Cutter’s Island: Caesar In Captivity

Written by Vincent Panella
Review by James Hawking

This short novel retells a story found in Plutarch. Young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates who planned to ransom him for 20 talents; Caesar insisted that they should demand 50 talents, and vowed to return and crucify them. Cutter, the most interesting character in the book, developed a hatred of Rome based on experiences ranging from fighting for rebels in Spain to combat as a gladiator to before ending up as commander of a pirate fleet which he refers to as “the navy of King Mithridates.” Caesar, with his patrician ancestry, literary skills, service as a priest and military honors, symbolized Rome of swaggering arrogance.

Like most writers of historical fiction, Panella idealizes Caesar, ignoring the epilepsy and dismissing rumors of homosexuality with old King Nicomedes. While awaiting the ransom delivery, Caesar charms his captors with his poetry and his person, all the while threatening them with Rome’s eventual revenge. Caesar’s virility and vigor are characterized by lines like, “Unable to sleep, I stand outside with an erection and urinate into the wind.” Apparently we are to believe young Julius capable of much which is beyond the scope of mortal man.

Panella’s poetic prose includes similes like “cursing like a petty god,” or “clear as the eyes of prescient bird.” Apparently his fictional Caesar has something in mind when he chooses those vehicles, but it is hard to reconcile this narrator with the chaste prose of the man who calmly divided Gaul into three parts.

The worst historical distortion occurs in the first line when Caesar says he was born during the civil war between the Populars and the Optimates, implying that the violence between Marius and Sulla was already underway at his birth. Aside from this, the work is based on the historical record, albeit an incident which smacks of legend from the start.