Of late I have become completely preoccupied by the history of the Roman Republic and Empire In particular, the life of Julius Caesar. I’m in the middle of his Gallic Commentaries, decided to take a break to re-read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, thinking I might have a much greater appreciation for it now that I’m so familiar with the characters and events it describes. It also may help that I’m no longer in high school.
There is a soliloquy, when Marcus Antonius is left alone with Caesar’s body, which captured my imagination. It reads thus:
A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.
Obviously, Antony is speaking figuratively here, but there’s some god damned delightful images.
“A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;”
Those most loyal to Caesar are transformed. Their fingers fall away and their arms sharpen like blades. Their feet become cloven, and their legs bent. They cannot stop running, and they lust for the blood of vengeance.
“Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;”
The land becomes a man-made hellscape of endless war.
“Blood and destruction shall be so in use, And dreadful objects so familiar,”
No one is an innocent. Women, children, the infirm, none leave their house without a sword in hand. It is uncommon to go a week without needing–or choosing–to kill.
“That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;”
“And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,”
Caesar’s spirit, given new physical form, walks the land aimlessly with Ate the Greek spirit of ruin dancing around him. He seems removed, as though he does not see, hear, or feel anything. If he desires to take a step, 100 men could not stop him. He would crash through a marble wall if he needed to.
The only time he seems to be aware of his environment at all is when someone is within reach of his sword or spear. Without hesitation he will will them, no matter the love he might have shown to them in life. He is no longer a man, but a force of nature.
“the dogs of war,”
Dogs, as large as horses, roam Italy. They are fierce beasts. They will attack any man they see, and have been known to slay entire cohorts.
Anyone within a 6 mile radius of these dogs becomes immediately aggressive and violent, lashing out at whoever they can until they pass from the dog’s presence.
“With carrion men, groaning for burial,”
The dead, though they lay unmoving, shriek and howl with still lips, cursing the living.