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Book Review

The Kidnapping of Caesar Leads to a Battle of Wills

CUTTER'S ISLAND Caesar in Captivity: A Novel by Vincent Panella; Academy Chicago

$23, 192 pages

December 04, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Long before he had conquered Gaul, dallied with Cleopatra or been invited to assume the most powerful position among his fellow countrymen, the 25-year-old Julius Caesar, en route to Rhodes to take lessons in rhetoric, was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom. In his debut novel, "Cutter's Island," Vincent Panella offers an imaginative and illuminating look at this harrowing early episode in the career of the future general, writer and statesman.

The Romans of the 1st century BC may have liked to think of the Mediterranean as Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea"), but pirates like Cutter and his crew were a constant reminder that Roman citizens could not be adequately protected on the high seas. Caesar's encounter with Cutter, as Panella portrays it, is a confrontation--sometimes a contest, sometimes a dialogue, but ultimately a duel to the death--between Roman civilization and the various forms of discontent it seems to evoke in those who are outside or against it.

"Why do they hate us?" Panella has Caesar wonder. "Why, despite the logic of our laws, the skill of our engineers, the ability of our people to absorb other societies open-mindedly, do men like Cutter align themselves against us? Because," he muses, attempting to answer his own question, "they see us not as a people, but as a city so placed that it concentrates all the excesses of the known world." In the pirate Cutter, Caesar meets a man who reminds him of all the people and nations who envy and hate Rome. Their conversations operate on several levels: a battle of wits, a contest of wills and what modern-day reporters might call "a frank exchange of views" as to the pros and cons of the Roman empire. But, while Cutter hates Rome and expresses contempt for pampered, rich young Romans like Caesar, he treats his captive relatively well. And Caesar, although shaken by having witnessed Cutter decapitate an innocent sailor, manages to maintain an attitude of calm superiority to the man who holds him captive.

As Panella shows us through Caesar's memories, the Rome in which he has grown up is in some ways as turbulent and dangerous as the high seas. Rich and well-born, Caesar traces his descent back 1,000 years to Aeneas, the city's legendary founder. Even as a young man, he has been caught up in the bloody, revenge-driven civil war between the Optimates, who want to restrict political rights to the old elite, and the Populars, who want to extend rights to all Italians. As the nephew of a leading Popular, Caesar has been keeping his own counsel, lying low until it is safer to emerge from his cocoon. Panella further portrays two sides of Caesar's character in his relationships with his gentle young fiancee and his politically astute older mistress.

In Shakespeare's play, the eponymous Julius Caesar is the center of the action, yet an elusive figure, hard to imagine from the inside out. He characterizes himself as "constant as the northern star," but the conspirators who rashly take his life are not all that certain what kind of man he really is: He seems courageous, principled and magnanimous, but they fear his ambition. Caesar's own writings--lucid, straightforward, matter-of-fact accounts of his travels and conquests--testify to his intelligence, self-confidence and clear perception of reality. His Latin prose, a model of elegant economy, bespeaks a serene and disciplined mind. Panella's Caesar already seems to possess the cool clearheadedness of the future general, the canniness of the politician and the robust self-confidence, bordering on rashness, that may have, in the end, led him to ignore the omens and venture out on the Ides of March.

Written in a pithy, vigorous prose reminiscent of Caesar's classic style, "Cutter's Island" summons up the violence, danger and intrigue of the Roman world, investing events long past with a fresh sense of immediacy. It also offers an interesting and credible portrait of Julius Caesar, a man in whom many elements were fused into something greater than the sum of his parts.

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