BMCR 2007.01.45

Julius Caesar in Western Culture

, Julius Caesar in western culture. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2006. xvii, 365 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 9781405125987. $34.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

This book and its collection of essays developed out of a conference held at the British School at Rome in March 2003. The topics range from the earliest depiction of Caesar through to the twentieth-first century with essays dealing with his medieval reception, 18th/19th century American analogies, cinema prior to the Great War and how the French, the fascists and others have appropriated and interpreted Julius Caesar in their own political discourse. It is a fascinating read which should appeal to a wide variety of readers not just in classics, but throughout the humanities.

The introduction by Christopher Pelling, entitled ‘Judging Julius Caesar’ skilfully sets out the various interpretations of Julius Caesar, under the shadow of the war in Iraq, and with a focus on the implications of Caesar’s death. There are two main aspects of Pelling’s piece: first, how ancient authors viewed Caesar and, in particular, why Caesar was killed; and second, how Caesar was viewed by later politicians and military figures, such as Napoleon and Mussolini. This is an important distinction that allows the reader to separate the classical notion of Caesar from more modern appropriations and, furthermore, clarifies the difficulties that have surfaced in looking at Caesar: there is no real closure as Caesar continues to dominate political thought and indeed, western culture.

Mark Toher’s ‘The Earliest Depiction of Caesar and the Later Tradition’ begins Part II (Literary Characterization) and deals with Nicolaus of Damascus’ biography of Augustus. Toher emphasises the fact that Nicolaus was an exact contemporary of Augustus and further notes that the longest excerpt (23 pages of nearly continuous, verbatim text) ‘offers a full account of the conspiracy against Caesar and his assassination and so preserves the earliest extant depiction of Julius Caesar by an ancient writer’ (31). Interweaving the Shakespearian image of Caesar, the author clearly and carefully demonstrates that the so-called tragedy of Caesar’s death was based more on the resentment caused by Caesar’s policy of clementia than on ideological grounds (tyrant versus libertas) as claimed by Suetonius, Dio and other later Imperial authors. In essence, Toher has been able to separate the sentiment surrounding the reality of Caesar’s assassination and the ideology that developed in retrospect over subsequent centuries. Furthermore, he has offered a new, exciting source that has been little used in the debate about Caesar, the impact of his life and the impact of his death. For that alone, this essay should be applauded.

Christine Walde in her essay ‘Caesar, Lucan’s Bellum Civile, and their Reception’ argues that Lucan’s fame ‘persists’ because he focused mainly on Caesar, but from a mythical stance. Walde further argues that Lucan ‘lack(ed) the appropriate standards to judge a great man’ (49) and that his portrayal was that of potential denied by death. The second half of her essay deals with the reception of Lucan’s Caesar and how any positive or ambivalent reading of Lucan’s Caesar ‘has nearly vanished in favour of denigration’ (56). There are a few problems with her argument—mainly in her supposition that Lucan was writing principally in celebration of Caesar, when his subject was in fact the fall of the Republic (and not just specific individuals)— and this very narrow interpretation mars this article and her arguments.

The next essay, Jacqueline Long’s ‘Julian Augustus’ Julius Caesar’, illustrates the resurgence of classical thought under the Emperor Julian and his identification with the traditions and images of Rome itself. Influenced by Plutarch’s Lives of Alexander and Caesar, the Symposion (or Kronia) debates the excellence of Rome and the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, and ultimately confirms Caesar as an example of virtues essential to Roman monarchy. This essay illustrates clearly how the connection between past and present was fundamental to later Imperial emperors.

Part III (The City of Rome) begins with Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani’s archaeological essay ‘The Seat and Memory of Power: Caesar’s Curia and Forum’, which deals with recent excavations (1998-2000) in the forum and curia. The diverging fates of the two (the curia still used for meetings, the forum falling into ruin with early medieval settlements on the spot) are well documented and make fascinating reading. The author points out how ‘difficult it is to generalize about the history of the urban landscape, both in its real, monumental sense and in its psychological one’ (93) and this essay clearly illustrates how what is revered now may not have been in the past.

