The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, New Press, 2004|
Reviewed by PATRICK McNAMARA.
Michael Parenti’s “The assassination of Caesar”,
returns to Shakespeare’s strategy for understanding the man. Like Shakespeare, Parenti is riveted on the assassination itself and he portrays it in vivid detail. We once
again examine the characters and motives of the people who killed him on March 15, 44 B.C.
Parenti attempts to provide a socio-political answer as to why so many people feared Caesar.
Parenti, follows Plutarch and claims that Caesar’s murderers were aristocratic senators worried that
Caesar's land reforms would upset their own control over the Roman Republic. Parenti gives us the basics
of the history of class conflict in the late republic in Rome (100-33 B.C.) and anyone reading Plutarch for
the first time might benefit from reading this elementary but valuable history of republican Rome.
At the time of Caesaer’s crossing of the Rubicon roughly 99% of the state's wealth was controlled by
1% of the population, according to Parenti. After the crossing that dramatic economic disparity became
to change after Caesar’s reforms were passed. (When Octavius later solidified these reforms they became
the basis of Roman stability for centuries.) By the 60s B.C., the poor populace had begun to find spokesmen
among such leaders as the tribunes Tiberius Gracchus and his younger brother, Gaius. Although the Gracchi
attempted to introduce various reforms, they were eventually murdered, and the reform movements withered.
Caesar, attempted to carry through some of the Gracchi’s reforms using Clodius as his point man when Caesar
was subduing Gaul. When Clodius was murdered by the aristocratic party Caesar became even more determined
to carry through the reforms. Caesar’s recommendation of leniency for the Catiline conspirators was consistent
with his reform position because many Roman citizens were like the Catiline conspirators in debt up their ears
and the citizens of the Roman republic were crying out for debt relief. Debt relief and land reform however was
ferociously opposed by the so-called defenders of liberty Cato and Cicero.
Parenti’s popular retelling of the history of Caesar’s role in the last days of the republic shows that he was
one of the few politicians at the time who had the strength to successfully challenge the entrenched corruption
of the so-called ‘optimates’ whose mouthpieces (Cicero, Cato, Brutus and the like) were sainted by
later historians. Unfortunately Parenti’s history tells us nothing as to why Caesar found the courage and strength
to take on the Roman elites. We do not have an answer either –except to say that his audacity of spirit counted.