A week or two before I read “August”, I watched Derek Jarman’s 1976 film Sebastiane, supposedly the first feature performed entirely in Latin. St. Sebastian, the subject of Jarman’s movie, lived two hundred years after Augustus Caesar, the subject of this issue of The Sandman, and I mention it only because both items reminded me of what a terrible student of Latin I had been in high school. I’d taken the language because I’d been told it was an excellent way to learn more about the English language, and to some extent I suppose this is true (when grammarians eventually decided to try to tame the wild English tongue, they applied the rules of Latin grammar, since Latin was respectable; this is the source of some of the most ridiculous crotchets of pedants, such as the command to never split an infinitive — infinitives in Latin are one word, so can’t be split. But I digress…)
I found Latin, though, immensely boring, because memorizing declensions and conjugations is only slightly more appealing to me than doing math, which is only slightly more appealing to me than sitting in the hot sun while buried up to the neck in a manure pile. My most persistent Latin teacher finally gave up and just showed various episodes of I, Claudius to our class, but I think I napped during them, because I have no memory of the show whatsoever. Perhaps he should have shown us A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which at least has the virtue of amusing and eminently memorable music.
In college, I did not take Latin, but I did take an art history course focused on ancient Greek and Roman art. I nearly failed it, because the class was taught by a woman who was only a few years younger than Augustus and who was convinced that all students are lazy idiots. She sought to prove that conviction by showing us 500 identical slides during every class and then giving us quizzes on their differences. I discovered that memorizing all the minutia of Greek and Roman architecture was only slightly more appealing to me than memorizing declensions and conjugations.
Thankfully, we do not need to know any Latin or anything about Roman art to be able to enjoy “August”, which offers an interesting take on the idea of a ruler pretending to be a commoner, and finishes with a tidy explanation for why Rome fell. (Now, the writings of Edward Gibbon are things I can enjoy; his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire contains many delights, even if you are as indifferent as I to the actual history of the eponymous empire. His explanation for the decline and fall is somewhat more involved than Neil Gaiman’s, but Gibbon needed to get six volumes of complex sentences out of his explanation, so we shouldn’t be too hard on him about it.)
In “August”, the emperor has banned all acting (except for the performances of Lycius) and says, “I don’t like actors. It’s a profession based on lies and disrespect. Pretending to be what you are not.” Such a belief is a cousin to Plato’s argument that poetry is by its very nature a dangerous falsehood, and the argument is a cousin to any suspicion of stories that depict impossible events and characters. And yet here is the emperor, pretending to be something he is not (a beggar) in a story that is at least slightly fantastic.
He doesn’t know it’s fantastic, though. He believes in gods and dreams, as any sane character in The Sandman should. And he nurses a hatred for Julius Caesar, his uncle and adopted father, who raped him repeatedly. Caesar wanted the prophecy of Rome’s eternal power to come true, and so Augustus set in motion all that would lead such a prophecy to prove false, for, as the old Lycius writes, “…in his will Augustus also appointed Tiberius as his successor: our divine rulers have, since then, been successively evil, mad, foolish, and — now — all three.”
Yet this, too, is a story — one told by Lycius. He is established as the narrator, although Augustus’s memories (which provide an answer to why Rome suffered so much evil, madness, and foolishness, and which appear on a black background with black as the dominant hue in the panels) are outside that narration. Or is it? Acting, after all, is a profession based on lies and disrespect, and Lycius is first an actor. There is no command that we must trust him to be a reliable narrator.
Part of Plato’s objection to poetry was that it is based in mimesis, imitation: a poet creates a persona and speaks through a character’s voice, and the audience suspends disbelief and thinks the character speaks rather than the poet. This is not, according to Plato, a healthy path to truth.
It can make for good storytelling, though. There’s probably not much literal truth to the idea that Augustus doomed the whole Roman Empire, or even to the idea that he was raped by Caesar, but it makes for a good story, and it suggests truths about rulers and their all-too-human lives, about stories, about power, about history.
Jarman’s film Sebastiane is no more literally truthful than “August”, but it, too, shows the value of mimesis as a path toward truths accessible only via falsehoods — it is a vivid representation of various eroticisms and violence among Roman soldiers at a distant outpost. It contains a rapturous and tender scene of love between two men, a scene that lasts almost ten minutes, as well as powerful scenes of violence, jealousy, and obsession. To watch it as a historical documentary would be to miss the point spectacularly, and yet the use of Latin and the at least vaguely historically accurate sets, costumes, and props allow us some necessary distance from the present — a distance necessary because our brains like to make leaps.
We watch Sebastiane, we read “August”, and we encounter representations of sex and violence, religion and politics — the stuff of stories and life, the stuff of dreams. The setting is essential to the specific tale being told, but it is not essential to the ideas. The falseness of the tale fuels the truths our minds will mine from it. “August” is not a history of Rome, but a story set in something created from the signs and traces of “Rome”, and so it is a story that is about people who happen to be placeable in that place, not a story of the place itself. This is the way stories suggest a certain universalism from their specific details — we know this is not really Rome (any more than a street sign with a picture of a pedestrian is a pedestrian), and the mimesis allows us to extrapolate from the world of the story to our own world in a way that the most literal truth, leaden with facticity, can not.
And so, whether filled with Latin or not, our delighted brains leap.
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.