Did Mark Anthony Really Start a Riot--Like Shakespeare Said?

Ever since I read Shakespeare in high school I wondered one thing: how historically accurate are some of his plays? I know he often borrowed alot from classical authors and others. And I have often wondered that about one play in particular: Julius Caesar.

It has been a while since I read the entire story. But it starts with Caesar’s wife have prophetic dreams about his death. Then the soothsayer predicts his death. Finally after Brutus is talked into doing the deed, Caesar is attacked on the floor of the Roman senate. Upon seeing his trusted friend Brutus among his conspirators, he exclaims “Et tu, Brute!” and dies.

Brutus did it more for honor than anything else, so when Caesar’s friend Mark Anthony asks for permission to say a few words at his funeral, Brutus agrees. Ah, but Mark Anthony has some hidden motives in mind as he famously begins the speech:

After cleaverly taking the Roman citizens on an emotional rollercoster using misdirection, appeals to their passions, and other things Mark Anthony is successful in starting a riot in Rome. War soon follows, the bad guys loose and Caesar’s righful heir Octavian is installed as emperor. (BTW, you can read the whole funeral speech here if you want.)

Now, I am not too concerned about the rest of the play. The prophetic dreams could have happened (they supposedly happened for Lincoln too). And I think that the names and places mentioned in this play are probably all accurate. But one thing has always bugged me from the moment I had first finished the play: did the riot really happen? I haven’t read too much about the history of Julius Caesar–just a little here and there. But I’ve never heard the riot mentioned any place else but Shakespeare. Was it true? And where did Shakespeare get the idea from?

Just wondering…


To answer your other question:

Not very. I can’t speak for Julius Caesar, as Roman history is not my forte, but in the English history plays he plays fast and loose with his sources. These sources weren’t necessarily accurate to begin with, as most of the historians of the day liked a good moral and weren’t above making up a speech or two, but they would normally have been correct about when people were born and died – information Shakespeare consistently ignored. For instance, Queen Margaret has a major role in Richard III, despite the fact that the historical Queen Margaret died before Richard became king. Shakespeare portrayed other characters as adults when they would really have been children, and vice versa, so it’s fair to say he never let his sources get in the way of a good scene.

Here’s Cassius Dio’s account of Antonius’ funeral oration (his history was written in the third century, CE) The oration is from 36-49 in the internal numbering system of the text.


Another good example of Shakespeare playing with facts for the sake of drama can be found in Henry IV, Part I, dealing with the revolt of the Percys. The younger Henry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, was in reality 37, a year older than Henry IV. (Percy had been born in 1366, Henry IV in 1367) However, for thematic reasons, Shakespeare makes Hotspur the same age as Prince Hal, the future Henry V, who was, at that time, 16.