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Et tu, Teddy White

Caesar at the Rubicon

by Theodore H. White
Atheneum, 174 pp., $5.00

The fundamental difference between the good professional historian and even the best amateur historian is that the latter, sooner or later, decides that there is nothing new under the sun. Theodore White tells us in his prologue that Caesar was “oddly modern and romantic,” that he was “perhaps more a man of our time than of any other time but his own.” And he means that; the assertion that Caesar was also “so naturally barbarian” and all the archaisms, the little pedantries which pepper the play, prove to be stage props, serving to show off the author’s knowledge of the antique without seriously impinging upon the argument. As for Samuel Butler, he didn’t bother with explanations, he simply took it for granted that not only was the author (ess) of the Odyssey a Victorian novelist, but that the values and emotions of the characters in the poem were identical with those of his time, as he judged them.

In a clever piece of special pleading, David Grene, who introduces this reprint of a work first published in 1897, corrects Butler on the first count (and exculpates him because in his day Homeric scholarship had not yet discovered the key to oral poetry), but misses the second. It is enough to follow Professor Grene and quote Butler on Penelope and the suitors:

Sending pretty little messages to her admirers was not exactly the way to get rid of them. Did she ever try snubbing? Nothing of the kind is placed on record. Did she ever say, “Well, Antinous, whoever else I marry, you may make your mind easy that it will not be you.” Then there was boring—did she ever try that? Did she ever read them any of her grandfather’s letters? Did she sing them her own songs, or play them music of her own composition? I have always found these courses successful when I wanted to get rid of people.

Of course, says Professor Grene, this is a “kind of spoofing” and debunking—but at the same time such “funny questions…have a suggestive bearing on the meaning of this remote poem of anonymous authorship and largely anonymous provenience.” Have they? That depends on what “meaning” means? If one is interested in the Homeric world, Butler’s remarks, like his challenging the choice of Laertes’ shroud as Penelope’s excuse for delaying a decision, or his complaints about the absence of young romantic love in the poem, are neither spoofing nor debunking nor suggestive. They are irrelevant and nonsensical because Penelope didn’t have either the options or the procedures available to the ladies Samuel Butler knew. If “meaning” is to be taken as pertaining either to the poet or to his audience or to Greeks in the ensuing centuries, then Butler’s book contributes nothing. Yet it is good to have the book available again, as a study in late Victorian values and aesthetics, and as a companion to Butler’s prose translation of the Odyssey, which is in turn important in current discussions of the art of translation.*

Caesar at the Rubicon comes much closer to the more conventional subject matter of history, and therefore to the perennial debate on the uses and abuses of history. It is subtitled “a play about politics.” I would have said “a morality play.” In the short closing monologue of the play itself, Asinius Pollio, in his role as narrator (he is both narrator and actor), says, “It works this way—if men cannot agree on how to rule themselves, someone else must rule them.” In the manner of a morality play, Mr. White takes no risks with the perceptiveness of his readers. The final words of his longish epilogue spell out Pollio’s meaning: “The Republic was dead. Not for eighteen hundred years would there be another great attempt at self-government by free men until the Americans tried it” (and a few pages earlier: “in the United States for how long we do not know”). The “Republic of free men” was dead because Caesar killed it when he crossed the Rubicon. At that moment he lost “contact with reality” and became insane, “a man of our time.” “Paranoia is the occupational disease of leaders…we have known many paranoiacs—Stalin, Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and a dozen lesser madmen…. A man set apart from others and endowed with power is trapped by his triumph in a cage of his own making. So it was with Caesar.”

Mr. White boldly tries his hand at pinpointing the moment when Caesar passed over. The date is December 24, 50 B.C.; the place, Ravenna:

(Exit all, leaving Caesar alone, Caesar turns south, to Rome, and, in a voice rising from plea to denunciation, finally shouting, speaks from parapet to the darkness.)

Listen! Listen, I tell you. Rome, listen! Let me come and speak to you. Do you hear me? I am a citizen of Rome. I do not want to be a God. Do not want to be a God. I want to talk to you. There must be change, I tell you. I know. There must be order as we change. Let me explain. Let me come to you. Not as Sulla. Not as victim. Not as God. Let me talk. Without a sword. Do not make me a God. Do not make me…listen…listen…do you hear me?

