Friday 30 March 2012

I Just Don't Get ... Julius Caesar by Eleanor Updale

Julius Caesar
Silly old geezer.
Caught his head in a lemon squeezer.

For a long time that was the sum-total of my knowledge of the man. Somewhere along the line I learned a little more: Veni Vidi Vici / The Ides of March / Et tu Brute, etc. In childhood, my mental picture was of a man who lived amongst ruins, shared his bathwater, ate lying down, and dressed in a sheet. He was one of the reasons Latin homework was such a trial: all those translations about soldiers 'making a sally' (whatever that was) from a book called Caesar's Gallic Wars. In those days there were no Horrible Histories or Caroline Lawrence books to bring the Roman world to life. I have no recollection of anyone telling us what 'Gallic' meant (I dare say they did, but I can't have been listening, and probably assumed it was Latin for 'boring'). I certainly showed no initiative about trying to find out more. All I learned from those 'unseens' was that Caesar spent a lot of time crossing rivers and gathering corn. Big deal.

By the time we were reading Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar' in English lessons, it seemed to me utterly understandable that the Bard chose to dispose of JC himself near the beginning of the play. From that day to this, I have heard nothing to raise my level of interest in the man, not even when, three times in three years, I underwent the medical procedure which (mistakenly, I'm told) bears his name. And it seems I am not alone: a quick Internet tour suggests that no one else is particularly excited about him either. His online presence is a mighty virtual yawn.

He's like his salad: A classic, but hardly likely to become the focus of an obsessive craving.

So here I am, asking for directions. It's shameful that I can't even muster the energy to make a case against JC. I know that my lack of interest is founded on ignorance and prejudice. I'm sure that a man who dominated Europe, crushed Republicanism in Rome, and slept with Cleopatra ought to be fascinating. I'm ready to be converted. If there's a Caesar fan out there, please tell me what I have been missing, and point me in the direction of the book or website that will light my fire.

This is one of a series of occasional posts in which a History Girl chooses to write about a character in history that she just "doesn't get."  We expect these views to be challenged by our readers, even other HGs - Caroline?


Susan Price said...

Can't help, I'm afraid. I'm a little grateful to the man for writing all that's really known about the Druids (if it can be trusted) but that's the sum of my interest in him.

Jodie said...

Conn Igullden's Emperor at the Gates series is bound to get you (and Brutus features heavily if you still can't get into the JC love).

Caroline Lawrence said...

I totally agree, Eleanor. Caesar is boring. Even having read great books by Steven Saylor and Coln Igguldson I just don't get the appeal. Maybe because he's all about the Politics!

P.S. Now Mark Anthony, there is someone I'd love to meet!

Nick said...

No no no. Caesar is fascinating. And for the reason that Caroline hates him - the politics. Plus the wars. Perhaps it is a boy thing. I like Colleen McCullogh's portrayal of him. Sure he is stuffy and full of his own importance but that all adds to his appeal.

Mark Anthony however. What a dullard. Drunken womaniser. Exactly what we hate in our current politicians. I think of him as the George Best of Roman. Great potential but wasted it all and then is loved by everyone because he could drink a lot. What a guy!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Nick, please can you tell the P.K.Pinkerton in me: Why do men love politics so much? Does it go back to the alpha male in the primate pack thing? Or what? :-)

Judith Geary said...

I suspect Caesar's own writing won his place in history. Gaius Marius made a greater impact on the future Empire by "breaking" the provisions of the mos maorium and reforming the legion. But Marius wasn't a writer. Caesar's adventures ranged far and wide if we can trust reported gossip -- wife to every husband and husband to every wife, being captured by pirates -- so I think I'd consider him a fascinating person-- but mostly in ways that wouldn't make it into children's school books.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Oh yes, I do love the story about him being captured by pirates as a cocky teenager! :-)

Narukami said...

Gaius Julius boring? Never!

Considered one of the greatest orators of his day (by none other than Cicero) and the greatest writer of Latin prose (by scholars today) his military campaigns were studied by Napoleon and are still taught at Military Academies like West Point.

Gaius was also quite the lover. As his legionaries sang during Caesar's triumph:

"Watch Out Rome!
Lock up your wives and daughters.
Here comes our bald whore monger.
Every woman's husband and every man's wife."

The many Caesars who followed could only hope to live up to the vigorous example set by Julius. Few succeeded. For most of the later emperors this following well applies:

Here lies fat Caesar
Who really was an old geezer.
He died of a massive seizure,
Brought on by his life of leisure.

Juliette said...

Caesar is fascinating! Both he and Octavian suffer from historians being too nice about them I think. They were a pair of psychopaths who literally took over the known world. When they're portrayed as distant, Imperial figures, somehow the reality of what they're doing gets toned down I guess, but they're absolute megalomaniacs.

Also, Caesar was incredibly merciful to his defeated enemies, which is weird too. Surely he could have predicted that Brutus, Cassius and his other former enemies might have decided to get rid of him? Suetonius thinks he almost wanted to die at the end - he'd run out of steam and almost invited it. did he? I think that's fascinating.

Plus there's his affair with Cleopatra (not the looker, according to Plutarch, but a great conversationalist - as Caroline mentioned in The Beggar of Volubilis) and the fact he brought the Egyptian leap year system to the rest of Europe.

In conclusion, Caesar is awesome! In a totally scary, dictatorial way.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Juliette can I be in your class? :-)

Leslie Wilson said...

As far as I know, he was a man who began the process of turning a republic - admittedly an oligarchical one, but anyway - into a monarchy. Bad idea, in my view.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

I'm with Juliette--boring??? Julius? No way. From boo-hooing into his toga when he realized he was older than Alexander yet hadn't achieved half as much, to nailing anything that moved, he's always been a fascinating character.

The guy lived large and gambled BIG, with world-altering consequences. One of the more interesting aspects of his story is that he was killed WHILE Cleopatra was in his villa with their love-baby in tow (upon his invitation, of course).

There were lots of reasons many wanted him dead but I believe his gall in bringing his foreign lover to Rome--while still married to Calpurnia--was the last straw for the conservative pearl-clutchers of Rome.

He put up the young Egyptian queen and their baby in his villa outside the city, while going home to his wife Calpurnia inside the city.

The scandal! The outrage! And then he had the nerve to float the idea of a law that would allow him to claim his son by the queen as legit? Uh-uh. Dude had to go. And can you imagine what it was like for the young queen as word spread that her one and only link to Rome had just been shishkabbobed on the senate floor?

Boring? No way! ;-)

Juliette said...

Thanks Caroline :))

They get me on Octavian and Mark Antony in a couple of weeks, that should be fun ;)

Anonymous said...

Erika W.
"Latin is a language
As dead as dead can be
It killed the ancient Romans
And now it's killing me"

This was me until I went back to the wonderful Oxford Latin Course in 3 parts to encourage a grandson and now we sometimes write to each other in poor Latin.

Stephen Barber said...

I felt quite indifferent to JC until I had to read a book of his Gallic War a few years ago in my Latin class. By the end of it I had become filled with a loathing for the man. He was completely indifferent to the Gauls whom he fought: his only interest was to train a private army and increase his fame and glory. He reminded me of Milton's Satan, whom C. S. Lewis once pointedly said was interested in only one thing in heaven, earth or hell - his own position.