Julius Caesar Superstar or Supervillain?
1. Tragedy as Policy
Shakespeare was no historian. In Julius Caesar, he moves people and events around as he pleases to serve his story, not a slavish recreation of scholarship’s best guess at the facts. Shakespeare understood that we have history to tell us what happened and art to tell us how it felt. For a tragedian, the fatal contradictions of the period have an irresistible draw. Republican Rome brought the whole world to heel only to consume itself. The republican system was both a check against ambition and a perfect incubator for it. The ideal of a government of and for the people existed alongside ruthless economic exploitation and brutality. Success on the world stage brought down Rome in a way no enemy ever could.
As our Caesar remarked in rehearsal, it’s plain to see why Shakespeare felt compelled to tell this story 1700 years after it happened and why we feel compelled to stage it 400 years after he wrote it. In these ancient events we find tensions human civilization will forever struggle with. So while we have no more intention of making this show a historical reenactment than the Bard did, a word on the tragic social contradictions that inspired him might be appropriate.
Imagine you’re a Roman of the patrician class. Your forebears cast out Rome’s last king and created a republic that has endured for centuries. Power among citizens is the pride of your country. Glory is serving that country and not your own interests. Accomplish great deeds for Rome and Rome honors you with prestige and very brief tastes of power in a variety of offices. The system has served Rome well, expelled would-be tyrants and checked against reckless reforms. However, your ancestors could not have imagined the Rome you live in.
Within a few generations, your city state has become a world power with millions of citizens. Your consuls now hold sway over more people and territory than any king ever had. A taste for plunder and conquest has infected Rome’s republican values. If conquest made Rome rich, this was how the gods showed their favor. After all, weren’t the backwards people of the barbaricum better off with Rome’s guidance? Spreading and defending the benefits of Roman civilization justified all, even the wearing away of that civilization’s bedrock principals. You don’t recognize these new Romans. Young patricians wear goatees and thin mustaches; they dress in fashions from the east, soft and effeminate. They want decadence, they want protection, they want to enjoy Roman abundance and pass their responsibility as citizens onto whichever strongman offers to bear that burden for them. And the mob has never been larger, never seemed hungrier, and never been so difficult to remind of their place. From the top of the system, you can see it teetering.
From the bottom, you can barely see around starvation. Poverty meant impossible desperation in Rome. Taxation and the justice system were almost entirely privatized. Rivals could ruin each other by putting them into endless suits of law. Corporations called publicani bought tax debt from the government then extracted that sum plus whatever extra they could get out of Rome’s citizens and vassals. Interest rates were often ruinous by design, intended to first drain a person of all property and then to make a slave of them. You had whatever rights you could afford to have and a sudden spike of legal or tax debt could mean losing ownership of your very body.
There were building and sanitation codes in place to protect you in theory but never in practice. Rome was a web of cramped pathways, built and rebuilt upon continuously, confounding even for locals. Slums were little more than human wasp hives with sewage running in the streets. Die poor and your body could well be interred in the dung pits beyond the Esquiline gate. There, Romans believed witches waited to strip the flesh from the dead and possess their spirits. Die poor in Rome; suffer forever.
This is not to say late republican Rome lacked for class mobility. Much like the enforcement of building codes however, this was more of an idea than a reality. Though the most abundant example of Roman social fluidity is distinguished families falling from grace, Plutarch’s histories do contain numerous accounts of plebes who distinguished themselves through service and rose to join Rome’s elite. No less a figure than Pompey the Great fits this description, Rome’s own Alexander. Nonetheless, Pompey never forgot he was not born a patrician. Though he won hundreds of victories for Rome, though he rose to the consulship, though none could dispute he was the republic’s greatest general, his entire glorious career is marked by a need for approval and applause from the aristocracy. Likely because he could see plain as anyone that he was an outlier – the general direction of class mobility was decidedly downward in Rome.
Epoch making conquest was not enough for Pompey to feel secure in his position in Rome’s upper echelons. How much more precarious then was the position of the artisan, the tradesman, the worker who managed to arise from the endless ranks of the poor and begin to make their name? Or the family grew rich from market forces that Rome’s expansion warped or redirected? Imagine the bewilderment of having noble ancestors and still sinking into the vast sea of plebes. Imagine being born a plebe and knowing you lived in a world where even a patrician could fall. Romans liked to believe that fame and glory were achievable by every citizen of the republic but the overwhelming majority of them were a bit busy staying ahead of ruin and degradation to worry about winning any laurels.
How hard would you hope for deliverance? How ready would you be to believe someone who said they had won it for you?
2. Pope, President, NFL Commissioner, Prince, War Hero
We have just enough information on the life and intentions of Gaius Julius Caesar to make an eternal mystery of the man. We may speculate for centuries without ever knowing his true intentions. According to Cato and his aristocratic allies in the senate, Caesar was a tyrant in waiting. According to Caesar, he marched on Rome to save Rome and the Roman people from this very same aristocratic order that used the senate to place themselves above all others in the republic. According to Caesar’s enemies, his crossing of the Rubicon proved they had been right all along. According to Caesar, the aristocrats left him with no choice at all. We’re going to argue about this forever. Look hard enough and you can find a shadow under Caesar’s every kindness and a cold logic to his cruelty. It’s easy enough to see why Shakespeare was so inspired.
