debate were always those who, by virtue of their pedigree, their moral standing and their service to the state, had accumulated the greatest prestige. Auctoritas, the Romans termed this quality – and the Republic, by placing Scipio first on the roll of its citizens, was granting its backing to the prodigious heft of his authority. The conqueror of Carthage had, by universal consent, ‘attained a unique and dazzling glory’.11 Even among the ranks of Rome’s highest achievers, Scipio Africanus was acknowledged to have no rival. He was Princeps Senatus, ‘the First Man of the Senate’.

Yet in this primacy lurked peril. The shadow cast by Scipio over his fellow citizens was one that could not help but provoke resentment. The guiding principle of the Republic remained what it had always been: that no one man should rule supreme in Rome. To the Roman people, the very appearance of a magistrate served as a reminder of the seductions and dangers of monarchy. The purple that lined the border of his toga had originally been the colour of kingship. ‘Lictors’ – bodyguards whose duty it was to clear a path for him through the crowds of his fellow citizens – had once similarly escorted Tarquin the Proud. The rods and single axe borne by each lictor on his shoulder – the fasces, as they were known – symbolised authority of an intimidatingly regal scope: the right to inflict both corporal and capital punishment.*2 Power of this order was an awesome and treacherous thing. Only with the most extreme precautions in place could anyone in a free republic be trusted to wield it. This was why, in the wake of the monarchy’s downfall, the powers of the banished king had been allocated, not to a single magistrate, but to two: the consuls. Like a strong wine, the splendour of the consulship, and the undying glory that it brought to those who won it, required careful prior dilution. Not only could each consul be relied upon to keep a watchful eye upon the other, but the term of a consulship was set at a single year. The prestige enjoyed by Scipio, though, dazzled in defiance of any such limits. Even the grandest of the Republic’s elected magistrates were liable to find themselves diminished before it. The Senate House, as a result, began to sound with mutterings against the Princeps.

The truth was that glamour, in the Republic, had always been regarded with deep suspicion. Crow’s feet and flintiness of manner were what the Roman people expected of their statesmen. The very word ‘senator’ derived from the Latin for ‘old man’. The meteor of Scipio’s career, though, had blazed from a scandalously youthful age. He had been appointed to the command against the Carthaginians in Spain when he was only twenty-six. He had won his first consulship a mere five years later. Even his elevation to the rank of Princeps Senatus had come at an age when other senators, far below him in the foothills of achievement, were still scrabbling after junior magistracies. Forging a dashing career of conquest before the jowls had begun to sag was, of course, what Alexander had so ringingly accomplished. Resentful senators were hardly reassured by this reflection. Alexander, after all, had been a foreigner – and a king. Renowned as he was for the god-like scale of his ambitions, it was unsettling to many senators that the self-promotion of such a troubling figure should have been aped by one of their own. Scipio, it was claimed, had been fathered on his mother by a snake; had won his victory in Spain thanks to the timely assistance of a god; had only to cross the Forum late at night for dogs to cease to bark. Princeps he may have been, but stories such as these implied a status that was off the scale.

And as such, intolerable. In 187 BC, when Scipio returned from a campaign in the East, his enemies were waiting for him. He was charged with embezzlement. Ripping up his account books before the full gaze of the Senate, Scipio indignantly reminded his accusers of all the treasure that he had won for Rome. It made no difference. Rather than risk the humiliation of conviction, the Princeps retired for good to his country estate. There, in 183 BC, he died a broken man. The fundamental principle of political life in the Republic had been brutally illustrated: ‘that no one citizen should be permitted an eminence so formidable that it prevents him from being questioned by the laws’.12 Even a man as great as Scipio Africanus had found it impossible, in the final reckoning, to argue with that.

Wolf-bred the Romans may have been – but the future of the Republic, and of its liberties, appeared secure.

The Great Game

Or was it?

