et tu?

My father, who in one of his professional incarnations was a college English instructor specializing in Shakespeare, is currently reading Conn Iggulden‘s Emperor series, historical fiction based on the life of Julius Caesar. He’s also watching the HBO/BBC series Rome, at our enthusiastic recommendation.

He wrote me today about the complexities of emotionally allying with different "sides" in historical struggles, and how much our allegiance is affected by already knowing the winners and losers.

I replied with a very different perspective on what affects the sides we take and whom we root for:

This is something I’ve been meaning to ask you about, and to research more generally.

Do you think of Shakespeare’s play as pro-Caesar? That’s certainly the impression I remember.

For most of my life, I’ve sensed from our culture an approval of Julius Caesar and a disapproval (or hatred) for Brutus. But the more history I learn, the less sense this makes. Or rather, the more Anglo-American republican history I learn, the greater is my sense that American admiration of Caesar is a 20th-century phenomenon.

The Lockean liberals in England, the American revolutionaries, and the founding fathers wrote and published under not just Roman names but Roman republican names — the names of the opponents of Caesar, the allies of Brutus. The once-upon-a-time-libertarian Cato Institute is named for the 18th-century "Cato’s Letters" whose English authors were taking the name of the Roman republican Cato. When the American Revolution was over and the debate was beginning for and against a centralizing constitution, the so-called anti-Federalists (the classical liberal/libertarian, decentralist, republicans) wrote under the names Cato and Brutus! (And despite the eventual victory of the Federalists, the mass of the population was on the side of the anti-Federalists.)

Eighty years later, John Wilkes Booth expressed his bafflement, after assassinating Lincoln, that he was so universally reviled when Brutus was so universally honored!

My current guess is that Shakespeare wrote a pro-Caesar play in an era of pro-monarchy, at least somewhat genuinely felt. But English and American republicans recognized that they were historically on the opposite side. In the 20th century (this theory would have it), Americans lost their classical educations and forgot their historical alliances. We knew we should admire Shakespeare, and Shakespeare seemed to admire the centralizers, therefore we abandon our decentralist history and alliances and all hail Caesar.

My father says that Shakespeare saw through Julius Caesar — but despised Brutus.

I’m still hoping someone can tell me about the evolution of Anglo-American attitudes toward Caesar and Brutus. How much of this story do I have right?

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One Response to et tu?

  1. That’s in line with what I’d have thought.
    I can imagine Caesar being glorified by Disraeli and co. and that gaining hold with jingoism.

    That’s just surmising on my part though.

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