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Did Caesar share the Populares’ agenda

Info: 5195 words (21 pages) Essay
Published: 1st Jan 2015 in History

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Ronald Syme blamed Sullust for the erroneousness notion that Roman politics were based upon a ” regular” two-party system, (Wiseman, p.15). Both Cicero and Sullust repeatedly referred to the power-struggle or the Roman republic as a contention for power between the optimate and popularis “parties”. Cicero’s view was that these two factions had always been a characteristic of Roman politics, (Wiseman p.29). For Cicero, the Gracchi had split the Republic into two, (Wiseman, p.9). According to Brunt, (p.95), this political division was not a permanent feature of the Republic, but the one that manifested itself only intermittently, usually in relation to some contentious measure. If this division was not a permanent feature of republican politics, this was probably because the populares’ cause found difficulty in attracting leadership. While this notion of polarisation has been much criticised, as Brunt, (p.95), points out, both Cicero and Sullust had taken part in the political battles of the time, and their evidence as to the nature of the late republican political scene cannot be dismissed lightly, (Wiseman, p.14). Whatever the nature of such a division, it clearly was not one of social class. Julius Caesar had a reputation for adherence to popular causes, in his early career, yet he was a man of patrician antecedence with strong connections among the nobility, (Gruen, p.49). This he had in common with many others of his class.

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Cicero saw the divisions of the Republic as being based upon two irreconcilable views of the nature of the Republic, (Wiseman, p.9). For him, the populares were politicians whose words and deeds aimed at gaining the support of the masses, (Brunt, p.93). Sallust saw them as drawing upon the tradition of the early plebeians who forced concessions from a tyrannical ruling class, (Wiseman, p.17). For Cicero, the true defenders of liberty and the people’s rights were men of goodwill such as himself, (Brunt, p.93). He saw the populares seeking to undermine the stability of the Republic and thus, seditious, (Brunt p.93).

Strasburger, (784-8) uses the term “partes” in dealing with the political line up in late Republic. But for Gelzer, there were no parties, only temporary combinations coming together to win elections, (Wiseman, p.28). These drew upon family ties and unofficial arrangements between influential groups to achieve their ends, (Gruen, p 47). The Romans would not have recognised the concept of a senatorial party, (Gruen, p.50). Political rivals used the term “factio” in a pejorative sense to describe their rivals. Wiseman, (p.30), argues that when Syme used the term “party, he was referring to the politics of the 1930s which centred upon power for its own sake. Syme, (passim), clearly saw the political rivalry of late republican Rome not in terms of a conflict between Senate and people but as a struggle for wealth and glory. The word “party”, as used to mean the organised pursuit of a political agenda as in modern politics, is clearly anachronistic when applied to Rome. Despite this, Gelzer, (p.47) refers to Cicero as the “leader” of the party of “law and order” during the Catiline trials.

Parties or not, they were clearly no discreet categories of optimates versus populares, (Gruen, p.500). Political groupings were fluid, with individuals adhering to different causes at different times, (Gruen p.47). Thus, we see Cicero drawing support from the populares and the optimates during his career. Gruen, (p.28) shows that Pompey and Crassus had little in common but co-operated in promoting a bill for the restoration of the tribunes” rights. Gruen, (p.213), sees the notion of continual friction between parties of reform and reaction as being totally false. When change seemed desirable, there was often rivalry to promote it.

As Wiseman, (p.2), points out, Roman society was extremely hierarchical and the governing classes were intensely conservative. Political life was dominated by a Senate based nobility. As Tatum, (p.12 and p.238), writes, it would be “perverse” to see the centre of gravity of political action in Rome as other than in the hands of an aristocracy which, as Gelzer argues, was extremely skilled at holding on to power. And, the result of this power monopoly a “spectacularly corrupt” oligarchy, (Wiseman, p.11).

