Who Was Julius Caesar? 2000 Years Have Passed and We’re Still Not Sure

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.


‘How many ages hence,’ wonders Shakespeare’s Gaius Cassius, as he bathes his arms in Julius Caesar’s fresh blood, ‘will this our lofty scene be acted over?’

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Brutus, his co-conspirator, smearing his own hands and sword in gore, seems equally awed at the magnitude of what he and his fellow senators have just done. He asks in turn, ‘How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport, / Who now on Pompey’s basis lies along, / No worthier than dust?’[1] The ‘lofty scene’ to which the two refer is, of course, Shakespeare’s version of the murder of Julius Caesar, fearless conqueror, ruthless politician and perhaps Rome’s most notorious senator. And their words clearly carry a deep irony, spoken as they are by actors distanced from the event by time, space and belief. For the historical Brutus, the killing of Caesar was at once an astonishing act of personal disloyalty, as well as the impious slaying of a heroic leader, but also a bold and virtuous defence of the equality and fairness prized above all else by the Roman republican political system. And however the deed was interpreted, it’s hard to overstate the extent of the mixed shock and horror it inspired: indeed, in the days following Caesar’s murder, on the Ides of March, 44BC, the Roman historians Suetonius and Plutarch tell us of ominous portents: a comet burned in the sky for 7 days; the sun shone weakly for the whole of the year; the air was damp and rank, and the harvest was ruined.[2] The Roman empire, theorised as the centre of the world, the divinely ordained conqueror and ruler over all other nations, was in chaos.

Image shows John Wilkes Booth and his brothers, in Roman costume, in a performance of Julius Caesar.
John Wilkes Booth (L), Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, with his brothers in a production of Julius Caesar.

But by the time of the first performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in London, in 1599, Ancient Rome’s once-vast empire had decayed, been buried in layers of dust and history, chipped away, fragment-by-fragment, and swept up into other kingdoms and nations. England had broken with the Catholic Church, refusing the authority contemporary Rome claimed in divine matters. Ancient Rome’s seismic shift from republic to empire, once an all-important event, and the subject of both agonised meditation and tentative celebration, had been relegated in importance to just one in a series of events that chart the cyclical, fated rise and fall of great nations. Shakespeare had tinkered with historical fact to suit his own dramatic ends, eliding and compressing events, warping their significance: he’d made Caesar into a character whose once-‘lofty’ death would be acted out, again and again, by lowly actors in front of a mob of Londoners, who might shout and hiss, or spontaneously decide to hurl something at a character they particularly disliked. And Shakespeare was certainly not the first writer to have done this — in Caesar’s lifetime and since his death, writers like Virgil, Catullus, Plutarch, Suetonius, Lucan, and slightly after Shakespeare Ben Jonson and Andrew Marvell (to name only a few) had all seen fit to realise him, in one form or another, as a character in their works. So Shakespeare’s actors, at the bloody scene of Caesar’s murder, ironically foresaw not just their own play, but also the scores of other literary works like it that would accrue around the legendary figure.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."Though we might concede that there’s usually something degrading about being fictionalised (Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, for example, worries that after her death ‘Some squeaking Cleopatra (might) boy my greatness / I’th’posture of a whore’[3]), the fascination writers down the ages have had with Julius Caesar surely testifies to something else, something beyond his centrality to a moment of great political and social change or his legendary personal ambition. And his story is clearly a flexible, polysemous one — distinctly different Caesars, and different meanings emerge from the portraits these writers offer us. Here, I want to look at a couple of these versions, and compare them to what we can know of the life, to see if I can get any closer to understanding what ensures this character’s endless fascination to writer and historian alike.

Image shows the Roman Senate, with senators seated in a semi-circle, from a fresco entitled 'Cicero Denounces Catiline' by Cesare Maccari.
A 19th century depiction of the Roman Senate. The semi-circular layout shown here is inaccurate; senators sat in straight and parallel lines.

