Ancient Rome has been much on my mind this week.
Last Monday, I watched Mary Beard’s overview of the life of Julius Caesar on the BBC iPlayer. At the time of writing, it is still there for another 24 days.
The programme is a one hour long one off special; Beard, so the blurb says, ‘is on a mission to uncover the real Caesar, and to challenge public perception’ of the Roman general.
As for ‘the real Caesar’, he turned out to be rather similar to the general that I already knew from past reading. I say ‘rather’ in the English sense of ‘very’, meaning, just the same.
As a result of this, my perception of him was not challenged. In terms of shedding new light on Caesar, the programme was at its best when Beard looked at his influence on world leaders since – with special reference to President Trump. Both present(ed) themselves as the champion of the people, both set themselves against the ruling elite (while in one way or another being part of it). Both make/made use of catchy slogans – Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I conquered) and Make America Great Again.
Personally, I feel Julius Caesar was a much smarter man than Donald Trump and may even have been more sincere in his efforts to improve the life of Romans but apart from Caesar’s Footprints by Bijan Omrani (a book that I can whole heartedly recommend) it has been a long time since I really engaged with ancient Rome so take my opinion with a pinch of salt.
Mary Beard is quite a mumsy figure, she has an impish smile and a lot of enthusiasm. She reminds me a lot of Michael Wood. She is now in her 60s and if I have her happy spirit when I reach her age I shall consider myself very fortunate.
The one criticism I have of the programme is that it was too short. One hour. One episode. For a life as rich as Caesar’s that’s no time at all. Therefore, if you are a student of ancient Rome and know about him already, Mary Beard’s documentary will not likely reveal anything new to you. If, however, your knowledge of him goes as far as the tourists she interviews at the start of the programme – they knew Caesar was assassinated and that was about it – then the programme will be an ideal introduction.
Now, on a blog about Alexander, why do I mention Julius Caesar? Well, there is a point of connection between the two:
… in Spain, when he was at leisure and was reading from the history of Alexander, he was lost in thought for a long time, and then burst into tears. His friends were astonished, and asked the reason for his tears. “Do you not think,” said he, “it is matter for sorrow that while Alexander, at my age, was already king of so many peoples, I have as yet achieved no brilliant success?”
(Plutarch Julius Caesar 11)
Mary Beard not only mentions this anecdote but says that writers and artists have ever since used it to mark the turning point of Caesar’s life – the moment when he ceased to be Caesar the man and became Caesar the mighty figure of history that we know today.
There is also another reason why I mention him. After watching Beard’s documentary, it occurred to me that perhaps there is also a point of connection between what happened after Alexander’s and Julius Caesar’s deaths.
Caesar was assassinated. Alexander may have been, but either way, he died and his generals were left to pick up the pieces. If I remember correctly, in Rome, Brutus et al had no programme at all for what to do after Caesar’s murder; they simply expected things to go back to how they were before. Unfortunately, they reckoned without the guile of Octavian and cunning of Mark Antony. Alexander’s phalanx wanted the old (Argead) order to continue and a few of the generals tried to ensure that it did but after the latter had been eliminated, the past was finally over; now, it was a fight, either to the death or until a settled order could be achieved. Three hundred years later, the same thing happened. The old order, as represented by Brutus and Cassius died at Philippi, and with the removal of the irrelevant Lepidus it was a fight to the finish between Octavian and Mark Antony. But whereas Alexander’s generals eventually managed to come to an understanding with each other that allowed the ‘funeral games’ to end, Octavian and Mark Antony were two suns who, as Alexander knew, could not both exist. In both cases, the deaths of Alexander and Caesar, and the subsequent bloodshed, led to the creation of a new order – the Hellenistic Age and the Roman Empire.
In writing the above, I am mindful of the fact that – as I said earlier – it has been a long time since I read about Rome, especially the post-Caesar period, so forgive me if I have got anything wrong (and feel free to provide a correction in the comments).