Saturday, September 27, 2008

Maria Wyke's "Caesar: A Life in Western Culture"

Maria Wyke has taught classics at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Reading, and she currently holds the chair of Latin at University College London.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Caesar: A Life in Western Culture, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Caesar describes the affair between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra as it was told in a medieval history of the Romans. In that history, Cleopatra is no better than a prostitute. She seduces Caesar because she is greedy for power. She shows off her beautiful palace and her voluptuous body, and the Roman general falls into her arms thoroughly corrupted. For two shameful years, the medieval history says, Caesar submitted to his base desires, wallowed in adulterous love, gave in to Cleopatra the decorated whore. Only Caesar’s knights understand the moral damage being done to Rome and to medieval chivalric values. They ride after him as he sails up the Nile, and reproach him for his forgetfulness of duty to wife and country. This version of Caesar’s stay with Cleopatra in Egypt is meant to be a history lesson for aristocrats. It teaches them what chivalry means – marriage and valour in war – because Caesar fails the test. The conqueror has been conquered by the folly of love. The story demonstrates to us how important Caesar has been in Western culture as a means to teach lessons about politics, war, or love. The life of Caesar isn’t just an interesting story – it is a warning to avoid or an example to follow. Caesar teaches us what to do. But different teachers offer different lessons. Later in the same chapter, we see Caesar inviting us to spend money, buy goods, enjoy luxury, and stay with our Cleopatra. Or, at least, that’s how the casino-hotel Caesars Palace have put him to use. Every night, actors dressed up as Caesar and Cleopatra tour the hotel inviting guests in a very different direction from the medieval history, away from duty and towards pleasure. Page 99 shows how Caesar has been used to teach lessons, but it doesn’t show up their variety. Lessons in how to be a good and brave soldier, a conqueror or a liberator from conquest, a revolutionary, a dictator or a killer of tyrants, a lover and a libertine. Or even, in the end, a celebrity and a legend.
Read an excerpt from Caesar, and learn more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.

Learn more about Maria Wyke's research and publications at her faculty website.

--Marshal Zeringue