Monday, November 22, 2010

Sextillus Caesar

All television is educational television. The question is: what is it teaching? ~Nicholas Johnson

I have no one to blame but myself, because I should know better. The Science Channel was showing a marathon of history "investigations", including the usual "who killed Alexander the Great" and "who was Jack the Ripper" stuff. They also had the shows about "who killed Julius Caesar" and "who killed Cleopatra".

Given that there seems to be little debate on the subject of Caesar's assassins, it's a little hard to figure what the debate was. Well, it seems that Caesar actually set the whole thing up himself as a very complex suicide. This was determined by an Italian police official who clearly has way too much time on his hands. In scenes eerily similar to the detectives who tracked King Tut's "killer", where they drove back and forth across the desert, we are treated to our intrepid policeman driving, or rather being driven, all over Rome.

Now this is all very scenic, but it seems that had Caesar decided that his afflictions were too much for him to bear, he most likely would have taken the soldier's traditional way out: Have a trusted friend or slave hold a sword and run onto it. He could have taken the appropriate steps to ensure that a civil war did not ensue and still achieved his godhood.

But, compared to the Cleopatra episode, the Caesar one was pure genius.

In the "who killed Cleopatra" we are thrown into the clutches of a "profiler." It's scary to think that there are actually people who get paid to do this. Basically, a profiler is a trained psychological investigator, normally employed in serial crimes, to try to get into the head of the perpetrator and either anticipate the next crime or lead law enforcement to the guilty party.

If one believes television cop shows, these profilers are deadly accurate. In practice, it's a much more hit-and-miss business. But certainly, dealing with a single crime is not their strong suit. But that's not going to stop the profiler chasing down Cleopatra's murderer. The profiler applies nothing but modern attitudes toward the participants and is totally unable to understand why Cleopatra would kill herself because "it wasn't in her character." And Octavian, the guilty party, goes to lengths to cover up the crime because he doesn't want to be seen as having killed Cleopatra.


This is the same Octavian who actively pursued Marc Antony with the singular purpose of defeating him in battle. It was most unlikely that he would have left him off with a hand slap at that point; most likely Antony would have been offered (and accepted) the opportunity to run on his sword. This is the same Octavian who had Cleopatra's son Caesarion hunted down and killed, and made no secret of the fact. So, if he wanted Cleopatra dead, nothing was going to stop him. The nicest thing he might have offered her is the chance to kill herself.

However, what Octavian really wanted to do in all probability was parade Cleopatra through the streets of Rome in a triumph as his adopted father Julius had done to Cleopatra's sister Arsinoe. The difference is that Octavian would most likely have gone through with the traditional ritual killing of the captive after the triumph.

You don't think Cleopatra would think of that?

However, our profiler ignores the psychology of the time, evidently thinking that somehow Cleopatra would want to live on to protect her son Caesarion. Yeah, like that was gonna happen. She was in no position to protect anyone. Her only recourse to avoid the humiliation that lay ahead was to take her own life. Now, whether there was an asp involved or a cobra or some clever poison is really unimportant. What is important is that it's totally unnecessary to ascribe the actual crime to Octavian as a murder.

He won the war. In those days, losers tended to die. That's the way it worked. If they weren't dead, they could come back and make trouble all over again.

They asked a real historian what she thought of the profiler's "report". To her credit, the historian did not endorse the theory of Octavian the Hitman. She took the high road that unusual theories can provoke thought amongst historians and get them to think in different contexts. Translation: "It's malarkey, but it makes for an interesting discussion."

But, like so many of these programs, somehow had to drop the kind of error that leads you to think that no one actually read the script before doing the show. At one point, the earnest announcer tells us that Octavian changed his name to Augustus, in reference to "the month he took power."

Lawsey. If that were the case, he would have taken the name Sextillus. After Octavian had taken the name Augustus, and successfully eliminated everyone who opposed him, the Senate voted to name the month of Sextillus August in honor of the three triumphs Octavian had that month. I can't imagine where they got the idea backwards, but backwards they got it.

Granted you actually had to be listening to hear this boner. It was nowhere near as silly as the airplane flying past the Pyramids being described as flying over the Mojave desert. It wasn't as embarrassing as the Nefertiti fiasco. But, listen, folks at Discover-History-Science: If you're going to have a cockamamie show spouting some ridiculous interpretation of historical events, at least get the simple facts right. Otherwise, you're liable to start turning out stuff like this.

Assuming you haven't already done so.

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