We have Julius Caesar Redux in our midst

People who read are constantly asking other people who read what they’re reading — unless they're part of a book club, then everyone knows. 

Speaking of book clubs, the Voorheesville Public Library has had one since 1996 when Suzanne Fisher invited the community to share her love of literature at monthly meetings.

Suzanne was among a small group of librarians The New York Times picked as the best librarians in the United States in 2005. A plaque recognizing her honor hangs in the foyer of the Voorheesville Library.  

And from one who’s interviewed Voorheesville librarians from the earliest days, I’d say Suzanne’s recognition is no small thing.

I remain amazed at the enthusiasm of book-clubbers; kudos to them and every other soul who views books as an integral part of life. 

Book-lovers can speak intelligently about the classics (Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” James Joyce, and the like) as well as appreciate the book as an object of art. Their interest is not just first editions but the feel of a book’s paper, its dust jacket, the width of its margins, the typeface, even the quality of its index.

When I’ve had a say in how a book would look, I pushed for margins wide enough for the reader to open up a lounge chair to sit and enjoy the show of life — which is what all literature is about.

Book clubs or not, what every American in the country should be reading right now is some insightful work on the life of Julius Caesar — the Rubicon guy, the Gaius who brought the Roman Republic down, the man who destroyed Rome’s democracy to set himself up as king.

And because the republics of Rome and the United States are so often compared, Americans would do well to study how that man managed to destroy a nation’s centuries-old political structure — because a sizeable portion of Americans today are working hard to bring the American republic down.

If he were here right now, General Julius would say he was just the last straw in a bale of politico-fascist generals — like Cornelius Sulla and Lucius Cornelius Cinna (Caesar’s father-in-law) — who already had Rome on her knees. 

The latter two butchered the human flesh of any soul who differed politically; Sulla slaughtered thousands and then hung the heads of the dead on pikes stretched across the Forum.  

And Caesar had the gall to give a blow-by-blow description — in Commentarii de Bello Civili — of him slaughtering fellow citizens to become top dog in the ancient world.

It must ne’er be forgotten that it was he, not Augustus, who was Rome’s first emperor/king. (He had a little Richard Nixon in him.)

TRIGGER ALERT! Or maybe the correct phrase is caveat lector, which means “let the reader beware of a con,” because last spring a book of mine came out on none other than Julius Caesar. My colleague at The Enterprise, Sean Mulkerrin, introduced it to our readers.

The title of the book is “Veni, Vidi, Trucidavi: Caesar the Killer, The Man Who Destroyed Nations So He Might Be King.”

The first part is a play on Caesar’s oft-quoted slogan Veni Vidi Vici — which the people of Rome first saw on a placard on a float in a parade down Rome’s main street to honor the general’s victory over King Pharnaces II of Pontus at the Battle of Zela in 47. 

The three fricative v’s of Veni, Vidi, Vici sound like the badda-bing of a TV commercial. Remember, Caesar was Italian. Badda-boom.

And scholars are still unsure if Caesar or one of his minions created the text but it did reflect his view of power.

Years ago, every student in any accredited academic high school in America — they didn’t even have to take Latin — knew Veni, Vidi, Vici — maybe not its political implications but had heard it said.

And yet, when I talked to people after my book came out — I conducted a little survey — my subjects said they never heard the phrase and, when I translated it into English, one or two said it sounded vaguely familiar.

By veni Caesar was letting the Senate know he got to the place they had assigned him — for the purpose of waging war. The veni of course is Latin and means “I arrived.” 

The vidi means “I saw,” by which Caesar was saying that, when he arrived at the front, he saw a way Rome could exterminate the blood-poisoning vermin enemy bar-bar without making a dent in the city’s coffers.

And vici is, “Once I got the Roman war machine going, the bar-bars were done faster than a soft-boiled egg.”  (An accurate translation.) 

The viewers of Caesar’s parade that day — which the Romans called a triumph — were stunned at the hubris; he was saying, “See how fast I brought a king down, step out of line and you’re next.”   

The title of my book is a play on the three V’s except, instead of vici, I use trucidavi — the Latin verb to slaughter — thus “I came, I saw, I slaughtered.” By the time of the parade, Caesar was already Rome’s slaughterer-in-chief having destroyed untold tribes (sovereign nations!) in Gaul for nine consecutive years. In my book, I call Caesar carnifex Gallorum, the butcher of the peoples of France.

He carnifexed as well tribes in Germany, Spain, Britain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.

In the 25th chapter of Book Seven of his “Natural History,” Pliny the Elder says, “I would not myself count it to his [Caesar’s] glory that in addition to conquering his fellow-citizens [in a civil war] he killed in his battles 1,192,000 human beings, a prodigious even if unavoidable wrong inflicted on the human race, as he himself confessed it to be by not publishing the casualties of the civil wars.” 

That million number puts the general in the league of Mao, Stalin, and even Hitler.

And for all the light the ancient documents still shine on the man, it’s hard to get hold of a personality that’s rife with such complexity of thought; the scholar who’s gotten closest is the Swiss-German classical historian Matthias Gelzer (1886-1974) in his “Caesar, der Politiker und Staatsmann” which appeared in German in 1921. How embarrassing it took until 1968 before the English “Caesar: Politician and Statesman” came out.

Toward the end of this classic (page 290), Gelzer says that, once the general had the commonweal under his thumb, “the number of decrees which he [Caesar] issued was so great that there was not enough time to keep to the usual complicated procedure …  he often shortened the transactions of the Senate by simply informing the senior members of what he was going to do and, if he called a meeting of the whole body, he simply announced his decisions and without any discussion, they were entered in the archives as senatorial decrees.” 

Caesar didn’t care if you were a red state or blue state, he wanted control of your Roman body a là Michel Foucault.

He decreed that no one could travel outside of Rome but, if it did happen, how long the traveler could stay; then he started telling his fellow Romans the kinds of clothes they could wear. 

The great historian Suetonius (Div 43.1-2) says he outlawed “litters [taxi cabs] and the wearing of scarlet robes or pearls to all except those of a designated position and age, and on set days.”   

He moved in for the kill when he made decrees “against extravagance, [which included] stationing watchmen in various parts of the market, to seize and bring to him dainties which were exposed for sale in violation of the law … sometimes he sent … soldiers to take from a dining-room any articles which had escaped the vigilance of his watchmen, even after they had been served.” 

Imagine sitting at home eating dinner and a soldier barges in and rips from your mouth the piece of pork you’re chewing on; you can see why Brutus and Cassius planned a surprise party for the fascist on the Ides of March.

How sad that, in the United States of America today, two-thousand years later, we have Julius Caesar Redux in our midst; it’s just as Yogi predicted, “déjà vu all over again.”