Covering Caesar’s career or speculating as to his true character with any sort of completeness or authority is beyond the scope of this blog. One could write a book on the subject and indeed many have. He was born of a noble family that had seen a few generations of decline, taking up a house near the brothels of Subura. Much of his youth was spent ducking and dodging a civil war. As a man, he distinguished himself as one of Rome’s greatest orators and fashion icons. As a general he was known to move with astonishing speed, marching in any season and compelling the enemy to change their plans and react. As a politician, it was much the same – whatever game he played, Caesar always seemed three steps ahead. And for all the controversy that surrounds him, for all the claims and counter claims made by his critics and apologists alike, there are a few facts that aren’t in dispute. According to both those who loved him and those who hated him, Caesar was a rare genius.
Rome had no constitution. The principles of the republic were enshrined only in a few laws and the precedent of tradition. Rome did not have banks; it had wealthy men who loaned money on terms they themselves set. The city itself had no police force and armies were not permitted within her walls. Rome had no pentagon – when there was a war to be waged, the senate turned to those Roman citizens who had proven able generals or who had the money to raise legions and spare the state the expense. This privilege was much sought after, as it represented an opportunity for huge prestige and to grow obscenely rich through plunder. Rome had no election commission – corruption and vote buying were so common that an entire specialized industry rose up around it. Though the Roman social system was strictly stratified and the class divisions quite stark, in the official and unofficial mechanisms of the state we see a highly exploitable level of flexibility and instability. Before Caesar’s rise to total power, he had already become a household name throughout Rome by playing its systems like a harp.
Populism was a discredited practice in Caesar’s Rome. It was considered irresponsible and a bit perverse to stir up the plebes, to flatter them and compel them to have expectations of the state. Such politicians were sneered at. Caesar resurrected the populari tradition almost single handedly, behaving as a tribune of the plebes even when he had risen to the consulship. Some say he manipulated the plebes for his own benefit, others that the consistency of his populism reveals a genuine belief. The controversy isn’t important; what’s important is that whatever Caesar’s true intentions, the plebes believed in it and in him. The only people who loved Caesar more were his soldiers. In Plutarch, there is a story of Caesar quartering himself and his retinue in a cowshed so that there would be more beds for his wounded. He fraternized with his soldiers and tended to overpay. When Caesar marched on Rome, he told his legionaries that it might be some time before he could pay them anything. Their response was to gather up what money they had and give it to Caesar. What he thought privately of the people who followed him is anyone’s guess but we have many such examples of the sort of loyalty he inspired.
Pompey the Great, Rome’s greatest general and Licinius Crassus, Rome’s richest man and the bad guy from Spartacus, were known rivals early in Caesar’s career. The senate had frustrated the ambitions of them both, but it took Caesar’s brokerage to bring them together. They joined into what history calls the First Triumvirate, a cabal that would first defy and then dominate the senate. With one another’s help, they were able to pick and choose offices and military assignments as they pleased. When the senate stood in their way, Caesar would take his case to the people and whip the crowd up into a frenzy that would compel the senate to acquiesce. Already a celebrated orator and fashion trendsetter, Caesar added the offices of pontifex maximus, aedile and consul to his resume. To get and idea of how huge he had become in the Roman mind, let’s make a very crude modern comparison: Imagine Prince had already been high priest, president, and then put on the best Superbowl you’ve ever seen.
If Rome had newspapers, Caesar would have been on the front page daily even before he marched on Gaul. In his hands, prestige was power. His war on Gaul wasn’t strictly legal but he exploited the influence of the triumvirate to keep it going for almost ten years. This allowed Caesar to send home a steady stream of gold and commentaries on the war that were part memoir and part propaganda. Caesar didn’t even need to be in Rome to gather power and influence there.
Imagine being a Roman citizen caught between Caesar and the senate – on one hand, you have a guy that’s destroying a foreign enemy and paying off your debts with the spoils. On the other, you have the aristocrats decrying this man as a tyrant. If the senate’s version of liberty meant you lived in debt in the slums until you became a slave, would slanders towards Caesar even enter your ears? If Pope-President-NFL-Commissioner-Prince had kept your kids from starving by becoming a war hero, would you care if it was legal?
If you were a noble, how terrified would you be to hear the mob screaming Caesar’s name as a savior’s, as a god’s? Almost five hundred years as a republic and now there are Romans ready to throw it all away for some barbarian gold. Would you send Pompey after him? Would you stay in the city when Pompey was destroyed? Would you fight to save the world Caesar was ending? Would you believe it deserved to be saved?
Morgan Picton plays Trebonius, Lucilius and the Soothsayer in Animal Fire Theatre’s Julius Caesar. He is also a Rome nerd and standup comedian with entirely too much 90s hiphop memorized.
This entry was posted on Thursday, July 25th, 2013 at 11:06 am
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