It was not the first time I had to die before the cameras, but the sheer savagery of the scene I had to shoot this day appalled me. Since the beginning, I knew that Rome would be a shock for the actors as well as for the spectators. Sex, violence, and gory details would be lavishly displayed on the TV screens, too bad for the sensitive souls! The day before, coming back after a cigarette, I’d collided with a props man carrying a bucket of fake blood, and couldn’t suppress a sudden startle when I saw the red puddle at my feet. The man was furious. If he hadn’t recognized me, I believe he’d have poured the rest of the bucket all over my head. I can’t bear the sight of blood and that true-to-life mixture disgusted me. This morning, I felt like fainting at the prospect of being almost entirely covered with it, and an unexpected apprehension added itself to my illness.
I had doubtless drunk too much wine the night before, so that my stomach was rebellious and my mind somewhat blurred. I didn’t remember having been in the hands of the wardrobe master or the makeup woman, but I was clad in the senatorial toga lined with purple, a laurel wreath set on my head, and wearing strangely comfortable bootees of soft leather, the perfect Roman dictator, as dark and surly as Caesar was on the coins I’d admired in the Capitol Museum.
I was holding in my right hand a papyrus roll that an extra had slid between my fingers, while I was getting ready to extract myself from a litter carried by eight dark-skinned slaves. “Read this paper, Caesar,” he shouted, “alone and quickly. It contains important things!” I hadn’t heard the fatal “cut!” so I went on without taking time to read as I’d been invited to, pushed around by men in red-striped togas like mine. I was used to the madness of the crowd scenes, and I knew that some extras sometimes went too far, but I didn’t expect this intensity, this rough realism, the smells of dust, urine, and sweat which made me almost choke.
Raising my eyes to the crushing mass of Pompey’s theatre, I was amazed at the talent of the decorators who had managed to restore the atmosphere of ancient Rome. After several weeks of shooting, I thought I knew perfectly the huge complex the Italians named Cinecittà, but I did not remember having seen this impressive portico, its white marble columns, and the four small temples which stood on the crammed esplanade. There had never been so many extras, even when we had filmed the battle of Pharsalus, during which Caesar had crushed his rival and virtually brought down the Republic. Never before had I had this feeling of being completely immersed in an epoch other than mine. If my thoughts had been clearer, I’d have fully enjoyed the colourful scene which was set before me, but I was racked by an increasing unease.
A jostling erupted as I climbed the stairs leading to the Senate, but it must have been planned because nobody interfered. I wondered briefly where the cameras were placed. Wherever I looked, I could only see Romans, in toga, in tunic, in uniform, soldiers, slaves, some women with their hair chastely veiled, a few children, one or two suspicious looking men I identified, without knowing how, as gladiators… A man who looked like an Etruscan soothsayer tried to clear a passage through the fray. “Beware!” he cried as soon as he was within earshot. “Beware the Ides of March!”
I wavered. It wasn’t in the script, but from a Shakespeare play I’d learned at school (I’d been Caesar already) and I replied almost automatically: “The Ides of March are come and nothing has happened!”
“Yes, they are come, but they are not past,” he said gloomily.
How could I know he really was an Etruscan soothsayer?
Ahead of me, Mark Antony was speaking to a fairly agitated and rather pale individual. I didn’t recognize my friend James Purefoy who was cast for the role, but I had nevertheless no doubt about the identity of the sturdy man who assured my safety. I also knew that his interlocutor was named Trebonius and I felt an ice-cold shiver creeping under my skin when I saw them together in such good terms. Behind them, silent and pallid, lost in his thoughts, stood Gaïus Cassius. I’d never loved that one, I’d always distrusted pale, thin men who looked like starving wolves. Wasted with ambition, they were the most dangerous of all. A little farther, the Casca brothers stayed in the background. Gaïus the eldest, seemed as sick as I. Eventually, the crowd opened and let me go by. Trebonius had dragged Marc Antony into the shadow of the portico and I lost sight of them as I passed the double door, bitterly sorry that I’d dismissed my lictors.
In these days, the Senate met in Pompey’s theatre, the old Curia having been burnt down by a angry mob when I was in Gaul. As soon as I was appointed dictator for the fourth time, I’d ordered the statues of Pompey the Great to be restored everywhere in Rome including this very place, and I couldn’t help shivering in front of his marble likeness, which seemed to gaze at me with irate eyes.
Somebody took my arm as to support me: Decimus Brutus, a faithful companion, who had served me so well in Gaul. Without Decimus and his brilliant ideas, would I have subdued the Veneti, these powerful sailors who lived on the coast of distant Armorique? He was a better soldier than his cousin Marcus, the weak-willed and tormented son-in-law of Cato, my worst enemy.
