Rome does not occasionally become relevant in our understanding of political upheaval. Rather, it forms part of our very identity as Christians and heirs of the Western tradition that it helped shape. No one saw the essential drama of Rome more clearly than William Shakespeare.
In the current issue of Atlantic magazine, editor-at-large Cullen Murphy asks, “No, Really, Are We Rome?” in which he takes up a question about America that has been posed on a regular basis throughout our history. Somewhere on a shelf in our home, for example, is a book on this topic that my wife and I inherited from her parents, who had in turn received it from the library of a great-uncle, a priest who died young in the late 19th century. The sack of Rome by Alaric’s Goths in 410 A.D., which prompted St. Augustine to write The City of God, is the implicit comparison that Murphy makes to the storming of the Capitol on January 6: “Some of the attackers had painted their bodies, and one wore a horned helmet,” writes Murphy. “The invaders occupied the Senate chamber, where Latin inscriptions crown the east and west doorways.” The parallels between the “sack of the Capitol” and the Fall of Rome feel ominous and new. But there is nothing new or ominous about America’s longstanding debt to Roman history and institutions, which unquestionably informed the thinking of our nation’s founders. Moreover, the thousand-year history of Rome has always offered instances of proud men and fickle mobs, orators and schemers, statesmen and traitors—the whole range of human character and action.
No one saw the essential drama of Rome or “the fundamental problems coeval with human thought,” as Leo Strauss put it, more clearly than William Shakespeare. Wyoming Catholic College will devote this summer’s Wyoming School of Catholic Thought (our week of lectures, seminars, and films for adults, June 6-11) to his understanding of the city and the nature of its enduring claim on the imagination. He devoted five works to Rome. First in his career came the fictional, spectacularly gory potboiler, Titus Andronicus (1591/2), which is set sometime in the late Roman Empire but owes more to Ovid’s myths than to Roman history. Beginning with his narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece (1594), however, Shakespeare takes on historical events. The rape of the noblewoman Lucretia by a son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Proud”) led to the overthrow of the Roman kings and the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C. As Shakespeare puts it in the “Argument” at the beginning, “with one consent and a general acclamation the Tarquins were all exiled, and the state government changed from kings to consuls.”
With its strict, seven-line stanza form, this narrative feels out of keeping on the formal level with the three, great, blank-verse Roman plays, all of which draw heavily on Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. First in the order of composition (according to the Royal Shakespeare Company) was Julius Caesar (1599), dramatizing the assassination of this greatest of generals, the military conqueror of Gaul, the victor in the Civil Wars against Pompey and his sons. Politically, however, he was considered the gravest threat to the Roman Republic, and he was killed as a potential tyrant by some of the most prominent and respected of Romans. This play with its famous speeches (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”) has been popular and accessible enough to be included for generations in high school curricula. Later in Shakespeare’s career came Antony and Cleopatra (1606/7), which opposes Antony’s erotic obsession with Cleopatra to Octavius’ cold political ambition in the aftermath of Caesar’s death. Last of all came Coriolanus (1608). Its title character, a proud aristocratic warrior, cannot subdue his spirit to flatter the Roman commoners, whose approval he needs in order to be named consul.
One way of reading the Roman plays has been to analyze the events of English history at the time of each play’s composition. Critics speculate about Shakespeare’s use of Rome to comment on contemporary politics in the Elizabethan or Jacobean courts, an approach that can sour their universal appeal. But for decades now, political philosophers have seen Shakespeare as one of the greatest of their number, and they have turned to the Roman plays as his commentary on Rome itself, both in its historical development and in the ways that Rome’s perennial tensions between the many and the few (the patricians and the plebeians) show themselves in universal ways. Sometimes the practitioners of this approach forget that Shakespeare’s poetry is more than Aristotle or Machiavelli illustrated, but they honor the depth and seriousness of what he reveals about the relation between character and regime, and they contrast Republican Rome, in particular, to monarchical England, presented in depth in the history plays.
This summer, we will be following the historical development of Rome through Shakespeare’s presentation of it: the early Republic in Coriolanus (5th century B.C.), the end of the Republic in Julius Caesar (44-42 B.C.), and the first stirrings of imperial rule in Antony and Cleopatra (mostly 32-30 B.C.). Not only does the Octavius of Antony and Cleopatra become the Caesar Augustus of Luke 2, but five different times characters in the play mention the name of “Herod of Jewry,” the figure in the Gospels whose threat sends the infant Christ into the very Egypt where Antony and Cleopatra died several decades before.
Rome does not occasionally become relevant in our understanding of political upheaval. Rather, it forms part of our very identity as Christians and heirs of the Western tradition that it helped shape. If you can, please join us this June as we meditate with the greatest poet in our language about Rome and its continuing influence.
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College‘s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “Cleopatra and Octavian” (1787) by Louis Gauffier (1762–1801) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.