Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606)

“These strong Egyptian fetters I must break,
Or lose myself in dotage…”
(Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, scene 2)

Plot summary

Act I

The assassination of Julius Caesar in March 44 BC led to a period of chaos with warlords commanding legions around the Roman world, until a deal was brokered the three most powerful of them, Mark Antony, Octavius Caesar, and Lepidus, who formed what came to be called the Second Triumvirate in November 43.

They divided up the provinces of the empire and Mark Antony was assigned command of the eastern Mediterranean. The play opens three years later, in 40 BC, and finds him living in Egypt where has fallen deeply in love with the queen, Cleopatra, where he has abandoned himself to a life of luxury and debauchery.

Act 1 scene 1 sets the scene quickly: the chorus of Demetrius and Philo lament that Antony, the fearless warrior, is ignoring his responsibilities and wasting his time in thrall to a seductive queen. They have barely finished before Antony and Cleopatra enter and give us a prize example of the foolish flirting of love. But they have barely begun – are in fact only 4 lines in – when a messenger from Rome arrives and prompts Antony to an outburst of vexed frustration. Cleopatra then taunts him, saying he must listen to the messenger in case he brings instructions from his ‘master’ Octavius in Rome, or from his true Roman wife, Fulvia.

CLEOPATRA: Fulvia perchance is angry; or, who knows
If the scarce-bearded Caesar have not sent
His powerful mandate to you, ‘Do this, or this;

At which Antony eloquently summarises his own devil-may-care, laddish irresponsibility for the benefit of the audience:

MARK ANTONY: Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch
Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space.
Kingdoms are clay: our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man: the nobleness of life
Is to do thus;

And he embraces his Greco-Egyptian squeeze. The messengers tell Antony that his Roman wife, Fulvia, is dead. (Fulvia was a tough cookie. She had united with Antony’s brother, Lucius, to raise an army in Italy against Octavian which led to the so-called Perusine War, because it boiled down to a siege of Perusia, modern Perugia, and had taken Octavian over a year to quell. Out of respect for Antony, Caesar spared Lucius, who was sent to be governor of a province in Spain, but he exiled Fulvia to Sicyon in Greece where, we now learn, she has died from unspecified causes.)

As if this wasn’t enough another messenger arrives to tell him that the son of the Gnaeus Pompeius who had fought Julius Caesar in the first civil war of 49 BC – Sextus Pompeius – has established a naval base on Sicily from which he is attacking Roman shipping.

The guilt Antony feels at the death of his wife is compounded by news that the state he is charged with defending is in danger, and so he announces that he must return to Rome.

ANTONY: I must from this enchanting queen break off:
Ten thousand harms, more than the ills I know,
My idleness doth hatch

Cleopatra is angry, mocking, scornful, upset. Antony travels with his friend, the general Enobarbus who has become even more of a wastrel in the fleshpots of Egypt and who acts as a foil to Antony’s drunken antics, a licensed jester who delivers satirical opinions about Antony, Cleopatra and everything else.

Act II

Meanwhile in Rome Octavius Caesar, adopted heir of the murdered Julius, has been consolidating his power and acting with stern dutifulness. Their first meeting is difficult, with Octavius and his entourage freely criticising Antony’s unpatriotic, unroman behaviour in Alexandria, which he is forced to acknowledge and admit to.

One of Caesar’s closest advisers, Agrippa, then proposes an ingenious solution to their problems: Antony should marry Octavius’s sister, Octavia. Antony ponders this for a moment, then willingly agrees and the two triumvirs shake hands on it.

The red-faced old general, Enobarbus is shown reunited with officer friends who are part of Octavius’s entourage, and he rather too candidly tells them the marriage will never work out. Antony will never be able to kick his addiction to Cleopatra and he paints a glowing portrait of her multi-faceted character:

ENOBARBUS: Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety: other women cloy
The appetites they feed: but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies…
(Act 2, scene 2)

The third triumvir, Lepidus, attends these meetings but is depicted as a well-intentioned but weak-minded older man who just wants everyone to be friends.

Antony had been prompted to return to Rome by news of the threat young Sextus Pompeius poses to Rome’s merchant fleet and so the next scene shows Antony, Octavious and their followers  having a summit meeting with Sextus aboard the latter’s ship. At one point Sextus’s admiral suggests they cut the cables, put out to sea, and murder all the triumvirs but Sextus refuses. Once agreement is made, Enobarbus and Antony lead all the delegates into a boozy dinner which turns into a drinking session in which Lepidus is humiliated in front of everyone while Octavius coldly refuses to get drunk and holds himself aloof from the partying which degenerates into drunken dancing.

Act III

Cleopatra is amusing herself with her serving women, Charmian and Iras, when a messenger arrives and tells her her beloved Antony has married someone else. Furious she attacks the messenger before demanding to know everything about her rival. Only slowly does she reassure herself that this prim and proper Roman matron is no real rival for Antony’s affections.

Meanwhile Antony and Octavia arrive at Athens en route for his command in the East only to learn that Octavius has gone back on the deal he made, and attacked Pompey. He has also ended the triumvirate  by dismissing Lepidus on a trumped-up charge relating to the campaign against Pompey in Sicily.

Compassionately enough, Antony sends his new wife back to Rome to parlay with her brother – but also because, like an alcoholic hitting the bottle at the first sign of trouble, this rupture of the triumvirate makes him hanker for his real love, Cleopatra. So he heads back to Egypt with a view to raising an army to take on Octavian.

Caesar had handed over his beloved sister to Antony with visible reluctance, and had repeated his  injunction that Antony respect and love her, so her unannounced reappearance in Rome makes him furious, part of which he directs at her (the poor woman). Incensed, he declares war on Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony ignores the advice of Enobarbus and his other generals, to fight on land, and decides to tackle Caesar’s fleet at Actium. During the battle, Cleopatra’s ships flee from the Roman fleet and Antony loses his head and sails after her in his admiral’s ship, abandoning his fleet. He effectively loses the battle, his fleet, and the allegiance of the many eastern kings he had cultivated as allies.

Act IV

Initially very downcast, much weeping and wailing between the loves, Antony eventually pulls himself together and vows to rally his land forces and attack Caesar on land.

However, we are shown various soldiers and generals questioning his judgement and then, in the one supernatural scene in the play, a squad of guards at his camp at night think they hear strange music coming from underground; they take this to be Hercules, Antony’s ancestor and protector, abandoning him.

Back in the real world, Antony’s bosom buddy and drinking companion, Enobarbus, disillusioned at Antony’s string of bad decisions, defects to Caesar’s army. He had been very conflicted about doing this and when Antony graciously sends him all his belongings and a kindly message, Enobarbus is so overcome with guilt that he kills himself.

So a second, land, battle takes place between Caesar and Antony’s forces but Antony’s bullish confidence turns to despair when Cleopatra’s forces abandon Antony and, like everyone else, go over to the unstoppable force of destiny which is young Caesar.

Terrified of the Roman army which is now approaching Alexandria, Cleopatra leads her serving women and eunuchs into the stronghold of her ‘monument’. Wrongly thinking Antony will blame her for her army’s defection, she sends a messenger to Antony, wandering forlorn in the city, to say that she is dead.

She had hoped this would soften his heart to her but it is a colossal miscalculation (and eerily reminiscent of the misunderstanding at the end of Romeo and Juliet). For Antony is so distraught at her death that he resolves to die and falls on his own sword. However, like many a Roman before him (e.g. Cato) he makes a bad job of it and is writhing in agony from his injury when messengers arrive to tell him that Cleopatra is alive after all. Oh.

So he asks the messengers to carry his dying body to Cleopatra’s ‘monument’ where she has holed up. Here they have a piteous exchange, before his body is lifted up on a rope and pulley and fetched inside the ‘monument’ where they exchange touching last words, then Antony dies in her arms and Cleopatra is distraught.

Act V

With Antony defunct, the entire last act is devoted to Cleopatra and builds steadily towards a kind of apotheosis.

The Romans trick their way into the ‘monument’ and there is, at last, the confrontation between the future world emperor Caesar, and the legendary woman who seduced his father (Julius Caesar) and fellow triumvir.

Caesar is, as usual, suave and reasonable and tells her to live, for her children’s sake, and that he will allow her to continue her rule of Egypt – on Roman sufferance, of course. Cleopatra is more resolute and self possessed than, I think, a woman was expected to be in Elizabethan culture i.e. she shows herself to be exceptional and there are hints that, even in her grief and loss, she may very slyly be laying the groundwork to seduce a third great Roman leader in a row.

But as soon as Caesar leaves, she gets her women to send for a countryman who brings a basket of figs which contain the famous asps, small poisonous snakes. Suspecting nothing the Roman guards let him through. He is, in fact, a yokel, a simpleton, on a par with the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the hungover porter who pops up at the most dramatic part of Macbeth.

It’s a prime example of the incongruity and tonal unevenness which the classically minded French reject about Shakespeare and made the classically-minded Restoration playwright John Dryden rewrite the play to make it conform to enlightened standards.

Long story short, Cleopatra takes not one but two asps from the basket, gets them to bite her and dies, along with her two long-serving maids, Charmian and Iras. However, the intensity of her wish to travel quickly to the afterlife to be reunited with her beloved Antony achieves an intensity and luminance absent from most of the rest of the play and really, for me, takes it to a new level.

She dies, Caesar is called back to see the corpse, delivers the standard eulogy over the dead body of his adversary, orders the lovers to be buried together with all due ceremony etc, then tells his people they must head back to Rome where, of course, he will become undisputed ruler of the state and, in effect, the first Roman Emperor.

But still. In this final act Cleopatra rises above the skittish, ironic, mocking, bad tempered, squabbling middle-aged woman she appears in much of the rest of the play to become a force of nature. And it’s  the image of this transcendent icon that she leaves blazing in the audience’s memory.

A problem play

In the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Antony and Cleopatra is categorised as a tragedy, but it is far longer, more complex and problematic than the earlier tragedy, Julius Caesar (1599), to which it is a sort of sequel.

Julius Caesar has one obvious central event to which the first half leads and from which everything in the second half follows; I’ve come to realise that although he is physically absent from the second half, it is nevertheless Caesar’s play because his spirit haunts the subsequent actions of all the characters, actually appears as a ghost to Brutus on the eve of the Battle of Philippi, and that both the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, address his spirit just as the commit suicide, and do so using the same swords they murdered him with. So there is one central figure dominating Julius Caesar.

Antony and Cleopatra is more complicated. There is no one central event and no one central figure. Instead acts 1 and 2 contain a confusing mish-mash of scenes, introducing us to different settings, characters and events in swift succession; and 3 and 4 depict a series of battles which are all defeats for Antony and lead to his downfall…but not immediately; the process is dragged out.

I agree with the assessment of Jonathan Miller who directed the BBC Shakespeare production of it, that there is something elegiac about the whole play: both Antony and Cleopatra are past their prime: Cleopatra is touchy about her age, Antony looks back to past military glories, and both, when they talk about happy love, refer to it in the past. Antony refers to the grey hairs appearing among their brown (Act 4, scene 8).

