Happy Birthday Julius Caesar

Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC, making him 2118 today.  We know this because of the calendar he gave us.

A populist politician in the mould of the brothers Gracchus and his own Great Uncle Gaius Marius.  Caesar wanted to move power from the Senatorial class and absentee landlords and spread the wealth to the working classes of Rome, the Plebs and the Legionnaires.

In the process he set in motion the events that led to the collapse of the Republic and the creation of an Empire.  Caesar has given a lasting lesson to the democracies and republics of the world.  Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Cassius speaks to Brutus

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
“Brutus” and “Caesar”—what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
“Brutus” will start a spirit as soon as “Caesar.”
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When could they say, till now, that talked of Rome,
That her wide walks encompassed but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed, and room enough
When there is in it but only one man.
O, you and I have heard our fathers say
There was a Brutus once that would have brooked
Th’ eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.

Ovid on Abortion

Ovid

Publius Ovidius Naso, better known to us today as the Latin poet Ovid, was born March 20th 43 BC and died in 17 or 18 AD in exile from Rome in Scythia Minor which today is Constanta on the Romanian Black Sea coast.  The Emperor Augustus banished Ovid to this dark, remote backwater for “a poem and a mistake” and that is just enough to fuel speculation.  If there is any truth to the exploits detailed in his love poetry we may guess what his mistake was.

Historians point to the exile of Julia the Younger and Agrippa Postumus, grandchildren of Augustus, at around this time.  Julia’s husband was executed for conspiracy against Augustus.

Ovid was born in the year after the assassination of Julius Caesar.  He grew up in a Rome torn asunder by one Civil War after another.  First the republicans under Brutus and Cassius fought Anthony and Octavian.  Then war with Sextus Pompeius, the Sicilian Revolt.  Then the conflict between Anthony and Octavian.  Ovid came to maturity in the early days of the Roman Empire, where imperial favour was a pre-requisite for success.

Often ranked alongside the older pair, Virgil and Horace, as one of the big 3 of Roman poetry.  I found this elegy interesting because of the relevance of the topic to the big political hot potato in Ireland this year, the 8th Amendment.  In Ireland we do not permit abortion.  So we have an Irish solution, the outsourcing of our abortions to the UK.

Because the right to life of a foetus is enshrined in our constitution the government cannot pass sensible laws without a constitutional referendum.  Without sensible laws doctors are unable to make rational medical decisions.  They are bound instead by Catholic Dogma.  As a result we get situations like the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar.

Ovid was against abortion, and abortion was a far more dangerous procedure in Roman times.  Dangerous or not it was still practiced, and that is as true today as it was then.  You cannot prevent abortion, but you can strive to ensure that it is practiced as safely as possible.

Verses 4 and 5 refer to Priam (King of Troy) and Aeneas, in a nod to the ancestral lineage of the Emperor Augustus.  As you can see, in the Rome of that day every topic had the potential to be political.

Book II Elegy XIV: Against Abortion; by Publius Ovidius Naso

Where’s the joy in a girl being free from fighting wars,
unwilling to follow the army and their shields,
if without battle she suffers wounds from her own weapons,
and arms unsure hands to her own doom?

Whoever first taught the destruction of a tender foetus,
deserved to die by her own warlike methods.
No doubt you’d chance your arm in that dismal arena
just to keep your belly free of wrinkles with your crime?

If the same practice had pleased mothers of old,
Humanity would have been destroyed by that violation.
and we’d need a creator again for each of our peoples
to throw the stones that made us onto the empty earth.

Who would have shattered the wealth of Priam, if Thetis,
the sea goddess, had refused to carry her rightful burden?
If Ilia had murdered the twins in her swollen womb,
the founder of my mistress’s City would have been lost.

If Venus had desecrated her belly, pregnant with Aeneas,
Earth would have been bereft of future Caesars.
You too, with your beauty still to be born, would have died,
if your mother had tried what you have done.

I myself would be better to die making love
than have been denied the light of day by my mother.
Why rob the loaded vine of burgeoning grapes,
or pluck the unripe apple with cruel hand?

Let things mature themselves – grow without being forced:
life is a prize that’s worth a little waiting.
Why submit your womb to probing instruments,
or give lethal poison to what is not yet born?

Medea is blamed for sprinkling the blood of her children,
and Itys, slain by his mother, is lamented with tears:
both cruel parents, yet both had bitter reason
to shed blood, revenge on a husband.

Say, what Tereus, what Jason incites you
to pierce your troubled body with your hand?
No tiger in its Armenian lair would do it,
no lioness would dare destroy her foetus.

