Friday, March 05, 2010

The Ides!

Our book today is Stephen Dando-Collins’ new work of history, The Ides: Caesar’s Murder and the War for Rome (John Wiley & Sons, 2010). When last we saw Dando-Collins anywhere in the vicinity of Open Letters, he was being good and properly mauled by angry young freelancer Ascanio Tedeschi, who read his previous book, Blood of the Caesars, with mounting incredulity and rage. At one point in his scathing attack, Tedeschi makes some passing comment to the effect that Dando-Collins had previously written fairly worthy histories – that it was only this particular one that was aneurysm-inducing. But Tedeschi didn’t dwell on those other histories; he was hot on the trail, slavering for the blood of an author who’d overstepped all bounds of believability. Editorial policy at OLM is to first check to see that a freelancer has all their rhetorical ducks in a row – and then to stand back, let them hammer away at their victims, and try not to get any of the viscera on the furniture.

But the fact is, Dando-Collins has written some interesting, worthy histories in his career (his accounts of various Roman legions are meticulously researched and quite interesting), and his latest, The Ides, is therefore a return to form. At no point does he hypothesize that, for instance, it was a stand-in for Caesar who was killed on that bloody Ides of March; at no point does he speculate that perhaps all of the assassins were illegitimate offspring of Caesar. In fact, The Ides contains very little speculation at all – it’s mostly just sturdy summarizing done almost exclusively from ancient sources, with a little modern historiography thrown in and quite a bit of intense scrutiny of timelines and possible motivations. Dando-Collins seems to invite ambivalence with the first of his endnotes, in which he enigmatically reminds us, “The noted British historian Sir Ronald Syme once said that if history is to be written at all, it must be written with the violent and complex reality of serious fiction” – but The Ides is almost entirely facts, and even the quasi-philosophical theorizing is fairly harmless:
Caesar opened historical floodgates, washing away the old democratic system. Modern scholars suggest that the republican ideal for which Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero gave their lives was an illusion, that one strongman or another would always rise to power within Rome’s republican system. Perhaps so. But after taking power, Sulla soon bowed to the system and retired, and Pompey was tamed by it. Only Caesar overthrew the system, and buried the ideal. And to this day many a patriot, misguided or not, still will give his or her life for an ideal.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on 15 March 44 B.C. took about ten minutes from start to finish, and Dando-Collins has a whole book to fill, so there’s quite a bit more of this ‘perhaps so, perhaps no’ type stuff, including the age-old school-debate topic of whether or not it was wrong for Brutus & Co. to kill him in the first place. The assassins said they were acting in defense of Rome, removing a man who’d become a monster – and Dando-Collins is ready to mostly agree with them:
There can be no escaping the fact that by any definition Caesar was a tyrant: he gained power in a bloody premeditated coup; employed brutal force; suppressed democracy; and, brooking no opposition, ruled through fear. Furthermore, he may have been a tyrant suffering from brain disease who had come to think of himself as immortal. However, at a distance of more than two thousand years, and without an accurate medical diagnosis, we can only speculate on the state of his mental health.

(That bit about Caesar’s mental health is the closest the author comes to an outlandish theory this time around; he wonders if in addition to – or perhaps even instead of – being epileptic, Caesar had some kind of brain imbalance that would account for several of his recorded behaviors)(That there was never a more completely, horrifyingly mentally balanced human being in the history of the world is patently clear from the ancient first-hand evidence, and no doubt Dando-Collins sees that, but as noted, he’s got a book to fill up)

And there are some good insights here, stuff that will entertain and intrigue the student new to these matters, including a little speculation on that other age-old question – what did the assassins really want:
The most striking thing about the more than sixty assassins is that inputting their lives on the line to join the conspiracy, none asked for anything; all were content simply to take the appointments that Caesar had laid out for the next five years. They merely wanted to be ride of Caesar, the man Cicero described as “odious.” Only a barely concealed hate of Caesar and a driving lust for his removal can explain why the assassins were blind to what would follow his death.

No, there’s nothing in The Ides to incite the anger of a passionate young freelancer. This is a sturdy, well-done recounting of a pivotal event in Roman history, and any reader not already familiar with this very familiar material could do a lot worse than to choose this book as their introduction to it. Just don’t tell Tedeschi.

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