Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Great Caesar's Ghost in the Penny Press!

A large part of the joy that comes from seeing a trained academic excel at book-reviewing comes from how antithetical those two endeavors are. Yes, in their purest forms, both are trying to teach people something, but given the necessary brevity of even the longest periodical piece, pedagogical aspirations must be narrow. And given the length and cost of school terms, academics expect to get more than one shot at getting their teaching done.

Not so the book reviewer! He has just those 2000 words (if that - so rarely more!) to cover a field, synopsize a book, and make a point about the two ... is it any wonder so many of them fail so miserably? And even those few who manage to succeed - can we really expect that in addition to everything else, they'll also be fun to read? It seems cruel.

So all hail the mighty Mary Beard, who manages to be both a genuine Oxford scholar of the Classics and one Hell of a good book reviewer! In the latest New York Review of Books, she takes a look at three recent books on our old enemy Gaius Julius Caesar, and even for those of you who haven't read the books in question, it's a safe bet Beard's piece makes better reading than any of them (I have read all three, and it does).

And as in so many families, it's the middle child who gets it the worst: the second of her three subjects, Philip Freeman's Julius Caesar, takes it on the teeth for any number of mistakes it's not wise to make in the presence of a Classics don. Beard sums up the choices open to prospective Caesar biographers:

"Caesar: good or bad?" is the question only just under the surface here. Modern commentators might express a similar dilemma somewhat differently. Where on the political spectrum between John F. Kennedy (who is part of the inspiration for Steven Saylor's Caesar, in his detective novels set in ancient Rome) and Robert Mugabe does Caesar most plausibly belong?

Having so elegantly set the terms, she then starts in on Freeman:

Where Freeman must resort to speculation, he tends to be liberal with his cliches (years "dawn," tribesmen are "fearless" or "fiercely independent," blood flows in "torrents"). And he is often inaccurate with the background details, large and small. I know of no evidence, for example, that Romans stored their boots and shoes in the vestibulum (entrance hall) of their houses, or that the pool of water regularly found in the atrium was intended as a fish pond.

But it's when Freeman refers to Caesar as a "boy from the slums of Rome who had fought his way to the top of the political ladder" that he draws Beard's sharpest ire:

This is preposterous. You might possibly tell some such story about Caesar's contemporary Cicero, who really was a "new man" on the Roman political scene - though even he had a comfortable background among the country gentry, rather than among the festering slums. No successful Roman politician in the first century BCE was poor, least of all those who championed the cause of the disadvantaged in the city. Caesar's career, and his rise to power, only make sense if you see him as a man endowed with all the hereditary prestige and advantages of old money. Smart and snobbish Julii, Caesar and his father (who had himself, after all, reached the praetorship, the second-highest office in Rome, after the consulship) would be appalled at Freeman's picture of their lowly background.

Nothing quite so bracing, is there, as a purely British-style 'This is preposterous'!

The same NYRB issue had lots and lots of other good stuff in it, though nothing quite so good as this (although the subject matter may bias me!) ... we'll have to cover more of it, in the days to come!


Greg said...

Looks like she's holding a cigarette!

Hey, can I borrow that NYRB?

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