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date: 21 January 2018

Julius Caesar, reception of

Summary and Keywords

The reception of Caesar constitutes, for obvious reasons, an immense topic. As a political idea, Caesar exhibits from the very beginning a tension between his role as dictator and destroyer of the Republic and his standing as the political and military genius who founded the Empire. This contrariety, not least by way of the analytic category of Caesarism, is especially marked in the political discourse of the 19th and 20th centuries. Caesar’s literary reception, though influenced by contemporary political conflicts, is not always tethered to them in straightforward ways. The Caesar of literature is often a reaction to the Caesar of Shakespeare. And there are other important issues: Caesar as a problem in the recovery of authenticity, or Caesar, because he is a canonical author, as a symbol of the conservative claims of the established order. In art, Caesar the god and Caesar the chivalrous king gradually give way to Caesar the slain dictator or Caesar the imperious conqueror. In popular culture, however, Caesar’s manifestations vary wildly: although he continues to register at a political level, he can also signify imperial excess or martial prowess, and he is available as a medium for lampooning the various guises of his own reception.

Keywords: Caesarism, Shakespeare, Enlightenment, Napoleon, Mussolini, fascism, drama, Africa, sculpture, painting

Few figures from antiquity have captivated posterity so profoundly as Gaius Julius Caesar. His reputation has nearly always been equivocal. At the same time, Caesar persists as an urgent, even commanding paradigm—even if one that has always required thinking through. Owing to his familiarity by way of history, literature, and art, Caesar remains immediate—so much so that, in some instances, his complexities can be reduced to certainties, even banalities. No review of Caesar’s reception can hope to be comprehensive or even representative: he is simply too pervasive. Here focus is limited to Caesar as a political idea, a figure in literature and in art, and an element in popular culture.

Caesar as a Political Idea


The Ides of March did nothing to clarify the contrarieties of Caesar’s career, neither his invasion of Italy “in order to restore freedom to the Roman people” (Caes. B.Civ. 1.22) nor his status as father of the fatherland or perpetual dictator. While his assassins styled themselves Liberators and Cicero denounced Caesar as tyrant and parricide of his country (Cic. Off. 3.82–83), the urban masses did not merely grieve for the man but found ways of honouring him as a god. Caesar’s legions clamoured for vengeance, as did Caesarian loyalists in the senatorial order. Social breakdown was averted only when Mark Antony introduced a compromise: Caesar’s murder, the senate decreed, was not a crime, and yet all the dictator’s measures and acts—and future designs—held the force of law. Thus was Caesar’s subsequent reputation permanently infused with paradox.

This dissonance mostly dissolved in the aftermath of Philippi, when the triumvirs—Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian—were united in their opportunistic reverence for Caesar’s memory. The month Quintilis was renamed Iulius, and Caesar divinized as Divus Iulius. Still, even in this environment, Caesar remained an unsimple figure. The historian (and Caesarian) Sallust insisted that his age had yielded only two truly great men: Caesar, and Caesar’s mortal enemy M. Cato, the acknowledged martyr of republican liberty (Sall. Cat. 53.2–54.6). Their extended comparison by Sallust stimulates perplexity but also effectively registers how, notwithstanding the Liberators’ elimination, Caesar’s ambiguous significance persisted.

For the future Augustus, revenge for Caesar’s assassination constituted the justification of his early career (Res Gestae 1–2, recycling Caesar’s language at B.Civ. 1.22). Adopting the name C. Iulius Caesar and later legislating his formal adoption by the deceased dictator, Caesar’s heir became Divi filius, son of Rome’s sole deified statesman. Thereafter his appeal to populace and soldiery alike rarely failed him: Antony complained that he was “a boy who owed everything to a name” (Cic. Phil. 13.24). In this way, Augustus’s civic image became indivisible from Caesar’s. It is, however, argued by some scholars (notably R. Syme in The Roman Revolution, I. Hahn, and E. S. Ramage) that, after the constitutional settlement of 28–27 bce, when Augustus claimed to restore the Republic, the princeps distanced himself from the dictator. Now it is true that Augustus rejected several extraordinary powers held by Caesar. It is also true that, in Augustan literature, whereas Augustus is obsessively revered, Caesar is susceptible to criticism: Livy was permitted to praise Pompey (Tac. Ann. 4.34.3), and Horace (Carm. 2.1.3–4), Tibullus (2.5.71–78), and perhaps the historian Asinius Pollio all saw in Caesar’s First Triumvirate the origins of civil war; in Virgil’s underworld, it is Caesar whom Anchises beseeches to lay down his arms (Aen. 6.834–835), while on Aeneas’s shield Cato is lawgiver to the blessed dead (Aen. 8.670). Still, there is no obvious reason to discern in these actions or passages a policy designed to downgrade Caesar’s reputation.

It is clear from Augustus’s coinage, for instance, that Caesar continued to play a positive role in Augustan ideology. Caesar persisted as Divus Iulius (e.g. RIC I2, nos. 37 and 38; 415) and Augustus remained Divi filius (e.g. RIC I2, nos. 290–292, 518–520), even when his coinage (Figure 1) also made reference to his adopted sons (e.g. RIC I2, nos. 198–199, 205–211). The Forum Iulium occupied a key place amongst the city’s lieux de mémoire, as did the temple of Divus Iulius, which supplied Augustus and future emperors with a suitable rostrum for addressing the people. Augustus’s own forum focused on the temple to Mars Ultor, the god who fostered the Liberators’ destruction, and within this temple stood an image of Divus Iulius. Furthermore, every year from 20 to 30 July Romans celebrated the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris. Under Augustus, Caesar was not discounted. Instead, he continued multipurpose, at once the destroyer of the Republic through his usurpation of supreme power and, owing to the deliverance of Rome achieved by his son, the heroic conqueror and genius whose superhuman virtue was, in the end, foundational to imperial Rome.

