"Panella's opus matches the film Gladiator in its vigorous, viscerally affecting depiction of ancient Rome." — Publishers Weekly
Cutter's Island: Caesar in Captivityby Vincent Panella
Most of us are familiar with the Caesar of Shakespeare and Shaw. We know him primarily as the manipulative warlord and statesman. But what about the Caesar of Plutarch and Suetonius historians who dealt with Caesar as a young man? Here, in this stunning novel, written with all the excitement and eloquence of an epic poem, we find Caesar at the age of… See more details below
Most of us are familiar with the Caesar of Shakespeare and Shaw. We know him primarily as the manipulative warlord and statesman. But what about the Caesar of Plutarch and Suetonius historians who dealt with Caesar as a young man? Here, in this stunning novel, written with all the excitement and eloquence of an epic poem, we find Caesar at the age of twenty-five captured by pirates as he sails to the Island of Rhodes to study rhetoric with the renowned Apollonias Moon.
"Panella's opus matches the film Gladiator in its vigorous, viscerally affecting depiction of ancient Rome." — Publishers Weekly
Like a bit of sea glass washed up on shore of that nameless Mediterranean island, Panella has fashioned a polished prism that refracts its Roman sun, both Caesar's sensual past and his ambitious public future. More novella than first novel, written by a veteran journalist, professor and memoirist, Cutter's Island hews to a classic agon between matched rivals. They play a peculiar game of chess. A political novice mocks his barbarian audience with his own poetry recitations, this is Caesar; a one-armed ex-gladiator hectors his noble captive with tales of the Greco-Roman outposts, this is Cutter. And for forty nights on his island jail, Caesar writes, remembers and dreams.
If there is a distracting note in the work, it is in its staccato exchanges between Cutter and the haughty Caesar. Granted, their vernacular Latin is transposed into the vulgate of a somewhat stilted American English, but the strain of preserving some flavor of Caesar's clipped speech (his famous prose style) gives a terseness the page cannot do justice to. Caesar begins to sound like Clint Eastwood in his "spaghetti Western" Italian period. But let Cutter tell of being impressed into a Roman gladiator school, for example, with its motto of "no mercy," and suddenly the Coliseum's stench and gory drama are vividly alive. Equally,Caesar's conquest has a terrible beauty to it, almost a courtesy to his enemy, his first taste of retribution: "The crosses are still discernible, like children's play sticks in the sand. Cutter is forward of the rest, ready to receive the pack of vultures who settle on the sand and stride toward him like generals. I shudder to think what language might pass between them."
Cicero's advice, to love your friend as though he would one day become your enemy, went to Caesar's deaf ear. His assassin Brutus makes a telling cameo here, a mere boy whose mother is Caesar's bewitching lover. This marrying of fact to fiction has ample precedent. Like David Malouf's novel Imaginary Life of the Roman poet Ovid bemoaning his political exile on a forsaken island, Cutter's Island shares a singular need to make history speak to us in urgency and poignancy.
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Read an Excerpt
No wind, no sleep, and all night the rhythm-keeper's drums pounds in my ears. These oars pull so slowly that the Greek islands, those dark humps and breasts, those shade forms of gods in repose, float alongside as if ship, sea, and land are one attenuated dream. One house lamp in a darkened village, a shepherd's fire in the hills, these are tiny stars in a blacked-out world.
Curled up on my duffels and settled among the cotton bales, I peer at the spectral moon and pray for a wind. Without wind we're pirate bait, crawling along in this heavy tub, our tired oars pulling through islands whose caves and harbors provide refuge for pirate fleets that our government, weakened by civil war, has allowed to flourish.
We have no greater enemy, not Sertorius the Spanish rebel, not even King Mithridates who raids our border towns and calls the pirates his navy. Without these brigands to capture our ships, kill and ransom our citizens, lay siege to our ports and drain our treasury, Mithridates and Sertorius would be unable to pressure us from both extremes of the Republic.
