By Daniel Garrett
In Homer’s long and legendary poem The Iliad, one of the founding works of Greek and world literature, written in the eight century before the existence of Christ, a great cast of characters, conflicts, and choices seems to contain the wealth and wisdom of the ages: about the seduction and abduction of the Spartan queen Helen by a prince of Troy, and the war that follows, including a fight between the princes Achilles and Hector, there is a clash of cultures, and an exploration of heroism and hubris, that suggest the fundamentals of civilization. The poem may have been inspired by events occurring centuries before, around 1194 B.C., events that have been told and retold by storytellers throughout the ages, including filmmaker Wolfgang Petersen in the popular film Troy and Michael Cacoyannis in the film The Trojan Women.
In The Iliad, Helen, the wife of Menelaus, the king of the city-state Sparta in Greece, has fallen in love with Paris, a prince of Troy, with the aid of the goddess Aphrodite, and been brought by Paris to Troy, a walled city, also known as Ilium (in western Turkey). Sparta and Mycenae (or Argos), whose king—Agamemnon—is the elder brother of Menelaus, and their allies declare war and sail for Troy, which has withstood many invaders. The greatest warrior the Greeks have is Achilles, leader of the Myrmidons, but during the fighting, which lasts years, the chief commander Agamemnon takes a priestess of Apollo, Chyrseis, as his captive and servant, for which Agamemnon is offered a paternal ransom he refuses, and his men seem cursed by the gods with a plague. Agamemnon agrees to return his captive, but then claims Briseis, the war prize of Achilles—and Achilles refuses to fight. Achilles puts his own anger and pride above the shared mission; and the Trojans, led by Prince Hector of Troy, begin to beat back the Greeks. Patroclus, the closest companion of Achilles, wears the recognizable armor of his great friend Achilles, and fights, inspiring other Greeks, but Patroclus is killed by Hector; and Achilles pursues vengeance, killing Hector and dragging his body behind his chariot. Achilles rejects the Greek virtue of moderation, as Albert Camus noted (The Rebel). Priam, Troy’s king, beseeches Achilles to be allowed to give his son Hector a proper burial and Achilles grants his request. The Wolfgang Petersen film Troy (2004) attempts to tell some of that story, but what is ten years in the twenty-four books of an epic poem seems mere weeks, if not days, in the motion picture, which is a beautiful film, full of energy and movement and marvelous sunlight, with impressive locations and attractive costuming; and, despite this visual charm, and very good performances by Eric Bana as Hector and Peter O’Toole as his father King Priam, with Brad Pitt as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris (Bloom has the courage to appear cowardly), the motion picture is much too simple—and its simplifications are depressing.
Eric Bana as Hector embodies a calm assurance, dignity, strength, understanding that makes him a true center for this telling of the confrontation between Hector and Achilles. “No hostile hand can antedate my doom, / Till fate condemns me to the silent tomb. / Fix’d is the term to all the race of earth; / And such the hard condition of our birth: / No force can then resist, no flight can save, / All sink alike, the fearful and the brave,” Hector tells his wife Andromache, who has begun to anticipate his death with sorrow, in the sixth book of Homer’s Iliad, translated by Alexander Pope (Heritage Press, 1943; page 122); and Hector goes on to assert that “combat is the sphere for men” and that danger as well as glory and fame are to be found there (122). Bana’s Hector, although he shares a concern for personal distinction with Achilles, has a love for family and for country. So much else in the Petersen film seems simple—a disappointment for anyone who admired the Petersen who made The Consequence (1977), an intergenerational same-sex love story, and Das Boot (1981), a second world war story about isolation and conflict aboard a submarine, or even In the Line of Fire (1993), Outbreak (1995) and The Perfect Storm (2000). (Yet, Troy has been very popular: it made almost half-a-billion dollars internationally; and it has been the subject of academic discussion, particularly that written or organized by Martin Winkler.) Here in the film Troy, fame and lust for power are the motivating factors for men, and Helen (Diane Kruger) is merely a lovely and lonely girl who makes an impulsive decision for love, not a willful woman who comes to regret her actions; and Patroclus (Garrett Hedlund) is the cousin of Achilles, not his intimate companion, someone Achilles grew up with and loved above other men (often read as both friend and lover by Plato, Aeschylus, and others, in line with Greek and Roman cultures that accepted bisexuality as a fact: in Greece, same-sex love was nurturing; in Rome, it was a field of dominance). The viewer gets only a few glances at the mighty fighter Ajax, regrettably; and there are odd revisions of text (Menelaus is killed, though Menelaus survives in Homer and Euripides; and other major characters are killed too). The motion picture ends with Aeneas being given the symbolic sword of Troy, as if in preparation for a sequel. It is hard to see the connection between the film, written by David Benioff, and an earlier picture, The Trojan Women (1971), Michael Cacoyannis’s gritty and gloomy adaptation of the Euripides play (originally written for a Dionysos festival performance in 415 B.C.), that tells some of the rest of the story, the destruction of Troy and the devastation and grief visited on the women after their husbands have been defeated.
