Appealing and appalling

Author Barry Strauss says we are fascinated with ancient Rome because the Romans are so much like us and yet so different

Updated - June 10, 2015 03:04 pm IST

Published - June 10, 2015 03:03 pm IST

The play is the thingBarry Strauss says that Shakespeare both helped and hindered our understanding of imperial Romephoto: Oliviero Olivieri

The play is the thingBarry Strauss says that Shakespeare both helped and hindered our understanding of imperial Romephoto: Oliviero Olivieri

Julius Caesar’s assassination in the senate looked through the prism of William Shakespeare has coloured our minds with the poignant cry of ‘Et tu Brutus!’, the soothsayer saying beware the Ides of March, Brutus, the noblest Roman of them all and Mark Antony’s masterful funeral oration. With The Death of Caesar ( Simon and Schuster) Barry Strauss looks at the assassination from the view of the military historian he is. In this email interview, Strauss who is professor of history and classics at Cornell University, talks about the assassination, which was planned like a military operation, the cast of characters and the events that led up to the assassination. Excerpts

Can you comment on the present-day renaissance in Caesar studies?

Caesar was not as common a subject of study in the mid-twentieth century as he had been before. Perhaps the Second World War gave the study of megalomaniacal dictators and conquerors a bad name. And then things changed. The publication of Christian Meier’s excellent biography of Caesar in 1982 was a milestone.

In an interview to Ancient History etc you have said you came to the assassination of Caesar as a military historian. Can you elaborate?

On the one hand, most of my work has been in military history. On the other hand, it struck me that experienced generals played a much bigger role than is usually appreciated in the leadership of the conspiracy against Caesar. Although Caesar’s assassination is sometimes thought of as botched and amateurish, in fact, it was a well-executed operation planned and carried out by men with considerable military experience. They even had a paramilitary support force of gladiators. Those gladiators belonged to Decimus Brutus, a prominent general and one of the three leading conspirators, along with Brutus and Cassius.

Can you tell something about the research process?

The first and foremost part of my research was working through the primary sources and reading, absorbing, and analyzing the considerable and excellent secondary sources. I worked with former soldiers in order to better understand the details of what happened in the senate house on the Ides of March, 44 BC as well as such matters as the Roman military dagger. It was a pleasure to visit archaeological sites and museums in Rome and Italy as well as France and Turkey to look at the sites and archaeological remains of Caesar’s career.

Why is the assassination of Caesar a watershed in world history?

If the assassins had succeeded in maintaining power after the Ides of March they might have saved the republic.Without a dictator or emperor – without a Caesar – in charge, individual and powerful Roman generals might have gone on to carve out separate realms.To take a different tack, if there had never been an assassination, Caesar might have returned from the Parthian War a despot. Instead of a monarchy with certain constitutional limitations, Rome might have become an autocracy. What really did happen occupies a historical middle ground: the assassins killed Caesar but they were killed in turn. The result was a unified empire run by a moderate monarch.

Has Shakespeare's play helped or hindered our understanding of Imperial Rome?

Both! On the one hand, Shakespeare brings the characters to life and demonstrates real insight into motive. On the other hand, Shakespeare introduces a number of distortions by telescoping time, omitting characters and motives, idealizing Brutus and barely mentioning his flaws, passing over the military dimension of the assassination, and underestimating Caesar himself. But in fairness remember that Shakespeare was writing drama, not history.

All the characters from Caesar and Brutus to Antony, Augustus and Cleopatra come across as woefully human with no grand, epic qualities. They are hardly the Colossus who bestride the narrow world. Rather they are the petty men and women on the lookout for the first opportunity for advancement. Comment.

That sounds like an exam question! But seriously, it has a lot of truth in it while being too extreme. It’s a useful corrective to Shakespeare’s idealized version but it goes too far in the other direction. It took epic qualities indeed to conquer Gaul or to dare to murder a man like Caesar in a public place like the Roman Senate. But the same grand people stooped to asking favours for their relatives, to helping themselves to stolen (“confiscated”) property, and to charging usurious interest rates. The Romans were both grand and petty.

For Romans, principle and profit were inseparable. Comment.

As I hinted above, men like Brutus and Cicero wrote letters that go from sublime, high-minded principle to requests for favours for their friends and family. The conspirators turned on Caesar because he threatened the republic and humiliated them but also because he threatened the power they loved to exercise (and which they considered as their right) and, in some cases, because he threatened their property.

Could you comment on the women in The Ides of March?

All credit to Shakespeare for giving Portia and Calpurnia significant roles in his play but they’re not the half of it. Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt, Caesar’s mistress and (she said) the mother of his illegitimate son was living in Caesar’s villa in the suburbs of Rome on the Ides of March. Servilia was one of the most elite and powerful women in Rome, and she was Brutus’s mother, Cassius’s mother-in-law, and Caesar’s ex-mistress as well as the half-sister of Caesar’s most bitter enemy, Cato. Fulvia, Antony’s wife, was the widow of two prominent politicians and she advised Antony on how to run Caesar’s famous funeral. Decimus’s wife Paula influenced him against Caesar.

Why did you choose not to dwell on the story of Antony and Cleopatra?

It is indeed an irresistible story but it’s a separate story, so I saved it for – who knows? – perhaps another occasion.

What is it about ancient Rome that exerts such a powerful effect on popular culture?

The Romans are so much like us and so different. To my mind, it’s the ancient pagan values that stand out and make them fascinating, appealing, and appalling.

Which do you prefer — teaching or writing? Why?

I love them both. I have to give teaching the nod because there’s no substitute for contact with other people, for the intellectual give-and-take, and for the joys and challenges of the student-teacher relationship. But writing is sublime.

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