Julius Caesar Notes

Some Background Information 
for Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

Check this article on the very controversial 2017 production of Julius Caesar at New York's Public Theater. Another article on this play discusses why satire is necessary.


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Augustus (Octavius) Caesar
A Horribly Brief History of Julius Caesar:  The famous 1953 film of Julius Caesar directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, begins with this quote attributed to Plutarch's Lives, which Shakespeare used as a source for his Roman plays: "Upon Caesar's return to Rome, after defeating Pompey in the civil war, his countrymen chose him a fourth time counsel and then dictator for life...Thus he became odious to moderate men through the extravagance of the titles and powers that were heaped upon him."  (Of course you will also want to check out the Thug Notes edition for this play.)

Prior to the action of this play, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus took charge of  Republican Rome as a Triumvirate – Caesar went on to massive conquests in Western Europe and Britain. (We’ll get back to him later.) When Crassus dies, the Roman Senate asks Pompey and Caesar to lay down their armies and yield to Republican rule. Caesar refuses, famously crosses the Rubicon river to enter Rome with his army, and takes charge. The rest is history. (BTW, check out what Cleopatra is up to during this whole mess. Note: She is the Pharaoh of Egypt at this time and will have children with both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Shakespeare will later take her and Antony’s thread in Antony and Cleopatra.) Octavius will become Caesar Augustus, one of Rome’s mightiest rulers and the first Roman Emperor.  If you know nothing of Julius Caesar, you really should read about him before you go to college. Check out the National Geographic video or read about him in Wikipedia


The Colosseum -- Built around 70 AD
Consuls: Rulers of Rome during the Republic. Two were elected to serve for a year
Curia: Administrative group. Citizens were supposed to belong to one.
Tribune: Representative of the people.
Plebeians: Common Working People who could vote for tribunes
Patricians: Wealthy elite who could vote and had sway over politics in the senate
Senators: Retired government representatives (magistrates) who were advisers to consuls.
Slaves: Slave and women had no political power. Slaves were not slaves for life, nor were their children automatically slaves. Stoics, such as Brutus and Cassius, were opposed to slavery.


Stoicism: A philosophy that promoted that reason and intellect should rule over passion and that all people had the same universal spirit, and should be considered equals. Each person has power or will (prohairesis) to make his own moral choices outside of proscribed government or religious beliefs.  The ideals of individual freedom and determinism are also part of the doctrine. (See video.) Note also that for Stoics, suicide was wrong in most circumstances, unless the gods gave a clear sign that it was necessary, but not to avoid shame. The Romans generally felt it was honorable to commit suicide to avoid dishonor, but not the Stoics. In any event, for Shakespeare's Renaissance audience, suicide is a mortal sin.


https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/8/84/Colossus_of_Rhodes.jpg/220px-Colossus_of_Rhodes.jpgWhat is a Colossus? Here is a scene from a fantastic movie with animation from Ray Harryhousen, Jason and the Argonauts. The most famous statue of the ancient world was the Colossus of Rhodes, depicted in a 16th century sketch by Marten van Heemskerck (1498-1574). 


Largo di Torre Argentina
Where Was Caesar Assassinated?

Recent evidence points to a place in Rome called Largo di Torre Argentina, which is blocks northwest of the Forum, Palatine Hill and Colosseum. The assassination took place within the Curia of Pompey, and is now basically known as another Roman ruin -- and cat sanctuary. Rome has achieved some notoriety for its feral cats in recent times.
The Forum

Note that the Colosseum was not built until 70 AD, long after Caesar's assassination. So, the opening scene in Julius Caesar is not to be mistaken to take place in this iconic Roman theater, although I have seen it staged that way. Caesar likely refused the crown in the Roman Forum, part of the archaeological cite in Rome that now includes the Colosseum. In his book The Death of Caesar, writer Barry Strauss outlines the history behind Shakespeare's famous play.


Julius Caesar's Connection to American Democracy:

In a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, written in January 1811, Jefferson describes a scene where the Founding Fathers are gathered in Mt. Vernon. This is Jefferson’s observation and recollection on an important judgment that Alexander Hamilton makes. According to Ron Chernow, in his extremely famous, thanks to the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, eponymous biography on Alexander Hamilton [1], Hamilton did not actually favor Julius Caesar -- but why might Jefferson claim that he had this opinion, and why is it so significant in the formulation of our democracy, which was the first in the Western World since the assassination of Julius Caesar?

And on a final note, "constant as the northern star" (3.1.65) might not be so constant after all, according to astronomers. Check this article from the New York Times. 


[1] Alexander Hamilton, Penguin Press, New York, 2004, p. 398.

Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton's political principles. The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: "the greatest man," said he, "that ever lived, was Julius Caesar." Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men.

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 The Feast of Lupercalia is named for an ancient Roman god who watched over the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, pictured here (they are the children nursing from the wolf) in a statue in the Capitoline in Rome. The feast was held in mid-February, and was a fertility festival with games and wild celebrations.