Julius Caesar, reception of

Figure 1. Silver denarius of Augustus, Caesaraugusta, 19–18 bce. Obv: Head of Augustus, oak-wreathed, r. Legend: CAESAR AVGVSTVS. Rev: Comet with eight rays and tail. Legend: DIVVS IVLIVS. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Courtesy of Classical Numismatics Group, Inc.

Imperial nostalgia for the Republic intensified this tension. It was impossible for Romans not to admire Caesar’s brilliance, his leadership, his clemency, or his military greatness—nor could they fail to recognize how, through his reformation of the calendar, Caesar had ushered in a new epoch. And yet the same Romans revered the memory of Cicero, Cato, and Brutus, men whose ideals subsisted even if their proponents had found themselves on the wrong side of history. This conflict, fundamental to imperial ideology, animated Roman (and later) reflections on Caesar.

Thus Lucan’s Caesar is the incarnation of energy in a world succumbing to aristocratic inertia. Yet his is a destructive will to power, repellent to Cato even if favoured by the gods and adored by Caesar’s fanatical legions. Looking back, some Romans saw in Caesar’s dictatorship the indispensible cure for the Republic’s ills, a development ruthlessly frustrated by the betrayal of the assassins; others, however, saw instead a tyranny righteously cut down by the Liberators, the true cure coming in the form of Augustus’s principate.

Nevertheless, Caesar was history’s turning point. This is made clear by the strikingly disproportionate attention he received in the works of imperial historians and biographers, even in relatively concise accounts like that of Velleius Paterculus or Appian’s Civil War. Even Cassius Dio, who covered nearly a millennium of Roman history in eighty books, devoted a tenth of his work (books 37–44) to the period of Caesar’s rise to power. For imperial Romans, Caesar was almost never a one-dimensional figure: for the elder Pliny, he was the culmination of human intelligence (HN 7.91), yet he also inflicted grievous injury on humankind by way of his slaughter in Gaul (HN 7.92); Suetonius installs Caesar as the first of the emperors, but concedes that he, like Domitian, was justly slain (Suet. Iul. 76.1).

With time, however, Caesar’s centrality diminished. In late antiquity, his talents and deeds, when they were adduced, served mostly to exhibit the superiority of contemporary rulers. For Christian writers, Caesar’s place as first of the emperors was unquestionable—and irrelevant: the essential turning point in history was now Rome’s transition from paganism to Christianity, a perspective that concentrated not on Caesar but on Constantine.

Medieval Europe

By way of his name, Caesar bestowed on eastern and western Europe alike a vital denomination for legitimate rulers. After the disintegration of Roman power in the west, the Holy Roman emperors took up the designation Caesar, or Kaiser. The name persisted in the imperial nomenclature of the Byzantine empire, whence it was diffused through eastern peoples and principalities (ultimately furnishing Slavic monarchs with the title Czar). For Christians in medieval Europe, Rome was the fourth world empire prophesied by Daniel (Dan. 2:40–43), and Caesar was its founder. Thus Caesar was God’s instrument for the fulfilment of his divine plan. Which helps to explain why, although Lucan (and commentaries on Lucan drawn from other ancient sources) provided the most familiar classical account of Caesar during this period, his reputation remained largely untarnished. Instead, he became a model of chivalry and a specimen of the ideal king, combining political authority with martial valour. As such, he supplied welcome validation to contemporary rulers.

It is in this guise that Caesar triumphs over Britain: the poet Wace, in his 12th-century Roman de Brut, extols the courage of the Britons but emphasises Caesar’s chivalry and learning. In Lazamon’s Brut, Caesar prefigures Arthur. He was similarly celebrated by the French, sometimes fantastically: in the 13th-century French epic Huon de Bordeaux, Caesar fathers the fairy king Auberon on Morgan Le Fay. For the Germans, whose Holy Roman Empire looked back to Caesar as its first emperor, the Roman was nothing less than the ideal ruler who brought civilisation to Europe, a perspective that appears as early as the 11th-century Annolied and recurs in the 12th-century Kaiserchronik.

But at no time has Caesar been an unsimple figure. In the 13th-century Li Fet des Romains, which draws on multiple classical sources, although Caesar again embodies every chivalric virtue, he departs from his best self on account of his selfish ambition. Here Caesar’s contest with the senators of Rome reflects the uneven struggle of contemporary French aristocrats with Philip II (1165–1223). This conflict and its potential for a satisfactory resolution inform this work’s representation of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul: Vercingetorix is leader of his people by election, and his courage in confronting Caesar prompts the Roman toward an honourable settlement with his new French subjects.

