I Came, I Saw, I "Netflixed": On Caesar And His Series
There are few historical figures by whom I’m perpetually besotted. Alexander the Great is one, George Washington, commensurately great, yet another. Thomas Paine, Marcus Aurelius, and Julius Caesar—a third, fourth, and fifth to round out that list. I could go on with Newton, Galileo, Spinoza, and such, but I’ll save for the moment my breath. So boundless however, is my adoration for these men that any time there’s a series or a special produced in their memory, I’m quick to consume it.
Netflix last year released a five-part series on Julius Caesar, history’s quintessential general, statesman, and—had time permitted—imperial king. Below is my reception and review of the series and its subject as by Netflix they were conceived.
By and large, the show disallowed any tincture of mythology from mixing with the historical sobriety of its script. It was downright abstemious of any story or gossip that might deviate from the reality of the past. The show determined not to forsake a primary source, no matter the dramatic potency of the hearsay by which it might’ve been inspired or even supplemented—though surely not supplanted. After all, the transition from republic to royal empire was an incredible moment in time, often beggaring belief. While on the whole, I was deeply appreciative of the show’s unwavering commitment to history and to the facts, I felt as though I’d been dramatically dispossessed of the ending for which I had hoped. Perhaps a surfeit of Shakespeare and a too-heavy reliance on Plutarch had corrupted my soul in its expectation to see that which I saw not.
The day upon which Caesar was fated to die, the infamous ides of March (in the forty-forth year, lest we forget, before that subsequent, though certainly less militant man sharing in the initials “J.C.” was destined to arrive on the scene) contained none of macabre premonitions, the baneful forewarnings, the desperate exhortations, nor the nervous qualms for which I so patiently waited. “For many strange prodigies and apparitions”, so says Plutarch, “are said to have been observed shortly before the event” of Caesar’s death. Perhaps my literary fancy, my classical inclinations, and my unabashed bardolatry have obscured my thinking as it pertains to the facts (apparitions, sadly, evade the scrutiny of history even when emphasized by Plutarch’s pen). But none of the moments by which that most moribund of all days is remembered permit themselves to creep into the Netflix narrative.
Calpurnia, last though certainly not least of the innumerable lovers to whom Caesar was treated, is accounted not to have dreamed her ominous dream—a startling nightmare at whose end her pompous paramour was seen to be washed in his own blood. With feminine sapience and in fear of this dream, she implored Caesar not to go to the senate that day. Contemptuous of good sense and desirous to made king, he listened to her pleas briefly, but not seriously nor long enough.
The pictures in Caesar’s house of his ambivalent ancestors are shown not to have fallen to the floor—a sign that even gravity yields and submits to history when the latter’s wheel creaks and turns. Omitted completely is the voice of the soothsayer, whose salve is not in words but in deadly prophecy. Insouciantly, though perhaps prematurely, in approaching him Caesar claims with regal confidence and good-natured raillery that the ides have come, and still here I stand. He thinks himself well for feeling momentarily alive. With a rejoinder that makes my skin crawl even after the passage of two thousand years, the prophet of death reminds the timeless dictator that yes, the ides have come, but they haven’t yet passed. His death was ordained to occur within the length of that most memorable day.
Absent also is the Greek servant from whom Caesar might’ve been the recipient of a life-preserving note. Had he read it promptly and in due course, the general-turned-consular would’ve known upon entering Pompey’s theater his neighborly senators’ aims. Also missing is the animal upon whom Caesar performed traditional Roman sacrificial rites. Disquietingly, it was an animal in whose chest no heart was to be found—an obviously bad omen, as no animal can long persist without that vital organ by which it’s brought to life. And finally, the show omitted the foreboding conversation that Caesar had with Lepidus, the latter of whom would go on to be a tertiary member of the second triumvirate in the tumultuous years to come. Philosophically, Lepidus broached the question of what sort of death would be best. It’s a question into which every Stoic and Epicurean has stuck his nose. With an abrupt immediacy and a Laconic brevity, Caesar responded, “A sudden one”.
And sudden it was. Not one whole day following the provision of that answer, Caesar was led by Decimus Brutus to the theater to which his late, great arch nemesis lent his name. Standing beneath the statue of Pompey, Caesar conversed with the gathered senators over contrived and weightless odds and ends. Each appeared to be supplicating the dictator more than his wont. Eventually, Caesar made his way to his seat, around which all of the conspiring senators gathered to stand. Preparing to effectuate this greatest coup d'etat that ever a state did see, Tillius Cimber continued to supplicate the fledgling monarch for the remittance of his banished brother’s crime. Caesar refused, Tillius grasped his robes, and the clumsily conspicuous sign to initiate the attack was made.
