Today is the birth date in 100 BC of Julius Caesar — Roman general, statesman, and dictator.
In his Life of Caesar, Plutarch tells a story that reveals the unique character of Caesar. It relates to an incident where the young Julius was kidnapped by pirates:
To begin with, then, when the pirates demanded twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not knowing who their captive was, and of his own accord agreed to give them fifty . . . . For eight and thirty days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal body-guard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to hang them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth (1).
Caesar made good on his threat. After he was released, he pursued the pirates with his fleet, captured them, and executed them.
Julius’ place in history is probably best attributed to his combined powers as a tactician, a statesman, and an orator. After leading his Roman army to one particularly decisive victory in 46 BC, he famously wrote the Roman Senate to report:
Veni, vidi, vici
I came, I saw, I conquered.
A student of rhetoric and oratory, Caesar knew the power of the tricolon, the use of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses to generate sentences with rhythm, clarity, and panache.
There is something special, perhaps even magical, about the number three, and when combined with the power of rhythm and repetition, what results is an unforgettable recipe for rhetorical resonance.
We see it in the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We see it in religion: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We see it in films and television: “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” And we see it advertising: “The few, the proud, the Marines” (2).
Balance and rhythm with two elements is good. This is called isocolon, as in “Roses are red, violets are blue.” And four works too. It’s called tetracolon, as when Winston Churchill told the British people that he nothing to offer but “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” But you just can’t beat the rule of three; it’s the most ubiquitous, the most memorable, and the most magical of them all. No wonder newly reelected President Barack Obama used 21 tricolons in his 2008 victory speech (3).
Today’s Challenge: Tricolon Trailers
What are examples of things that come in threes — familiar phrases, titles, or trios? Write the text of a voice-over for a movie trailer of your favorite film or book. Use at least one tricolon to add some rhythm and resonance. Here’s an example for Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:
Mourning his dead father, berating his clueless mother, and continually contemplating the murder of his remorseless, treacherous, and lecherous uncle, Hamlet is not having a good day! Something, indeed, is rotten in the state of Denmark, and it’s not just the fish from last week’s dinner that’s been festering in the corner of the Castle Elsinore’s Kitchen.
Quotation of the Day: Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. -attributed to Benjamin Franklin
1- Plutarch. “Life of Caesar”
2- Backman, Brian. Thinking in Threes: The Power of Three in Writing. Austin, Texas: Prufrock Press, 2005.
Forsyth, Mark. The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase. London: Icon Books, 2013: 84-88.
3- Zelinsky, Aaron. “What We Will Remember”