"In states unborn and accents yet unknown": Caesar’s legacy

It’s been 2057 years since Brutus, Cassius, and between six and sixty other conspirators stabbed Gaius Julius Caesar to death in the Senate’s makeshift meeting-place, a theatre built by Caesar’s friend, ally, and eventual nemesis, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Over two millennia later, the words “Beware the Ides of March” are all over the Internet today. Would it please Caesar to know that his death is still remembered? If he could look back, might he be glad that he was struck down at the height and thus immortalized in story, rather than living on to a natural death, which might have relegated him to a lesser place in history?

Flowers left at Caesar’s grave, 2011;
credit An American in Rome.

I’ve talked before about how the Ides of March retains a strange place in our cultural awareness. As Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen pointed out in a recent lecture, the fact that Julius Caesar was assassinated by his friend Brutus on the Ides of March may be the one historical fact that nearly everyone in the Western world knows. Somehow it permeates, reinforced by all sorts of media — books, TV, movies, song, and theatre. As an example of just how strongly this awareness still resonates, I discovered not too long ago that people still leave flowers at the (supposed) site of Caesar’s grave (or, rather, at the site of his cremation, since most Romans did not inter the bones of the dead as Shakespeare implies). The picture at right shows one example, and Googling “flowers left at Caesar’s grave” yields many more. They change over time — someone takes the old away, making room for the new, and in all of those pictures, the flowers always look fresh and colorful. I would love to take a closer look at some of those notes that get left for him, to know where these people come from, what they have to say to this famous corpse, what drives them to remember his death so many years later.

Considering the longevity of the tale of Caesar’s epic life and death, Shakespeare puts premonitory words in Cassius’s and Brutus’s mouths, just moments after the conspirators perform their savage butchery/noble sacrifice.

CASSIUS

Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown?

BRUTUS

How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust?

CASSIUS

So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

For Shakespeare, this was obviously a tongue-in-cheek joke, since his company was acting it over in England, which from Brutus’s perspective wouldn’t be a unified country for nearly a thousand years, in the English language, which, though heavily influenced by Latin, was still centuries and several Germanic, Dutch, Scandinavian, and French invasions away from developing into something Shakespeare would even begin to recognize. For the ASC this season, in yet another nation that didn’t exist either in Shakespeare’s time or in Caesar’s, in a variety of American accents (with one Australian in the mix), the lines have an extra layer of sly knowing painted on them. We’re contributing to the tradition, and at this rate, it seems unlikely that human civilization will ever forget Julius Caesar — or how he died.

If you want commemorate Caesar’s death by learning more about his life, you could do worse than starting with Shakespeare’s version of the story. Despite dramatic license and some imaginative emotional scenes, he adheres pretty closely to his sources, primarily Plutarch’s Life of Caesar and Life of Brutus. You could also look to Velleius Paterculus, Nicolaus of Damascus, or Appian. If you’re more a secondary source sort of researcher, I can also recommend the podcast series The History of Rome. Episodes 39-44 chronicle Caesar’s life, but if you’re any sort of classicist, the entire series is well worth a listen. If you prefer the sensationalist take, HBO’s Romeis fantastic entertainment and extraordinarily well-acted. HBO compresses time, conflates characters, takes its own liberties, and gives you a different angle on events than Shakespeare does, but on the whole, it’s actually not that far off from reality, either. The showrunners said they strove for authenticity rather than accuracy, and the result is an exciting political drama that just happens to be set more than two thousand years ago. If you’re looking for a good long read, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series covers the collapse of the Roman Republic beginning with Gaius Marius, whose martial reforms and political machinations in many ways set the stage for Caesar to be able to achieve what he did a few decades later, and ending with Antony and Cleopatra. Western culture has never been short on either nonfiction or fiction about Caesar and the Roman world — and if you have any good recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them.