Scipio had submitted to the laws of the Republic – that much was true. Nevertheless, the sheer potency of his charisma hinted that the advance of the Republic to superpower status might not be without its pitfalls. Scipio’s opponents had prided themselves on an obdurate provincialism. They took for granted that Rome’s ancient customs were the best. Already, though, the limits of such conservatism were becoming apparent. Scipio was merely an outrider. The increasing tangle of Rome’s diplomatic commitments, the incomparable proficiency of her legions, and her refusal to tolerate so much as a suggestion of disrespect combined to present her leading citizens with temptations of literally global scope. A century and more after the death of Scipio, the new darling of the Roman people had won for himself wealth and celebrity beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations. Pompeius Magnus – ‘Pompey the Great’ – could boast a career that had fused illegality and self-aggrandisement to sensational effect. At the age of twenty-three, he had raised his own private army. A series of glamorous and lucrative commands had followed. Not for the man once nicknamed ‘the youthful butcher’13 the grind of a conventional career. Startlingly, he managed to win his first consulship – at the tender age of thirty-six – without ever having joined the Senate.

Even worse outrages were to follow. The proprieties of the Republic were trampled down in cavalier fashion. In 67 BC, Pompey was given a command that, for the first time, embraced the entire Mediterranean. A year later, he went one better by obtaining for himself carte blanche to impose direct rule over vast swathes of enticingly unannexed territory. The eastern reaches of Asia Minor, as the Romans called what is now Turkey, and the whole of Syria were gobbled up. Pompey was hailed as ‘The Conqueror of all Nations’.14 When he finally returned to Italy, in 62 BC, he came trailing more than glory in his wake. Kings were his clients and kingdoms his to milch. His legions owed their loyalty, not to the Republic, but to the man who had enabled them to asset-strip the East: their triumphant general, their imperator. As for Pompey himself, he had no time for false modesty: riding through the streets of Rome, he posed and preened in the cloak of Alexander the Great.

No one, not even the most embittered conservative, could deny his pre-eminence. ‘One and all acknowledge his unrivalled status as Princeps.’15 Unlike Scipio, Pompey did not owe this title to any vote of the Senate. Instead, like the incense he had brought back in groaning wagon trains from the East, his auctoritas hung dense over Rome, perfumed and intangible. The length and scope of Pompey’s campaigning had made a mockery of the traditional rhythms of political life in the Republic. The prospect of sharing his commands with a colleague, or of having them limited to a single year at a time, had never crossed his mind. What was the Senate, that it should hobble ‘the tamer of the world’?16 Pompey had secured his victories, not despite, but because of his criminality. The implications were unsettling in the extreme. Laws that had served Rome well in the days of her provincialism were palpably starting to buckle now that she ruled the world. The same kings who crept and cringed in Pompey’s train only served to demonstrate what dazzling pickings might be on offer to a citizen prepared to disdain the venerable safeguards against monarchy. Rome’s greatness, long treasured by her citizens as the fruit of their liberty, now appeared to be menacing the Republic with the decay of its freedoms.

Except that Pompey, despite his muscle, had no wish to impose himself upon his fellow citizens at the point of a sword. Though he had always been greedy for power and fame, there were boundaries that even he flinched from crossing. A dominance that did not rest upon the approbation of his peers was a dominance not worth having. Military despotism was out of the question. Greatness, in the Republic, was nothing unless defined by the respect of the Senate and the Roman people. Pompey wanted it all. It was this that gave his enemies their chance. Though too intimidated by the resources available to the new Princeps to launch a prosecution against him, they could certainly deny him their co-operation. The result was paralysis. Pompey, to his shock and indignation, found his measures blocked in the Senate, his settlements left unratified, his achievements sneered at and dismissed. Politics as normal? So Pompey’s enemies dared to hope. The one abiding constant of life in the Republic, it seemed, still held true. No one so overweening that he might not be taken down a peg or two.

A few of Pompey’s chief rivals, though, when they studied the crisis afflicting their city, did so with a more pitiless and predatory gaze. No less than their fellow senators, they were prompted by the spectacle of a fellow citizen holding the gorgeous East in fee to bitter emotions of jealousy and fear; but what they could also recognise in it was the dawning of an intoxicating new age of possibility. No longer was a mere consulship to be reckoned the summit of a Roman’s ambition. Appetite was coming to exceed the capacity of the Republic’s institutions to sate it. Prizes on a global scale now appeared tantalisingly within reach: ‘the sea, the land, the course of the stars’.17 All it needed was the nerve to reach out and seize them.

