Rise and Fall: The Roman Republic as Seen Through Coriolanus and Julius Caesar

I originally wrote this paper for EN 429: Shakespeare’s Rome during my Spring 2019 semester at Marymount University.

Shakespeare’s epic tragedy Julius Caesar certainly can be understood as a play about one man’s undoing due to his own ambition. Or, as seems to more often be the case, it can be understood as the tragedy of a different man, whose undoing was his own pride and sense of honor. While these are of course both valid readings, the greatest tragedy that Julius Caesar depicts is not the fall of any one man, but that of the Roman Republic itself.

While early histories are murky, according to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the Roman Republic came into existence in 509 B.C., following the defeat of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s last king (“Roman Republic”). Coriolanus is set not long after this; the siege of Corioli, whence that play’s eponymous character earned his name, took place in 493 B.C., only sixteen years later (Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus”). It is clear from the text of that play that Rome is not the mighty force she will one day become, but rather a beleaguered, if proud, city-state. In the second scene of act one, Aufidius says “If we and Caius Marcius chance to meet, / ‘Tis sworn between us we shall ever strike / Till one can do no more” (Coriolanus 1.2.34-36). Aufidius and Marcius—not yet named “Coriolanus”—are clearly old and bitter rivals who have crossed swords many times before; Rome is not yet powerful enough to deal with the Volscian threat permanently.

By the time of Julius Caesar, however, Rome is a far cry from the beleaguered city depicted in Coriolanus, continually besieged by outside forces and fighting just to survive. Towards the end of the Republic, Rome was enjoying a period of what Timothy Spiekerman calls “extraordinary imperial success.” conquering civilizations throughout much of Europe and North Africa. Marullus, while berating the citizenry for so quickly forgetting Pompey in favor of Caesar, makes reference to frequent victory parades: “Many a time and oft / Have you climbed up to walls and battlements / . . . / To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome” (Julius Caesar 1.1.37-38, 42). As Spiekerman points out, the generals in charge of all these successful military campaigns were wealthy from the spoils of their conquest, and influential due both to that wealth and the military power they commanded. As the conquests continued, armies had to range farther and farther afield, meaning that generals like Pompey and Caesar got more and more used to the idea of being the one and only person in charge. Also, as Machiavelli points out in his Discourses on Livy, “when a citizen remained commander of an army for a very long time, he would win it over to himself and make it partisan to him” (qtd. in Spiekerman). Rather than outside invaders, Rome’s major problems were now coming from within.

As Julius Caesar opens, Caesar himself “comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood” (JC 1.1.51). Pompey’s children were only the latest casualties in a succession of civil wars stretching back over a generation, according to Plutarch (qtd. in Styrt 287-288), who also explains that public war-weariness was a significant source of support for the idea of a return to monarchy, which the public saw as possibly providing “a respite from the evils of the civil wars” (Plutarch qtd. in Spiekerman). The public perception, in other words, was that a strong monarch would bring unity and accountability into the system in much the same way as a parent might when faced with a number of unruly children. This helps to explain why the Roman people are so quick to follow Caesar after his defeat of Pompey, and also so quick to acclaim Brutus after Caesar’s assassination, saying “let him be Caesar” (JC 3.2.51) despite the fact that Brutus’s objective is to preserve the Roman Republic.

Regarding the Roman public, their actions and attitudes have also changed significantly in the nearly five hundred years since the birth of the Republic. As Jan Blits points out, both Coriolanus and Julius Caesar begin with scenes of unruly plebeians, but the apparent resemblance is only skin-deep. The plebeians in Coriolanus, Blits says, “are needy, hard working, insecure, grateful, and relatively self-restrained, while their late republican counterparts are none of these” (42). In simple terms, the crowd in Coriolanus has gathered for a reason—to protest the unfair distribution of grain and Caius Marcius’s treatment of the people: 

FIRST CITIZEN. If they would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely. . . . The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance.

[. . .]

SECOND CITIZEN. Would you proceed especially against Caius Marcius?