With my attendants asleep below, the only others on deck are the captain, who works the tiller, and my uncle Curio, now crouching down and studying my face. No blood uncle, Curio is a guardian who came to us after a career as a Centurion. He served in Lower Gaul and affects the style, a gold torc around his neck, and a curtain of iron-colored hair worn shoulder length. His nose is dented from so many brawls that its front resembles the steps to Jupiter's temple.
Curio presseshis palm to my forehead. "How are you, Lord?" He knows my fever signs, a dull eye, perspiration on my nose. Close to me now, his quick eyes move to the different points on my face as if activated by some mechanical device.
"A wind will come soon," I say.
"Even with a wind ..." He leaves the thought and goes to the rail, holding his hand out in the air, but feeling nothing.
"I'll ask the gods for a wind," I tease. Curio belittles all talk of divine things. He claims that ten years serving in Marius's legions took all the religion out of him, but I don't believe it.
"A wind in Vulcan's asshole is what you need, because that's where we are. Pray for a fart from whatever god rules the realm of flatulence. See what you get. Meanwhile we're in a sea full of dangers and riding a dog of a ship."
Curio alms his words at the captain, an Italian named Secondini, who sets his tilling oar and comes forward to speak up at last. He's been almost silent for the two days we've been out, smiling as he works the big-bladed oar. Secondini barely sleeps, and lives on handfuls of pumpkin seeds pulled from his sheepskin pocket. He reminds us that he was the only captain willing to take us.
"This ship was what I had, and you took it, willingly."
When Curio has no answer for that, Secondini returns to his tiller. A life at sea having shrivelled him dry, he's small and wrinkled as a walnut. His full gray beard makes his face as round as a playing ball, and the ever-present smile seems fixed to the outside of his beard, like an extra set of teeth.
"You worry too much," he says to Curio.
"But with good reason."
Secondini waves him away and points to the cotton bales crowding the deck. "They never bother a trader like me. They're not interested in this kind of cargo. Any fool knows a slow ship like this has nothing worth taking. I've had them come alongside and look me over, then fly off as fast as falcons. Believe me, there's fatter pickings in these lanes than an old Italian with a ship stuffed with cotton. These bastards want gold coin, or rich men to ransom, like the master over there."
He gestures toward me when saying this, then spits a mouthful of pumpkin seeds over the side, pausing for a moment to watch them.
"Men like myself," he continues, coming back to the tiller, "or those few below pulling on oars, we're not worth much. We're even too old for the slave market. The slavers want boys and young men, especially rich ones."
"What about all the shipping lost at sea?" says Curio aggressively. "What about the sailors washed ashore and slit from belly to butt because they swallowed their coins or shoved them up inside their bodies? For all the pirates know, you could be playing the same game."
"For gold, yes. For gold they'd take us. That's why your master there needs to hide below at first sight of another ship. One look at his cloak and boots and we're finished. But cotton bales? They're too hard to handle."
Secondini now sets the tiller and goes to the rail, where he leans over to study the water. Below decks the beat of the drum ceases, and a mate's voice cries out that the men need a rest. Secondini, his elbows on the rail, answers affirmatively in slurred Italian.
Then he turns and says, "The tide will carry us." He points to the black shape of a nearby island to show us that the ship is moving in relation to it.
"As fast as we can row," he says, going back to the tiller and looking at Curio for vindication.
"At least he knows something," says Curio, reluctantly. His restlessness not allowing him to sleep, he stations himself at the bow. I sink into a half-sleep, then wake with the ship's surge. The oarsmen are back, and the sky perceptibly lighter with the tint of dawn. And in this way, under power of tide and oar, we creep into the house of daylight. The sun's great eye peers over the horizon, and for some time its rounded edge is clear, and dyed with subdued fire. But moments later Apollo's car bears the great star aloft so that the sea mirrors its image and we're momentarily blinded by a shower of white fire.
Such is the skill of these pirates to use nature's advantage that they choose this moment for an attack. Two distinct fireballs shot from the sun quickly become two black ships riding on a sudden breeze. They appear off our bow and converge head on, light, pitch-coated craft with red seeing-eyes painted on their hulls and swelling sails emblazoned with images of rams' heads. Fast dipping oars pull the galleys over the water with a hissing sound, and the men on board call to us in a language resembling one long, guttural word.
