Mary Beard really doesn’t like Julius Caesar, and she did a very good job of letting us know why – in particular, presenting him as the prototype for certain current politicians whom most of us probably aren’t particularly keen on either. And, towards the end of the programme, she pointed out that removing a dictator without any sort of plan as to what system of government you’re going to put in his/her place can end up making things worse rather than better.
The trend these days does seem to be for historical documentaries to draw as many comparisons as possible between the figures and events of the past and those of today. I’m never sure whether or not that’s a good idea. If I’m watching a programme about Julius Caesar, do I really want to be thinking about Vladimir Putin? I’m watching it because I want to be thinking about Ancient Rome, not about 21st century Russia. And making those sorts of comparisons isn’t really very fair to anyone. It’s not very fair to compare Messi or Ronaldo to Pele or Bobby Charlton or Eusebio, never mind to start comparing politicians across a distance of more than two millennia! However, it did make for very entertaining viewing. Mary Beard is great! And isn’t it nice to see a female presenter who doesn’t feel obliged to tart herself up in order to be on TV?
Julius Caesar, then. The anti-establishment candidate. The one who wasn’t part of the Roman political elite. Nothing wrong with that in itself: I certainly can’t be doing with the political elite. But, as we all know, it can sometimes get out of hand. In Caesar’s case, that didn’t involve the sort of shift towards extremism that we’re currently seeing in parts of Central and East Central Europe; but it did lead towards dictatorship. If we’re doing comparisons, think the 1920s and 1930s. So how did he do it?
The Gallic Wars. Honestly, that book is so boring. My main recollection of it is of my Latin teacher droning on and on about it on the day on which the draw for the next round of the 1990/91 Cup Winners’ Cup was due to be made. If the lesson finished on time, I was going to be able to whip my Walkman out of my schoolbag, put my headphones on, and hear the draw whilst on my way along the corridor to the next lesson. Back then, draws didn’t take an hour like they do now. But no. She waffled on and on, and I missed the draw. Obviously that wasn’t Julius Caesar’s fault, but it made me dislike De Bello Gallico even more than I did anyway. Also, every time anyone mentions Julius Caesar, I think of Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo. “I came, I saw, I conked out.” “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”
Anyway, to get back to ancient Rome, the Romans got De Bello Gallico in small chunks – like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, only hopefully with rather better grammar and syntax. Caesar, whilst he was off in Gaul and therefore away from the centre of power, sent these dispatches back and got people to read them out in the street. Mary Beard made some very good points about how much easier it was to put forward your own view of events, especially in wartime, in the days before TV and cinema, or war photography. It was probably the 1991 Gulf War – “The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated …” – which ushered in the era of what’s pretty much live coverage of warfare, but, even before that, pictures like the famous, horrific images of the aftermath of napalm attacks in Vietnam were making it difficult for politicians to give the impression of “mission accomplished” without any counting of the cost. None of that for Caesar: he could say whatever he wanted. At least that’s one thing that’s changed. Then again, pictures can be manipulated too … but, anyway, photographic evidence was something that Caesar didn’t have to deal with.
And he came up with clever soundbites. “Veni, vidi, vici” – “I conquered” rather than “I conked out”. He really pioneered the use of the soundbite, and it’s a technique which is, obviously, still in use, probably more now than it’s ever been. Having gained power, he was the first person in the West to have his portrait stamped on coins. And he had busts of himself sent out all over the Empire – think of all those statues of Lenin and Stalin, and those huge pictures of Mao Zedong, Hitler and Mussolini. She also suggested that he liked wearing laurel wreaths to cover up his bald patch, which was quite an amusing thought.
And he was hugely popular. This was despite the fact that some of his actions in Gaul and elsewhere were controversial even at the time. Mary Beard even used the word “genocide”. Even if not that, they seem to’ve been as much about his personal ego as anything else. What some politicians and military commanders will do because of their own ambitions and their own egos … now there’s something that’s true in every era.
And it was despite the fact that he wasn’t really a very nice bloke, and that his personal life seemed to consist of one scandal after another. Yep. It wasn’t hard to see what sort of comparison Mary Beard was drawing there. One comparison she didn’t make was the way he got himself appointed dictator for life, in which there’s an obvious parallel with Xi Jinping, but I think this might have been filmed before the latest political reforms in China.
Having said all of that, I thought she could have given him a bit more credit as a military commander. You have to do that with Napoleon as well. And he did sometimes show compassion towards his enemies. Also, to be fair to him, the Roman political system was a corrupt mess, and it badly needed sorting out. It’s just that, when someone comes to power promising to sort out the mess … well, look what tends to happen in any country, in any era, following a coup or a revolution.
The lesson to be drawn from a lot of this was that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. I want to credit Jon Bon Jovi with that line, but apparently (thank you, Google) it comes from a 19th century French writer called Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr. But the main point of it was that Caesar pioneered so many of the techniques used by modern politicians, and how great his influence was. The Julian calendar was in use across Europe until … well, the 16th century in some countries, the 18th century in Britain, and the 20th century in what was then the Russian Empire. The terms “Tsar” and “Kaiser” both come from “Caesar”. We still talk about “crossing the Rubicon”, or being “stabbed in the back”. How many other people, ever, have had that sort of influence on politics and culture, and still have it after over two thousand years? It’s incredible: it really is. So can you really compare Julius Caesar to anyone else? And yet much of what he did was so similar to what certain politicians do today – because he showed how to do that and how to make a success of it.
And yet he ended up stabbed in the back. By members of the elite. And what happened next? Civil war. Caesar being deified! And one man rule. Overthrow a dictator without having some pretty clear plans as to what’s going to happen next, and things tend to go rather horribly wrong. Iraq. Libya. There are a lot of other examples, over the centuries. You can even say England – Oliver Cromwell was worse than Charles I. That’s Charles I, “King and Martyr”. Nicholas II of Russia, “Bloody Nicholas”, is a saint in the Russian Orthodox church. Then again, even well-planned political reforms can end up going horribly wrong. I’ve often wondered what Mikhail Gorbachev makes of Vladimir Putin. Apparently he told Interfax the other day that “The situation hasn’t been this bad in a long time, and I am very disappointed in how world leaders are behaving themselves. We see evidence of an inability to use diplomatic mechanisms. International politics has turned into exchanges of accusations, sanctions, and even military strikes”. That’s as sensible a comment as I’ve heard from anyone recently.
Anyway, back to Julius Caesar. The Roman geezer, who squashed his nose in a lemon squeezer – sorry, just had to get that it somewhere. Mary Beard’s main point, I think, was that Julius Caesar, more than two thousand years after his death, is still hugely influential. And perhaps that, as much as you have to admire him for that, it’s not necessarily a very good thing.
What is good is Mary Beard. She’s brilliant! Studying Roman history’s fallen out of fashion. If anyone can bring it back into fashion, she can.