They are both on the way down and for this reason, maybe, deep down, not that sad to be beaten by confident young Octavian. The whole thing has a dying fall right from the opening lines where two Romans lament Antony’s falling-off from a world-bestriding general to the plaything of an Egyptian strumpet.

Time covered

Whereas Julius Caesar packed two years (44 to 42 BC) into its 3-hour span, Antony and Cleopatra tries to cram in ten years of complex history – from the death of Antony’s wife Fulvia, in 40 BC, to Antony and Cleopatra’s double suicides in 30 BC.

Ten years is a long time and these years were packed with events, the most notable being Antony’s vast ill-fated campaign to invade and conquer Parthia in 36 BC a huge 2-year undertaking of which we hear nothing whatsoever in the play (Wilder, p.58).

This drastic cutting and collaging is testament to Shakespeare’s skill at picking out what he needed, at throwing away references to entire wars (such as the Perusine War) in just a few lines in order to stay focused on the central psychological theme of his play, of the bickering, addicted central lovers. But still, despite all his skill, and even stripped of many key events and virtually all details, the sheer logic of the events which the play sets out to depict is still irreducibly complex and, well, big. The result is that the play is very long and feels it. Picking up on all the historical events and references is quite an ask.

Maybe this is why the final act, Cleopatra’s apotheosis, is, from one angle, the most effective thing in the play. It is the only event that is entirely in the present. It is the most mindful of the acts. It fulfils the old (and misunderstood) Aristotelian idea of the unity of time and action. With Antony dead and her cause roundly defeated, Cleopatra is intensely present. Like many suicides, once the decision is made, those last few minutes of life take on a supernatural intensity. Every word, every gesture, is lovingly scrutinised as the last this mind and this body will take. The never-ending web of Roman wars and alliances which Caesar completely mastered, which Antony miserably failed at, disappear.

Instead the audience is privileged to share the last moments of an extraordinary human being about to turn themselves into a legend.

Stats

A quick check with this website which gives basic stats about the plays reveals that, if Julius Caesar was notable for its relative shortness and the brevity of some of its acts, Antony and Cleopatra is the reverse.

At 3,039 total lines Antony and Cleopatra is longer than the average Shakespeare play (average play: 2,768 lines; average tragedy: 2,936). It has more scenes – 43 – than any other Shakespeare play (average play 21; average tragedy: 24). And far more characters – 57 – than any other play (plays: 36; tragedy: 39).

The obvious conclusion is that the excessive length and the unusually large number of scenes and characters, reflect the complexity of the history Shakespeare is trying to pack in (see below).

Knotty verse

And there’s something else. The verse is more sinewy and knotty than before. As Shakespeare’s career developed, the prolific invention of the early plays evolved into a more mature but still gorgeous style around 1600, dense with metaphor and dazzling flights of fancy. But by the time he wrote Antony and Cleopatra in late 1606, Shakespeare had been writing plays for about 17 years (first play 1589). Antony and Cleopatra follows a run of three major thrillingly visceral tragedies but, as this list demonstrates, represents a pivot into a series of later, less famous and less outstanding works:

  • All’s Well That Ends Well (1602–1603)
  • Measure for Measure (1604–1605)
  • Othello (1604–1605)
  • King Lear (1605–1606)
  • Macbeth (1605–1606)
  • Antony and Cleopatra (1606–1607)
  • Coriolanus (1607–1608)
  • Timon of Athens (1607–1608)
  • Pericles (1608–1609)
  • Cymbeline (1609–1610)

Either Shakespeare was out of juice or he was pivoting towards a late style in the conception, construction and style of the plays. Assessing the structure of the plays would require an examination of their sources and quickly turn into a book, so it’s easiest to focus on the verse style:

To me Antony and Cleopatra feels characterised by less flashily beautiful verse and a kind of sparser, knottier style than previously. Julius Caesar sounds like this:

CASSIUS. Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

This is a vivid metaphor and it is developed over four lines which run confidently over the end of each line to create one long, fluent sentence. It is clear, vivid and enjoyable to read or hear spoken. Compare it with a random passage from Antony and Cleopatra:

ANTONY: Go, Eros, send his treasure after. Do it.
Detain no jot, I charge thee. Write to him–
I will subscribe–gentle adieus and greetings.
Say that I wish he never find more cause
To change a master.

This is deliberately staccato, broken up into bitty phrases (except the more fluent sentence at the end, which caps the thought). Whereas sentences in the earlier play are long and complete, confidently running over a series of lines with little punctuation to create a fluid, mellifluent effect, in the later play, again and again, the full stop comes in mid-line and phrases are not an easy sentence in length, but are often shorter, sometimes three little phrases wedged into one line.

CLEOPATRA: Nay, pray you, seek no colour for your going,
But bid farewell and go. When you sued staying,
Then was the time for words, No going then.
Eternity was in our lips and eyes,
Bliss in our brows’ bent. None our parts so poor,
But was a race of heaven. (Act 1, scene 3)

And speeches hand over from one character to another, not at the neat end of a line, but joltingly, in mid-line.

CLEOPATRA: Or thou, the greatest soldier of the world,
Art turn’d the greatest liar…
ANTONY:                               How now, lady!
CLEOPATRA: I would I had thy inches; thou shouldst know
There were a heart in Egypt.
ANTONY:                                Hear me, queen.

This creates a clotted, knotty style, a lot less fluid.

POMPEY: I shall do well.
The people love me, and the sea is mine.
My powers are crescent, and my auguring hope
Says it will come to the full. Mark Antony
In Egypt sits at dinner and will make
No wars without doors. Caesar gets money where
He loses hearts. Lepidus flatters both,
Of both is flatter’d.

It also has the related effect of making the poetry less metaphorical. There are a lot more orders and instructions or sudden thoughts, a lot less florid poetry, similes and comparisons. When Cleopatra asks whether she or Antony is at fault, Enobarbus replies:

ENOBARBUS: Antony only, that would make his will
Lord of his reason. What though you fled
From that great face of war, whose several ranges
Frighted each other? Why should he follow?
The itch of his affection should not then
Have nick’d his captainship.

See what I mean about the sentences ending (and the next one beginning) in mid-line and so creating a stuttering, staccato, clipped effect. There’s similes even in this little passage (the face of war, ‘the itch of his affection’ meaning his lust, ‘nicking his captainship’ meaning cut short his command [of the fleet at Actium]). But none of them are developed at relaxed length into a gorgeous conceit expanding over multiple lines as in his earlier style. Instead they are tightly compressed, expressed in as compressed a form as possible before the verse moves onto the next one.

It is a style less appropriate for the flowing love duets of Romeo and Juliet, than for undecorated sarcasm or irony, which doesn’t need elaborate conceits, as when Cleopatra jokes with Antony that she has something important to say to him, but can’t remember what it is:

CLEOPATRA: Courteous lord, one word.
Sir, you and I must part, but that’s not it:
Sir, you and I have loved, but there’s not it;
That you know well: something it is I would,
O, my oblivion is a very Antony,
And I am all forgotten.

Here’s another example from Julius, showing what I mean by the fluent flow of long sentences running through a sequence of lines with hardly any punctuation, or coming only at the end of each line, thus allowing the lines to breathe through their full length:

SOOTHSAYER: The throng that follows Caesar at the heels,
Of senators, of praetors, common suitors,
Will crowd a feeble man almost to death.
I’ll get me to a place more void and there
Speak to great Caesar as he comes along.

It flows, each iambic pentameter has the entire line to breathe and display. It’s a pleasure to read or say aloud. By contrast here’s Octavian from the later play giving instructions to his envoy Thyreus:

CAESAR: From Antony win Cleopatra. Promise,
And in our name, what she requires. Add more,
From thine invention, offers. Women are not
In their best fortunes strong, but want will perjure
The ne’er touch’d vestal. Try thy cunning, Thyreus.

Completely different. This must be deliberate, a deliberate creation of a late style. Why? What does it do? Well, I think that instead of the long verse paragraphs, the far fetched metaphors, the open rhythms of the earlier plays, this style creates something closer to the jerkiness of actual thought and real speech. Fragments of phrases, even individual words, several different thoughts expressed in fragments bolted together to make lines. Much more bitty, fragmented, less florid, less gorgeous.

This explains why the one set-piece speech in the entire play stands out so much, namely Enobarbus’s magnificent long speech describing to Octavian’s lieutenants the scene when Antony first met Cleopatra, when she had herself rowed up the Nile in a magnificent galley.

ENOBARBUS: The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their stroke

Even this, when you look closely, is in the same manner, with the first sentence ending half-way through the second line, and sentences stopping mid-line 3 times in these 7 lines, at ‘water’, ‘them’ and ‘stroke’. The effect of ending sentences and starting new ones in mid-line is to break up the untrammelled liquid flow of the earlier style. But in this speech the effect is overruled by the gorgeousness of the metaphors and the magnificence of the vision. Its rich colour highlights how relatively grey, functional and gnarly a lot of the rest of the play is.

And difficult. The thought is often so compressed as to be hard to follow. In the excerpt below, I don’t  really understand what the first half means. It is Antony telling Octavian’s sister, the honest but boring Octavia, who he has married in a purely political marriage to try and patch up his alliance with Caesar – telling her that if she’s unhappy, she’s free to go:

ANTONY: When it appears to you where this begins,
Turn your displeasure that way. For our faults
Can never be so equal, that your love
Can equally move with them. Provide your going.
Choose your own company, and command what cost
Your heart has mind to.

It’s not only the verse that is choppy and fragmented. It feels like something clever is going on in the sentence starting “For our faults…” but, to be frank, I don’t follow it.

This kept happening to me while reading Antony and Cleopatra. I enjoyed reading and rereading Julius Caesar because each reading revealed new depths to the characters, made me realise how certain symbols or topics cleverly recur, made me see the subtle linguistic threads which bind the fabric together. Not so Antony and Cleopatra, with its fewer metaphors and similes, and its thought so compressed I often didn’t understand it. I read and reread passages and they remained obstinately gnarly in rhythm and opaque in meaning. They remain what they first appeared.

Here’s Cleopatra lamenting that Antony has married Octavia and regretting her first angry impulse to smack and slap the messenger who brought this news:

These hands do lack nobility, that they strike
A meaner than myself; since I myself
Have given myself the cause.

It sounds interwoven and self-entwining as if there ought to be a hidden meaning, but repeated readings leave it what it was.

And this brings me back to my earlier reference to the theme of age and decline. Because maybe this is a style suited to mature characters. It is not the show-off prolixity of the young and flashy. It feels like the poetic style of a man who has ‘done all that’, has written unbeatably show-off verse in Romeo and Juliet and Henry V and Hamlet and knows it, knows he’s written the best pyrotechnic verse in the world and so is now trying something different.

He’s deliberately cutting back on mellifluous flashiness and trying for something more…tough and wizened. As leathery and furrowed as the face of Colin Blakely playing Antony on the BBC Shakespeare production I’ve just watched. The lined and grizzled face of a man who, although the play gives the impression it’s taking place over a few hectic weeks, in fact ages ten years over its duration.

