BMCR 2009.05.11

Caesar: A Life in Western Culture

, Caesar: A Life in Western Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. ix, 287. ISBN 0226921530. $25.00.

At the Lausanne Conference in late 1922, journalists clambered for the first interview with Benito Mussolini, the new Premier of Italy. In his passionate exposé of the past crimes and future plans of this contemporary Sawdust Caesar, George Seldes passed along a gem from Lincoln Steffens, who won the brass ring of a private audience with the Duce. According to Steffens, Mussolini held a revolver in his hand and sharply scrutinized everyone with whom he came into contact, observing, “‘I was looking for the fellow that is out to shoot me.'” To Steffens’ question, “‘What makes you think you’ll be shot?’,” Mussolini responded, “‘History.'” But, he continued, “‘if a dictator knows history, the dictator can look out and—shoot first.'”1 Mussolini was, of course, singularly ruthless and singularly lucky in this regard, surviving three attempts on his life in 1926 alone. The most surprising of these was a shot fired by Violet Gibson, a 50-year-old Irishwoman who had been prompted by “supernatural forces” to kill Mussolini.2 The bullet grazed his nose, and with deft medical attention, the wound was bandaged and the patient declared fit for travel the following day. Insisting that Miss Gibson should be treated leniently and commenting to an American journalist, “‘The bullets pass, Mussolini remains,'” Mussolini mounted a ship for Tripoli in Libya, with the second ship in his entourage named…the Julius Caesar.3

Because Mussolini features so prominently in Wyke’s “metabiography” of Caesar, it is appropriate to consider the various lessons that one historical story can give, at least to those who are forearmed with an indestructible self-image…and/or a revolver. Wyke offers, in her latest work, an intriguing alternative to a standard, linear biography of a man who hardly needs another. In fact, she claims, this metabiography is “not an exploration of a life at the time of living, but of key resonances of that life in subsequent periods.” Instead of rehearsing the “canonic events” in Caesar’s life, each chapter, she notes, “begins with an examination of how that event was first articulated, whether by Caesar himself or by other classical writers. Then I explore selected receptions in some detail, ones which in my view best illustrate” the appropriations of Caesar’s image in various historical contexts.(19)

While this is a fascinating approach, with much to recommend it, the book under review falls short of its intended target in three respects, set out in this overall statement of purpose. First, there seems to be no reason for subjecting these particular episodes of Caesar’s long and eventful life to rigorous exploration—and some of these are only vaguely and tangentially related to the career of Julius Caesar, specifically. Second, the principal danger of examining the “reception” of Caesar’s life in such widely varying places and times (13th-century France, 16th-century Germany and England, post-Napoleonic Italy, the Second Empire of Napoleon III, Fascist Italy, and even the 21st-century USA) is that each chapter misses the unique historical forces and events that shaped these modern eras. This leads to the third major problem in the work: that it simplifies “the” approach to Caesar in these eras, leading to distorted conclusions about what Caesar’s name and legacy meant, based on very little (and sometimes very bizarre) evidence. The result is an idiosyncratic view of receptions that, at least in the author’s view, “best” illustrate a period’s take on the figure, but with no attempt to demonstrate why this is the case.

I shall substantiate these points by examining certain chapters in detail, and especially those that seem to have been created specifically for this book. (It should be noted here that a great deal of the material in this volume has been published more fully, and with more ample documentation, elsewhere, and that the book under review seems to have been designed for a wider readership.)4 However, at the conclusion, I shall propose an alternative vision of “reception studies,” or at least a more fundamental conversation about what precisely these studies entail, especially now that we seem to be in the midst of a veritable “renaissance of reception,” with new monographs, conferences, and edited volumes proliferating every year.

After a brief chapter of introduction, each of the following eight chapters focuses the reader’s attention upon one event, or series of events, in Caesar’s life—or afterlife, in the case of his deification (Chapter 9)—as seen through the lenses of its later interpreters. At several points, and especially in Chapter 6 (on Caesar’s triumphs, ostensibly), the argumentation wanders away from C. Julius Caesar, and toward “Caesarism,” conflating vague resonances of “Caesars” with this one individual. The result is often confusing, and obscures the fact that modern commentators may, themselves, have been hazy on the precise contours of Caesar’s career—preferring instead to comment on those who possess the power of “a” Caesar.

While most chapters cover unique elements of Caesar’s biography, only one addresses his early career (i.e. before the 50s BCE). Chapter 2, “Audacity and Adventurism: Capture by pirates, c. 74 BC” briefly tells the story of Caesar’s captivity, and revenge on his captors, as it appears in ancient sources, but then moves quickly to an engraving of the incident by Bartolomeo Pinelli, for his Istoria Romana, published in 1818-9. One might conclude, from this gap of coverage, that the incident was of little interest in the intervening 17 centuries between Plutarch and Pinelli, but no explanation is made here of why this particular engraving—one of 100 for the entire book—has been chosen for special attention. Stating that Pinelli’s “political sympathies (during a period of nascent nationalism in Italy) are apparent,” (27) Wyke makes no mention at all of Napoleon Bonaparte, who is very clearly the model for the Caesar standing in the pirate ship. Rather than seeing a “disdainful tyrant” and “an imperious captain” controlling his current ship of state, one might conclude exactly the opposite: that Pinelli was here expressing his admiration for Caesar’s, and by extension, for Napoleon’s sangfroid. In fact, Pinelli also produced a watercolor of an allegorical Roma holding the little Re di Roma (Napoleon II) in 1811—an item that is displayed today in the Museo Napoleonico in Rome.

