Render Unto Caesar
[I had a concise point to offer here, but it’s turned into an autistic tale of ancient history – mea culpa up top and I hope that I’ve at least made this entertaining for you...]
We all know that audiences are the most horrible part of comedy. Just imagine for a second a world where you can perform comedy without an audience…
They’re the most fickle and capricious of creatures – you need to constantly tease them with what they want whilst simultaneously making sure they never quite get it, you set an endless dance upon the edge of a razor. The comedian Stewart Lee calls this “cat string theory” (in his book How I Escaped My Certain Fate, a must for any aspiring comic) - when one plays with a cat by dangling a piece of string in front of it - the cat is engaged in a primal hunting game. But give the cat the string and it couldn’t be any more bored.
This is ever your audience.
So how does one toe this fine line with the crowd? Well, the simple answer is experience. Enduring enough of the suck to get a feel for it. The question is nebulous at best and volumes could be written on this topic alone.
But for some quick pointers I’d encourage you to look towards one of my personal idols, one of the greatest writers and entertainers of all time – Gaius Julius Caesar.
Specifically, you want to read Caesar’s book: Commentarii de Bello Gallico or Commentaries on the Gallic War.
Julius Caesar is my favourite person in history. The number one on the list of people I’d invite to dinner in that asinine what if party game.
The period where Caesar was the first Roman emperor, the period that most people associate with the man, is probably the most boring part of Caesar’s life. He was, simply, one of the most entertaining people to ever live. (And also a genocidal butcher, but none of us are perfect)
Caesar was Rome’s greatest politician, in a time when Rome was known for its great politicians. He outmanoeuvred the likes of Cato, Crassus and Cataline. His political machinations did not even end with his death, he was that good.
He was Rome’s greatest general, in a time of great Roman generals. Rome had a glut of ‘greatest generals of all time’ - Scipio Africanus, Marius, Sulla, Pompey – and Caesar proved better than all of them, even besting Pompey in open battle (in these debates over the great captains, Caesar is the only one you can say fought against his greatest contemporary rival using identical armies). Julius Caesar was certainly the greatest general of antiquity since Hannibal Barca and probably the best until at least Subutai. (Alexander the Great fought five field battles in his career. Caesar over fifty.)
Julius Caesar was also perhaps the greatest lover of all time, making Casanova look like a neckbeard. A rough estimate during the later days of the Republic was that Caesar had slept with the wives of over two-thirds of the senate. Considering the Roman senate had over 200 members at the time, this was quite the feat. There’s a famous anecdote of Cato, a longtime adversary of Caesar, delivering a speech on the Senate floor when he saw Caesar being surreptitiously passed a note by a slave. Thinking that he’d uncovered evidence of Caesar committing treason, Cato demanded that the lictors seize the note from Caesar. Caesar handed it over nonchalantly and Cato read it, his eyes widening and his face reddening. Caesar demanded that Cato read the note aloud to the entire senate, which Cato was honour-bound to do. And so Cato the Younger, enemy of Caesar and famous for being something of a stoic prude, was forced to read a love letter to Caesar, written by Cato’s sister no less, detailing the rather sordid things that Caesar had done to her...rear end...and what lascivious things she had planned for him in turn.
In fact, Caesar’s sexual escapades at one point grew so troublesome to the senate that they organised Caesar be sent away as an ambassador to far off Bythinia (modern-day Turkey). Upon his arrival, Caesar wasted no time in seducing Nicomedes IV, the king of Bithynia. He was that good. (Something forgotten when telling the story of the ‘greatest romance of all time’ - Antony and Cleopatra - was that Antony was Cleopatra’s second lover. Her child’s name was Caesarion after all)
Above all of this, Julius Caesar was the greatest propagandist of all time. Caesar could play a crowd like no other.
On more than one occasion Caesar was beyond bankrupt and couldn’t afford to pay his troops. When the soldiers threatened to mutiny, Caesar addressed them and delivered a guilt trip so powerful that those soldiers, instead of mutinying, begged Caesar to be allowed to continue to serve and in some cases actually paid him for the privilege.
Which brings us to CommentariI de Bello Gallico.
Julius Caesar was a powerful player in Roman politics, but he wasn’t the top dog. And to get where he was he had spent unbelievable amounts of cash. In today’s money it would make Bloomberg’s campaign look like pennies in the dollar. Caesar had spent modern-day billions buying his office. Money he didn’t have. Caesar owed literally all of the money and he needed a way to raise funds quickly.
The best way to make money then, as it is now, is with a war. So Caesar decided he was going to go and conquer Gaul (modern-day France, Belgium, England and parts of Germany).
The problem is, this looked pretty suss. Caesar needed money and now all of a sudden he’s declared war. It was a little too convenient, like when an unpopular president suddenly found weapons of mass destruction in a third-world country with large oil reserves.