Casca struck first, with a non-lethal blow to the neck. Perhaps it was his nerves or a second-guessing of himself that unsteadied his normally resolute hand. Perhaps, if not that, the political comforts by which the haughty senator was surrounded had enervated the formerly martial spirit by which he once rose. So impotent was his thrust that Caesar was able not only nearly to wrest from him his dagger, but to shout at him in anger. “Vile Casca”, cried the incredulous Caesar, “what does this mean?” He soon would know, as after twenty-three blows, he’d be dead.
I was simmering in anticipation when Netflix portrayed this scene. I knew it wouldn’t fail in dramatizing Caesar’s immortal line, Et tu, Brute? as the dying dictator gazed into the eyes of his final killer and putative son. Brutus, ephebic, eristic, and republican to the core, was the final cause of his downfall, and perhaps his first joy. Indeed, I held onto the hope that the show would place into Caesar’s mouth the line in the original Greek (kai su teknon, or, “You too, my child?”) from which a world of speculation emerges as it regards the parentage of the spurious Brutus and the sire from whom he came. Disappointingly, the show defers from using this possibly legendary line and committing itself to this idea. As viewers to whom all possibilities ought to be offered, we’re left inconclusively charging Brutus with tyrannicide alone. Probably, parricide should be included.
The Et tu, Brute? line is merely one of many throughout the course of the series of which Caesar is dispossessed. Upon crossing the Rubicon, that still ill-defined trickle of water separating Cisalpine Gaul from Italy, Caesars fails to utter alea iacta est. Apparently, the historian Suetonius was wrong in making us believe the die were cast. Another famous line, perhaps more so than those other two, finds not an utterance in Caesar’s mouth. Veni, vidi, vici—“I came, I saw, I conquered”—were rather the words written than spoken to the senate upon the great general’s victory in Pontus, a city in the northern part of the modern day Turkish state. Appian, the third of the most reliable of Caesarian historians, claims Caesar to have conceived of this line but is fully ignored by the show. Its “suitable air of brevity”, as Plutarch describes it, is entirely lost. There’s also no mention by the show of the famous line, “Fear nothing; You carry Caesar and his fortune in your boat”.
But Caesar’s true fortune was to be carried in a different, slightly more organic vessel. That vessel, of course, was to be found in none other than the imperial temptress and the Egyptian queen—the femme fatale of antiquity, Cleopatra.
It was on this point that the show sacrificed historicity for sensuality and veracity for voluptuousness. A crime of which all production houses are guilty and one they can’t help but commit, Netflix’s portrayal of Cleopatra is, if we’re to take seriously the accounts of her, misleading. Doubtless, she was an alluring woman of whom most men of stature were enamored, but in no text is she described as having been an especially beautiful woman.
Probably, as a North African woman of aristocratic birth, she was in possession of a dark complexion, an ample ornament, and a slender physiognomy with high cheekbones, exiguous bosom, and confidence nonpareil. The attribute by which most men were attracted, however, was not her femininity in physique but her facility in speech. She was a particularly capable mistress of linguistics, often able to converse with potentates, emissaries, and foreign kings in their native tongues. A pharaonic polyglot of no ill-breed, her silver words slithered all over the Mediterranean coast—much like a later cobra slithered all over her, the opening of whose mouth ended that of hers.
Ultimately, so far as Cleopatra VII was concerned (though theatrically an original, she was actually the seventh of her name) her beauty was secondary to her tongue. Her intellect, her force of personality, and her political instinct were her primary attractions. She was more political than pulchritudinous, more Juno than Venus. Netflix, in acknowledgement of its need to retain the attention of its eager and virile viewer, overlooks this bothersome fact. The company rightly employed a breathtakingly gorgeous Australian actress to play the Egyptian queen. Perhaps it did so at the risk of alienating its commitment to history, but as one of those shameless, virile viewers, I forgive it this lapse.
So far as it goes, Netflix’s portrayal of the life of Julius Caesar is commendable. As such, it could prove a highly useful supplement to the study of that man and his time. It’s as irreproachably accurate from an historical standpoint as it is impressive from an artistic one. Graphically, it’s enlightening and illustrative of exactly where Caesar fought, and where Pompey and Crassus died. It confirms in the searching mind an image of the triumvirate, the Rubicon, the battle plan of the siege of Alesia, as well as that of Alexandria. It ignores the burning of that city’s eponymous library at Caesar’s hand, but otherwise captures Egyptian life accurately. It gives pictorial strength where merely historical facts fail to satisfy the student in search of a colorful past.
But it shouldn’t be taken alone. In an endeavor to understand and appreciate Julius Caesar particularly, and the waning Roman republic by extension in a broader light, this series should not be a first course. For that, you’ll want initially to grab for Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare’s unmistakably-named play. You’ll want also within reach the works of Suetonius and Appian from whom such endless knowledge is available. Cicero might also be added to this diet to salubrious affect, as well as such modern commentators as Colleen McCullough and Mattias Gelzer who best understand and depict this man, his life, and his mission. But Netflix does its part, however humble and, at times, un-theatrical, in adding to the list. After finishing your readings, it’s doubtless worth your time.