John Osborne’s ‘St. Peter’s Needle and the Ashes of Julius Caesar: Invoking Rome’s Imperial History at the Papal Court, ca. 1100-1300’ continues the thread first alluded to in Long’s essay — that of assuming the reins of power by connecting same to the past. The contentious ‘Donation of Constantine’, in which Constantine is reported to have given the pope political authority and power, provides the back-drop for Osborne’s fascinating view of papal power in the medieval period. He explores the idea that the Vatican obelisk in Piazza S. Pietro was not just perceived as the spot where Peter had suffered his martyrdom, but also as a final resting place for Julius Caesar (although subsequent excavation and testing in the twentieth century failed to find any ashes in the bronze orb). Finally, the author presents the journey of the medieval pilgrim through Rome with its mix of ancient and medieval buildings, illustrating how physical space, not just ideological identification, was fundamental to Rome in this period. It is a thought-provoking, well-researched and extremely readable essay, which should be of great interest not only to classicists, but also to medieval and Church scholars.

Continuing the papal theme, Nicolas Temple’s article ‘Julius II as Second Caesar’ focuses on the Pontificate of Julius II (1503-13) and in particular, the influence of the classical on Renaissance Rome. In the first instance, an epigram alluding to Julius II’s ‘liberation of Italy from tyranny’ (110) is interwoven with Livy’s account of a battle between Veii and Rome in 396 BCE, which, as the author interestingly argues, serves as an example of Julius II as the ‘reviver’ of ancient Roman imperialism. The main thrust of this essay deals with the route of the ancient via triumphalis and the way in which Renaissance attempts to identify this route illustrate the ‘christianizing of pagan imperial symbolism’ (119). The architect Donato Bramante’s plans for the urban redevelopment of Rome are convincingly linked with Caesar’s plans to rebuild Rome. The author skilfully demonstrates how the city of Rome itself became representational of papal power, much as the Emperors themselves sought to establish their prominence by their ambitious building programmes. This essay and the one presented previously by John Osborne work extremely well together and offer the reader insight into how the city of Rome and its buildings changed and were moulded by those in power, whether Imperial or Papal.

Section IV (Statecraft and Nationalism) begins with Louisa Mackenzie’s ‘Imitation Gone Wrong: The ‘Pestilentially Ambitious’ Figure of Julius Caesar in Michel de Montaigne’s Essais‘, which deals with political fears in sixteenth-century France and in particular, during the French Wars of Religion (1562-94). Mackenzie notes the ‘split vision’ of Caesar as both ‘just conqueror’ and ‘tyrant’ (132), which coloured sentiment from Petrarch onwards, and also demonstrates the popularity of Caesar’s works from 1550 to 1600. Montaigne expressed admiration for the writings of Caesar (as mentioned in Christopher Pelling’s introduction), but was, for the most part, repelled by his person and Mackenzie notes that ‘it is Caesar the political agent rather than Caesar the writer who looms large in the Essais‘ (135). It is the ambition of Caesar that seems to bother Montaigne the most and the author offers numerous examples of her subject’s frustration with Caesar, in contrast; however, Cato the Younger emerges as ‘a kind of anti-Caesar’ in Montaigne’s Essais based on Sallust’s Bellum Catilinae 54. The message that Montaigne espoused was one of damnation for Caesar’s tactics and his excessive ambition, which should not be followed by sixteenth-century French readers, because he was dangerous and would hasten the decline of France itself. This essay is of particular interest as it carefully illustrates the shift between the glorification of Caesar by later Imperial and early medieval authors and condemnation as expressed by Renaissance and early modern thinkers, which is part of any modern debate on Julius Caesar — do we admire him or fear him?

