2/17/09

iacta alea est

The shepherds were already refreshing their flocks at the little river when the sun rose. It was a fresh winter morning and they stood quietly looking down in a huddle, with their shoulders pulled up to their ears, rubbing their arms and hands vigorously. There was an ineffable coldness on the backs of their necks they couldn’t shake.

In the silence, a few weak notes rang out. Not a bird, but something else. Music possibly, from a pipe? The sheep stopped drinking and the shepherds raised their eyes and turned. They didn’t speak but their gazes shot searchingly back and forth between their sheep and the shadow of the woods where they knew the soldiers were camped. For a full minute they stood motionless, straining to listen for another sound. Even the animals seemed to be listening, with their heads erect and their ears pointed open wide.

The peace was abruptly broken by the hard thwack of wings beating against air as scores of black birds took to flight from the trees and landed on the bridge nearby the shepherds. A cold wind began to blow and the birds alit again, flying south.

From the woods came running a young man, handsome, and dressed in fine clothes. In his hand was a trumpet, and when he reached the bridge he stopped and sounded a piercing blast. Across the bridge he then bolted and seemed to disappear into a mist before he even reached the other side.

A second man then emerged on horseback and he slowly followed the path to the river-crossing. He wept as he rode and his shirt was rent down the middle. Forlornly, he shouted to his legion, “The die is cast!”

It was January 10th, 49 BC, and Julius Caesar was about to cross the Rubicon.

5 comments:

cyurkanin said...

For those interested in the vision the relevant passages are in paragraph 32 of the link.

100swallows said...

I wouldn't feel too bad for old Gaius. Why was he bawling? Because he saw that the only way for him to get his way was to start a civil war in which thousands of his fellow countrymen would die. Doggone it. He could have obeyed the senate and told his army to go back home.

The senate was corrupt? So was he. Look at his political past. I know we are supposed to be happy such a swell guy pulled off his coup and founded the empire. But weren't we democrats? A democrat would have had to join Pompey against him. Cicero considered him a tyrant and supported the freedom-fighters.

I wouldn't have wanted to live in imperial Rome, would you? Worse than Nazi Germany.

But Caesar saved Rome, maybe you say.
That was how it worked out. But in his own view of things, he was just one more general pulling a coup to "save the country", of which there were plenty in the twentieth century, of lousy memory.

cyurkanin said...

I'm assuming the "you"s and "we"s in your comment are generalizations but I don't include myself in the generalization.

This is a retelling of a myth in what I thought was a neutral tone, I'm not so sure "we" all think he was a swell guy. He was, however, a great name in history. Someone who made a mark. The stories here are merely correlations between our past and present, or at least our likely near future.

I tend to agree with the Platonic interpretation of democracy and the politics of plunder. Do you really think the corruption would have fixed itself? Even if it did, permanently? How long til the next Caesar was to come along? It's human nature.

I assume your question was rhetorical regarding living in Imperial Rome. Caesars triumph ushered in what would become three hundred years of martyrdom. As a Catholic, it's obvious where I would have ended up.

100swallows said...

Sorry. I got you wrong and you got me wrong. It was a neutral story, all right, and very well written I thought. The cold morning, the distant trumpet, the shadow of the woods, the animals listening, the thwack of wings as the blackbirds flew up which announced somebody's coming—it was a fine scene. But the weeping man with his torn clothes, though I know the detail is in Suetonius and Plutrach, got a non-neutral reaction out of me.

The thing is, I've just been reading Cicero's letters and I see Caesar for the first time in a very negative way. My attack was really against what I myself had always thought of him. And not only I myself. Everywhere you read about his “greatness” and few stop to consider him, and what he founded, in the light of the twentieth century dictatorships.

I had accepted the usual justification for Caesar's coup—that the Republic was so corrupt there was no other way than to destroy it. But Cicero, for one, tried all his life to make it work, not further corrupt it to seize power. Hey, democracy has no monopoly on plunder and misbehavior. And I'd be glad if you went and lived in Plato's Republic and sent me letters. I wonder how long you would hold out.

You say the stories are correlations between our past and present but you don't say why you chose them or what you think they mean. So I bet I'll misunderstand and barge in again.

cyurkanin said...

My friend, and I mean that, I'm not defending Caesar or anything he did. I think the facts speak for themselves. You've obviously developed on opinion on it, I haven't really done so. However, setting up straw men about what I believe and knocking them down is beside the point. It's not either - or. I never said I wished to live in Plato's Republic so you'll be getting no letters from me there.

We're all citizens of our own times and we have to make do with what we've been given. I'm pretty confident that the way you view imperial Rome or the way others view Medieval Eaurope with disgust would be paralleled by the horror with which they in olden days would look upon our modern society.

My only point of real disagreement might be in that you believe that Caesar ran through Rome because of its corruption. Maybe, I don't know, but it seems to me that it was purely an act of self-preservation that he thought he could get away with. Pompey would have been your only other option besides Caesar if Caesar had backed down and poof, the democracy would have crumbled under him just as easily. As Lucan said "Caesar could brook no superior, Pompey no equal." Even Cicero wrote "In a word, Pompey appeared not only NOT to seek peace, but even to fear it." The friends and consulars that Pompey surrounded himself with were intent on nothing more than dividing spoils. Even Cicero saw this and wanted no part of it. When Marcellus illegally gave Pompey control over all the troops in Italy, Caesar would have consented to his own execution by "surrenduring."