Despite the hold of the Senate based aristocracy over political power, the Roman Plebs cannot be written off as a Lumpenproletariat, (Wiseman, p.3). They had a history of their own, which included standing up to the Patricians. Miller, (109-42), sees the Roman people as having a central role in the political life of the Republic. The problem was, however, that politics was time-consuming and the ordinary people had more pressing calls on their time, (Mouristen, p.89). Further, there is no evidence that any of the political elite, even amongst the populares, welcomed an Athenian style of popular control over administration or even policy, (Brunt, p.94). Indeed, as Brunt further argues, (p.95), the senatorial ranks tended to close when their authority or interests were threatened from outside. Thus a network of clients kept the power of the popular assemblies under control and maintained the reins of political power in the hands of the Senate based factions, (Martin, p.3). It is against this background that the long-standing tradition of Roman noble families taking up popular causes — the Gracchi, Clodius and indeed Caesar — must be read, (Gruen, p.97). Conversely, we see outsiders — new men — such as Pompey and Cicero siding with the forces of reaction.


Cicero was adamant that Rome there were two inherently opposed types of political activists, (pro Sestio 96), and as Wiseman, (p.6), argues, Greek commentators described the Roman political scene in Greek terms — democracy versus oligarchy — rule of the many versus rule by “best”. Such a dichotomy was also natural to 18th and 19th-century commentators who saw a parallel with the factional politics of their time. But Gruen ( p.384) says that there was no fundamental point of dissension between optimates and populares. The received wisdom of the 20th-century was that, not only were there no modern style parties in republican Roman but there was nothing that could be equated to ideological differences either. As such, references to populares, did not refer to a “party” with a distinctive ideological standpoint. So too, the term optimates did not define a coherent political group. Roman politicians did not divide along lines of principle, (Gruen, 50). What Livy called partes, (3. 39.9), did not represent ideological groupings, (Wiseman, p .7). Thus Gruen, (p.70) saw it as wrong to describe people such as Crassus or Caesar as champions of the people. They merely, like other populares resorted to ingratiating themselves with the masses.

Sponsorship of a popular causes was a standard political device used by politicians. As Gruen, (p.437) argues, it would be rash to ascribe this to altruism. As Gruen again points out, (p.506), aristocratic patrons had always looked after the interests of their clients, not least as a matter of political expediency. This had no bearing on a desire for political change. Factional allegiance, such as it was, appears to be one of political convenience alone having no implication of devotion to a commitment to “democracy” by populares politicians, (CAH 9, p.138). It seems that popularis politics had more to do with political tactics than ideology.

In any discussion of the ideological basis of the optimates/populares dichotomy as a permanent political feature, it is worth reiterating the fluidity of the political boundaries involved. Pompey was a popularis until the death of Crassus, when he reverted to siding with the optimates, having been Sulla protégé. Cicero was a popularis when starting out on his career as a new man without any inherited connections, (Wiseman, p.11). And as Brunt shows, (p.94), otherwise optimate senators disregarded their natural opposition and supported populares’ causes in their pursuit of political advantage. For example, Cicero allied himself with Caesar in 62 BC in order to make peace with the masses. And again Cicero had doubts about joining the optimates, even to overthrow what he saw as tyranny, (Canfora, p.171). Brunt, (p.95), goes as far as doubting whether there were any sincere populares after the Gracchi.

Notwithstanding all this, there appear to have been times when Roman society and politics did divide along ideological lines. Brunt, (p.92), identifies the controversy surrounding the Gracchi as exposing a major divide in Roman society. Again, the election of the “people’s hero” Marius to his consulships was a major challenge to the optimates, (Wiseman, p.10). And the execution of the Catiline conspirators divided Roman political society along ideological lines.

The question of a popularis ideology in Roman politics has been rehabilitated by Andrew Lintott, (p.52). As Wiseman, (p.5) says, a proper reading of the texts, reveals that the ideological content of late republican politics is far greater than the dominant view, represented by Geltzer, would admit. To reject modern political parties, is not reason to reject the idea of an ideology in Roman politics.

Wiseman, ( p.32 ) argues that Gelzer’s rejection of an ideological dimension to republican politics has maintained its hold despite the considerable evidence for such a dimension. For example, Tiberius Gracchus’s agrarian bill in 133 became an ideological struggle between the Tribune and the Senate. Again, Wiseman, (p.15) appeals to the argument that when Sallust and Cicero described Roman politics as a conflict between the people and the Senate, they were describing an ideological conflict which they had personally experienced and thus must be listened to. Morstein-Marx (1), (pp.204-5), goes farther in seeing the emergence of life long populares in the late Republic which was seen as threatening by the optimates. This would account for the intense opposition that was met by people like Caesar.

