This Being the MySpace Page of Marcus Junius Brutus
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.
Brutus bought it last night. When it sunk in that he’d been defeated at Philippi by the combined forces of Mark Antony and Octavian Caesar he grabbed a sword and marched down the hill, snapping the ties on his breastplate. By the time he reached the enemy army on the field below he was defenseless. He kissed his father’s ring and waded into the sea of soldiers, provoking them to stab him to death, just as he had done to Caesar.
The swords made a horrible squishing noise, wet and crunchy at the same time. Four of them went clean through Brutus before he collapsed to the ground in the fetal position and the camera floated up birds-eye as the mob closed in.
It was incredibly realistic, though historically inaccurate. In ancient Rome, Brutus actually took his own life several weeks after the Battle of Phillipi. But in “Rome,” the HBO Original Series, he dies on the battlefield. More poetic that way.
Once again transfixed to the point of dissolution with HBO Original Series programming, I am seized by a fever, a Caesar fever. One moment I was looking for some distracting entertainment, and the next thing I knew I was up all night studying military diagrams of the ancient world.
“Rome” has awakened in me an interest in ancient history that had lain dormant since the Greek mythology class I took freshman year of college, in which I found myself most absorbed not by the professor or the material but the sign-language interpreter the university provided for a deaf student in the class. Better than reading or hearing the myths was watching the interpreter act them out, and by the end of the semester my classmates and I had learned the signs for “sword,” “battle,” “rape,” “kill,” “god,” “death,” and “thunderbolt.” Better still than watching Greek myths translated into sign language is watching the civil wars of the late Roman Republic brought to life on the largest film set ever built.
At some point in my immersion in “Rome,” the HBO/BBC original series, I realized I was asking more of it than twenty-two hours of lurid entertainment. Just what I am hoping to gain from my spectatorial travels I am not quite sure. Assurance that nothing is new under the sun, and my problems are as old as humanity itself? Relief at being born into this time and this place, where it is fortunate that people of my particular description are recognized as human and allowed to live safely and freely, if angstily? Escape from angst into gratuitous sex and violence? Evidence that sex and violence are all there are? People kill each other and fuck each other and fuck each other over and it all goes on and on? Or maybe it is not ideas I’m in search of but a story that’s properly told, in which it all hangs together, however tenuously, in which people move like arrows toward their destinies, triumph gloriously or fail spectacularly, seize important moments or recognize when it’s all over and bravely disembowel themselves?
Oddly, I am looking for suspense in stories to which the endings have long been written. The fates of the major characters on “Rome” have been definitively known for over 2,000 years. Now that I’ve been on the interwebs, I know that Antony and Cleopatra will fight Octavian, lose and commit suicide. (Though I was ignorant enough of ancient history to scowl “Spoiler!” when I first encountered this information one frenzied night of Wikipedia clicking. I had Cleopatra confused with Lady Godiva, and kept waiting for the naked horseback ride.) I knew Caesar would get it and Brutus would do it. There was no suspense in how it would end, only in the pure conjecture of what the characters would say and do in each moment of their doomed and decadent lives.
There is an unfortunate gap between “Rome” and Rome. “Rome” is thrilling, but ancient history is very boring. There are no pictures and no YouTube videos of these events, only re-creations of varying degrees of accuracy and believability. The stories themselves are unsubstantiated. Maybe he killed himself. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe his wife killed herself when she heard. Maybe it was the other way around. A letter was found, but it could have been forged. He went by seven different names, but everyone had the same seven names. Maybe he killed some other guy with the same name. Or maybe two guys with the same name had a drink. Either they had a drink, or they killed each other, or they were lovers, or they were the same person, or they never existed.
In ancient times you had to be famous to even be mis-remembered. You had to command an army of thousands. You had to be eulogized by blind poets. You had to get into Plutarch’s Lives. You had to keep copious diaries of your military campaigns and hope they weren’t lost. After all that, the best you could hope for would be the half-truths of the few surviving fragments, themselves hearsay, and a marble statue likely to be missing a nose or a limb.
The records of the few figures who were well-documented are dry and unsatisfying. I find I don’t want droning lists of accomplishments, the hithers and thithers, marriages and divorces, alliances and enimities. When depicted in full color and surround-sound with ample sex and violence these events are enthralling, but when wheeled off like a laundry list, quite boring.
I have been spoiled by our age to delight in the small details, not the big facts. History is by necessity heavy on begetting and last words, the stuff carved on the cheat sheets of tombstones. And history even argues with itself on those simple details. Birth and death are all very good, but I’ve become accustomed to a wealth of information on the time in between.
And so in my fascination with the lives of the Romans on the cusp of year zero, I look for the sort of record we’re all so blithely making of ourselves–the constant updates of Facebook and Twitter, the tags of Flickr, the Google-able life of the early third millennium. (What will they call this period? The Late American Republic? The Early American Republic? The Middle American Republic? How can we know how to live when we don’t even know if we’re in the beginning, the middle or the end?)
My entire social cohort lives in the instantaneous nostalgia of our shared internet photo albums. These contain memories not of the orange-y brown days of the seventies and eighties but of last night, last week, last year. I’ve come to find it comforting that my own life is being sufficiently archived in word and image. Pictures of the immediate past (last night) and our personal histories (summer camp, high school) appear on Facebook with equal regularity and without warning. The album of myself thickens even with no effort on my part. The only challenge is to remain upright in the face of tsunamis of nostalgia, and to grow accustomed to a life of publicity without true fame.
