greg woolf ET a short hisOry of political murder BOOKS & THE CULTURE Rendering Caesar BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN Et Tu Brute? A Short History of Political Murder By Greg Woolf Harvard University Press 224 pages, $19.95 IN hat might distin guish assassination from an ordinary offing is that its victim has a body guard. If so, the violent incident on March 15, 44 B.C. was merely bloody murder. Despite portents of misfortune, Caius Julius Caesar was not shielded by the Praetorian Guard when he strode into the senate house and seated himself among men he trusted with his life. The Roman dictator was stabbed once by each of 23 conspirators, including his protg, the urban praetor Marcus Junius Brutus. Caesar’s dying words, almost certainly uttered in Greek, voiced dismay that Brutus, whom he called “my son,” was a party to the lethal treachery. It was William Shakespeare, however, who devised the snappy Latin line by which Caesar’s death lives on: “Et tu, Brute?” In Et Tu Brute?, Greg Woolf, a professor of ancient history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, examines the ways in which “Caesar’s murder has been lovingly treasured, reinterpreted, and, yes, staged and performed as the archetype of political murders’ An exercise in historiography, in how one piece of the past has been remembered and interpreted, the book offers a detailed examination of the circumstances by which the victorious general and gifted author, who had recently been anointed “dictator for life,” departed that life. Woolf analyzes evolving attitudes toward monarchy and regicide that have been responsible for ambivalence over the slaughter of the famous tyrant. He traces the extraordinary afterlife in literature and popular culture of a noble Roman who still bestrides the narrow world like a colossus. Thousands of political figures have been assassinated over the past 21 centuries. “But among so many murdered and perished leaders of men,” Woolf asks, “why do the Ides of March still matter?” Caesar’s death occurred about halfway through the 1,500-year history of ancient Rome, and its consequences for the empire were profound and extensive. But more than the killing of Philip II of Macedon Henri IV of France Francisco Madero continues to draw blood throughout the world. “How many ages hence,” asks Shakespeare’s Cassius after the fatal deed, “Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, in states unborn and accents yet unknown?” Elizabethan English was only one of many unknown accents in which, like the crucifixion of Jesus, the killing of Caesar would be performed and pondered. Despite allusions to several other political murders or attempted murders, including the attack on Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister ever the book’s subtitle, A Short History of Political Murder, is misleading. Instead of tracing the dismal lineage of political murder, from antiquity to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Woolf’s concise book studies the history of one political murder, from conception to execution to mythologization. According to Woolf, the killing of Caesar provides space in which to weigh the tactics and ethics of assassination. He discusses how and why Roman emperors rarely died in bed, but leaves it mostly to the reader to extrapolate to other times and other places. No Zapruder footage captured the slaying of Caesar, and, despite dozens of witnesses, the documentary record is spotty and contradictory. Confusion was the immediate aftermath of the vio 28 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 7, 2007
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