Disproving Shakespeare: The greatest Roman in literary fiction (Column: Bookends LVII)

By Vikas Datta (09:46) 

Only a few historical figures retain their renown in the relentless march of time, with one yardstick being widespread, continuing depictions across various cultures. Two of these are prominent figures from the ancient Graeco-Roman world, but their legacy is enduring – one’s name is still used for a victorious champion (especially in the Indian subcontinent) and the other’s for a monarch in his own land as well as wide swathes of Europe and Asia down to the modern age, still names a month and is forever linked with today’s date (or the Ides of March).

Their historic achievements apart, both Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) and Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) also had a major cultural impact – right from their own eras down to the present – in literature and later in film, TV, comics, radio and even video games.

But while the Macedonian monarch-turned-world conqueror has become more of a legend – figuring in folklore, scriptures of three religions (Judaism), Christianity (some denominations) and Islam (though opinion is divided if he is the Quranic Dhul-Qarnayn), epics like “The Alexander Romance” (by an unknown author), Ferdowsi’s “Shahnameh” and then starring in “Iskandernameh”, the Roman general and statesman remains mostly grounded in fact. This could be due to the survival of much of Caesar’s own writings and accounts of his contemporaries as well as the more lasting nature of his accomplishments.

The most-known works featuring Caesar are William Shakespeare’s eponymous play of 1599 (though he appears only in three scenes but gives us some memorable lines), and the Asterix the Gaul comic series, where he is the principal – but honourable and long-suffering – antagonist. This depiction draws quite on his real persona – including inclination for decisive action, legendary temper, eloquent speech and habit of referring to himself (in his works) in the third person. Another comic appearance was in MAD’s “MAD Clobbers the Classics” section (as Julius Seesaw along with Mock Agony, Brutish, Cautious and others).

But Caesar has a wider appearance in other significant literature of the Western world – in his lifetime, he figured in the popular poems of Catullus, and in the next century (the first century after Christ), in Virgil’s epic “Aeneid” and Lucan’s poem “Pharsalia”.

In the medieval era, he figures in Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” where Canto IX shows him in a section of Limbo meant for virtuous non-Christians, along with some other Greeks and Romans (though assassins, Brutus and Cassius and lover, Cleopatra, are among souls of the wicked in the lower regions of hell) while his civil war and assassination figure in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” (the “Monk’s Tale”). Closer to our time, is George Bernard Shaw’s play “Caesar and Cleopatra” (1898).

He is no stranger for modern fiction – and has mostly a positive role but not always. One of the first to feature him – but as a villain – was Talbot Mundy’s historical (with some fantasy elements) novel “Tros of Samothrace” (1934) where Caesar (and Roman civilization’s) depiction as imperialistic and tyrannical kicked off a furious debate in letters’ section of newspapers.

Then there is American author Thornton Wilder’s epistolary novel “The Ides of March” (1948), dealing the events leading to his assassination but with some poetic licence – and latitude (as the author admits) and likewise in Italian author Valerio Massimo Manfredi’s 2008 novel of the same name.

But a definitive work – quite close to history as possible – is the seven-volume Masters of Rome series by Australian writer Colleen McCullough, which spans most of the Roman Republic’s turbulent last century (c.110 BC-27 BC). Caesar comes onstage towards the end of the first book “The First Man in Rome” (1990), figures in “The Grass Crown (1991)”, takes centrestage midway through “Fortune’s Favorites” (1993), stars in “Caesar’s Women” (1995), and “Caesar (1997), and bows out in the middle of “The October Horse” (2002). On public demand, McCullough brought out “Antony and Cleopatra (2007)” as the series’ definitive ending.

British writer Conn Iggulden’s Emperor series – “The Gates of Rome” (2003), “The Death of Kings” (2004), “The Field of Swords” (2005), “The Gods of War” (2006), and “The Blood of Gods” (2013) take a considerable amount of liberty with facts – making Caesar and Brutus contemporaries – but is still readable if this doesn’t bother you.

A soldier’s point of view is the basis of two six-volume series – British writer S.J.A Tuney’s “Marius’ Mules” (2009-14) as well as American writer R.W. Peake’s “Marching With Caesar” (2012-13) (and two related novels including “Caesar Triumphant” (2014) on the premise Caesar avoids assassination and his subsequent career).

“The evil that men do lives after them/The good is oft interred with their bones..” was his lieutenant Mark Antony’s funeral peroration in Shakespeare’s play but Caesar’s literary role proves the Bard wrong!

(15.03.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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