“HISTORY REFLECTS the age in which it is written,” writes Michael Parenti. This is also true of his own work. He writes:
Here is 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. I leave it to the reader to decide whether any of this might resonate with the temper of our times.
This makes for lively history, although, as we shall see, not always the most accurate historical analogies.
Most histories, claims Parenti, see Caesar as a dictatorial usurper and the republic he overthrew a virtuous democracy. Parenti’s “alternative explanation” is that the “Senate aristocrats killed Caesar because they perceived him to be a popular leader who threatened their privileged interests.” Caesar’s assassination must be seen as part of the civil strife in the late Roman republic between “opulent conservatives and popularly supported reformers.”
Parenti takes the argument even further, presenting Caesar’s assumption of supreme rulership in 48 BC—after his victory in a civil war—not as a precursor of the Roman imperial monarchy established by his heir Augustus but as a form of people’s power:
Without too much overreaching, we might say [Caesar’s] reign can be called a dictatorship of the proletarii [the poor propertyless citizens of Rome], an instance of ruling autocratically against plutocracy on behalf of the citizenry’s substantive interests.
Parenti traces the bias he perceives in most historians on the subject to their status as “gentleman historians,” who sympathize with the wealthy landowning republican aristocracy, and who denigrate reformers as “demagogues” and the poor urban masses as “rabble.”
To be fair, there are many views of Caesar and the late republic, ancient and modern, that cannot be pressed into Parenti’s mold. Arthur Kahn’s The Education of Julius Caesar and P.A. Brunt’s Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic (from which Parenti borrows freely in a few places) are closer to Parenti than to Shakespeare’s account. Matthias Gelzer’s classic Caesar: Politician and Statesman presents the populares as members of the Senate who wished to “appeal to the popular assembly” to “break the rule of a Senate incapable of producing timely reforms” and describes the optimates as “defenders of the traditional rule of the nobility and the security of property.”
And at least some of the ancient “gentleman historians” had insights that form the starting point for Parenti’s history. In the very first pages of Appian’s The Civil Wars, he tells of how, through forcible dispossession of small farmers, “The powerful were becoming extremely rich, while the Italian people were suffering from depopulation and a shortage of men, worn down as they were by poverty and taxes and military service.”
Parenti lumps Karl Marx in with the historians he denigrates for dismissing the Roman urban masses as a “a mob of do-nothings.” Here Parenti simply doesn’t grasp Marx’s point. In his preface to the second edition of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx writes:
In ancient Rome the class struggle took place only within a privileged minority, between the free rich and the free poor, while the great productive mass of the population, the slaves, formed the purely passive pedestal for these combatants. People forget Sismondi’s significant saying: The Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society, while modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat.
Marx is drawing out an important difference between the proletariat of Rome and the modern working classes (the former was parasitical on surplus labor performed by others, the latter the basis of capitalism’s riches)—a distinction lost on Parenti. This may explain why Parenti’s “people’s history” focuses on Caesar and the urban masses and spends far less time on slavery and slave insurrections like that of Spartacus.
That is why the conflict in the late republic ultimately boiled down to a contest between military commanders and their armies, with the “mob” playing the role more or less of a supporting stage army. Caesar may have had popular support at times, but his rule was not the “dictatorship of the proletarii.”
In the end, Parenti comes off as an apologist for Caesar. Parenti cannot deny that Caesar was a conqueror and an enslaver who was made dictator for life, and who “took on the trappings of a monarch.” But these are defended as methods intended merely to “maximize his political clout.” “Caesar’s concern,” Parenti assures us, “was not to lord over the common people but to outdo a powerfully entrenched aristocratic oligarchy,” as if the two things were incompatible.
Caesar may well have not intended to become an autocrat. But we must judge men not by what they think of themselves, but the role they play in history. His victory in the civil war signified that the “Optimate Oligarchy had been overthrown.” The “war was itself a result of the failure of the Republic and its Ruling Oligarchy for decades past to cope with the social and political problems of the empire which they had conquered,” writes Matthias Gelzer in his biography of Caesar.
“Anyone familiar with the history of the last decades of the Republic,” he continues, “will agree that in view of the breakdown of the old institutions there was no other solution” than Caesar running “the state on his own.” In other words, the class and social forces of Rome at the time permitted not a popular solution to the empire’s crisis, but one involving the conquest of state power by a military general attempting to balance between different competing class forces—a brilliant conqueror and statesman, no doubt, but not a man of or for the Roman proletarian, let alone the slaves.
I suspect Parenti’s softness for Caesar has something to do with his Stalinism—his view that the fall of Stalinism was a “historic defeat for the people of the world.” In his 1997 book Blackshirts and Reds, Parenti claims that the nastier aspects of Stalinism—the gulag, the mass removal of populations, the untold number of deaths, the inequality between workers and bureaucrats—were all exaggerated by Stalin’s critics. Is it any wonder then that Parenti tends to play down Caesar’s noble birth, his conquests, his support of slavery and empire?