“Dark-eyed and silver-tongued, sensual and violent… ” – The Death of Caesar by Barry Strauss

June 2, 2015 at 12:50 pm (Book review, books, History)

DeathofCaesarJacketImage  Julius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play that I came to love. So this book was a joy to me, elucidating as it does the actual events leading up to and following one of history’s most famous assassinations. (That early attraction was probably the result of having had a terrific Latin teacher when I was in the ninth grade. Mrs Gelber – I didn’t know I remembered her name until I began writing this – made the ancient world come alive for her lucky students. All these decades later, I can still recall dressing two dolls in a toga and a tunic respectively, for a class project.)

Even more importantly, I gained a sense of who Julius Caesar actually was and how he fits into the template of Roman history.

Bust_of_Gaius_Iulius_Caesar_in_Naples

This bust of Caesar resides in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. I was there in 2009. It’s a very fabulous place, but I don’t have a specific memory of seeing this sculpture.
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The other players in this drama are brought vividly to the fore. Some, like Mark Antony, we already know – or thought we knew…

While he spent the next year in the East, winning allies, raising money, conquering rebels, and wooing a new mistress, Caesar sent Antony back to Rome. There Antony arranged for Caesar to be dictator for the year and for himself to be Master of the Horse (Magister Equitum), as a dictator’s second-in-command was called. This was Caesar’s second dictatorship. It dismayed lovers of liberty. Meanwhile, traditionalists took offense at Antony’s rowdy and degenerate lifestyle, which he resumed with abandon. The sources speak of wild nights, public hangovers, vomiting in the Forum, and chariots pulled by lions. It was hard to miss his affair with an actress and ex-slave with the stage name of Cytheris, “Venus’s Girl,” since she and Antony traveled together in public in a litter.

After his divorce, Antony married Fulvia, a woman who was his match in more ways than one:

Of all the powerful women of the era, Fulvia is in a class of her own. She alone once wore a sword and recruited an army, which earned her the backhanded compliment of having her name inscribed on her enemy’s sling bullets along with rude references to her body parts. But she did most of her fighting with words. A populist through and through, Fulvia married three politicians in turn: the street-fighting demagogue Clodius, Curio— a People’s Tribune who supported Caesar— and finally and most fatefully, Antony. Antony’s enemies claimed that Fulvia controlled him, which is not true. But this strong woman probably stiffened his spine and she almost certainly shared with Antony the political skills learned from her two earlier husbands.

Julius Caesar was an immensely complicated man. Strauss’s succinct enumeration of his qualities make that clear:

Coming under the dictator’s inspection could only have been a daunting prospect, even if at fifty-five Caesar was beginning to show his age. He was subject to dizzy spells, possibly a symptom of the epilepsy that brought him infrequent seizures. He was balding. After nearly fifteen years of war, his face was creased and his cheeks sunken. Yet Caesar still was cunning and dangerous. He personified talent, strategy, memory, literature, prudence, meticulousness, reasoning, and hard work, as a contemporary said.

Strauss returns repeatedly to this kind of categorizing, trying to bring to life a man whose life, triumphs, and death have attained a sort of mythical status:

In earlier years, Caesar had been a reforming consul who fought and beat the Senate; a political broker who considered no one his equal except Rome’s then-greatest general, Pompey, and Rome’s then-richest man, Marcus Licinius Crassus. By 45 B.C. Caesar outstripped them both; became a conqueror on three continents; and wrote military commentaries destined to last as literary classics for two thousand years. Caesar was both genius and demon, excelling at politics, war, and writing— a triple crown that no one has ever worn as well. Caesar lived in a society in which modesty was not a virtue. He was what Aristotle called a great-souled man— one with high-flying ambitions and no small opinion of himself. He believed in his intelligence, versatility, and efficacy. He lacked neither courage nor nerve, and his appetite for self-promotion was limitless. As he saw it, he was a political virtuoso with a common touch. He was the man who did everything in the crisis of battle and saved his army again and again. He was stern, fair, and prudent with the enemy, and infinitely merciful to the people of Rome. He stated approvingly a belief that “the imperator Gaius Caesar deserved well of the republic after all his achievements.”

Strauss provides plenty of background for the run-up to the assassination, but it’s in the moments immediately preceding the killing that his narrative becomes truly gripping. This, and the ghost of Shakespeare hovering over the narrative, had this reader well nigh mesmerized.

There now took place the famous exchange between the dictator and the soothsayer. “The Ides of March have come,” said Caesar. “Aye, they have come but not gone,” replied the soothsayer in one of history’s memorable comebacks.

This is the seminal moment in which the soothsayer speaks truth to power, bluntly informing Caesar in so many words that “it ain’t over til it’s over.” Shakespeare’s version is almost exactly word for word the same; this has always been one of my favorite moments in the play. Fate is hanging heavily over Caesar, who seems curiously oblivious, even cheerful. (Despite having been warned of  imminent danger, he set forth on that fateful day sans bodyguards.)

Barry Strauss examined every source he could find on the assassination, but mainly relied on these five:

 …Plutarch (c. 46-c. 120 CE), Suetonius (c. 66-c. 122 CE), Appian (c. 95-c. 165 CE), Cassius Dio (c. 155-235 CE) and, last but not least, Nicolaus of Damascus (c. 64 BCE-14 CE).

(This information comes from an interview on the site Ancient History Et Cetera.) Shakespeare relied almost exclusively on Plutarch’s Lives. See Shakespeare’s Romans for more information.)

This book is 362 pages long in hard copy. A great deal of space is at the end is given over to photographs, notes, and information on sources. (I read the e-book and nearly missed the photographs, which are marvelous.) It was over too soon. I loved it.

2 Comments

  1. Carol said,

    Sounds like a fascinating book, Roberta.

    I took four years of Latin in high school, but unfortunately had a very “old school” Latin teacher – tough and scary with a sharp tongue. She would never have considered having us do anything other than oral translation in front of the whole class. Luckily I have not run screaming from Roman history since then.

  2. Yvette said,

    I loved this book too. Read it rather quickly to my surprise because I usually slow down when reading non-fiction. Really enjoyed your review, Roberta. But then, I usually do.

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