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The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome

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Title: The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome  
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Subject: Cicero, Populares, Optimates, Michael Parenti, People's history
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The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome

The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome is a 2003 history book by Michael Parenti. It was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. The book's central argument is that Julius Caesar was assassinated because wealthy and conservative elites wanted to block Caesar's reforms.


Michael Parenti claims that in most ancient and modern histories, Julius Caesar is characterized as a dictator[1] and demagogue.[2] If so, then Caesar's assassination can be portrayed as a defence of the Republic.[2] Also, that plebs or "the Roman commoners" are viewed "as a parasitic mob, a rabble interested only in bread and circuses."[3]

In contrast, Parenti argues that Caesar's assassination was "one incident in a line of political murders ... [of] popularly supported reformers."[4] Parenti also argues that, despite their traditional depiction as a lazy, criminal mob, the plebs largely consisted of hard-working laborers with practical political and economic concerns.


Chapter One "Gentlemen's History: Empire, Class, and Patriarchy"

Parenti notes that history is biased towards powerful interests because only the wealthy (or those funded by the wealthy) had the free time to engage in research and writing. Parenti itemizes various ancient writers with a conservative orientation. Also, since most ancient writings have been lost, few opposing views survive into modern times. The writings that have survived favor the elite.

In more recent times, Edward Gibbon is presented as a typical "eighteenth-century English gentleman ... in the upper strata of ... society." In contrast, the satirist[5] Juvenal "offers a glimpse of the empire as it really was, a system of rapacious expropriation."(p. 18) Various other historians are criticized including Theodor Mommsen. Parenti states that current scholars perpetuate the bias that favors an aristocratic interpretation of history.

Some historians will differ with Parenti's approach. First, Gibbon famously argued that the reigns of the so-called attributable to the original sources. (February 2011)

Chapter Two "Slaves, Proletarians, and Masters"

"Rome's social pyramid" has many slaves (servi) at the bottom with "a step above ... propertyless proletariat[s]" (proletarii).(p. 27) Slumlords operated crowded tenement apartments that were prone to fire, epidemic disease (such as typhoid and typhus), structural collapse, and high crime rates.(p. 29) However, "looming over the toiling multitudes were a few thousand multimillionaires"(p. 30) with an "officer class of equites or equestrians" and "at the very apex ... the nobilitas, an aristocratic oligarchy."(p. 31) Parenti argues against various opinions that he regards as misconceptions: for example, he states the frequency of slaves being freed (manumission) should not be exaggerated; manumission was often expensive and only achieved at old age (when the slave wasn't productive anymore) and didn't include the slave's wife and his children.

Chapter Three "A Republic for the Few"

Next, the formation and nature of the Roman Republic is described. Early in Roman history, "a succession of Etruscan kings reigned ... [with] exploitative rule"(p. 45) and was overthrown after which the Roman people had an aversion to monarchy. Instead, Rome had a Senate elected by the upper class with executive power held by a pair of consuls. The consuls had one-year terms and were subject to the veto of the other. Poor Romans could elect tribunes which were government bodies consulted by the Senate; tribunes had the power to veto legislation but not to propose legislation. Tribunes were elected by open ballot and, thus, this limited measure of democracy was corrupted by vote buying.

So the Roman Republic was an environment of corruption and partial democracy. Then, Parenti presents the reader with an overview of the political scene:

In the 2nd century BC, the senatorial nobles began to divide into two groups, the larger being the self-designated as the optimates ("best men"), who were devoted to upholding the prerogatives of the well-born. ... The smaller faction within the nobility, styled the populares or "demagogues" by their opponents, were reformers who sided with the common people on various issues. Julius Caesar is considered the leading popularis and the last in a line extending from 133 BC to 44 BC (p.54-55).

Some historians would claim that the populares were by no means necessarily the minority, as denoted by the success of Marius, Cinna and Caesar. Parenti uncritically assumes that the populares were earnestly interested in the plight of the common man while the optimates were avaricious. A more nuanced approach would have been more accurate, see the treatment of the optimate Drusus below.

Chapter Four "'Demagogues' and Death Squads"

Parenti lists a number of Populares, noting that almost all of them were assassinated. The list includes:

However, Marcus Livius Drusus is considered by some historians to have been an Optimatis (see, for example: Ward, Heichelheim and Yeo, A History of the Roman People, 3rd ed., page 164).

