- Caesar: A Life in Western Culture
With this splendid book, Maria Wyke solidifies her standing as our leading student of the European and, more generally, of the Western reception of Julius Caesar. Here she has written what she describes as a "metabiography" of Caesar, an account of selected episodes in his life viewed in terms of their subsequent appropriation, in different media and at different historical periods and by different cultures, within the Western tradition—often for markedly different purposes. She tends to begin her analysis with Caesar himself, who was nothing short of artful in his representation of his own actions ("Julius Caesar himself lived and wrote his life with a view to its future reception," p. 20), turning swiftly to other ancient interpretations of the same events, which are followed by examinations of later adaptations in quite different cultural registers. In the shifting meanings that different individuals, in varying periods, have invented or expressed in their reactions to Caesar, Wyke isolates important elements from their contemporary ideas and realities, illustrating the versatility of Caesar's resonance and striving, in the process, to shed some light on our present as well. She does not cover every aspect of Caesar's career, but she overlooks none of the highlights: his conquest of Gaul, the civil war, his relationship with Cleopatra, his triumphs, his dictatorship and assassination, and, finally, his elevation to divine status. She opens her book, however, with a brief rehearsal of Caesar's historical importance and his lasting cultural impact (pp. 1–21), after which she examines in detail one of the less familiar episodes from Caesar's life, his abduction by pirates.
This chapter can exemplify her approach. When he was a young man, Caesar was captured by pirates. At the time, he exhibited a remarkable indifference to his personal jeopardy, instead urging his captors to increase their (in his estimation) unambitious demands for his ransom and, during his actual captivity, engaging in literary composition and oratorical exercises (he had been traveling to Rhodes in order to continue his rhetorical education when he was seized). He never attempted to disguise his contempt for his abductors; on the contrary, he frequently threatened to have them crucified. After his release, he proceeded to hunt them down, arrest them, and, fulfilling his promise, crucify all of them—without official assistance or even official authorization. Wyke situates our information about this youthful exploit (Caesar was in his mid twenties) within the conventions of ancient biography (childhood stories were rare, and in any case ancient biographies employed episodes from an individual's youth mainly to adumbrate [End Page 503] his future behavior—not to explain his personal development). She makes the important observation that Caesar must himself be the original author of this story (there is no obvious alternative), a point that leads her to contrast Caesar's purposes in reporting his encounter with the pirates (presumably to illustrate his aristocratic virtues—courage, confidence, and culture—and powerful resources of a very personal nature) with those of later (but still ancient) writers, for whom the story has different uses. Valerius Paterculus, for instance, writing under Tiberius, saw in Caesar's action and the state's ineffectiveness evidence of the future emperor's decisiveness and justice, which he could contrast with official inertia, thereby implicitly illustrating the centrality of the emperor for the health of the state. The biographer Suetonius, by contrast, by adding the detail that, before they were crucified, the pirates' throats were slit, could cite the story as proof of Caesar's natural clemency ("gentle Romans"). And so on.
Later versions reveal very different responses. Unlike his ancient predecessors, the nineteenth-century Italian artist Bartolomeo Pinelli apprehended in this episode the traces of Caesar's vices: "arrogant self-sufficiency, reckless bravado, bloodthirsty cruelty and, crucially for Pinelli, imperiousness" (p. 27: Wyke includes his illustration on p. 25), because Pinelli saw in Caesar's rise the loss of republican liberty and the beginning of tyranny. This chapter goes on to explore this episode's deployment in...