I’d divide Caesar’s life into two distinct stories: The Irresistible Rise, and the Very Speedy Downfall — and it’s my contention here that the story that different authors focus on, at least in part determines their portrayal of the general who would eventually be made a Roman God. So first, a bit of potted history. Ancient Rome gathered force slowly, over centuries and as the authority of Greece declined, growing from a collection of farming villages into the superpower that dominated Europe. By the middle of the second century BC, it had destroyed Carthage and cowed Greece. The city at the centre of the great and sprawling nation was ruled not by a monarch, but rather a Senate of its richest men, according to a strict hierarchical system called the cursus honorum, through which progress depended on status, wealth, and the fulfilment of numerous duties. At the head of the Senate were two Consuls, elected yearly, who had the highest influence over the civil and military spheres, and the power to veto new motions. And there was the counsel of the Plebians, representatives elected by poorer classes, which passed laws and decrees. From their number, a few were allowed to serve in the lower orders of the Senate. Though it looks grossly elitist and unfair to us today (while the Senate perhaps invites interesting comparisons with our own ruling class), the Roman political system, born as it was after the country’s last Etruscan kings were expelled in 509 BC, prized independence and a version of equality very highly.
But in the first century BC, tension ran high, for a number of reasons: first, Rome’s poor were constantly short of grain and land — and a number of senators, including Caesar, saw political power to be gained in allying with the plebs and representing their interests. Factions developed in the Senate — on the one hand were the conservatives, dedicated to preserving the interests of the wealthiest and greatly resistant to change; and on the other the populares, gathered under the banner of a fairer deal for Rome’s poorest. Next, for the first time many poor men joined armies to escape lives of hunger and destitution, and consequently held loyalty to their generals rather than the city-state that had done nothing for them. Finally, infighting meant the Senate alienated some of the great generals and armies on whom it relied for the preservation and extension of the empire, refusing to visit recognition and gratitude on leaders like Pompey, for example, or to appoint money for the salaries of the armies they lead.
Julius Caesar first catches our attention on this troubled political scene in 63BC, bribing his way to a series of important political positions. First, he was Pontifex Maximus, the greatly respected high priest, who organised and led the city’s religious ceremonies. Next, he was elected to a praetorship — another office of high influence.

Image is "Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar" by Lionel Royer, depicting the surrender of the Gallic chieftain.
Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar by Lionel Royer; this depicts the surrender of the Gallic chieftain after the Battle of Alesia (52 BC).

And in 61 BC, he gained the right to govern a province in Spain — ensuring obedience and the payment of taxes from a subjugated people with the aid of an army. As a governor, it was notoriously easy for Caesar to accrue the vast amounts of wealth that would translate into influence back in Rome: in 61, he used his army to conquer two local tribes, and plunder enough money to pay back the debts he had accrued in bribing his way to power, as well as funding a campaign to become consul on his return. By the time he returned to Rome to stand for the consulship in 59, he was enough of a threat to the established order that Cato, a famously upright and honest conservative senator, attempted to stop him becoming consul, first by obstruction, and then bribery.
However, Caesar managed to become consul in 59BC, along with a conservative, Marcus Bibulus. As a consul, he was astonishingly audacious and irreverent, committing a series of deeds that scandalised the conservative elements of the Senate. First, he proposed a populist law to redistribute public lands to the poor, supported by the celebrated war-general Pompey and ex-consul Marcus Crassus, who made it clear they would head off opposition with military force if necessary. Rather than consulting the Senate, where he knew he would find strong opposition, Caesar took the law straight to the popular counsel. And when Bibulus tried to veto the law, Caesar had his bodyguards humiliated and wounded, and a bucket of dung poured over Bibulus’s head in public. Terrified, Bibulus retired to his house for the next year, predicting bad omens: Caesar was now totally in charge. In a poem dated to this year, the poet Catullus sarcastically refers to Caesar as imperator unice, ‘the only ruler’; Caesar’s disregard for the rules of the Republic, and the value they placed on equality and fairness, was seen as highly shameful.

Image shows a bust of Pompey.
Bust of Caesar’s supporter Pompey, in Warsaw.

