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Patricia Anne Hunter

Immortal Caesar
First Books Library, 2003
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Authors who write about Julius Caesar generally either love him or hate him. Lucan, of course, hated him; Colleen McCullough loves him. Hunter is much closer to McCullough than to Lucan. Those who hate him see him as the destroyer of the republic, a cruel, self-aggrandizing opportunist; the other side sees the republic as moribund and Caesar as the one person who could save the Romans from the feuding generals and from themselves, the one man who would extend Roman citizenship widely, though responsibly, enough to revitalize the state. These are not necessarily absolutely contradictory positions. Caesar may have had foresight and wanted to improve Rome and still have made his dignitas an important element in Rome’s success. What’s good for Bull Moose is good for the nation? Cruel or clement? The difference between the Gallic Wars and the Civil Wars. On her back cover, Hunter refers to Caesar as “a multiple genius whom Shakespeare called ‘the noblest man that ever lived’”, but that’s Mark Antony in his funeral oration for Caesar, clearly not without its own agenda, and Antony at the end of the play calls Caesar’s main opponent in the play, Brutus, “the noblest Roman of them all”, though the “them all” is the conspirators. I think we can’t be sure what Shakespeare thought of Caesar, He shows him as impressively in control at first, but a bit cranky and able to be manipulated to his death. George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar more fully embodies the “great man” concept. The comparison to Shakespeare is not without point, however. The norm, in biographies or novels about Caesar, is either to present Caesar as all (or mainly) good and his opponents as all (or mainly) bad. Lucan and his camp show Caesar as the embodiment of evil (a Nero figure) and Cato as the embodiment of Republican virtue, whereas McCullough and that camp present Caesar as noble and progressive thinking and Cato as reactionary, bitter, mean-spirited and (often) drunk, Brutus as either conniving or whining and Cicero as weak in body and will. Much of this latter picture emerges in Hunter’s characterizations. This does not mean that her picture is poor fiction or history. Caesar’s opponents may have been like that and fiction often relies on strong contrasts and the use of foils. However, as soon as you meet Cato, Cicero, Brutus or Labienus, you know what kind of a person they will be from the comments of the author, often in the very physical descriptions. On page 5, Sulla tells Caesar that Cato (all of 14 years old) has accused him of trying to revive Marius’ party, a characterization of Cato that will remain throughout the novel. When Cicero is introduced at page 26, Hunter describes him as having “an irresolute mouth”, and Labienus at page 78 has “a red slit of a mouth” and at 98 he is “glowering”. Vercingetorix is characterized at 116 as “maintain[ing] his authority by burning at the stake those who committed serious crimes and goug[ing] out the eyes of lesser offenders”. In part, this process may be linked to what my major criticism of the novel is, that it is too short. Hunter writes well, but attempting to cover all of Caesar’s career in 225 pages means she has to use shortcuts, in this instance in characterizations, in other , in plot. She does a good job in just a few pages in giving the feel of Alesia or of Caesar’s assassination, though I would have liked her to develop them more, but many other incidents needed at least another paragraph to get the full impact and to show how they fitted in. Sometimes, the reader just has to deduce what has happened, for example, Cornelia’s death, page 30: “’Did you ever love me?’, she asked, but did not hear the answer.’ The next chapter follows immediately with “Shortly after, his old aunt Julia died.” On page 111 Cicero, writing to compliment Caesar’s commentaries 1-5, is presumably back from the exile brought about by Clodius at Caesar’s request following page 84, but we’ve never heard about his returning to Rome. There are other plot jumps that are followable, but would be improved by more detail, though this might well add another 50-100 pages to the novel. Hunter could certainly do this, and I hope she does. As fiction, the novel succeeds well enough, though more and more thorough characterizations and plot movement would be desirable. As history, the novel presents an accurate record of Caesar’s actions, though of course his motives are any author’s guess. Hunter introduces a wealth of historical figures (indeed, the fictional additions are a mere handful). What she does do is introduce into the action early along, where the historical record does not give a name, characters who will be important centurions or other people Caesar will deal with later in the novel. This gives a bit more cohesiveness to the plot and characters than history actually does, but no one will object to this authorial license. However, Hunter has at the start of the novel the standard disclaimer “This book is a work of fiction. Places, events, and situations in this story are purely fictional. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.” Maybe this is necessary for legal reasons, but a) it’s just not true (and shouldn’t be in a historical novel) and b) I don’t see anyone coming forward to complain about slander of his great-great-...grandfather Cato. Hunter is as close to historically correct as a novelist who has to describe motives and thoughts can be, which is one of the reasons teachers of Latin or Roman history may want to use this book. And there is hardly any sex in here that would require censoring, at least for high school students. This is the third incarnation of a Caesar novel from Hunter, and the dialogue is fuller and the action more sustained. There is no murder mystery, as in so many current novels set in Roman times, but it still makes a good read if you like history and want a clear presentation of Julius Caesar. Admittedly, the author is partial to Gaius, but any author (fictional of not) will have a slant on the character and his accomplishments or failings. Who else could give you your introduction to Caesar’s person and mind through the lustful eyes of Sulla? If you want a negative view, read any novel whose major character is Cicero. -Fred Mench Richard Stockton College of NJ 8/03

- Fred Mench, 8/1/2003

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