(As he ends in a shriek, the first signal fire flares.)

Do you see? Romans, do you see? (Signal flares again.)

Listen! Listen!

(His voice is drowned in cheers, boos, catcalls, shriekings, mob sounds from out the darkness.)

Those are legions’ fires! Your legions. Our legions. My legions. I do not want to use them. Caesar does not want to be a God!


One must allow the playwright his license. White acknowledges that he is “trying to explore not what history says he [Caesar] did, but how he may have felt while doing it,” that “the words, talk and action” have been “drawn from imagination.” Fair enough. One accepts the boring didacticism when the characters remind one another of the familiar recent past in order to teach the audience a bit of Roman history, or explain with childlike fascination how fire signals work. One even accepts the “one-world” dialogue between Caesar and the captive Vercingetorix (whose talk comes dangerously close to pidgin English). If there are weaknesses in these aspects of the play, they are weaknesses only of technique. Not so, however, with the way in which White lays out in detail many of Caesar’s later acts before he has even crossed the Rubicon. Imagination has now become doctrine, as White projects the idea that the paranoiac-to-be had, from some undefined date, directed all his actions to a fully perceived and programmatic end, the brief dictatorship of 46-44 B.C.; that all the doubts, uncertainties, and maneuverings were merely tactical, the strategies and goals, the “ultimate purpose,” unchanging and clear.

I know no way to argue with a man who pretends to know, through his imagination, how “Caesar may have felt.” The “mad scene” seems to me pure (if not very good) Arturo Ui, not Julius Caesar, but I have no evidence to bring forward, any more than I can disprove Mr. White’s implication that calendar reform and the rest were in Caesar’s mind five, ten, maybe twenty years before they were made into law. But there is evidence about much else, and it is puzzling that a famous reporter who has obviously done his homework could have got so much wrong—puzzling and disturbing. The reduction of all characters other than Caesar (and perhaps Labienus) to idiots, scoundrels, and pygmies may be a deliberate dramatic device rather than simply a mistake. Either way there is a dangerous tendentiousness. Asinius Pollio, for example, is a young ninny, who introduces himself (as actor), “G. Asinius Pollio. Headquarters historian. At your service.” True, the stage directions at this point read, “Bowing, dapper, sophisticated, amused at the manners of the Commander” he is addressing, but throughout the play he displays none of these qualities; he performs the fictitious duties of court historian in a childish manner, innocently mouthing such drivel as, “But they can’t make one law this morning, another tomorrow,” or “(Not comprehending) Forever? The same calendar every year?” The real Asinius Pollio was a distinguished intellectual, who quickly rose to prominence in politics, military affairs, forensic oratory, and belles letters (including the writing of history). He made the personal and political decision to join the Caesarian faction only after agonizing uncertainty. As he wrote to Cicero less than seven years later, after Caesar’s assassination, “it was impossible for me to be neutral, because I had bitter enemies on both sides.”

The case of Balbus is worse. A very rich provincial from Cadiz in Spain, Balbus had been granted Roman citizenship through Pompey’s influence, and he used his wealth to boost himself into prominence in Roman factional politics, as did a number of other financiers. For a time he was close to both Pompey and Caesar, but, in Sir Ronald Syme’s words, he “gradually edged towards the more powerful attraction” of Caesar. When his citizenship was challenged in court in 56 B.C., Pompey, Crassus, and Cicero all defended him. Cicero’s speech survives, and it shows that Balbus was not liked. But that scarcely justifies Mr. White’s treatment. In the list of characters, he is “Caesar’s chief agent in the corruption of Roman politics, contact with senatorial intrigue; bagman and briber.” When he first comes on stage, the directions read “swarthy, fat and small, un-Roman,” and his opening words are delivered “mincingly.” He is in trouble with others in Caesar’s immediate circle because “the Senate won’t stay bought any more”—as confused a notion of what was going on in Rome as Caesar’s “Marcellus is the tool of the nobiles” (it would be nearer the mark to call the nobiles the tool of Marcellus). Later Labienus protests to Caesar because he had sent Balbus as emissary to Pompey: “You sent Balbus—a Spanish alien, to talk to him.” All this reveals a considerable misunderstanding of Roman factionalism, of the nobiles and populares, of the Senate, and, in other contexts, of the different popular assemblies.

