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Hail Caesar

 

So Superhuman did Gaius Julius Caesar (100 44 B.C.) seem to later generations that a legend arose that he had been born through an incision in his mother’s body—that is, a “Caesarian section,” which, with the name of the month of “July,” is Julius Caesar’s legacy to the English language.

An undistinguished boyhood followed his legendary birth: Caesar apparently preferred parties to politics and dice to diplomacy. Few saw the ruthless character beneath his frivolous exterior. Cicero, the great Roman orator, was perhaps the first to see tyrannical purposes in Caesar’s plans, although at times even he doubted: “When I look at his hair so artfully arranged, I cannot believe he is the sort of man to overthrow the Roman state.”

First in Spain, then Gaul and Britain, and finally in the civil wars that gave him sole power, Caesar proved himself the greatest general Rome ever had. His main assets were his own boldness and speed and the loyalty of his men, whose hardships he insisted on sharing and who, in turn, revered him. Accounts of Caesar’s bravery, which he surely did little to discourage, approached the mythical. Once, for instance, he supposedly escaped a surprise attach by leaping into the sea and swimming to a nearby ship—while carrying above the water diplomatic documents and dragging his cloak in his teeth so the enemy couldn’t take it as a trophy.

Caesar’s military ability was matched only by his verbal skill. Absent from Rome for nine years while fighting in Gaul, he sent regular reports from the front. His detailed and sometimes thrilling commentaries kept the Romans informed and, not coincidentally, kept his name before them. Caesar may not have invented political propaganda, but he certainly knew how to use it; no modern politician has come up with a better slogan than “I came. I saw. I conquered.”

The myth of Caesar also included his superhuman energy: He could ride all night and fight all day, his proponents claimed, while his detractors pointed to a similar vitality in the bedroom. Even to the pleasure-loving Romans, Caesar seemed highly sexed. Women threw themselves at him (Cleopatra is said to have had herself smuggled into his presence rolled up in a rug), and friends often joked that once Caesar came to power he would make polygamy legal—for Caesar. He was, in the words of one Roman, “every woman’s husband”; yet he was also known as the “only sober man who ever tired to wreck the Roman constitution,” for drink was not among his vices.

Power was, however, and Caesar could not or would not hide the pleasure he took in it; nor would he credit threats of assassination at the hands of senators whose political ambitions he had cut off. At a dinner party one evening, when discussion turned to the ideal death, he said “swift and unexpected.” He got his wish the next day, the Ides of March, when sixty members of the senate struggled with one another to thrust their daggers into his body.

— Excerpted from an article by Marleen Flory.

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