He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

The misreporting of great Caesar’s death
Errs by one gross omission. We’re not told
That when conspirators bared blades to strike,
Caesar’s well-practiced military eye
Glimpsed the quick flash of metal. He reacted
As any soldier would, and cried aloud
“Why, this is violence!” Then with one swift stroke
He pierced through the forearm of Servilius Casca,
Wielding an iron stylus that he carried
For taking notes in his waxed codicilli.
The blow was fierce and savage, as one might
Expect from a man who led the Roman legions;
Killed unnumbered Gauls, Helvetians, Belgi;
Left battlefields awash in blood and brains;
And knew the source of all his luck and conquests
Lay in the pilum, hasta, and the gladius.

It did not save him. Caesar could not kill
All the assembled and encircling traitors.
The lesson of the man’s assassination
Has nothing to do with omens or the croak
Of baleful prophets on the Ides of March;
Or politics, ambition, or the risk
Of threatening an old, established order;
None of that mindless chatter’s to the point.
They say Servilius Casca’s wound was dire,
And would have killed him even had he not
Been torn asunder by a Roman mob.
That is the lesson: Violence is the key.
Strike back hard and fast and without pity.
That is the only answer to one’s foes.
And if the pen is mightier than the sword,
It had better be a pointed iron stylus.

 

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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14 Responses

  1. James Sale

    This poem gathers power through its accumulation of telling details, but of course we have to conclude that it is ironical; for it is no pointed iron stylus that engraves in our minds the brave and awful fate of Julius Caesar. The murderers and Caesar are long gone (how did Shakespeare put it: Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away) but now the gentle tapping on the keyboard – some light strokes – and a congenial internet, and the writer, not the violence, prevails!

    Reply
  2. Sally Cook

    This accomplished poem has everything, and is a lesson to us all of what a poem can be.

    It goes into detailed historical material and makes it interesting; it.

    Not only is it historic, It is moral, a fine poem, and teaches us a lesson we all need to learn.

    Reply
  3. Aedile Cwerbus

    Mr. Salemi begins with an unattributed quote, though perhaps recognizable as “Ό έχων ώτα ακουέτω” from the Synoptic Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, and then proceeds in a loose blank verse, as Shakespeare did in “Julius Caesar” to concoct a unique anecdote, not found in Suetonius or Plutarch, inter alia.

    Mr. Sale aptly suggests that “the poem gathers power through its accumulation of telling details,” and further, that “we have to conclude that it is ironical.” As Thornton Wilder referred to his own novel “The Ides of March,” as a “fantasia,” so Mr. Sale has pointed out, “it is no pointed iron stylus that engraves in our minds the brave and awful fate of Julius Caesar.”

    And yet, so much of his 32-lined “A History Lesson” demonstrates Mr. Salemi’s brush with history. One of the things I like is his use of terms, like codicilli, pilium, hasta, and gladius. In addition, he brings up the names of the tribes Caesar’s armies clashed with, discussed his his brilliant commentary “De Bello Gallico”: Gauls, Helvetians, and Belgi. I am reminded of pleasant days of reading in Latin that particular work, as well as other works in Hebrew, Greek and Latin with my wife and our home-schooled children.

    Mr. Salemi’s tone is almost Caesarean in its brusque and straightforward manner; although his anecdote is almost Shakespearean in its artistic play with historical fact, as in the case of Servilius Casca. However, I appreciated the English-translated quote of Suetonius, “Ista quidem vis est,” as well as his looking at that unique genius of political and military history, one of the great prosaists of Latin literature.

    Reply
  4. Leo Yankevich

    “That is the lesson: Violence is the key.
    Strike back hard and fast and without pity.
    That is the only answer to one’s foes.
    And if the pen is mightier than the sword,
    It had better be a pointed iron stylus.”

    Indeed, Joe. A great ending.

    Reply
  5. David Watt

    I have read this poem several times, and each time find a new focus. Truly a history lesson written with style, making the sharpest of point.

    Reply
  6. James A. Tweedie

    My appreciation for this poem is multifaceted, as is the poem itself, which is, as all have said, both well-crafted, informative (both historically and morally) and to the point. My only question is for Evan, who cataloged the poem as “Culture, Humor, Poetry.” Culture and poetry I understand, but “humor? “

    Reply
    • Evan

      I thought the last two lines had something of humor to them. Maybe it’s just me. If Mr. Salemi prefers I can certainly take it out.

      Reply
  7. J. Simon Harris

    This is a great poem. As many others have commented, it is Shakespearean in many ways (not just because of the excellent blank verse). And yet the force and violence of it is Homeric, in a certain way. Great work. I want to see more historical narrative poetry like this!

    Reply
    • James Sale

      Yes, J Simon Harris makes a good point which we can forget, being blessed on this website with many who write about real things, but there is so much navel-gazing waffle out there pretending to be poetry, that this strong ‘historical narrative poetry’ is a blast of good, fresh air.

      Reply

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