A strain of open disapproval, in reaction to Caesar’s usurpation of power, persisted even in this period, for instance in John of Salisbury and Thomas Aquinas. Still, in most respects it is Dante’s depiction of Caesar’s story that is characteristic of the time. Unbaptized, Caesar remains amongst the virtuous in Limbo (Inferno 4.123), while in Paradise Justinian offers his praises of the man’s exploits (Paradiso 6.55–72). As for the Liberators, Brutus and Cassius—like Judas—suffer painful damnation in Hell, in the very maw of Satan (Inferno 34.61–67; cf. Paradiso 6.74: Bruto con Cassio ne l’inferno latra).

Renaissance Europe

The Italian Renaissance brought to light numerous fresh witnesses to Caesar’s career, all, owing to their antiquity, deemed important authorities in their own right. The most important were Cicero’s letters and the histories of Tacitus, whose harsh assessment of imperial Rome could hardly fail to affect contemporary verdicts on Caesar’s role in founding the empire. In addition to Suetonius’s widely consulted biography, Plutarch’s Caesar, as well as his other late republican lives, became available in Italian translation. And when Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) succeeded in demonstrating that Caesar—not Julius Celsus—was the author of the Commentarii, it became possible for readers to engage directly with the eloquence and acumen of the great man.

The Commentarii rapidly became texts for the improvement of one’s Latin style, especially after the discovery in 1421 of Cicero’s Brutus and its lavish praise for their purity and charm (Brut. 262). Caesar’s writings soon turned into vehicles for learning about Gallic history and the geography of Europe—and about the technicalities of engineering and military tactics. The chief reason for reading Caesar, however, lay in the possibility of re-creating his valour and clear thinking. Consequently, Caesar continued to be a model for princes, but now by way of a suitably classical education.

A few humanists, in reaction to the Commentarii, took up the genre as a medium for contemporary historiography. The poet Giannantonio de Pandoni (also known as il Porcellio, 1409–1485) composed a prose Commentaria covering the war waged by Venice against Milan (1452–1453). Francesco Contarini (1421–1460) wrote Commentarii recounting his service as a Venetian diplomat. These works had little in common with Caesar’s apart from their titles and their concentration on contemporary eyewitness narrative. Despite Caesar’s reputation as a menace to republican values, there was clearly something to be gained from a literary perspective by associating one’s own historical account with Caesar’s commentaries. Bartolomeo Facio (1410–1457), a court historian in Naples, although he did not employ the title commentarii, endeavoured to reproduce elements of Caesar’s Latin style in his account of the career of Alfonso I of Naples (r. 1448–1455), thereby shedding classicizing lustre on the expansionist ambitions of the Neapolitan king.

It is against this background that one must read the remarkable Commentarii of Pope Pius II (1405–1464), in which work Pius fuses autobiography with history (military, political, ecclesiastical). Like his predecessors, Pius appropriates his model mostly by way of his title, but he goes further by frequently portraying himself as a man of action in the cast of Caesar. He strives for order and Italian unity in the perturbations affecting the western church, especially the Papal States and the conflicts between them and their enemies, exertions he can, by way of his Caesarian posture, associate with Caesar’s victories in the Civil War. Through this work Pius offers posterity a defence which is, like Caesar’s, at once self-aggrandizing and apologetic.

Caesar’s status as an ideal ruler remained contentious. Internecine European wars over religion and conflict between Italian principalities vividly recalled the horrors of the Romans’ civil wars and consequently focused attention on Caesar’s morally dubious role in starting them. In the case of the Italian republics, like Florence and Venice, Caesar’s dictatorship rendered his political ambitions distinctly unattractive. By contrast, he was an appealing antecedent for the Medici and other autocrats who aspired to play the part of an able and legitimate ruler. A consistent take on Caesar proved elusive: early on, Petrarch was hostile to Caesar, an attitude he reversed in his maturity; in his Discorsi, Machiavelli complained of Caesar’s destructive consequences for the Republic, whereas in his Dell’arte della guerra he was dazzled by Caesar’s genius; for Montaigne, Caesar was a man of authentic virtue and capacity, but these gifts were corrupted by his will to power.

The Enlightenment

In the 18th century, Caesar remained available as an emblem of traditional and absolute monarchy, attractive for his military talent and high culture. In the thinking of contemporary philosophes, however, Caesar was deemed something more extraordinary than that; for them, he was an enlightened despot devoted to imposing efficient social reforms, a perspective that nonetheless forced them to find some means of reconciling Caesar’s genius with his proclivity for tyranny and with the violence of civil strife. Not all could: Montesquieu ultimately dismissed Caesar as a usurper hostile to liberty.1 But the nimble Voltaire, though sharply aware of Caesar’s shortcomings,2 found in the Roman the essential features of the roi-philosophe and a precursor to Frederick the Great.3

For Louis XIV, however, like the restoration Stuarts, it was Augustus and the expectation of sustained stability that attracted—not Caesar. City-states in Italy and northern Europe continued to remember Caesar as a menace to republican values. Joseph Addison’s Cato enshrined Caesar’s mortal enemy as the darling of Whig sentiment, and it was also Cato whom the American colonists embraced, for reasons of their own. Always multifaceted, in this period Caesar was again perceived as a threat to liberty and as a potential catalyst for political perturbation.

The French Revolution

The French Revolution, wonderful and terrible, in its frenzied striving after liberté and the institutionalisation of volonté générale naturally preferred Brutus to Caesar. Similarly, in America, even after its successful break from Britain, Caesar (and Catiline) symbolized the fundamental peril facing any republic: the rise of a demagogue who, exploiting the claims of popular sovereignty, might seize autocratic power. This is the common shorthand significance of Caesar in The Federalist Papers and much subsequent American political discourse. Thomas Jefferson was dubbed a Caesar by his opponents,4 and in the 19th century the populist president (and popular military figure) Andrew Jackson, though celebrated by his supporters as a champion of democracy, was denounced by enemies as demagogue, king—and Caesar.

In France, the Revolution soon collapsed into Napoleonic autocracy when the general’s coup d’état found legitimacy through plebiscites transforming the usurper into First Consul. Napoleon eschewed the symbolism of Caesar, but contemporaries, whether they admired or dreaded Napoleon, detected in his energetic talent and martial ambitions a reprise of the first emperor’s genius. Only in defeat did Napoleon press the identification, in his Précis des guerres de Jules César, in which he endeavoured to inscribe his superiority over Caesar in military matters. About Caesar the politician, Napoleon said little.

By contrast, Napoleon III penned a respectable and adoring biography of Caesar, Histoire de Jules César (1865–1866), which emphasised Roman imperialism and advanced Caesar’s career to his crossing of the Rubicon. Napoleon III had seized power by way of his own coup d’état, code-named opération Rubicon, and his regime was never shy about identifying its brand of authoritarianism predicated on plebiscite with Caesar’s popular dictatorship. Nor were its enemies, and Caesarism emerged as a fresh denomination in political science, usually employed in challenging the legitimacy of any military dictatorship claiming legitimacy through popular support and exhibiting international aggression.

At first not much more than a synonym for Bonapartism, Caesarism quickly became, and remains, a (contested) analytic category for assessing the exploitation of popular passion by autocratic governments. Political theorists so varied as Bagehot and Marx took up the idea. For Max Weber, Caesarism constituted a recurring but manageable feature in any mass democracy: charismatic leadership and popular participation, in his view, need not lead inexorably to demagogy. But the danger persisted. Commanding figures like Gladstone in Great Britain or Bismarck in Germany, as well as commanding institutions like the American presidency, were, for Weber, all manifestations of Caesarism that did not descend into Bonapartism. In this atmosphere, charged with thrill and anxiety over great men and their place on the contemporary political scene, the reputation of Caesar enjoyed a notable resurgence. A Romantic like Byron could hardly resist Caesar’s “fatal genius,” and Caesar inspired the enthusiasm of such disparate figures as Nietzsche and Mommsen, whose profoundly admiring portrayal of the man in his Nobel Prize-winning Römische Geschichte continues to influence modern sensibilities regarding Caesar.

The 20th and 21st Centuries

In the revolutions and usurpations of 20th-century Europe, Caesar was rarely a conspicuous reference point, notwithstanding works like Mirko Jelusich’s Caesar (1929), a specimen of Nazi-oriented literature in which the Roman displayed all the attractions of a strong-man ruler. The obvious exception was Fascist Italy. Mussolini’s regime embraced its characterization as Caesarist, and Il Duce was routinely and favourably compared with Caesar, whose nearly superhuman status was deemed undeniable. Anti-fascists, as a consequence, like the communist Antonio Gramsci or the historian Guglielmo Ferrero, reacted by attacking the concept of Caesarism and the historical significance of the flesh-and-bone Caesar. Outside Italy, however, Bonapartism, not Caesarism, remained the preferred charge against overreaching political figures.

The superpower status of the United States in the aftermath of World War II, in conjunction with a perception of geopolitical decline on the part of Europe, nurtured comparisons between the Roman empire and the American one, an important and influential orientation even when based on unhistorical or superficial arguments. If the United States is another Rome, so runs this analogy, then its president, an office already viewed by Weber as a Caesarist institution, must be another Caesar. Sometimes at issue in this identification is anxiety about an imperial presidency but, more often, it is consternation regarding American imperialism. Hence the roll call of American Caesars has included presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Johnson, and Nixon, as well as both presidents Bush. Comparisons with Caesar persist: President Obama was dubbed by his political opponents another Andrew Jackson (himself an American Caesar) and another Caesar. This tag, although commonplace in commentary about the American presidency, occurs in other contexts: it has also been attached to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, not only on account of controversies attending his policies but also because he is reckoned by many to resemble surviving busts of Julius Caesar. What is unclear is whether these deployments of Caesar, most of which are in the service of caricature or denunciation, reflect the continuing robustness of Caesar’s political relevance or are little more than vestigial reactions to perceived imperiousness. They seem designed to close down, not to engage with, the complexities and incompatibilities or even the depth of feeling associated with Caesar’s earlier political receptions.

Caesar in Literature and Film

Caesar found a place in literature during his own lifetime. Varro Atacinus, M. Furius Bibaculus, and even Cicero celebrated his military achievements in epic poetry, while others—Calvus and especially Catullus—savaged him in hostile versification. His was an important presence, as we have seen, in Augustan literature, and Caesar certainly dominates Lucan’s influential epic. In early European literature, Caesar appears as a model of chivalry and the object of emulation for wise rulers. In 1520, for instance, François Demoulin recast Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum into French as a dialogue between Francis I (1494–1547), freshly victorious over the Swiss and hopeful of becoming Holy Roman emperor (and thus a secund Caesar), and Caesar himself, premier subjugateur des helveces. When Francis asks what qualities make an emperor great, Caesar responds, “celles que iavoys” (“those which I had”). Still, as we have observed of Li Fet des Romaines, Caesar was also available as a means for interrogating the contemporary political situation—and for interrogating matters of even greater profundity: Milton, in Paradise Lost, makes ample use of Lucan’s Caesar in crafting his own version of Satan.

