Sunday, March 15, 2015

Beware the Ides of March

I sat down to write this morning and looked at the calendar and realized that today was the Ides of March. No, I’m not talking about that great rock band that gave us the song “Vehicle” back in 1970, but that fateful day when Julius Caesar was assassinated; March 15th 44 BC.

With all the Latin I studied in high school, I learned that the Romans had a funny way of counting the days in the month. It was very similar to the way they counted everything as leading up to and away from a certain number. For example the roman numerals IV, V, VI and VII are equivalent to 4, 5, 6 and 7 in our numbering system. There were three dates in the Roman month around with all the other days centered: the Nones which was the 5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month, the Ides, either the 13th or 15th, and the Kalends the 1st of the following month. I always felt that the Romans cheated the last two weeks of the month.

I can tell you that you had better already figured out the roman date before going into Latin class because if you didn’t and the teacher called on you to tell the class the date, which he did every class, there was no way you could calculate it in time. There was Romulus and Remus to pay if you didn’t get it right the first time. So, in the hallway before class a couple of us would huddle up and come up with the correct date which was committed to memory. Tuesday through Friday it wasn’t too big a deal because we could build from the previous day’s date which was confirmed in class. But Mondays were full of knee shaking, blinking, stammering fear while we were making sure to go through three calculations to arrive at the date. Our teacher, being the Latin geek that he was could translate any date to the Latin date in his head instantly which kept us all in awe. Legend has it that he missed only once, on February 29th. He said it was the Kalends of April because he forgot it was a leap year. The April Fool’s joke was on him that year.

To a teenager full of raging hormones looking to find his place in life, there was one cool thing about taking four years of Latin. We each had to translate Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic Wars” from its original Latin. We were already familiar with the Gallic Wars, a series of military campaigns waged by the Roman proconsul Julius Caesar against several Gallic tribes. The war lasted from 58 BC to 50 BC and resulted in the expansion of the Roman Republic over the whole of Gaul which is now France and Belgium. I remember the first line of the first of the 8 books like I had read it just yesterday. "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres", meaning "All of Gaul is divided into three parts".

A lot of folks think the phrase “Veni, vidi, vici!” came from the Gallic Wars but Caesar penned them in a letter he wrote to the Roman Senate a few years before the Gallic Wars after the Battle of Zela in Turkey where he defeated an army twice the size of his.

As I started my translation of the Gallic Wars I thought it was interesting to see war through the eyes of a military commander, but the further I got through the books it became clear to me that I was not reading a factual account of the struggles but rather a political effort by Caesar to directly communicate with the plebeians, circumventing the usual channels of communication that passed through the Senate - to propagandize his activities as efforts to increase the glory and influence of Rome. Most historians agree today that the Gallic Wars were not an effort to secure the territories neighboring Rome as alluded to by Caesar but rather an effort to enhance his position against his political enemies at home.

So, why did we study this writing in detail? It was because it is one of the few surviving works that was written in clear, polished Latin. The style is simple and elegant, essential and not rhetorical. The books also capture in detail many of the customs and religions of the Gauls and Germanic peoples of the time. One of these details that I found interesting was that the Germanic tribes had little or no interest in agriculture.

As I remember, there were eight books in the series, the first seven were written by Caesar and the last written after his assassination. I had to look up the name of that author; Aulus Hirtius. Now I know why I couldn’t remember it! They were not really all that long, 5,000 to 15,000 words each and we had to turn in our translations of each book every two to three weeks. Classes during that time were centered on discussions of some of the more difficult parts to translate. Part of the reason for that was some of the idiomatic constructs of Latin, have no equivalent in English. That is where things got really interesting.

Finally, we got to check each of our individual translations against that of my teacher. Despite getting a “B” for my effort, my teacher made a note that I had an interesting perspective on Caesar’s words. All I can say is that it is a good thing that the modern world does not have to rely on my work to understand Roman times. Veni, vidi, Vici! Oh MY!

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