Tag Archives: ancient history

I shall do nothing but look at the sky

Roman Wall Blues

W.H. Auden


Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.


The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why.


The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,

My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.


Aulus goes hanging around her place,

I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.


Piso’s a Christian, he worships a fish;

There’d be no kissing if he had his wish.


She gave me a ring but I diced it away;

I want my girl and I want my pay.


When I’m a veteran with only one eye

I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

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Filed under Historical Facts and Trivia, Poetry

Beware the Ides of March

Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a mob of senators on this day in 44 B.C. He was warned of the conspiracy against him by a petitioner on his way to the senate meeting at the theatre of Pompey. Supposedly he died still holding the warning, unread. It has recently been argued that he was not unaware of the machinations, but that he might even have manipulated them.

Short version, the complex politics of Rome had a kept a tenuous balance and a semblance of a Republic by weighing the different influential players against one another. With the death of Pompey and their partner Crassus (yes, this is the origin of the word crass), Caesar was the only one left standing and consolidated power. He was named dictator for life. The conspiracy against him was intended to return power to the senators and ensure the continuation of the Republican status quo. Instead, it led to a series of brutal civil wars and began the era of the Roman Empire.

Morbid trivia:

Caesar’s was one of the first autopsies in recorded history.

Only one of the 23 stab wounds inflicted by the senators was fatal.

Caesar never said the ‘Et tu, Brute?’ that Shakespeare gave him. Historians aren’t sure he said anything. Some reports have him saying something along the lines of ‘and you my son,’ possibly in Greek, some have him saying nothing and merely curling in on himself under his robes at the sight of Brutus in the fray.

The conspirator Cassius on Caesar:

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ’em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great?

This is my favorite passage from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Act I, scene ii. Never good for accuracy, but always good for words. This was the passage I chose to memorize in high school. On a good day I can still do most of it.

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John William Waterhouse's image of Cleopatra

I’m currently reading the new biography of Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. Rather like the Bill Bryson biography of Shakespeare (an excellent quick fun-yes really it is-read) it is at least as much about dispelling myths as it is about giving facts. (Not that I don’t enjoy the outlandish Shakespearean or Pre-Raphaelite renditions…) There is a good bit of ‘well, they say *this*, which is actually unlikely due to *that*, so here’s a best guess…’

I have a hunch that aspect is going to annoy some people, but that’s how history works. We very rarely know *anything* for certain; as the famous adage goes, history is written by the winners. So a fair best-guess probability with explanations of why and who and how and where to look further works for me.

I also enjoy her quiet moments of snark. She won me over in the first few pages by explaining Cleopatra’s heritage (as Larry Gonick pointed out, she’s several generations of Greek inbreeding) and summing it up by saying that Cleopatra was about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.

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