The dramatic quality of Caesar’s adventurous life has never gone overlooked, and throughout Europe Caesar was brought on stage, mostly to replay his part in the Catilinarian conspiracy or the Civil War (as vanquisher of Pompey or Cleopatra’s lover) or to fall victim to his assassins. His part was not always a wholesome one. In Voltaire’s Catilina, ou Rome Sauvée, to take a single example, although it is Cicero who rescues Rome from Catiline, he fails to eliminate Caesar, who is the real danger to the Republic. Plays rehearsing the Civil War tend to focus on Caesar’s conduct as victor; sometimes he is a blustering bully, at others he is all too smitten by Cleopatra, a theme that harks back to Caesar’s reputation for womanizing (e.g. Suet. Iul. 50–52). A key moment in many versions of Caesar’s victory occurs when he reacts to Pompey’s death: whether or not his grief is sincere (another trace of Lucan’s Caesar) signals his true character. When the subject is Caesar’s death, because the dramatist can attend to the motives and personalities of the assassins, there is ample opportunity for highlighting Caesar’s familiar complexities and for addressing contemporary political questions.

Corneille’s influential La mort de Pompée (1644) furnished the circumstance of the Civil War with a truly chivalrous Caesar. This Caesar, confronted in Egypt by both Cleopatra and Pompey’s widow Cornelia, each of whom develops deep feelings for Caesar, remains decorous and gallant in his treatment of both. At the same time, he displays resolute leadership and clear-headed statesmanship. Corneille’s play inspired Handel’s opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724), very much a love story, as well as Colley Cibber’s Caesar in Aegypt (1725), whose Caesar is a political realist and, notwithstanding a brief affair with Cleopatra, perfectly willing to hand her over to Antony. It has sensibly been suggested that Cibber’s play, a failure in its day, was nonetheless useful in the development of Shaw’s intimidatingly rational Caesar in his Caesar and Cleopatra (1898).

No literary treatment of Caesar excels Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in influence or durability. For his Caesar, Shakespeare turned to the Roman biographies of Plutarch in their English translation by Thomas North (who translated not Plutarch’s Greek, but the French translation by Jacques Amyot). Shakespeare was very much influenced by the dramatic qualities of Plutarch’s biographies, and by the complicated personalities and moral situations they throw up for the reader’s contemplation. Plutarch’s variegated Caesar, seen from varying perspectives owing to the changing focus of his late republican Lives, offered Shakespeare an ideally discordant, conflicted, and provocative figure, the very stuff of moral uncertainty and political antagonism. Ambition, conspiracy, and political anxiety provoked by the fragility of an aging monarch: these themes pervade Julius Caesar and all resonated in 1599, as did the perpetual debate over the qualities essential to the just use of authority or violence. Shakespeare’s Caesar, surely now the most recognizable of Caesars, captures the complications of the man and his situation: exhibiting grandeur and vulnerability, he stimulates envy and love—and ideological scrutiny—as he plays the part of himself.

The importance of Shakespeare’s play can scarcely be exaggerated on account of both its adaptations and its many reinterpretations by way of productions or translations. An early example is Voltaire’s La mort de César (1733), a creative rewriting of Shakespeare emphasizing the conflict between will to power and ideological rigidity. In colonial America, the heroes of Shakespeare’s play were the Liberators and Caesar became shorthand for Great Britain and therefore an unambiguous token of tyranny. This simplified reception of the play entrained a persistent American conception of Caesar. When John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln, he imagined himself playing the part of Brutus. Julius Caesar: The Death of a Dictator was the title of Orson Welles’s 1937 production of the play, in which Caesar became a contemporary fascist and Brutus an ultimately ineffectual liberal, a powerful contemporary exhortation to the American political class. Joseph Mankiewicz, in his 1953 film of Julius Caesar, supplied an exhortation of a different nature. Reacting to the sensibilities of the Cold War and animated by anti-McCarthyism, this version reimagined Rome as modern America, abandoning any suggestion of Italian fascism: Caesar regains his complexity—he is threatening but able and charismatic—as do the Liberators, who, although they enact conventional American values, also provoke contemporary fears of revolutionary conspiracy.

In Africa, Julius Caesar has long resonated among its anticolonial elites, with Caesar once again an embodiment of oppression. The now celebrated “Robben Island Bible,” for instance, a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works that circulated secretly amongst South African political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, inspired the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012 to set Julius Caesar in an unidentified, apparently West African country. Thomas Decker’s 1964 Juliohs Siza is a translation into Kria, the Creole lingua franca of Sierra Leone; his play employs Caesar as an expression of the wrongs of British rule and, by way of the play’s translation into a national language of Sierra Leone, asserted itself as an expression of independence. At the same time, however, Juliohs Siza remains aware of its status as a reflex of colonial influence. Not Caesar, then, so much as Shakespeare’s Caesar is the vital cultural point of reference in this act of reception.