In The Trojan Women, Katharine Hepburn, so very good in the filmed works of great modern playwrights such as O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night), Williams (Suddenly, Last Summer), and Albee (A Delicate Balance), is the fallen Trojan queen Hecuba; and Genevieve Bujold is Hecuba’s troubled prophetess daughter Cassandra, and Vanessa Redgrave is Hector’s widow Andromache. Euripides contends with the complexities of history, the horrors of war, and the darkness in the human heart. The women are strong and furious, not the beautiful and delicate observers of filmmaker Petersen’s vision—and the Trojan widows desire Helen’s death, while the Greeks are eager to kill a surviving Trojan prince, the son of Hector and Andromache. One of the soldiers who fought with Achilles, Ulysses (Odysseus), has a long journey home to his wife in Ithaca, a return slowed by his detour into the realms of monsters and sirens, a story told in the film Ulysses (1954), directed by Mario Camerini, starring Kirk Douglas as the hero, and Silvana Mangano as both the hero’s wife Penelope, besieged by suitors, and the sorceress Circe, an adventurous (sometimes fun) tale that lacks the depth and detail of Homer (Odyssey), although written by about seven writers, including the director Camerini with Ben Hecht and Irwin Shaw. Eventually history does become myth or mere amusement—and artists and intellectuals work to return us to elemental facts and the force of what they mean.
We have inherited the architectures and philosophies and stories and techniques of the ancient world. The ancient world—Greece and Rome, but also Armenia, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Iran (Persia)—is the foundation of the modern one. Remembering that can be humbling, illuminating. Language, culture, philosophy, religion, festivals, and sports brought together diverse peoples into a Greek civilization of world impact—those Minoan (on Crete) and Helladic (mainland Greece), those who were Aeolians and Ionians and Dorians. The laws of early leaders such as Draco and Solon laid the foundation for a decent society. The golden age of Greece, of Athens, was the fifth century before Christ, with the rise of Pericles as leader, and the building of the Parthenon and other great structures, and the flowering of art and thought—of writers such as tragedians Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, and satirists Aristophanes, Menander, and Philemon, and historians Herodotus and Thucydides. The old tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were often about solitary heroes contemplating self, purpose, fate—and personal and public matters; and the plays were presented as part of spring festivals consisting of parades and religious rituals as well as drama. The history and politics of the ancient world are too complicated to be summarized here, or in any one play or film, although one can get significant glimpses of that world in art.