In 60 BC, as Pompey’s enemies continued to snarl and snap at the heels of the great man, two of Rome’s most formidable operators were plotting a manoeuvre of momentous audacity. Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar were men whose envy of the Princeps was exceeded only by their determination to emulate him. Both had good cause to set their sights high. Crassus had long sat like a spider at the heart of a monstrous web. A proven general and a former consul, his auctoritas was nevertheless a thing of shadow as well as brilliance. Like Pompey, he had recognised that the surest wellsprings of power in Rome were no longer the traditional ones. Although perfectly at home on the stage of public life, his true genius was for pulling strings from behind the scenes. Rich beyond the dreams of anyone in Rome, and displaying consistency only in his infinite capacity for opportunism, Crassus had employed his seemingly inexhaustible wealth to ensnare an entire generation of men on the make. Most, once they accepted his credit, then found it impossible to clear the interest. It took a man of rare political talent to break free and emerge as a player in his own right.

Such a man was Caesar. In 60 BC, he was forty years old: the scion of an ancient but faded family, notorious for his profligate dandyism and massively in debt. No one, though, not even his enemies – of whom there were plenty – could deny his talents. Charm fused with ruthlessness, dash with determination, to potent effect. Although clearly the inferior of Crassus, let alone Pompey, in terms of resources and reputation, what Caesar could offer the two men was a firm grip on the official reins of power. In 59, he was due to serve as one of the two elected consuls of the Republic. Clearly, with the combined backing of Pompey and Crassus behind him, and with his own ineffable qualities of cool and resolve to draw upon, he would be able – however illegally – to neutralise his consular colleague. The consulship would become, in effect, that of ‘Julius and Caesar’.18 He and his two allies would then be able to ram through a whole hit-list of measures. Pompey, Crassus, Caesar: all were likely to profit splendidly from their three-headed partnership.

And so it proved. Subsequent generations would distinguish in the birth of this ‘triumvirate’ a development as fateful as it was ominous: ‘the forging of a conspiracy to take captive the Republic’.19 In truth, the three dynasts were doing nothing that political heavyweights had not been busy at for centuries. Business had always been conducted in Rome by the fashioning of alliances, the doing-down of rivals. Nevertheless, the consulship of Julius and Caesar did indeed constitute a fatal waymark in her history. When Caesar’s heavies emptied a bucket of shit over the rival consul, beat up his lictors, and strong-armed the wretched man into effective retirement, it heralded a year of illegalities so blatant that no conservative would ever forget or forgive them. That the deals forced through by Caesar served the interests of his two allies quite as much as his own did not prevent the consul himself from being held principally to blame. His foes were now viscerally committed to his destruction. Caesar, no less passionately, was committed to the pursuit of greatness.

Understandably, then, he had made sure while still consul to book for himself the most splendid insurance policy possible: a governorship of tremendous scope. In the spring of 58, Caesar headed north to take command of three whole provinces: one in the Balkans, one directly on the northern frontier of Italy, and one on the far side of the Alps, in southern Gaul. Here, he could reckon himself secure from his enemies. It was forbidden for any magistrate of the Roman people to be brought to trial – and Caesar’s term as governor had been set at a constitutionally outrageous five years. In due course, it would end up double that.

The junior partner of Pompey and Crassus Caesar may have been – but neither had succeeded in leveraging their alliance to more promising effect than the new governor of Gaul. A decade’s worth of immunity from prosecution was only the start. Equally priceless were the opportunities offered for glory-hunting. Beyond the Alps, and the limits of Roman power, lay the wilds of Gallia Comata, ‘Long-Haired Gaul’. Here dwelt teeming hordes of barbarians: spike-haired, seminude warriors much given to sticking the heads of their enemies on posts and downing their liquor neat. For centuries, they had embodied the Republic’s darkest nightmares; but Caesar – boldly, brilliantly, illegally – had no sooner arrived in Gaul than he was looking to conquer the lot. His campaigns were on a devastating scale. A million people, so it was said, perished over their course. A million more were enslaved. For a decade, blood and smoke were general over Gaul. By the end of Caesar’s term as governor, all the tribes, from the Rhine to the Ocean, had been broken upon his sword. Even the Germans and the Britons, savages on the edge of the world whose prowess was as proverbial as it was exotic, had been taught respect for Roman arms. Meanwhile, back in the capital, Caesar’s fellow citizens thrilled to the lavishness of their new hero’s generosity, and to the sensational news of his exploits. Caesar himself, rich in fame and plunder, and with an army of battle-seasoned legions at his back, had won for himself by 50 BC an auctoritas fit to rival that of Pompey. His enemies in the Senate, counting down the days until he finally relinquished his governorship, knew now more than ever that they could not afford to miss their chance.

To Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul, the prospect of being harried through law courts by a crew of pygmies was intolerable. Rather than suffer such a humiliation, his intention was to move seamlessly from provincial command to a second consulship. To achieve this, though, he would need allies – and much had changed during his absence from Rome. The triumvirate had only ever been as strong as its three legs – and, by 50 BC, one of those legs was gone. Four years earlier, Crassus had left for Syria. Desperate to follow the trail blazed by Pompey and Caesar, he had secured a command against the Parthians, the one people in the Near East still presumptuous enough to defy Roman hegemony. The expedition had promised pickings splendid enough to satisfy even Rome’s most notoriously avaricious man. The Parthians ruled an empire that was fabulously wealthy. It stretched from the Indian Ocean, that ‘pearl-bearing sea’,20 to the uplands of Persia, where, it was confidently reported, there stood a mountain made entirely of gold, to Mesopotamia, where untold luxuries – silks, and perfumes, and aromatic drinking-cups – were available in its teeming markets.

Unfortunately, though, the Parthians were not only rich, but underhand. Rather than stand and fight, they preferred to shoot arrows from horseback, repeatedly wheeling and retreating as they did so. The invaders, ponderous and sweaty, had found themselves helpless against this womanish tactic. In 53 BC, trapped on a baking plain outside the Mesopotamian border town of Carrhae, Crassus and thirty thousand of his men had been wiped out. The eagles, silver representations of the holy bird of Jupiter which served each legion as its symbol and its standard, had fallen into enemy hands. Together with Crassus’s head, they had ended up as trophies at the Parthian court. To dare, it turned out, was not always to win.

As for Rome, the damage inflicted upon her by the defeat at Carrhae was even more grievous than had at first appeared. A body-blow had been struck which threatened the stability of the entire Republic. With Crassus gone, the field of players in the great game of Roman politics had narrowed at a perilous moment. It was not only conservatives, resolved to preserve the fabric of the state’s functioning and its traditions, who felt threatened by the brilliance of Caesar’s achievements. So too did his surviving triumviral partner, Pompey the Great. As Caesar and his enemies in Rome manoeuvred with increasing desperation for advantage, both were in direct competition for the support of the Princeps. This, although it played to the great man’s vanity, also left him feeling subtly diminished. Caesar or Caesar’s enemies: the terms of the most excruciating choice that Pompey had ever been obliged to make were being defined for him by his erstwhile junior partner. That being so, the rupture between the two men was, perhaps, in the final reckoning, inevitable. In December of 50 BC, when one of the two consuls for the year travelled to Pompey’s villa outside Rome, presented him with a sword, and charged him to wield it against Caesar in defence of the Republic, Pompey replied that he would – ‘if no other way can be found’.21 This reply alone helped to ensure that it would not. Caesar, given the choice whether to submit to the law and surrender his command, or to stand firm in defence of his auctoritas and declare civil war, barely hesitated. Not for him the self-restraint of a Scipio. On 10 January, 49 BC, he and one of his legions crossed the Rubicon, a small river that marked the frontier of his province with Italy. The die was cast. ‘The kingdom was divided by the sword; and the fortune of the imperial people, who had the sea, the land and the whole world in their possession, was inadequate for two.’22

Holding Out for a Hero

The aptitude of the Roman people for killing, which had first won them their universal dominion, was now unleashed upon themselves. Legion fought with legion, ‘and the world itself was maimed’.23 The war launched by Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon would last for more than four years and sweep from one end of the Mediterranean to the other. Not even the defeat of Pompey in open battle, and his subsequent murder and decapitation while on the run from his victorious rival, could bring the conflict to an end. From Africa to Spain, the killing went on. Pompey, ‘his powerful trunk left headless on a beach’,24 was only the most prominent of the multitudes consigned to foreign dust. The inheritance of tradition and law that had once joined the Roman people in a shared unity of purpose meant nothing to soldiers who now looked for reward, not to antique notions of the common good, but to the commander who rode at their head. Captives were flung from walls or else had their hands cut off. The corpses of freshly slaughtered Romans were used by other Romans to build ramparts. Legionaries, as though they were mere Gauls, set the heads of their countrymen on pikes. To such a pass had the bonds of citizenship come.

