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Alexander and Caesar


Detail of the Alexander mosaic, found in Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum, Naples (Italy). In Antiquity, a boy who wanted to play a role of some importance in his town, had to visit a rhetorical school, where he learned how to speak and behave in public. Often, a teacher would ask his pupils to make a speech on a historical theme, so that they could show their skills as a rhetor and their ability to deal with historical sources. A well-known theme was the comparison of Alexander the Great and the Roman commander Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44).

The following text was written by the Greek historian Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165) and is a part of his History of the Civil wars (2.149-154). It is the end of his description of Caesar's career, and Appian, a Greek, gives the Roman the ultimate compliment: he was comparable to Alexander.

The translation was made by John Carter.

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Head of Caesar, said to be found at Nijmegen. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden (Netherlands). Photo Jona Lendering.Head of Caesar from Nijmegen (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden)


Thus Caesar died on the day they call the Ides of March, about the middle of Anthesterion, the day which the seer said he would not outlive. In the morning Caesar made fun of him, and said, 'The Ides have come.' Unabashed, the seer replied, 'But not gone', and Caesar, ignoring not only the predictions of this sort given him with such confidence by the seer, but also the other portents I mentioned earlier, left the house and met his death. He was in the fifty-sixth year of his life, a man who was extremely lucky in everything, gifted with a divine spark, disposed to great deeds, and fittingly compared with Alexander.

They were both supremely ambitious, warlike, rapid in executing their decisions, careless of danger, unsparing of their bodies, and believers not so much in strategy as in daring and good luck. One of them made a long journey across the desert in the hot season [1] to the shrine of Ammon, and when the sea was pushed back crossed the Pamphylian gulf by divine power, for heaven held back the deep for him until he passed, and it rained for him while he was on the march. In India he ventured on an unsailed sea. He also led the way up a scaling-ladder, leapt unaccompanied on to the enemy wall, and suffered thirteen wounds. He was never defeated and brought all his campaigns to an end after one or at most two pitched battles. In Europe he conquered much foreign territory and subdued the Greeks, who are a people extremely difficult to govern and fond of their independence, and believe that they had never obeyed anyone before him except Philip, and that for only a short time on the pretext that he was their leader in a war. As for Asia, he overran virtually the whole of it. To sum up Alexander's luck and energy in a sentence, he conquered the lands that he saw, and died intent on tackling the rest.

In Caesar's case, the Adriatic yielded by becoming calm and navigable in the middle of winter. He also crossed the western ocean in an unprecedented attempt to attack the Britons, and ordered his captains to wreck their ships by running them ashore on the British cliffs. He forced his way alone in a small boat at night against another stormy sea, when he ordered the captain to spread the sails and take courage not from the waves but from Caesar's good fortune. On many occasions he was the only man to spring forward from a terrified mass of others and attack the enemy. The Gauls alone he faced thirty times in battle, finally conquering 400 of their tribes, who the Romans felt to be so menacing that in one of their laws concerning immunity from military service for priests and older men there was a clause 'unless the Gauls invade' - in which case priests and older men were to serve. In the Alexandrian war, when he was trapped by himself on a bridge and his life was in danger, he threw off his purple cloak and jumped into the sea. The enemy hunted for him, but he swam a long way under water without being seen, drawing breath only at intervals, until he approached a friendly ship, when he stretched out his hands, revealed himself, and was rescued. When he became involved in these civil wars, whether from fear, as he himself used to say, or from a desire for power, he carne up against the best generals of his time and several great armies which were not composed of uncivilized peoples, as before, but of Romans at the peak of their success and fortune, and he too needed only one or two pitched battles in each case to detect them. Not that his troops were unbeaten like Alexander's, since they were humiliated by the Gauls in the great disaster which overtook them when Cotta and Titurius were in command, in Hispania Petreius and Afranius had them hemmed in under virtual siege, at Dyrrhachium and in Africa they were well and truly routed, and in Hispania they were terrified of the younger Pompey. But Caesar himself was impossible to terrify and was victorious at the end of every campaign. By the use of force and the conferment of favor, and much more surely than Sulla and with a much stronger hand, he overcame the might of the Roman state, which already lorded it over land and sea from the far west to the river Euphrates, and he made himself king against the wishes of the Romans, even if he did not receive that title. And he died, like Alexander, planning fresh campaigns.

