I am currently reading my way through a long list of science fiction and fantasy titles. (http://www.npr.org/2011/08/07/138938145/science-fiction-and-fantasy-finalists if you are interested in the list).
The Ides of March, first published in 1948, is a brilliant epistolary novel set in Julius Caesar's Rome. Thornton Wilder called it "a fantasia on certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic." Through vividly imagined letters and documents, Wilder brings to life a dramatic period of world history and one of history's most magnetic, elusive personalities.
In this inventive narrative, the Caesar of history becomes Caesar the human being. Wilder also resurrects the controversial figures surrounding Caesar -- Cleopatra, Catullus, Cicero, and others. All Rome comes crowding through these pages -- the Rome of villas and slums, beautiful women and brawling youths, spies and assassins.
I can’t believe that this was published in 1948! It truly has not aged, possibly because it was dealing with much older history. It still felt fresh and I was intrigued.
I began reading this on the Ides of March (I live in hope that my local Shakespeare Company will perform Julius Caesar in March one year, so that I can attend it on the Ides). I adore books that are written in letter format, so I was predisposed to appreciate this one.
It is surprising how well people can be characterized through their written documents. I felt I came to know the main players remarkably well. I came to love the scheming Roman women and found Cleopatra to be quite fascinating. Wilder included quite a number of female characters, recognizing their political and religious significance.
My studies of classical history took place in my distant past and are hazy in my recollections now. Some courses, I know, were done in summer school, where one tries to distill a whole term’s worth of work and learning into 6 weeks. As a result, I knew it well enough to write the exam, but it has not retained its place in my memory as most other subjects have. I would be most curious now to read some Roman history and refresh my memory concerning Caesar.