A bust of Caesar. Photograph John Oleson.

Julius Caesar was a consummate and ambitious general, waging war not only against the enemies of Rome*, but against his rivals, particularly Pompey, whom he defeated in 48 B.C.

In 47 B.C. Caesar passed through Syria and defeated the successor of Mithridates VI. The speed of his victory led him to describe it with his famous phrase: "Veni, vidi, vici": "I came, I saw, I overcame [conquered]."

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Caesar followed Pompey to Alexandria, where he began a romance with the exiled Cleopatra, and installed her as Queen of Egypt. Caesar's relationship with Cleopatra was acceptable to most Romans because he was never distracted from his political duties. He was not faithful to any of his wives or numerous mistresses. (More about Roman women*.)

In Roman tradition, the ideal woman was the obedient, chaste and modest wife. Shakespeare's Lucrece is therefore properly housebound; thus, having "never coped with stranger eyes" (99), she is too innocent to understand Tarquin's lustful glance. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes Octavia as being of a "holy, cold and still conversation [manner]," and Menas, typical Roman that he is, responds: "Who would not have his wife so?" (2.6.122-24).

Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.) writes of a husband's power to punish his wife for "any wrong or shameful act." If a woman were caught in adultery, her husband could put her to death without a trial.

On the brighter side, Roman women had much greater liberty than their Greek counterparts; although there were repressive laws, they were seldom applied. A wife could escape her husband's legal control by spending three nights of the year away from his house; another law allowed wives to keep their own property after the age of 25.

(Click for the status of Elizabethan women)

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Caesar acknowledged his son by Cleopatra, and later summoned her to Rome, where she lived at his house until his death. He also placed a gold statue of her in the newly-built temple of Venus Genetrix (Venus as progenitor of the Julian clan). Cleopatra was herself worshipped in Egypt as Isis-Aphrodite. Click for more on Venus in the art of the Renaissance.

In 44 B.C., the Senate and people named Caesar dictator for life, hoping that his rule would bring lasting peace after civil war; but many were disturbed by the extravagant honours that began to be decreed for Caesar by his flatterers; and, when he showed signs of wanting to be king, the people turned against him for the first time.

How did Shakespeare portray Caesar?*

Shakespeare's play begins with the festival of the Lupercalia, when, according to Plutarch, Caesar's punishment of two tribunes offended the people.

Plutarch reports that at the festival Antony offered Caesar a laurel crown three times; Caesar refused the crown, much to the approval of the crowd. Afterwards, when royal diadems were found on Caesar's statues, the tribunes Flavius and Marullus removed them, imprisoning those who had thus invited the restoration of a monarchy. The tribunes were popularly applauded for their action, but the resentful Caesar deprived them of office.

Shakespeare reports Caesar's refusal of the crown through the cynical Casca, "after his sour fashion" (1.2.180). His opinion that Caesar refused the crown unwillingly is therefore open to question. (However, both in Plutarch and Shakespeare, Caesar shows no intention of refusing the crown when it is proffered by the Senate on the Ides of March.) In the play, the tribunes are portrayed less sympathetically, since garlands are strewn on the statues of Caesar rather than the more politically pointed diadems.

Shakespeare also shows the general populace of Rome to be more fickle than is suggested in Plutarch.

The Lupercalia was a festival of purification held in February, during which goats were sacrificed and their skin cut into bloody strips. Priests then ran about nearly naked, lashing all they met with the thongs. Women touched by the priests were believed to have increased fertility.

Antony was one of the priests of the Lupercalia held in the month before Caesar's murder. In the play, Caesar instructs Antony to "touch Calphurnia" (1.2.6-9), a request that suggests his desire for an heir to inherit his position--a kingship in all but name.

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Footnotes

  1. "Veni, vidi, vici"

    In 47 B.C. Caesar passed through Syria and defeated the successor of Mithridates VI. The speed of his victory led him to describe it with his famous phrase: "Veni, vidi, vici": "I came, I saw, I overcame [conquered]."

  2. Roman women

    In Roman tradition, the ideal woman was the obedient, chaste and modest wife. Shakespeare's Lucrece is therefore properly housebound; thus, having "never coped with stranger eyes" (99), she is too innocent to understand Tarquin's lustful glance. In Antony and Cleopatra, Enobarbus describes Octavia as being of a "holy, cold and still conversation [manner]," and Menas, typical Roman that he is, responds: "Who would not have his wife so?" (2.6.122-24).

    Cato the Younger (95-46 B.C.) writes of a husband's power to punish his wife for "any wrong or shameful act." If a woman were caught in adultery, her husband could put her to death without a trial.

    On the brighter side, Roman women had much greater liberty than their Greek counterparts; although there were repressive laws, they were seldom applied. A wife could escape her husband's legal control by spending three nights of the year away from his house; another law allowed wives to keep their own property after the age of 25.

    (Click for the status of Elizabethan women)

  3. Shakespeare's Caesar

    Shakespeare's play begins with the festival of the Lupercalia, when, according to Plutarch, Caesar's punishment of two tribunes offended the people.

    Plutarch reports that at the festival Antony offered Caesar a laurel crown three times; Caesar refused the crown, much to the approval of the crowd. Afterwards, when royal diadems were found on Caesar's statues, the tribunes Flavius and Marullus removed them, imprisoning those who had thus invited the restoration of a monarchy. The tribunes were popularly applauded for their action, but the resentful Caesar deprived them of office.

    Shakespeare reports Caesar's refusal of the crown through the cynical Casca, "after his sour fashion" (1.2.180). His opinion that Caesar refused the crown unwillingly is therefore open to question. (However, both in Plutarch and Shakespeare, Caesar shows no intention of refusing the crown when it is proffered by the Senate on the Ides of March.) In the play, the tribunes are portrayed less sympathetically, since garlands are strewn on the statues of Caesar rather than the more politically pointed diadems.

    Shakespeare also shows the general populace of Rome to be more fickle than is suggested in Plutarch.

    The festival of the Lupercalia

    The Lupercalia was a festival of purification held in February, during which goats were sacrificed and their skin cut into bloody strips. Priests then ran about nearly naked, lashing all they met with the thongs. Women touched by the priests were believed to have increased fertility.

    Antony was one of the priests of the Lupercalia held in the month before Caesar's murder. In the play, Caesar instructs Antony to "touch Calphurnia" (1.2.6-9), a request that suggests his desire for an heir to inherit his position--a kingship in all but name.