George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra provides a sharp reaction to Shakespeare. Shaw’s Caesar, although not conspicuously heroic, is nevertheless a genuine superman, supremely calculating and entirely lacking in sentimentality. Like Corneille’s Caesar, this version leaves Cleopatra unmolested, but this is owing to political practicality instead of gallantry. Here the intricacies and mysteries of Caesar are replaced by a constancy rooted in ruthless reasonableness. Shaw’s Caesar (not his Cleopatra) is reprised in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 film Cleopatra. This film’s Caesar does engage in an affair with the Egyptian queen, but, at least initially, does so for strategic reasons (in the end, however, romance intervenes). Shaw’s Caesar, by way of Mankiewicz’s, also contributes to the restrained realism characterizing the Caesar of HBO Rome’s general and dictator (2005).

Not every Caesar is a superman, or even a great man. Bertolt Brecht’s Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar, begun in 1938 when the author was in exile in Denmark but continued over several years (and published posthumously), maps the social ills of the Weimar Republic onto the crises of the late Roman Republic. The novel’s narrator, an ancient Roman historian researching the career of Caesar and adhering to the Rankian prescription to record only what actually happened, bases his account of the man mostly on financial documents; thus the novel makes the Marxist point that economics is the real stuff of Roman and therefore German political history. Brecht demystifies Caesar by depicting him as nothing more than an ambitious politician scrambling to gain control of Rome’s finances and thereby to exploit the destabilizing class conflicts of the time. Brecht’s Caesar is hardly a great man, and his rise to power represents an unsavoury paradigm for contemporary European dictators.

Although a mirror for princes in earlier days, by the 20th century Caesar’s Commentarii became, for most readers, an elementary school text, often an obligatory and unavoidable one. During the 1960s, a period in which nearly every aspect of American education was tested for its relevance, the place of Latin in the school curriculum was a contestable one. In C. D. B. Bryan’s 1962 short story “So Much the Unfairness of Things,” first published in The New Yorker and still studied in many American schools, fourteen-year-old P.J., a pupil in a venerable Southern school that reeks of tradition, is stymied by his inability to pass Latin. The matter is distressful because generations of his family have attended the same school and have made their way through the same Latin course. In the end, P.J. cheats on his final examination, an action clearly out of character, is discovered, and expelled. This crisis, although it ruptures a revered family tradition, awakens P.J.’s father to the reality that his relationship with his son has been distant and unsatisfactory. The text that undoes P.J. is B.Gall. 2.22, the final line of which (itaque in tanta rerum iniquitate fortunae quoque eventus varii sequebantur) P.J., despite cheating, mistranslates: “Therefore, against so much unfairness of things, various consequences ensued.” For P.J. it is the pointless but hallowed ritual of passing Latin—in the story, no one, not even the school staff, regards reading Caesar as valuable for its own sake—that constitutes the unfairness of things. Here Caesar is neither good nor evil; he is a manifestation of an established tradition that only matters because it always has done so, consequential (for the wrong reasons) but otherwise irrelevant.

Caesar continues to populate historical novels, not always as a central character and not always to an epoch-defining purpose, which is the case, for instance, in the novels of Steven Saylor or even Robert Harris’s bestselling trilogy Imperium (2006), Lustrum (2009), and Dictator (2015). In works like these, Caesar, however talented or cunning or charismatic, is introduced mostly as the man of action, in politics and warfare. So, too, in popularizing biographies of Caesar, the proliferation of which shows no sign of abating; even when written by distinguished classicists, their focus is typically placed on the adventurous aspects of the Roman’s career.

The difficulties involved in attempting to recover the authentic Caesar provide, in themselves, substance for literature and film. Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March (1943) is organized along the lines of a modern-day sourcebook, assembling (mostly) fictitious texts and documents, in translation and with light annotation, and closing with Suetonius’s account of Caesar’s assassination. Notwithstanding the dictator’s unmistakable fascist colouring—he employs a bureaucratized secret police—the novel leaves it to its readers to extrapolate their own account of Caesar; the evidence, such as it is, requires integration and interpretation. Similar issues are raised, from a very different perspective, in Walter Jens’s popular television drama Der Verschwörung (1969), in which Caesar is not merely complicit in his assassination but becomes its mastermind, scripting his death and its aftermath. Thus the great man escapes the vulnerability of his declining health and becomes author of the very complexities that elevate him to legendary status.

Caesar in Art

The divinization of Caesar entrained immediate choices regarding his iconography: how should the god be distinguished from the man? After some early experimentation, two distinct images emerged, Divus Iulius finding form as a semi-nude divinity, an image of the divine Caesar carefully contrived so as to avoid any confusion with his portraiture as a general and statesman. It is in some ways a mark of its success that, during the imperial period, this image of Divus Iulius became banalized in municipal portraiture when it was adopted by local aristocrats aspiring to heroic self-representation.

As one of the canonical Twelve Caesars or Nine Worthies, Caesar’s portrait was pervasive in medieval and early modern Europe. He is typically bearded and conforms with contemporary expectations of chivalrous princes. The Italian Renaissance preferred Caesar in triumph. Of such depictions, the most famous is The Triumphs of Caesar (1484–1492), a sequence of paintings by Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) now at Hampton Court (Figure 2). Mantegna’s paintings, through their appropriation of Caesar’s glory, celebrated the pretensions of the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Bronzes and sculptures also lent Caesarian lustre to contemporary reputations, even the most exalted: Nicolas Coustou’s Jules César, a larger-than-life statue commissioned in 1696 for the palace at Versaille (and now in the Louvre), exhibits Caesar as general and statesman and therefore exemplary of the virtues of French monarchy (Figure 3).

