Thursday, March 12, 2009

Three Dead Slaves - Prologue, Part 3

Three Dead Slaves - Prologue, Part 3

As I watch, Cassius steps forward to strike next. This, at least, is historically accurate. Cassius was indeed the first man to attack the Dictator head on, but only because he could not see two feet in front of his nose with any clarity. Beyond that, his world was a misty fog of hazy figures, any one of whom could be the Dictator. As Albinus remarked, when he discovered that Cassius was angry at him over some petty slight: "Cassius isn't angry with me -- he's angry at life, because it refuses to get close enough for him to see it." (Poor Albinus -- besides being the only Conspirator with military experience, he was also the only one with a sense of humor.)

At any rate, there was neither laughter nor argument among the conspirators when Cassius, giving lip service to his deeply-felt belief in the restoration of the Res Publica, demanded pride of place in the assassination line. Everyone understood that Cassius' motives were as blurry as his eyesight; his rabid denunciations of the Dictatorship had nothing to do with the office and everything to do with the man. To Cassius, politics was the bow he used to fire a volley of poisoned arrows at Caesar. The Conspirators understood this; and since Cassius was as purblind as a mole, the general consensus was that a clear field and an uninterrupted charge would be the only way to prevent Cassius from stabbing either himself or somebody else in his splenetic attempts to eviscerate the Dictator. So, as soon as Casca's knife came down, Cassius was given a healthy push in the right direction by Albinus and Titinius, and everyone else within reach scurried as far away as possible as Brutus' roaring brother-in-law slammed into the Dictator head on and, as Albinus remarked later, "viciously stabbed to death a perfectly innocent toga." Some say that the Dictator actually laughed at the missed blow; others report that he cried: "You stab like a girl, Cassius!" But all agree that Caesar spat in Cassius' face, after which Cassius roared again and swung his knife like a scythe, carving the empty air as the other conspirators shoved him away and descended on Caesar in a spume of blades and blood.

But there is no spitting as this Cassius strikes his blow against tyranny; and as for confusion, it is nowhere to be seen. Everything is orderly and polite as the music swells and swords flash up and strike down in wave after perfectly-choreographed wave, like a tide of silver. Meanwhile the chorus of Senators has broken into two groups on either side of the slaughter. The group on the right is singing a passage in Greek from the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, specifically Agamemnon's cry of despair as Clytemnestra kills him offstage. This is either the writer's idea of a joke or an astute observation on the reading habits of the Roman upper class. The Senators on the left are singing: "The gods have decided the issue! The gods are defending the right! The gods are speaking now!" They repeat this over and over again, first in Latin, then in Greek, then in six-part harmony, while the Senators with the swords perform a stately, ritualistic dance in front of the Dictator. It resembles a receiving line -- one by one they each shuffle up to their victim and strike him with a sword, while the entire group sings in Latin:

Here is the crown of a Roman king --
Here is his coronation.
Here is the throne that he deserves --
The throne of death and damnation.

Stirring stuff. Would that the real assassination had been so well directed; instead, it was a chaotic butchery. Of the one hundred and sixteen separate injuries that were inflicted during the minute and a half it took the Conspirators to change the history of Rome forever, only twenty-three wounds were found in Caesar's body. And only two of those were lethal. All the other blows -- ninety-three of them -- were struck in a storm of slices and stabs that rained down on anyone unlucky enough to venture within arm's distance of the victim. Not a few of these ninety-three were struck by the Dictator himself, who used a stylus to slash at his attackers as they forced him back against Pompey's statue. Proving that the pen draws more blood than the sword -- as long as the pen is in the hand of a writer like Caesar.

The music suddenly resolves itself into a deep drumbeat, and the chorus of Senators has become a double line stretching from Caesar to a single man standing at the far end of the stage -- Brutus, the only conspirator who has yet to strike a blow. One line of Senators is chanting "Death! Death! Death!" while the other line is chanting "Rome! Rome! Rome!" Both lines are stomping their feet.

The Dictator, whose toga is awash with blood, is leaning heavily against his throne. He pushes himself upright and staggers forward so that he is standing in the center of the aisle of Senators, about fifteen feet away from Brutus. He clutches at his bleeding stomach with one hand; with the other he points at Brutus. "My son, my son,” he says in Greek.

Brutus replies in Latin. “I am not the man you think I am.”

“Nice touch,” I whisper. My son elbows me, but there is a smile on his face.

And now Caesar is extending both hands towards Brutus, and proclaiming his famous final words. “Kai su, teknon?” he says, his voice quavering. You too, my son?

"Well at least that's authentic," I mutter.

My son elbows me again as Brutus cries out: "No son of yours, but a true son of Rome!"

There is a burst of applause from audience right, where about a dozen Roman soldiers are pretending to watch the play while they drink and eat and talk amongst themselves. I can’t decide whether they are cheering because they side with Brutus against Caesar (a dangerous position now that the Empire is being run by his adopted son) or because, like all foreigners, they cannot resist the urge to cheer whenever someone mentions their home city in public.

[ -- to be continued]

Previous excerpts:
Part 1
Part 2

copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

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