Skip navigation

I’ve been reading a biography of Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of tremendous ability uniquely positioned at what he was to make one of the defining moments of history. I know that the ‘great man’ theory of history has fallen out of vogue with the modern establishment, instead capitulating to the notion that great potentialities create the necessary people to rise to the challenge inherent in their exploitation. Yet when you read a life of the Pontifex Maximus himself, you find it hard to believe that many others could have stepped into the role, and undertaken the risks with the necessary audacity or met with the same success. But indeed before Caesar there was Sullla, and before Sulla, there was Marius. Great names long forgotten to the everyday man, but their exploits made everything Caesar did possible.
One aspect that I think personifies many great men, and Caesar especially, is that they transcend the limitations of their circumstances. The world admits of a certain number of possibilities and believes that there is a prescribed range of actions that can be engaged in. Caesar, perhaps unwittingly, occupied a unique position as an outsider that allowed him to see through the institutions of his age: The Roman Senate, The Tribunate, The Consuls and the Consularis and to recognise a crisis at their core that left them unable to respond to the challenges of an expanding Roman empire ruled by a notional commonwealth of citizens.

This trait I believe to be one of the markers of true greatness. People who can understand their world around them, and perceive the flaws that others do not believe exist, or to identify when there is a disconnect between reality and the popular conception. That opens up a perspective to action that can allow a person to redefine their world in a way that is conventionally thought impossible. It is this ability to understand that there are more realities then the common reality, that the underlying facts are nuanced and capable of interpretation.

Can all of us transcend our circumstances? I believe that this is so. Is all that is required the presence of a certain stubbornness of vision and a ruthlessness of execution? I believe that this is so. Do we only have to be firm enough in the conviction that we are right to persevere to defy the limits of all those who came before us? I believe that this is so. Can this be for both good and evil? I believe that you have to at least think you’re doing it for good. Even Caesar rationalised his dictatorship as an attempt to save the Republic from imminent collapse.