Is common knowledge of Julius Caesar because of Shakespeare?

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.

I think there are plenty of ways for knowledge of Julius Caesar to retain his place in pop culture even without Shakespeare. As you mention, he’s in Plutarch’s Lives, which was read more often back a few hundred years ago. And, as you also mention, his Gallic Wars has been standard Latin I reading for a long time, in part because he wrote it to appeal to the common man. That alone would have made people familiar with him, and, inevitably, the cause of his death.

Machiavelli mentions him in The Prince, alongside a lot of historical figures I’m ashamed to say I’ve never even heard of. Caesar’s assassination is inChaucer’s Canterbury Tales (The Monk’s Tale), and in the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. If you didn’t know about the assassinations, his putting Brutus in the very Mouth of Satan wouldn’t make any sense.
There were other bios of him. Heck, he showed up in medieval tapestries as a sort of Ideal Ruler.

Of course, getting Shakespeare to write a major play about your death never hurts. I’ll bet that play is a big part “Et, tu, brute” is recalled, and especially “The Ides of March” (IIRC, it’s in Plutarch, but you’d never remember it from there. Shakespeare putting it dramatically in the mouyth of a soothsayer really makes it memorable.)

And he gets a nod from linguistics: Caesar - Kaiser - Tsar.

I’m going to pretty much agree with Cal. Ol’ Julius would still be known for a bunch of things, though perhaps not quite so well. His “Gallic Wars” would still be basic Latin, I think, because it isn’t so complicated and oratorical.

Compare with Alexander the Great, Julius’ hero–he hasn’t got a play, but I still know that he cried (and sulked for 3 days) when he realized he couldn’t conquer any more. His regard for all things Greek influenced most of the land he conquered so briefly, and turned Greek into the lingua franca of the ancient world for a while there. Oh, and of course he tamed Bucephalus when he was a boy, named a city after him, and gave him a proper burial when he died. All of that is (sort of) common knowledge for a reasonably educated person, it’s just the stuff that’s floating around out there that gets absorbed as you go along. And he didn’t write a basic Latin text or get a play.

“Big Bill” Shakespeare is not all that important in the non-English speaking world. The French don’t “get” him, nor do Spanish speakers. (I am convinced you could crib the heck out of WS and pass his stuff as your own in Latin America.)

So, no, Julius is remembered more for his own acts than for the play.
(What was it with a clock sounding in ancient Rome? How could WS have screwed that up?)

There’s also stuff in there about doublets. They weren’t really into accuracy at the time. :slight_smile:

In the non-English speaking world, then, would you say there’s as much knowledge about Caesar’s death as other stuff in Plutarch, like Sulla or Cato?

Julian calendar. Caesarean section.

The man did leave a mark.

Nero and Caligula are arguably as well-known as Caesar, but Shakespeare never wrote anything about them. On the other hand, there Shakespeare wrote a play about Coriolanus, who doesn’t seem to be very well recognized these days.

On the Television Without Pity website, they summed up the Battle of Pharsalus something like this: “Don’t know who won? Let’s put it this way–today, Americans don’t celebrate the Fourth of Pomp, now do they?”

Man, you uneducated kids today. Does nobody remember Ebroin, Mayor of the Palace in Neustria?

Yeah, okay I’ve been reading Carolingian history again ;). The first thing that came to mind ( other than Ebroin et al ) was Arthur of Brittany, but that’s another unproven case ( though really, an extremely likely one, much as with the Princes in the Tower ).

But yeah, I agree with Cal. Caesar wrote a fair bit and a fair bit was written about him long before Shakespeare came along. I think it is fair to say that Shakespeare traded on his popularity, rather popularized him.

ETA: By the way, Brittanica doesn’t mention it, but the circumstantial evidence is excellent that Pippin II ( father of Charles Martel ) arranged to have Ebroin knocked off.

Not really a screw-up–just part of Shakespeare’s theater experience. Audiences didn’t expect or want realistic costumes, time-telling devices, and the like. Shakespeare himself may or may not have KNOWN the clock was an anacronism, but he would have had no reason to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

We couldn’t really decide if Beckett was an assassination or a murder, but I decided murder. Same thing with people deposed and murdered by their family members - I wouldn’t call Edward II an assassination.

