Michael Parenti's The Assassination of Julius Caesar

by Gilles d'Aymery

Book Review

November 17, 2003


Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, The New Press, New York, N.Y, 2003; ISBN 1-56584-797-0. $24.95 (hc); 276 pp.

When George W. Bush was elevated to the highest office of the land through a bloodless coup -- with no tanks in the streets -- the country with few if nary expression of serious protest went on with business as usual. After all, Al Gore had run a dismal, lackluster campaign; people had grown weary from Clinton's sexual shenanigans; Mr. Bush, with his genial smirk, looked quite moderate, assuring the polity that he would bring back dignity to the office, humility to foreign policy and compassion to conservatism; and so, with the comforting father-like figure of Dick Cheney at his side, walking hand-in-hand with a wife freshly minted from a 1950s Sears catalogue, the good-natured fellow from Crawford, Texas, took possession of his new residence without even a yawning gaze from the public. Then, the economy tanking, the land of the free became traumatized by the 9/11 tragedy, which allowed the passage of the long-planned repressive USA PATRIOT ACT; led to the invasion of Afghanistan; the October 2002 "authorization" bill that transferred the power to declare war from the US Congress to the president, without even a sunset clause attached to it; and finally, the Iraqi hellhole. After each event, after each consolidation of power within the White House, apologists of empire came to fore, justifying the praetorians' march to the unruly provinces, defending civilization and the goodness of our leaders' intentions. A few voices, first on the fringes of the body politics, raised the specter of Empire with much reference to ancient Rome or to the British Empire. Then came more powerful voices (though still mostly kept at bay by the establishment's media): Has the Commander in Chief become an emperor "clothed with the vestigial raiments of royalty," as the Dean of the Senate, Robert Byrd (Dem., W. VA) recently asserted? (1) Is the nation slowly itching into despotism, as Benjamin Franklin had predicted, and Gore Vidal thunders? (2) Is a disheveled, confused citizenry, oblivious to looming dangers and somber realities, witnessing the end of the US Republic and being ushered into an imperial era, like that which befell Roman citizens on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., in the wake of Julius Caesar's murder? Michael Parenti's latest book, The Assassination of Julius Caesar, which has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, may not answer these questions directly but read in this context it is an indispensable account, both thrilling and chilling, of an historical period that carries eerie parallels with today's state of affairs.

This is a story, in Parenti's words, "of latifundia and death squads, masters and slaves, patriarchs and subordinated women, self-enriching capitalists and plundered provinces, profiteering slumlords and urban rioters. . . . a struggle between the plutocratic few and the indigent many, the privileged versus the proletariat, featuring corrupt politicians, money-driven elections, and the political assassination of popular leaders." He adds, "I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of this might resonate with the temper of our times."

Similarities abound: Frightened elite fighting to keep, and whenever possible, increase their privileges, a subservient senate, the hordes of well-paid eulogists praising the order of the day, dismissing dissidents as unpatriotic traitors and calling for the abolishment of reforms intended to enfranchise the weakest among the weak, help the poor and downtrodden (cf, the relentless gutting of the New Deal), the bigotry and dogmas of the day... Still, Parenti would bristle at the suggestion that his scholarly and historical work describes our era or that Mr. Bush is some kind of modern, contemporary Julius Caesar. He would as well dismiss the analogy with a "Mr. Bush, I knew Julius Caesar (or at least, I studied and researched him for over two years); he was my friend... Mr. Bush you are no Caesar!"

Irony apart (the book is not without humor), Parenti looks at history, as he so often does, "from the bottom up" in much the same way as Howard Zinn wrote A People's History of the United States: 1492-Present. He challenges the conventional wisdom of what he calls "gentlemen historians," a theme that he examined in more detail in his 1999 History as Mystery. History is written by the victors and by members of the well-to-dos, the upper class, who portray events according to their own elitist perspective; a history "from the top down" where leaders and swarming rabbles are depicted in time immemorial clichés -- lewd, lazy, ignorant masses that require strong leadership.

Parenti's storytelling is refreshing. He dares to consider events from the "little people's" point of view, a presentation of Roman history that has rarely, if ever, been attempted. How daring indeed! As one who grew up in a relatively privileged, though totally dysfunctional family in France, I read or was taught from the same history books -- Edward Gibbon's famed opus, "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," was high on the must-read list. I was told early on to beware of the small people, the fickle, selfish, good-for-nothing mobs -- always led by corrupted demagogues -- on the lookout to grab, steal one's well deserved, hard earned -- or family inherited (inferred, previously hard earned) -- properties; and, when I rebelled, as youthful idealists often do, and associated myself with these "worms," seemingly subhuman creatures, I was in no half measure reminded that if I ever wanted to be their king, I would only be "le roi des cons" (the king of the assholes). Turning things on their head has been a long habit of mine. Ask questions; close your eyes; shut your ears; stop talking. In other words, do not listen to the conventional wisdom. Think for yourself and keep challenging your own assumptions and frames of reference...

