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A tangled skein from ancient Rome

In a retelling of Julius Caesar's assassination, a leading expert on ancient military history seduces readers with a wealth of detail

Uttaran Das Gupta 

Caesar sa nort: Vincenzo Camuccini (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

Author: Barry Strauss
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 323
Price: Rs 799

Soon after killing Julius Caesar in William Shakespeare’s eponymous tragedy, Cassius, one of the conspirators, declares: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown!” In this meta-theatrical moment, the Bard reveals how assassinations inspire fascination. He would have known: there were multiple plots, real or concocted, to kill Queen Elizabeth I, one of his patrons, and he wrote The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, nearly 1,600 years after the bloody Ides of March. The same fascination has inspired Barry Strauss, professor of history and classics at Cornell University, to write The Death of Caesar.

Assassinations are aberrations, a rupture — to borrow Jacques Derrida’s term — in the texture of power. Spawning myths and legends in their wake, assassinations pose a problem to historians, challenging them to understand and explain events that often defy expectations. Imagine 2,000 years later, a historian trying to unravel the “truth” of the Abraham Lincoln or the John F Kennedy assassination from the tangled skein of mythopoeia that has flourished around these events, or a bemused scholar trying to investigate the numerous attempts to murder Charles de Gaulle, stumbling upon Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. Strauss takes up a similar challenge, and delivers a stellar retelling of what he describes, in the subtitle of his book, as “history’s most famous assassination”.

In his time, Caesar commanded way more power than Lincoln, Kennedy or de Gaulle. A general who subdued the “indomitable” — as immortalised by Goscinny and Uderzo in the Asterix comics — Gauls, burnt his ships on landing in Britain, and declared “Veni, vidi, vici” in Turkey; a brilliant politician who outmanoeuvred Pompey and Cato; a legendary lover who romanced Cleopatra; and an accomplished prose stylist to boot, Caesar was also a dictator in perpetuity and a man made god by the decree of the Roman Senate. Naturally, his assassination is the stuff of legends. It threatened to tear apart the Roman Empire, destroyed the republic that his antagonists so cherished and created a kingship known by his name. Long after the Roman Empire had ceased to exist, Caesar’s legend continued with afterlives in other cultures: the Russian tsar and the German kaiser are derived from his name.

A project like Strauss’s obviously has numerous pitfalls, the primary one being multiple ancient sources that often exaggerate or fabricate, and disagree with each other on significant points. Early in the book, he enumerates his ancient sources — Cicero, who was present in the Senate on the day of the assassination, Nicolaus of Damacus, Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and Cassius Dio — and declares the problem of dealing with them: “Faced with such sources, the historian has to exercise imagination, ingenuity, and caution. Above all, he or she needs to weigh the evidence at every point.”

Jean-Léon Gérôme (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

In a recent interview with The Paris Review, twice Booker winner Hilary Mantel describes how she used invention when the facts ran out while writing her novel on the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety (1992): “My idea was to write a sort of documentary fiction, guided entirely by the facts … I came to a point where the facts about a certain episode ran out, and I spent a whole day making things up.” Strauss doesn’t have this liberty. Though he does hazard a few “educated guesses”, his narrative depends wholly on sources, ancient or modern. When the sources disagree, Strauss often provides the differing versions with his own interpretation, leaving it open for the reader .

Another headwind that Strauss encounters is the familiarity that his readers would have with his story. To counter this, Strauss uses a narrative technique that was dear to ancient playwrights: delayed action. For instance, when Sophocles presented Oedipus, his audience would have been well aware of the trajectory of the tragedy. Yet, the dramatist is able to retain their interest by focussing on the details that lead to the denouement.

Strauss, too, focuses on the military careers of Julius Caesar, his associates — Mark Antony and Decimus Brutus, whom Shakespeare misspelled as Decius and who betrayed Caesar — as well as his antagonists, Marcus Brutus and Caius Cassius. What emerges are fascinating portraits, full of conflicting passions. The women too get a fair share of the limelight, some of the notable ones being Servilia, Brutus’s mother, Cassius’s mother-in-law and Caesar’s mistress; Fulvia, the scheming, politically conscious wife of Antony; and Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen and Caesar’s lover.

A leading expert in ancient warfare, whose previous books include The Battle of Salamis, The Trojan War and The Spartacus War, Strauss also provides fascinating details about Roman warfare. Arguing that the conspirators used daggers to kill Caesar rather than swords, as some sources claim, he writes: “In its construction, a Roman military dagger exemplifies efficiency… . Double-edged, the blade was leaf-shaped, with a slight spine running down the middle, and ending in a sharp tip. Such a weapon was perfectly designed to stab through the human chest, which is, on average, about eight to six inches thick.”

In The Rebel (1951), Albert Camus writes: “All modern revolutions have ended in a reinforcement of the power of the State. 1789 brings Napoleon; 1848, Napoleon III; 1917, Stalin; the Italian disturbances of the twenties, Mussolini, the Weimar Republic, Hitler.” This could be applied to the unfortunate plot of the pro-republic conspirators. Caesar’s assassination did not restore the republic as they had hoped. Instead it led to a free-for-all civil war, establishing Augustus Caesar as the first emperor of the Roman Empire. Strauss concludes: “As long as men and women remember the names of those who killed Julius Caesar, dictators will not sleep safely.” But his book also reminds us of how fragile the notions of republic and freedom are and how the struggle to preserve them often calls for the ultimate sacrifice.

First Published: Sat, April 25 2015. 00:28 IST