Secondini cries to me, "Get down!" as he raises the sail while Curio swings the tiller to turn us around. An oarsman appears on deck, sees the pirates, shouts out the word "Cilicians!"and the panic below is instantaneous. The remaining oarsmen jump from their benches, erupt onto the deck, and dive into the cold water despite Secondini's pleas. "Don't try to escape!" he cries. "Don't anger them!" One of the galleys gives chase, the second rams us and pulls back, waiting to see if we sink.
When we don'tbecause Secondini removed the ballast to increase our speedthey sweep alongside and drop an assault ramp to hold us fast. Now a swarm of motley-dressed men charges across the ramp in double file, then stops at mid-point. Something changes their minds. It's Curio, waiting at our end, hefting a sword and buckler hastily pulled from our trunk.
"Who's first?" he cries. "Who's first for the dead man's float?"
"Uncle! Uncle!" I try to call him down while Secondini, worried about his crew, leans over the rail pleading for them to come back.
"Get below!" cries Curio. "Stay out of sight!"
"What do you hope to accomplish?" I cry, while the pirates, amused by Curio's pleathey've spied me alreadyretreat to their own deck. A few of them chuckle incredulously, or clap their hands for the show to come. Others curse at the delay of the inevitable. They pace their own deck, or fidget with the jewelry decorating their fingers, ears, and noses. The scene is static now. The sun burns so brightly we can hear it crackle. Our ship lists, and the timbers creak painfully.
Then a man screams. They've caught up with the oars men. Bowmen pick them off to the whift whift of darts. Soon the victims' cries diminish as the pirates finish the job. The dead crewmen float with the tide, darts protruding from the water like the flukes of shallow-swimming fish.
"Lord!" cries Curio.
I turn, but he's no longer on the ramp. A pirate with a grossly swollen upper lip is pulling a rope attached to a pulley on the galley's mast. On the other end of the rope, and swinging over to their ship, is a drawn net containing a balled-up Curio trying to thrash free.
Now the pirates step back to let their chief through. He vaults onto the ramp and swaggers across, small and monkey-like, wearing a pitted bronze breastplate embossed with a gorgon's image. His long black hair hangs out of an old pot helmet and blows in the breeze like a stiff piece of cloth. He carries a curved sword in one hand, while the other, held out stiffly from his body, ends at a stump covered with an elaborate working of gold.
Jumping onto our deck, he pushes Secondini against the mast, pointing the sword to hold him there. Then slowly, his boots striking the deck like hammer blows, he comes directly to me, stops at some distance, looks me up and down, and bows with the flourish of a stage actor. When I fail to respond he comes closer, walking a circle around me and looking down at my boots, which are dyed red and carved with figures of lions' heads. In perfect, mocking Greek, he says, "Young man, those are beautiful boots."
I'm watching a gull swerving in from nowhere and hovering with our drift, flight feathers curled and stretched at their tips. Who is it? Some collective god of my ancestry come to give me strength? In the distance, the pirates in the other ship are hauling up the dead oarsmen with gaff hooks, and after searching for valuables, heaving the bodies overboard. They search as Curio described, working over each oarsmen like mad surgeons, ripping off clothes and cutting the bodies in those places where gold might be hidden. This sight causes my knees to twitch involuntarily, and when the deck sinks beneath me, the movement bends my knees and nearly brings me down. Aware of my reaction, the chief walks another circle around me, this time lifting my cloak with the tip of his sword to inspect my leggings, whose quality he remarks by making clucking sounds like a mother hen.
The gull is just off the rail at eye level, still hovering. It peers at me with a jerking movement of its head. Anchises? Aeneas? I focus on its little blue eye. My crafty mother, like Thetis on the sea with advice for her son? As if in a dream, I hear the chiefs voice. "You're the prize," he says. "You're a year's work. You're worth ten ships, a hundred Syrian boys. A rich young man from the great city! We dream of such a haul. And where are those rich words now? Weren't you trained to speak in the face of adversity?"