The Populares.

The populares stood in opposition to the Conservative interests of the senatorial elite. They favoured causes dear to the people and used the popular assemblies and the tribunes to gain and hold power. CAH vol.9, (p.138) goes as far as drawing a parallel between the populares’ struggle against the nobility with the conflicts between the Patricians and the Plebs of former times. This is somewhat misleading for, as Brunt, (p.94), shows, the populares who defended the rights of the assemblies were nobles themselves, for example Julius Caesar. Further, as Meier, (p.217), shows, the populares nobility were often extremely unpopular amongst the masses. Mouristen, (p.50), gives as an example the silent reception of Caesar’s inflammatory contio against Bibulus.

Nor did the populares necessarily champion the lower classes but used the latters’ needs and grievances to achieve their personal aims. In this, and there might be said to have begun to emerge a rudimentary party platform centring on the popular concerns of freedom from arbitrary arrest, food, land, debt relief and limiting slavery’s competition with free labour, (Wiseman p.14). This was indirect opposition to the optimates’ support of status quo property rights. Indeed, Wiseman shows that Cicero was aware that his opposition to Caesar’s land laws was an attack on a fundamental platform of the populares’ cause. As Brunt, (p.95), argues, however, the motives of the populares are not relevant. The masses who attended the assemblies had genuine grievances and ambitious politicians, such as Caesar, were able to exploit them to gain support.

The CAH9 (p.138), sees a major basis for a quarrel between the populares and the Senate is being the mismanagement of “imperial” affairs beginning in the second century. The populares stood for efficiency and public spirit in administration in contrast to the corruption that often prevailed. See, for example of pre-optimate Cicero’s prosecution of Verres with its background of corruption and oligarchic cover-up. For the populares, office should be open to all citizens. This was not merely a matter of equity but one of efficiency also. The populares saw the exclusion of men of ability from office on account of background as detrimental to the needs of the Republic. Men of ability were needed, irrespective of background as the CAH9, (p.319), says, success of Marius, the outsider, proved this point.

Cicero, the new man, saw the populares as seditious, (Brunt p.94), in contrast to the optimates who were men of good intention. “Unpatriotic”, “bankrupt” and “insane” were words that Cicero used to describe the populares, (Wiseman p.12). To a large extent, Cicero had a point given, the nature of Catiline, his entourage, and men like Clodius(Wiseman p.12). Indeed, Cicero’s view of Caesar, when he was identified with the populares’ cause, was that he was not only amoral, but actually took pleasure in doing wrong, (Meier, p.483).

Caesar and the Optimates.

The conservative optimates, did not draw their numbers exclusively from the nobility. Both Cicero and Pompey, new men, came to be strong supporters of the optimate cause. Essential to the optimate view of the nature of the Republic was to see the Senate as having a custodial role in defending the liberties and traditions of the Roman people. What the optimates sought in their notion of freedom was the ability to participate in government without fear, (Brunt, p.94). For this reason they wished to limit the power of the popular assemblies. As Wiseman, (p.10), points out, Sulla saw the tribunes and their powers as tyrannical. The opposition to the populares’ programmes of debt reform and land distribution sprang from a deeply held conviction in the sanctity of property rights, (Brunt, p.94). Their opposition to the populares’ land policies was not totally self-serving. Examination of Cicero’s speeches in opposition to Rullus’s land laws reveals a strongly argued patriotic case against the alienation of public land for the settlement of the poor.

It would be wrong to see the optimates as a totally negative and reactionary force. Not only did they have to take the people with them to some extent, they were as concerned with good government as were the populares. Their patriotism was not an issue. It is merely that, as suggested above, they differed fundamentally with the populares over what the nature of the Republic was. This meant that they had no difficulty in anticipating in or initiating what might be seen as populares’ policies. For example, Canfora, (p.28), shows that Cato took measures for efficient grain distribution. As Gruen points out, (p.79), there was no optimate opposition to Caesar and Labienus’s laws for the election to the College of Pontiff’s by popular vote.