At the end of 59, Caesar risked being prosecuted and, most likely, put to death for the crimes and irregularities of his year of rule: so, his next bold and brilliant move was to secure a position governing provinces ranging from Transalpine Gaul (southern France) to Illyricum (southeastern Europe), with immunity from prosecution, for the next five years. Now, through conquering and plundering, he could again build up his wealth and reputation as a great general, and strengthen his army. And he ensured continuing influence in Rome: with Pompey and Crassus, who had supported him throughout his consulship, he formed the famous First Triumvirate, an alliance of men who would continue to look after each other’s interests. Finally, he secured the loyalty of a few friendly senators, who would report to him and do his bidding in Rome while he was away.
At first, this all worked wonderfully: in 56BC, still fearing for his life if he returned to Rome, Caesar managed to use Pompey and Crassus, as well as his allies in the Senate, to extend his governorship for another five years. Now, he was in a position to begin upon perhaps his most spectacular victory yet: in the late summer of 55 BC, he invaded Britain — extending the borders of the empire further than even Alexander the Great had conquered for Greece. But here it all went wrong: while Caesar was in Britain, his daughter Julia, married to Pompey to secure his loyalty, died in childbirth. Crassus died in 53 BC. The Roman senate, fearing civil war and the unfettered ambitions of Caesar, appointed Pompey sole consul as an emergency measure. Caesar was defeated in Gaul, and in 50 BC was ordered by Pompey to disband his troops and return to Rome, his command over.

Image shows 'The Triumph of Caesar', a woodcut from c.1598.
Plate 9 of ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ by Andrea Andreani, after the painting by Andrea Mantegna.

Knowing he would be prosecuted if he entered Rome as a private citizen, Caesar did something that would go down in Roman historical and literary memory as utterly abhorrent, a triumph of unbridled ambition and violence over humanity and reason. At the River Rubicon, Rome’s border with Cisalpine Gaul, he did not disband his troops, but rather marched onwards with one legion, now set to attack Rome itself and begin a civil war. This moment would become iconic — the phrase ‘crossing the Rubicon’ still means to pass a point beyond which there is no turning back. For the poet Lucan, writing 200 years later under the despot emperor Nero, Caesar’s crossing the river characterises him as a terrible and irresistible energy, at once godlike and destructive beyond measure — a nightmarish, barely-human incarnation of the real Caesar’s own famous phrase, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. In Book 1 of the Pharsalia, an epic poem bitingly condemnatory of Rome’s civil wars and the imperial regime they helped install, Lucan imagines Caesar as a bolt of lightning, splitting the sky with its fire and raging against its ‘own precincts’[4] before it gathers to strike again. And this simile is very apt in conveying Lucan’s focus in his censure of the dead general: his poem everywhere focuses on the tragic human consequence of Caesar’s unchecked violent ambition. The mere rumour that he is approaching Rome armed is enough to send its citizens into panic; and at the point of his crossing the river, something like the soul of the city appears to the general in female form:

Through the murky night appeared
mighty image of his country in distress, grief in her face,
her white hair streaming from her tower-crowned head;
with tresses torn and shoulders bare she stood before him
and sighing said, ‘Where further do you march?
where do you take my standards, warriors? If lawfully you come,
if as citizens, this far only is allowed.’[5]

Rome, the great ruler of the world, is here imagined in female form, weak and pleading in contrast to Caesar’s assertive masculinity — and harassed, dishevelled, as though already harmed or humiliated by the general’s aggressive intentions. After a token amount of hesitation, Caesar marches across the river anyway — and as he reaches the other shore, famously, vows ‘Fortune, it is you I follow’[6]. But Lucan does not mean us to take his hero at his word: pretty clearly, Caesar does not follow fortune, but rather makes it. The historians Suetonius and Plutarch record a similarly fateful utterance upon reaching the Roman bank of the river: ‘The die is cast’. Again, the implication is clear: Caesar is the one to have cast that die. In his self-assertion and relentless aggression, both writers subtly link Caesar to the very hand of fate.
Interestingly, another writer interested in the ‘irresistible rise’ side of the story is the Elizabethan Ben Jonson, who in Sejanus (1603) imagines Caesar in similarly inhuman terms, introducing us to a period of history ‘When CAESAR durst be evil’[7] in contrast to ‘god-like CATO? He, that durst be good’[8] — a simple moral dichotomy. When Jonson’s Brutus murders his Caesar, there is no trace of the ambiguity I’ll later argue characterises Shakespeare’s version: the ‘constant BRUTUS’ ‘did strike / So brave a blow into the monster’s heart / That sought unkindly to captive his countrie’.[9] Caesar is here a monster — for Jonson, too, the terrible hubris of inciting civil war relegates a person to the status of embodied violence.

Image shows 'The Death of Julius Caesar' by Vincenzo Camuccini.
The Death of Julius Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini.

