Posted by Dennis » 1 Comment »
A request went through one of the Latin listservs for a specific (textbook) version of the famous tale of Caesar and the pirates (namely that from Civis Romanus), and while what follows isn’t it, the version by Lhomond (Viri Romae) is worth considering, as he has (had?) been highly influential in the compilation of Latin readers and so is partly responsible for many a well-known ‘Latin’ story:
Caesar, mortuo Sylla et composita seditione civili, Rhodum secedere statuit, ut per otium Apollonio, tunc clarissimo dicendi magistro, operam daret; sed in itinere a piratis captus est, mansitque apud eos quadraginta dies. Ita porro per illud omne spatium se gessit, ut piratis terrori pariter ac venerationi esset; atque ne iis suspicionem ullam daret, qui oculis tantummodo eum custodiebant, nunquam aut nocte aut die excalceatus est. Interim comites servosque dimiserat ad expediendas pecunias, Viginti talenta piratae postulaverant; ille vero quinquaginta daturum se spopondit. Quibus numeratis, expositus est in litore. Caesar liberatus confestim Miletum, quae urbs proxime aberat, properavit; ibique contracta classe, stantes adhuc in eodem loco praedones noctu adortus, aliquot naves, mersis aliis, cepit, piratasque ad deditionem redactos eo affecit supplicio, quod illis saepe per iocum minatus fuerat, dum ab iis detineretur; crucibus illos suffigi iussit.
Here’s a quick and dirty version:
After Sulla died and the civil war was settled, Caesar decided to take himself to Rhodes to study at his leisure under Apollonius, then the leading teacher of rhetoric. Along the way, however, he was taken by pirates and spent forty days with them. He carried himself in such a way through all that time that he was equally feared and respected by them.
So as not to raise any suspicion among the pirates, who were only guarding him by sight, he never went barefoot, day or night. Meanwhile, he sent his companions and slaves to seek the funds which would pay his ransom. The pirates demanded twenty talents, but he promised that he would give them fifty. After this was paid he was set down on the shore.
Once freed, Caesar immediately rushed off to Miletus, where he drew up a fleet. He made a night assault on the pirates, still anchored in the same spot, and took some of their ships after the others had been sunk. He subjected the pirates who were forced to surrender to the same punishment with which he had often jokingly threatened them during his captivity: he ordered that they be crucified.
One of the most interesting things here is a detail not found in some of the adaptations used in later textbooks and readers (Lhomond was a goldmine for many later editors):
Why mention that Caesar never went barefoot among the pirates? Footwear is not very conducive to swimming, the only way anyone can hope to escape a pirate ship. As near as I can tell this is a detail of Lhomond’s own invention, intended (I think) to show that Caesar was calculating and careful.
Unfortunately this version (based on a brief passage in Suetonius) does not compare well with Plutarch’s expanded account with it’s apocryphal but might-as-well-be-true details (see a good translation here by Robin Seager), or with the version in Civis Romanus (which follows Plutarch rather than Suetonius).
What Lhomond does show us (in a relatively early ‘textbook’) is the tendency toward the banal in Latin pedagogy. Plutarch’s Caesar was not at all careful, but seems larger than life, like a character students will actually care to read about. In the end students have certainly translated or read a chunk of Latin, but there’s little meat to it, and the exercise, no matter how creatively or cooperatively done, seems mechanical and little worth the effort. I want to hear how Caesar told the pirates to be quiet so he could get some sleep, how he composed poems and speeches and made them sit as his audience, how he mocked and threatened them to their faces, and finally how he took the law into his own hands when the governor vacillated.
Most textbooks and readers have followed Lhomond down this path, diluting the real salt of antiquity through dry, colorless stories crafted to present grammar and vocabulary rather than to inspire student’s through novelty and narrative power. Lhomond had a noble goal, creating a chronological Latin text covering the great men in Roman history, and the way in which he cobbled that story together from various sources is impressive. But many of his stories plod along like the textbooks that put our students to sleep.
Some of us should begin by writing our own Latin stories or adapting older ones with an eye toward student interest, perhaps sharing them through a wiki and offering versions aimed at various levels. I’d be willing to host such a site at theCAMPVS if there were enough interest and volunteers.