But the optimates did not like Caesar. They probably feared him as part of that new manifestation of Roman politics that Morstein-Marx(1) (p.204), identified — the lifelong popularis. In Caesar’s case, this fear was exacerbated by the fact that here was not just a, seeming, lifelong populares, but one backed by the tribunes and an army. The potential for such men to transform Roman political life, shifting the balance of power away from the Senate and the nobility, is obvious

Wiseman, (p .14), argues that the optimates were determined that neither Caesar nor Clodius would ever be allowed to hold office again. Caesar himself, in a letter to Pompey, complains that his enemies were determined to block his candidature for the consulate in absentia which the people had granted, (Adcock, 18). Traditional scholars, such as Stanton, (p.73) were the opinion that a major cause for Caesar’s embarking upon the Civil War is that he feared prosecution. Salmon, (392) goes as far as seeing Cato as ready to bring a prosecution against Caesar as soon as he appeared in Rome as a private person. As Morstein-Marx (2) (61) admits, in dismissing the “prosecution thesis”, the prosecution of Caesar had been discussed in the Senate in relation to his conduct in Gaul, although any indictment of Caesar after his return to Rome as a civilian, Morstein-Marx sees as more likely to have been in relation to Caesar’s misconduct during his consular election campaign.

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From the beginning, the optimates showed an antipathy towards Caesar. They forced the abandonment of his plan for a mission to Egypt, which Canfora, (p.20), sees as a means for the rising Caesar to put his finances in order. Canfora, (p.27) reports even the morally upright Cato approving of electoral bribery to keep Caesar from the consulship.. And again, Canfora, (p.42), reminds us that Plutarch, in his Life of Caesar, documented the virulent optimate campaign against Caesar’s land legislation. Caesar the popularis, was not popular with the optimates. Geltzer, (p.55), goes as far as saying that the optimates bore a hatred towards Caesar born of insight. His enemies argued that most of his acts as Consul were illegal. Geltzer (pp.84, 97) in contrast to Wiseman, emphasizes the discussion of prosecution of Caesar before he crossed the City boundary and gained immunity as Proconsul.

Caesar and the Populares.

As Gruen, (p.47), has argued, neither the popularis nor the optimate grouping in Roman politics represented parties as understood in modern politics. They were merely coalitions which came together at particular times and for particular causes and were based upon family ties and unofficial pacts. As nephew of Marius and son-in-law of Cinna, Caesar was a child of what might be called a “popularis tendency”, (Canfora, p.50) which drew its political support from the lower orders in contrast to an upper-class establishment which was reluctant to give up its power. Canfora, (89), sees Caesar seeking to be seen as the “new Marius” in areas where his soldier uncle had excelled.

From the beginning of his political life, Caesar can be seen as a champion and a favourite of the Roman demos. In the early 80s he collected and trained groups of gladiators in order to amuse the people, (Canfora, p.20). As Geltzer, (p.20), shows, he later went to pains to draw Clodius into his ambit, so as to tap into the popular following that the “born-again Plebean could bring him. On his victorious return after Gaul and Pharsellus he brought to Rome huge quantities of valuable metals collected during his campaigns and had them distributed among the veterans and urban poor, (Geltzer 285).

When he had the unfettered power as dictator, he involved himself in a number of social issues which were pressing in the minds of the poor – the attraction of teachers and doctors to the city and the replacement of slaves on farms, (Myer, p.447). But he was very careful to disband the neighbourhood clubs that Clodius had set up and used as a basis for his influence, for it was clear that here lay a source of opposition to Caesar’s rule.

In his earlier career Caesar had done everything he could to protect the Catiline conspirators, (Geltzer, p 58). Geltzer, even goes as far as to suggest that there is some indication that Caesar knew about the plot, even if he was not immediately involved. Such a notion would make sense, in that one of the platforms of the Catiline policy was the cancellation of debts, and Caesar was heavily in debt before he took up his proconsul ship. Canfora, (p.43), sees Caesar’s opposition to the death penalty for the conspirators as possibly any indication of his populares Sympathies. This would have been a stance that would have been popular with the masses, who stood to benefit from the populist programme of the conspirators. Throughout the trial, Caesar maintained a popularis stance against the death sentence, and as Canfora shows, (p.47), he only backed down when threatened by physical violence.