Lack of oomph

Admittedly ‘oomph’ is not a common technical term in literary criticism. What I mean is something like impact and atmosphere. The first three acts of Julius Caesar not only have dramatic unity because they are entirely about the conspiracy to murder him, but are given thrilling dramatic and psychological atmosphere by the use of the wild storm the night before the murder. The night the assassins hold their final meeting is characterised by a wild storm of thunder and lightning which terrifies half the characters, during which people see ghosts and wild animals prowling the streets and fire in the sky.

This is a fairly obvious effect – the same depiction of discord in nature reflecting the overthrow of the social order on earth is used in Macbeth and King Lear – but it is fantastically successful at giving the play a kind of unity of palette and the same feeling is, of course, revived at the end of the play when Brutus sees the ghost of Caesar appear to him in his tent. Once introduced, this supernatural vibe runs throughout the play.

Antony and Cleopatra lacks any of that. There are occasional attempts to give the thing an orientalist exotic Egyptian vibe, but not many, and you don’t really notice them. There is no comparable melodramatic setting / scene / vocabulary / diction which dominates and unifies the scenes. A couple of times characters refer to the stars, but this is bog standard stuff, passing references: all Shakespeare protagonists refer to Fortune or the stars at some point, even in the comedies:

ANTONY: And at this time most easy ’tis to do’t,
When my good stars, that were my former guides,
Have empty left their orbs, and shot their fires
Into the abysm of hell…

ANTONY: Alack, our terrene moon
Is now eclipsed; and it portends alone
The fall of Antony!

It isn’t the large scale dramatisation of astrological doom, as in the storms of Lear or Macbeth. The one ‘spooky’ scene is, as so often, on the eve of the last battle, a standard moment for protagonists to soulfully muse about the destinies which have brought them to this point etc, when none of the main characters are about but soldiers on guard at Antony’s camp hear strange music coming from underground and one, as if clairvoyant, says it is the sound of Hercules, Antony’s ancestor, leaving him to his fate (Act 3, scene 3). That, I grant you, is strange and eerie but not, by itself, enough to spook up the overall story.

Far more emblematic is the setpiece scene where the triumvirate meet with Pompey aboard his flagship, make peace then drink till they’re drunk and perform a drunken dance, accompanied by music. Which has no symbolic overtones at all; it’s just another party.

One way to demonstrate the lack of oomph is to compare the soothsayers in the two plays. In Julius Caesar the soothsayer’s warnings about the Ides of March are genuinely spooky and concern the central event of the play. The murder scene itself (Act 3, scene 1) opens with Caesar progressing to the senate building with his entourage and spotting in the cheering crowd the soothsayer who’d warned him about the Ides of March. Caesar shouts mockingly to him:

CAESAR: The ides of March are come.
SOOTHSAYER: Ay, Caesar; but not gone.

This has real bite. It links up to the strong supernatural theme, it revives the sense of destiny and fate, and purely in dramatic terms, it gives Caesar and his entourage pause for a moment of doubt, before Caesar recovers his composure and blusteringly dismisses him as ‘a dreamer’. In other words, this two-line exchange packs a punch on a number of levels.

There is also a soothsayer in Antony and Cleopatra but a) he isn’t integrated into any other supernatural aspect or indicators; he is a rather isolated almost forlorn figure. And b) his scope is limited to reading the fortunes of Cleopatra’s giggling maids, who mock him and each other. From the sublime to the ridiculing.

Schoolgirls

I watched the BBC Shakespeare production, starring Colin Blakely and Jane Lapotaire, and the 1984 TV movie, starring Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave. Neither of them really convince and both of them bring out Shakespeare’s odd decision to make the second scene in the play a comic one featuring Cleopatra’s two serving women (‘My noble girls!’), Charmian (very much the main one) and Iras (who hardly speaks at all).

Alexas, supposedly Cleopatra’s chief minister but who appears to be her chief male servant, introduces the Egyptian soothsayer to the giggly women and, instead of adding to and crystallising the sense of world-encompassing doom, as his avatar in Julius Caesar does, this soothsayer is reduced to answering their gossipy enquiries about their husbands and children.

Now, the canny audience will spot the way the soothsayer accurately predicts the fact that both women will die alongside their mistress, but in the obscure, limited way of the Delphic Oracle, so that neither of them grasps the truth and, in any case, are too busy making jokes about each other’s future husbands to notice.

Maybe the audience will remember his predictions three hours later when Charmian and Iras accompany their mistress to her death; maybe the audience who knows they’re all going to die will enjoy the dramatic irony when they hear it – but either way, it’s indicative of the way that a supernatural element is vestigially present but much tamped down, itself symptomatic of the more muted, adult focus of the play as a whole.

The unattractive protagonists

The puzzling effect of the play is also a function of the lack of a clear protagonist. Cleopatra emerges in the final act as the dominating figure of the play, but before that was often absent for long periods or, when she was present, was a very reactive figure, reacting to Antony’s decisions or apologies or outbursts. Even when she is alone with her handmaids and Alexas, she is constantly thinking about Antony, reacting to him even in his absence.

Brutus is the protagonist of Julius Caesar and his antagonist is the savvy, virile Antony of that play, drolly ironic, cleverer than all the conspirators put together – with the ghost of Caesar lurking under the stage until he emerges in the last few scenes to neatly round everything off by haunting the assassins to their deaths. I liked the clever, ironic Antony of the earlier play, with his devil-may-care confidence.

The Antony of this play and his Cleopatra, by contrast, I found tiresome, as people. Maybe it’s me, but right at the start Shakespeare goes out of his way to show how quickly the famous lovers fall out and bicker like teenagers (‘Fie! wrangling queen!’).

Along with the immediately following scene of the schoolgirl handmaids, this sets a tone of silliness in their relationship, a stroppy teenage quickness to fall into heated arguments over nothing, from which the play, for me, never qute recovers.

I found Antony’s flip-flopping between infatuation with Cleopatra and guilty acknowledgement that he needs to break free and return to his Roman duties and responsibilities, irritating rather than profound.  I wanted to tell him to grow up.

Also, by the time we meet him, he is a loser. He has lost the insouciant, devil-may-care brashness of the earlier play. Now Caesar is the winner, and knows he will win, and goes on to win.

Antony, by contrast, is a loser. He fails in his negotiations with Cesar. He fails as a husband to innocent Octavia, setting out to damply please her but all-too-quickly letting himself and her down.

Antony never comes over as the world-bestriding general the other characters describe him as having been, once, in the play’s heretofore. When we meet him he is well on the way to making a series of catastrophic errors, which lead up to his military blunders: first, deciding to fight by sea, and then abandoning his fleet when Cleopatra sails away.

This sequence of bad calls is capped when he believes the messenger who tells him Cleopatra is dead and makes the foolish decision to kill himself; and then makes a botch of it, terribly injuring himself but failing to die. It’s failure all down the line. It’s a fine line between Tragic Fall and pathetic failure.

Similarly, Cleopatra, for me, for the first four acts, never achieves the awe and majesty which the play claims for her. Enobarbus’s description of her is far more impressive than the reality.

In Julius Caesar both Portia (wife of Brutus) and Calpurnia (wife of Caesar) have real presence and depth. Your heart bleeds for poor Portia, tormented by her husband locking her out from his feelings (i.e. not telling her about the conspiracy to murder Caesar).

Jane Lapotaire is a handsome woman but I found her continual arbitrary switching from anger to irony to sarcasm so tiresome that, when she finally got around to something like genuine expressions of love and/or soulful introspection about her feelings, I’d stopped caring. I found her unpredictable mood swings alienating rather than entrancing. Maybe she’s just not my type.

That said, I suppose Cleopatra’s depiction is on a different plane from that of the men, if only for the sheer length of time she is on stage and the phenomenal number of lines she gets to deliver. But for me, only right at the end, locked away in her strongpoint, as she commits herself to ending her life, does she attain a kind of visionary transcendence, which lifts her onto a different plane from all the other characters.

Enobarbus and Caesar

First a word of explanation: after Julius Caesar was assassinated, it turned out that in his will he left the majority of his estate to his great-nephew (his sister’s daughter’s son) Gaius Octavius who he legally adopted as his son. Octavius, only 18 at the time, promptly came to Rome to claim his inheritance, to ratify his adoption by Caesar, and, as was common with Roman adoptees, to take his adoptive father’s name, calling himself Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, where Octavianus is the adjectival form of Octavius. Quite quickly he took to referring to himself as ‘Caesar’ since this helped in winning the loyalty of the dead dictator’s legions. And all this explains why he is referred to as ‘Caesar’ throughout this play.

Enobarbus, meanwhile, is based on this historical figure of Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, Roman general and politician, birth date unknown, who died in 31 BC. A quick scan of his Wikipedia entry indicates how thoroughly Shakespeare has fictionalised the character, and is also a good indicator of how completely Shakespeare ignores the long historical duration covered by the play, and the extremely complex web of shifting alliances which took place during the ten years the action supposedly covers.

Instead of a highly successful general who led forces against Antony at Philippi and persisted in opposing the triumvirate, until he was eventually reconciled with Antony, and went on to play a leading part in the latter’s ill-fated invasion of Parthia (36 BC), Shakespeare’s Enobarbus is depicted as a fellow drunk, a kind of embodiment of Antony’s devil-may-care debauchery. He’s a sort of cut-price Falstaff.

And a chorus to the main action. His main structural function is to be a court jester to Antony, licensed to say anything: to mock him, to mock the queen, to mock their love affair, to mock Rome and responsibility and pour Antony another drink. In the scenes where Antony and Caesar and their entourages meet, parley and party, he is shown getting on well with two of Caesar’s senior advisers, Agrippa and Maecenas, and speaking probably tactlessly about he and Antony’s party ways back in Alexandria. He very tactlessly shares his belief that Antony’s marriage to Octavia won’t last.

So he is not intended to be a pleasant man, and in his asides to the audience he has something of Iago – not in orchestrating and motivating the action, but in his increasing tone of malevolence and misanthropy. He becomes more bitter and cynical as the play progresses, eventually defects from Antony’s service altogether, going over to young Caesar, but finally malevolences his way right out of existence by killing himself (as does, of course, his former master). So he is like a barometer indicating the steady, relentless decline in Antony’s fortunes.

So from out of this pack of squabbling lovers and their cynical hangers-on, I couldn’t help coming to admire Caesar. He is quite obviously depicted as a Spock-like emotionless automaton, a ruthlessly efficient calculating machine. His speeches are very deliberately made as emotional as computer printouts.

But if one person was going to end up ruling the Roman Empire who would you prefer it to be? The childishly irresponsibly, changeable, unreliable, petulant self-pitying drunk, Antony? Or the sober, hard-working, focused and efficient young Octavian? Antony is like Boris Johnson: an impetuous, charismatic, changeable, unreliable, making-it-up-as-you-go-along party animal. A great bloke to stay up all night carousing with but shouldn’t be left in charge of a whelk stall, let alone half the Roman Empire – as his over-ambitious, badly managed, and disastrous foray into Parthia (36 BC) conclusively proved, and then his catastrophic decision to abandon his fleet and his legions at Actium (31 BC) proved all over again.

