Caesar’s Troubling Dream (Part Two)

The next morning a temple acolyte came to the Roman camp with the news that the oracle was ready to receive the quaestor. The acolyte wore the same white alb as the temple priests, and his head was shaved, which made his eyes seem enormous. He had never seen a Roman camp or any camp of soldiers, and he seemed so fascinated that the guard let him peek in through the gate. A bugle sounded. “What’s that?” he asked the guard, his eyes all full of wonder.
“That’s the call for breakfast.”
“Is the food good?”
“Chah! Coom see, coom sah.”
“Which tent is the quaestor’s?”
“See that big one in the center, with the red flag flying?”

The boy looked at the guard’s armor, his shield and his sword.
“Can I touch your sword?”
“Touch all you want,” said the guard. “I can’t unsheathe it for you, though, kid: we’re not allowed to do that only for the hell of it.”
“Are you going to go fight soon?”
“That’s what they say.”
“Did you ever kill anybody?”
The guard nodded. “Hey, kid, you’d better get back to the temple. They’re going to think you got lost. Or some floozy got her hands on you.” He started laughing as he pictured the floozy getting her hands on the big-eyed boy.

Caesar rode to the temple on horseback, with four military lictors. He was better on a horse than any of them.
It was raining when they reached the Herakleion. A young deacon walked towards Caesar as he jumped down from his dripping horse. Roman riders had no stirrups—there was no stepping down, only jumping. And Caesar was as agile as a boy, though he was thirty-one now.

The deacon showed them where to shelter their horses and he led Caesar alone to a cellar beside the temple. A sickening smell of rotten flesh and incense hung in the air; and as Caesar descended the cellar steps, the smell of mold became strong. There were small oil lamps burning in niches along the stairs to light the way.
The cellar itself was lighted, not very effectively, with two torches on the wall. The place might have been a tomb. Caesar didn’t like to be enclosed that way. He had had to hand his sword over to one of the lictors before coming down and now he felt trapped. Where was the darned oracle anyway? Was she going to pop out of a niche in the wall? Caesar decided this was the last time he played their silly games. Couldn’t these prophets talk to a fellow face to face in a normal room? Such cheap histrionics! “Oracle!” he shouted out. Who gave orders to who?

A voice answered from the wall at the far end of the cellar. But it wasn’t a girl’s voice. It was the voice of the High Priest. “The priestess is in deep meditation, preparing herself to receive the spirit of the God. You must do the same. Without the proper disposition you will learn nothing from the God. Humility, Excellency. You are in the crypt where the body of our Lord lies.”

So the High Priest is going to whip me into obedience, is he? thought Caesar. Does he mean to coach the oracle?

Caesar tried to meditate. Did he feel awe? Did he really believe that the God Herakles would speak to him through the ignorant girl on the other side of the wall?

In politics Caesar was cynical. He would say one thing and do another. He bribed. He schemed, he threatened. He spent fortunes on games and shows to win the vote of the Roman rabble. He was religious in the legalistic Roman way though not at all superstitious. He performed the prescribed sacrifices and observed the religious laws but he never let a so-called divine warning—a faulty liver, a bad omen—keep him from undertaking a battle or a trip. He was known to invent an omen to bring fearful soldiers his way.

And yet an oracle was another matter. The oracle was a god speaking directly, using the girl for his voice. The greatest men of antiquity had consulted the Delphic Oracle in Greece, and her predictions and other utterances had formed part—had determined part—of history. Who could forget the Oracle’s declaration that Socrates was the wisest man in the world? Or her sound political advice to Lykurgus and Solon? Or her advice to Croessus, the vain Lydian king, to know himself?

Caesar had been brought up on Greek myths and the beautiful stories of Greek heroes. He could recite whole passages of the Illiad and the Odyssey. His head was filled with the deeds of Achilles and Ulysses and Agamemnon. Ever since he could remember, Caesar had considered himself one of the heroes.
Not twenty-four hours ago he had puzzled a comrade by complaining that he, Caesar, was getting nowhere. “By my age Alexander the Great had conquered the world.” Was that the career Caesar was dreaming up for himself?
Alexander had consulted the Delphic and other oracles. He had made a pilgrimage to the temple of Isis in the Egyptian desert. He believed the gods spoke through their messengers. Why shouldn’t they?
In any case, Caesar thought he could himself judge by the oracle’s dictum whether it came from an ignorant peasant girl or a god.

