Richard Blake Review of Allan Massie’s “Caesar”

Review by Richard Blake

Allan Massie

Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1993, 228 pp, £14.99
(ISBN 0 340 48789 5)

Price: Check on Amazon
Note: This review was written a very long time ago. Since then, I have written over a dozen novels of my own, and I now suspect that I was unfair in my assessment of the book. I still think it was a fault to make the novel into an oblique comment on the fall of Margaret Thatcher. She was an essentially ephemeral politician, and her reputation appears to sink lower, even among her former supporters, with every release of cabinet papers under the thirty year rule.

This being said, parts of the book stay in my head more than twenty years after having read it. I think particularly of the brutal killing of Casca. This is plainly not a novel without merit.

As for my complaint about the quotations from English writers, these may have been overdone. But you get a better taste of Cicero from quoting Burke than you do from quoting Cicero himself in English translations that do no justice to the Latin. The same point applies with greater force to poetry. I have never seen a more than competent translation into English of any Greek or Roman poet. Therefore, if you want to bring Catullus into your story, better to quote Burns or Housman, who do much the same in English as he did in Latin.

What I still dislike, however, is the generally pessimistic tone of the narrative. My own taste in historical fiction is for an unrestrained enjoyment of life – even if most of the characters I create are the sort of people you’d run away from if you met them at a bus stop. My chief recollection of this book is of a set of monochrome tableaus, all filled with people who will end badly, and who suspect they will end badly. You really can overdo Sunt lacrymae rerum.

But it is not a good idea for one historical novelist to be so negative about another. All else aside, it encourages the reviewers to advertise the faults in my own books. I will say that this book has excellencies that I overlooked at the time, and I now feel inclined to go out and read more by Allan Massie.

Having read the reviews of his earlier Tiberius, I find this latest novel from Dr Massie a disappointment.  It cannot stand comparison with the great works of its genre.  No one who has read Mary Renault or Marguerite Yourcenar will think its writer more than competent.  Indeed, in his description of Caesar’s last days, he falls below Rex Warner, and is outmatched for narrative by Alfred Duggan.

The novel works better as a despairing account of the collapse of the Republic.  The protagonist is a conservative unlucky enough to live at a time when the only proper choice is between different kinds of radical change.  He recognises that the political institutions of an agrarian city state cannot become those of a vast and largely hellenistic empire.  At the same time, he will consider neither a withdrawal from empire, nor the divine right monarchy by which it can alone be held together.

Even here, though, Mr Massie falls into the middling rank.  He is excelled by Peter Green, who writing as Sulla shows exactly why the Republic broke down and why it could not be restored.  He is excelled by Robert Graves, who writing as Claudius shows the genius of an Augustan settlement that could in normal circumstances keep absolute power disguised and even restrained.

Turning to matters of detail, I generally dislike the language in which the novel is written.  It was a mistake to give Cicero so many broken fragments from Burke’s Reflections.  Lightly done, this might have been a success:  done so heavily, it only annoys.  It was also, I think, a mistake to echo the Bible in several places, and to quote so freely from, among others, Tacitus, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and even Margaret Thatcher.

This last quote, however, suggests that I may be the mistaken one.  Perhaps Caesar is not intended to compete with The Persian Boy or Count Belisarius.  Perhaps it stands in an older tradition, of analysing the present by writing about the past.  Speaking to Cicero, the protagonist observes:

I have heard Caesar deny the very existence of society….  In his opinion, society is an invented concept which enables men to acquit themselves of full responsibility for their actions. (p.167)

There are other indications that the character of Caesar is drawn with Lady Thatcher in mind; and that Cicero is supposed to represent the Tory wets.  On this principle, the March conspirators are the grey and disaffected men of November 1990, and Octavian is John Major.  This last seems a strained comparison; and I see none of Douglas Hurd in Mark Antony, and dare not see anyone now living in Casca.  But, as a journalist writing for The Daily Telegraph, Mr Massie may have inside information on these points that I have not.

But, while the novel may be an extended simile, I hope it is not.  Persons aside, the two situations differ far more than they resemble each other; and the one throws no easy light on the other.  Our own Constitution is not so decayed yet as the Roman, and is not decaying for the same reasons.  Nothing so drastic as the Principate will be needed to save us, nor will anything so enlightened be allowed to save us.

According to a Times review of his Augustus quoted on the dust jacket, Mr “Massie is the best living Scottish novelist”.  I have yet to read his other Roman novels.  But if Caesar is not greatly inferior to these, I will shudder for the good name of Scottish literature, or Times reviewing, or both.

© 2015 – 2017, richardblake.

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