The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar
By Bertolt Brecht
216 pages, $31.99
Like Karl Marx before him, the great German writer Bertolt Brecht had a passion for Roman history — and it shines through in the sadly incomplete text of The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar. He researched it for years before first attempting to write it as a play and then turning to the novel form.
Brecht began its writing in exile from the Nazis and it is easy to see parallels in the ancient class struggles and those in pre-Hitler Germany. He brings to life the complexities of Rome on the cusp of turning from Senatorial rule, with its messy political struggles, to rule by emperors.
Essentially, Roman society was being torn apart by the economic power of the slave system. Slaves hauled back from foreign conquests were displacing small peasants and urban craft workers while the rich lived a totally degenerate existence above them.
All parts of Roman society were distorted by the very success of its slave-based economy. The more foreign slaves provided the workforce, the more alienated and violent became the unemployed citizens — the proletariat — and the more deranged and removed from reality became the ruling elite.
There were many different factions slugging it out and Caesar was a player, though not a very adept one by Brecht’s account.
In his early days, Caesar was a champion of the poor, using his powers as an attorney to represent them in the courts. Though, as Brecht makes clear, the artful way to success in the Roman courts was through bribery, not rhetoric.
Getting rich in Rome meant creaming profits off foreign wars. Caesar tried his hand at that after failing as a land speculator — and seized power essentially as an afterthought.
Brecht has a great time depicting Roman sexual mores. The ancient Romans were very free in their sex lives and didn’t fuss much about the gender of their partners. The vigorous intertwining of sex and money is a recurring element shown in every level of society.
Brecht’s writing stops abruptly at page 192 and the reader has to be content with a summary of his notes for the rest of the story.
As an allegory of Germany in the lead up to Nazism it is very compelling, but stands on its own two feet as a historically accurate novel. And the 21st century reader can’t help but see comparisons with our own time.