Leaving the 19th century behind, Wyke shifts abruptly to two novels that mention the captivity of Caesar, published in 1999 and 2000, and then to an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess (during the course of which we learn of the existence of “Xenites”), and then to a digital strategy game called The Rise of Rome, released in 1998. While popular culture is, in itself, an important indicator of general attitudes, there is no statement concerning why these particular references to the incident were chosen, and not others, from the same period. Indeed, Colleen McCullough produced a widely read series of novels in the 1990s and 2000s focusing upon Caesar’s career, and the pirate episode is reproduced in full in her 1994 Fortune’s Favorites. Moreover, a 2002 television mini-series entitled Julius Caesar dramatized the pirate story in roughly 10 minutes, giving Caesar the chance to spar with his pirate captors—in a scene that anticipates his (unintentionally amusing) attempt to fight back, Rambo-style, during his assassination in the film’s final moments. (To be fair, though, this film may not have been released in the UK, unlike Xena, which, we are told, “was broadcast on approximately two hundred stations across the States and also shown in many other countries worldwide.”(33)) Most disturbingly, though, Wyke merely notes that references to the pirates “emerge” in recent popular culture “over and over again” (28), but she offers no explanation of why this should be the case, or what we should conclude about popular attitudes to Caesar as a result.

The reader continues to be bombarded with disconnected, albeit interesting, details in the following chapter, on “Courage, Cruelty and Military Acumen: War in Gaul, 58-51 BC.” While she makes the important point that Napoleon III could glorify both Caesar and Vercingetorix, with his sponsorship of excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine, she does not adequately account for the shifting interpretations of Caesar in Third Republic France and beyond. While Wyke may not have space to repeat the detailed arguments of Amalvi, King, or Hemmerle on this theme [5], she should note the essential paradox that can be found in most Western European nations, including Italy, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the legacy of the Roman Empire could also be celebrated through the “barbarians” who resisted Rome’s legions. Thus, the Germans, with their Kaiserreich, also had their Hermannsdenkmal in Detmold (erected in 1875, with its sword pointed at France), the British, with Britannia ruling the waves, also had their Boadicea along the Thames (sculpted by Thornycroft in 1902), the Portuguese their Viriathus (installed by a Spanish sculptor in Portuguese Viseu in 1940), and the Italians had both their Caesars and Spartacus, who encounters Caesar in a memorable scene of Raffaello Giovagnoli’s 1874 novel Spartaco. In an age of rival nationalisms, both the Romans and their opponents could thus be subjected to a procrustean couch—all in the name of national glory, and with the vague notion that “Roman” images would lend cultural cachet to whatever position one wished to adopt. Moreover, the cultural politics of Astérix deserve fuller attention than is offered here. In the cartoons, Jules César is probably meant to be an American, but the specific context of Charles De Gaulle’s rise in 1958, and Astérix’s first appearance in 1959, should be addressed. In this context, one might also add a small line from Vadim’s Les liaisons dangereuses. In this film, produced in 1959, Jeanne Moreau coyly comments on an American, “Il est venu, il a vu, il a vaincu.”

While Napoleon III features prominently in Wyke’s interpretation of “Caesarism,” Mussolini is by far the most referenced figure in the book, with his image forming the core of Chapters 4 (on the Rubicon crossing) and 7 (on the dictatorships). Nevertheless, as in her more detailed articles on the subject, Wyke may here be exaggerating the importance of Julius Caesar, specifically, in the crafting of Mussolini’s self-image. It is easy to be misled here, especially given the powerful images furnished by Fellini, in both Amarcord and Roma, of a childhood in Rimini (Ariminum). This town was, of course, host to Caesar on his first night after crossing into Italy, and one should also note, as she does not, that Mussolini himself hailed from Predappio, very near the Rubicon crossing.6 While one might conclude that the famous—and, as she rightly points out, largely fictitious— Marcia su Roma in 1922 was made in emulation of Caesar, the Fascists themselves preferred to connect the March to that of Octavian, in 43 BCE. Such linkages are particularly pronounced in the works of Giuseppe Bottai, Minister of Education for the regime, 1936-1943.7

The Fascists’ motive in drawing the connection to Octavian, rather than to Julius Caesar, is obvious—Mussolini (mistakenly, it turned out) declared that, “I shall die a natural death,”8 and Caesar’s final act, falling under 23 stab-wounds, was not something any wise politician would willingly emulate. This is particularly clear in Mussolini’s archaeological politics: he turned his archaeologists’ attention away from the Largo Argentina, after desultory excavations in 1926-1929, and toward projects like the vigorous ” sventramento” (gutting) and ” isolamento” (isolating) of Augustus’ Mausoleum. The reason for this feverish activity was the Bimillenary celebration of Augustus’ birth, due to commence on 23 September in Fascist Year XV (1937).