Just like Boris Johnson, Antony’s supporters keep giving him the benefit of the doubt as he proves himself unfit for high office again and again and again, as one by one his senior allies defect, until he managed to dig his own grave and even his most loyal hanger-on (Enobarbus) abandoned him.

ANTONY: O, my fortunes have corrupted honest men!

No, Octavian for me. If you want someone to manage a country, let alone an empire, you want a managerial type: hard working, sober, efficient, fair, and also – a winner. As he always does, right from the start Shakespeare plants the seed of the character’s eventual fate – in this case Octavian’s complete triumph – by pointing out that he just wins. Whatever enterprise he undertakes, whether it’s playing dice or taking on the senate, he just wins. Enobarbus comes to realise Caesar is ‘twenty times of better fortune’ than Antony. As the soothsayer (they crop up everywhere, these soothsayers, don’t they) tells Antony:

If thou dost play with him at any game,
Thou art sure to lose; and, of that natural luck,
He beats thee ‘gainst the odds: thy lustre thickens,
When he shines by…

And so it ultimately proves here.

Binaries and dichotomies

Antony is a man caught between two contrasting worlds and sets of values:

  • Egypt versus Italy
  • Alexandria versus Rome
  • East versus West
  • Femininity (all those Egyptian handmaids plus the eunuchs) versus masculinity (all those Roman senators and generals)
  • Cleopatra versus Caesar
  • Love versus Reason
  • Irresponsibility versus duty
  • Sensual pleasure versus puritan abstention (Caesar’s fastidious dislike of the drunkenness at Pompey’s party)
  • An empire of the senses versus the real-world empire of war and conquest
  • Mistress versus wife
  • The personal versus the public
  • Colourful exotic costumes versus the plain white Roman toga

Indeed the play overflows with carefully contrasted binaries and contrasts:

  • (Cleopatra’s) playfulness versus (Caesar’s) earnestness
  • Humour versus seriousness
  • Irony versus sincerity
  • Hyperbole versus statements of fact
  • Emotional instability versus fixed resolution

Right down to the contrast between the two suicides, one botched and hideously painful (Antony’s) in which he is pitifully abandoned by his servants; the other ceremonious, beautiful and painless (Cleopatra’s) in which she is loyally served to the end by her maids.

Suicide

1. History. The era is packed with famous suicides: Cato, Portia, Brutus, Cassius, Enobarbus, Eros, Antony, Cleopatra, a generation of generals and rulers liquidated itself to make way for Octavius.

2. Shakespeare. Throw in Shakespeare’s most famous depictions of suicide, Romeo and Juliet and you can reasonably ask: Has any other major author so glamorised and romanticised suicide?

CLEOPATRA: The stroke of death is as a lover’s pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired.

The end speech

While Antony was alive, Caesar’s cronies queued up to mimic their master’s mood and mock and insult Antony. When, in Act 5 scene 1, they learn he is dead, they queue up to praise him (‘A rarer spirit never / Did steer humanity’). Octavian joins in and then, a long 20 minutes later, after Cleopatra has also killed herself and Octavian stands over her lifeless body, he delivers the same kind of eulogy.

This naturally reminds me of the same Octavian standing over Brutus’s corpse while Antony delivers a noble eulogy to him (Brutus) at the end of Julius Caesar. All of which prompts a simple thought: it is easy to be noble and generous about your opponent after he is safely dead.

Boys will be girls

Last thought about the characters, and a fact which opens up a Pandora’s box of debates about gender and identity – women characters in the theatre of Shakespeare’s time were played by boys. The numerous scenes between Cleopatra and her maids, the opening scene where the maids discuss marriage, all those furious arguments with Antony, and Cleopatra’s final, transcendent apotheosis – all this was depicted by pubescent boys.

Historical background

The first thing to emphasise is that, like Julius CaesarAntony and Cleopatra leaps through long, complicated historical events, cutting and paring and cherry picking just what it needs to produce a narrative which focuses on two of western history’s most famous lovers. But even more ambitiously than the 2 years covered by the earlier play, Antony and Cleopatra depicts events spanning no fewer than ten years of Roman history.

After Julius Caesar’s assassination in March 44 a complicated political and military situation emerged. You’d have expected a straight fight between Mark Anthony as Caesar’s loyal lieutenant and the conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. In fact the opposing factions patched together a compromise peace and all sides, including the senate, were struggling to understand what to do next when the situation was further complicated by the arrival of 18-year-old Gaius Octavius, named by Caesar as his main heir, who arrived in Rome within weeks of Caesar’s murder, determined to claim his legacy.

Brutus and Cassius were amnestied by the senate for the assassination but thought it wise to leave Rome and so secured from the senate governorships in faraway Asia (modern-day Turkey), leaving space for a conflict emerged in Italy between Octavian – who quickly raised troops by playing on his adoptive father’s name – and Antony who marched his legions north to besiege the town of Mutina, held by the legions of another of the assassins, Decimus Brutus.

The conflict developed into one between Antony, determined to seize complete control of Italy, and the senate, who supported Decimus and were persuaded to give their backing to Octavius. This was achieved largely through the influence of Cicero who delivered a series of stinging attacks on Antony’s character and aims, so much so that Antony was declared ‘an enemy of the state’. Meanwhile Brutus and Cassius gathered their forces in Asia, anticipating involvement in the war racking Italy.

Then there came an extremely unexpected development which transformed the situation. Despite having just led their legions in bitter fighting against each other, Octavian in particular came to realise he had more to gain by declaring a truce and even allying with Antony. There was always both an emotional and legal logic to the idea that Caesar’s best friend and his adoptive son would eventually unite against the men who murdered him.

And so it turned out. The senate and all the other political actors in the drama, not least Cicero who had heartily supported Octavian against Antony, were flabbergasted when in October 43 BC Octavian convened a meeting in northern Italy with Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who had seized the provinces of Hispania and Narbonese Gaul. They called themselves the ‘triumvirate for organizing the republic’ (Latin: tresviri rei publicae constituendae) known to history as the Second Triumvirate, and divided the Roman Empire between them: at least initially Lepidus held Hispania and Narbonese Gaul, Antony retained Cisalpine Gaul and hegemony over Gaul itself, and Octavian was assigned Africa, Sicily Sardinia.

Octavia and Antony’s joined forces then embarked for Greece to confront the armies of the assassins, Brutus and Cassius, who they defeated in two clumsy, unwieldy battles fought with huge forces on both sides near Philippi in northern Greece on 3 and 23 October 42 BC. Both the assassins committed suicide and their cause dissolved. Antony and Octavian took over control of their legions and divided the Mediterranean world between them, Antony taking the East, where he wanted to win glory by taking on the Parthian Empire, and Octavian, shrewdly assuming control of Italy, Gaul and Spain. Lepidus was reassigned north Africa and Sicily.

The thing about the triumvirate is that it lasted for ten years, from 43, when the senate formally recognised it, to 33 when open conflict broke out between Octavian and Antony. Ten years is a long time and a lot happened, including a wide range of reforms back in Rome and in the administration of the empire (notably very contentious policies to seize land to settle veteran soldiers), plus wars in various places (notably against Gaius Pompeius’s son Sextus, in Sicily, in 36 BC, and the ill-fated Perusine War of 40 BC), and major disagreements between the partners, which were raggedly patched up. The triumvirate was ratified by the senate for five years, but the behaviour of the triumvirs increasingly sidelined the senate and all constitutional processes. It signalled the end of the Republic.

In 36 the triumvirate was renewed for another 5 years but Octavian took advantage of Lepidus’s mismanagement of affairs in Sicily to strip him of his powers in September of that year and force him into exile. The situation had thus evolved into just two Great Men dominating the Roman world, Antony based in the East and Octavian in Italy, Gaul and Spain.

Antony had responsibilities all round the Eastern Mediterranean but fell in love with Cleopatra, queen of Egypt and chose to spend years based in her capital, Alexandria, eventually fathering twin children by her, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II.

Octavian made use of every rumour of Antony’s partying, drunkenness, neglect of his duties, and his subservience to a foreign (and therefore, ipso facto, immoral) ruler, and a woman to boot, as part of his propaganda campaign against Antony back in Italy.

Cleopatra the movie

John Wilders, editor of the 1995 Arden edition of the play, optimistically claims that Shakespeare’s depiction of the star-crossed lovers defined them for all time:

Shakespeare clearly set a challenge for himself. He rose to it so splendidly that in most of our minds Antony and Cleopatra actually were the people he created. (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 1)

I disagree. There were plenty of other literary depictions of them, both before and after –by Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women (1380s) and by John Dryden, the Restoration playwright (1677), to pick two famous authors. In fact a quick check of the Dryden Wikipedia page tells us that Dryden’s retelling of the story was widely performed in the 18th century: ‘becoming the preferred version of the story; Shakespeare’s play did not reappear on the London stage until 1813.’

And if you had to choose just one depiction of the story, surely it would be Plutarch’s Life of Antony without which none of the other accounts would exist.

But anyway, leaving the leafy groves of academe, I’d have thought a million times more influential than any literary depiction is the fabulous 1963 Hollywood movie, Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton at the peak of their fame. Quite obviously this provides the epic spectacle, the awe and majesty, which all the stage productions I’ve watched completely lack.

And although it’s easy to dismiss it as American kitsch, I think it very effectively depicts the kind of middle-aged ‘love’ which is closer to cantankerous addiction, to perpetual arguing with someone you can’t leave, of leaving them and then discovering you can’t live without them, which is the central theme of the play.

Mind you, all this is, of course, before we get to what is indisputably THE most important cultural representation of the story in our time:

Asterix and Cleopatra by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1963)


Related links

  • Antony and Cleopatra text online
  • 1974 RSC TV production starring Janet Suzman and Richard Johnson – my favourite production: I like Richard Johnson (47 at the time) with his smoker’s laugh, as Antony, Suzman (35) has genuine sex appeal, manipulation and threat, the direction (by Jon Scoffield) captures the nuances and subtleties in the script far better than the others. And the court and party scenes, like the massage scene in 1.5, convey a genuine sense of party decadence which the other productions refer to but never show. And Corin Redgrave (35), looking younger than his years, is intimidatingly cool and calculating. The use of soft focus or blurring works very well to convey: messengers approaching from a distance; montages of events being reported, such as Antony and Cleopatra’s enthronement; and the swift transition and overlap of the short scenes conveying the Battle of Actium, the appearance of Cleopatra and her entourage to victorious Antony or of Cleopatra appearing to defeated Antony. All appear shimmering out of the sand yellow which very effectively evokes the blistering deserts of Egypt and also gives a successful visual unity to the sequence of very short scenes which critics from the 1700s onwards have criticised as too bitty.
  • 1981 BBC Shakespeare production starring Jane Lapotaire and Colin Blakely – savour Blakely (51)’s fixed rictus grin in the opening scene: he is not at home playing an abandoned sensualist; Jane Lapotaire is good but, ultimately to thin and light to convey earthy majesty as Suzman does; I very much liked Ian Charleston (32)’s cool Caesar, and liked his careful, even enunciation of the verse.
  • 1984 TV production starring Timothy Dalton and Lyn Redgrave – Dalton is fabulously handsome but not so good in the quieter scenes depicting emotion, and Redgrave comes over as a suburban housewife, Cleopatra played by Margot Ledbetter

Elizabethan and Jacobean reviews

Christopher Marlowe

Shakespeare

Theatre

The Life of Julius Caesar by Plutarch

Rex’s reservations

The translator of the Penguin edition of Plutarch’s Roman biographies, Rex Warner, offers little one-page introductions before every life.