One of Caesar’s oft stated reasons for crossing the Rubicon was the defence of the rights of the tribunes, (DBC 1.5.3 at). The tribunes had fled to Caesar from fear of a rerun of the fate of the Gracchi, a fear for which there appears to be some justification, (Wiseman 15). Caesar justified his march on Rome as a protection from oligarch cal tyranny, and excuse or not, this was directly in the tradition of popularis concern. Certainly, such a stance is consistent with Caesar’s behaviour as a military Tribune, (Canfora, p.14). It is also consistent with the vengeance that Caesar wrought as Consul on Sulla’s henchmen, (Gruen, p.278). For example, show how Caesar went out of his way to prosecute the aged Rabirius for his role in the murder of a tribune in the time of Sulla. While this may have been a calculated demonstration of Caesar’s attachment to the populares’ cause it was also a justifiable reminder that, while magistrates could act in times of martial law, private men could not take the law into their own hands. Having said this, the Metellus incident had Caesar taking part in a riot in which a traditionally sacrosanct Tribune was manhandled, (Geltzer p.57). Luckily for him, Caesar was able to use the incident to demonstrate that he was a popularis of the milder type who could moderate the passions of the people. Caesar also made demonstrations of anti-optimate spite by, for example, humiliating the venerable Catulus and remaining passive while Bibulus was attacked by the mob during his interruption of his speech by Caesar, (Geltzer, pp.55, 74).

Caesar appears to have been intent upon upholding the honour of his popularis background, (Canfora, p.89). One of his explicitly popularis acts of symbolism was the restoration of Marius’ memorials. Geltzer, (p.38), shows that this shocked optimate opinion, which saw this act as one of naked “demagoguery”. On the other hand, as Geltzer says, it delighted the masses, which it was no doubt meant to do. And it was not without a nod to popularis symbolism that Caesar sought command in Gaul, where his uncle had performed so brilliantly, (Canfora p.89).

One area of popularis concern in which Caesar was active was land provision and redistribution. As Geltzer points out, (pp.82, 283), this activity was not in itself exclusively popularis. Both Sulla and Pompey needed land on which to settle their veterans. Caesar reintroduced land laws aimed at the resettlement of the urban proletariat, reviving similar laws to those attempted earlier by Rullus. This was not merely in the tradition of the populares. There were severe social problems emanating from overcrowding in the City and Caesar’s resettlement solution had the merit of reducing the burdensome expenditure for providing corn, (Geltzer, pp.81-83). And again while in Iberia, Caesar followed a popularis approach to social conditions by cancelling debts, (Geltzer, p.63). He also took a similarly liberal approach in dealing with the problems of overextended Asian tax farmers, (Geltzer, p.75).

Against this catalogue of seemingly popularis motivated policy, Caesar did, on occasions, clearly behave in a distinctly non-popularis manner. Meier, (p.218), shows that as Consul Caesar carried out no games nor did he introduce new corn laws. Geltzer points out, (pp.227, 288), that after the Civil War, popular agitation for social change was violently suppressed and even mild criticism was punished by summary execution. Canfora, (p.271), shows that when, after Munda the populares and veterans began to step up demands for change, Caesar used the rehabilitated old families to suppress them.

Caesar and the Senate.

Meier, (p.448), shows that, throughout his career, Caesar had shown himself as being a hard-working competent administrator. Even the optimates admired Caesar’s Lusitanian campaign, (Geltzer, p.62). For Meier, (p.445), Caesar was an arch technocrat and as such, much of his reaction to the Senate opposition could be written down to the technocrat’s impatience with the obstructions inherent in democracy. Thus Caesar, confronted with a feeble Senate, dominated by the optimates, he came to despise it. As Meier, (p.220), suggests, Caesar probably was not against the traditional order per se. he merely resented its inhibition of “progress”.

Geltzer, (p.79), saw the lengths that optimate Senators went to protect the sacred Roman traditions, of which they saw themselves the guardians, against Caesar’ is innovation as being “grotesque”. The opposition put up by Cato and his followers was totally negative. Cato was the master of the filibuster. He used it against the first attempt to allow Caesar’s election to be carried out in absentia. Later, under Caesar’s rule, Cato tried to filibuster Caesar’s land laws, even though the initial one had been ameliorated so as to make it acceptable to potential optimate opposition. This time Caesar’s reaction was to eject Cato and have him imprisoned. The majority of the Senate followed Cato out and Caesar was forced to take his bill to the Assembly for approval, (Geltzer p.73). On a second occasion, Cato tried the same filibuster tactics against a land bill and was again thrown out and arrested. This time, a chastened Senate left Cato as the only voicing opposition. Caesar had shown himself unwilling to tolerate the optimates’ obstruction and his opponents were shocked by his unscrupulousness in dealing with opposition, (Geltzer, p.93).