The pair of them had armies, too, which were equally enthusiastic and devoted to them and resembled wild beasts when it came to battle, but were frequently difficult to manage and made quarrelsome by the hardships they endured. When their leaders were dead, the soldiers mourned them, missed them, and granted them divine honors in a similar way. Both men were well formed in body and of fine appearance. Each traced his lineage back to Zeus, the one being a descendant of Aeacus and Heracles, the other of Anchises and Aphrodite. They were unusually ready to fight determined opponents, but very quick to offer settlement. They liked to pardon their captives, gave them help as well as pardon, and wanted nothing except simply to be supreme. To this extent they can be closely compared, but it was with unequal resources that they set out to seek power. Alexander possessed a kingdom that had been firmly established under Philip, while Caesar was a private individual, from a noble and celebrated family, but very short of money.

Neither of them took any notice of omens which referred to them, nor showed any displeasure with the seers who prophesied their deaths. On more than one occasion the omens were similar and indicated a similar end for both. Twice each was confronted with a lobeless liver. The first time it indicated extreme danger. In Alexander's case this was among the Oxydracans, when after he had climbed on to the enemy's wall at the head of his Macedonian troops the scaling-ladder broke, and he was left isolated on top. He leapt audaciously inwards towards the enemy, where he was badly beaten around the chest and neck with a massive club and was about to collapse, when the Macedonians, who had broken down the gates in panic, just managed to rescue him. In Caesar's case it happened in Hispania, when his army was seized with terror when it was drawn up to face the younger Pompey and would not engage the enemy. Caesar ran out in front of everyone into the space between the two armies and took 200 throwing-spears on his shield, until he too was rescued by his army, which was swept forward by shame and apprehension. Thus the first lobeless victim brought both of them into mortal danger, but the second brought death itself, as follows. The seer Peithagoras told Apollodorus, who was afraid of Alexander and Hephaestion and was sacrificing, not to be afraid, because both of them would soon be out of the way. When Hephaestion promptly died, Apollodorus was nervous that there might be some conspiracy against the king, and revealed the prophecy to him. Alexander, smiling, asked Peithagoras himself what the omen meant, and when Peithagoras replied that it meant his life was over, he smiled again and still thanked Apollodorus for his concern and the seer for his frankness.

When Caesar was about to enter the senate for the last time, as I described not many pages back, the same omens appeared. He scoffed at them, saying they had been the same in Hispania, and when the seer said that he had indeed been in danger on that occasion, and that the omen was now even more deadly, he made some concession to this forthrightness by repeating the sacrifice, until finally he became irritated by being delayed by the priests and went in to his death. And the same thing happened to Alexander, who was returning with his army from India to Babylon and was already approaching the city when the Chaldaeans begged him to postpone his entry for the moment. He quoted the line 'That prophet is the best, who guesses rightly' but the Chaldaeans begged him a second time not to enter with his army looking towards the setting sun, but to go round and take the city while facing the rising sun. Apparently he relented at this and began to make a circuit, but when he became annoyed with the marshes and swampy ground disregarded this second warning too and made his entrance facing west. Anyway, he entered Babylon, and sailed down the Euphrates as far as the river Pallacotta which takes the water of the Euphrates away into swamps and marshes and prevents the irrigation of the Assyrian country. They say that as he was considering the damming of this river, and taking a boat to look, he poked fun at the Chaldaeans because he had safely entered and safely sailed from Babylon. Yet he was destined to die as soon as he returned there. Caesar, too, indulged in mockery of alike sort. The seer had foretold the day of his death, saying that he would not survive the Ides of March. When the day came Caesar mocked the seer and said, 'The Ides have come', but he still died that day. In this way, then, they made similar fun of the omens which related to themselves, displayed no anger with the seers who announced these omens to them, and were none the less caught according to the letter of the prophecies.

In the field of knowledge they were also enthusiastic lovers of wisdom, whether traditional, Greek or foreign. The Brahmans, who are considered to be the astrologers and wise men of the Indians like the Magians among the Persians, were questioned by Alexander on the subject of Indian learning, and Caesar investigated Egyptian lore when he was in Egypt establishing Cleopatra on the throne. As a result he improved much in the civilian sphere at Rome, and brought the year, which was still of variable length due to the occasional insertion of intercalary months which were calculated according to the lunar calendar, into harmony with the course of the sun, according to Egyptian observance.

 

 

Note 1:
In fact during the winter.




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