Thursday, October 19
In Honor of Reggie
God’s Maytag Man Takes Tram No. 8 to Caesar’s Assassination
Adventures around here inevitably begin with an email, just as the archetypal Sherlock Holmes story begins with Watson fussing with the gasogene and reading out loud part of the Great Detective’s correspondence from some troubled soul. However, rather than picking up a letter from Miss Violet Hunter or the Count von Kramm, my informant is an old and familiar one, always well-anticipated.
My gentle readers are familiar with him under the simple and anonymous meme of “The Roman Seminarian,” and when I see his name in my in-box, it means I’m in for something unusual. I don’t know how he keeps track of so much going on in the Eternal City from up there at the Irish College, but because of him, I’ve partied in the high Bohemian manner with Czech priests, visited the site of St. Catherine’s death, and even gotten Cardinal Ratzinger’s autograph with my clerical-groupie friends.
So when last week I received an e-mail written largely in Latin from him, I was less surprised than most people would have been. It ran something along these lines, and was provided with a helpful translation below:
IDIBUS MARTIIS NEQUITER TURPITER IUGULATUS PIE SANCTE CONCELEBRATUR DIE SOLIS XIV MARTII PRIDIE IDUS IPSAS.
Conglobabuntur participes apud Templum Sancti Andrae de Valle hora 3:00
pomeridiana et ad horam usque 6:30 commemoratione illa occupabuntur...
In other words, the famous Father Reggie Foster Ides of March walking tour leaves from outside S. Andrea at 3 PM next Sunday.
Reggie Foster! Ides of March! Today was the fourteenth, and the famous tour was held the day before the actual assassination, March 15, 44 BC. I owed it to myself to check this out, not just because of the historical value—my hotel stands on the site of Pompey’s Theater, where the Senate was meeting and I had heard he had been killed—but because Father Foster, in certain strange and wonderful circles, is something of a celebrity. A weird celebrity, too. His name causes priests to spontaneously burst into laughter, and then sing the praises of his intellect. He’s the Pope’s official Latinist, has a show on Vatican Radio (appropriately misnamed “The Latin Lover”) and teaches at the Gregorianum, Jesuit intellect central. Beyond that, most everything about him is a large and delightfully elaborate question mark, even if that is a form of punctuation unknown to his beloved ancient Romans.
A sarcastic or hallucinatory journalist once referred to him as “fresh-faced Father Foster in his immaculate Carmelite habit.” Almost everything in that description is wrong. He’s a Carmelite all right, a discalced Carmelite who wears beat-up loafers and powder-blue Maytag man jumpsuits. The standard rumor is that if he wasn’t a genius, he would have gotten retired to a remote hermitage eons ago, though on what charge is a little unclear. I’ve heard him accused of everything from cynical crypto-Tridentinism to raving modernism and every heresy in between, though I wouldn’t have known unless I’d read it somewhere. He also, if the nickname “Wino Reggie” is to be believed, likes popping open a beer on occasion, which indicates he can’t be all bad.
So, at two-forty-five I found myself beneath the great travertine shadow of Sant’ Andrea, for once on time. My friend the Seminarian generally expects me to be late, considering the number of essays I’ve written that begin with me getting to mass in the middle of the Kyrie. Still, I was well-rewarded: the crowd that had gathered was just about as interesting as the tour itself.
The Seminarian later told me with a smile on his face that he thought “we were officially what is known as a motley crew.” And how. Students, Gregorian alums, even ordinary “Foster groupies,” as my friend put it. There were men in baseball caps; matched sets of pudgy children and pudgy mothers; priests; a black-robed Benedictine novice with a pale El Greco face and a vast shaven pate; an Anglican vicar with prim round-lensed gold-rimmed spectacles and a graying Rowan Atkinson bowl haircut; and several pleasantly pretty college girls. (People, I’m not made of stone, you know).
