Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Remember that thou art but mortal

Caesar died on this day in 44 BCE; Nicholas II of Russia, whose title, Czar, derived from Caesar's name, was forced to abdicate the same day 94 years ago. Both were gruesomely murdered, Caesar by those who feared both the man and his power; Nicholas and his family, by those who despised or perhaps even pitied the man but feared the use that powerful nations might make of him. The remains of Nicholas and his family have been exhumed and venerated; Caesar's mortal remains are immaterial to his legend. Caesar, like Madonna and Jackie, needs only one name to be immediately known; Nicholas briefly achieved nearly that degree of fame some years ago, with the publication of Robert K. Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra, later made into a film.

Caesar was about 6 years older, at the time of his death, than Nicholas at the time of his, though decades older in ruthlessness and cunning. Nicholas was too uxorious for his own good, while Caesar boldly displayed the masks of his first wife's Marian ancestors at her funeral though, like almost everything else he did, it was a calculated bid for power. Derided as "that boy in petticoats" by a scornful instructor when he was a military cadet, Caesar witnessed, firsthand, the savage conflict between the populist forces of his uncle, Gaius Marius, and Marius's opponent, one of the few men who matched or exceeded Caesar's own ruthlessness, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who ordered one of his men to bring him the teenaged Caesar's heart, when Caesar defied Sulla's order to divorce his wife. Like John F. Kennedy as a young man, Caesar was underestimated by many around him and thought a youth of slender promise.

Captured by pirates in his youth, Caesar charmed them with his charisma and ransomed himself but promised to find the pirate band and crucify them, which he did. As a young soldier, Caesar was entitled to an ovation whenever he entered the Senate, for having saved a Roman legion by his courage.

The men who murdered Czar Nicholas were those who would never have been admitted to his presence at all except on saints' days, while Caesar's murderers were led by a man of his own class and, indeed, possibly his own illegitimate son. Caesar and Brutus were both descended from the ancient Roman nobility, though neither family had seen a member occupy the consular chair for centuries. In America, it would be as if a Winthrop, having been elected President and reaching for unconstitutional powers, had been dispatched by a Cabot. The murder did not take place in the Capitol or, indeed, in the Forum at all, but in Pompey's Theatre, where Caesar fell, wounded, at the feet of a statue of his former partner and son-in-law, later rival. His wounds might not have been fatal but for the fact that his partisans fled, leaving their leader to bleed to death over a period of 2 hours on the floor. If he had sufficient presence of mind while dying, Caesar may have remembered the words whispered in the ears of every Roman conqueror in his triumphal parade, by a slave standing immediately behind him in his chariot, "Remember that thou art but mortal."

Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed a film adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in 1953, with an amazing cast that included James Mason, Sir John Gielgud, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and a 29-year-old Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, as well as Alan Napier, later to achieve fame as Batman's butler, Alfred, in a cameo role as Cicero. The film's producer was John Houseman, who made every penny of the budget count, filming several scenes on the abandoned set of the 1951 epic, Quo Vadis, which had also featured Kerr. For the mob that alternately cries out for Brutus and then for Antony, Houseman had only a small group of extras, but he backed them up with a tape mixed of sounds that included a jet engine and the roar of a crowd at a Whitesox game. In one of his several entertaining memoirs, Houseman recalled walking the set on the day they were to film the scene of Caesar's triumph, and an assistant director, seeking to pump up the crowd of extras, cried, "OK, kids! It's hot! It's Rome! And here comes Caesar!"

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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