That rival wolfpacks should have fallen to savaging one another came as no great surprise to those across whose lands they were snapping and snarling. Provincials had long had their own take on the origins of their masters. They understood better than the heirs of Romulus themselves what it meant to be bred of a wolf. Stories that to the Roman people had always been a cause of pride took on a very different light when seen through the eyes of the conquered. Hostile spin had increasingly served to blacken Rome’s native traditions. It was said that Romulus, standing on the Palatine, had seen not eagles but vultures, passing on their way to feast on carrion; that the first Romans were ‘barbarians and vagrants’;25 that Remus, rather than selflessly offering up his own life for the good of the city, had in fact been murdered by his brother. ‘What sort of people, then, are the Romans?’26 This question, long demanded by those who hated and feared them, was one to which the Romans themselves could no longer provide a confident answer. What if their enemies were right? What if Romulus had indeed murdered his brother? What if it were the fate of the Roman people to repeat the primordial crime of their founder until such time as the anger of the gods had been satisfied, and all the world been drowned in blood? Fratricide, after all, was not easily appeased. Even soldiers brutalised by years of conflict knew that. In the spring of 45 BC, as Caesar advanced across the plains of southern Spain to confront the last of the armies still in the field against him, his men captured one of the enemy. The prisoner, it turned out, had slain his own brother. So revolted were the soldiers by this crime that they beat him to death with clubs. One day later, in a victory that finally ranked as conclusive, Caesar wrought such slaughter on his opponents that thirty thousand of his fellow citizens were left on the battlefield as food for flies.

The ruin inflicted on Rome, though, was not to be measured solely by the casualty figures. Untold damage had also been done to the vital organs of the state. Caesar himself, whose genius was of a thoroughly unsentimental nature, could recognise this more clearly than anyone. The Republic, he scoffed in an indiscreet moment, was ‘a mere name – without form or substance’.27 Nevertheless, even though he had made himself undisputed master of the Roman world, he was still obliged to tread carefully. The sensibilities of his fellow citizens were not lightly offended. Many, amid the tempest-wrack of the age, clung to the reassurance provided by their inheritance from the past like drowning men to flotsam.

On his return to Rome from the killing fields of Spain, Caesar duly opted to throw money at the problem. He wooed the Roman people with spectacular entertainments and the promise of grands projets. Public feasts were held at which thousands upon thousands of citizens were lavishly wined and dined; a cavalcade of elephants lumbered through the night with torches blazing on their backs; a plan was drawn up to reroute the Tiber. Meanwhile, Caesar worked to conciliate his enemies in the Senate – not so easily bought – with flamboyant displays of forgiveness. His willingness to pardon opponents, to back them for magistracies and to flatter them with military postings was a thing of wonder even to his bitterest foes. He graciously ordered to be restored the same statues of Pompey which had been toppled and smashed by his partisans.

Yet there was, in this same exercise of clemency, more than a whiff of what made so many of his peers resent and detest him. Merciful he may have been – but mercy was properly the virtue of a master. Caesar felt no call to apologise for his dominance. Penetrating intelligence combined with the habits bred of long achievement and command to convince him that only he had the solving of what appeared otherwise an insoluble crisis. The traditions of the Republic, shot through as they were with the presumption that no one citizen should establish permanent supremacy over his fellows, were plainly difficult to square with this conviction. Caesar had not won himself the mastery of Rome only to share it now with men whom he despised. Accordingly, looking to veil what otherwise ran the risk of appearing nakedly despotic, he did what Roman policy-makers, no matter how radical or bold, had invariably done when faced with a challenge: he looked to the past. There, mouldering in the venerable lumber-box of the Republic, was to be found a precedent potentially well suited to Caesar’s needs. Provision for a citizen to exercise supreme authority over the Roman people during a time of crisis did in fact already exist. Dictator, the post was called. Caesar duly dusted the office down. Only a single adjustment was required to tailor the dictatorship to his requirements: the antique scruple which decreed that no citizen be trusted with it for longer than six months naturally had to go. Already, before leaving for Spain, Caesar had been appointed to the position for ten years. Early in February 44, he went one better. By a decree of the Senate, he was appointed ‘Dictator For Life’.

