This paper treats two intertwined receptions of Julius Caesar by two of the nineteenth century’s most famous marginalized figures: Napoléon Bonaparte, living out his final years on St. Helena and Friedrich Nietzsche, retired from the University of Basel and convalescing in various southern European cities. Both men in their respective isolation turned, for different reasons, to Caesar’s life and works, captivated by his accomplishments but examining his weaknesses and personal failings with a critical eye. Both men drew inspiration from Caesar but, as I shall argue, both stand apart from the generalizing impulses of the Caesarism so prominent in nineteenth- century political discourse: both Napoléon and Nietzsche were especially interested in humanizing Caesar rather than condemning or defending his acts. I shall endeavor to show how these disparate but parallel attempts to re-imagine Caesar’s legacy, while in a sense disingenuous and self-serving, nonetheless throw light upon imperfect and human facets of Caesar’s image.
Napoléon Bonaparte dictated his Précis des Guerres de César to his valet de chambre Marchand during his exile on St. Helena. Napoléon was a close and critical reader of Caesar’s text: he attempted to ascertain details such as dates, distances, and battle maneuvers, and he was critical of Caesar’s imprecision in these matters. He admired Caesar’s personal leadership, his management of his provisions and his speed of movement, yet he questioned his tactics on occasion and even considered the invasions of Britain and Germany poorly planned and executed. He disapproved of Caesar’s occasional lapses of clemency during the Gallic Wars and doubted whether his personal courage in battle really compared to that of a modern general, who must constantly face hostile fire. The humanizing impulse to critique Caesar as a fellow general, rather than revere him as the founder of an empire, is in keeping with Napoléon’s rejection, throughout his political life, of easy generic analogies between modern and ancient circumstances (cf. P. Baehr, Caesar and the Fading of the Roman World (New Haven, 1998): 92-94).
Despite Napoléon’s disinclination, the analogy between Caesar and the French emperor became the dominant mode of understanding the legacy of both men in the years following the latter’s death. Nietzsche himself was seduced into admiring Napoléon as the Roman ideal of nobility and strength incarnate (On the Genealogy of Morals 1.16). Yet his final image of Caesar was more nuanced and more idiosyncratic than this bold analogy implies. In his late works, Nietzsche fixated upon two episodes from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar: young Caesar’s contemptuous treatment of pirates who had taken him hostage and his struggles with headaches and epilepsy (Plutarch, Caes. 2 and 17). Caesar’s almost farcical boldness when held captive demonstrated to Nietzsche his ability to overcome a desperate situation through sheer force of will; his weak constitution spoke to the isolated and threatened nature of all true genius, which is fragile and especially at risk of annihilation. This Caesar is a Nietzschean sage: a dyspeptic, untimely, imperiled genius who wills himself even in his direst moments to be both calm and relentless. The resemblance is no accident: Nietzsche signed one of his last letters ‘Nietzsche Caesar’ (cf. A. Holzer, “Nietzsche Caesar” in H.W. Siemens and V. Roodt (ed.), Nietzsche, Power and Politics: Rethinking Nietzsche's Legacy for Political Thought (Berlin, 2009): 371).
The solipsism of both approaches is evident: to judge Caesar’s campaigns by the standards of the Napoleonic Wars, or to cast him as a suffering and misunderstood genius is hardly to give the full historical picture. Nevertheless, both readings counterbalance the unabashed Caesarism of, for instance, Napoléon III, in that they both resist understanding Caesar the dictator as the inevitable product of historical necessity; they celebrate rather the perseverance and endurance of a remarkable but flawed human being who struggled and sometimes failed. They prove, in other words, that the image of Caesar is capacious enough to accommodate mortal qualities.