Sullivan’s take on Julius Caesar upends tradition

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Dennis Sullivan, a long-time Enterprise columnist, has written a book about Rome’s struggle to remain a republic. He is pictured earlier this month receiving the Arthur Pound Award from Sarita Winchell, president of the New Scotland Historical Association.

VOORHEESVILLE — The village of Voorheesville is being considered for national historic designation because it has a story to tell, one crafted by resident Dennis Sullivan. 

In 1986, Sullivan, an Enterprise columnist, said a story he’d written about the Bender melon farm led to him spending the next three years working a history of Voorheesville. 

It got to the point, he said, where he would walk down Main Street in the village and, building by building, he would know who once lived there. 

“I developed a deep love for the village,” he said, but “the classics have always been my first love.”

Out of that love has come “Veni, Vidi, Trucidavi: Caesar The Killer.”

Sullivan, who has a bachelor’s in Greek and Latin and a master’s degree in classics, said he worked on the book, which is available now, nearly every day between 2018 and 2022, missing just 15 days by his own estimation. 

“Veni, Vidi, Trucidavi” has to do with Rome’s struggle to remain a republic, Sullivan said. 

In the book, according to its jacket, “Sullivan convenes a grand jury and invites every reader to serve as a juror. The text is a compilation of evidence presented to the jury about Caesar’s acts of violence during his life, especially during his near-decade appointment as governor of Gaul.” 

And, in the opinion of one reader, Sullivan’s work is a takedown of the book’s protagonist.

“Caesar  was  stabbed  twenty-three  times  in  the  most  dramatic  and  spectacular  assassination  in  all  recorded  history. Dennis  Sullivan  makes it  twenty-four,  with  a  compelling  account  of  the  man  and  his  many  crimes,” writes James O’Donnell, a classical scholar at Arizona State University and formerly a professor and provost at Georgetown University. “He  brings  Caesar  to  life  as  his  fans  and  apologists  have  never been  able  to  do. Learning  to  do  justice  to  the  great  villains  of  histo­ry  can  help  us  cast  a  cooler  eye  on  the  malevolent  leaders who  have swarmed onto the world stage in our time.”

Sullivan, who taught Latin at Albany High School for a time in the mid-’60s, is waiting to see how classicists across the country respond to it. 

“I do not think it’s going to go by the wayside unattended to,” he said.

Some classicists will have a problem with some of his conclusions or how he phrased things, Sullivan said. 

Dante’s ninth circle (treachery) of hell is home to Satan, Lucifer the angel who tried to share the governing of heaven with God, Sullivan said. In the ninth circle, Lucifer is depicted as having three mouths that eternally tear apart three traitors: Brutus and Cassius, who betrayed Caesar, and Judas, who betrayed Christ. 

Dante, Sullivan said, “has it all wrong.”

He said Julius Caesar should replace Judas, because Caesar was an insurrectionist: He started a civil war. He destroyed Roman citizens. He destroyed the Republic, which is why the title of the book — veni, vici, trucidavi: I came, I saw, I slaughtered — is a play on a famous quote attributed to Caesar  veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered. 

Sullivan said, although his topic is hundreds of years in the past, the book is timely because Caesar was an insurrectionist who successfully overthrew the Roman constitution and started and finished a civil war. 

A lot of 20th-Century historians deny that Caesar wanted to be a king, but Sullivan said he draws on historians’ work at the time to show that’s not the case, hence the book’s subtitle, “A Man Who Destroyed Nations So He Might Be King.”

The book is written as a narrative, Sullivan said, in the same style “that I write my columns for the newspaper.”

But rather than writing about popsicles and ice cream, Sullivan said he’s weaving into his narrative quotes and thoughts from ancient writers and statesmen like Cicero and Appius, but he’s also including the work of modern scholars as well.

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