In this one he points out that, as in the Life of Gnaeus Pompey, Plutarch gives little sense of the fraught and violent politics 60s and 50s BC Rome, nor conveys the issue of street violence and anarchy in pre-war Rome. Also, he is an anti-Caesarian with the result that many of his comments springing from an underlying assumption that Julius planned right from the start of his career to overthrow the constitution.

Caesar’s plan had been laid down from the very beginning. (28)

This leads Plutarch to undervalue the contingency of Julius’s actions. Sure, he was very ambitious, ran up huge debts in order to scale political heights, but up till 60 BC Caesar did nothing which was outside the norms of the constitution. Attributing some deep, fully-worked-out conspiracy to Julius also underplays the way he initially hitched his star to Pompey, by far the more important and impressive figure in the 60s.

Warner ends with a pregnant thought. Plutarch’s simple-minded assumptions that Julius always aimed at one-man rule or monarchy means he neglects discussion of what reforms Julius had in mind to preserve the Republic.

Then again, Warner adds, in his own voice, Julius’s oft-expressed wish, that once peace had been restored in Rome, he would set out to engage the Parthian Empire in the East strongly indicates that Caesar himself had no answer to the political and constitutional problems besetting Rome.

The Life of Caesar

it’s not the longest life of Plutarch’s lives, at 69 ‘chapters’. It starts very abruptly when Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power in Rome and tried to force Caesar to divorce his wife, Cornelia, because she was the daughter of Sulla’s enemy, Lucius Cornelius Cinna.

This happened in 82 BC when Caesar was, obviously enough, old enough to have been married (the traditional year of his birth is 100 BC so he’d have been 18). Therefore most commentators think the early part of the Life, which would have dealt with his family and boyhood and young manhood before this even, must be missing.

(1) When the text does get going it accurately describes Caesar as the nephew of Sulla’s enemy, Gaius Marius, the saviour of Rome from barbarian invasion at the turn of the century and the man responsible for a root and branch of the Roman army. Julius’s mother’s sister, Julia, had been married to Marius with the result that the old general became, apparently, a kind of father figure or hero to the boy.

When Julius obstinately refuse to divorce his wife at Sulla’s behest, he was forced to go into hiding, in the country of the Sabines, before taking ship for the East to hide out with King Nicomedes in Bithynia. [This account is obviously garbled because we know from other sources that Julius was officially serving under Marcus Thermus, praetor of Asia, 81 to 80 BC, when he was given formal instructions to go to Bithynia to raise a fleet to assist in the siege of Mitylene.]

(2) The kidnap by pirates Plutarch says Julius was captured by pirates near the island Pharmacusa. He was kept captive for 38 day and nonchalantly took part in their sports and games. He wrote poems and speeches and read them to the pirates who didn’t understand them so he called them barbarians and they laughed at his cockiness, as well as when he promised to have them all hanged.

When he was finally released on payment of a ransom by his family, Caesar bought ships, went back to their location and captured them all, taking them to prison in Pergamum. When he went to the praetor governing Asia to seek justice, the latter indicated he fancied their money i.e. would ransom them and set hem free – so Julius went back to the prison and, on his own authority, had them all crucified.

(3) Legend has it that, as Sulla’s power waned, and it became safe for Julius to return to Rome, he stopped off at Rhodes to study under Apollonius the son of Molon, the illustrious rhetorician with the reputation of a worthy character. Cicero was another of his pupils. Julius studied hard and reached the second rank but was content to go no further, preferring to focus on a career as a statesman and general.

(4) In 77 BC i.e. after Sulla’s death in 78, Julius impeached Dolabella for maladministration of his province. Having read a fair number of these texts by now, I’m getting the sense that Roman governors taking bribes, extorting money, imposing extortionate taxes and generally behaving very badly in their governorships was the norm. Anyway, Julius was a successful advocate and won popularity by espousing the popular or populares cause (as had his hero Marius) against the aristocratic optimates. Plutarch drops in the thought that Cicero suspected from the first Julius’s revolutionary intentions.

(5) In 68 BC Julius delivered a splendid encomium on his dead aunt. He won popular applause for the risk step of including image of her dead husband Marius in her funeral procession, as these had been banned under Sulla. Also in 68 his first wife died, and he delivered a funeral oration for her. In 67 he went to Spain as quaestor under Vetus. On his return he married a third wife, Pompeia. He continually spent huge sums of money, when he was curator of the Appian Way restoring it, and when he was elected aedile in 66 eclipsing all his predecessors with expenditure on theatrical performances, processions and public banquets.

(6) Julius hatched a plan to commission numerous busts and memorials to Marius and had them erected on the Capitol one night so the population woke up the next morning to find them everywhere. This was generally popular and revealed the hidden strength of the Marian party. In the Senate the leader of the optimates, Quintus Lutatius Catulus, accused him of undermining the government; but even here his action was broadly approved, and won him more popularity.

(7) In 63 the position of pontifex maximus or chief priest became vacant and Julius campaigned hard for it, against older more notable men. On the day of the vote, as he left his house he told his mother he would either return as high priest or go into exile. [I’ve seen this anecdote repeated in at least modern history books.] He was elected and now a solid cohort of enemies began to fear his rising power and popularity.

The end of 63, November and December, saw the Catiline conspiracy (described at length in my reviews of Plutarch’s life of Cicero and Sallust’s history). Julius played a notable role in the Senate debate about what to do with the conspirators Cicero had caught red-handed. When everyone else was clamouring for their execution, Julius persuasively argued their lives be spared and they be sent under house arrest to safe houses around Italy.

(8) Julius’s speech was very powerful, as we can tell from Sallust’s reconstruction of it, and swayed men who’d previously expressed the opposite view. But it was then solidly opposed by Marcus Porcius Cato and Catulus and the conspirators were led away and promptly garroted.

Plutarch adds the graphic detail that, as Caesar exited the Senate house after the debate, many of the young men who at that time formed a bodyguard for Cicero ran with drawn swords to threaten him, then turned to Cicero for guidance and, when Cicero shook his head, desisted – a vivid example of the way civic life in Rome had descended into the thuggery of armed gangs.

But then, rather rather than condemn this action, Plutarch goes on to criticise Cicero for missing an opportunity to kill Caesar and accuses him of being scared of the people. All of the political leaders were scared, because when the Senate held a debate a few days later which went on longer than usual, a mob gathered outside and called for their hero, threatening to burn the place down if he wouldn’t come out.

It’s not this or that incident which impresses the reader, it’s the sense that late Republican Roman political life was so fraught, that there was so much tension and paranoia.

(9) Introduces us to Publius Clodius Pulcher, the wealthy scoundrel who fancied Julius’s new wife. Plutarch gives the oft-quoted anecdote that Clodius chose to dress up as a woman in order to infiltrate the women-only rites of the goddess Bona which are held once a year in the house of the praetor. Caesar held this position at the time and so, on the night in question, he and all the males had left the house, and it was filled with women celebrating the festival.

(10) And Clodius dressed up as a woman, was let into the house by a maid in on the secret and went looking for Pompeia. But he was caught out by another serving woman who told all the aristocratic women who promptly searched the house, found Clodius hiding and threw him out. Then went home and told all their influential husbands, demanding justice for the goddess and the city.

A tribune indicted Clodius who was brought to trial but the jurors were intimidated by the people who lobbied in his favour. Meanwhile, Julius immediately divorced his wife. When summoned to appear at Clodius’s trial he was asked why he’d done this if he trusted her and he made the famous reply that ‘Caesar’s wife ought to be above suspicion’. Clodius was acquitted by the jurors who spoiled their voting papers.

(11) At the start of 61 Caesar went to Spain to serve as praetor but was only allowed to go after he had paid off at least some of his creditors. He had racked up huge debts and so went to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who agreed to pay them off in return for help with his political projects. It was the start of the informal behind-the-scenes arrangement which, when it added Pompey, became known as the Triumvirate.

Plutarch gives the anecdote about Caesar reading a life of Alexander the Great then bursting into tears. When his friends ask why he replies, ‘Is it not tragic that Alexander had conquered a world of kings and I, at his age [33], have achieved nothing?’

(12) In Spain Caesar conquered tribes and administered justice fairly, in particular restoring fair relations between debtors and creditors. Though he also made a fortune through the usual channels. That’s it on Spain. Skimpy.

(13) On returning to Rome Caesar wanted a triumph but also wanted to stand as consul; the problem was that a general awaiting award of a triumph had to stay outside the city bounds while a man seeking election as a consul had to be inside the city, canvassing. So he asked friends to pass a law saying he could campaign in absentia i.e. staying outside the city waiting for his triumph while his friends campaigned for him. But this was vetoed by Cato the Younger who had found his vocation by opposing anything Caesar wanted. So Caesar abandoned the triumph, entered the city and got himself elected consul (in mid 60 BC). It was now that he negotiated the deal between Crassus and Pompey who had been rivals, to create what later became known as the First Triumvirate.

Plutarch makes it clear he’s one of those who believes this event and this date, 60 BC, to be the pivotal one in the road to civil war, because, without people realising it, they ‘changed the form of government’. Frustratingly, Plutarch doesn’t go into details or explain what he means by that. He’s not a theory guy. He’s a personal anecdote, superstition-loving sentimental guy.

(14) When Caesar took up his consulship at the start of 59, he brought forward laws appropriate for ‘a revolutionary tribune of the people’ i.e. land redistribution. Rebuffed by the optimates in the Senate he went before the popular assembly, flanked by Crassus and Pompey, and was acclaimed for his proposals.

Caesar wed his daughter Julia to Pompey. Then he married Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus’s daughter, Calpurnia, and got Piso made consul for the following year. Cato railed against this use of marriage alliances to bypass the forms of the constitution, complaining that:

it was intolerable to have the supreme power prostituted by marriage alliances and to see men helping one another to powers and armies and provinces by means of women.

When Caesar’s fellow consul tried to oppose his plans his life was threatened so he locked himself up in his house and daren’t go to the Forum. Pompey filled the Forum with soldiers to force Caesar’s laws through, then got Caesar awarded governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul. (As I know from other sources it was a bit more complicated than that, but Plutarch doesn’t do the complex aspects of events; he is interested in broad-brush, moral points).

So he points out that Caesar was instrumental in getting Cato arrested, in getting the notorious Clodius elected tribune who promptly raised a faction to get Cicero driven out of Italy (Cicero thought it wise to flee in March 58). All this is much more complex than Plutarch’s quick glosses of these events.

