Tuesday, 9 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: ubi et orbi or as the empire turns

After real and perceived achievements during the Gallic campaigns—helped through self-propagrandisement, Caesar made excursions across the Rhine, which was the superstitious northern boundary of the Empire and beyond which lie the Germanic tribes—marshalling his engineers to construct a bridge in less than a month to support the movement of forty-thousand soldiers and their wagon train, only to tear it down again once the troops were paraded in Teutonic territories—and their point was proven.
Caesar’s legions went on to land on the mythical Isle of the Britons—though no colony was established there until Hadrian’s time. Though essentially exiled from Rome, Caesar and his troops were generally enjoying their time in the field and wanted for no hardships. Despite the fact that neither the general nor his senatorial opponents really respected the jot and tittle technicalities of the law—unless it served them well, Caesar, with his string of successes, was fully confident that he would be allowed to serve a second consecutive term as pro-counsel on the frontier of Gaul, as the second five year term would bring Caesar to the ten-year limitation of standing for counsel of the city. Realising Caesar’s intentions, the Senate demanded that the general disband his legions and issued his recall to Rome. Caesar refused to return to Rome unless he was allowed to retain the protection of his armies—since he would no longer be immune from prosecution, and while the Senate probably would not have crucified this war-hero, Caesar would be compelled to retire from political life, a prospect which probably struck him as worse than death.
Facing the eventual attrition of his legions (the Senate starving them out and no relief fighters coming if not an attack from the army of the republic—though such an assault would be without precedence), Caesar decided to act immediately and marched his legions south. By crossing the Rubicon, going from the province of Gaul into the Empire proper, Caesar mobilised a Roman fighting force against Rome itself. It was no bluff, but the Senate, not knowing the size of the army on the march, fled to Greece and abandoned the city, bringing along most of those with means with them and leaving Rome defenseless and empty. In truth, neither side wanted the bad publicity of open fighting between factions, and Caesar was keen on forgiveness, generally pardoning his enemies—at least the leadership, no matter the transgression. Caesar declared himself dictator of the deserted city, and appointed his long-time brother-in-arms, a brilliant strategist though hopeless dissolute in his private life, Mark Antony as caretaker, while he went to pursue the opposing armies, under the direction of Pompey, a once loyal member of Caesar’s coalition of three, the Triumvirate. Caesar chased Pompey to Egypt, where the defender of the Republic, bereft of his military and leader of a Senate only in name sought refuge. The kingdom with its capital in Alexandria, ruled by the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty since its founding by Alexander the Great, had maintained an uneasy peace with Rome as a client state, bribing diplomats for their continued independence and keeping Rome at arm’s length. Pompey believed he could find some supporters there—especially if he could vouchsafe their sovereignty. Once Pompey arrived, however, he was immediately beheaded by a faction loyal to Caesar who believed that they were executing Caesar’s wishes—and he might be able to forgo an unwelcome, prolonged visit—besides Egypt was in the midst of its own civil war and did have the time to deal with Roman intrigues, just as Rome—appointed as executor of the Egyptian ruler’s last will and testament had been too busy with its own constitutional crisis to enforce the other’s wishes. When the last ruler of Alexandria died, as was tradition, joint leadership passed on to his children, young Ptolemy XIII and his older sister Cleopatra.
