Cato’s ideal is an oligarchy with slaves; virtue for the privileged few, equality for a select group of men, oppression and dehumanization for the masses. Caesar’s ambition is political energy, development, and social agitation at any price; order and disorder, peace and war, reform entangled with abuse, every good and every evil, rather than the dissolution of the physical city of Rome and the extinction of its vitality.
At first glance, the adventurous genius of Caesar is far more seductive than the rigid stubbornness of Cato, and it may even seem that Caesar represents faith in progress, human dignity, while Cato represents the eternal obstacle to human development and the love of the Rule more more than the love of his fellow men.
However, it is not so. Cato positions virtue in the past, but he believes in it, and he loves it. Caesar laughs at virtue, and suppresses it. The moral ideal is absolutely lacking in Caesar. He has a deep contempt for his fellow men, and that is why he is practical — because he knows how to use them. Cato’s ideal is sublime, but it is too narrowly applied, and he is ignorant of the needs of a new century.
Caesar, a skeptic, legally violates liberty, even while introducing liberty in morals and liberty in actions. Cato, blind socialist, would bind the individual to the State, and he would willingly sacrifice liberty to duty. […]
For all that, I do not see Caesar as a hypocrite sworn to evil from the beginning and offering it as the goal of all his intrigues. No, I see him as a continual spontaneity for evil and for good, an energetic personality, over-stimulated in every sense; gentle in temperament, taking neither pleasure nor pity in his cruelty; a cold and empty heart, with some imagination; a colossal vanity […] dissimulating and careless by turns […] vindictive […] ultimately, a character of much less depth than we imagine, but endowed with instincts that are always on the alert. […] He is a political artist, he sees the beauty in power, and, in the deep, calm pride of a triumph so long awaited and sought for, he says to himself: “Rome is me!”
— George Sand, in her review of the first volume of The History of Julius Caesar by Napoleon III, Univers illustré, March 11, 1865 (adapted by Samantha Pious)