Here, for citizens hopeful that the antique virtues of their people might be renewed, and the wounds of civil war healed, was a portentous and chilling moment. Functional Caesar’s new office may have been – but that was precisely what rendered it so ominous. It was not only the Dictator’s peers, their prospects of attaining the political heights now definitively blocked until such time as Caesar should die or be removed, who were liable to find it baneful. So too were all those left nervous and bewildered by the calamities that had overwhelmed their city. Perpetual dictatorship implied perpetual crisis, after all. ‘The Roman people, whom the immortals wish to rule the world, enslaved? Impossible!’28 Yet clearly it was possible. The favour of the gods had been lost. The golden threads that linked the present to the past seemed snapped. The providence that had brought Rome her greatness now appeared suddenly insubstantial and delusory, and the city itself, that seat of empire, diminished. Perpetual dictatorship denied to the Roman people what, ever since Romulus first climbed the Palatine, had seemed their birthright: self-confidence.

Even Caesar himself, perhaps, was prey to a certain anxiety. No matter how contemptuous of the Republic and its traditions he had grown, he did not scorn the aura of the wondrous that clung to his city. Beyond the Senate House and the crowded jumble of the Forum, he had used the riches plundered from Gaul to build a slimline second forum; and here, in the centre of the city’s most cutting-edge development, he had opened a portal onto the fabulous prehistory of Rome. A temple clad in the brightest marble, the building caught in its sheen haunting and primordial reflections. Once, before the Republic, before the monarchy, before even Remus and Romulus themselves, there had been a Trojan prince; and this Trojan prince had been the son of Venus, the goddess of love. Aeneas, as befitted a man with immortal blood in his veins, had been entrusted by the gods with a truly awesome destiny. When Troy, after a ten-year siege, had finally fallen to the Greeks and gone up in flames, Aeneas had been undaunted. Lifting his aged father, that one-time paramour of Venus, up onto his shoulders, and gathering together a crowd of fellow refugees, he had made his escape from the burning city.Eventually, after numerous adventures, he and his band of Trojan adventurers had arrived in Italy. Here he had put down new roots. It was from Aeneas that the mother of Remus and Romulus was descended. This meant that the Romans too ranked as his descendants – as ‘Aeneads’.29 Caesar’s new temple, dedicated to the divine mother of the Trojan prince, was, then, for his battered and demoralised countrymen, an opportunity to be reassured as to their splendid pedigree.

It was also something more. Venus was, in the opinion of Caesar, doubly his ancestress – his genetrix. His family, the Julians, laid claim directly to her bloodline. The son of Aeneas, they reported, had called himself Julus: a genealogical detail which, naturally enough, they regarded as clinching. Others were not quite so certain. Even those who did not openly dispute it inclined to the agnostic. ‘At such a remove, after all, how can one possibly state for certain what happened?’30 Caesar himself, though, with his temple to Venus Genetrix, was brooking no argument. The Romans were a chosen people – and he the definitive Roman.

That Caesar was indeed a man whose talents outsoared ‘the narrow confines common to man’,31 and whose energies, however monstrous, possessed an almost divine power, was a truth so self-evident that not even his bitterest foes could deny it. The temple to Venus Genetrix, by holding a mirror up to Caesar himself as well as to the vanished age when gods had slept with mortals, eerily blurred the boundary between the two. Approach its steps, and there, next to the steady plashing of two fountains, stood a bronze statue of his horse.*3 This remarkable beast, which had front hooves exactly like the hands of a man, could only ever have been mounted by a hero – and sure enough, ‘it had refused to let anyone else ever ride it’.32 Then, inside the temple, glittering amid its shadows, waited the reminder of another epic aspect of Caesar’s career. Back in 48, midway through the civil war, he had met with the ruler of the one Greek monarchy permitted by the Republic to subsist in a nominal, if enervated, independence: Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt. Caesar, never one to look a gift-horse in the mouth, had promptly got her pregnant. This exploit, which had provided his enemies with no end of prurient sniggers, was now cast by the temple in its proper, glorious light. It was why, sharing the temple of Venus Genetrix with a statue of the goddess herself, there stood a gilded bronze of Cleopatra. Just as Aeneas, that father of the Roman people, had lived in an age when heroes slept by right with queens amid the convulsions of great wars and the wreckage of nations, so too, it was revealed, did the contemporaries of Caesar. Dictator though he was, he ranked as something more as well. That he was dismissive of the Republic rendered him, in his own opinion, only the more, not the less, antique. It confirmed him as a hero of ancient epic.