And then there was “fresh-faced” Father Reggie. He’s not fresh-faced; he’s far too interesting-looking to be handsome, his vast bald head, bull neck and florid face like an imagined Roman pugilist’s. Cracked veins stood out on his ruddy cheeks like an anatomical diagram. And I smiled, because I saw he was wearing his own habit—not immaculately Carmelite but distinctly and weirdly Fosterian. Yes, here he was, in powder-blue windbreaker and navy pants, looking all the world like God’s own Maytag man. I started scribbling down furiously, telling my Seminarian friend I was getting some local color.
The Seminarian continued to fill me in on the last few weeks since we’d seen each other. Like me a liturgical tourist, he filled me in on the Syrian subdiaconal ordination I’d missed last week, saying of the tonsuring rite, that “any liturgy involving scissors has to be good.” This is why I like hanging around this guy, if you hadn’t guessed already.
Meanwhile, Father Reggie had started pulling out thick bundles of photocopies from a plastic shopping-bag filled with row upon row of Latin and dozens of classical floor-plans. And then he started talking. I noticed a bemused Benedictine smile on the novice’s face.
“Everybody thinks Julius Caesar was assassinated down in the Forum at the Senate House,” he began in his big, gravelly, raspy voice. “WRONG!” he bellowed. I laughed to myself. I knew the truth well; they'd moved it because the Forum Senate House was under repairs, they were removing (or installing) asbestos or something or cleaning up the blood from the last knife-fight. We were just around the corner from the Albergo della Lunetta, General HQ for me and the other arkies, set in a curious curved city block whose shape derived from, as I said before, the theater of Pompey that was built there two millennia earlier.
That meant—surely—that Caesar, the great G. Julius Caesar with his stupid bronze-cast haircut and memorable last words, et tu, Brute? had gotten knifed to death somewhere in the basement of the place where I slept. Heck, there was even a restaurant around the corner built in the old theater’s vaulted basement, and if you’re going to murder a dictator, a vaulted basement seems like just the right spot to do it. In fact, maybe that had something to do with the ghost sightings I’d heard rumors of a few months earlier.
We moved along the great blank brick side of the church, standing along the vast stuccoed curve of Largo di Pallardo. Somewhere above us was the window of my hotel room, overlooking history. It was odd, frankly, to think about it; the greatest Latin scholar alive (as well as possibly the strangest) was standing amid the parked motorini on a spot where I’d once spent three incredibly dull hours trying to draw the dome of Sant’ Andrea using a laundry marking pen for an incredibly experimental assignment. Campo dei Fiori’s lazy backstreets were now full of death and sex and violence, or at least historic sex and violence as opposed to the usual stuff garnered from taking a Roman taxi ride.
The Carmelite was talking loudly again. “We’ve got some pictures, the kids always like pictures,” smirked the Carmelite as we flipped through our packets. I dug out my map, and my heart sank. “You see where I’ve written ‘Cur. Pomp’? That’s the site of Pompey’s senate house, where Caesar got murdered.” I did some mental calculations, checking the diagram of the old theater against the modern street map. It had been part of Pompey’s marble multiplex, but certainly not the bit I called home.
Oh yeah, and Foster further added salt to the wound by telling us gleefully that Caesar didn’t say “Et tu Brute?” but something “IN GREEK!!”
Et tu, Reggie? Can I have just one little inaccuracy to call my own?
This isn’t to say Pompey’s Theater is chopped liver; Foster reminded us that the dedication ceremonies had looked like something out of Aida with elephants parading across the stage and a thousand jackasses, according to my notes, though the context is such I’m unclear if he means animals or people. Pompey’s Theater was, in greatly magnified and bombastic form, in the great tradition of the Roman illegal structure. The flat roofs of so many palazetti around here teem with dubious terraces, elaborate makeshift timber structures hung with curtains and green plastic shades, wild with ivy and TV antennas. Anywhere else, they’d be ugly, but like everything the Romans touch, they are beautiful and quaint, no matter how jury-rigged.
Regarding Pompey’s theater, well, I’m getting to that. Some people find it hard to believe the ancient Romans are the same people today that sell cheap plaster Augustuses from carts around the Forum or drive with the recklessness of Judah ben-Hur in the Circus. Caesar’s heirs may have conquered most of the known world, but the modern Imperator, Mussolini, had only Abyssinia and Albania to his credit, and with Abyssinia, it bears to remember that modern, united, up-to-date Italy had been beaten by the Ethiopians less than fifty years earlier at Adowa. Nonetheless, Pompey’s Theater is governed by the same insane loopholes that make the Italian world go round, except in even more spectacular form. You see, instead of building the illegal structure on top of a roof, quiet and simple in easy-to-take-down plywood, he did it in marble, and plopped the only legal thing in the whole place on top of it.
Theaters, stone ones anyway, were highly illegal during the Republic. Perhaps because the Tiburtine sybil had looked into the cloudy future and seen Alec Baldwin and Martin Sheen, the Senate feared the possibility of infama actors dabbling in politics, especially when declaiming inflammatory lines from stone stages in stone theaters that would make very convenient fortresses should Zero Mostel feel like taking up arms against the S.P.Q.R. Pompey, of course, being a high-roller, would have none of that, and put up his very own grand theater with stone seats and stage—and, as a spectacular legal dodge, plopped a temple to Venus on top of the whole extravaganza and told the architecture police that the stone seats were just steps up to the temple.
It’s stories like these that suggest that ancient Rome was more Caesar’s Palace than Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. That and those mysterious “thousand jackasses.”
But what about poor Caesar, lying on the floor of Pompey’s theater in a pool of blood? Reggie was reading his Latin again from the packet, as loud and vigorous as possible. He waved his free arm around, clenching and unclenching his fist with comic drama like a conductor keeping time for a student orchestra. It was church pronunciation, naturally, but the way he said it seemed centuries away from the sonorous, soporific Latin I was familiar with from daily Low Mass.
So. Caesar. Cicero seemed to be looming large here in G. Julius’s murder, even larger than the famous Brutus. After all, he was an ally of Pompey—and later a flatterer of Caesar. A very back-biting flatterer. “Cicero was a bum and a rat,” said Foster, his bright, idiosyncratically blue eyes crinkling with surprising humor. And what was his evidence for saying this? Two “abominable lines,” as he said grandiosely, quoting a letter from the orator to a certain Basilus. Tibi gratulo, mihi gaudeo; te amo, tua tueor; a te amari et quid agas quidque agatur certior fieri volo. Which means, “Congratulations, I am delighted! I am wholly at your service. I want you to be the same to me and to be informed of what you are doing and what is being done.” Written, most curiously, on the ides of March itself, it is said, at the first news of the assassination. “Good riddance to the old buzzard!” cried out Foster, mimicking Cicero on Caesar.
Actually, Cicero did not really have much to do with the dagger-wielding, but I get the impression he certainly liked the idea. “ ‘If I had been there,’ ” quoted the Carmelite, “ ‘there would have been no leftovers!’ ”
We trudged towards the site of the Senate House, worming our way down narrow grubby cobbled streets and dodging the occasion Kamikaze Roman driver. “The Latin is just out of this word,” said Foster, continuing. Caesar and Cicero were rival orators; indeed, Caesar’s prose “so lean and military—so mmmmmghrmpmpgh, wonderful!” obsessed Cicero. However, they hated each other, or at least Cicero did, especially when Caesar sent him a letter asking first about his work, ‘opes’ meus, which turned into a request for support from his bank account, ‘opem’ meus. That, coupled with the fact Caesar, as Reggie Foster put it, was plotting to take over the world in three weeks, didn’t improve things.
After all, he’d marched on Rome, conquered the city, and been hailed as everything from Consul-for-life to demigod. He’d also exiled Pompey, in whose senate house (which we had yet to find) and before the foot of whose statue he was to be knifed twenty-three times. postquam senatus idibus Martiis in Pompei curiam edictus est, etc. Stabbed twenty-three times in the curia . That’s a favorite magic number for Romans, and even Reggie Foster mentioned once being on tour when a man leaned out of a window and bellowed the sacred “ventitre!” Tell them he was stabbed twenty-three times! It’s important!
Caesar was obsessed by the title of King. He also liked cheese. He probably would have taken the crown proffered to him by Mark Anthony at a public ceremony if he hadn’t noticed the fact that the expressions on the crowd below resembled nothing so much as curdled milk, and I don’t mean parmigiano. But anyway, he had already been declared imperator (then more like Norman Schwarzkopf than Jean-Bedel Bokassa) and Pater Patriae, so what else could he do? The mess got worse when Caesar tried to have some tribunes arrested who destroyed a crowened statue of Caesar put up by Mark Anthony, and even worse when Caesar acted like a complete twit when the Senators arranged some ceremonial shindig in his honor. In all fairness, he was probably just a bit sleepy at the time.
Incidentally, the whole wreath of laurels thing had nothing to do with kingship: Caesar just put it on his coins because he didn’t want to look like he was losing his hair.
And so the situation continued to deteriorate. Caesar’s enemies, as they would later justify themselves, didn’t hate him because he was Caesar, but because he was going to ruin the Republic. “Not because he didn’t brush his teeth,” joked Foster, free-associating, “but because they didn’t like his politics.” Soon, Brutus was getting drawn into the fray, when he found someone had put a sticky-tab on the back of his chair in the senate saying Dormus Brutae! In other words, “Brutus is asleep,” since his family apparently had a tradition of stabbing tyrants with stupid haircuts. One of them had apparently done in the last Etruscan king, beginning the long Roman hatred of guys in crowns. Then things got even weirder, as Reggie informed us.
We were now standing overlooking the temples at Largo Argentina, the vast open archaeological wound that another would-be king, Mussolini, had opened in Rome’s fabric. It’s not the prettiest ruin around, overwhelmed by the clatter of the No. 8 tram and the enormous number of cats roaming around amid the broken columns and scattered beer bottles. A smell of urine predominates, as do cats.
The Largo Argentina temples are now a sanctuary for Rome’s cats. Somebody has taken to hosting a three-o-clock happy hour at a makeshift bar down in the archaeological pit, for reasons inscrutable even to the most sulfur-stoned sibyl. The Seminarian turned to me as we waited for the indefatigable Reggie to catch up. “You see, back after the Second World War, the Romans had to eat the cats to survive. And so, stricken by guilt, the commune passed a law forbidding anyone to hurt the cats of Rome afterwards.” Perhaps this explains the absence of meat in this city.
I was unable to continue this line of thought, probably fortunately, when Foster caught up with the group, craning over the metal guard-rail to look into the antique detritus. It seemed, he explained, that omens were everywhere that day. Brutus was ready to go, along with his fellow tyrannicides, while Cicero was gleefully standing on the sidelines writing incriminating notes even if it seems he wasn’t the brains of the outfit. The little sacrifice that morning—“to get things going, like daily mass,” he said, causing the Seminarian and I to burst out laughing—had gotten ahold of an animal with no heart, which, in addition to being anatomically impossible, really freaked out the augur. Pigeons had started attacking each other in mid-air near Pompey’s senate house, and then there was that weirdo soothsayer guy who approached Caesar en route on his meeting with destiny and twenty-three stab wounds.
Caesar wasn’t fazed by all this. “ ‘I don’t give a hooter-de-dee about religion,’ ” said Reggie Foster, translating the dictator’s thoughts imaginatively. “ ‘Poo on all that stuff.’ ” He ran into the soothsayer again and started taunting him. “The ides of March had already come! Everything’s okay! But,” said our guide, pausing dramatically, “ ‘They have come but have not gone…’ Oooooh!”
We were briefly interrupted by a motorino when the heavy slaughter began. Plutarch reported that the frenzy got so wild that Caesar’s assailants actually started stabbing themselves and running into stabs. They even got Caesar once in the groin when he finally fell down onto the marble pavement, the great dictator modestly covering his legs so he wouldn’t look unseemly as he crumpled, muttering “Kai sui tecnon?” to Brutus in Greek. “And you, child?” (Et tu, Reggie, must you repeat it?) And then one final little “Oooohhhpph,” according to Reggie’s version of Plutarch.
Like the old joke about Mussolini, with three hundred sharpshooters aiming at him and only getting three bullets, only one of the wounds was actually fatal. Unlike Mussolini, they didn’t put him on a meathook but left the corpse there for hours, running away and not knowing what to do.
Meanwhile, Cicero went into action, enjoying his moment in the sun even if he had had nothing really to do with it.
So where did they actually do the dirty deed? Where was this famous senate house (and who the heck builds a senate house in a theater, anyway?) Foster pointed down into the archaeological site and I whipped out my map. The far wall of the senate house was just visible, barely uncovered on the far edge of the vast crumbling pit, lost amid the reinforcing walls That meant…that meant that the site where one of the most pivotal figures in the history of the world went to his deserved or undeserved reward—was directly below the No. 8 Tram stop at Largo Argentina.
Next time I’m there, I’ll look for blood on the asphalt.
But the fun wasn’t over. Reggie turned to us and said we’d stop by the Forum for one final parting bit of fun, we’d go find Caesar’s statue and sing.
“Sing?” I said to the Seminarian.
An older woman, obviously a regular, overheard me and said “Sing, yes, and drink!” Now I couldn’t miss this, could I?
And so, with churchbells tolling the evening Angelus and evening settling over the sky, we found ourselves standing in front of G. Julius himself, the Via Fori Imperiali roaring at our backs. Foster finished up one final oration—the Seminarian jokingly called it “first Vespers of the Ides of March”—and the fun began.
Singing to Caesar’s statue is actually pretty mild stuff compared to the usual Roman reaction to the hallowed date of Caesar’s murder. If you drop by his statue on this secular and pagan dies natalis you often find piles of fruit at his feet as if a deputation of visiting Santería enthusiasts had hit the place during the night. Anyway, the offerings weren’t for G. Julius but for us. For, suddenly, backpacks miraculously disgorged bottles of fizzy cheap red wine and plastic cups were handed out. The Seminarian and I politely declined, almost simultaneously, but I admit it was bizarrely fun to watch. And then came the singing.
“Now, turn to the last sheet at the bottom, and we can sing the first couple of verses to the tune of the Ode to Joy and the last one to O My Darline Clementine.” Everybody now, together! Sing and raise your glasses! Ave Caesar!
Ecce Caesar nunc triumphat qui subegit Galliam,
Civiumque multitudo celebrat victoriam.
Gaius Iulius Caesar noster, imperator, pontifex,
Primus praetor, deinde consul, nunc dictator, moxque rex!
En victores procedentes, laeti floribus novis,
Magna praeda sunt potiti et camptivis plurimis.
Exsultantes magna voce io triumphe! concinunt,
Dum auratem ante currum victa oppida ferunt.
Legiones viam sacram toatm complent strepitu,
Capitolinumque collem scandit Caesar in curru.
O sol pulcher, o laudande, Caesarem recepimus
Et corona triumphali honoram vidimus!
And so we did, belting out überclichéd tunes to a dead, cheese-loving, crown-hating dictator whose name has adorned emperors from the Kaiser to the Czar as well as pizza boxes, Mexican labor agitators and casinos everywhere.
My friend the Seminarian had asked me earlier, with a jaunty tone in his voice, if I had gotten enough local color. It was the understatement of the month. This was the Eternal City, in all it sublime weirdness, incarnate. Our alcoholic salute to Gaius Julius seemed a wholly surreal, wholly Roman and wholly fitting way to end this afternoon of murder, mayhem and cats with this odd little clump of dead-language tourists and their impromptu chorale to the man murdered on Tram No. 8 two thousand years ago.