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Julius Caesar, Fortune, and Latin Historiography in Twelfth-Century England



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Forster, Tom Stephen  ORCID logo


This thesis suggests that four twelfth-century English historians – Orderic Vitalis, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Robert of Lewes (as probable author of the Gesta Stephani) – believed that they had identified a schema that could determine who and what was culpable for engendering events that had been unexpected or whose outcomes defied expectation. These historians were amongst the first writers of the period to attribute such events to fortune, fortuna. After discussing what they meant by fortuna, the thesis turns to consider what all of this meant for their understanding of the maximal limits of lapsarian human agency, as articulated by their characterisation of selected kings and magnates as ‘New Caesars’. Chapter One asks why these historians started using the term fortuna and hypothesises as to why certain of their peers did not do so. It demonstrates the post hoc ergo propter hoc patterning that links sin and specific reverses of fortune in the historical narratives and contextualises this according to the historians’ own words on the subject of the higher purposes of their endeavour. It contends that attribution to fortuna was neither a concession of causal intractability, nor an empty rhetorical sleight of hand, nor any inducement to providential scepticism. Rather, that it served to affirm that the vicissitudes that afflicted human affairs had their proper causes in sin, and that a historian’s forensic hindsight could identify which specific sins had engendered Providence’s disposition of specific events or outcomes that otherwise appeared unjust. As patterns emerged, these could be used to blame transgressors but also to interrogate ethical standards and determine where supposedly virtuous human conventions had wandered from God’s infallible justice. The historians’ interest in understanding fortune thus yielded ethical as well as theological insights. These same historians took an especial interest in Julius Caesar. Chapter Two first examines Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contrasting assessments of Caesar’s legacy as articulated by their substantially original narratives of Caesar’s invasions of Britain. It argues that these narratives were chiefly intended as tacit commentary on the Norman Conquest and the means by which unity ought to be pursued. Complementarily, it examines how and why the historians who wrote in the immediate wake of the conquest characterised William, a leader who they suggested was guiding his people to salvation, as a ‘New Caesar’.
Chapter Three argues that while it had been easy for eleventh-century historians to account for the Norman Conquest in the simplistic terms of providential reward for virtue, by contrast the events of William II Rufus’ reign spurred interest in whether analysis of events whose rationale seemed unclear might unveil aspects of the working of the Divine Mind – that is, of truth - that humanity had yet failed to uncover. It is also concerned with the fame that King William II Rufus seems to have attracted for the excellent fortune that attended to him, and which the historians implied had exceeded even Caesar’s famed fortuna Caesaris. In suggesting that at least one of their rulers had experienced the perfect favour of fortune for an extended period of time, the historians had defined a state of agency that could be either terrifying, destructive, and Satanic - a scenario explored in Chapter Four - or unifying, restorative, and Godly - a scenario explored in Chapter Five. Chapter Four questions whether any aspects of the Satanic Caesar, a type familiar in Early Modern literature, might be evident in the four historians’ works, and if so how and why. Chapter Five asks whether what can be reconstructed of the historians’ thinking might have supported the view that humanity could, by grace of God, lift itself out of the lapsarian state. To this end, it considers evidence that shows that at least one of the historians believed that a New Caesar’s agency could restore England to a paradisal state that she would never again lapse from. Later in his life, he wrote to say that he had lived to see it happen. This extraordinary claim is shown to accord with his atypical eschatological views. Synthesising the evidence of the texts with a contextual reconstruction of the historians’ intellectual milieux, especial attention is paid to the theories and ideas that lay behind the historians’ rhetoric.





Watkins, Carl


Julius Caesar, Caesar, William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I, Henry II, King Stephen, Henry of Anjou, William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, Orderic Vitalis, Gesta Stephani, Robert of Lewes, fortuna, Providence, Theology, Norman Conquest, 1066, Virgil, Lucan, Cicero, Ethics, Political Thought, Medieval Literature, Latin, Poetry, Historiography, History, Medieval, Medieval History, Twelfth Century, Twelfth-Century, c12, Fortune, Chance, Contingency, Peripatetic, Stoic, Stoicism, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, Geoffrey of Monmouth, England, Normandy, France, The Anarchy, 1154, 1135, 1100, 1087


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC-Selwyn Scholarship