When I fall again to utter a word he fills in the space with his own bragging. He's been to the great city, lived there, walked its streets, seen its mob, its pickpockets, snake charmers, games, the whores on the Via Nomentana. He's been to the place where anything can be bought, especially the politicians.
"Do you like this?" he asks, holding the golden stump up to my face. The device has been cast into the shape of a ram's head, into which are embedded two small ruby eyes. The head connects to a sleeve of fine gold plate, which ends in a leather sheath, tightly laced near his elbow.
"Pretty isn't it. Very pretty. Would you like one? Oh, still not talking. You don't talk to men of my class, your servants do that for you. And this is how I know that you're the big fish," he says. "You never condescend. Where were you swimming to? Speak up, or I'll slice off your ear for starters!"
The gull veers off and soon becomes a simple black line over the water, like the scratch of a stylus. Then it's gone.
The sword blade on my ear, as hot as violence. That part of my skin recoils. Now, words.
"Minus an ear ..."
"... I'm not worth much."
"Say that again."
I repeat it.
"There!" he says, "Now the young man has words." He lifts the sword. "We'll find out what you're worth. Now, tell me, where were you headed?"
"The island of Rhodes"
"To study? You all say that. To study what, and with whom?"
"To study Rhetoric under Apollonius Molon."
It was as if I'd told a joke, for the pirates within earshot burst out laughing, many crying out joyously, "The Master! The Master!"
The chief exclaims, "Ah, the great Molon, Master of Rhetoric! Shaper of statesmen! You clearly need his instruction. I see a failure here, a failure in your reticence to speak, something missing in your education. This Molon will set you straight. He's brought us the business too, believe me. We're thinking of setting up close to his school to capture more of his students. But you're way off course, too far north. Are you telling us the truth?"
"I'm obligated to tell you nothing," I say, looking beyond him to where Curio, released from the net, has been herded onto the pirate galley with the rest of my group, as if they were cattle. Let me be silent forever. The chief moves into my line of vision and says, "Give me everything you have, you Roman faggot!"
My annoyance visible, I give him my equite ring and some coins dug from my baggage. He stuffs these into his tunic with his good hand.
"More is available," I say wearily.
He holds the ram's head up to my face. "Do you know who did this? Do you know who took my hand?" He turns the stump so the ruby eyes glint in the sun. He smiles now, with a softening look in his little bloodshot eyes.
"I suppose we did."
He raises one eyebrow, and says, "A smart one." Then he turns toward Curio. "Who's that old crab in the net?"
"Your uncle's a slave, but doesn't know it. Wait here."
He strides over to Secondini, who stands against the mast and gulps for air like a fish.
"What's your name?"
"I'll remember that, Secondini. I remember all the names. Why did you try to outrun us?"
"Let him go," I say. "He was under my orders."
Ignoring me, he looks the captain up and down, nodding his head as if reaching a conclusion. He turns to one of his men as if to ask something, or to think. Then, in what seems like one motion, spins back around, his sword already describing an arc. With a blur and whistle, and then a dull, cracking sound, Secondini's head jumps from his body, then falls to the deck and rolls indecisively before coming to rest against a rope coil. The eyes blink rapidly, then stop. The smile worn for two days is still on his face, but in some way he's no longer smiling. He stares into the distance with an expression of outrage.
Someone cries, "Watch out!" as Secondini's still erect body, now spouting blood from its neck, takes a step before shuddering all over and collapsing to the deck where it continues to twitch.
The chief turns to me. His eyes are bloodshot, as if something inside him is constantly burning.
"What do you think of that?"
"What would you like me to think?" I reply, so quickly that he steps back, pretending to be struck. Backing away from Secondini's puddling blood, I lean over the rail and take several deep breaths of cold sea air. While doing this I look for the gull, which, having delivered my luck and spared my life, is perched on a nearby hump of volcanic rock stained with sea bird droppings. The wind ruffles its neck feathers as it turns to look at me. One blue eye with my gods behind it. This is everything I need for now. This will carry me.
Meet the Author
Panella has been a reporter and freelance magazine writer. He teaches writing at Vermont Law School.
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