Euripides lived from about 485 B.C. to 406 B.C., born near Athens on the island of Salamis, and his first play, now lost, was The Peliades, and his works include Medea and Electra and Orestes, focusing, like many writers, on several significant houses or families. In his play The Trojan Women, there is a world of gods and men and women. Poseidon and Athena recall their long relation with Troy, the war between Troy and Sparta, the losses, and consequent neglect of the gods—who took sides in the war (Poseidon and Apollo had protected the Trojans, while Hera and Athena helped the Greeks). Athena now wants to punish the Achaeans (the Greeks and their allies) for their insult to her. Meanwhile, Hecuba, once Troy’s queen, and the other women mourn and worry, after the defeat of their land, expecting humiliation and slavery. In The Trojan Women, as translated by Francis Blessington and published by University of Wisconsin Press in 2015, Hecuba declares, “My country, children, husband all have perished” (page 15). Talthybius, a herald, comes with news of the women’s assignments: Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra has been claimed by Agamemnon for his bed (Cassandra thinks she will kill him); and Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena is missing (Hecuba is given a riddle to explain her fate). Achilles’s son (Neoptolemus) chose Andromache, Hector’s widow. Hecuba, who wants to sing of her lost joys to make her misery even clearer, is to be slave to Odysseus (Ulysses), whom she calls a lawless beast. She counsels that no man should be counted as fortunate until his death—as no one knows the changes, the reversals, in a life. The chorus remembers how Troy was defeated: the treachery of the abandoned horse statue, believed a token of worship, and brought into the walled city, but, which held inside Greek men with spears that lay siege to the city.
Aristotle (Poetics) thought that the elements of tragedy were character, thought, diction, action, song, and spectacle—and that what happens, how action expresses the theme and fulfills the sense of tragedy (what inspires fear and pity), is most important. Something terrible is at the heart of The Trojan Women: war, grief, and their questionable causes—and yet because the barbarism of armed conflict is contemplated, understood, articulated, the play is a contribution to civilization. “One evil competes with the next,” observes Hecuba of what has happened, is happening (The Trojan Women; page 37). One might measure evil by considering how children are treated—or the dead. Are they shown appropriate care? Andromache tells Hecuba that her daughter Polyxena was killed near the tomb of Achilles (in the Cacoyannis film, we see the abandoned body, how Andromache covers it). Andromache says that to die is better than to live in misery; and she herself feels torn between the past and the future (her husband Hector’s memory will torment her new bond—and acceptance of her new bond with the son of Achilles will betray memory of her marriage to Hector). Hecuba advises Andromache to be a good mate to her new master or husband, to protect her son and give Troy a chance to be reborn. However, the messenger Talthybius lets Andromache know that her son will be killed. (The Greeks will kill him out of fear, and to insure Troy does not rise again.) Andromache calls the Greeks the inventors of barbarian crimes, and she curses Helen.
Menelaus says that he came to Troy not for Helen but for Paris, for the prince’s violation of hospitality and marriage; and Menelaus plans to take Helen back to Sparta for her execution, for her death. When Hecuba asks Menelaus to kill Helen, warning him against getting close to the woman again, Helen herself says that the problem was Hecuba’s son Paris, that King Priam and Hecuba should have killed him when he was young. Helen recalls the contest among the goddesses for Paris’s approval, for which Aphrodite offered Helen as a prize—Hecuba disputes the likelihood of such a contest, saying Hecuba advised Helen to go back to the Greeks, and offered to help her do so, but Helen was mad with desire, greed, vanity. The innocents have been killed. Will this guilty woman, Helen, be killed too? The city burns, crumbles, and the gathered women are taken to Greek ships.