So Caesar did something unusual. He wrote a book about it. His commentaries on the Gallic War. And there are a few things that make this book special.
Firstly, he walked the tightrope of keeping the audience on his side. This book is a masterpiece of narrative tension. If Caesar makes the Gauls look too barbaric and monstrous then the Roman people would question why they’re being conquered and absorbed into Rome.
If they’re too savage then they could turn at any time, why are you bringing them home, so to speak? By the same token, Caesar can’t make them look too civilised either – otherwise, why is he fighting them? Wouldn’t it be better to just talk it out?
Caesar has to make them both an existential threat to the Roman republic but also a strong and special people that would add value to Roman civilisation.
Then there are the depictions of the battles themselves. Again Caesar dances across the razor’s edge. If Rome wins comfortably every time then why are we even bothering? But if Caesar’s legions are always on the back foot, always one step away from disaster, then what does that say about the ability of Caesar as a general?
So you have all of these depictions of battles that sound like they come right out of Lord of the Rings: there are battles where the legion is ambushed and only just scrapes through by the grace of the gods. There are battles where victory seems imminent but then hundreds of thousands of Gauls appear and defeat the Romans – of course while some brave soldiers heroically give up their lives to allow the others to escape. The Greeks mildly inconvenienced the Persian Empire at Thermopylae and haven't shut up about it since, Caesar knew a good anecdote when he heard one and made sure to include his own versions.
Did these battles actually occur? Of course. Did they occur the way that Caesar tells it? Absolutely not.
Secondly, Caesar wrote his accounts as dispatches. They were a serial. He didn’t just write up his memoirs when he got back to Rome, he wrote them in episodes.
Romans would tune in every week to hear what Caesar was up to in Gaul, and every week there would be a cliffhanger. Just like every episode of a TV show we have today, Caesar’s dispatches would end on some dramatic note that had you demanding to know what happens next.
Caesar has Vercingetorix surrounded at the Siege of Alesia, but what’s this? A relief force of 80,000 Celts just appeared to break the deadlock. What happens next? Is Caesar ok? Well, you’ll have to tune in next week for the next exciting episode of Game of Romes.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Caesar wrote these dispatches to be read and performed. These weren’t dry memoirs and accounts of what happened, they were an exciting play designed to be read to the largely illiterate crowds of the Roman common-folk. These weren’t texts, they were scripts for a play.
He wrote them in the third person and made sure to include dramatic tension, scenic descriptions, and vivid action. This is Caesar telling an account of the Battle of Sabis (remembering that Caesar is talking about himself when he says ‘Caesar’):
“The enemy in front kept pouring up the hill and were pressing us on both flanks, he recognised that this was a crisis because there were no reserves available, so Caesar snatched a shield from a soldier in the rear ranks - Caesar had no shield with him - and went forward to the front line, where he called out to all the centurions by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the men, whom he ordered to advance and to open out their ranks so that they could use their swords more effectively.”
Imagine this being read to a crowd of Roman plebes by an actor. It would have them on the edge of their seats. Caesar did this! Caesar did that! Defeat was inevitable until Caesar grabbed a shield and personally routed the enemy!
And, crucially, Caesar wrote in Vulgar Latin. This is a huge deal. Caesar wrote these to be read, or read to, the commoners. He wrote in a language they would not only understand, but would speak themselves.
In one of my favourite jokes of mine (that no one else ever likes, and you're all wrong) “Greek, not Latin, was the lingua franca of Rome”. Most of the Roman upper class spoke Greek – it was the language of official documents and proclamations and the like.
Caesar knew that he needed to appeal to the people, not the senate, so he wrote in a language they could relate to. Not even High Latin, but Vulgar Latin – kind of like the difference between how we speak now compared to how Shakespeare sounds.
In short, the memoirs of the most interesting person of all time weren’t something to sit on a shelf, they were a calculated effort to appeal to a broad audience and keep them entertained, engaged, and firmly on the side of the man writing them.
And it worked.
The rest, as they say, is history. When Caesar was assassinated (did you hear?) the assassins (themselves the 1% of Rome) walked the streets, bragging about what they did. Expecting the people of Rome to shower them in praise and adulation. What they underestimated was just how much the plebes freaking loved Julius Caesar. The riots started not long after, some of the conspirators were literally torn apart by the mob, and the Roman Republic died.
This is the power of keeping the audience in your grasp. Of keeping them constantly chasing the horizon, playing with a piece of string they’ll never actually catch. If you want an insight into how to do this, into keeping the audience in the palm of your hand, check out this Julius Caesar guy, I think he’s going places.
Veni, Vidi, Vomitum (I came, I saw, I got out as quickly as I could)