Words Crush Wednesday — Julius Caesar and the Pirates 2

Published December 9, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Today’s Words Crush Wednesday is following up on this earlier post.

In reading the original that was referencing I found some startling differences.  In the other book, we were told that Julius Caesar was on his way to Rhodes to be trained in rhetoric when he was captured by the pirates.  However, according to Plutarch, that he was in self-imposed exile from Rome, for fear of being added to Sulla’s proscription list.  So at the time Caesar is captured, he’s already a married man (his wife being the daughter of one of Sulla’s enemies, Sulla wanted Caesar to divorce her, which seems to have started the whole chain of events), though he is still apparently quite young.  (I’m still trying to get a handle on how old he was, but birth dates in antiquity are not always known or reliable.  He may have been about 24, though.  Which in Rome was quite young indeed:  you couldn’t be Consul until you were 43, for example.)  So, rather than simply updating that old post, I thought I’d just post the relevant excerpt from Plutarch…

This remark [Sulla’s remark that in Caesar there were many Mariuses] was reported to Caesar and for some time he went into hiding, wandering from place to place in the Sabine country.  In the end he became ill and while he was going from one house to another at night, he fell into the hands of some of Sulla’s soldiers who were searching the district and arresting those who were hiding there.  With a bribe of two talents Caesar persuaded their leader, Cornelius, to let him go and then went immediately to the sea and sailed to King Nicomedes in Bithynia.  He stayed for a short time with the king and then on his voyage back was captured near the island of Parmacusa by some of the pirates who even at that time controlled the seas with their large fleets of ships and innumerable smaller craft.

First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing.  They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty.  Then, when he had sent his followers to the various cities in order to raise the money and was left with one friend and two servants among these Cilicians, about the most bloodthirsty people in the world, he treated them so highhandedly that, whenever he wanted to sleep, he would send to them and tell them to stop talking.  For thirty-eight days, with the greatest unconcern, he joined in all their games and exercises, just as if he was their leader instead of their prisoner.  He also wrote poems and speeches which he would read aloud to them, and if they failed to admire his work, he would call them to their faces illiterate savages, and would often laughingly threaten to have them all hanged.  They were much taken with this and attributed his freedom of speech to a kind of simplicity in his character or boyish playfulness.  However, the ransom arrived from Miletus and, as soon as he had paid it and been set free, he immediately manned some ships and set sail from the harbour of Miletus against the pirates.  He found them still there, lying at anchor off the island, and he captured nearly all of them.  He took their property as spoils of war and put the men themselves into the prison at Pergamum.  He then went in person to Junius, the governor of Asia, thinking it proper that he, as praetor in charge of the province, should see to the punishment of the prisoners.  Junius, however, cast longing eyes at the money, which came to a considerable sum, and kept saying that he needed time to look into the case.  Caesar paid no further attention to him.  He went to Pergamum, took the pirates out of prison and crucified the lot of them, just as he had often told them he would do when he was on the island and they imagined that he was joking.  [Life of Caesar, 1-2, Rex Warner translation, from the 2005 revised Penguin edition.]

It’s only after that incident that he decides to go to Rhodes for training in rhetoric, since he’s in the area.  So that’s Plutarch’s version.  BTW, that Nicomedes mentioned early on?  Caesar spent so much time there that it was assumed in Rome that Nicomedes had made a conquest of him, and he was mocked for it for the rest of his life.

Then I went and looked at Suetonius’ version of the same events, and found some very striking differences.  To start with, Sulla is convinced by Caesar’s friends and allies not to proscribe him or force him to divorce his wife.  (Though he thinks it’s a bad idea to let him off so easily, making that same remark about there being many Mariuses in Caesar.  A remark which is a bit too prescient to be creditable, in my opinion.  At this point in his career, Caesar has done nothing to show his military strength, nor to show his future favor to the populares.)  Caesar leaves Rome on military service in Cilicia, until returning to Rome after Sulla’s death…

After this revolt was suppressed, Caesar brought a charge of extortion against Cornelius Dolabella, a man of consular rank who had once been awarded a triumph; but he failed to secure a sentence, so he decided to visit Rhodes until the resultant ill feeling had time to die down, meanwhile taking a course in rhetoric from Apollonius Molon, the best living exponent of the art.  Winter had already set in when he sailed for Rhodes and was captured by pirates for nearly forty days, to his intense annoyance; he had with him only a physician and two valets, having sent the rest of his staff away to borrow the ransom money.  As soon as the stipulated fifty talents arrived and the pirates duly set him ashore, he raised a fleet and went after them.  He had often smilingly sworn, while still in their power, that he would soon capture and crucify them, and this is exactly what he did.  Then he continued to Rhodes, but Mithridates was now ravaging the nearby coast; so, to avoid the charge of showing inertia while the allies of Rome were in danger, he raised a force of auxiliaries and drove Mithridates’ deputy from the province — which confirmed the timorous and half-hearted cities of Asia in their allegiance. [Divus Julius, 4, Robert Graves translation, from the 2007 revised Penguin edition.]