ALL. Against him first. He’s a very dog to the commonality. (Cor. 1.1.16-20, 24-27)

As is also demonstrated in the above quote, the crowd in Coriolanus, at least in 1.1, does not act entirely as a single, hive-minded mass; within the group there is at least one person who objects to the group’s course of action, or who has at least taken it upon himself to play devil’s advocate.

Unlike the politically motivated crowd in the first scene of Coriolanus, the crowd in Julius Caesar is only present because they have an excuse to take a day off of work:

FLAVIUS. But wherefore art not in thy shop today?
Why dost thou lead these men about the streets?

COBBLER. Truly, sir, to wear out their shoes, to get myself into more work. But, indeed, sir, we make holiday, to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph. (JC 1.1.27-31)

Had he referenced the feast of Lupercal, which apparently was that very day (JC 1.1.67), the cobbler might’ve more successfully justified himself to Flavius. A celebration of Caesar’s victory, though—notably, victory over a fellow Roman, rather than a successful foreign conquest—suggests that many in the crowd had been looking for an opportunity to shirk their duties for a day.

The Roman people in Coriolanus are also much more active than those in Julius Caesar, not only politically, as shown above, but narratively as well. Coriolanus has five scenes with citizens, in most of which they are an important element of the narrative, acting with some degree of political force. Coriolanus’s election to the consulship, for example, rests explicitly in the hands of the plebeians, even if tradition states they must accept him so long as he observes the required forms:

FIRST CITIZEN. Once if he do require our voices, we ought not to deny him.

SECOND CITIZEN. We may, sir, if we will.

THIRD CITIZEN. We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a power that we have no power to do; for if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them; so, if he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him our noble acceptance of them. (Cor. 2.3.1-9)

The plebeians here are not merely reacting to the actions and words of their social superiors, nor are they an impulsive mob, as in scenes 3.2 and 3.3 of Julius Caesar respectively. Rather, they are proactively considering their decisions and discussing their options, fully aware of their own political agency. Also, once again, the plebeians are portrayed here not as a unified mass, but as individuals representing several viewpoints. Their diversity of opinion is stated explicitly just a few lines later by the third citizen, who says “truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south, and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’ th’ compass” (Cor. 2.3.21-24). This comment even sets off several lines of comic banter between the second and third tribunes. The only example of a similar level of personality from a citizen in Julius Caesar is the cobbler in scene 1.1, and that exchange is between the cobbler and the two tribunes, rather than being between two citizens.

The citizens of Julius Caesar, in contrast, have significantly less political and narrative weight. They appear in only three scenes, compared to the five in Coriolanus, and two of those scenes—1.1 and 3.3—can easily be dropped entirely with little to no effect on the overall plot of the play. The remaining scene, 3.2, shows a citizenry that is entirely reactive to the words of Brutus and Antony. Not only that, but there in no individuality or dissent among the citizens. Their lines are single phrases split into parts, not unlike a broken chord in music. For example, after Brutus’s speech, the plebeians acclaim him, saying:

FIRST PLEBEIAN. Bring him with triumph home unto his house.

SECOND PLEBEIAN. Give him a statue with his ancestors.

THIRD PLEBEIAN. Let him be Caesar.

FOURTH PLEBEIAN.     Caesar’s better parts
Shall be crowned in Brutus. (JC 3.2.49-52)

These lines could easily be spoken by a single actor rather than four. By splitting the phrase between characters in this manner, Shakespeare makes it clear that the crowd is of a single mind, one unified mass rather than a collection of individuals. There are parts of Coriolanus where this is true as well, of course—in scene 3.3, for instance, all the plebeians’ lines are attributed to the entire group—but, as shown above, there are also parts of Coriolanus where the plebeians display a diversity of opinion; there are none such to be found in Julius Caesar.

The tribunes, too, play markedly different roles in the two plays. Brutus and Sicinius’s influence can be strongly felt throughout Coriolanus, as the eponymous character’s primary political antagonists. In scene 2.3, for instance, they block Coriolanus’s election to the consulship, demonstrating to the plebeians what a bad idea it would be by asking “do you think / That his contempt shall not be bruising to you / When he hath power to crush?” (Cor. 2.3.202-204). Later, in scene 3.1, Brutus and Sicinius exercise real political power by sentencing Coriolanus to death:

We do here pronounce,
Upon the part o’ th’ people, in whose power
We were elected theirs, Marcius is worthy
Of present death. (Cor. 3.1.213-216)

On the whole, the tribunes in Coriolanus do their job, and do it well; they protect the plebeians from abuse by the Senate and the consuls, even if they must sometimes use underhanded or manipulative tactics to do so.

