Caesar: a life in western culture by Maria Wyke

From Rome to Las Vegas: the posthumous life of an emperor
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Julius Caesar wanted a break from the obligations of absolute power, so he invited himself to dinner with Marcus Cicero, the greatest orator of his age and a formidable political opponent. The great man turned up at one of Cicero's villas outside Rome with a small army of soldiers and officials.

The meal went well: the two men talked a good deal on literary matters. Cicero was flattered, but later grumbled that this was not the kind of dinner-guest to whom one said: "Do drop in again".

The incident illuminates Caesar's complex psychology: an autocrat who pardoned his enemies, a cultivated man whose wars caused the deaths of more than a million, a polite charmer who insisted on getting his way, a statesman weary of the political game.

But this glimpse of a real person was soon overshadowed by the colossus of legend. Throughout the last two millennia, each generation has re-invented Julius Caesar for its own purposes.

Here, Maria Wyke tells the engrossing story of his long life after death.

In 44BC, the Roman Senate deified the assassinated dictator. A century later the epic poet Lucan drew the portrait of a demonic force for evil. In the middle ages, Dante regarded Caesar as the founder of a divinely sanctioned empire, and placed his murderers alongside Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of hell.

Historical figures of every variety have used him. Napoleon Bonaparte saw Caesar's usurpation as a precedent for his seizure of power as First Consul. For Mussolini, the famous crossing of the Rubicon justified his own march on Rome in 1922, and Napoleon III gave his coup d'état of 1851 the name Operation Rubicon.

The author narrates in chronological order the main incidents of Caesar's life, then shows how different ages have interpreted them. Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln put in expected appearances. Wyke dips a toe into popular culture, touching entertainingly on Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, a pastiche of deluxe Roman architecture, and the fantasy series Xena: Warrior Princess, in which the heroine comes on to Julius Caesar, without luck.

There are many good things in this book. The trouble is that there are too many: the reader is hustled from incident to incident, personality to personality, with little or no space for analysis.

What would one not give for a time-travelling invitation to dine with the man himself, at Cicero's place in the country?