This leads to what should be the culminating chapter of the book, Chapter 8, on the legacy of the Ides of March. Wyke here comments, as one would expect, on Shakespeare’s tragedy and contemporary productions of it, especially the 2005 New York revival, complete with modern dress, metal detectors for errant knives, and post-9/11 musings on Homeland Security and “patriotism” under the Bush-Cheney Administration. Nevertheless, the best portions of this chapter are an analysis of Orson Welles’ 1937 staging of the play—with updated Fascist costumes for Caesar and his minions—and a commentary on the poignant, though often cut, scene of the mob’s mistaken vengeance on Cinna the Poet. The assassination is the defining moment in Caesar’s life, and deserves its own treatment—in fact, it has already received one, in Greg Woolf’s remarkable Et Tu, Brute.9 Woolf does precisely, in his final chapter, what Wyke attempts to do here—but he pays much closer attention to the ironies, paradoxes, and complexities of glorifying an assassin, and builds on Lily Ross Taylor’s comments on “Catonism,” as well as “Caesarism.” The state motto of Virginia remains “Sic semper tyrannis,” despite Booth’s ridiculously inappropriate use of it in April 1865—and yet it also underscores the fact that “reception” is a tricky business, in any historical period.

Wyke has made signal contributions to the important field of reception studies, but perhaps it is time to re-evaluate and reassess the current trajectory of this scholarship. This is a particularly urgent matter if, as I am suggesting here, we classicists may be misunderstanding what our colleagues in modern historical fields take for granted. For only two of many examples, an expert in 20th-century cultural history would probably point to the political leanings (right-wing) of Kladderadatsch, with an illustration from it profiled on p. 177, as well as the specific events being referenced in the image, from February 1926 (after Mussolini’s declaration of his constitutional position on 24 December 1925). An early modernist or an art historian would surely alert us to the fact that Melchior Feselen (p. 52) was inspired by the Sack of Rome in 1527 in his drawing of the siege of Alesia in 1533 (and in another sketch of the siege of Rome by Lars Porsenna, from 1529). Accordingly, a better approach to this sort of study might be to explore a historical figure like Caesar against the backdrop of only one carefully delineated place and period—bearing constantly in mind the full measure of this wider context and expecting that “receptions” of any figure are bound to be internally inconsistent, even within one culture.


1. George Seldes, Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism, New York: Harper Bros., 1935, p. 224.

2. On Gibson’s interrogation and motivations, see Enrico Ferri, “A Character Study and Life History of Violet Gibson, who attempted the life of Benito Mussolini, on the 7th of April, 1926,” translated by Mary Flint Cassola, Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 19 (1928): 211-219.

3. Seldes, p. 227, and “Mussolini Trionfante,” Time Magazine 19 April 1926.

4. Portions of Chapters 4, 7, and 8 (on Caesar and Mussolini) are built on her “Sawdust Caesar: Mussolini, Julius Caesar, and the drama of dictatorship,” in Michael Biddiss and Maria Wyke (eds.), The Uses and Abuses of Antiquity, Bern: Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 167-186; Chapter 5 (on Caesar and Cleopatra) covers much of the same ground explored in Ch. 8 of her The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations, Oxford, 2002; and a significant portion of Chapter 7 (on Caesar and George W. Bush) is derived from her “A Twenty-First-Century Caesar,” in M. Wyke (ed.), Julius Caesar in Western Culture, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006, pp. 305-323. Moreover, the contributions of other scholars to both the 1999 and the 2006 edited volumes stand behind many of the specific arguments developed throughout this book.

5. C. Amalvi, “De Vercingétorix à Astérix, de la Gaule à De Gaulle, ou les métamorphoses idéologiques et culturelles de nos origines nationales,” DHA 10 (1984): 285-318; Anthony King, “Vercingetorix, Asterix and the Gauls: Gallic symbols in French politics and culture,” in R. Hingley, Images of Rome: Perceptions of ancient Rome in Europe and the United States in the modern age, Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2001, pp. 114-125; and Oliver Benjamin Hemmerle, “Crossing the Rubicon into Paris: Caesarian Comparisons from Napoleon to De Gaulle,” in Wyke (2006), pp. 285-302.

6. On Rimini, see especially Ray Laurence, “Tourism, town planning and romanitas : Rimini’s Roman heritage,” in Biddiss/Wyke (1999), pp. 187-205.

7. Among many other works, Giuseppe Bottai, “L’Italia d’Augusto e l’Italia d’oggi,” Roma 15 (1937): 37-54.

8. Seldes, p. 228.

9. Greg Woolf, Et Tu, Brute?: The Murder of Caesar and Political Assassination, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, esp. Ch. 4, “Aftershocks.”