Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Caesar and Christ

Caesar and Christ
© 1944 Will Durant
752 pages

Ave, Caesar!

Athens' grip on my imagination is rivaled only by Rome -- Rome, navel of the world; Rome, which established the languages laws, and religion of western Europe. Like Our Oriental Heritage and The Life of Greece which proceed it, Caesar and Christ is epic in scope. Durant begins with the first civilization of Italy, the Etruscans, and after shifting to a little town on the banks of the Tiber falls it to Constantine. This grand history is partially interrupted by a hundred pages on Jesus and the first three hundred years of Christianity,  neatly introduced by a section on "Rome and Judea". Because Roman history is political history, politics is the backbone of Caesar and Christ despite the numerous sections on culture, architecture, and philosophy. The end result is just as thorough as preceding volumes, but more focused.

In Oriental Heritage,  Durant noted that civilizations constantly rise and fall in a philosophical pattern. Civilizations emerge over hardship through determination, strength, and cultural cohesion, cohesion typically established by a highly moralistic and hard-nosed religion. As these civilizations gain in power, prosperity sees a decay in values which leads to eventual decline and collapse. To Durant, Rome is a case in point for this view, and his concluding analysis of why Rome fell simply condenses the book into a couple chapters: the book is in a sense an extended explanation of Rome's decline and fall. In essence, he sees Rome's economic success as dependent on slavery undermining it. Slavery destroyed Roman citizen-farmers, which sapped the Roman political system dependent on such citizen-farmers, leading to an overall decline in public sentiment  and culture-wide decay that was slowed, but not stopped by religious rivals and the growth of Stoicism.  As Greece passed the torch of civilization to Rome in its dying days, so does Durant see Rome pass the torch to its successor -- Christianity. He makes the point that Christianity didn't so much as defeat Rome as inherit it, for medieval Christianity was the Roman church, all that remained of the German state.

Durant's views on Christianity are interesting; they appear to be in line with Marcus Borg's, who views the major religions of the world as being created by humans in response to a divine impulse. Durant appears to share this cheery universalism, and like Borg regards Christianity as his favorite, referring to it as the most attractive religion ever created and embracing it despite knowing -- and detailing -- its creation by people within a specific historical context.  While seating Christianity firmly among apocalyptic religions at first, Durant tracks its evolution into a general-purpose morality-building system of thought that breathed new life into the decline of civilization. He's a curious blend of skeptic and believer who probably discomfits fundamentalists more reliably than nonbelievers.

Caesar and Christ is the most thorough history of Rome I've read, and the scope is useful in understanding Rome's long-term trends and problems. Lay readers will benefit from being able to place Caesar into the context of his times, seeing him as an inevitability rather than a Palaptine-esque villain who single-handedly destroyed the Republic by sheer ambitious genius.Will Durant's elegant prose makes for enjoyable reading,  and I'd generally recommend the book to those interested in Rome, although those who are completely unread on the subject may want to whet their appetites with shorter histories aimed at casual audiences.


  • The Roman Mind, M.L. Clarke
  • The Roman Way, Edith Hamilton. I've never read it, but Hamilton is generally impressive.
  • Rubicon, Tom Holland
  • The Assassination of Julius Caesar, Michael Parenti. Parent places particular emphasis on Rome's class war, and the role that had in destabilizing Rome's politics. Parenti sees the assassination of Caesar as being similar to that of the Gracchai brothers in being motivated by crass economic motives instead of lofty Republican idealism. 
  • Asimov's Guide to the Bible: Volume II, The New Testament; Isaac Asimov. I've owned this for over a year but haven't quite gotten around to reading it. 

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