“The classical Greek tragedies do not naturally lend themselves to filming; they are poetry, not prose, and depend upon the power of their words,” wrote the critic Roger Ebert in the June 4, 1972 Chicago Sun-Times when considering the adaptation of Euripides play The Trojan Women, as translated by Edith Hamilton, by film director Michael Cacoyannis, featuring Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, Genevieve Bujold as Cassandra, and Irene Papas as Helen. (Brian Blessed is the messenger Talthybius, a man of muscle and mind—and some sympathy.) Roger Ebert found too great the contrast between the eloquent language and the humble facts of human faces, despite the appeal and talent of the cast. Ebert thought the actresses—except for Irene Papas—became historical statues. Vincent Canby, finding the work more ritual than narrative, and the featured actresses too different in styles, declared, “This Trojan Women is high-class mediocre” in the September 28, 1971 New York Times, although Canby was impressed by the beauty and authority of Vanessa Redgrave and Irene Papas. Jon Solomon, author of The Ancient World in Cinema (A.S. Barnes & Co., 1978), a comprehensive and enjoyable study, found the Cacoyannis film’s acting fine and its verse smooth-flowing, with cinematic ornamentations, yielding an enhancement of the play, rather than mere documentation (page 169). Seeing the film so many years later, I found its austerity—the natural locations, the plain language, and the volatile situation (photographed by Alfio Contini)—earthy and engaging, moving. Hepburn may be a bit of a dry figure but I never doubt her intelligence, her understanding of the language or the circumstances. Pauline Kael (The New Yorker, October 16, 1971) thought Hepburn one of the great American actors, and, while Kael found some of Hecuba’s speeches too mournful, Kael suggested the resemblance between Hecuba (Hepburn) and Andromache (Redgrave) could explain Hector’s attraction to Andromache. Pauline Kael saw the logic of the relationships, of the casting and performances. In the work’s protest against male violence—what, after all, has been accomplished by the fighting?—I saw similarities between the Euripides play and the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes (born 450 B.C., died 388 B.C.). Lysistrata, first performed in Athens in 411 B.C., is a work in which women tire of war and refuse their warring men sex until peace is declared; and it was partly inspired by the Peloponnesian war (431 to 405 B.C.), fought between two Greek city-states, Athens and Sparta. Athens was organized by alliances, and Sparta by force, it was a military power, and the war between them, which would presage the fall of Athens, had gone on for many years, destroying lives, destroying cultures—the lives women bring forth and tend, the cultures women teach.
Lysistrata has been filmed several times, and recently by Spike Lee. The director Spike Lee, who made She’s Gotta Have It (1986), Do the Right Thing ((1989), Malcolm X (1992) and, among other films, Bamboozled (2000) and 25th Hour (2002), took Aristophanes’ Lysistrata as his text for Chi-Raq (2015), a motion picture Lee wrote with Kevin Willmott, that uses music and verse to convey its still-urgent message. Spike Lee acknowledges recognizable realities in Africa and America—inequity, oppressive practices, and violence—that make this old Greek text speak loudly: for instance, a Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee, who had suffered through her nation’s first civil war in 1989 as well as domestic abuse, was a social work student and received a master’s degree in conflict transformation, and Gbowee led the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which encouraged praying, protest, and a sex strike to end the second civil war in 2003. The war ended, and a free election followed, making Ellen Johnson Sirleaf the nation’s president. Leymah Gbowee won, with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkol Karman, the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2011. Might such a sex strike work in a place like Chicago, in which gangs fight each other with a great deal of collateral damage, the loss of life and the destruction of property? Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq is a comic, colorful film, a work of facts and fury, art equal to the complexity of the world: acts of violence and their consequences (deformed bodies, death, loss) are contemplated, protested. “No peace, no pussy,” the women chant. “Urgent, surreal, funny and wildly messy, the movie sounds like an invitation to defeat, but it’s an improbable triumph that finds Mr. Lee doing his best work in years,” wrote reviewer Manohla Dargis, commending Lee’s blunt, imaginative signifying on the Aristophanes text, with Lee’s use of diverse narrative strategies and musical forms, in the December 3, 2015 New York Times.
In Chi-Raq, photographed by Matthew Libatique, with a musical score by Terence Blanchard, there is a beauty and energy and thought—a celebration of, and lament for, Chicago. Here are fact and fiction, comedy and tragedy. Teyonah Parris is Lysistrata, and Nick Cannon is her boyfriend Demetrius, a rap performer and the leader of the Spartans, with Wesley Snipes as Cyclops, the leader of the opposing gang, the Trojans. The war begins after a Trojan heckles one of Demetrius’s performances and is killed. (Heckling seems like a rather frivolous incitement for a murder or a war, but so does adultery and a wife’s abandonment, or the rumor of weapons of mass destruction.) During one of the violent encounters, a child is killed. The dead innocent child in Chi-Raq, like the dead innocent child in The Trojan Women, suggests the limits of social morality in practice, the violation of virtue. After the child’s death, Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is criticized as complicit by the child’s mother Irene (Jennifer Hudson); and Lysistrata encourages the women to withhold sex until the men work out a peace—but despite their frustrations, the men resist. Lysistrata recognizes that there are interlocking circles of cruelty and pain, prizes as well as punishments for bad behavior: she sees the military as a model for gang violence, and as a lucrative industry—and when she and her associates take over an armory, their struggle gains fame, inspiring women around the world. (Men try to entice the women to leave the armory with seductive music—but the women stuff their ears, refusing the siren songs.) Jon Solomon (The Ancient World in Cinema) had said that some versions of Lysistrata had a dim effect as they (a 1948 Austrian film, a 1954 French film, a 1955 American film) could not be explicit about sex—not a problem Spike Lee has. Spike Lee satirizes male ego, male desire, and male violence, whether legal or illegal, as writer K. Austin Collins writes in his commentary on Chi-Raq in the online January 18, 2016 Los Angeles Review of Books. Spike Lee brings together different modes of being and perception, different kinds of representation. “Lee is pushing us not to take the value of these modes for granted. He is pushing us to see beyond realism as a marker of political seriousness—beyond the straight, progressive path to readily politicized sentiment that some have demanded of him,” states Collins.
