Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Many Faces of Julius Caesar

Caesar - the mere name conjures up images of power, prestige and arrogance. Julius Caesar has never failed to capture the hearts and minds of the public, whether it be in ancient times or today. During and directly after his life, Caesar was both revered and hated by many. Those who revered him would eventually prevail, and it was his name and "divine" lineage that helped solidify Octavian's position in the latter half of the 1st century BCE. Octavian, who would later be given the name Augustus, took Caesar's family name and exploited the fact that he was now the son (adopted) of the divine Julius. The name Caesar would eventually loose its family connection with the death of Nero and would hence forth be more of a title of office. Julius Caesar faded from the public view during the middle ages until his story was revived by Shakespeare in his famous play. Today, Caesar is a house hold name, though many probably don't know his full story or the amazing role he played in shaping Rome's destiny

Julius Caesar has always been one of my favorite characters from Roman history. The story of his life and his rise to power is full of drama and intrigue and his personal desire for success was astonishing. Caesar possessed many rare talents that made him stand out from the crowd, and putting those talents to use made him continually victorious against overwhelming odds. Caesar the man is perhaps not so noble as Caesar the myth, though, and it's important never to look at history through rose colored glasses. For all his famous clemency, Caesar started a war in Gaul out of a desire for personal glory. The Gallic Wars probably cost over one million lives and led to widespread destruction. Caesar also launched the Roman world into civil war to suit his own ends and protect his own interests. Arguing the pros and cons of Caesar's exploits has been discussed in multiple volumes, and I won't try to justify or condemn his actions here.

So, why all this talk of Caesar. A new museum exhibit, of course. "Caesar: The man, the deeds, the myth" is now showing in Italy at the Chiostro del Bramante. According the to the New York Times article below, the exhibit is quite promising. Far too often the public gets the facts wrong about history, and they can't necessarily be blamed. Gladiator and HBO's Rome are sensational, but tend to distort facts. Movies and shows like those are necessary to spark people's interest, but it's up to scholars and museums to make clear the fact vs. the fiction. This new Caesar exhibit has a wide range of artifacts spanning Caesar's career, and it is always exciting to see such exhibits brought to the public. I hope this exhibit shows a balanced picture of Caesar though, for to understand the man is to understand all aspects of him, both good and bad.