Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator - Does the BBC think viewers need to be patronised into enjoying history?

Finn McRedmond: BBC’s ‘landmark’ documentary Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator seems desperate to turn the Roman emperor’s life into a parable for our times

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” according to the philosopher George Santayana, who was expressing a sentiment also attributed to Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill. In any case, the BBC has clearly taken the warning to heart. A new documentary – sorry, “landmark” documentary – that charts Julius Caesar’s rise to power and his ultimate destruction of the Roman Republic landed on BBC Two on Monday. But it is not just a biography, replete with favourite talking heads such as the A-list historian Tom Holland and the Tory MP turned podcast host Rory Stewart. It is also an argument: if we fail to heed the lessons of Caesar’s wanton iconoclasm and populism, then our own democracy hangs in the balance. How dramatic!

We start in 63 BC as Caesar positions himself for the role of pontifex maximus, the chief high priest of Rome. From there we watch Caesar – painted as a louche and lascivious man – slowly chip away at the senate and the old structures of the republic, form unholy alliances with slippery moneymen such as Crassus and puffed-up generals like Pompey the Great, eventually seize power over the established order and then meet his grisly fate. “Et tu, Brute?” – “Even you, my dear Brutus?” – is Shakespeare’s rendition of Caesar’s final words, after his colleagues stab him to death in the senate. But, of course, this is no spoiler. The spectacular downfall of Caesar stands among the most famous tales of hubris.

So why tell his story again? Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator seeks neither to unearth new material nor even offer a fresh perspective. Instead it attempts to fashion Caesar’s life into a parable. Caesar took advantage of the republic’s unwritten constitution – in essence, little more than a gentleman’s agreement – and in the process changed the entire fabric of the empire. Now, as the world is beset by so-called strong men, and as populism looms – casting a long shadow over Europe – Caesar’s story should remind us how fragile our own institutions are. In fact, if Rome could be “overthrown by the ambitions of one man”, then who is to say whether “modern democracy could collapse” as we appease and yield to the bellicose demagogues of the current day?

It all feels a little neat, a little convenient. But The Making of a Dictator seems desperate to make the case. Caesar is compared to Vladimir Putin, Silvio Berlusconi, Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump. (The art of subtext is somewhat lost on this documentary.) The story “reminds us of our own times,” Stewart says. “I think the Caesar story really is a wake-up call,” the Labour lord Baroness Chakrabarti says. When the senate was burned in 52 BC by an angry horde, it was, according to Prof Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, like the January 6th riots in the US: it was, allegedly, an episode “as terrifying as the spectacle of the Capitol being invaded by an angry mob under Trump”. What’s the Latin for “Drain the swamp” again?


I wonder if the BBC has forgotten that its viewers are capable of thinking in the past tense, that they needn’t be patronised into enjoying history, that they needn’t be spoon-fed superimposed modern morality plays. Because of course we can heed the lessons of history without being told – hectored, even – about all the contemporary parallels. Caesar’s story is one for the ages: of ambition, of wrecklessness, of hubris, of gore and rapacious violence, of wit and cunning, of how even a light breeze can send a house of cards cascading to the ground. That stands on its own, without the need for the constant Trump analogies.

Attempts to equate the Roman Republic with modern day are, at best, lazy history. British society, as just one example, has been worn thin thanks to Brexit, populists such as Nigel Farage, constitutional upheaval and general antagonism leveraged at immigration and status-quo politics. But amid all of that the institutions have stood firm. Power has transferred hands peacefully. Respect for law and order has basically persisted. No proverbial Rubicon has been crossed. To suggest a modern Caesar is biding his time in the wings, ready to strike at any moment, is one thing. To argue that he might actually succeed, in spite of all the checks and balances in place, is quite another. The evidence for the case is rather flimsy.

Because it is hardly worth repeating that the last days of the republic bear strikingly little resemblance to a world with a Nato, a European Union, a United Nations, an internet, and a set of new values and anxieties. But The Making of a Dictator eradicates reality at the altar of doom-mongering. Chakrabarti hammers home the false conceit of the entire series: “If we take democracy for granted, a new Caesar will come.”

One thing is true: the United States is quite closely modelled on the structures of ancient Rome. The neoclassical architecture of Washington, DC, speaks to that fact. But so does the institution of the senate and the language of the Capitol (after Rome’s own Capitoline Hill). Even the favourite catchphrase of the United States’ arch populist has its own echoes in the past. “Ille paludes siccare voluit” – “He wants to drain the swamp” – the great Roman orator Cicero says of Caesar’s demagoguery. And perhaps it is true that Trump might see some of himself in the radical dictator. Stewart describes Caesar as a “disgrace in every single way. He’s immoral, he’s irreligious and he’s a political tyrant.” I can’t imagine Trump disagreeing with any such description of himself. He might even bask in it.

So parallels there may be. But we ought to stop it there. First, because those who consume history can work out the allegories and the metaphors for themselves, without Chakrabarti and Stewart making it so explicit. But, more than that, it does the process of history little favour to suggest that it can be understood only through a modern lens, that the story of a faltering and vulnerable republic is interesting only if we remember it in light of January 6th, or Giorgia Meloni, or Viktor Orbán, or indeed the recent Dublin riots.

The Making of a Dictator is lively, and Holland, the cohost of the beloved Rest Is History podcast, is on predictably quippy and lucid form. It charts the rise of Caesar as an ancient protopopulist. But the marbled halls of Rome and the bloody battlefields of transalpine Gaul are no place to excavate our current political anxieties. We have enough of them already.