A Caesarian Section

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).

Categories: By the Bye, Theatre | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dionysius’ Revenge

For the last couple of years I have been making – or trying to make, anyway – a concerted effort to learn about Alexander’s life via the four principle sources (plus Justin) of his life.

Although I still have much to learn I think I am now sufficiently comfortable to now start thinking about expanding my focus a little: forwards, past the Wars of the Successors, which are already part of my reading, to the Successor kingdoms, and backwards, to classical Greece.

To that end, I went this week to see the Almeida Theatre’s production of Euripdes’ Bakkhai.


Euripides wrote Bakkhai – or The Bacchae as it is more commonly called – while living in the court of Archelaus I of Macedon, giving the play a nice point of connexion with Alexander.

In it, King Pentheus of Thebes tries to eliminate the worship of Dionysius in his city only for the god to take a fatal revenge on him. As if the tragedy of Pentheus’ pride is not enough for us, he is (literally) torn to shreds by his own mother, whom Dionysius has maddened along with the women of Thebes and taken into the mountains.

There is no doubt that Pentheus acts foolishly in setting himself against Dionysius; whether he deserves to be killed – and in such a gruesome way – is quite another matter, but the gods of Olympius are not known for staying their hands or acting in a half-hearted matter.


I first read Bakkhai a few years ago. My chief memory of it is that I found the play to be quite a disturbing and uncomfortable one. Too many mad people running around for my taste? Probably – that gave it an air of being a horror show, and I definitely not keen on horror as a literary genre, whether in books or, for example, film. I entered the Almeida, therefore, in trepidation. Would I enjoy it? Would I wake up in the middle of the night afterwards in a cold sweat? The answer to these questions is yes and no. Here is why I enjoyed the production.

This production used a translation of the play by Anne Carson. Perhaps rather cheekily, she has added some lines to Euripides’ text so that the modern world gets a mention. I’m not sure that was wholly necessary but it did not detract from the play and was a nice addition to its humorous aspect.

The Stage
The Almeida is a very small theatre. I sat in the front row and could easily touch the stage with my foot. Okay, I am quite tall so have long legs but believe me when I say you sit very close to the action. And this intensifies it, immeasurably – as if it wasn’t intense enough already. Watching this play was like being in the very middle of an unfolding disaster.

The Actors
The lead role of Dionysius was played by Ben Wishaw. With his slight frame and puppy-dog face he might seem a surprise choice to play the wild and malevolent god but Wishaw made the part his own. He did this in a number of ways: a. by the different ways he used his voice. Proud and firm, dreadful and strong for Dionysius, cockney for a Theban survivor of the god’s revenge b. by the way he acted with his body as well as his voice. For example, when he spoke of religion, Wishaw punched the palm of his hand. That’s the Greek gods to a T. c. Allied to b., by the way he used his face. Wishaw may have a ‘puppy dog’ expression but my goodness, when he narrows his eyes he is as fierce as fire. By-the-bye I am convinced that if he did weight training he would make an excellent Hephaestion to Jesse Eisenberg’s Alexander. At first sight, both men are much too small for such a role but as actors they have an inner fire that I am sure could see them do a better job than Colin Farrell and Jared Leto.

Pentheus was played by Bertie Carvel. Pentheus can’t be an easy part to play as he is rather a straight man to Dionysius’ mad character but Carvel was excellent. Straight back, smug face, full of self-assurance – that’s the Theban king through and through.

The third of the three principle actors was Kevin Harvey who played Pentheus’ grandfather, and first king of Thebes, Kadmos. I really liked his interpretation of the aged king. What really made it for me was just one detail: the way Harvey almost let his tongue hang out of the old man’s mouth. That was a little touch but spoke perfectly to Kadmos’ old and sadly decrepid state.

I can’t move on without mentioning the Chorus. The women who formed it were really, really good both in their singing and associated movements. And the way they whacked their thyrsi on the stage. At that point I really would have preferred to have been sitting a few rows back! It was very fearsome.

I have to admit, during the play I did think to myself – Alexander would have seen this, what did he make of Bakkhai? For me this is a question worth considering as Alexander believed in the Dionysius’ reality. With that in mind, I find it very hard to believe that he would have viewed the play as no more than entertainment. Seeing the god so fearsomely portrayed surely would have made an impression on him. Perhaps we owe to such as Euripides’ play Alexander’s strong religious devotion, which he maintained all through his life.


Being able to visit the theatre is a great privilege. Living so close to one, as I do to the Almeida, makes me doubly lucky. Bakkhai was not only enjoyable on the night, but has giving me new things to think about thereafter; I hope, as well, that it will remind me to go back to the theatre sooner rather than later. With Medea opening at the Almeida later this month, that might just be possible.

Categories: Theatre | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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