Julius Caesar, reception of

Figure 2. Andrea Mantegna, The Triumphs of Caesar: 9. Caesar on his Chariot, tempera on canvas, c.1484–1492.

Royal Collection, Hampton Court Palace. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Julius Caesar, reception of

Figure 3. Nicolas Coustou, Jules César, marble, 1696. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Also popular were representations of Caesar’s assassination, even in unexpected contexts. A painting of the death and funeral of Caesar, attributed to Apollonio di Giovanni (1415–1465) and now in the Ashmolean, decorated a marriage chest. Political relevance is more conspicuous in the often-reproduced Morte di Giulio Cesare of Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844), painted in 1798 (now in Naples) or in La mort de César (1859–1867) by J.-L. Gérôme, currently in the Walters Gallery of Baltimore.

Perhaps the most famous painting of Caesar is Vercingétorix jette ses armes aux pieds de César (1899) by Lionel Royer (1852–1926), now in Puy-en-Valay (Figure 4). Here Caesar is seated, a glowering conqueror, but he is upstaged by his Gallic opponent, who, lofty and on horseback, strikes a glorious pose despite the condition of his defeat. The painting remains a stunning statement of French nationalism. This image, although an adornment of the Third Republic, reprised a central theme of Napoleon III’s version of Caesarism: in 1861, Napoleon sponsored archaeological excavations at Alise-Sainte-Reine in order to unearth the ancient Alesia, and in 1865 a colossal bronze statue of Vercingetorix by Aimé Millet (1819–1891), the features of which recalled Napoleon’s, was erected on the site. This grand statue celebrates the heroism of Vercingetorix, here associated with Napoleon III’s virtues and reign, even as it concedes the reality of Caesar the conqueror. On the base, furnished with Caesar’s own quotation of Vercingetorix (Caes. B.Gall. 7.29, translated on the base as La Gaulie unie/formant une seule nation/animée d’un meme esprit/peut défier l’Univers), it is also announced that the emperor of the French dedicates this monument to the memory of Vercingetorix. Millet assimilates his Caesarian emperor with France’s great hero. Royer, by disambiguating this aspect of Napoleon’s Caesarism, figures his Caesar and his Caesar’s significance in the Third Republic very differently.

Julius Caesar, reception of

Figure 4. Lionel Royer, Vercingétorix jette ses armes aux pieds de César, oil on canvas, 1899. Musée Crozatier, Puy-en-Velay. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar in Popular Culture

Caesar remains pervasive in popular culture, a context in which his instant recognisability seems sometimes to trump his potential for provocation or suggestiveness. In the original Star Trek series (1966–1969), for example, both Kirk and Spock, in different episodes, bundle Caesar together with Hitler in catalogues of men seeking power and immortality (“What are Little Girls Made of?,” 20 October 1966; “Patterns of Force,” 16 February 1968). Caesar’s militarism is referenced in numerous computer games. He lends his name to an array of firms and products (though not the Caesar salad, which is named for its inventor, Caesar Cardini). And he becomes a symbol for imperial decadence in and through his association with Las Vegas’s Caesars Palace. The same register of over-the-top luxury is on view in the 2014 video Julius Caesar by the international hip-hop artist French Montana; the video is clearly inspired by Caesars Palace, and its imagery, which features glamorous and exotic locations, recurs more than once to the Prima Porta statue of Augustus (also a fixture of Caesars Palace): here Julius Caesar operates exclusively as an immediately grasped signal of excess on an imperial scale. By contrast, AC/DC’s 1994 video Hail Caesar, despite its zany amalgamation of excerpts from both toga and sandal films and science fiction movies (featuring giant creatures, like King Kong), delivers a plain if perhaps retrospective political message. The band performs on a faux-fascist platform before an audience of faux-fascist, regimented fans: as they chant the refrain (“hail Caesar”), the viewer sees recurring clips of Margaret Thatcher (once with Ronald Reagan), and Thatcher’s is the last image one sees as the video concludes.

Science fiction and fantasy often offer robust takes on Caesar. The commanding chimpanzee of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) is a Caesar who acquired his name by way of Shakespeare’s play and subsequently finds himself responsible for managing an unstable and violent political environment. In Xena, Warrior Princess (Season Two, 1996–1997), Caesar combines sex appeal and treachery: in a rehearsal of Caesar’s capture by pirates (Vell. 2.41–42; Suet. Iul. 4; Plut. Caes. 2.1–2), Xena, although she is Caesar’s benefactor, is crucified by the Roman (“Destiny,” 27 January 1997). Ultimately she is rescued by her fellow warrior Gabrielle, and subsequently devotes herself to championing the innocent—especially vulnerable women. Again, Caesar registers Roman power and ruthlessness but also exhibits a beguiling fusion of talent, ambition, and misleading masculine beauty.