Chapter Five "Cicero's Witch-hunt"

Parenti argues strongly against the favorable view of Cicero held by most historians. While admitting Cicero's chief fame as an orator, Parenti presents Cicero as a hypocrite, a sycophant, and a devious flatterer as well as noting abuse of power. Often, in his public speeches, Cicero would accept the goals of the populares or praise an opponent while, in private letters, he bitterly complained. In particular, Cicero's prosecution of Catiline for a supposed conspiracy is presented as a witch-hunt and Parenti notes nine suspicious flaws in Cicero's accusations.(p. 107-111) Most seriously, he states that Cicero's self-aggrandizing prosecution led to several executions as well as a military campaign against a legion of impoverished Roman veterans. (p. 93)

Chapter Six "The Face of Caesar"

This chapter summarizes the life and career of Julius Caesar.

Chapter Eight "The Popularis"

Parenti is critical of most of the ancient sources, except for Caesar's writings and those of his supporters.[need quotation to verify] Parenti also says Sulla encouraged the growth of large estates in the Roman countryside (p. 79).

Parenti lists Caesar's measures to relieve poverty; some measures are outright grants to the poor but most are programs to put the plebs to productive work. Also, several measures are taken to curb corruption practices of the wealthy as well as to levy some luxury taxes. Then Parenti turns to debt relief and contrasts "two theories about why people fall deeply in debt."(p. 151)

The first says that persons burdened with high rents, extortionate taxes, and low income are often unable to earn enough or keep enough of what they earn. So they are forced to borrow on their future labor, hoping that things will take a favorable turn. But the interested parties who underpay, overchange, and overtax them today are just as relentless tomorrow. So debtors must borrow more, with an ever larger portion of their eanings going to interest payments ... eventually assumes ruinous proportions, forcing debtors to sell their small holdings and sometimes even themselves or their children into servitude. Such has been the plight of destitude populations through history even to this day. The creditor class is more that [sic] just a dependent variable in all this. Its monopolization of capital and labor markets, its squeeze on prices and wages, its gouging of rents are the very things that create penury and debt.(p. 151-152)

In the second theory, debtors are lazy and free spenders. However, Parenti states this model doesn't apply to the poor but rather to the spoiled children of the upper class:

who live in a grand style, cultivate the magical art of borrowing forever while paying back never, as did Caesar himself during his early career. Such seemingly limitless credit is more apt to be extended to persons of venerable heritage, since their career prospects are considered good. ... They treat fiscal temperance as tantamount to miserliness, and parade their profligacy as a generosity of spirit.(p.152)

In any case, Caesar's debt relief was aimed at "the laboring masses, not the dissolute few."(p. 153)

Also, Parenti states that:

Caesar was the first Roman ruler to grant the city's substantial Jewish population the right to practice Judaism ... That he has consorted with such a marginalized element as the Jewish proletariat must have been taken by the optimates as confirmations of their worst presentiments about his loathsome leveling tendencies.(p.153-154)

Then, Parenti firmly argues against the accusation that Caesar was responsible for the burning of the Library of Alexandria. (See Library of Alexandria for a detailed treatment of this issue.) Instead, Parenti states that the library:

was in fact brought to ruination by a throng of Christ worshipers, lead by the bishop Theophilus in AD 391. This was a time when the ascendant Christian church was shutting down the ancient academies and destroying libraries and books throughout the empire as part of its totalistic war against pagan culture.(p.155)

In an unusual measure, Caesar also proposed a cap on total wealth when:

In 49 BC, he attempted to enforce a law that limited private holdings at 15,000 drachmas in silver or gold, thereby leaving no one in possession of immeasurably large fortunes.(p.164)

Chapter Ten "The Liberties of Power"

Chapter Eleven "Bread and Circuses"


External links

  • Book website
  • Indymedia). In the first half of the talk Parenti vividly presents the most controversial statements from his book especially against the 95% of status quo historians whom he described as the "Ciceronian" camp as opposed to the 5% of historians who are "Caesarians". In the second half of the talk, Parenti gives a reading from his book about the day of the Caesar's assassination which is one of the least controversial parts of the book.
  • Interview on Democracy Now! February 23, 2004, includes audio file.
  • in 8 parts.
  • , September 7, 2003.
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