Petraeus and Lesson from Caesar's Wife

By Barry Strauss

“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” The old proverb comes to mind at the news of the Petraeus affair. There’s a whiff of the last days of the Roman Republic about the sex, lies, and digital abuse scandal that brought down the nation’s spy chief, Gen. David Petraeus, who was also one of our great commanders.

Take a proconsul, treated as a king abroad, who turns out to be human, all-too human back home. Add the disillusionment of a conquering general who discovers that war is easy compared to Washington and its battles for turf. Raise a question mark about what the CIA did, knew, and said about the Sept. 11 murders in Benghazi. Top it off with adultery, G-men with their own agendas, and a strategically timed resignation/firing, and you’ve got a day at the forum and more than one night in a villa. True, the Romans didn’t have e-mail, but we seem to have been spared orgies, so there’s something to be grateful for.

A glance at Caesar’s wife shows that the Romans were way ahead of us when it comes to scandal. The proverb comes from a witty remark made by Julius Caesar after he divorced his wife, Pompeia. Caesar was outraged at her dalliance with a rising young populist politician, Clodius, who made a play for her. Clodius dressed up in drag and crashed an all-woman’s religious festival where she was present. It seems that Pompeia did little to discourage him. Caesar responded with a quick divorce.

Sacrilege was a crime in Rome and Clodius was prosecuted. You would have thought that Caesar would have gone for the jugular. But when called to testify, Caesar played dumb. He said that he knew nothing about the matter. Why then, did he divorce his wife. “Because,” he said, “I thought she shouldn’t even be under suspicion.”

As the philosopher Tina Turner said, what’s love got to do with it? Caesar had his career to think of. As high priest – an elected office in Rome – he really couldn’t afford to live under the cloud of an unfaithful wife. But as a populist politician himself, Caesar couldn’t afford to offend Clodius and his populist friends. So, the choice was obvious: his wife, Pompeia, had to go under the chariot. Clodius, Caesar could live with.

Never mind that Caesar set the gold standard when it came to infidelity. His three marriages didn’t stand in the way of a long-term relationship with his mistress, Servilia. She, in turn, didn’t keep Caesar from taking up with the queen of Egypt, Cleopatra, who was, incidentally, 30 years younger than him. Servilia didn’t take it well, or so we might judge from the action of her son. He had a bone to pick with Caesar on the Ides of March. His name was Brutus.

Just kidding, of course, when it comes to Brutus’s motives. He picked up his dagger to save the Republic, not to avenge his mother’s adultery. But once politics becomes a soap opera, it’s hard to sort things out.

Which brings us back to Petraeus. The issue is not whether he had an affair or not. The issue is whether he opened himself to blackmail. Arguably, Petraeus did just that. 

Unlike Caesar’s wife, the Director of the CIA does not have to be above suspicion. He just has to know how to keep a secret.

Those who conduct affairs by g-mail might remember what Horace said: “Once a word flies out it cannot be called back.”

Barry Strauss is professor of history and classics at Cornell. His latest book is Masters of Command: Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar and the Genius of Leadership (2012).

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