See Caesar’s Troubling Dream (Part Three)


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4 Responses to Caesar’s Troubling Dream (Part Two)

  1. apostatepakistanigirl says:

    hi, thanks for such a nice reply. I think Collier was the last gasp of 19th century romantacism, before it all turned bad and we got Wagner transmuted into Hitler?
    Now you mentioned the vapors, do you know that they have identified the vapors, which still flow today, and left trace elements in the rocks. The Pythia were according to science sniffing ethylene and the effects of that, over time, are akin to being a heroin addict. It’s fascinating, cases of the Pythia going practically insane are to do with ethylene overdose, which, induces total psychosis and then nerve failure. Is that why they were on occassion extremely violent? There is another case of a priestess dying inside the oracular chamber, she was forced in their to give an oracle against her will, apparently, cos there is no real proof- but she knew the concentrations of ethylene were too intense, and as she had not eaten, she overdosed in record time of spasmodic convulsions. Down and dirty then with the crystal meth tweakers of their day. One last thing, and it’s surely no coincidence, Delphi is built in a place that guaranteed access to the vapors- a geological fault line runs right through it, in fact, right under the inner sanctum. The implication is that an eathquake in late antiquity sealed up the fault, and it is that, within the context of the rise of Christianity, that finally quietened the oracle forever.
    Sorry, if just felt compelled to share this with you for some reason! bye bye, apostatepakistanigirl.

    Thanks for this comment and for the lead on Collier. As you see by my latest post, I’m more skeptical than you, pakistaniapostategirl. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t weird things going on at Delphi.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Where’s part 3, Swallows? So much buildup, so much suspense, you make me impatient. :)
    Tomorrow when you get up, Erika. I hope you make it through the night.

  3. apostatepakistanigirl says:

    I like this approach because I have a theory about Rome, I think it was really more like Ancient India, rather than Cecil.B. Demille’s Nuremburgesque approach. This means Rome, in literature, ought to be bloody, violent, full of scheming, and yet, somehow ‘veiled’-full of inner spiritual mystery that vies with the Roman soul. I think it’s here in this piece, I think they were very practical, but I believe that is somewhat overstated. When the mystical element is denuded, what we have is something like Simon Scarrow- excellent stuff and highly entertaining, but less appealing to a woman, especially a Pakistani (even if I do do historical fiction), and probably missing the essence of what it what to be Roman. I read voraciously, but Scarrow’s Rome sounds more to me how I would imagine British soldiers in Helmand province in Afghanistan sound.
    Dreams apart, my favorite piece of art is Collier’s “Oracle of Delphi,” and once again, it is somehow Asiatic to my mind.Those links between classical western civilizations and Hindustan fire my somewhat feverish imagination.\
    I’m glad you told me about Sir John Collier’s work and his Delphic Oracle. I can’t say it is my favorite picture but it set me dreaming. Of course right away I checked to see if the painter got the facts right, such as the tripod she sits on and the crack in the ground from which the vapors ascend. I like to daydream over some of those late nineteenth-century historical paintings. Somehow those pictures dated fast. It isn’t only the sentimental distortion. The beautiful girls in the paintings mostly don’t stop looking like studio models, though they are no more “copied” than models from other times. I don’t know what it is. The settings always looked contrived, phony, like stage settings, opera settings.
    I didn’t know your Scarrows. I will look him up. I am not a great reader of historical fiction, nor even, lately, of novels; but I can well imagine what you say about his Romans soldiers.
    My “piece” was more about Caesar than “the Romans”. Caesar was unique. I suppose a book about his spirituality would be very very thin. Other Romans probably had the mess in their heads that many of our contemporaries do. But there is a problem if you conclude the guy was so modern as to believe nothing. Why was he worried about a dream? Why did he go to the Herakleion and ask an oracle for the “meaning”? Strange.

  4. Pingback: Caesar’s Troubling Dream (Part One) « Great Names in History

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