Why might such old works as The Iliad and The Trojan Women and Lysistrata, and their contemporary interpretations, matter? The passions and principles that drive men and women ages ago are some of the same that drive the people around us—and even ourselves. We know that those drives have meaning, but artists and writers help us to see what that meaning might be. Homer and Euripides and Aristophanes (and Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle) helped the Greeks to see both themselves and their ideals—and Cicero, Lucretius, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Pliny the Elder, and Hypatia could be said to have done the same for the Romans—just as filmmakers today help us to see humanity. The legacy of the ancient world has been the foundation of much of western civilization: after the fall of Rome (circa 476 A.D.), when its emperor was defeated by a German mercenary, there was a long time of barbarism, famine, illness, ignorance, superstition, persecution, and war, usually called the dark ages; but, beginning in the 14th century through the 17th century, Europe—through Shakespeare and Leonardo de Vinci and Rene Descartes and Titian, among others—rediscovered the ancient world’s culture and knowledge, and tried to make them a part of European institutions and lives. That renewed attention was part of Europe’s rebirth, its Renaissance. People learned a deeper respect the human, learned to see its possibilities. Knowing something about those ancient cultures allows us to see their surviving elements in our own very different world, elements that can be found in laws and philosophy as well as in museums. Gore Vidal (Julian and Creation) and Percival Everett (Frenzy) knew that, and they are not the only ones—Louise Bourgeois, Anne Carson, Ralph Ellison, David Ferry, Damien Hirst, James Joyce, Frederic Leighton, Toni Morrison, Pablo Picasso, Derek Walcott, and Thornton Wilder are among the artists inspired by the ancient world. Is that merely an elite view, an old-fashioned perspective?
The classical is what has survived time and its changes. The study of languages, literature, philosophy, arts and sciences, with an awareness of diverse cultures and traditions, and a great regard for the best that has been thought and felt, has been an ideal. The ancient world has been thought of as a fount of excellence, a standard, but we have forgotten much of its ignorance and ineptitude; and the best that it offers, a classical education, like most education, is, principally, the preserve of schools, of colleges. Yet, as internet posts, daily newspapers, and monthly magazines report, the isolation and idealizations of academia can produce distortions of perspectives (Brandon Taylor’s Real Life and May Sarton’s The Small Room are two novels suggesting how disfiguring academia can be, especially for women and minorities). Literary scholar Stanley Fish has defended a classical education—as have Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch and certain conservatives, but this is far from a partisan interest. When Howard University, a venerated black college, announced in April 2021 that it would eliminate its classics department—its study of the ancient world, of Greece and Rome, and the art, philosophy, and literature that world produced—the notice inspired debate about the necessity of knowing that legacy. When National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep, a host for Morning Edition, interviewed Howard University professor Anika Prather (May 10, 2021), Prather, the author of Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experiences of African-American Students Reading Great Books Literature, told Steve Inskeep and his listening audience, “A lot of people think classics are Shakespeare. Matter of fact, in some of the articles I’ve been reading, people have kind of lumped in Shakespeare and other works in this. And so it’s not the same. Classics, from an academic point of view, is the study of ancient Greece and Rome and all of the literature, the art, the culture, the language, such as Latin and Greek, that intersect there. So you’re reading Plato, you’re reading Aristotle, you’re reading the Greek tragedies, Roman comedy, you’re reading the myths. And from that seed, classics—you have the roots and the trunk and the branches—would be all the other literature and culture that is connected to that.”