On 15 February, a few days after Caesar’s appointment as ‘Dictator For Life’, came the perfect opportunity to put this conceit to the test. The date was a potent one, both joyous and haunted. As adrenaline-fuelled as any in the Roman calendar, it was simultaneously stalked by the dead, who had been known to mark the festival by rising from their graves and roaming the streets. The crowds for it built early. People milled through the Forum, or else gathered on the far side of the Palatine, below the cave where Remus and Romulus had long, long before been fed by the she-wolf: the ‘Lupercal’.*4 In the mouth of the cave, below the branches of the sacred fig tree, oiled men known as Luperci, naked save for a loincloth of goatskin, stood shivering in the winter breeze. Also made of goatskin were the thongs they held in their hands, and which women in the crowds below, many of them stripped to the waist, would invariably blush to see waved in their direction. Naturally, it took a certain physique to carry off a loincloth – and especially so in February. Most of the men, sure enough, were strappingly young. Not all, though. One of the Luperci was almost forty – and a consul, no less. The spectacle of a magistrate of the Roman people ‘naked, oiled and drunk’33 was one fit to appal all those concerned for the dignity of the Republic. Not that the consul himself greatly cared. Marc Antony had always enjoyed tweaking the noses of the uptight. Still ruggedly handsome, even in middle age, he was a man who valued his pleasures. More significantly, though, he had a seasoned eye for a winner. So well had Antony served Caesar in Gaul and during the civil war that he had come to rank as the Dictator’s chief lieutenant. Now he was going to perform another service. Antony knew that Caesar was waiting on the far side of the Palatine Hill, sat on a golden throne in the Forum. No time to delay, then. All was ready. Goats had been offered up in sacrifice, and a dog. Their blood had been smeared across the foreheads of two young boys and then immediately wiped clean; the two young boys, as they were obliged to do, had burst out in wild laughter. Time to go. Time to celebrate the Lupercalia.

As the men in their skimpy loincloths fanned out from the Lupercal and began running round the spurs of the Palatine, their course was one that plunged them deep into the mysteries of their city’s past. Whipping half-naked women as they sped by, bringing down the goat-thong lash so hard that blood was left beading the welts, the Luperci were acting in obedience to an oracle given two centuries before. ‘The sacred goat must enter the mothers of Italy.’34 If not, then every pregnancy was doomed to end in stillbirth. This was why, at the Lupercalia, women would offer themselves up willingly to the lash. Better broken skin, after all, than penetration by a goat of a different kind. Yet the origins of the Lupercalia were older by far than the oracle. Running into the Forum, the Luperci approached a second fig tree, one that marked the political nerve centre of the city, the open space where the Roman people had always traditionally met in assembly: theComitium. Here the Senate House stood; and here, at the founding of the Republic, was where a speaker’s platform, the Rostra, had first been raised. Already, even then, the Comitium had been fabulously old. There were some who claimed the fig tree which stood beside the Rostra to have been the very one beneath which Remus and Romulus had been nursed by the she-wolf, magically transplanted there from the Palatine by a wonder-worker back in the time of the kings. The confusion was telling. The memories that the Roman people had of their past were a swirl of paradoxes. Now, as the Luperci ran with their goat-skin thongs from one fig tree to another, those same paradoxes were being brought thrillingly to life. On a day when the human mingled with the wolvish, the carnal with the supernatural, the anxiety-racked Rome of Caesar’s dictatorship with the phantom city of the kings, who could tell what might not happen?