Flavius and Marullus, on the other hand, are not depicted as representing the interests of the plebeians at all. As Blits puts it, “Our first glimpse of Caesar’s Rome shows the tribunes, whose ancient office had been established to protect the people against the nobility’s arrogance, now apparently forced to defend the republic against the people themselves” (42). Rather that showing the plebeians the error of their ways, the tribunes simply berate and harangue them. In addition, while Flavius and especially Marullus are appalled at the citizens’ celebration of an apparent dictator, they are appalled for the wrong reasons. Blits points out that

Marullus’ rebuke [of the cobbler] is not just non-republican but in fact anti-republican. What he says is more compatible with monarchy than with republicanism inasmuch as his indignant reminder of Pompey contradicts traditional republican equality and the ingratitude he accuses the people of is ingratitude not towards Rome or the republic but towards a particular Roman or Roman family. (45-46)

Brutus and Sicinius would be horrified at the concept of the dictatorship itself; Marullus’s main concern, by contrast, is that Caesar rose to his current position by means that Marullus considers illegitimate. To his thinking, all would be right in Rome were Pompey still in power. As a final point of contrast, Flavius and Marullus are politically impotent. Unlike Brutus and Sicinius, who were able to sentence a man of high status to death in their capacity as representatives of the people, the most Flavius and Marullus are able to accomplish is breaking up gatherings of citizens and removing the decorations from statues, and even this petty act of resistance results in them being “put to silence” (JC 1.2.286). As such, their impact on the narrative is utterly negligible; as mentioned previously, scene 1.1 of Julius Caesar could be dropped entirely from the play with little if any effect on the overall plot, meaning the audience need not even be aware of the characters’ existence.

Between the factionalization and civil wars at the patrician and Senate levels, and the powerless tribunes and unmotivated population at the citizen level, it’s clear that the Roman Republic in Julius Caesar is on its last legs. Early in the play, Cassius says of Caesar, “We will shake him, or worse days endure” (JC 1.2.322). His statement implies its own inverse; that if only the Republic could be rid of Caesar, the system would right itself. In light of the evidence, however, such a viewpoint seems either delusional or hopelessly optimistic. Perhaps Cassius cannot see past Caesar’s larger-than-life image—it is he, after all, who says of Caesar “he doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus” (JC 1.2.135-136)—but it is obvious, at least in hindsight, that Caesar was not the cause, but only the most visible symptom of the Republic’s decline. It is perhaps possible that the Republic could have been restored. Its decline, however, was due to pervasive, systemic problems which could only have been addressed by equally pervasive, systemic solutions, and as such, the assassination of one man, no matter how powerful, was a solution always doomed to failure.

Works Cited

Blits, Jan H. “Caesarism and the End of Republican Rome: Julius Caesar, Act I, scene i.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 43, no. 1, 1981, pp. 40-55, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2130236.

Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, The. “Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Sep 30, 2013, www.britannica.com/topic/Gnaeus-Marcius-Coriolanus.

—. “Roman Republic.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Apr 3, 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Roman-Republic.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. Shakespeare’s Tragedies, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Longman, 2007, pp. 1388-1436.

—. Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s Tragedies, edited by David Bevington, Pearson Longman, 2007, pp. 1055-1090.

Spiekerman, Timothy. “The Inevitable Monarchy: Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.” Shakespearean Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 170, 2016. Gale Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com.proxymu.wrlc.org/apps/doc/H1420121853/GLS?u=vic_marymount&sid=GLS&xid=dda23916.

Styrt, Philip G. “‘Continuall Factions’: Politics, Friendship, and History in Julius Caesar.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 66, no. 3, 2015, pp. 286-307, 385. ProQuest, https://search-proquest-com.proxymu.wrlc.org/docview/1753036975?accountid=27975.

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