Caesar, as Consul, had already shown by the Metellus incident, that he was prepared to use violence in the face of opposition. Further, the rapidity with which Caesar effected Clodius’s transition to plebeian status demonstrated his willingness to cut legal corners and, in this case was intended as a warning to Cicero and other critics, (Geltzer, p.77). It was aversion to a Caesar’s use of violence that made Pompey susceptible to the bridges and arguments of the optimates, (Geltzer p.79). In all his dealings, Caesar showed not merely contempt for the constitution and ancient institutions, he showed himself as contemptuous of the highest offices of state themselves, (Meier, 463).

Caesar as Popularis.

As Canfora, (p.68), argues, Caesar saw the scope of the traditional policies of the populares as in decline. He thus chose to enter into the Triumvirate as a means of augmenting his support without jeopardizing his own power base. This was consistent with Caesar’s policy of drawing a support base from as many different areas as possible, (Brunt, pp.1-92). Early in his career, he spent a lot of money in buying the people’s votes, (Canfora, p.27). Towards the latter part of his career, he increased the number of his supporters by granting Latin rights in citizenships to provincials, (Meier, p.466).

Unlike Pompey, Caesar made his way through the traditional cursus honorum and as such, needed the support of the demos. He achieved this in a very traditional career way, by engaging in popularis activities, (Wiseman, p.30). Popular support was to be had because corruption and maladministration were intolerably rife under oligarch cal rule — see Cicero’s prosecution of Verres. Ranged against this corruption, Caesar’s saw the power of the masses as stronger than than that of the Senate and he courted the formers’ goodwill, (Millar, pp.75-76) and (Mouritsen, pp.36, 43).

Canfora, (p.14), has no difficulty in identifying Caesar as the leader of the populares. He sees him as assuming the role of the most influential representative of the populares after the fall of Catiline. When Caesar finally began to detach himself from popularis politics, it was as the result of a growing aversion at the parasitic condition of the masses and the mob rule perpetrated by Clodius and his like, (Canfora, p.87). After Pharsellus, the break-up of the optimates’ client networks provided an opportunity for Caesar to draw their young into his flloweing, (Canfora, 152). Canfora, (p.271), draws a parallel here with Napoleon, who like Caesar, used new leaders from old families as the new aristocracy in order to resist demands for popular reform from his former allies, (p.271).

The question remains “was Caesar a popularis?” The problem with answering this question is that Caesar’s manifest unscrupulousness, pragmatism and drive for self advancement mask his true character and motives, this was no doubt intentional. For this reason, Caesar has often been written off as a mere opportunist, exploiting the grievances of the masses for his own political ends, but without conviction. But beneath the public man, it is possible to identify, in Caesar, a determined popularis. That he used the masses as a stepping stone to power does not disqualify him from this role. History, not least of all Roman history, is replete with bien pensants politicians who have sought political office through cynical means. That he finally broke with the populares says merely that he was frustrated by the behaviour of the masses but not with the idea of reform. That he had aspirations to a kingship like status also says nothing. History is also repeat with enlightened despots who, like Caesar, frustrated by the inability of democracy to effect reform, have used tyrannical means.

Through all this, however, three beacons of popularis identity shine. Firstly, we know from above, that the populares were as much politicians by caste as by conviction. The young Caesar showed from the outset that he was prepared to defy a violent and cruel dictator — Sulla — in order to remain true to the populares’ traditions of his family. Secondly, in his meritocratic approach to the administration and improvement of Rome’s affairs, Caesar is directly in the populares’ tradition. And lastly, he did consistently identify himself with populares’ policies in a determined manner that demonstrates conviction rather than convenience. The flippant and often superficial Caesar was probably a conviction politician and that conviction was of a distinctly popularis tendency.


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