Friday, July 2, 2010

So--Who WAS Julius Caesar, Anyway?

A friend of mine told me he had recently had a battle with another friend, a man who happens to be an admirer of that well-known Roman, Julius Caesar.
L. definitely is not. Being reminded of this fact, I said he could have a battle with me, too, if he chose. Caesar was one of my earliest intellectual interests, and remains so.
Why? Good question. I first met the man through the Shakespeare play named for him. There, he is depicted as a kind of political boss who has lost his grip. And I was sure, from the beginning, that this was part of the truth. But only part. How many political has-beens--if that is all they are--have their names ring down through the ages?
I think it is the complexity of Caesar's character, the many facets of it that have come down to us, that makes him so challenging to us even today.
He was not a nice person, to begin with. He did not live in a nice era, which helps to explain it. He was a relative of the popular Roman leader Marius-whose enemy, Sulla, plotted against the young Caesar's life almost from the time he was born. Having to keep your back to the wall at all times is not a prescription for an open, sunny personality.
Caesar also had as a contemporary the Roman general who crucified five thousand of Spartacus's gladiators along the Appian Way, following the defeat of the rebels. They played for keeps in the Rome of that day. For quite a while Caesar was good at playing for keeps, too, although the fate of the Ides of March caught up with him in the end.
It is important to note that Shakespeare never called Caesar "the noblest Roman of them all." As a writer, Shakespeare knew a flawed character when he saw one. He reserved the accolade of nobility for the pompous and nerdy Marcus Brutus--who, according to long-standing rumor, may also have been Caesar's son.
Maybe the really long-term influence exerted by Caesar has to do with ideas of his which were unorthodox in his time--some of which continue to shape our world. He was inquisitive, and he followed up on these ideas.
For example: Although the Caesar family was of ancient nobility, it was also down on its luck when young Julius came on the scene. Its home was in a poor section of Rome, right across from the city's only synagogue. Caesar inquired about this group of Jews, and became its protector. Somebody I have read recently--it may have been Tom Holland in "Rubicon"-- observes that the real sound of Rome following Caesar's assassination was not that of the howling mobs depicted by Shakespeare. It was of Jewish voices raised in lament for their friend.
Caesar's interest in the Jews shows a kind of broad and humane intelligence that I--and, I am sure, many other moderns--find appealing.
He also is credited with, in a sense, "inventing" Europe. Roman magistrates, leaving office, had come to be in the habit of leading military expeditions to eastern climes, to plunder and pillage them, enrich themselves, and (maybe) win a triumph when they returned to the capital.
Caesar instead turned to Gaul, toward the northwest, which through his efforts became an integral part of the Roman Empire--some would say the most important part during the early imperial days.
He and his men also were the first Romans to set foot in Britain, whose inhabitants--fed in part by distant historical memories, no doubt --one day would develop imperial aspirations of their own.
Who was your Julius Caesar? The sordid, power-grasping politician who lost his grip? The intellectually curious and often constructive visionary who helped shape our world of today?
Mine is both of these; and more--and less--besides.

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