Antony, running with the rest of the Luperci down the length of the Forum, came to a halt before the Comitium. Here too Caesar’s workmen had been busy. The site of the Senate House, incinerated during a riot eight years earlier, was still covered in scaffolding. Other monuments, many of them fabulously ancient, had been flattened to make way for a gleaming level pavement. The Rostra, demolished along with much else, had been rebuilt complete with stylish polychrome cladding. This, as Antony approached it, was where Caesar sat waiting. Dictator of the Roman people, it was only fitting that he should preside over the Lupercalia enthroned amid building works and shining marble, public markers of his resolve to renovate the state. Which did not mean, of course, that he aimed to set it upon wholly new foundations – quite the contrary. What better day than the Lupercalia, when the youth of Rome ran like wolves, to remind the Roman people that the wellsprings of their history were more primordial by far than the Republic? As token of that, Caesar himself had come to the festival dressed in the ancient costume of the city’s kings: purple toga and calf-length boots in fetching red leather. And now Antony, reaching the Comitium, halting directly in front of the Dictator, stepping up to the Rostra, held forward all that was needed to complete the ensemble: that ultimate symbol of monarchy, a diadem entwined with laurel.

A few desultory rounds of applause greeted the gesture. Otherwise all was leaden silence. Then Caesar, after a pause, pushed the diadem away – and the Forum echoed to tumultuous cheering.

Again Antony pressed the diadem on the Dictator; again the Dictator refused it. ‘And so the experiment failed.’35 And Caesar, rising to his feet, ordered that the diadem be presented to Jupiter – ‘for Rome would have no other king’.36

He was correct. Despite the palpable inadequacies of their battered political order, and notwithstanding the many calamities that had left the Republic a broken, bleeding thing, the Roman people would never permit a mortal to rule over them as king. The word remained one ‘they could not bear so much as to hear’.37 Caesar, by laying claim to a perpetual dictatorship, and putting his fellow senators so utterly in the shade, had signed his own death warrant. Exactly one month after the festival of the Lupercalia, on the 15th or ‘Ides’ of March, he was struck down beneath a hail of daggers at a meeting of the Senate. The leader of the conspiracy, and its conscience, was a Brutus, descended from the man who had expelled Tarquin and ended the monarchy. Brutus and his fellow assassins, who killed Caesar in the name of liberty, devoutly believed that his death would be sufficient to save the Republic. Others, clearer-sighted, were more despairing. They feared that the murder of Caesar solved nothing. ‘If a man of his genius was unable to find a way out,’ one such analyst asked, ‘who will find one now?’38 What if the crisis had no solution? What if Rome herself were finished?

And perhaps more than Rome. In the fretful days and weeks that followed Caesar’s assassination, evidence of a seemingly cosmic doom was to be seen in the skies. The days began to darken. The sun was lost behind a bruised and violet gloom. Some, like Antony, believed that it was turning its gaze away in horror ‘from the foul wrong done to Caesar’.39 Others, more bleakly, dreaded retribution for the crimes of the entire age, and the onset of an eternal night. These anxieties intensified yet further when a comet was seen burning in the sky for seven days in a row.*5 What did it mean? Once again, there was a variety of opinions. Already, in the immediate wake of Caesar’s death, crowds of angry mourners had set up an altar to him in the Forum; and now, as the fiery star streaked across the sky, a conviction gathered weight that the soul of the slain Dictator was ascending to heaven, ‘there to be received among the spirits of the immortal gods’.40 Others, though, were unconvinced. Comets, after all, were baneful things. Readers of the future, practised in the interpretation of such wonders, had no doubt that a sign of fearful portent was being given. An age was passing, the world nearing its end. One soothsayer, warning that it was forbidden humanity to know the full scale of the horrors that were fast approaching, and that to reveal them would cost him his life, delivered his prognostications even so – and promptly dropped dead on the spot.

Meanwhile, in Rome, in legionary camps and in cities across the empire, hard men spoke fine words and methodically planned for war.

And wolves, in lofty cities, made the nights echo with their howls.

*1 Two historians, Marcus Octavius and Licinius Macer, claimed that the rapist had been the girl’s uncle, who then, ‘to conceal the result of his criminal action’, killed his niece, and handed her newborn twins over to the swineherd.

*2 Lictors did not carry the axe within the limits of Rome itself. This symbolised the right of citizens to appeal against capital convictions.

*3 The statue was originally of Alexander’s horse. Caesar had brought it to Rome from Greece, and replaced Alexander’s head with his own.

*4 Varro, the most learned of Roman scholars, explained that the she-wolf was to be identified with a goddess named Luperca. In Latin, ‘lupa pepercit’ meant ‘the she-wolf spared them’.

*5 No fewer than nine of the sources which mention this comet date it to the week of Caesar’s funeral games – which, if true, would immeasurably have added to its impact.

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