Internet Shakespeare Editions


Shakespeare's Rome (2)

"Cato and Portia." Photograph John Oleson.

The Romans claimed that they descended from men of Troy. After the Trojan War, the survivors migrated to Italy under the leadership of the prince Aeneas*. One of Aeneas's descendents, Rhea Silvia, was raped by the god Mars and bore the famous twins Romulus and Remus who founded Rome.

The usurping king of Rome discovered the infants and set them adrift on the flooding Tiber river; but the flood receded, and the twins were kept alive by a she-wolf until a herdsman found and adopted them. In time they killed the usurper; then in 753 B.C. Romulus founded the city of Rome beside the Tiber, at the place where the twins had been left to die.

Was Rome really a republic?*.


  1. Aeneas

    Aeneas was the offspring of Venus's affair with Anchises, a king of Dardania and first cousin to Priam, king of Troy, which makes Aeneas a 2nd cousin to "most valiant Hector," the Trojan champion (Troilus and Cressida 4.5.226). The wanderings of Aeneas are told in Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Metamorphoses; he also plays a major role in the Iliad of Homer.

    One justification of the Tudor dynasty was the claim that they were descendents of the Trojans, and that London was a new Troy. The historian Geoffrey of Monmouth first made the claim in his History of the Kings of Britain.

  2. Coriolanus and the plebians

    The Republic was not a republic in the modern sense. Rome was governed by a Senate of 300 chosen from the patricians--the aristocracy. After the expulsion of the Tarquins, kingship was replaced by the annual election of two consuls. These men were chosen from the Senate, and were invested with almost absolute power, limited only by the law and each other's power of veto.

    The plebians--the common people--had some small say in the business of government, mainly through their elected tribunes. In the time of Coriolanus, the main abuses from which plebeians sought relief were severe debt, legislation, and the concentration of land among patricians (while many plebs lacked sufficient property to make a living). These problems were further aggravated by economic hardship resulting from constant war and bad harvests, which at times led to food shortages and famine.

    Coriolanus is a legendary figure from the early years of the Republic who championed the privileges of the nobility against the "many-headed multitude."

    Shakespeare emphasizes the hardship of famine in Coriolanus; in many ways the play echoes the causes of social unrest in England at the end of the 16th century.

    Debt legislation

    Interest rates in ancient times were extremely high, and debtors were often in danger of being seized by their creditors to suffer capital punishment or be sold into slavery.