By these methods White evokes a picture of Caesar as the darling of the marginal elements in the Roman empire against the nobiles. And that is the greatest error of all. Of course there were nobiles, like Cato and the Marcelli, who were prepared to destroy Caesar at any price; but he had strong support among the ancient patrician families, among the Roman bankers, and throughout the propertied classes of Italy (so that his crossing of the Rubicon was followed by an unimpeded, almost triumphal, march to Brindisi). In the civil war which ensued, the nobiles were evenly divided between Caesar and Pompey, with not a few 3aristocratic families divided among themselves.

Caesar’s crisis, in Mr. White’s view, arose because “the people” on whom he had always based himself had changed in ten years. In Act Two, Curio tells him so: “Caesar…you have been in Gaul nine years. These people are not the Roman people as you know them.” And Balbus chimes in: “What was the people, Caesar, now is mobs” (note the un-Roman grammar). Caesar responds with paranoia. In an astonishing passage in the epilogue, immediately preceding the lines I have already quoted on paranoia and leadership, White expounds his own political creed:

But when people identify their animal appetites and narrow greeds with rights and justice, the whole concept of self-government collapses; and those who call them to account, when they are wrong, are lumped as tyrants along with men of evil who earn that title by their cruelties.

It is difficult to condemn “the people” when they are wrong—for to repudiate by name what claims to be the people’s will has been, in every time and every culture, the ultimate sacrilege. However misguided, wicked, bestial or immoral the mobs that masquerade as people may become, to denounce them is heresy. It was heresy in the words of Isaiah and Christ; it was heresy in Confucian China even as it is today in Communist China—the “people” are always right. It is heresy in Russia, in the popular democracies, in America—and it was heresy in ancient Rome, too.

Thus, Caesar was required by his times to be a heretic….

There is the morality tale, a morality for our time. Roman pseudo-history is just a vehicle. I say “pseudo-history” deliberately. Not once does Mr. White ask himself what he means by “self-government,” “liberty,” or “the people.” As he uses these terms, they are politicians’ cant. Rome had been ruled by a tight oligarchy for two centuries before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, maintained in power by a constitutional machinery which gave the surface appearance of popular sovereignty (for Roman citizens alone) while denying it any substance, by every kind of corrupt practice when necessary, and by mob violence when that was needed. Political struggles were played out within the oligarchy, and every faction employed all the devices. It was a senatorial mob that lynched Tiberius Gracchus in 132 B.C.; it was the pro-senatorial Sulla who was the first man to march on Rome with an army and massacre the opposition in the streets. There was no popular self-government for Caesar to destroy, any more than there was liberty in Rome in the sense in which the Founding Fathers meant it 1800 years later, let alone in the sense in which honest men mean it today. As for the mobs, it requires remarkable callousness or remarkable ignorance to read a lesson about “animal appetites and narrow greeds” to the freeborn and the ex-slaves living in the appalling slums of Rome, without any prospect other than casual labor and handouts.

To understand Caesar, or Roman government, or “the mob,” one must first grasp, concretely and precisely, the social structure—unless, as I said at the beginning, one is an amateur with no sense of historical change. The Roman “mob” was neither an industrial working-class nor a Jacobin petty bourgeoisie; the nobiles had nothing in common with a modern military-industrial oligarchy, save a lust for power and profits. Glib talk about self-government and the people serves only to conceal the fundamental differences. And to fall back on paranoia is to evade both historical and political responsibility. Hitler’s psyche cannot explain the behavior of tens of millions of Germans, any more than Johnson’s explains the war in Vietnam, or Caesar’s the end of the dying Roman Republic. Asinius Pollio, we know from the ode Horace addressed to him, dated the terminal phase not from the Rubicon but from the creation, ten years earlier, of the First Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey.

  1. *

    A paperback of Butler’s Odyssey was published by the Washington Square Press at the end of 1964. On translating the Odyssey, see the important review-essay by D. S. Carne-Ross in Delos, July 1968.

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