Wednesday, April 7, 2010


Peter Jones, Literary Review, November 2007

I did warn the Editor that I have, on principle, little time for books like this, but she insisted. This review, therefore, may not be up to LR’s typically cool and Olympian standards of objectivity.

Maria Wyke, who is professor of Latin at University College London, has written a ‘metabiography’ of Julius Caesar. Using the sources to pick out certain aspects of Caesar’s character, she matches them with accounts of later ages’ use of them for their own, usually political, purposes.

For example, she examines the story of Caesar’s military abilities, particularly through his dealings with one of his most fearsome opponents in Gaul, Vercingetorix. Caesar presents the Gallic chieftain as the man most responsible for inciting revolt against Roman rule, and sources describe his capture and humiliation at Caesar’s hands. Later ages debated Caesar’s generalship/cruelty/ambition and the benefit/cost of Romanizing Gaul. The French 13thC Deeds of the Romans (a biography of Caesar) turns Caesar into a preux chevalier, but sounds a warning note – his ambition rather blotted his escutcheon. But Vercingetorix is a hero and match for Caesar in military prowess; when he is captured, he is happy to serve under such a courtly ruler.

Machiavelli held Caesar up as a model strategist while deploring his politics, but Napoleon admired Caesar as a statesman and found his tactics lacking. Nineteenth century France turned Vercingetorix into its greatest patriot and resistance leader, noble defender and national martyr. Archaeology in particular spurred an interest in him, but France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870 was a set-back. The French consoled themselves with the thought that the German empire would eventually be thrown off as the Roman had been. And so to Asterix, who from his little village comically defies the might of the Roman army, but slowly wins the great Caesar’s respect.

Wyke continues in this vein throughout the book, considering later ages’ response to Caesar as revolutionary, lusty lover, triumphalist, tyrant (or libertarian?), and ending with his assassination and deification.

If you like this sort of thing, this is indeed the sort of thing you will like. I find it all very hard to swallow. The reason is that the job of a Latin scholar is to solve problems in Latin literature. There are enough that need solving, for heavens’ sake. But this latest fad of ‘Reception Studies’, as they are called, does nothing but tell us how the last 2000 years has used classical models. So instead of the solution to problems, we get a check list of facts, a series of accounts of how this or that writer or artist or film director responded to this or that aspect of the ancient world, and for what reasons. It strikes me as a waste of time and energy. If in so doing Wyke was excavating long-lost interpretations to solve problems or enhance our understanding of Caesar the Roman, there would be some point. But she does not. And is it really the job of a classicist to spend her time banging on about 19^th C French history (which, inevitably, features large)?

It may be that scholars who study ‘reception’ imagine that they are doing the subject a favour by showing how ‘relevant’ it has been down the ages. Very well: there is indeed purpose in pointing out that ‘Caesarism’ from the 19^th C became a term for one who seized power from an elected government, was sustained by the military and then declared himself democratically legitimate. But ultimately the relevance lies not in /how/ later ages used the subject-matter, a matter of sublime unimportance to Classicists, but in the very fact that they were drawn to the subject-matter in the first place. In other words, it is the intrinsic interest of e.g. the figure of Julius Caesar as a Roman that is the important thing, not how some dim medievalist exploited it.

To me the interest of Wyke’s book lies in her use of the ancient sources for Caesar’s life. Here she does a proper job. For example, she looks at the story that, aged 26, Caesar was captured by pirates. He instructed friends to gather a vast ransom, and spent the time meanwhile joking with and generally lording it over his captors, promising to capture them in turn and crucify them when he had been freed. Which he did, masterfully commandeering a fleet against the will of the local provincial governor, defeating the pirates and carrying out the punishment (though mercifully slitting their throats beforehand).

Wyke argues that, since the details of this capture (which is not improbable, given the pirate trade in the Mediterranean) must have come from Caesar himself, he almost certainly embellished the details to put himself in the most favourable light (ancient image-polishing at work); and the story, as she shows, was indeed used by Roman historians to laud Caesar’s audacity, self-assurance and decisiveness of action. There then follow accounts of Caesar in 19thC etchings by Pinelli (Caesar is cruel, imperious, arrogant etc. Gosh, really), various brainless 20thC novels and (if you can believe it) the TV series Xena: Princess Warrior (challenging traditional conceptions of male heroism, yawn yawn) and a Microsoft digital game ‘Caesar vs. Pirates’. Just the sort of subject-matter to which a professor of Latin should be turning her mind.

‘Metabiography’ is a splendidly apt, and all too revealing, description of the subject of this book, for it introduces the concept of ‘metascholarship’ and ‘metaresearch’, i.e. not real scholarship or research at all. With all these receptionists offering their services as easy guides to Classics Lite down the millennia, Latin and Greek will soon be indistinguishable from Hotel and Tourism Studies. But I repeat: if you think ‘reception’ is valuable, you will welcome this study.

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