Julius Caesar: Never Knowingly Undersold

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Photo: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The image above could give the wrong impression, showing as it does that renowned soldier and immortal statesman, Julius Caesar, in his early fifties and at the height of his powers. When not getting stabbed off of his pals, this is generally how we remember him. Similarly, we tent to think of Churchill in his later-but-not-leaner years rather than as the young snot-nosed schoolboy who foresaw that it was his destiny to save his country in its hour of need.

Such unashamed sentiments of self-importance would, from any other than half a dozen mouths in all of history, have us muttering something about ‘hubris’. (It would then have us running for the dictionary or dictionary.com to double-check that we know what the word actually means; and while we’re there we may as well look up ‘pathos vs bathos’, ‘sympathy vs empathy’ and ‘jealousy vs envy’.)

But we digress.

If, as we haven’t, one is wont to read one’s Plutarch of an idle hour, one may know the following story concerning the 25 year-old Gaius J. Caesar, Esq, private citizen, and his Churchillian view of his place in history – if we might be forgiven the anachronism.

The year is 75BC and young JC has been captured by Cilician pirates as, apparently, was not uncommon at the time. He was still a good few years off becoming a ‘somebody’ in political circles, and so the pirates weren’t to know whom they’d just picked up. They ransomed him for 20 talents (roughly 620kg of silver). One would be forgiven for thinking that the sum was a considerable one, but what with one thing and another, Caesar was outraged by the perceived slight and demanded that they demand 50 talents, which he would pay himself. The pirates, perhaps a little non-plussed, agreed. Caesar sent some of his chums off to round up the ready and while they were gone took charge of things, letting the poor old pirates know who was – and would become – boss. Whilst he was on friendly but not familiar terms with his captors, he did let then know by-the-by that gosh-this-tea-is-wonderful and oh-I’m-trying-to-lose-a-little-round-the-tum-but-I’ll-have-another-choccy-biccy and oh-yes-before-I-forget-when-I-get-out-of-here-I’m-going-to-come-back-and-see-that-you’re-all-crucified.

After six weeks or so, Caesar’s entourage was back with the booty and handed it over. After the formalities, Caesar et alia were free to go.

And Caesar, being Caesar, was a man of his word. He got a gang together and went back for his silver, taking the pirates captive into the bargain. He then popped by the proconsul of Asia, Marcus Junius, asking to have his former hosts executed. Junius thought it might be more profitable to sell the wretched creatures as slaves. But Caesar, again being Caesar, was having none of it. He went back to Pergamon where his prisoners were being held and ordered that they be crucified and the proconsul-be-damned.

And – being Caesar, remember – he then showed ‘em mercy… by having their throats cut instead.