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King of the JewsThe Greatest Mob Story Never Told
By Nick Tosches
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Nick Tosches
All right reserved.
Damned as they have been by every lie or wisdom that has borne the name of religion, the dice are older than them all. From the Indus Valley, long before there was a Rig-Veda to scripture against them -- "Play not with dice" -- or, indeed, before there was any written language to make scripture at all, the bones tumbled onward while civilizations were born, destroyed, and forgotten. Writing in a pagan Rome that outlawed them, Terence laid the blunt and enduring metaphor to the unbeatable racket of being: "Life is a throw of the dice."
More than a century later, in 49 b.c., after his conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar decided to return to Italy in open defiance of Pompey. It was a decision that would lead to civil war, Caesar's rise to dictatorship, and, on March 15, 44 b.c., his assassination. In Ravenna, before crossing the Rubicon, the red-stone stream that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy, he is said to have declared his willful embrace of fate with the words iacta alea est: "The die is cast."
And here we pause, first to piss, then to ponder. The pissing done, the pondering begins.
At the outset of any great work of history, of which this is one (orso it is now intended to be, an intention subject to change at any moment), it is good not only to piss, but also to raise and bear the wisdom that has been given us: "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth." This is the profound underground fissure upon which all history precariously rests. These words -- "A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth" -- have been commonly attributed to Hermann Goering or, less commonly, to Joseph Stalin. These attributions attest the words, for there is no evidence that either of these gentlemen ever said any such thing.
Iacta alea est. The die is cast. The enduring belief that Caesar uttered these words before crossing the Rubicon has its source in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, written by the Roman historian Suetonius in the early sec-ond century, more than a hundred and fifty years after Caesar's death. These now legendary words, we long have been told, were Caesar's own Latining of a phrase from his favorite Greek playwright, Menander, who likely wrote in the fourth century b.c. (Menander's many plays are lost to us or have survived only in fragments. Terence's line about life being a throw of the dice is very probably from Menander, as Terence's Adelphoe was based on Menander's Adelphoi.) But the Greek historians Plutarch, writing late in the first century, and Appian, writing early in the second century, both have Caesar speaking the phrase in its original Greek: Anerriphtho kubos. Caesar was a learned man of impeccable literacy. If he were to have rendered this Greek phrase -- which translates as "Let the die be cast," not "The die is cast" -- into his own native Latin, his words would have been Iacta alea esto rather than Iacta alea est. This alteration may have been a flourish of forceful effect on the part of Caesar or of Suetonius, or it may merely have been a scribal mistake in the manuscript of Suetonius that became our text. Plutarch alone tells us that the words, whether derived from Menander or not, were an old and familiar saying, little more than a "common phrase." Caesar himself, in The Civil Wars, wrote in detail of this decisive moment. He made no mention of speaking any such words.
T. S. Eliot, writing in 1919, observed that "Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum."
History: the harvesting of those lies that repeated often enough become the truth.
Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, written near the end of the sixteenth century, drew heavily from the first English translation of Plutarch, by Sir Thomas North. In North's translation of 1579, as in the original Greek of Plutarch, Caesar dies without words:
For it was agreed among them that every man should give him a wound, because all their parts should be in this murther: and then Brutus himself gave him one wound about his privities. Men report also, that Caesar did still defend himself against the rest, running every way with his body: but when he saw Brutus with his sword drawn in his hand, then he pulled his gown over his head, and made no more resistance, and was driven either casually or purposedly, by the counsel of the conspirators, against the base whereupon Pompey's image stood, which ran all of a gore-blood till he was slain. Thus it seemed that the image took just revenge of Pompey's enemy, being thrown down on the ground at his feet, and yielding up the ghost there, for the number of wounds he had upon him. For it is reported, that he had three and twenty wounds upon his body: and divers of the conspirators did hurt themselves, striking one body with so many blows.
For Shakespeare, such silence, no matter how powerful, would not do. He knew Latin and Greek, and it was in Suetonius, who had not yet been Englished, that he found a death scene with dying words. In Suetonius, upon seeing that Brutus, Caesar's own adopted son, was among his attackers, Caesar said: "Kai su, teknon" -- a Greek vocative -- "And thou, my son." Thence the never said but immortal last words of Caesar as first conjured in Latin by Shakespeare: "Et tu, Brute."
As Shakespeare's play opens but a month before Caesar's death, there is no crossing of the Rubicon. But Shakespeare already had used that bit in Richard III: "I have set my life upon a cast, / And I will stand the hazard of the Dye."
Excerpted from King of the Jews by Nick Tosches Copyright © 2006 by Nick Tosches. Excerpted by permission.
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