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25.6.19 These Foolish Things

Billie Holiday

One of the most well-known Latin phrases is attributed to Julius Caesar: veni, vidi, vici, or, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’

The story is that this slogan was written on a sign carried in one of Caesar’s triumphs, the ceremonial parades of victorious generals which passed through the centre of Rome. In its original context, then, the words are a boast. A short, snappy phrase to signify the speed of Caesar’s victory.

‘At his triumph over Pontus, amidst the floats in the parade he displayed a sign bearing three words ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, referring not, like the other signs, to the war’s events, but to its speedy execution.’  Suetonius, The Life of Julius Caesar.

The phrase is so old that is has taken on many meanings in many different contexts. Recently I saw it on the front page of a local newspaper, slightly edited, and used to advertise an accountancy firm. After so many years, it’s easy to forget that the original context for the phrase is pretty objectionable. Roman triumphs were crass and brutal displays of imperial power, at which captured prisoners were sometimes led through the streets in chains. Think of George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner from 2003, or imagine a St. Patrick’s Day parade with chained prisoners amongst the floats. There was a lot of misery behind those Roman triumphs.

But here’s the thing about phrases like this: they are the property of no one. Anyone can use the stuff of ancient Roman culture however they like. For all that Latin is a language of the powerful and the elite, most people can walk in a bookshop and pick up a paperback translation, or go online, or listen to a podcast, or go to the cinema and see a film. Rome (whatever that means) is there to be re-imagined, from as many perspectives as there are readers, or watchers, or listeners. What’s more, when a phrase like this one enters the language as an independent phrase, there’s no end to the ways in which is can be re-appropriated.

In the 1930s Caesar’s phrase found its way into a pop song written by two Englishmen, Eric Maschwitz (lyrics) and Jack Strachey (music). The song is called These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You), and there is a famous version by the American jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915–1959). As a black woman in twentieth-century America, Holiday had to endure racism throughout her life and career, and would have had little hope or right of access to the formal educational environments in which Greek and Latin were taught. The cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, throughout American history, have been used to support the ideologies that have underpinned slavery, discrimination, and social and political exclusion.  

You’ll find the phrase in the song’s bridge, but it’s been turned around, the point of view has been changed.

                        You came, you saw, you conquered me.
                        When you did that to me,
                        I knew somehow this had to be.

Maschwitz has re-worked Caesar’s words for the song (he was Cambridge graduate, but in modern rather than ancient languages – perhaps he had done some Latin as a younger student), but it’s Holiday – backed by Teddy Wilson and his orchestra – who makes them sing. Listen on YouTube for the kind of soft wail she makes out of me; the knowing emphasis she puts on that. The conquest has become romantic, with all the complexity and ambivalence that that implies. A twenty-one-year old singer of genius has added another new chapter to the story of an old phrase.