Monday, 20 February 2012

Gangsters of Rome

'Let history be the judge' is a comment one particular interviewee (I forget whom) kept repeating like a mantra this morning on BBC Radio 4 when discussing the 'legacy' of Tony Blair.

This is a phrase that I've come to hear more and more in recent months, a sort of 'the end justifies the means' catch all statement that I find more than just a tad unsettling. It's been used when discussing all manner of people from Mr Blair to Robert Mugabe, Vladimir Putin to Justin Lee Collins, individuals from contemporary society whose contribution to society is, at best unclear, or whose legacy is as yet unknown. 

Julius Caesar is a good example of how time can soften our perspective towards certain 'great' people. Caesar is frequently referred to as “the most famous of the Romans”, a curiously ambiguous description somewhat akin to calling Joseph Stalin the most famous Georgian or Adolph Hitler the most famous Austrian. Caesar is someone who, even today, divides opinion. Some see him as a remarkable statesman, a general par-excellence, a writer, philosopher and engineer and a politician who almost single-handedly dragged Rome from a small time Mediterranean Republic to one of the greatest empires of the Ancient World. Others view him as nothing more than an opportunistic bully, a callous tyrant and one of the greatest mass-murderers in history. 

It is certainly difficult to view his life and career with a cool and detached calm.

When examining Caesar's conquest of Gaul, between 58 and 52 BC, it is easy to stick to campaign strategy and marvel at the achievements of the Roman blitzkrieg without acknowledging the human cost (as many History Channel / Yesterday documentaries on WWII seem to be doing at the moment). Alternatively, one could look at Caesar’s systematic, industrial-scale slaughter of the Gallic people and view it as a callous piece of ethnic cleansing conducted purely to advance an individual and rather warped political agenda. Would we, either today or in the years to come, look back at Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong or Pol Pot with admiration for their achievements in the sphere of politics and war? I hope not. And yet the crimes that Caesar committed in the name of Rome against innocent men, women and children could easily compare with such megalomaniacal mass murderers.

As the most “famous of Romans”, it is unsurprising that Gaius Julius Caesar has been portrayed in countless films and plays, usually favourably. In film he has been played most memorably by:

Warren William (Cleopatra 1934)

Claude Rains (Caesar and Cleopatra 1945)

Rex Harrison (Cleopatra 1963)

Kenneth Williams (Carry on Cleo 1964)

and Klaus Maria Brandauer (Druids / Vercingetorix 2001).

None of these, however, in my mind really get to grips with the real Caesar. Kenneth William’s Caesar is a tour-de-force comedic performance (more ‘Seize-her’ than ‘Caesar’), whilst Klaus Maria Brandauer appears, rather strangely, as a mumbling and ever-so-slightly insane Bond villain. Warren William conveys some of the brooding intensity of a true megalomaniac, as does Claude Rains who, though shrewd and statesmanlike, is also witty and brimming with panache. Rex Harrison, who dominates the first half of Cleopatra (no mean achievement in a film that runs for a truly bottom-numbing four hours) certainly bears an uncanny resemblance to the sculptured Caesar, but is too likeable by half, so much so that one is always expecting him to break into song (as per Doctor Doolittle or Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady).

Almost certainly, in my opinion anyway, the best recreation of Caesar ‘the man’, if contemporary Roman sources are taken into account, is that of Ciar├ín Hinds in the HBO mini series Rome first aired in 2005. Hinds is every bit the sophisticated wit and scheming politician, in turns easy with the plebeian mob and the aristocratic senate. He can be witty and charming one moment; devastatingly ruthless the next. Throughout Hinds invests the character with a constant and sometimes overwhelming, sense of menace.

To take this a stage further....I think that the best (if to date unacknowledged) impersonation / recreation of Caesar can be found in the suppressed psychotic-uberviolence of performances such as Robert Di Niro in the 1976 movie Taxi Driver (especially the intimidating 'you talking to me?' scene) or Tommy, the hard bitten mobster played by Joe Pesci in the 1990 gangster movie Goodfellas. In fact here is a scene that, although unfilmed, would perfectly encapsulate the character of Gaius Julius Caesar:

Anthony and Cleopatra (unmade)

Setting: the Roman Forum. Caesar (Joe Pesci) and Anthony (Ray Liotta) are awaiting the arrival of Queen Cleopatra. Caesar says something to lighten the mood.

