The bald truth about Caesar

Russell Baker

November 21, 1991|By Russell Baker

THE LACK of public excitement about the recent discovery that Julius Caesar was completely bald says a great deal about the decline of American education. Fifty or even 40 years ago this remarkable news would have spawned a thousand jokes from schoolchildren struggling with Caesar's history of the Gallic wars and graybeards equally at home with the Odes of Horace and the cut throat world of Wall Street.

In those days many Americans would have been inspired by the startling news of Caesar's baldness to compose an ode in the style of Horace, such was the popular command of Latin and Roman history created by American educators' determination to create a love for the classics.

Nowadays it is doubtful that one American in 10,000 even knows who Julius Caesar was, and surely not one in 100,000 can translate "Veni, vidi, vici." Today's typical high school student, if asked why Caesar crossed the Rubicon, will reply, "To get to the other side."

When every American with a fifth-grade education could tell Julius from Augustus Caesar and automatically cried "Et tu, Brute" when betrayed by an friend, everybody knew what great Julius looked like. If there was not a bust of Caesar sitting by the family radio, there was a picture of that bust in the Latin primer everyone studied at school.

That bust and its picture in millions of schoolbooks showed Caesar with a head of neatly combed hair. To be sure, there was another, less popular bust showing the top of the skull rather sparsely covered, in the style of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, but the sides generously thatched with hair. Still, the notion that Julius hadn't a hair on his skull would have shocked all of civilized America.

So firmly held was this idea of Caesar as a hairy man that he was traditionally played with hair by actors in "Julius Caesar," "Caesar and Cleopatra" and the stream of Hollywood potboilers about the Julians which packed movie houses for two generations.

Who does not remember Warren William, Hollywood's original Perry Mason, playing Caesar with the same full but unfluffed head of hair that distinguished Perry Mason? Scarcely anyone, if we judge by American reaction to the discovery about the true state of great Caesar's scalp.

Even the New York Times, once as quick to recognize breakthrough events in the classics as in science, buried the story back between the obituaries and the market quotations. One New York tabloid, with its usual firm grasp on the irrelevant, ran the story under the headline "Hairy Ears Scandal," focusing on the discovery that though Caesar's head was utterly bare, hair grew profusely in his ears.

The findings were first published in the Journal of the American Tonsorial Anthropological Association. They result from years of research by a team of tonsorial anthropologists at the University of California at Twentynine Palms. Through ingenious use of isotopes and electronic microscopy the team was able to create computer-enhanced pictures of Caesar's hairline.

Dr. Emmeline Granger, professor of antique tonsoriology at U.C. Twentynine Palms, refused to believe the first enhancements. "So destitute of hair was the Caesarean skull enhancement," she writes, "that we at first suspected the data we had subjected to isotopical and electronic-microscopical analysis were not Caesarean at all. The total absence of follicle apertures anywhere in the computer enhancement seemed more consistent with granite than with human scalp structure."

Publication of the findings on Caesar's scalp have created uneasiness in the tonsorial-anthropology community. Its members have been gearing up for a big project code-named "Holy Moses." Its aim: to determine whether Moses actually had the long, flowing beard attributed to him by centuries of artists.

There is considerable fear that "Holy Moses" might lose vital federal funding as a result of the Caesar research. Tonsoriology scholars are unduly sensitive to Senator Jesse Helms's impatience with federal spending that produces socially embarrassing nudity.

If Helms thinks the research might leave Moses' jaw as naked as Caesar's scalp, they fear he might cancel "Holy Moses." Paranoia is everywhere these days.

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