(15) Then Plutarch massively changes tack, by commencing to describe Caesar’s career in Gaul and pronouncing him one of the greatest generals of all time. This was because of:

  • the difficulty of the country he fought in
  • the extent of his conquests
  • the number and strength of enemy forces he defeated
  • the savage treacherous nature of the barbarian tribes whose goodwill he won
  • the reasonable and humane way he treated prisoners
  • gifts and acts of kindness to his soldiers
  • fought more battles and killed more of the enemy than any other Roman general

Plutarch gives the wild figures that Caesar took 800 cities by storm, subdued 300 nations, killed one million in battle and took one million prisoners. (In the Life of Pompey chapter 67, Plutarch repeats these figures but says it was 1,000 cities. Maybe these figures are just easy to remember. Maybe they don’t bear any relation to reality but are just lazy statistics.)

(16) Characteristically, rather than analysis, Plutarch gives some tall tales of some random acts of heroism Caesar inspired in some of his men.

(17) Caesar won his men’s admiration and trust by 1. the free and open way he distributed honours and largesse, making it clear he wasn’t keeping it for himself 2. by showing over and over there was no form of danger or hard work he was unwilling to undergo himself.

Plutarch says Caesar was ‘a slightly built man, had a soft white skin, and was subject to headaches and epileptic fits’. He makes a very interesting point: that everywhere he went he was accompanied by a slave who was trained to write from dictation. And that in Gaul he made it a habit to dictate letters to secretaries while all of them were riding on horseback. Is that how he wrote (dictated) his commentaries on the Gallic and Civil wars?

(18) Plutarch summarises Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul i.e. against the migrating Helvetii, crossing the Rhine into Germany to fight Ariovistus (19). Plutarch’s account is like a very brief summary of Caesar’s own Gallic Wars, but with additional details thrown in. Caesar tells us the Germans delayed fighting because their holy women said they should wait till the new moon, but Plutarch adds the detail that the holy women could foretell the future by studying the whirls and eddies in river water and the sound they made. And so Caesar attacked and massacred the tribe of Ariovistus, king of the Suebi.

(20) In the winter of 58/57 Caesar put his troops in winter quarters and returned to Cisalpine Gaul where he spent the winter politicking, receiving political guests, giving them gifts, promising them more. In Plutarch’s view Caesar was taking money from conquered Gauls in order to buy and bribe Romans. Brief though it is, this is a useful insight because Caesar’s own account obviously paints him as punctiliously performing his duty, so Plutarch sheds a whole new light on his activities.

Back to the fighting: Plutarch gives a quick summary of Caesar’s campaigns against the Belgae in the far north who he massacred so much that lakes and deep rivers filled up with bodies. (This, I think, shades into the taste for the extreme and the grotesque which we’ve seen in other Plutarch lives.)

Then a quick paragraph summarising the campaign against the Nervii focusing on the climactic battle which was going against the Romans till Caesar seized a shield and plunged into the thick of the fight, prompting the tenth legion to come to his aid. Result: some 60,000 Nervii dead.

(21) The Senate declared 15 days of public rejoicing. The winter of 57/6 Caesar again spent in north Italy, giving money to clients to buy elections to positions where they could support him. He organised the conference at Luca where the Triumvirate was renewed with a third of the Senate and umpteen other magistrates present. In effect. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were running the state for their own benefit. They stitched up a deal whereby Pompey and Crassus would be consuls for the following year (55) while Caesar had his command in Gaul renewed for another five years. They had got their fiercest critic, Cato, out of the way, by having him posted as governor of Cyprus in 58.

(22) 55 BC. Brief summary of Caesar’s campaign against the Usipes and Tenteritae who had crossed the Rhine and were rampaging through Gaulish territory. They broke a promise, attacked and massacred his cavalry, so next time they send a deputation Caesar arrested it. As a result his implacable enemy Cato, now returned to Rome after his year in Cyprus, called for Caesar to be handed over to the Germans for oath-breaking. Another jaw-breaking figure: 400,000 Germans are said to have been killed. Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine in a record-breaking 10 days.

(23) Caesar took his legions across the Rhine. The Germans ran away and hid in the forests. Caesar ravaged far and wide. (Plutarch doesn’t mention this but Caesar wanted to take the fight into Germany and intimidate them against invading Gaul again). He ravaged far and wide for 18 days then withdrew his army and dismantled the bridge.

Plutarch gives a very superficial one-paragraph account of Caesar’s two expeditions into Britain (55 and 54 BC). What he adds to Caesar’s account is the fact that Britain was a legendary land and some contemporaries thought it didn’t even exist. In Plutarch’s view he found the inhabitants poor and wretched with nothing worth stealing, whereas Caesar gives an infinitely more detailed account, explaining the many trade links between north Gaul and Britain which exported, among other things, tin, furs and slaves to the continent. Slaves.

(The more you read about the ancient world, the more you get used to the idea that slavery was universal, a universal trade, a universal consequence of the unending wars, the basis of much of the economy [in mines and huge agricultural estates] reaching right into the most intimate spaces and relationships in domestic households [as per the playwrights Plautus and Terence]).

Back in Gaul Caesar received letters from friends telling him his daughter Julia, Pompey’s wife, had died in childbirth in August 54. Many contemporaries immediately worried about what would happen now this important tie between Caesar and Pompey had been severed.

(24) In the winter of 54/53 the whole of Gaul broke out in revolt. Very briefly Plutarch describes how the rebel army under Ambiorix (he calls him Abriorix) massacred the entire army of Caesar’s legates, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta. There followed the prolonged siege of the camp of Quintus Tullius Cicero, the orator’s younger brother who was serving as a staff officer with Caesar’s army.

Plutarch describes how Caesar marched to his aid with a force much smaller than the attackers, lured them away from the siege, built a camp, feigned weakness and fear till the Gauls attacked in their usual haphazard fashion – at which point the Romans sortied out of the camp and defeated them.

(25) Pompey lent him two of his Italian legions and Caesar travelled around the country deploying cohorts and commanders at key locations. All this was leading up to the outbreak of the greatest rebellion of all, in 52 BC, led by Vercingetorix.

(26) Plutarch gives a superficial account of the various tribes which joined Vercingetorix’s revolt and of Caesar’s marching his army through various territories, leading up to a victorious battle.

(27) Vercingetorix retreated to the stronghold of his people at Alesia. Caesar besieged it. But then all the other Gaullish tribes rallied and sent an enormous force against him of 250,000. So Caesar had to build a double row of fortifications, one set facing in, the other facing out.

Very superficially Plutarch describes Caesar’s victory over a) the attackers who melt away, and then b) the eventual surrender of the besieged town. Plutarch doesn’t give any details of the siege but devotes a paragraph to painting the scene of the defeated Vercingetorix riding a horse up to Caesar sitting in his commander’s chair, slowly riding round him, dismounting, stripping off his armour and sitting humbly at Caesar’s feet. Who cares whether this happened or not – it is like a sumptuous Victorian history painting and Plutarch is more of a painter than a historian.

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar, September 52 BC, by Lionel Noel Roger (1899) Note the impressive Roman siege tower looming over the smoking ruins of Alesia at top left.

(28) Plutarch gives a rather simple-minded summary of the political situation. When Crassus killed in faraway Parthia in 53, the triumvirate became a duumvirate and the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey to be top dog came out into the open. Plutarch claims that Pompey initially thought Caesar was a toy dependent on him, and only came to fear him too late.

Meanwhile politics in Rome had declined into chaos. Voters were routinely and openly bribed and the venues for voting often ended up covered in blood and bodies. (Oddly, Plutarch nowhere mentions the notorious street gangs of the rivals Publius Clodius Pulcher and Titus Annius Milo which dominate modern accounts of the period).

Intelligent people were already thinking the Republic could no longer function which is why Cato (of all people) made the desperate suggestion that Pompey be made sole consul for a year (52 BC). So Plutarch appears to contradict his own earlier statement about the triumvirate overthrowing the existing order, with this passage demonstrating that the existing order was collapsing from within. The only question was who would step in to run things.

Pompey had his governorship over Spain extended. He had never actually gone to Spain but ruled it through legates while remaining in Italy with four legions at his command. In the days of the Triumvirate this was so he could protect his partners’ interests. Now that Crassus was dead, to Caesar and everyone else it took on a different complexion and looked like Pompey wanted to make himself top dog in Italy.

(29) Caesar asked the Senate for permission to be allowed to stand for a consulship and to have his command in Gaul extended.

Plutarch adds detailed anecdotes to Caesar’s complaints that he had many enemies suggesting that he really did. These included the two consuls, Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus who, for example, had the inhabitants of Novum Comum, a colony recently established by Caesar in Gaul, deprived of their citizenship. Marcellus had a deputation from Novum Comum beaten with rods and told they weren’t real Romans and told to go back to Gaul and show Caesar their wounds.

These kinds of stories, along with the Clodius-Milo street gangs, the bribery, and the casual violence in the Forum, around the Senate, build up a picture of a state which really needed to be taken in hand and sorted out.

Meanwhile, Caesar used the wealth he’d gained in Gaul to win important supporters and to build striking monuments such as the Basilica Pauli Aemilii in the centre of Rome. Pompey was now alarmed at his power and so supported moves to have Caesar replaced in Gaul. He had tribunes pass a law sending more legions to Syria and asked Caesar to return the legion he’d loaned him a few years before i.e. Caesar lost 2 legions, Pompey none. It wasn’t paranoid of Caesar to see a conspiracy against him in all these actions.

Plutarch adds the interesting detail that these returning legions spread false rumours that Caesar was unpopular with his troops. This encouraged a false sense of security in Pompey, a confidence that he could not only rustle up troops in Italy whenever he wanted but that if Caesar’s troops returned they would all defect to him. This was a catastrophically wrong assumption. Stuck in Rome among politicians, he believed that resolutions passed in the Senate or people’s assemblies meant something, gave him strength when, of course, they were just hot air compared to Caesar’s battle-hardened army.

(30) Yet Caesar’s demands seemed reasonable enough. He suggested both he and Pompey surrendered their commands and put things to a vote of the Senate and people. Curio read out this proposal to the Senate and was applauded. Marcus Antonius (who I’ll refer to by his familiar English name of Mark Antony) was serving as a tribune of the plebs and reads a letter of the same effect to that assembly.

Yet the optimates in the Senate rejected the proposal and Pompey’s father-in-law, the phenomenally aristocratic Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, counter-proposed that Caesar be declared a public enemy if he did not lay down his command by a specified date, while Pompey would not have to do the same. It was this political impasse which meant there could only be a military solution.

(31) Caesar makes a milder proposal that he give up Transalpine Gaul but maintain governorship of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and just two legions. Cicero was very active in shuttling from one group of supporters to another and Pompey was inclined to accept the figure of 6,000 soldiers left to Caesar. But this was opposed by the consul, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus, who went out of his way to insult Antony and Curio, who he drove out of the Senate with threats of violence. This forced them to disguise themselves and escape Rome in carts.

[So you could argue that the civil war broke out and the Roman republic crashed to an end because Lentulus was an idiot. And Cato, too, who was just as intransigent. There are always people like them, determined to push their principles or their cause beyond the bonds of compromise or expediency required to make democracy work, triggering disasters far worse than anything they claim to be working to prevent.]

