Veni, Vidi, Vici

David Cowles

Aug 23, 2022

Who’s the hero now, Julius Caesar…or you?

Last week we met the Piraha, a tribe located in the Amazon Rainforest. We saw how different their language is from ours, and we explored how that language influences the way they experience the World. We will spend some time with the Piraha in upoming issues of TWS and ATM. We study cultures like the Piraha to help us see our own cultural influences more clearly. Knowing the Piraha’s view of the world is shaped by their language will help us understand how our language shapes (or distorts?) our own world view.

We know about the Piraha because of the work of several anthropologists who lived with the Piraha for years at a time. Like all contemporary anthropologists, these pioneers paid close attention to Star Fleet’s Prime Directive. Those of us who were once children will recognize it instantly: “Look but don’t touch!” In other words, do not disrupt the culture you’re studying…any more than absolutely necessary.

Most of us have never visited the Amazon and probably never will. Still, there are opportunities for us to learn how culture, especially language, influences our perception of the World. If you’re over the age of 60, you probably learned some Latin somewhere along the way. If so, you may have started your classical career with Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars.

The Latin is relatively easy – as easy as any Latin can be! And the swashbuckling tale of Caesar’s military campaigns is supposed to appeal to tween and teenage boys. For those of us exposed to Latin, it was our ‘first contact’ with a civilization other than our own. And, cool beans, since time travel is not a thing yet; we don’t need instruction on how to behave from Captains Kirk and Picard. We already know how to behave in Rome: “Do as the Romans do!”

Nonetheless, this early experience of ‘first contact’ will prove valuable when we meet the multiple civilizations running rampant in Andromeda. Instead of learning about our contemporaries, the Piraha, third hand, we can eliminate the ‘middleman’ (sic) when we study the Ancient Romans. We meet them directly through works like Caesar’s.

Consider the difference: in Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a Roman tells us, and shows us, how Romans think. In the case of the Piraha, we are dependent on the testimony of anthropologists who are not themselves members of the Piraha community. So, Hail Caesar! But what do we learn from his Gallic Wars?

Utter nonsense! Veni, Vidi, Vici – I came, I saw, I conquered. Even if you don’t know Latin, you may know these three words. Now imagine you’re a hormonal 12-year-old and this is your introduction to how another culture views the world; wow! If you entered adulthood expecting such a ‘Caesarean experience’, you were probably very, very disappointed.

According to Caesar, we amble onto life’s stage at will, we assess the situation with clear eyes, and we immediately and confidently take change. Sound familiar? I didn’t think so. Truth is, you didn’t come, you were ‘thrown’; you didn’t ‘see’, you were impressed upon; and you certainly did not ‘conquer’.

At best you might be able to say that you were not conquered. Help me out here, classicists! What’s the Latin word for ‘I was not conquered?’ Remember the words of John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (1: 5)

Approaching the world with a ‘Caesarian attitude’ is a recipe for disaster…for you and for the world. The truth is, you were thrown into the world half-blind; you groped your way around in it; and so far at least, it has not destroyed you. So, who’s the hero now, Julius Caesar…or you?


 

Image: Libby, Alexandra. “Julius Caesar” (2017). In The Leiden Collection Catalogue, 3rd ed. Edited by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. and Lara Yeager-Crasselt. New York, 2020–. https://theleidencollection.com/artwork/julius-caesar/ (accessed August 23, 2022).

 

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