Not only is the timing different, in Suetonius’ version there’s a logical motive for Caesar to want to prove himself militarily:  he’s trying to make the (Senate and) people of Rome like him again after he failed in his court case against the ex-consul Dolabella.

One more version:

Caesar was only about eighteen years of age at the time of Sulla’s dictatorship; and when a search was made for him with a view to putting him to death, not, it is true, by Sulla himself, but by his minions and partisans, he escaped from the city at night by assuming a disguise which effectually concealed his rank.  Later, but when still quite a young man, he was captured by pirates and so conducted himself during the entire period of his detention as to inspire in them to an equal degree both fear and respect.  Neither by day nor by night did he remove his shoes or loosen his girdle — for why should a detail of the greatest significance be omitted merely because it cannot be adorned in imposing language? — lest the slightest change in his usual garb might cause him to be suspected by his captors, who guarded him only with their eyes.

It would take too long to tell of his many bold plans for the punishment of the pirates, or how obstinately the timid governor of Asia refused to second them.  The following story, however, may be told as a presage of his future greatness.  On the night following the day on which his ransom was paid by the cities of Asia — he had, however, compelled the pirates before payment to give hostages to these cities — although he was but a private citizen without authority, and his fleet had been collected on the spur of the moment, he directed his course to the rendezvous of the pirates, put to flight part of their fleet, sank part, and captured several ships and many men.  Well satisfied with the success of his night expedition, he returned to his friends and, after handing his prisoners into custody, went straight to Bithynia to Juncus, the proconsul — for the same man was governor of Bithynia as well as of Asia — and demanded his sanction for the execution of his captives.  When Juncus, whose former inactivity had now given way to jealousy, refused, and said that he would sell the captives as slaves, Caesar returned to the coast with incredible speed and crucified all his prisoners before anyone had had time to receive a dispatch from the consul in regard to the matter. [Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome II.XLII-XLIII, translation by Frederick W. Shipley (in 1924)]

That one was written about 20-25 years after the death of Augustus, so it’s considerably the earliest of the three versions.  Velleius Paterculus is not exactly the greatest Roman historian (in fact, he’s routinely overlooked for being rather uninspired) but his text is much earlier than many of the others that cover Octavian’s civil wars and the reign of Augustus.  (Truth be told, I’d have overlooked him, too, if I hadn’t needed a copy of Augustus’ Res Gestae, which is in the same Loeb Classical Library volume.)  Presumably, the similarities between his version and Suetonius’ version means that they were both using (the now lost volumes of) Livy as a source, or one of the other lost early histories of that time period.  Or maybe Caesar published an account himself and it’s since been lost, but….yeah, probably not.  (Not enough troops to send hither and thither in an emotionless, impersonal, third-person narrative of epic dullness.  Why did he write his memoirs in the third person?  And with less info about what he was thinking than in the accounts of people who wrote centuries after his death?)

Oh, and that wasn’t a typo on my part:  Plutarch and Velleius Paterculus give the governor of Bithynia a slightly different name (Junius v. Juncus) and a different rank.

To me, the detail that stands out in this third version is the hostages the pirates sent to the cities of Asia.  You don’t think of pirates as doing that.  You think of polities doing that.  Was Julius Caesar really captured by pirates, or was he captured by the people of some island hostile to Rome, or one of Rome’s allies?  If it was the latter, that would explain the governor’s reluctance to act hastily.  (Or it could have been the greed Plutarch indicated.  Roman governors were known for their greed.)  Another thing that stands out is the fact that — in all three versions — he recovers the ransom (and more) from the pirates after their defeat…but does he return it to the people from whom it was originally taken?  There’s no word on that subject…

Either way, there’s no sign here of Caesar’s much-vaunted clementia.  But perhaps mercy was only for Roman citizens, not “barbarians” like the pirates.  (The Gauls and especially the Germans certainly saw no clementia from Caesar…)

But, actually, Suetonius eventually addresses that issue:

Yet, even when he did take action, it was his nature to show restraint; if he crucified the pirates who had held him to ransom, this was only because he had sworn in their presence to do so, and he first mercifully cut their throats. [Divus Julius, 74, Robert Graves translation, from the 2007 revised Penguin edition.]

While I agree that having one’s throat cut must be a more pleasant death than crucifixion, if only for the relative speed of the two deaths, I would think that true mercy would have been to let them live, personally.  As I said before, this is all very informative of the way that the Romans viewed the world.  There’s not a word against Caesar in any of these accounts — though, admittedly, they were written by post-Augustan folks, who had therefore been subjected to Augustan (and post-Augustan) propaganda their whole lives — and it genuinely seems like they didn’t see that there was anything wrong in what he had done regarding those pirates.  It’s an unpleasant glimpse into their world view.


(BTW, this is my 400th post.  I’d have done something more special than this for it, only I have a paper due tomorrow.  And another one due the 16th.)

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