Pompey, temporarily in charge at Rome, fled for Spain on hearing of his old ally’s approach; and over the next few months, his troops were slowly defeated. Caesar elected himself to the post of ‘dictator’ and a second consulship in Rome, decisively beat Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus, and then pursued his enemy to Egypt — where, on arriving, he is held to have wept when he was presented with Pompey’s head, already severed by an assassin. Lucan leaves off shortly after this, as the general is about to enter Rome for a period in which he was set to accrue titles and influence, until his self-assertion would eventually become too much for his fellow senators and result in his death.
And it is this Caesar story to which Shakespeare is drawn — his betrayal by his fellow senators, and murder. It happens in the space of just a few days. And in telling it, he necessarily presents us with an altered vision of the man.
Among other themes, Julius Caesar is interested in great men’s concern with outward show, and the undoing of those in high places. To those who surround him in Rome, Caesar appears much like he does to the reader of Lucan, or Jonson: ambitious to the point of being dangerous, immovable by human emotion. Brutus says admiringly that, “to speak truth of Caesar, / I have not known when his affections swayed / More than his reason.”[10] But a great emptiness yawns underneath this facade: Shakespeare shows his audience a Caesar so concerned to appear emotionless, unbending, that he reveals a very human insecurity. Act 2 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s play concentrates on the night before Caesar is to be murdered, and we are told of numerous supernatural portents: dead men walk, ghosts wander the city, a lioness gives birth in the streets of Rome. Caesar cannot sleep, troubled by his wife Calpurnia, who cries out in her sleep, ‘Help ho: they murder Caesar!’[11]. The audience finds the great soldier awake, wandering his house in just his nightgown; he is immediately vulnerable, undressed and restless. What’s more, he betrays his own fear by asking a servant to perform a sacrifice, and tell him the results. But when Calpurnia appears, and begs her husband not to leave the house — saying that she usually disregards omens, but on this day is terrified — Caesar refuses her, and what’s more uses the distancing third-person of public address: ‘Yet Caesar shall go forth’.[12] In fact, he doesn’t say ‘I’ again throughout the rest of the long scene, perhaps in ironic reference to the historical Julius Caesar’s own writings, spectacularly dull accounts of his conquests in which Caesar persistently sings his own praises, and refers to himself in the third person. Our feeling that this is inappropriate, that much is suppressed under this veil of pomp and self-regard, is voiced by Calpurnia: ‘Alas, my lord, / Your wisdom is consumed in confidence.’[13]

Image shows 'The Death of Caesar' by Jean-Léon Gérôme, which shows the aftermath of the assassination.
The aftermath of Caesar’s death, depicted by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

But it is not until the scene of the murder, with which I began, that Shakespeare offers us his most poignant vision of the painful gap between show and feeling, and the humanity of his famous main character. As he is stabbed by those who have conspired against him, Caesar turns to his closest friend and ally, turned traitor, and utters the only complete Latin phrase in Shakespeare’s Roman plays: the now-legendary ‘Et tu, Brute? — Then fall, Caesar.’[14] Dismay at his friend’s betrayal here struggles against a concern to display Stoic acceptance, and an assertion even at the point of death of his own legendary status — for the final time, he repeats his own name.
Julius Caesar painstakingly recorded his own achievements in his lifetime, betraying a concern to write his own story, to fix its interpretation; and in this endeavour, he could be said to have had little success. The authors I’ve looked at here borrow elements from his works, but warp them to present him as terrible, godlike, monstrous — or, in Shakespeare’s case, paradoxically vulnerable. Perhaps, finally, Caesar invites such attention as a literary subject not just because of his impossible conquests and sticky end, but rather because such positive self-assertion invites question, interpretation as doomed, hubristic, violent — at the same time as it demands awe.


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[1] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 3.1.110-116

[2] Suetonius, Life of Caesar 69

[3] Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra 5.2.220-221

[4] Lucan, Pharsalia, translated by Susan Braund (Oxford World’s Classics) 1.150

[5] Ibid 1.185-192

[6] Ibid 1.980

[7] Ibid 1.91

[8] Ibid 1.90

[9] Ibid 1.93-6

[10] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 2.2.28-29

[11] Ibid 2.2.3

[12] Ibid 2.2.28

[13] Ibid 2.2.48-49

[14] Ibid 3.1.77
Image credits: banner; Wilkes Booth; Senate; Battle of Alesia; Pompey; Triumphs of Caesar; Caesar’s death; aftermath