ETA - Yes, Shakespeare wrote a play on Coriolanus, but nobody reads it.

I read it in college. Can’t remember a darn thing about (other than it was a Roman play), but I rememeber reading it.

As for historical assassinations, there’s always the First Defenestration of Prague.

(The Second Defenestration doesn’t count, since the victims survived, having landed in a pile of manure…)

Even without Shakespeare, Caesar’s assasination was a notable event of history, and I think the artistic reaction to the event has been and still is relevant for at least two reasons:
[li] It is unquestionably the single most important event guiding the history of the Roman Republic/Empire, a culture that still has a lot of artifacts in and around Europe. If you’ve heard of the Romans, or understand anything about Roman culture, you’ve likely heard of Julius Caesar (much like if you’ve heard of the Huns, you’ve heard of Attila).[/li][li]Outside of history, the bare facts of the story can be used to illustrate truths about human culture and beliefs. “A great leader destroyed by his best friend for bad reasons” underscores such old saws as “Pride goeth before a fall”, “Remember that thou are mortal”, etc. Christianity (even without the religious overtones) has made great cultural use of a similar story for the past 2000 years.[/li][/ul]

And hey, don’t forget the influence of Asterix comics! That’s where I first learned that all Gaul was divided into three parts. Well, three and a bit.

For what it is worth, I think Caesar would still be better known than even Cicero or Hannibal or Nero. He was the first Emperor of Rome. He ended the Republic and was a very major historical figure without Shakespeare.

However the play has helped his common knowledge as many have no clue who Cicero or even Hannibal are.

Now Mac Bethad mac Findlaích is clearly only known for the play. He would otherwise be a minor little historical footnote that almost no one would care about.


Certainly some part of it has to be his book, usually in English the Commentary on the Gallic Wars or Commentaries - Caesar’s eight book, third person account of his nine years of war in Gaul.
For consideration: He is writing to do PR and it holds up. It was (by human standards) unbelievably old (not when compared to the Bible stories but just about everything else commonly read), in a language most literate and educated Europeans could read, with action set in France, England, Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland. Military people read it believing him to be a required master.

All that is to say I think the Bard is writing J.C. because he was a familiar subject to his audience and not he was likely an obscure historical personage at the time.

I think he wouldn’t be obscure even without the play.

BTW if someone asks in 400 years would we know about Julius Caesar if not for HBO’s Rome (And because the series is cited in the OP) I would direct our descendants to the Gallic Wars Book 5,

*In that legion there were two very brave men, centurions, who were now approaching the first ranks, T. Pulfio (usually translated Pullo), and L. Varenus. These used to have continual disputes between them which of them should be preferred, and every year used to contend for promotion with the utmost animosity. When the fight was going on most vigorously before the fortifications, Pulfio, one of them, says, “Why do you hesitate, Varenus? or what [better] opportunity of signalizing your valor do you seek? This very day shall decide our disputes.” When he had uttered these words, he proceeds beyond the fortifications, and rushes on that part of the enemy which appeared the thickest. Nor does Varenus remain within the rampart, but respecting the high opinion of all, follows close after. Then, when an inconsiderable space intervened, Pulfio throws his javelin at the enemy, and pierces one of the multitude who was running up, and while the latter was wounded and slain, the enemy cover him with their shields, and all throw their weapons at the other and afford him no opportunity of retreating. The shield of Pulfio is pierced and a javelin is fastened in his belt. This circumstance turns aside his scabbard and obstructs his right hand when attempting to draw his sword: the enemy crowd around him when [thus] embarrassed. His rival runs up to him and succors him in this emergency. Immediately the whole host turn from Pulfio to him, supposing the other to be pierced through by the javelin. Varenus rushes on briskly with his sword and carries on the combat hand to hand, and having slain one man, for a short time drove back the rest: while he urges on too eagerly, slipping into a hollow, he fell. To him, in his turn, when surrounded, Pulfio brings relief; and both having slain a great number, retreat into the fortifications amid the highest applause. Fortune so dealt with both in this rivalry and conflict, that the one competitor was a succor and a safeguard to the other, nor could it be determined which of the two appeared worthy of being preferred to the other. *