Plutarch brings out something which is obscure in Caesar’s account which is that by forcing Antony and Curio flee, Lentulus was depriving them of their right of veto and attacking their constitutional right as tribunes of the plebs. Caesar was to use this point repeatedly in the half dozen or so places where he states his case in the account he wrote of what ensured, The Civil War. Lentulus gifted Caesar a way of expanding the argument from being solely about Caesar’s dignity and rights into a broader one about attacks on the tribunes and the constitution. Idiot Lentulus gifted Caesar a propaganda coup.

(32) With the expulsion of Antony and the declaration of Caesar as a public enemy the political crisis had reached a climax. Plutarch explains how Caesar, realising that a sudden surprise move would be far more effective than some laboriously contrived campaign, decided to act quickly. He gives a characteristically dramatic account of the evening Caesar crossed the Rubicon.

He himself spent the day in public, attending and watching the exercises of gladiators; but a little before evening he bathed and dressed and went into the banqueting hall. Here he held brief converse with those who had been invited to supper, and just as it was getting dark and went away, after addressing courteously most of his guests and bidding them await his return. To a few of his friends, however, he had previously given directions to follow him, not all by the same route, but some by one way and some by another. He himself mounted one of his hired carts and drove at first along another road, then turned towards Ariminum. When he came to the river which separates Cisalpine Gaul from the rest of Italy (it is called the Rubicon), and began to reflect, now that he drew nearer to the fearful step and was agitated by the magnitude of his ventures, he checked his speed. Then, halting in his course, he communed with himself a long time in silence as his resolution wavered back and forth, and his purpose then suffered change after change. For a long time, too, he discussed his perplexities with his friends who were present, among whom was Asinius Pollio, estimating the great evils for all mankind which would follow their passage of the river, and the wide fame of it which they would leave to posterity. But finally, with a sort of passion, as if abandoning calculation and casting himself upon the future, and uttering the phrase with which men usually prelude their plunge into desperate and daring fortunes, “Let the die be cast,” he hastened to cross the river; and going at full speed now for the rest of the time, before daybreak he dashed into Ariminum and took possession of it.​

Great dramatic moment.

(33) Total panic in Rome, among the population and the politicians. Lentulus was roundly criticised by all sides for what his intemperate action had triggered. Once, in a speech to the Senate, Pompey had boasted that all he had to do was stamp his feet and armies would rally to his call. So the senator Favonius shouted at him to stamp his feet now.

In fact Pompey commanded at least 2 legions while Caesar only had one (though he had sent messages to Gaul for the legions there to join him). Pompey might have defeated Caesar if he had marched to confront him straightaway. Instead he let himself be carried away in the panic of the time, declared a state of anarchy and left the city, along with his legions, advising the Senate to follow him.

In Cicero’s letters we read how this single fateful decision lost Pompey huge amounts of goodwill and trust at a stroke.

(34) Plutarch describes how the consuls and Senate abandoned Rome which became like a ship in a storm which has lost its helmsman. Caesar besieged Corfinium. Plutarch supplies a characteristically theatrical anecdote, telling us that the town’s commander, Domitius, took poison provided by his slave but, when he heard of Caesar’s policy of blanket forgiveness to beaten opponents, Domitius bewailed his decision – at which point his slave admitted it wasn’t poison he gave him after all, Domitius was delighted and went out to greet Caesar and hand over Corfinium.

(35) Plutarch very quickly describes how Caesar took other towns and added their garrisons to his. How he marched to confront Pompey who, however, fled to Brundisium on the south-east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece. Caesar, having no ships, could not follow so turned back to Rome, having conquered Italy in 60 day without bloodshed. [Plutarch makes no mention of the elaborate siege of Brundisium, which lasted over a week.]

Entering Rome Caesar addressed what remains of the Senate in calm and reasonable terms and asked them to send envoys to Pompey to negotiate peace, but they refused out of fear. Caesar broke into the state treasury despite the protests of its guardian, Metellus.

(36) Unable to cross the sea to Greece, Caesar secured his rear by marching his army round the coast to Spain, to take on the legions there which were loyal to their commander, Pompey. In two brisk sentences Plutarch gives a flying overview of Caesar’s campaign in Spain i.e. despite hardships he defeated the Pompeian generals Afranius and Varro. [Compare and contrast with the thorough account in Caesar’s own Civil War.]

(37) Back in Rome, Caesar adopted the extraordinary and ad hoc power of ‘dictator’ for just 11 days during which he passed important laws: bringing home exiles, restoring the civic rights of the children of those proscribed by Sulla (a continuation of his restoring the statues of Marius), lowering interest rates to relieve the burdens of the debtor class, and other public-spirited reforms. (According to a note from Warner, Plutarch is wrong, here; Caesar was made dictator while he was still in Massilia en route back to Rome, by a decision of the praetor Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.)

Caesar then resigned the dictatorship, had himself appointed consul and set out for Brundisium again.

He took ship to Greece and captured Oricum and Apollonia. Plutarch devotes a colourful paragraph to imagining the complaints of the legions who have marched all the way from Gaul, moaning about being taken for granted and used like tools.

(38) Plutarch then wastes an entire chapter describing an unlikely escapade in which Caesar decides he has to go back to Brundisium to collect his troops but does so by disguising himself as a slave aboard a merchant vessel which, in the event, is unable to make it from the mouth of the river into the open sea because of tides and wind. [Not very likely and not mentioned in any other source. Moments like this in Plutarch have the feel of fairy tale rather than history.]

(39) Antony arrived from Brundisium with reinforcements but Pompey was well situated and able to receive supplies by land and sea. The complete lack of detail about the campaign in Greece makes you wonder whether Plutarch even had Caesar’s own account as a source. Maybe he was just really bored and fast forwarding through the whole story.

Similarly he doesn’t explain anything about the vital defeat at the battle of Dyrrichium but uses it solely to give an impressionistic portrait of panic-stricken troops. In Plutarch’s account, after this defeat Caesar spent a sleepless night before deciding to leave Pompey by the sea and march inland to attack the army of his father-in-law Scipio (which was marching back from the east to help Pompey).

(40) This looks to Pompey’s people like flight, and rumours spread that Caesar’s men are tired out and starving and that a pestilence has broken out. For these reasons Pompey thought it best to let Caesar’s army wear itself out.

(41) But his squabbling advisers demanded action, and Plutarch singles out Favonius and Afranius who shame Pompey into fighting. Plutarch gives a scrappy half-hearted ‘explanation of how, having taken the town of Gomphi, Caesar was able to provision his army and the availability of wine suddenly cleared up the mystery illness they’d been suffering from.

(42) Both armies come into the plain of Pharsalus, like everyone who something bad is about to happen to, has a prophetic dream. Plutarch follows Caesar in mocking the absurd over-confidence of Pompey’s entourage of politicians. They were so confident of victory that they devoted their energies to squabbling over who would hold which high office when they returned to Rome as victors.

Domitius and [Publius Cornelius Lentulus] Spinther and Scipio disputed earnestly with one another over Caesar’s office of Pontifex Maximus, and many sent agents to Rome to hire and take possession of houses suitable for praetors and consuls, assuming that they would immediately hold these offices after the war.

They are bolstered by the disparity between the armies: Pompey’s 45,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry against Caesar’s 22,000 and 1,000.

(43) Plutarch describes the omens on Caesar’s side.

  • Caesar told his army that several legions were on their way to join them, and should they wait to share the glory of a great victory? To which they obviously shouted ‘No!’
  • Caesar made a sacrifice and the seers told him it signified a revolution in the current status quo.
  • The night before the battle a fiery torch was seen moving in the sky above their camp which then fell to earth into Pompey’s camp.

On 9 August 48 BC Caesar broke camp and prepared to march for Scotussa.

(44) He was interrupted by his scouts with the surprise news that Pompey had moved his army down into the plain and offered battle. Plutarch summarises the battle lineup of both sides. The anecdote about brave centurion Caius Crastinus.

(45) Plutarch captures the central fact about the Battle of Pharsalus, fought on 8 August 48 BC, which is that, seeing the size of Pompey’s cavalry on his right, Caesar drew a percentage of cohorts from all his other legions and lined them up to create a fourth line on his right.

All Roman armies traditionally fought with three lines of infantry. Caesar’s decision to create a fourth line meant that, as Pompey’s cavalry fought its way through Caesar’s cavalry on the right, it was suddenly surprised by highly motivated infantry which it didn’t expect to find there. Moreover, the infantry had been carefully instructed to thrust their javelins up into the faces of the cavalry who were mostly young men and vain of their looks.

Amazingly, this tactic produced confusion and then flight. With the cavalry in retreat, Caesar’s fourth line then swivelled to attack Pompey’s centre from the rear, which, as a result of the unexpected pressure, began to collapse.

But by this time Pompey had realised the battle was lost and had fled the battlefield at sight of his cavalry in confusion. He sat in his tent until told that the enemy were mounting the walls of his camp, at which point he changed into mufti, took horse and fled the camp through a rear gate.

Plutarch leaves Pompey at that point, telling the reader he will describe Pompey’s flight to Egypt and murder in his Life of Pompey, which he does very well and very movingly.

(46) Caesar was angry and upset when he entered Pompey’s camp. He exclaimed: ‘They made me do this.’ Many of the dead were servants. Most of the defeated soldiers Caesar incorporated into his own army. Caesar was delighted when Marcus Junius Brutus was found and delivered to him alive.

(47) Plutarch lists some of the omens and prophecies of Caesar’s victory. Plutarch devotes a fair amount of time to relishing superstitious signs and omens around all his great men.

(48) Caesar gave the Thessalanians (inhabitants of the broader region around Pharsalis) their freedom, then set off in pursuit of Pompey. He went to Asia where he made Cnidius a free city, and remitted a third of Asia’s taxes.

It was when he arrived in Alexandria that he was presented with the severed head of Pompey by officers of the young pharaoh, Ptolemy, and turned away in disgust. Then ha was given Pompey’s signet ring and wept over it. Presented with Pompey’s companions who accompanied him to the end, Caesar forgave them and accepted them into his side.

He spends more time describing Egyptian politics, well, the slimey character of king Ptolemy’s chamberlain Potheinus. The dead king, Ptolemy Auletes had been declared a ‘friend’ of Rome during Caesar’s consulship in 59 BC. To achieve this he had promised a king’s ransom and Caesar now intended to collect it from his son.

(49) Cleopatra sneaks into the palace wrapped in a sleeping bag carried by her loyal servant Apollodorus the Sicilian. She inveigles her way into Caesar’s affections. At a banquet Caesar’s servant learns that Potheinus and the Egyptian general Achillas are plotting to assassinate Caesar. Caesar has Potheinus killed but Achillas escapes and raises an army which prompts The Alexandrine War, difficult to fight because it is street fighting.

