Mundy Monday: The Caesar Controversy

Adventure magazine had a letters section named the Camp-Fire, where editors, readers and the authors themselves could comment, add information or just look back on past stories.  When Talbot Mundy published the first installment of his book Tros of Samothrace in the February 10th, 1925 issue of Adventure, he also provided 2,000 words in the Camp-Fire section giving background on Caesar, ancient Britain and the Samothracian Mysteries.  Mundy did not hesitate to attack popular views of Caesar and the Roman Empire.  This is just an example:

I have followed Caesar’s Commentaries as closely as possible in writing this story, but as Caesar, by his own showing, was a liar, a brute, a treacherous humbug and conceited ass, as well as the ablest military expert in the world at that time; and as there is plenty of information from ancient British, Welsh and Irish sources to refute much of what he writes, I have not been to much trouble to make him out a hero.

Mundy’s comments in the Camp-Fire, along with his portrayal of Caesar in the first two installments of Tros of Samothrace, ignited one of the most remarkable controversies in the history of American fiction magazines.  The readership of Adventure split into groups that were for and against Talbot Mundy’s views on Caesar and the Camp-Fire was where their opinions were aired.  A number of writers and historians came down on one side or another of the issue and the Caesar controversy grew to fill the entire space of the Camp-Fire.  By the end of the year, Mundy had added nearly 10,000 more words providing background or in reply to critics; by that time, the letters discussing Caesar printed by Adventure would have filled a large book and there is no record of how many other letters never saw print.  Technically, the controversy never subsided; Adventure just made the decision not to print any more Caesar letters in the Camp-Fire after a certain point. They continued to receive letters for a number of years afterwards requesting that the magazine reopen the controversy, but choose not to do so.  

Arthur S. Hoffman was chief editor of the magazine at the time and posted an afterword to the first installment in the Camp-Fire where he actually invited readers to weigh in on Mundy’s view of Caesar but I doubt he anticipated the extent or intensity of the response.  You can read more from him here, just below the Table of Contents, courtesy of the invaluable library of Roy Glashan.  But why did Mundy’s view of Julius Caesar provoke such an intense reaction over such a long period of time?  Hoffman thought that it was because it touched upon

…how much thinking of our own do we do, what are our measures of success and greatness, our ideals and the influence of commonly accepted ideals.

Those are questions that we wrestle with today.  What do we believe in?  Who do we believe?  Do we demand authenticated documents as our sources or do we accept the traditional view of history from men like Caesar or Herodotus

Talbot Mundy certainly didn’t trust the word of Julius Caesar worth a damn and for a number of reasons.  He was firmly anti-colonial and anti-imperial in his outlook and had never made any attempt to hide it.  At the time of the controversy, Mundy was at the height of his involvement with Theosophy and saw the Druids as highly developed followers of the Ancient Mysteries centered on Samothrace, not the murderous savages Caesar portrayed in his Commentaries.  In his eyes, Caesar slaughtered the druids without cause and Rome erased or buried the influence of Samothrace leaving behind a blood-stained empire built on slavery.  Mundy saw no reason to sing the praises of a man and an empire that he despised and his writing was vivid enough that it aroused the emotions of a great many people.  Readers, historians, even other authors were moved to publicly state their agreement or disagreement with him and often in very emphatic terms. 

In a sense, this Caesar Controversy goes on today; each one of us must decide what we believe in, what ideals motivate or guide us and it won’t always be an easy decision.  So tell me:

What do you believe?

Previous posts on Tros:

“Tros of Samothrace”

“The Enemy of Rome”

Leiber’s “The Glory of Tros”

Forefathers of Sword and Sorcery: Talbot Mundy 

John E. Boyle is the author of Queen’s Heir and Raven’s Blood, the first two books in the Children of Khetar fantasy series.