Among the most familiar and intelligent parodies of Caesar and Caesarism is the French comic series The Adventures of Asterix. In the contest between Asterix and Caesar, much fun is made of French and especially British culture, but also of imperialist ambitions. Notwithstanding the sheer might of Rome’s military forces and although Caesar is absolutely frightening to everyone else, he and his forces remain woefully inadequate whenever they come up against Asterix and the Gauls. Another well-known parody is the 1964 film Carry on Cleo, in which viewers discover an imaginary Rome defined mostly by Shakespeare, Hollywood movies, and contemporary social anxieties. Here a posh, swishy, incompetent Caesar is alternately managed and subverted by a rugged, manly, working-class Mark Antony in a comic story that ends happily for everyone—except Caesar, who is, after several false starts throughout the film, finally assassinated. This Caesar does little to interrogate issues of imperialism or will to power; his failure to be anything other than a failed Caesar instead draws comic attention to the legendary qualities so frequently attending later receptions of Julius Caesar.

Discussion of the Literature

The starting point for all discussion of Caesar’s reception is now Karl Christ’s Caesar: Annäherungen an einen Diktator (1994), which provides a superb survey of (largely European and American) appropriations and important critical examinations of Caesar. In Part V of Miriam Griffin’s edited volume A Companion to Julius Caesar (2009), a series of chapters under the rubric “Caesar’s Place in History” supply concise but deeply informative accounts of Caesar’s reception (again mostly in European and American history and literature) from the medieval period through the 21st century. In this same volume, Barbara Levick (“Caesar’s Political and Military Legacy to the Roman Emperors”) and Mark Toher (“Augustan and Tiberian Literature”) make it clear how central a figure Caesar remained during the age of Augustus, and in a typically learned chapter by Timothy Barnes (“The First Emperor: The View of Late Antiquity”) there is a close examination of Caesar’s varying significations in the western empire. Stimulating and nuanced discussions of various facets of Caesar’s reception, ranging through literature and art and political discourse and sundry manifestations of popular culture, can be found in the works of Maria Wyke, especially in Caesar: A Life in Western Culture (2007). Much work, however, remains to be done. This is most conspicuously the case with respect to Caesar’s reception outside Europe and North America.

Further Reading

Baehr, Peter. Caesar and the Fading of the Roman World: A Study in Republicanism and Caesarism. New Brunswick: Transaction, 1998.Find this resource:

Caulker, Tcho Mbaimaba. “Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Sierra Leone: Thomas Decker’s Juliohs Siza, Roman Politics, and the Emergence of a Postcolonial African State.” Research in African Literatures 40 (2009): 208–227.Find this resource:

Christ, Karl. Caesar: Annäherungen an einen Diktator. Munich: Beck, 1994.Find this resource:

Cyrino, Monica S. Big Screen Rome. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.Find this resource:

Daniell, David. Julius Caesar. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.Find this resource:

Griffin, Miriam, ed. A Companion to Julius Caesar. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.Find this resource:

Gundolf, Friedrich. Caesar: Geschichte seines Ruhms. Berlin: Georg Bondi, 1924.Find this resource:

Gundolf, Friedrich. Caesar im Neunzehnten Jahrhundert. Berlin: Georg Bondi, 1926.Find this resource:

Gundolf, Friedrich. The Mantle of Caesar. Translated by Jacob W. Hartmann. New York: Vanguard, 1928.Find this resource:

Hahn, I. “Augustus und das politische Vermächtnis Caesars.” Klio 67 (1985): 12–28.Find this resource:

Joshel, Sandra R., Martha Malamud, and Donald T. McGuire, Jr., eds. Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Mensching, Eckart. Caesar und die Germanen im 20. Jahrhundert: Bemerkungen zum Nachleben des Bellum Gallicum in deutschsprachigen Texten. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980.Find this resource:

O’Brien, Emily. “Arms and Letters: Julius Caesar, the Commentaries of Pope Pius II, and the Politicization of Papal Imagery.” Renaissance Quarterly 62 (2009): 1057–1097.Find this resource:

Orking, Martin. Shakespeare against Apartheid. Craighall, South Africa: Ad Donker, 1987.Find this resource:

Pelling, Christopher. “Seeing a Roman Tragedy through Greek Eyes.” In Sophocles and the Greek Tragic Tradition. Edited by Simon Goldhill and Edith Hall, 264–288. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Ramage, Edwin S. “Augustus’ Treatment of Julius Caesar.” Historia 34 (1985): 223–245.Find this resource:

Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, s.v. “Iulius 131.”Find this resource:

Syme, Ronald. The Roman Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939.Find this resource:

Wyke, Maria, ed. Julius Caesar in Western Culture. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.Find this resource:

Wyke, Maria. Caesar: A Life in Western Culture. London: Granta, 2007.Find this resource:

Wyke, Maria. Caesar in the USA. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu, Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur de Romains et de leur decadence (Paris, 1734).

(2.) E.g., Oeuvres historiques: Histoire de Charles XII, livre second.

(3.) E.g., Oeuvres historiques: Précis du siècle de Louis XIV, chaps. 17 and 42.

(4.) Harold C. Syrett, ed., Papers of Alexander Hamilton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961–1987), “Catullus No. III,” September 29, 1792, vol. 12, 500–501, 504–505; Hamilton to Unidentified Correspondent, September 26, 1792, vol. 12, 480. See also Carl J. Richard, “The Classical Roots of the American Founding,” in The American Founding: Its Intellectual and Moral Framework, eds. Daniel N. Robinson and Richard N. Williams (London: Continuum, 2012), 42.

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