The constantly-documented present instantaneously becomes past, and the past remains incongruously present. I’ve come to accept and in some way even thrive on the thrice daily updates on the activities of people I haven’t seen in five or ten years. In this way, even the ancient history of my own short life is neither history nor buried. The people I went to camp and high school with are “eating the best hot dog right now” or “loving Paris” or “watching this video.” We are in public even as we are in private, and the format of Facebook and Twitter status updates deploys the state-of-being verb in the present tense. Even statuses not updated for weeks or months remain immediate: The Facebook page eternally reports that So-and-So is.
We have blurred the line between past and present, public and private, fame and obscurity. Moments I don’t even remember are out there forever, and yet I don’t have to wait for any blind poet to tell my story, nor sit for any sculptor and hope for a flattering result. Somehow we’ve come to have both more and less control over our mildly public images. The internet keeps no secrets but allows the pleb his propaganda.
It was not enough to read the timelines of the lives of famous Romans (and Greeks and Macedonians). It was not enough to see them brought to life by recognizable actors. I did not want to see Alexander portrayed by Colin Farrell or Achilles portrayed by Brad Pitt. I came to realize that I was not seeking Brutus’s life as told by Plutarch, but Brutus’s life as told by Brutus. I Googled and Googled, finding a lack of that which is so abundant now–the life of the individual told in his own words. We are all writing our autobiographies sentence by sentence, with our thumbs. Thought it seems primitive, it is also fitting that the thumb is the writing instrument of choice in the age of iPhone and Blackberry. The opposeable thumb, after all, is what makes us human. (See “Rome,” Season 1, Episode 5: When Titus Pullo tortures and murders Evander for the crime of committing adultery and fathering an illegitimate child with the wife of his best friend, he cuts off the man’s thumbs and throws him into the Cloaca Maxima.)
Plutarch had the clever idea to tell the stories of important Greeks and Romans in pairs, side by side, but Facebook and MySpace have outdone him. We live not in pairs but in webs, lists of hundreds or thousands of people who know us or knew us or don’t know us. Instead of being tortured, bound or gagged, we are searched, viewed and tagged.
Some friends and I were discussing the combined oddity and nicety of Facebook. The compulsion to “friend” is so powerful that among the little trading-card heads of friends one inevitably collects one’s old boyfriends and random hook-ups. Some of these are legitimate friends, others odd blasts from the past. But into the pile they go, neatly alphabetized and often incongruously listed next to a cousin or a co-worker. One friend remarked that she had recently been “poked” by her freshman-year boyfriend, the one who took her virginity. Unwilling to let the opportunity to make a crude joke pass me by, I said, “That’s not the only way he poked you!” But as I looked around the room I realized that everyone with a Facebook account was “friends” (if not actually friends) with her first. By keeping in touch we were keeping a record of things. And into the annals of history it goes: He poked me.
Compared to the startling accuracy of the internet, misinformation on Brutus abounds. In “Rome” they have him die in de facto suicide on the battlefield at Phillipi, in the ABC series “Empire” he is denied the pleasure of martyrdom, gets exiled and returns disgraced. Caesar didn’t really say, “Et tu, Brutus?” when Brutus stabbed him. Some say his last words were, “Kai su, teknon?” which is Greek for, “You, too, my child?” According to Plutarch Brutus’s last words were, “”By all means must we fly; not with our feet, however, but with our hands.” His last words according the “Rome,” The HBO/BBC drama were, “Tell my mother…something suitable.” Mark Antony wrapped Brutus in his finest cloak, says Plutarch. Mark Antony wanted his head packed in salt to brandish in Rome, says HBO. Who to believe? In the end, the man is just a myth, a name to activate and animate in any number of plots. We may never have the opportunity to become the victim of confused and conflicting stories of glory and failure; we’ve compounded too many facts to leave room for any of the sort of speculation that leads to lofty poetry. But on the other hand we won’t be taking any chances on dying in obscurity just because we didn’t take it upon ourselves to assassinate a dictatorial emperor. We don’t have to do anything to ensure an archive of ourselves besides click “Create Account.”
If there is no Facebook page for the ancient Romans, there is at least a Wikipedia entry. The Wikipedia entry on Marcus Junius Brutus led to the MySpace page for Tobias Menzies, the actor who played Brutus. There is much more information available about the man who portrayed Brutus than there is about Brutus himself. Tobias Menzies briefly dated Kristin Scott Thomas. Tobias Menzies recently read “Heart of Darkness.” Tobias Menzies enjoys walking and sitting in cafes. These are the sorts of mundane truths I wished to know about the people of ancient Rome, but this information is not available in Plutarch’s Lives. I wanted to know what Brutus thought, and what Brutus liked, what Brutus said not on his deathbead but in passing. Brutus is…nervous about his conspiracy? Brutus is…not shaving much since he went into exile?
Since I could not know these things about Brutus I friended Tobias Menzies instead. I also enjoy walking and sitting in cafes. It is better than honor suicide after lost battles, better than being run through with four swords, and none of it even being true.