Himself and I finished the first season of Rome a couple days ago, and it got me thinking. How much do we owe the popularity of the Caesar/Brutus/Antony story to Shakespeare? Other well-documented Roman stuff isn’t as broadly known - nobody in the general public knows, say, Gaius Marius and Sulla unless they’ve read the Masters of Rome books, and even Augustus and Livia are much less widely known than Caesar, “Et tu, Brute?”, “Sic semper tyrannus!”, “Lend me your ears”, the Ides of March, etc. I think it’s reasonable to assume that any college educated person would have a vague recollection of all that Ides of March stuff. (Himself thinks I’m being optimistic.)
Granted, there’s a lot of Caesar stuff that used to be required reading for educated people - everybody does the Gallic Wars who takes Latin still, and then there’s Plutarch and Suetonius, right? But there’s a ton of well documented Romans that even Latin students don’t still read. When I was in college (and this was a pretty old-fashioned program that still offered Latin Prose Composition) we did the Gallic Wars, the Aeneid, and the Golden Ass, that I remember.
However, one assumes that the “classic” Latin curriculum itself is influenced by that influential playwright. Most of what I or anybody else remembers about the assassination is from the play, really - it might come from Plutarch but that isn’t how it snuck into our brains, and I think I remember “Et tu, Brute?” at least being of whole cloth.
The fact is, think of pre-modern assassinations and for most people, this is the only one they can come up with. Himself and I went back and forth and back and forth on that one - I asked him if he could think of any others off the top of his head, and then we had to argue about them - it doesn’t count if you get your head chopped off by a “government”, clearly that is not an assassination! Put on the spot (and we’re history buffs) we had a pretty hard time naming names - we were trying to think of people who were killed in relative public by treachery for political reasons and ended up with “Well, a bunch of popes and stuff, and Roman emperors, and Chinese people, but I can’t think of any names” until I finally dug up Henry IV of France in my brain. (We couldn’t decide if the Princes in the Tower counted, or Augustus’s poisoned fruit on the tree, etc. We did decide that it counts even if it may not be true, as this is a test of “common knowledge”, so King Tut may count.)
The question I’m trying to ask is, to what extent is Caesar’s assassination a case of “common knowledge accident”, in the way that minor ancient Judean kings are much better known historical people than much more “important” figures (compare “common knowledge” of, say, Nebuchadnezzar with Pericles) because of the widespread knowledge of the Bible? Is it an event that “deserves” its notoriety? Granted, everything that we know about history is itself an accident of history, but if Shakespeare hadn’t written that particular historical play how many of us would think “Caesar = assassination”?
Spoiler for the treatment of the event in Rome (I do not feel it necessary to spoiler box events that happened two thousand years ago, but their treatment in the show is kind of what you wait the whole first season for, so I will spoiler that.)
They play with you both ways - the last episode is called “The Kalends of February”, so you kind of think it won’t happen in this season. But then you know it’s the season ender, so something has to happen. And then they leave out all the tells you’re expecting - no “beware the Ides of March!”, and they don’t mention what day it is. There’s also no “Et tu, Brute?” although there is a “Thus to tyrants!” I just found it an interesting treatment of an event we all have very specific expectectations of. I was pleased, in the end. YMMV.