Anthony (ever the sycophant): “You're really funny. You're really funny”.

Caesar turns. The mood changes instantly:

Caesar: “What do you mean I'm funny?”

Anthony (not realising the danger): “It's funny, you know. It's a good story, it's funny, you're a funny guy!”

The forum is now silent. Several senators edge quietly away.

Caesar: “What do you mean? You mean the way I talk?”

Anthony (starting to get a little flustered): “It's just, you know, you're just funny. It's funny, the way you tell the story and everything.”

Caesar: “Funny how? What's funny about it?”

Anthony (now getting worried): “Caesar, no, you got it all wrong..”

Two of the closest senators, sensing they may now be in the danger due to their proximity to Anthony try to say something in order to diffuse the situation. One places a calming hand close to Caesar's arm, but is battered away.

Caesar: “Oh, oh, Anthony. He's a big boy, he knows what he said. What did ya say? Funny how"

Anthony: "Just..."

Caesar (intimidating): What?”

Anthony (starting  to look around him but notices that no one is prepared to make eye contact): “Just, ya know, you're funny”.

Caesar: “You mean, let me understand this, 'cause, ya know maybe it's me…but I'm funny how? I mean funny like I'm a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?”

Anthony (now starting to soil his toga): "Just, you know, how you tell the story"

The tension (and threat of escalting violence) is palpapable. Caesar's laurel wreath has fallen to a jaunty angle across his forehead, but no one dares to point this out. Two soldiers nearby have subtly moved their hands to the pommels of their swords, just in case Anthony needs to be forcibly removed from the Forum.

Anthony swallows, and then looks up at Caesar. There is a long pause

Anthony (somewhat unconvincingly): "Get the Italianpeasantwinefarmer out of here, Caesar"

Caesar (turning to his fellow senators): "I almost had him, I almost had him". (everyone within earshot laughs in relief and the tension evaporates)

Caesar: "Cassius, was he shaking?" (and then turning back to Anthony) "I wonder about you sometimes, Anthony".

Anthony smiles weakly and pretends the whole thing is a joke, but he is sweating profusely and desperately wants to change his underwear.

At a fanfare, everyone turns to face the arrival of Queen Cleopatra.

What, if anything, does this prove.....? Probably nothing, but scenes like this would make Caesar the man easier to understand. He was a showman, a sadist, a bully, a tyrant, a charmer, a flatter, a cold-hearted killer. Ultimately, despite the passage of two millennia, it is impossible to view him in a totally detached way, much like it is impossible to comment upon the aesthetics of 1930s Nazi architecture without acknowledging the many thousands of innocents who died creating it. Anyone who praises Caesar wholeheartedly whilst turning a blind-eye to the atrocities committed in his name, is in many ways complicit in them. 

Caesar can be studied, assessed, reassessed, catalogued, analysed as much as Comrade Stalin or Chairman Mao, but that doesn’t make him any easier to like. 

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Archaeo-Pedantry No. 53

Several people (none of them archaeologists) have asked me this morning whether I've "heard the news" that the earliest sound has finally been discovered....

....I must admit that this particular piece of news left me rather perplexed (could it be that someone had found a mammoth's mating cry preserved in amber?) – one swift Google-search later, I find  the story is that scientists "have reconstructed the song of a cricket that chirped 165 million years ago" thanks to a well preserved insect which proves Jurassic air was filled with the "unmistakable sound of chirping bush crickets"


Only problem (apart from the fact this clearly has nothing to do with archaeology - unless there really were people alive 165 million years ago) is that, as there weren't any people alive 165 million years ago, there can’t have been any human ears around with which to hear the sound and confirm that “yes it does sound exactly like a modern bush cricket” therefore (to use the classic 'if-a-tree-falls-in-a-forest-and-there’s-no-one-around-to-hear-it-does-it-therefore-make-a-sound?' sort of argument) how can anyone say precisely how this fossil cricket sounded (let alone play an audio of the reconstructed sound on the radio) without first reconstructing the audio system of a prehistoric cricket (do they have audio-systems?) or, perhaps, the hearing of the Archaeopteryx birdthingy (which may have preyed on said insect)…….

… brain hurts.