Michael Parenti does just that. He relentlessly, systematically examines these events from the people's perspective, immersing himself with great insight into the Roman masses, the proletariat -- the book's subtitle is justifiably, A People's History of Ancient Rome -- and he questions the generally accepted views, peddled generation after generation, that Julius Caesar was assassinated by high-minded plotters who wanted to preserve the Republic. (It goes without saying that the consequences were the exact opposite of the proffered intentions: Civil war ensued, leading to the demise of the Roman Republic and the ushering in of four centuries of absolutist rule.)

Parenti makes a compelling case that Julius Caesar, far from being the ruthless tyrant depicted by the gentlemen historians, was a reformer -- an FDR of the antiquity, if you will -- who redistributed wealth, put in place land reforms, and implemented policies to foster the welfare of the many but, in so doing, threatened the entrenched interests of the few, the oligarchy. Through extensive research, he takes apart all the characters who schemed the plot -- Marcus Brutus, Gaius Cassius, Tillius Cimber, Publius Casca, Decimus Brutus et al. -- dismantling brick by brick the mythical castle built by armies of would-be hagiographers who metamorphosed these genuine reactionaries into popular heroes.

Parenti devotes an entire chapter to Marcus Tullius Cicero who has been worshipped and hailed as a great humanist by 95 percent of historians -- "an enduring influence upon the course of all European civilization," according to Sir Ronald Syme. I found Parenti's discourse on Cicero of particular interest in light of a recent column by John R. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's Magazine and a member in good standing of the noblesse oblige East Coast liberal aristocracy, on Senator Robert Byrd's strident and most eloquent defiance of, and opposition to the policies and conduct of the Bush Regime. MacArthur, lauding the good senator, writes, "It's no coincidence that Byrd's year-long rhetorical tour de force bears a strong resemblance to the speeches of Cicero. The analogy isn't perfect, but Cicero also saw himself as the principal defender of the Senate as institutional bulwark against a military usurper [Caesar the 'tyrant']." (3) Upon reading Parenti's treatment of Cicero, I am not convinced that MacArthur does great service to Robert Byrd... For cause, Parenti, quoting Friedrich Engels who called Cicero "the most contemptible scoundrel in history," paints the picture of an appalling hypocrite, a corrupt member of the oligarchy, driven by ambition and riches, who fully supported the conspirators and glorified them as heroic "liberators." (It should be noted that most of these liberators, including Brutus and Cassius -- and Cicero himself -- either committed suicide or met other tragic ends.) Senator Byrd can legitimately be accused of mastering the art of pork-barrel politics in favor of his constituents during his long career; but he never enriched himself, and his very humble origins and steadfast integrity place him far and apart from apologists of despotism such as Cicero.

Thinking of liberation brings us back to our times and the depiction of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq by current pundits and political whores as a "war of liberation," waged to export "democracy" to the Middle East. Michael Parenti shows that there is nothing new under the sky. He quotes the economist John Schumpeter -- not a leftist radical, to say the least! -- who delivered this trenchant critique of Roman imperialism in 1919:

". . . That policy which pretends to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such an interest -- why, then it was the national honor that had been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil-minded neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive designs."

Simply replace Rome and Roman with Washington and American, then read again...

Mr. Bush is no Julius Caesar, indeed. However, the story of Ancient Rome Michael Parenti weaves very convincingly goes a long way toward understanding our contemporary events. In an era of the Wal-Martization of America, when the giant retailer pays its sales clerks "about $14,000 a year, below the $15,060 poverty line for a family of three" and forces its employees "to pay much of their health insurance;" (4) when no province of the earth is left un-plundered by rapacious profiteers backed by incomprehensibly powerful and destructive military forces; when the weakest of the weak, both at home and all over the planet, are sacrificed in ever larger numbers on the altar of greed and selfishness, Parenti's work is a brilliant reminder that the struggle for justice and equity, from antiquity to these modern times, is nothing but a long continuum. Historic and contemporary events, neatly packaged and marketed to the masses by the victors and the gentlemen historians, should be reviewed accordingly.

Michael Parenti, The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, The New Press, New York, N.Y, 2003; ISBN 1-56584-797-0. $24.95 (hc); 276 pp.

New Press book orders are fulfilled by W.W. Norton and Company via a secure server. The book can be ordered on-line at http://www.wwnorton.com/orders/np/084797.htm.
It can also be ordered from your local independent bookstore through Booksense.
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Read a short excerpt of the book.

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References & Resources

1.  MacArthur, John R., "Looking at Iraq," Providence Journal, November 4, 2003 - http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1104-09.htm (as of 11/12/03).

See also: US Senator Robert Byrd, "The Emperor Has No Clothes," Senate Floor Remarks, October 17, 2003 - http://www.senate.gov/~byrd/byrd_speeches/byrd_speeches_2003october/byrd_speeches_2003october.html (as of 11/12/03).  (back)

2.  Marc Cooper's interview of Gore Vidal, LA Weekly, November 14-20, 2003 - http://www.laweekly.com/ink/03/52/features-cooper.php (as of 11/12/03).  (back)

3.  MacArthur, John R., op. cit., note 1.  (back)

4.  "The Wal-Martization of America," Editorial, The New York Times, November 15, 2003.  (back)

Michael Parenti's To Kill a Nation, The Attack on Yugoslavia - Book Review by Gilles d'Aymery (Feb. 2001)

Book Reviews on Swans


Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.

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Published November 17, 2003
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