An interesting analogy between the early American Republic and the late Roman Republic is skilfully handled in the next essay, Margaret Malamud’s ‘Manifest Destiny and the Eclipse of Julius Caesar’, which raises a number of interesting issues about the founding fathers. Malamud has an engaging writing style and the use of newspaper articles, advertisements and speeches delivered by leading politicians gives this essay a unique, human approach. At the crux of Malamud’s excellent essay lies the contrast between the ideals of George Washington (who for instance offered a performance of Addison’s play Cato to bolster the spirits of soldiers wintering in Valley Forge in 1778), along with Thomas Jefferson amongst others, during the revolutionary period, and those of Andrew Jackson, proclaimed as the equivalent of Julius Caesar by some and also as a popularis in contrast to the reasoned classical tradition espoused by the founding fathers. There was only aspect of this essay that jarred this reader, which was that the concept of manifest destiny, which became part of the American psyche in the 1840s/50s, was only discussed in the last two paragraphs of an overall engrossing, well-researched work. Since the concept of manifest destiny strongly coloured American exploration in the 19th century and offered a Christian justification for the removal of native peoples, this essay should have been expanded to include further discussion of what is suggested in its title.

The editor of this volume, Maria Wyke deals with Italian and American national identity in the years prior to the Great War, in ‘Caesar, Cinema, and National Identity in the 1910s’. Wyke illustrates the differences between the Italian film Caius Iulius Caesar (no longer extant), which was intended to inspire a unified nationalism, particularly during the intervento (August 1914-May 1915), and its American version, which was cut to remove any suggestions of immorality, such as the affair between Servilia and Caesar, and ultimately served as an educational tool, applauded for its value in the debate about the importance of the classics in the classroom. Wyke’s article is interesting and informative in its approach, but most of all, fascinating for its snap-shot of society almost a century ago.

In ‘Caesar the Foe’ Giuseppe Pucci presents a lively and engrossing account of the changes from admiration for Napoleon and Napoleon III to damnation by writers and historians, first in the period between the two Emperors (the 1820-1850s) and then following the collapse of the Empire in 1870. Skilfully illustrating the rise of hero worship for Vercingetorix versus condemnation for Caesar in the nineteenth century, Pucci traces this theme in French popular culture up to the present day and in the end notes that it is Vercingetorix that the French admire in the twenty-first century, not Caesar. A recent film argues that the former ‘did not win the Gallic war, but for the first time he had united all the people, who still live on today in our memory’.

In Part V (Theatrical Performance), ‘ Julius Caesar and the Democracy to Come’, by Nicolas Royle, focuses principally on Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar and the promise of democracy in potentia. The author’s use of numerous sources, other writer’s comments, digressions into word formation and extensive asides in the text (in brackets) creates an overall lack of coherency. This meant that whatever point Royle was trying to make could not be easily understood or appreciated even after subsequent re-reading. This essay is far too clever and obscure, and is out of place in this collection. However, Shakespearian scholars will find a plethora of interesting facts and information to tempt them.

Niall W. Slater’s ‘Shaw’s Caesars’ specifically focuses on Shaw’s 1898 play Caesar and Cleopatra, which was not performed until 1906. Slater convincingly argues that Shaw’s interpretation of Caesar is the first example of ‘Superman’, a theme which Shaw returned to again in other, later works. The Caesar of Caesar and Cleopatra is an old, weary man, but one who has a ‘natural’ goodness and was a political genius, which view has had mixed success in the past century. Slater mentions numerous productions of the play throughout the twentieth century, but focuses mainly on a 2002 Canadian presentation which reset the play during the Great War. This makes interesting reading, but not particularly germane to the argument at hand. What Slater does argue well is the influence of Mommsen’s Roman History (1854-6) on Shaw’s version of Caesar, which makes clementia a central feature of the character. The author argues that this is why the play itself continues to fascinate.

