The Ethics and Politics of Friendship in Caesar's World

Two related aspects are worth a closer look here: (i) the kinds of characters who were attracted to Caesar; (ii) Caesar’s willingness to extend ‘friendship’ to anyone on strictly utilitarian principles, irrespective of their ‘moral worth’.

(i) Cicero dissed half of Caesar’s supporters (just like those of Catiline in the 60s) as belonging into a basket of deplorables already before the outbreak of the civil war (Letter to Atticus 7.3.5 = 126 SB, written 9 December 50):

verum tamen haec video, cum homine audacissimo paratissimoque negotium esse, omnis damnatos, omnis ignominia adfectos, omnis damnatione ignominiaque dignos illac facere, omnem fere iuventutem, omnem illam urbanam ac perditam plebem, tribunos valentis addito Q. Cassio, omnis qui aere alieno premantur, quos pluris esse intellego quam putaram (causam solum illa causa non habet, ceteris rebus abundat).

[All the same I see this much: we are dealing with a man who fears nothing and is ready for anything. All persons under legal sentence or censorial stigma, and all who deserve the one or the other, are on his side, so are pretty well all the younger people, all the desperate city rabble, some sturdy Tribunes, Q. Cassius now included, all the debt-ridden, who I find are worth more than I supposed! — Caesar’s side lacks nothing but a cause, all else they have in abundance.]

He was not alone in this assessment. The Caesarian loyalist Caelius, who was also on friendly terms with Cicero, also noted Caesar’s appeal to those who had little or nothing to lose. In a letter to Cicero, written on 8 August 50, he predicts that ‘all who live in present fear and small hope for the future will rally to Caesar’ (Fam. 8.14.3 = 97 SB).

(ii) Caesar himself seems to have welcomed all and sundry with open arms into his networks of associates. An anecdote transmitted by Suetonius nicely captures his endorsement of a ‘friendship-above-all-else attitude’ (Life of Julius Caesar72):

Amicos tanta semper facilitate indulgentiaque tractauit… iam autem rerum potens quosdam etiam infimi generis ad amplissimos honores prouexit, cum ob id culparetur, professus palam, si grassatorum et sicariorum ope in tuenda sua dignitate usus esset, talibus quoque se parem gratiam relaturum.

[His friends he always treated with pronounced kindness and consideration. … Moreover, when he was already in power, he raised some friends of the humblest background to the highest positions, and when he was blamed for it, openly declared that if he had used the help of brigands and murderers in defending his rank and standing, he would have repaid such men too in the same way.]

Caesar certainly offered those who would have struggled to assert themselves in a system dominated by established aristocratic families unprecedented opportunities for career advancement. But his reliance on ‘upstarts’ may in part have been due to the fact that members of the traditional ruling elite refused to cooperate:23

Caesar’s shift toward autocracy was in good part due to the refusal of many Republicans to admit defeat. Cicero had accepted Pharsalus in 48 as decisive. Had more leading senators done the same, even if reluctantly, and cooperated with Caesar, they might have saved much of their ancestral state and their own role in it. Instead, they had rallied in Africa and seen their cause defeated again. Within a few months the remnants had regrouped in Spain — with the same results. No senatorial general could defeat Caesar, no senatorial army could best his. The obstinate refusal to accept the verdict of the battlefield and to work with Caesar while they could still nudge him toward retention of the traditional forms of the res publica compelled him to rely on his subordinate officers rather than members of the old nobility. Precisely this goes far to explain the rise of men like Plancus who would not have reached the highest offices in the state had there not been a dearth of candidates from illustrious families.

What would you have done in their stead? Would you have accepted that Caesar had trumped the old system and engaged with his regime as the new normal — not least in view of the personal benefits to be derived from playing ball with the potentate? Or would you have withdrawn your services as a matter of principle?

Suggested Citation

Ingo Gildenhard, Cicero: Philippic 2.44–50, 78–92, 100–119. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Dickinson College Commentaries, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-947822-12-2