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Review of Vincent Panella's Cutter's Island: Caesar in Captivity


Cutter's Island

Cutter's Island

Cutter's Island
Vincent Panella
Academy Chicago Publishers: October 2000
197 pages; ISBN 0-89733-484-1
Caesar was not naturally vindictive; and if he crucified the pirates who held him to ransom, this was only because he had sworn in their presence to do so; and he first mercifully cut their throats.
- Suetonius Caesar.74, Graves' translation

Besides gold and jewelry, during the Republic Roman pirates made a lucrative business in the trading of people. Not only did they sell into slavery citizens found on the ships they captured, but they held the more prominent Romans for ransom. A 25-year-old Julius Caesar was one such victim, kept near the island of Pharmacussa for more than a month. Vincent Panella expands on and elaborates the few known details of this captivity and its aftermath in Cutter's Island: Caesar in Captivity.

During his stay, the pirate captain, Cutter, and his prisoner develop a level of ... if not friendship and trust, then comfort, with Cutter revealing his profound hostility to the Romans at whose hands he lost one of his own. Cutter views himself and his men as Mithridatic soldiers at war with Rome; other brigands are pirates. Caesar, who doesn't care about the rationale, warns his captor of Roman law. Cutter will repay the ransom with his life, but the gold, eventually leveraged up to fifty talents by a vain Caesar who thought he was worth more than the twenty Cutter had demanded, is a phenomenal amount worth almost any risk for a pirate.

When these men at first demanded of him twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not understanding the value of their prisoner, and voluntarily engaged to give them fifty.
-Plutarch [See the rest of the passage on Caesar and the Pirates in Plutarch]

Through the poetry Caesar writes to keep his craft sharp, warn, and entertain the pirates, Panella provides a facsimile of Panella qua Caesar's literary gift as he describes the death of Hector:

...And then the great
Horse Tamer, seeing that his spear had clanged off
the seven-layered bull-hide shield of Achilles, put
his hand out to his brother for a second spear, and
not seeing it, turned to a wisp of Olympian fog.

Thus fate sealed great Hector, as
Achilles' spear hissed like a snake, and bit!
p. 125

To cope with his captivity, Caesar repeatedly flashes back to his sexual relations with Servilia, sister of Cato, one of Caesar's many enemies. Such reminiscences tell the story of Caesar's life and the relevant elements of recent Roman, Sullan, and Marian politics.

The story of Caesar's pirate adventure is described by Plutarch and mentioned in Suetonius, as well as being treated in Colleen McCullough's Fortune's Favorites where Caesar is much more self-assured than he is in Cutter's Island. McCullough's Caesar repeatedly taunts his captors with their imminent demise, and he ostentatiously demonstrates his cleverness by counting landmarks so he can later wend his way back to the pirate cove. In contrast, Cutter surmises his eventual punishment according to Roman law, and Panella's Caesar (like Plutarch's) returns to the pirate's lair immediately. Panella does not, however, stick as closely to the timeline of the famous men as McCullough. When the pirate captain Cutter tells his own story to Caesar, a Pompey triumphant from Spain features prominently. Pompey's actual triumph post-dates Caesar's captivity by about five years.

It is a fascinating period in young Caesar's life, and since we have only limited information about it, it is surprising it hasn't been grist for more historical fiction mills. On the other hand, it's not quite enough plot for a fulfilling historical novel -- especially after McCullough -- but it just might be enough for a blockbuster. As William Price Fox says of Cutter's Island, "If the makers of Gladiator had picked up this book, that would have been a real movie."

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"And I do not think Servilia would have been interested in a young Caesar. Nor letting her son - who probably wasn't even born yet at the time described - witness the affair. "

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