Three Dead Slaves - Prologue, Part 5 (conclusion)
I stare off at the sunlight glinting on the porphyry tiles of Cleopatra's Palace as The Death of Caesar comes to its stirring conclusion. The complex is currently the residence of Aelius Gallus, the Roman Prefect, a sour-faced by-the-numbers general who is even now descending to the street, as if the play is over. He knows that everyone is watching him, but he keeps his head up and his eyes front and only glances around at the audience to put them in their place as lesser beings who are too stupid to walk out of a play once the main character dies. That's the kind of officer that Rome wants -- someone who knows enough to leave a lyric tragedy before the rest of the audience, so he can relieve himself in a privy and fortify himself with some liquid refreshment before the start of the next play in my son's trilogy. A man who knows that the truth is what he sees with his own two eyes, and since he has just seen Brutus and Cassius conspire to kill Caesar, for him the story of Caesar’s death is obvious -- Brutus was a patriot; Cassius was bitter and jealous; Caesar was a tyrant. Descriptions which, like military orders, will be repeated endlessly down the chain of command until everyone marches to the same monotonous rhythm, and the truth is crushed by an army of lies, and all that remains is the marching order that has become the official history of that dubious and chaotic time.
But then all histories are official, are they not? Uplifting fairy tales created specifically for the children of the world's survivors, and crafted to bequeath to them the valuable lessons and moral precepts which garnered their forefathers greatness and success. And the most important lesson is that, when you win, you not only get to play the hero, but you also get to declare that the loser was a villain, and proclaim that the gods were always on your side. Which is how the race of mortals has decided the issue of History ever since man first learned that language could be used to lie.
It is as if History is a single roll of papyrus. You open it up, and what you see is a story entitled “The Death of Caesar.” Here is Brutus; here is Cassius; here is the record of Caesar’s last hours. A quick glance tells you all you need to know about the facts. But when you look closely at the words, here and there you see something that looks like a smudge or a faint shadow, and you begin to realize that this roll of papyrus once contained a totally different story, a story that was erased to make room for the one that everyone now reads. And as you study the manuscript, you realize that “The Death of Caesar” as it has come down to us has been written over the half-erased story of how and why three slaves were murdered, of what their deaths meant to Brutus and Cassius, and how their deaths led to the final hours of Caesar.
Three dead slaves.
In my mind, they all lie together on a hot and dusty road, barren of everything except the smell of decay. And then, like a wild rose, the death of Caesar sprouts up from their bodies, and what was once thought to be lifeless is revealed to be an evil garden.
Three dead slaves.
Everyone has forgotten those dead slaves. Everyone except me. I remember their names. I remember their faces. I remember how Rome was shaken when their bodies were discovered. From the Tarpeian Rock of hindsight, it is easy to see how they heralded the earthquake of the Ides of War as surely as if they had been a series of preliminary tremors. But at the time, they were earthquakes in their own right. Now, they are as inconsequential as the initial sacrifices at a great man's funeral. If it had been any other man's funeral, those sacrifices might still be remembered. But this was mighty Caesar's pyre -- the blaze that burned away his earthly shell from its bald head to its fallen arches, leaving behind the immortal spirit which now presides over the imperial future of Rome as its newest god, presumably with younger feet and a full head of hair.
And History? History is like Medusa. She turns living, breathing human beings into statues, and then she arranges them in an orderly tableau of frozen poses that represent courage and honor, betrayal and love, victory and defeat. If an event cannot be summed up in a simple thought or a single word, she does not make a statue of it. But Caesar’s death? Look –- there is a statue of Marcus Brutus with a knife raised high. Cassius stands behind him; the dead body of Caesar lies in front of him. As far as the Medusa History is concerned, that is all you need to know about the death of Julius Caesar. The whole story told in one image. What could be simpler?
That is how History works. It winnows. It simplifies. History loves simplicity. History adores simplicity. Given the choice between a complicated truth and a simple lie, History will choose simplicity every time. Simplicity is a clever and a powerful magician -- clever enough to supply an illusion so vivid that it makes a liar out a man’s better judgment, and powerful enough to make a man reciting the facts sound like a self-serving liar. And when the facts behind the deaths of those three slaves are told? Caesar’s death is anything but simple.
Three dead slaves.
I take a deep breath. I stare straight ahead. The actor playing Brutus is raising a bloody sword. He calls the murder a sacrifice, an offering to the gods. He asks for the blessing of History and the support of the righteous, not knowing that History will brand him as a villain and the righteous will shun him like a leper. And as he proclaims a new era of freedom for Rome, I think back to the days of the old era, and how it really ended.
copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells