Cutter's Island: Ceasar in Captivity

In Suetonius' Life of Julius Ceasar, there is the following passage, describing an event that occurred when Ceasar was in his twenties: "While crossing to Rhodes, after the winter season had already begun, he was taken by pirates near the island of Pharmacussa and remained in their custody for nearly forty days in a state of intense vexation, attended only by a single physician and two body-servants; 2 for he had sent off his travelling companions and the rest of his attendants at the outset, to raise money for his ransom. Once he was set on shore on payment of fifty talents, he did not delay then and there to launch a fleet and pursue the departing pirates, and the moment they were in his power to inflict on them the punishment which he had often threatened when joking with them."

In Cutter's Island: Ceasar in Captivity, Vincent Panella took this passage and ran with it. Interspersing his account of Ceasar's time on the island with flashbacks to his life as a young man negotiating the political turmoil of Rome, he brings the future general face to face with those outside the laws, and with himself. This is Ceasar before he knows that he will be Ceasar, untried, on the outs with those who rule the empire that will one day be his. In his conversations with Cutter, his daily fear for his safety, and his enforced period of reflection about himself and his future, Ceasar moves toward his destiny as conqueror and ruler.
"We're not pirates, Lord. We constitute the Navy of King Mithridates, whose lands you've taken by force."

"The butcher king has ceded Asia."

"Forget all that, and think of this: there are two parts to any law, what is written, and what can be enforced. Stick to your medicines, young man, and to your books and papers. You'll live longer." (page 49)
Ceasar, of course, does not take this advice, and the reverberations of his time with the pirates contribute to making him an enforcer par excellence.

I thought, when I accepted this book for review, that this might well be a good crossover from historical fiction to fantasy, what with the plot concerning an isolated hero faced with a band of pirates, the hints of divine destiny and the rich background of fate, and gods, and detailed, alien world. All this is here, and might indeed appeal to the reader of fantasy who enjoys books that focus on the personal and introspective. That being said, there is also a generous amount of the blood that comes with piracy, civil war, gladiators, and the punishments decreed by the laws of Rome. There are also rather explicit descriptions of the relationship between Ceasar and his mistress (which I personally found a bit gratuitous, and which held me back a bit from wanting to understand his character).

This is a book that requires the reader to do a certain amount of thoughtful application to figure out the import of the characters' words. It was not quite my cup of tea, primarily because I was never quite convinced that I should care about young Julius, and partly because I am just not naturally that sort of reader (sigh). For the reader willing to make that investment, however, or the reader who has a taste for historically accurate fiction about the Romans, it might well prove a rewarding experience.

(Review copy received from the publisher, Academy Chicago. Cutter's Island was first published in 2000, and has just been released in paperback)

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