In Jane Dunnett’s ‘The Rhetoric of Romanità : Representations of Caesar in Fascist Theatre’, the author demonstrates the various ways that the fascist regime re-interpreted and approached the Roman empire to illustrate the connection between past and present. Beginning with examples of the appropriation of Roman imperial symbols, such as the saluto romano (fascist salute) or the fascio littorio (axe and bundle), by the fascist regime, Romanit became more than just appearance and permeated into ordinary life, thought and debate. The bimillennium of Augustus’ birth (in 1938) allowed Mussolini another opportunity to link the past with the present, by proclaiming that the Roman empire had re-emerged, as he had already declared in his earlier 1936 speech to the people of Rome. Thus, Dunnett carefully sets the stage for further discussion about the usage of Caesar by Mussolini as yet another element of the propagandist appropriation by the fascists during the 20s and 30s. This is particular clear in her discussion of two dramatic works: Corradini’s reworking of his 1902 play about Caesar (in the mid-1920s) and Forzano’s Cesare (performed in the late 1930’s). The first play, Dunnett argues, was able to be critical of the emerging fascist regime, whilst the latter was greatly influenced by Forzano’s admiration for Mussolini.

In Part VI (Warfare and Revolution), Jorit Wintjes’ ‘From ‘Capitano’ to ‘Great Commander’: The Military Reception of Caesar from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries’ shows the almost universal appeal of Caesar and his campaigns during the modern period in Europe. One major reason was the resurgence of ancient texts during the 15th and 16th centuries, and in particular, Machiavelli’s important study of 1521, which would influence military strategy for the next few hundred years. Wintjes is skilful and comprehensive in showing how these ancient sources were successfully acted upon in practice until the 19th century, when Napoleon was able to demonstrate the unsuitability of the Roman approach for modern warfare, showing in particular, the superiority of the gun over swords and pikes, and contrasting the more mobile nature of contemporary battle with the Roman necessity for camp building on a daily basis. Caesar, however, would continue to be important in relation to military theory (although not necessarily, in practice) up until the years prior to WWI.

Oliver Benjamin Hemmerle takes the argument into French territory in his ‘Crossing the Rubicon into Paris: Caesarian Comparisons from Napoleon to de Gaulle’, which works well with both Pucci’s and Wintjes’ essays. This article illustrates how Napoleon used Caesar as an example for his own political career and the influence of Caesar throughout 19th century France. However, the infamous Boulanger crisis of the 1880s replaced Caesar with Napoleon in popular caricature and sentiment as the French tried to find role models from within France and avoid foreigners. Hemmerle ends his article with analysis of Tulard’s 1971 biography of Napoleon, which shows how the ‘myth of the saviour’ (‘saviour’ of the French people) turned firmly away from Caesar in the 19th and 20th century, thereby confirming that the French approach to their past has completely changed since the death of Napoleon.

In the afterword, the editor, Maria Wyke, offers ‘A Twenty-First Century Caesar’, in which American imperialism, rhetoric and influence, particularly in the 20th century, has been linked by journalists to Rome. The argument that George W. Bush, as represented in the American media, is a successor to Caesar is problematic, as Wyke notes, in that the events under debate are in progress and most importantly, Bush is still alive. It is difficult to analyse contemporaneous events, such as George W. Bush and his administration, from a historical perspective and this is one of the main problems in Wyke’s article. A better example of a twentieth-century American Caesar is, however, alluded to and with frankly more evidence — the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt with its much more popularist approach (food, welfare, works projects), his intelligence and culture, and finally, his military diplomacy and strategy. Whilst important in viewing American media perspectives since 2001, this article really should have been written following Bush’s time in office.

The majority of the essays in this book are extremely readable and well-researched, which should appeal to scholars across the humanities. Overall, the arguments are interesting and a fascinating read. One or two, however, are not well placed in this collection, such as Walde’s narrow interpretation of Lucan’s Caesar and Royle’s Shakespearian treatise. Furthermore, the essays within this book could have been better organised. For example, Pucci’s article (Part IV) would have been better placed closer to Hemmerle’s (Part VI), and the Italian essays should have been grouped together.

Nevertheless, there is something here for everyone. For classicists, there is enough to re-energise the debate about the influence of Julius Caesar, such as Mark Toher’s excellent essay on Nicolaus of Damascus’ work; and for medieval and modern historians, the varied essays about American, Italian and French opinion should also engage the reader. Overall, this book is timely, engaging and offers the reader a unique and interesting approach to how ancient figures have been manipulated and used throughout history.