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Book Review: Cutter’s Island: Caesar in Captivity, by Vincent Panella

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When Julius Caesar was 25 years old, he was captured by pirates and held for ransom on an island off the coast of Asia Minor. Of this 40-day captivity, Caesar’s biographer Suetonius says only that it caused him “intense annoyance.” Caesar, of course, survived and went on to become conqueror of Gaul and master of Rome. Vincent Panella, who teaches writing at Vermont Law School, has taken this mysterious episode as the subject of his first novel.

Panella makes Caesar’s capture the pivot of his extraordinary career. When Cutter, the pirate chief, crosses his path, Caesar is a young, untried man, battling to stay alive as civil war between the Populares and Optimates flares in Rome. The Populares, led by Caesar’s uncle Marius, wish to extend Roman political rights to those outside the city, while the Optimates, the party of the nobility led by the gross and violent Sulla, want to control the state themselves. After Marius’ death, Caesar is a marked man. In order to stay unnoticed he has had to pretend to be ineffectual and harmless, and even so has barely escaped with his head. The story begins with Caesar leaving Italy, ostensibly to study rhetoric with a Greek master on the island of Rhodes, but in fact to distance himself from the fighting. The hopes of the Populares are resting on him, but he is plagued by self-doubt.

In Panella’s version of events, Cutter’s attack changes everything. Languishing in the pirate village, captor and captive are caught up on an uneasy battle of wills. Caesar vows to exact revenge upon Cutter, but also learns from him about the nature of power and what he must do to seize his destiny. As Cutter is made to pay the price for his rebellion against Roman authority, Caesar shows that he has learned the most valuable lesson of all: that ruthlessness and mercy are not mutually exclusive.

It feels a little odd to be reviewing a book about Caesar at a time when one of the least Caesar-esque figures ascends to the American presidency. In the ancient world, George W. Bush would probably have lasted about as long as a man holding a sirloin steak in the Coliseum when the lions were released. It’s a measure of Panella’s skill that he manages to evoke, in a scant 196 pages, what power meant to the Romans and their enemies. He distills the bloody, inter-necine fighting that eventually brought down the Roman Republic into a few sharply constructed vignettes. These stud the action as flashbacks, showing Caesar with his wife, his powerful mistress Servilia — whose son is Marcus Brutus, one of Caesar’s eventual killers — and at the mercy of Marius and Sulla.

Unlike many writers of historical fiction, the author doesn’t overburden his prose with period detail. Instead, through concise description and subtle inference, he allows the reader to construct the past in his or her own mind. It’s not so much what he puts in but what he carefully leaves out: Caesar is the story’s narrator and his style is undeniably modern, but even so there are no anachronisms, no jarring notes. The reader is not cajoled, but lulled backwards in time.

That said, there isn’t much else about Cutter’s Island that is elegiac. It’s a quick-moving, stripped-down lesson in aspects of human nature that the modern era is supposed to have left behind. Both Caesar and Cutter inhabit a world in which lives have little value except as gaming pieces to be risked or lost in the struggle for power. Cutter himself is a magnificent creation, a one-armed barbarian with a violent and tragic past. He has been a slave, a rebel and a gladiator, and has learned to hate the Romans more deeply with every passing year.

To Cutter, Caesar is a rare prize, likely to win him a colossal ransom. But the young nobleman is also a representative of the enemy, of the people who have cost him his arm, his freedom and his innocence. He wishes to teach Caesar a lesson, and to show him why the Romans are hated and resisted:

It’s common for your people to explore everything to excess, including death. They particularly relish the deaths of the brave ones who mock fate by surrendering their hard-won freedom and returning to the arena for glory and money — the crowd deifies these men. Having lost their sense of personal valor, your people honor nothing more than heroism in others, victory against all odds. But heroism being rare in the arena, they feast on poor fare in greater amounts. Vicious butchery whips them into a frenzy, and they wallow in the false tragedy of prearranged death.

Caesar does learn from his captivity, and proves it at the expense of Cutter and his men. Promises must be kept, and justice meted out, even if it means the shedding of blood. Above all, he finds the key to his own destiny:

I must be Caesar, for in this world, rebellion is constant. …I must be, but am I? In thinking moments the parts that I play peel from my mind like the layers of an onion: the poet, the man of taste, the personification of Roman Law, the outraged, the executioner. In my core I could be satisfied as a temple priest living on the money from supplicants… anywhere but in Rome, that city more ravaged than Sulla’s visage. Achievement, divine lineage, ambition, whether I’ll survive the Sullans, whether Servilia knows my future, she with the lips like knives, the nipples as red as blood, she who swims with me over the warm seas of lovemaking, all this is the purple cloth of vanity concealing the chains in which I’m shackled.

Panella has taken one of history’s dark, forgotten corners and constructed a luminous, haunting fable. Caesar’s conviction that civilization is a fragile thing, a blessing that must constantly be maintained by hard effort, is itself almost an anachronism in today’s world, in which civilization is taken for granted. Cutter knows that the barbarians at the gates of Rome are the Romans themselves.

History proves that Caesar’s attempts to save his people ultimately failed. He became a dictator, and the Republic was never restored. But in Panella’s novel, Caesar stands on the brink of legend, discovering within himself the seed of greatness, and the knowledge that power must be wielded in a just and moral way. The book ends with a scene that, to a modern eye, contains little of justice or morality, and suggests why historical figures should be studied, not necessarily emulated. This is a short, powerful book full of life and death, a bold attempt to depict the past without burdening it with judgments of the present. As such it is a fine, entertaining read.

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