History29 Jan 2008 02:31 am
So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man,
So be it when I shall grow old
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man
–William Wordsworth, “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”
Before the daggers of March 15, before encarpeted Egyptian princesses, before omnia Gallia in tres partes divisa fuerat, before the whole Caesarian shoot and she-bang first made waves across the ancient Mediterranean world—before all this, there was only Gaius Julius, a young nobleman fled to the East in what amounted to semi-exile. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was dictator in Rome, and Caesar’s family had run afoul of him in the recent series of civil wars; it was only through the offices of maternal connections that the teenage tyrant-in-training had been permitted to leave with life and property.
The young Gauis proved irrepressible, extremely talented, and headstrong; his youthful adventures give us a measure of his character that is consonant with the man from rather more famous adventures later in life. In particular, his encounter with with a group of pirates illustrates the many dimensions of Caesar that engendered his conquest of the known world and bloody exit from it.
While traveling across the Aegean Sea, Caesar’s ship was captured by a fleet of Cilician pirates, who were, according to Plutarch, commonly known to be “the most murderous of men.” Murderous countenances notwithstanding, Gauis Julius laughed off their demand for a ransom of twenty talents (the going rate for an individual of senatorial rank), and claimed that, as a scion of one of Rome’s oldest families and ostensible descendant of Venus herself, he was worth fifty talents at the very minimum. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, the pirate “king” agreed to the price and sent Caesar’s retinue off to raise funds.
Caesar’s behavior while awaiting his ransom was no less high-handed, which endeared him to his captors, at least for a time. He took exercise with the pirates, composed speeches and poems which he recited to them (calling any critics “illiterate barbarians”), and frequently threatened to execute all of them upon his release (all in good fun of course—pirates have a curious sense of humor). When the money finally arrived, Caesar bade his kindnappers farewell, promising a quick, and armed, return.
The coastways of Cilicia are notoriously craggy, complex, and difficult to navigate—it is not by chance that piracy was a Cilician cottage industry. One can imagine, then, the great surprise of Caesar’s captors when the brash young man—with no prior naval experience—reversed the roles and took their fleet at unawares. True to his word, Caesar had returned in force, and, true to his word, Caesar had made all the preparations to have them crucified.
His plans were almost spoiled by the venality of the Roman governor at Pergamum, who stayed the executions in the hopes of pirate bribe money. As history was later to show, Caesar was no respecter of laws, only honor; taking advantage of a sluggish gubernatorial bureaucracy, he rounded up his kidnappers and insured that every last one of them met the fate he had promised.
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