But tender girls do it, though not un-punished:
often she who kills her child, dies herself.
She dies, and is carried to the pyre with loosened hair,
and whoever looks on cries out: ‘She deserved it!’

But let these words vanish on the ethereal breeze,
and let my imprecations have no weight!
You gods, prosper her: let her first sin go, in safety,
and be satisfied: you can punish her second crime!

Lady Gregory’s Birthday

Lady_gregory

March 15th the Ides of March and that fateful day for one Julius Caesar in the year 44 BC.  After the death of Caesar his adopted nephew, Octavian, rose to power in Rome and became the first Emperor.   The senate awarded him the title “Augustus” in 27 BC, meaning “The illustrious one”.

In 1852 on Roxborough Estate in Galway a young girl was born to to Frances Persse and was named Isabella Augusta Persse.  She grew up and married Sir William Henry Gregory and became Lady Gregory.  She Co-founded and Managed the Abbey Theatre, Ireland’s National Theatre with William Butler Yeats, Edward Martyn, John Millington Synge etc.

Lady Gregory was a prolific playwright but her greatest legacy to Ireland was as a folklorist.  She learned the Irish language and established a school on her estate.  Then she collected and published a huge body of folk material.  She was the Irish version of the Brothers Grimm.

Here is one of her translations, a sinful, sexual and blasphemous piece of beauty:

Donal Óg; Anonymous 8th Century Irish poem.

Translation by Isabella Augusta (Lady Gregory)

 

It is late last night the dog was speaking of you;
the snipe was speaking of you in her deep marsh.
It is you are the lonely bird through the woods;
and that you may be without a mate until you find me.

You promised me, and you said a lie to me,
that you would be before me where the sheep are flocked;
I gave a whistle and three hundred cries to you,
and I found nothing there but a bleating lamb.

You promised me a thing that was hard for you,
a ship of gold under a silver mast;
twelve towns with a market in all of them,
and a fine white court by the side of the sea.

You promised me a thing that is not possible,
that you would give me gloves of the skin of a fish;
that you would give me shoes of the skin of a bird;
and a suit of the dearest silk in Ireland.

When I go by myself to the Well of Loneliness,
I sit down and I go through my trouble;
when I see the world and do not see my boy,
he that has an amber shade in his hair.

It was on that Sunday I gave my love to you;
the Sunday that is last before Easter Sunday.
And myself on my knees reading the Passion;
and my two eyes giving love to you for ever.

My mother said to me not to be talking with you today,
or tomorrow, or on the Sunday;
it was a bad time she took for telling me that;
it was shutting the door after the house was robbed.

My heart is as black as the blackness of the sloe,
or as the black coal that is on the smith’s forge;
or as the sole of a shoe left in white halls;
it was you that put that darkness over my life.

You have taken the east from me; you have taken the west from me;
you have taken what is before me and what is behind me;
you have taken the moon, you have taken the sun from me;
and my fear is great that you have taken God from me!

 

Crowded field

29th.png

A very auspicious day today, very popular with the celebrity birthdays.  It is a crowded field, but for me it will always be Pompey day.  Not only was he born today but he also got leave from the senate to celebrate his third triumph today in 61 BC.  The Senate celebrated Pompey for his war against the pirates, which made him fantastically rich.  He was already rich when he started, but this was the icing on the cake.

He also slipped in at the end of Lucullus’ war against Mithridates VI in the East and claimed the win for himself.  Cheeky!

This was undoubtedly the high water mark of Pompey’s career.  In 59 BC Pompey harnessed his significant senatorial weight to the wealth of Crassus and the populism of Caesar to form the first triumvirate.  From this point the trajectories in the careers of Caesar and Pompey were a reflection of each other as the Elder statesman declined and the young pretender rose in prominence.

 

 

Death of the Republic

Actium, Egyptian ship with battering ram

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Actium, the final major conflict of the civil wars that wracked the dying Roman republic from 133BC (if you ascribe to the assassination of Tiberius Gracchus origination) or   from 49BC (if you take it from the Rubicon Crossing) to 31BC.

The poet Virgil was effectively a propagandist working on behalf of Octavian, to counter popularity for Marc Anthony and solidify the transition to Empire.  Virgil worked with Maecenas, the agent of Octavian.  The poem below is clearly propaganda.  Octavian and the Romans are portrayed as the home team supported by the “right” gods.  They are bright lights against the gathering darkness, Anthony is portrayed as deviant, relying on a gaudily dressed ill fated woman, a rag tag coalition speaking a babble of tongues.  They bring strange animal gods from the East.  They are the foreigners, the others, interlopers.

