The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome, by Michael Parenti

My Copy: 9781565849426 (image from bn.com)

If there’s one book about Ancient Rome that should be added to someone’s bookshelf, it’s most definitely this one. The Assassination of Julius Caesar is not a thick book, but contains so much that should at least be analyzed and taken into consideration.

I love the title; it’s perfect and should have “a people’s history” in it. Parenti is not praising or damning Julius Caesar, as so many historians and scholars have had to do. Most of the works blamed him for his own death. Parenti, however, tries to give a more complete picture from as many sides as possible. If history has always been written by the winners, then it’s certainly true in Caesar’s case.

Parenti reveals the background of Rome, the general social history and societal structure on which the Republic was founded. He goes into plenty of detail long before Julius Caesar comes into the picture, starting with the Gracchi brothers, to Marius and Sulla, and then to Caesar and beyond. These men were considered rabble-rousers and class traitors by many in the Senate and the aristocratic blue-bloods (often the same people).

The weaving of the overall story is impressive. You get the basic gist of what’s always been told when studying Roman history, and then some background on what was going on in society that might have led to what the contemporaries wrote and discussed… writings that shaped how we understand Rome today.

When we read the words of great orators (and class snobs like Cicero) and how they felt about “the people,” it’s a bit shocking to notice how blase they were about the people’s general welfare. Honestly, I wanted to bring Cicero back to life and punch him in the face for his hypocrisies after reading all this. The blue-bloods who would plot against Caesar lived in a bubble, a world where they should continue on as they were even as the rest of Rome began to starve and decay. Caesar and the other reformers before him knew the people were becoming desperate and needed relief from the often crushing days that made up their lives.

I think I found it a bit eerie to be reading, because a lot of what was said by these great men of Rome smacks of what we’ve had in the sense of trickle down economics. These men refused to budge and wanted more (and many had outright acquired public lands for private use, claiming that it had been theirs all along, and refused to sell it to give some poor city-folk a chance to make a living outside the city). The blue-bloods didn’t seem to realize that they’d helped create the impoverished and dirty “mob” that they scorned as lazy and criminal, a mob that adored Caesar for the most part because he promised reforms and help.

I love the way the book is set up, giving some of the story, examining the contemporaries’ words, and then analyzing what other famous scholars and historians ended up taking from this time period. It’s clear from reading this book how much class snobbery echoed through the ages and from the pens of these newer historians, which naturally stereotyped the lower classes of society as “the mob.”

That’s something we have yet to escape in our learning today.

I had to read some of this for one of my classes in college, and I’m glad I kept it. It’s a great resource not just for the basic story of Rome or Julius Caesar, but in the way historical events, people, and the practice of capturing history has shaped a very one-sided view of a seriously complex time and place.

Definitely worth a read. It’s only about 230 pages, not counting the notes section.

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