Caesar’s Virtues

Many people have admired Julius Caesar as a “great man” of history. Opinion is divided. To most traditionalists he is little more than a populist demagogue.  But measured against the tyrants of history – in the classic sense of that term – Julius Caesar was relatively restrained. Along with his vices, he evinced some undeniable virtues aside from his skill as a soldier. The most obvious quality was his clemency. Though he shared Alexander the Great’s sense of vainglory he avoided the Greek conqueror’s lack of moderation. Alexander was a temperamental despot who (sometimes in a drunken rage) put to death those who were merely suspected of opposing him.

Plutarch tells us how Caesar spared his opponents. Even Brutus, who had been an ally of his enemy Pompey, was reconciled for a time to Caesar – until the senator was recruited by conspirators to assassinate the Roman dictator. Even then, Caesar’s enemies seemed more fearful of the sway of his liberality than his wrath. Plutarch also remarks that when Pompey’s statues were being pulled down, following the Civil War, Caesar ordered that they be left intact. He admired his former foe and always regretted the conflict between them.

One of the most interesting discussions of Caesar’s personality is in Sallust. Discussing Cataline’s Conspiracy, he compares Caesar with Cato, his opponent in the Roman Senate: “Caesar was regarded as great for his kindnesses and munificence, Cato for the integrity of his life. The former achieved distinction for his mercy and pity; the latter’s strictness had brought him prestige . . . . In the one, the wretched found their refuge; in the other, the wicked their ruin.” It would seem that the two men’s qualities complemented one another. Their characters represented what was both strongest and weakest in Rome’s political divisions. Caesar may not be a role model, but some of his virtues are well worth imitating.

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