Classic Characters: Caesar as an inspiration for Fantasy works.

Caesar

Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar is an obvious favourite for any young lad who is excited by Roman history. Love him or hate him, he is certainly a figure that has inspired a vast body of literature. This is  partially because Caesar is a far more complex character than his own (professed) hero, Alexander the Great, which allows an author to portray him in a variety of ways and partly because one can come to know Caesar in his own voice, since he wrote several works that survive to this day, and many more that are discussed in surviving sources. What I wouldn’t give to read some of his lost poetry or his Anticato (a sort of written insult to a senatorial nemesis, Cato).

Caesar was famed for his skill as a commander in the field and in maneuvering the corridors of power during the era of civil strife that marked the end of the Republic. His early life rarely gets mentioned but is fascinating and engaging. Here are a few examples.

  • By the time Caesar reached adulthood, the Republic had already experienced a fair share of Civil strife. His aunt was married to Gaius Marius who contested against another favourite Roman of mine, Lucius Cornelius Sulla in a civil war. At one point Marius and his faction even nominated a young Caesar (sixteen?) for Priest of Jupiter. Naturally when Sulla defeated Marius for good, the young Caesar was on his list of people to purge, but influential relatives managed to save Caesar and he quickly made himself scarce in Rome. Given Caesar’s talent for politics it is quite likely that this stint outside of the heart of the empire was good for him in many ways, as is the fact that Sulla confiscated much of his inheritance, forcing him to work all the harder to achieve his ambitions (conjecture on my part, Caesar was very clever to begin with, but I have always felt that circumstances prevented him from resting on his laurels like many of his peers).
  • After Sulla died, Caesar returned to Rome, living in a poor suburb and making his living as a Lawyer. He became renowned for his oratory. Interestingly he gained favour for exposing the corruption of others.
  • Caesar was captured by Pirates as a young man, impressing them all with his demeanor. When his captors wanted to ransom Caesar famously pointed out to them that the ransom was too low, an action that provides many insights into his character and situation. He also told the pirates that if he survived he would one day return and have them crucified, which they took as a joke. Sadly for them, it wasn’t.
  • As a young Roman without a lot of wealth and bad connections Caesar was forced to move on from easy posts and take military assignments all over the empire. Although he complained about these, famously weeping (supposedly) when he saw a Statue of Alexander the great who had risen to rule the known world at an age when Caesar was just a minor officer, the body of experience he accumulated in his endeavors served him very well in later life.

Young Caesar make an ideal model for a classical character. Because he is such  a complex character, open to interpretation,  his life can serve as inspiration for pastoral styles or even grimdark. Many of us are familiar with the events of his middle years, the constant struggles with politics, debt, and his military triumphs, ending in a consulship and then the Governership of Gaul (all of it) where he gained his greatest fame (to modern audiences) as a military commander, and eventually becoming Dictator before he was assassinated. Along the way he meets Cleopatra, shows magnanimity to his enemies (a mistake? perhaps, given that they were attempting to conserve a system that he was a threat to), and crosses both the Rhine and the English Channel. However Caesar was a man of surprising talents, and did quite a few things which are often forgotten. Here are a few.

  • Caesar was entitled to a Triumph, one of the grand processions that were accorded to Rome’s great generals, for his victories in Spain. He wanted to run for the Consulship however, and the Triumph would have delayed that. He asked for an exception of sorts, the vagaries of Roman politics are very interesting at this time, but Cato blocked him. Caesar was forced to choose between Triumph and running for the Consulship — he chose the Consulship, looking to the future instead of resting on a sure thing.
  • Caesar was rumoured to have had an affair with a king of an allied province early in his career. He vehemently denied this, but it is interesting and adds more meat to the story. Mark Antony also said that Octavian used sex to gain Caesar’s favour, although this is often called out as slander.
  • Caesar was directly involved in class warfare. He supported Pompey’s land reforms (forcefully). Ronald Syne has an excellent book about the Roman Revolution, showing it as a case of class warfare of sorts. The love that the poor, and the military class bore Caesar may have rubbed off on Octavian, giving him the base of support needed to become the first emperor.
  • Caesar introduced the Julian Calender in 46 BC. The calendar was 365.25 days long with twelve regular months and an extra day every four years. We use a corrected variation of this calender, reformed later. Interestingly the calender was reformed partly because political meddling was throwing off the years. As a result of this reform the year 46 BC was 455 days long in Rome to bring it back into proper alignment with the equinoxes, which raised a few eyebrows. The adoption of this calendar and subsequent reforms and confusions outlasted the man himself by quite some time… Caesar’s most important contribution was seeing the problem and imposing a solution where others would have just been content to continue taking advantage.
  • Caesar essentially made Rome into a province to counter the view that those who were born and lived outside of Rome could not really be considered for high office. This reform was completed by Augustus, and was considered essential to transforming the Empire into a cohesive whole instead of a network of linked semi-states ruled by Rome. It also alleviated the complaints of many outside Rome who wanted to be seen as true citizens. I would guess that this reform really pissed certain people off — some people always resist change, however fair.

Caesar, with all his greatness and his flaws, is an exemplar of classical civilization, and his life could serve as inspiration for many different types of fantasy characters. Caesar appears in several guises in my works, as inspiration for Gavin and Marius, and even Sadira.

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