Again, very briefy, Plutarch mentions the Egyptian attempts to cut off the Romans’ water supply, then to cut off supplies by ship, so that Caesar set fire to the ships in the harbour. He moves on to the fight to secure control of the Pharos which controlled entrance to the Great Harbour. The king went over to Achillas, prompting Caesar to a full scale battle, which he won. Then he departed Egypt, leaving Cleopatra as queen. Nine months later she bore his son, Caesarion. It’s all told like that – very fast and superficial. Plutarch is in a real hurry. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he realised he couldn’t compete with Caesar’s own accounts of the Gallic Wars and the Civil War.

(50) Very quickly Plutarch describes Caesar marching against King Pharnaces II of Pontus (June 47 BC), who had driven out the Roman forces and was allying with all the princes and tetrarchs, and defeating him at the battle of Zela. In announcing the swiftness and fierceness of this battle to one of his friends at Rome, Amantius, Caesar wrote three words Veni, vidi, vici – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.

BattleOfZela

Caesar’s route from Alexandria to Pontus, 47 BC

(51) Caesar returned to Rome. He arranged to be made consul for the following year, 46. He became unpopular through a series of unfortunate events:

  • his soldiers had mutinied and killed two men of praetorian rank, Galba and Cosconius, but instead of court martialling them he had them demobbed, paid 1,000 drachmas and allotted land in Italy
  • the irresponsible behaviour of the deputy he’d left in Rome, Publius Cornelius Dolabella
  • the greed of Amantius
  • the drunkenness of Antony
  • Corfinius built over and refurnished the house of Pompey on the ground that it was not good enough for him

Caesar would have liked to have acted more firmly against these powerful reprobates, but he needed allies.

(52) Cato and Scipio had escaped to Africa where they’d allied with King Juba. Caesar sailed to Africa via Sicily. There were repeated engagements as Caesar was short of provisions. The Numidian cavalry were quick, Plutarch tells of one occasion when Caesar’s cavalry were dismounted and enjoying an entertainment by a dancer playing the flute when the Numidians attacked, killing many and only Caesar rushing out the camp with infantry saved the day. In another attack Caesar grabbed the standard bearer who was running away, turned him round and pointed him towards the battle.

(53) The Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 BC. Scipio was feeling confident. Leaving Afranius and Juba in camps of their own he begins building a camp beyond a lake near the city of Thapsus. But while he was still building it Caesar’s army moved with incredible speed, emerging from nearby woods to overpower the soldiers and defeat them, then marching on to also take Afranius and Juba’s camps. In one day he defeated three armies and killed 50,000. Plutarch gives a characteristically anecdotal (and macabre) addition by saying that one tradition says Caesar began to have an epileptic fit as he deployed the forces and victory was overseen by subordinates.

(54) Caesar’s long-time enemy Marcus Porcius Cato was in charge of the city of Utica. Caesar marched there only to find Cato had committed suicide, which vexed him. Plutarch considers whether he would have shown him mercy, as he did Brutus, Cicero and other opponents. Caesar wrote a book called Anti-Cato which suggests not. Then again it was intended as a rebuttal of Cicero’s book in praise of Cato so…

(55) Caesar now returned to Rome where he held an unprecedented four triumphs, and put on lavish public feasts and processions. A census was taken which showed the number listed had dropped from 320,000 to 150,000 indication of the disruption caused by war. [According to Suetonius’s Life of Caesar, this was not a census of all the people, but a revision of the number of poorer citizens entitled to receive allowances of grain from the state.]

(56) Then Caesar set out for Spain to fight the sons of Pompey. [This war certainly drags on, doesn’t it?] It was resolved at the epic Battle of Munda 17 March 45 BC, where Caesar admitted he really had to fight and was nearly defeated. Of the two sons of Pompey the younger escaped, and the head of the elder was brought to Caesar. He held another triumph in Rome to mark this victory in October 45 but it displeased the people. It was one thing conquering other nations, quite another flaunting the killing of Romans.

(57) Caesar has himself declared dictator for life. Senators and tribunes sycophantically competed to lard him with extravagant titles, which further alienated the people. But Caesar impressed by his clemency and forgiveness. There were no proscriptions and blood baths as per Sulla 40 years earlier. Instead he forgave and promoted former enemies, for example, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Pompey’s statues had been taken down but Caesar had them restored. His friends advised a bodyguard but Caesar insisted the affection of the people was the best protection. He distributed cheap grain and founded colonies for ex-soldiers, notably at the sites of ruined cities of Carthage and Corinth.

As sole rulers go he was, then, a singularly enlightened, fair and public spirited one.

(58) He won over the reluctant nobles (optimates) by promising consulships and praetorships. Plutarch dwells on Caesar’s immense ambition, his determination to outdo all other rulers and even himself. He planned to head east, conquer Parthia, then journey round the Black Sea conquering all the kingdoms, then return through Germany (conquering them) to Gaul, thus a tour of the empire. He planned to dig a canal through the isthmus of Corinth, reroute the Tiber, clear obstacles to shipping along the Italian coast. He was overflowing with plans for public works.

(59) He reformed the calendar.

(60) What made him generally unpopular was the rumour that he wanted to be made king. He denied it. When a crowd cried out Rex Rex, he said, ‘Non Rex sum sed Caesar’ – ‘I am not a king, I am Caesar’ (with a play on the fact that Rex was, improbably enough, a proper name in Rome).

There was the story that the whole Senate traipsed up to him as he sat on the rostrum to award him further honours but instead of getting up he remained seating, very discourteous. Caesar made the excuse that he felt his falling sickness coming on and didn’t want to embarrass himself. The fact that we are arguing about it 2,000 years later shows it struck a nerve.

(61) The story how at the Feast of the Lupercal (15 February) 44 Antony ran into the forum and offered Caesar a diadem, as of a crown. A handful of people clapped but when Caesar pushed it away everyone clapped. Was this a spontaneous event or a carefully contrived plan to test the water.

Then it was discovered that his statues had been decorated with royal diadems. Two tribunes went round tearing these down but Caesar had them arrested and spoke insultingly of them.

  1. Wanting to be king just doesn’t sound like the man you get to know by reading the Gallic Wars and the Civil War. Maybe he had been corrupted into considering kingship by his time in Egypt. But so much of the rest of his behaviour (consulting the Senate, giving pardoned enemies traditional magistracies) militates against wanting sole rule, that it isn’t consistent, it doesn’t make sense.
  2. In the event, the anti-monarchists struck their blow and ended up with another 15 years of civil war before getting someone considerably more monarchical than Caesar.

(62) Plutarch begins to describe the famous conspiracy against Caesar by profiling Brutus and listing the pressure he was put under by colleagues and conspirators to do something decisive, despite the mercy and many favours Caesar had shown him.

(63) Plutarch retales an impressive list of ill omens and prophecies including two different versions of the dream his wife Calpurnia was said to have had the night before his murder, and the prediction of the soothsayer about the Ides of March (which simply means the 15th of March). On that day Calpurnia begged him to delay that morning’s meeting with the Senate and he was swayed and influenced by her obvious distress.

(64) A different Brutus, Decimus Brutus, arrives to accompany Caesar to the Senate where, he tells Caesar, they were planning to vote to make Caesar king of all the provinces outside Rome. [This seems wholly unlikely to me, that either the Senate would offer this or Caesar would consider it). Decimus uses all the arguments he can think of to encourage Caesar to attend, because he is part of the conspiracy.

(65) Stories about a) a slave and b) the philosophy teacher Artemidorus, who both tried to hand Caesar notes warning him not to go, but either couldn’t get through the throng surrounding Caesar or Caesar was too busy to read the note.

(66) Plutarch is clearly trying to create psychological or literary effects, what with his chapter on evil omens, then the chapter on ill-fated attempts to warn Caesar, and now a chapter saying how ‘fated’ it was that the attack took place in one of the new buildings erected by Pompey in the Field of Mars. Poetic justice.

Caesar’s loyal lieutenant, Mark Antony, was a strong threatening man and so the conspirators arranged for him to be detained in conversation outside the Senate House by Brutus Albinus. Caesar entered the senate and was approached by a man named Tillius Cimber with a petition on behalf of his brother in exile. He accompanied Caesar all the way to his seat, and Caesar became thronged with other complainants and was becoming irritated when Tillius pulled down Caesar’s toga, exposing his neck, and that was the sign for the conspirators to stab Caesar.

He was said to receive 23 wounds in all till he lay convulsing at the bottom of a huge statue of Pompey whose base was covered in blood. It’s always seemed strange to me that it took so many dagger thrusts and he still didn’t die immediately but dodged and evaded. When he saw Brutus holding a dagger he is said to have given up resisting and covered his face with his toga.

(67) Brutus stepped back from the warm corpse and gave an eloquent speech to the Senate explaining why they’d done it, but the majority of the senators panicked and ran out, spreading rumours through the city. Rumour spread fast causing panic among the entire population, many running home and locking their doors. Antony and Lepidus went into hiding. Brutus and the chief conspirators walked to the Capitol holding their daggers, to proclaim that ‘liberty’ had been restored.

Next day Brutus made a speech to the people explaining what they had done and why which was greeted in silence. The Senate passed an act of amnesty in a bid to calm things. It was decided he was to be declared a god and no change made to any of the laws he had passed. Brutus and colleagues were given foreign provinces to govern in the usual fashion.

The question is really, not so much what motivated the conspirators, that’s obvious. It’s why the attempts to return to ‘normal’ republican government failed.

(68) It was when Caesars body was displayed in the forum that a great moaning of lamentation went up. And when his will was read it became clear how generous Caesar had been to the entire Roman population. The crowd constructed a funeral pyre from materials to hand and then turned into a mob and ran to attack the houses of the murderers. This mob stumbled across the harmless Caius Helvius Cinna and, mistaking him for one of the conspirators, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, tore him limb from limb.

In other words assassinating the ‘tyrant’ did absolutely nothing to still the street violence which had stained the 50s with blood. This lynching so terrified Brutus, Cassius and the rest that they fled the city. The rest is told in Plutarch’s life of Brutus.

(69) Summary: Caesar was 56 when he was struck down. Plutarch, with his spooky view of the world, is struck by the way that the fate that looked after Caesar in life pursued every one of the conspirators to untimely ends. [But then I realised some time ago that so did the triumvirs, first Crassus, then Pompey, then Caesar, all ignobly murdered with daggers and swords.]

Plutarch likes melodrama, such as the fact that after his side lost the battle of Philippi Cassius killed himself with the same dagger he’d used to kill Caesar. And that a great comet shone over Rome for a week after the murder, and for the entire summer the sun never properly shone but the land was covered in a fog and fruit and vegetables didn’t ripen properly.

And Plutarch ends his life on a spine-chiller: the story of the larger than life ghost – was it of Caesar –which appeared to Brutus on the eve of defeat at Philippi. Scooby, Scooby-doo!

Thoughts

Plutarch’s life of Caesar adds anecdotes and a big dollop of supernatural superstition to the record but skimps on any kind of political analysis and really skips over Caesar’s awesome military record, covering it with superficial speed and half heartedly. I think this is the worst of Plutarch’s lives. Maybe by 100 or so AD when he was writing them, the story was too well known and had been covered by too many other writers, to really engage him.


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