The royal advisors, knowing it would be an easier matter to control a ten-year-old rather than the experienced and savvy Cleopatra sought to divest her of all power. In the midst of these maneuvers, Caesar arrived in Alexandria, looking for Pompey. When Caesar was presented with his old associate’s head, the sole-survivor of the Triumvirate was mortified—possibly more remorseful for having lost the chance to forgive his rival and be an all-around good-winner. Caesar had the assassin executed and because of the boy-king’s advisors’ involvement in the act, sided with Cleopatra (also admiring her moxy in being snuck back into the capital, hidden in a linen basket) and helped her regain her place on the throne. Since destined to wed her brother, in order to keep the royal succession in the family, and grateful for the support, the young queen became quite enamoured with the old general—and for the first time in a decade, Caesar took a vacation—in the form of a month-long luxury cruise down the Nile. Although it was surely relaxing and resulted in the only male child, Ptolemy XV Caesarion, that Caesar was to sire (known, at least), the general saw no reason to squander a chance to make an impression upon the countryside, with some four-hundred ships regaled in the wake of Caesar’s yacht. Here was another land where Roman presence was entrenched. After this liaison and enemies dispatched with, Caesar returned to Rome to relieve the remaining populace from the terror of Antony, who carried himself with hedonism and casual disregard for the common-man as well as any future emperor. Caesar was cheered and even mostly when he presented Cleopatra—except by his wife and those suspicious of this Eastern temptress.  Wave after wave of tribute-parades were celebrated but the thronged masses grew weary of the spectacle when the floats started depicting those local personalities who fell from grace.

The crowd may have been starting to appreciate the countermands of his opponents and seeing the triumphs in the sobre and disappointing light of a man responsible for so much bloodshed and sorrow by his singular refusal to give up the limelight. Possibly due to having a scarcity of choice, Caesar announced that he would be launching a campaign to pacify the Balkans, whose amity emerged as a threat out of nowhere. Those elements that remained that feared Caesar's tyranny—he had indeed resigned from his self-proclaimed earlier dictatorship but later had it reinstated for life, knew they had to act quickly before Caesar once again repaired to the borderlands, and contrived a simple plot, with no thought for succession-planning. The conspirators resolved to rid Rome of a usurping king, thought that is exactly what they got for the rest of the Empire's career, and lured Caesar to the Senate on the eve of his departure with a fabricated bill that required his attention. Despite portends from friends and family, Caesar did not want to be seen as standing-up the Senate again and went to his chambers. Caesar was stabbed thirty-four times. Eulogised by Antony, Caesar's will was unsealed and bequeathed Rome quite an unexpected cliffhanger: Caesar's last testament called for the posthumous adoption of his nephew Octavian (though Caesar recognised potential), a frail and rather unspectacular youth, and left the lion's share of his fortune and estate to him. Antony, Caesar's loyal confidant and trusted second in command felt more than slighted by this omission. Almost right away, the alliance between Octavian (who took his adoptive father's name) and Antony fell asunder, with Antony consumed with retaking the reigns and rich rightly his. Finding one another in similar straits, feeling betrayed by the same man, Antony took up with Cleopatra and retreated to Egypt.  Together, with the Egyptian queen elevated to Antony's co-general, the two raised an army to wrest power away from Octavian.  Though the Senate, despite being defanged themselves, had long since stripped Antony of all executive powers, he and Cleopatra declared that Caesarion, Caesar's illegitimate son, and the twins that were the result of Antony's affair, were princes and princesses of the Roman provinces.
This announcement particularly incensed Octavian, being that Antony was married to his sister, and though adultery was tolerated in Roman culture provided it was done sufficiently on the sly, Octavian began to style Cleopatra as some sort of wicked enchantress, like Circe, and had the formerly loyal Antony under her spell.  After a failed sea-battle, the duo were eventually cornered in Alexandria, hiding out in the chambers of a tomb that Cleopatra had been building for herself, nothing as conspicuous as a pyramid, however.  Forlorn at their poor prospects and cramped-quarters, Antony called for Cleopatra, but weary, she sent a slave to inform Antony that she was already dead.  Wracked with grief, Antony stabbed himself and hearing his death-moans, Cleopatra came running to comfort Antony.  Cleopatra was captured at that instant and had no time to follow his example.  Faced with the prospect of being paraded around Rome as a prisoner, Cleopatra had a deadly asp smuggled into her cell in a basket by a slave and poked at it until it struck.  In rapid-succession, our Roman adventures present themselves a lot like the plot from a soap-opera, and there is much more below the surface and popular idioms.  Hopefully for you too, such a portrayal might be inspiration to learn more.