If Marcus hadn’t been the son of my dear Servilia, I’d have sent him into exile on the borders of the Empire even before he had entered into an alliance with the optimates, this bunch of aristocrats who clung to their privileges and their wealth like limpets on their piece of rock. They were there, almost all of them, the losers I’d spared and upon whom I’d so lavishly showered favours in spite of their treasons. I read in their eyes neither gratitude nor loyalty, but envy and bitterness, as if they blamed me for being forgiving when I hold their lives in my hands…
Definitely, nothing happened as I expected. We had rehearsed the day before in a circular room, and now I found myself in a much more impressive rectangular hall, at the end of which a podium supported a kind of gold-coloured throne that I assumed was intended for me. None of the men hanging around was familiar to me, and yet I knew them all by their names: the two Brutuses, Gaïus Cassius, Gaïus Trebonius, Publius and Gaïus Casca, Tillius Cimber, Minutius Basilus, Rubrius Rufus, that idiot Pontius Aquila whom I never forgot to humiliate when I crossed his path, and Marcus Lepidus, with whom I’d spent the evening drinking, talking and …
Suddenly, my blood ran cold, and I froze at the foot of the podium. Nothing of that kind was in the script! Everything became confused in my head, I was thinking and feeling like Caesar, I was Caesar, and nevertheless, I remembered having been someone else, in another time, in another place, and I knew what some of these people intended to do.
It seemed to me that time had stopped. With a growing dismay, I realized that I was not playing anymore. The memory of my former self was quickly becoming blurred, I had no more than a name which I hung on like a safety line but that also was torn away from me, like a disguise become useless.
My name was Ciarán Hinds, and in the world where I came from, I was an actor: I entered the skin of my characters and I pretended to love, to cry, to die with them, then I left, safe and sound. My talent was praised, I was sometimes mistaken for the naughty boys whose appearance I borrowed briefly but nothing was true, it was only acting.
And now, I was Caesar, passed to the other side of the mirror and it was not a dream. From my raid in another universe, I kept the memory of events which had not yet happened. I didn’t know how I’d been able to make such a leap through space and time, but I had to admit that all I saw around me was real and that I was watching myself walking towards my own death, followed by the pitiful procession of my murderers.
Already, they were surrounding me, gathering like starving dogs, drawing their strength from their number. When the senators got up to greet me, I saw, with a kind of tired fatalism, Tillius Cimber coming nearer to submit his petition. I should have granted his request, and the course of fate would have been disrupted, but I was rooted, unable to move. Horrified, I acted as if in a dream, aware that my rebuff would trigger the slaughter but unable to control my own destiny.
Gaïus Casca moved on me, not really threatening, simply pressing, and I felt in my back his brother’s presence, quite close. That one was going to strike the first blow and my body shrank in anticipation of the unavoidable suffering. Out of the corner of my eye, I perceived Marcus Brutus, whom I’d loved and protected like my own son, without ever realizing how much he hated me.
His sick look was more eloquent than the gesticulations of the unbearable Cicero, who, fortunately, was conspicuous by his absence. I wouldn’t have liked him to witness my last moments in this world. I knew that Marcus would only strike when I’d been knocked down, because bravery was not his strong point. This ultimate treason hurt me so cruelly that I hardly felt Casca’s blade gnawing into my flesh… I heard him calling his brother to the rescue, I smelt the scent of his fear and suddenly the world dissolved into chaos and blinding pain. I fought like a wildcat, but my limbs were entangled in the folds of my toga. There were too many of them and they were too intent to torment me. They ripped my body with their blades, they even injured each other in their demented rage, and all I could do was stare at Pompey’s statue whose feet were splattered with my blood. How can a human body contain so much blood?
In a few minutes, it was all over. I couldn’t move anymore, my eyes were closed, the pain had subsided, I didn’t doubt that I was dying, but I still could hear and think with a surprising acuity. After the tumult of the terrified senators who fled the Senate had come a deathly silence. Then I heard a loud, insistent voice. Was it one of my faithful slaves or a friend who had stayed there in spite of the danger? Maybe Mark Antony…at last. I tried desperately to move but I did not succeed. I was paralyzed, doubtless already dead, even if my senses still worked.
A hand grasped my shoulder and shook me so tremendously that I woke up with a start, greeted with a roar of laughter.
“Mr. Hinds,” said an angry voice, “I know very well that it’s not very exciting to play the dead, but if you can’t help sleeping during the shots, at least don’t snore!”