The Battle of Actium; by Virgil (trans. John Dryden)  

Betwixt the quarters, flows a golden sea;
But foaming surges there in silver play.
The dancing dolphins with their tails divide
The glittering waves, and cut the precious tide.

Amid the main, two mighty fleets engage:
Their brazen beaks opposed with equal rage.
Actium surveys the well-disputed prize:
Leucate’s watery plain with foamy billows fries.

Young Caesar, on the stern in armour bright,
Here leads the Romans and their gods to fight:
His beamy temples shoot their flames afar;
And o’er his head is hung the Julian star.

Agrippa seconds him, with prosperous gales,
And, with propitious gods, his foes assails.
A naval crown, that binds his manly brows,
The happy fortune of the fight foreshows.

Ranged on the line opposed, Antonius brings
Barbarian aids, and troops of eastern kings,
The Arabians near, and Bactrians from afar,
Of tongues discordant, and a mingled war:

And, rich in gaudy robes, amidst the strife,
His ill fate follows him–the Egyptian wife.
Moving they fight: with oars and forky prows
The froth is gathered and the water glows.

It seems as if the Cyclades again
Were rooted up, and justled in the main;
Or floating mountains floating mountains meet;
Such is the fierce encounter of the fleet.

Fire-balls are thrown, and pointed javelins fly;
The fields of Neptune take a purple dye.
The queen herself, amidst the loud alarms,
With cymbal tossed, her fainting soldiers warms–

Fool as she was! who had not yet divined
Her cruel fate; nor saw the snakes behind.
Her country gods, the monsters of the sky,
Great Neptune, Pallas, and love’s queen, defy.

The dog Anubis barks, but barks in vain,
Nor longer dares oppose the ethereal train.
Mars, in the middle of the shining shield
Is graved, and strides along the liquid field.

The Dirae souse from heaven with swift descent;
And Discord, dyed in blood, with garments rent,
Divides the press: her steps Bellona treads,
And shakes her iron rod above their heads.

This seen, Apollo, from his Actian height
Pours down his arrows; at whose wingèd flight
The trembling Indians and Egyptians yield,
And soft Sabaeans quit the watery field.

The fatal mistress hoists her silken sails,
And shrinking from the fight, invokes the gales.
Aghast she looks, and heaves her breast for breath,
Panting, and pale with fear of future death.

The god had figured her, as driven along
By winds and waves, and scudding through the throng.
Just opposite, sad Nilus opens wide
His arms and ample bosom to the tide,
And spreads his mantle o’er the winding coast;
In which, he wraps his queen and hides the flying host.

Happy Birthday Julius Caesar: 2117 today

Tusculum

The Tusculum Bust of Julius Caesar

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was famed with more than with one man?
When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome,
That her wide walls encompass’d but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.

Julius Caesar Act1:Scene2 ; by William Shakespeare

Watch your back

Rome_BBC

“Beware the Ides of March” the soothsayer told Caesar.  The rest is history.  March 15th 44 BC Julius Caesar was voted out of office at the points of several knives.

Brutus then made a brilliant speech of justification, winning the hearts of Romans (at least in Shakespeare) and then made the political faux pas of leaving the floor to his opponent.

 

BRUTUS
Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
All
None, Brutus, none.
BRUTUS
Then none have I offended. I have done no more to
Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of
his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not
extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences
enforced, for which he suffered death.

-o0o-

Enter ANTONY and others, with CAESAR’s body

-o0o-

Here comes his body, mourned by Mark Antony: who,
though he had no hand in his death, shall receive
the benefit of his dying, a place in the
commonwealth; as which of you shall not? With this
I depart,–that, as I slew my best lover for the
good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself,
when it shall please my country to need my death.
All
Live, Brutus! live, live!
First Citizen
Bring him with triumph home unto his house.
Second Citizen
Give him a statue with his ancestors.
Third Citizen
Let him be Caesar.
Fourth Citizen
Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crown’d in Brutus.
First Citizen
We’ll bring him to his house
With shouts and clamours.
BRUTUS
My countrymen,–

Second Citizen
Peace, silence! Brutus speaks.

First Citizen
Peace, ho!

BRUTUS
Good countrymen, let me depart alone,
And, for my sake, stay here with Antony:
Do grace to Caesar’s corpse, and grace his speech
Tending to Caesar’s glories; which Mark Antony,
By our permission, is allow’d to make.
I do entreat you, not a man depart,
Save I alone, till Antony have spoke.
Exit