BMCR 2013.03.45

Caesar in the USA

, Caesar in the USA. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2012. xii, 306. ISBN 9780520273917. $39.95.


Maria Wyke has written an important book that joins a growing number of studies that analyze the reception and role of the classics in the United States. The author chose to write a “tunnel history”: Caesar in the United States focuses not on a particular historical moment—the book covers the long twentieth century—but rather chooses a trope, namely Julius Caesar, which she uses in order to “demonstrate the importance, and some of the diversity and the workings” of the great Roman in modern America (7). Wyke is the author of a previous book that traces Caesar throughout Western culture, which positions her well for the current task (although one would like to hear more about the distinctiveness, if such exists, of the American Caesar). Indeed, she capably demonstrates the various ways through which Julius Caesar provided—and still provides—a rich vocabulary with which to articulate major themes in America’s history. The book thus successfully deepens our understanding of the nation’s political culture (broadly understood) and its perceived role in the world through the image of Julius Caesar.

Wyke explores Caesar’s American life in well-conceived chapters. The first three revolve around Caesar’s prominence in American classrooms in the first half of the century, demonstrating how young Americans, mostly boys, routinely studied Caesar’s military exploits and his approachable Latin, and how the devastation of Europe in the Great War eroded the former command of the man and his De Bello Gallico. The final chapters discuss Caesar’s role during the latter half of the century, and his cultural working vis-à-vis the rise of the fascist (and self-proclaimed “Roman”) regimes in Europe, the Cold War and the rise of the recent American “empire.” Here Caesar’s image emerges out of the confines of the classroom and the theatrical stage and casts its shade on the age of the silver screen and new journalism; the centuries-old fears of the decline of the republic and its replacement with a tyrannical empire converge with the potent image of the military chieftain, the Caesarian president.

The author casts a wide net in her search for America’s Caesar and her findings are interesting and impressive, at times striking. The main problem with this otherwise well-written book is that the author, while acknowledging the central role that Caesar played in the American political imagination for more than a century before the starting point of her book, goes little further than this acknowledgement (indeed, the choice of title for the book is indicative, implying that it covers the whole gamut of the nation’s history, whereas in fact it neglects more than a century of American Caesarism). Since the early days of the Revolution and throughout the nineteenth century Caesar has dominated many politicians’ and commentators’ minds in their attempts to make sense of the new American republican world. Partisans would repeatedly see those they deemed to pose a threat to America as Caesars, potential destroyers of the republic. Leaders as diverse as George III, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as countless other national and provincial politicians, would thus be labeled “Caesars,” commonly referring not to the imperial title but specifically to the energetic Roman who lent his name to that title. Wyke of course knows this but many of her examples, and consequently the book’s overall analysis, would have profited from a deeper appreciation and more rigorous analysis of her material in light of this long American tradition. One evident example is the discussion of the Americanization of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in chapter 2, which would have benefited from many interesting parallels with the late eighteenth-century Americanization of another English play in which Caesar is a major protagonist, namely Joseph Addison’s Cato.

Nonetheless, the book significantly enriches our growing understanding of the important role of the classical world, and particularly of Rome, in shaping the culture of the United States.