May 13, 2009


Spinning Caesar's murder: Putting the ideology – and the people – back into our understanding of Roman political life (Mary Beard, 5/13/09, The Times Literary Supplement)

The watching senators, several hundred of them, were at first stunned by the attack. But, as soon as Brutus turned away from the body to address them, they regained their wits and took to their heels. In their flight from the Senate house, they must have almost bumped into the thousands of people who were just at that moment pouring out of a gladiatorial show in a nearby theatre. Hearing rumours of the murder, this crowd too panicked and ran home, shouting “Bolt the doors, bolt the doors”. Meanwhile Lepidus, a leading Caesarian loyalist, left the Forum to rally the troops stationed in the city, just missing the blood-stained assassins who turned up there to proclaim their success – closely followed by three loyal slaves carrying Caesar’s body home on a litter, with such difficulty (you really need four people to carry a litter) that his wounded arms trailed over the sides. It was two days before the Senate dared to meet again, and perhaps another two before Caesar’s body was cremated on a bonfire in the Forum.

Shakespeare’s version of the confusion, in Julius Caesar, is not far short of the truth – though the murder of Cinna the poet, which Shakespeare based on the Greek biographer Plutarch’s account of events, does not pass Wiseman’s scrutiny. For him, this ghastly case of mistaken identity (“I am Cinna the poet . . . not Cinna the conspirator”, as Shakespeare put it) comes from one of Livy’s additions to the story. Livy himself, he suggests, probably took it from some lost Roman drama on Cinna the conspirator and on the aftermath of the assassination more generally. Wiseman has become renowned for “reconstructing” lost plays to fill gaps or explain puzzles in the Roman historical narrative. Here he is typically ingenious, yet implausible. Intriguing as it would be to picture the ancient Romans themselves sitting down to watch a tragedy on Caesar’s death, or to trace a memorable scene in Shakespeare back to a scene in an ancient Roman play, there is no evidence whatsoever for any such thing – beyond the fact that some incidents recorded in the historical accounts of the period are so vivid that it is easy to imagine them in performance or in dramatic form. But “dramatic” writing exists both off and on stage. There is no strong reason here to suppose a direct reference back to the theatre at all.

What is certain is that, within a few months, the assassins managed to give this chaotic mess a positive spin, and to recast an almost bungled murder into a heroic blow against tyranny. In 43 or 42 BC, Brutus, who had negotiated an amnesty and safe passage out of Rome, issued what was to become the most famous Roman coin ever minted. It carried an image of two daggers, and between them a “cap of liberty” or pileus, the distinctive headgear worn by Roman slaves when they were freed. The message was obvious: through the violence of these daggers, the Roman people had gained their freedom. Underneath was written the date, “Ides of March”. Despite the political failure of the assassination in the medium term (Caesar’s nephew Octavian soon established exactly the kind of one-man rule that the assassins had wanted to destroy), the Ides of March became as resonant a date in ancient Rome as July 14 in modern France. In fact, when Galba, the elderly governor of Spain, led a coup in AD 68 against the corrupt, murderous and possibly mad Emperor Nero, he issued a copy of Brutus’ coin, showing the same two daggers and a “cap of liberty”, with the slogan “The Liberty of the Roman People Restored”. Caesar’s murder, in other words, offered a template for resistance to imperial tyranny more generally.

If you watch Ridley Scott's Gladiator for a second time--having gotten over your disgust at the historical distortions the first--you get a feel for how thoroughly the Anglosphere has incorporated that template from our Roman forbears.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2009 6:00 AM
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