The relish and reverence for knowledge, for culture, is not an antiquated pursuit or pleasure. Capitalism and commerce are not the only authorities. Testing and technology cannot be the only standards—the cultivation of a good life, and active citizenship are as important. A mind that knows itself and knows excellence is its own reward. When Princeton University announced in 2021 that it would drop the requirement that classics majors learn Greek or Latin, the linguist John McWhorter wrote in the online Atlantic monthly (June 7, 2021), “All classicists recognize that, really, you need to know the languages to fully understand the texts. This is also true of other literatures.” John McWhorter, the author of Towards a New Model of Creole Genesis and The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, defended rigor; McWhorter defended practice and process—true mastery. Of course a little knowledge is better than no knowledge—and most of us have a little. While some of us may have read Greek and Roman mythology and drama and philosophy in high school or college in English translations, the figures of the ancient world that most of us know are King Tut, born in year 1332 before Christ, died in year 1323 before Christ; and Alexander the Great, born 356 B.C., died 323 B.C.; Julius Caesar, born 100 B.C., died 44 B.C.; and Cleopatra, born 69 B.C., died 30 B.C.—and that is partly due to their presentation in popular journalism as well as on stage and in cinema. Sometimes the ancient world is cited for the models or the warnings it might offer the modern world: looking at ancient Rome, people sometimes see twentieth-century (or twenty-first century) Italy or Britain or America. Yet, the past is a created past, a fiction made of selected facts. “Is historical film, therefore, a proper object of study for classicists? And should cinema have a place in the investigation of antiquity’s reception?” wondered scholar Maria Wyke at the beginning of her book Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (Routledge, 1997; page 3), a book with chapters on Spartacus, Cleopatra, Nero, and Pompeii, examining different silent and sound films on those separate subjects, and featuring illustrations, notes, a filmography and bibliography. Some of the connections between the past and the present may be contrived, a way to argue for cherish ideals (of civic virtue, of liberty) or to issue provocative warnings of decline and fall.
History belongs to the victors—and the storytellers: whereas Alexander and Julius Caesar were famous for being world conquerors—or world destroyers—Cleopatra was famous for conquering Caesar and Mark Antony; and King Tut may have become famous for disproving the adage you cannot take it with you. The discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, by Howard Carter and George Herbert in 1922, led to enthusiastic newspaper and magazine articles, television reports, museum exhibits, and at least one film project, a three-part 2015 Spike TV series, Tut, directed by David von Aucken and featuring Avan Jogia, an actor of charm and talent, as the young Egyptian pharaoh in a story weaved out of fact and fiction. Ben Kingsley plays Tut’s adviser Ay; Alexander Siddig is a religious leader, Amun; and Sibylla Dean is Tut’s sister Ankhesamun. Avan Jogia’s charm is such that he gives an element of romance to many of Tut’s scenes, whether with Sibylla Dean as his sister Ankhe or Kylie Bunbury as his mistress Suhad, or with his friend (and sister’s lover) Ka, played by Peter Godiot. Tutankhamun, the son of King Akhenaten (and possibly Queen Nefertiti), married his sister Ankhesamun, for the maintenance of a pure blood line. Tutankhamun ruled from 1332 B.C. to 1323 B.C. Tut was a polytheistic traditionalist regarding religion, whereas his father was a reformer on behalf of one god, Aten. Tut was known to have a bad leg (which may have been further injured and infected later in his life); and, after nine years as pharaoh Tut died at age nineteen, and his tomb had more than one hundred walking canes, along with chairs, jewelry, paintings, statues, and chariots. One watches the film Tut, with its impressive locations, furnishings, and costumes (its production designer is Michael Z. Hanan), surprised not by the presentation of palace or personal intrigue—friendship, love, betrayal, and the matter of a suitable heir as well as political rivalries and the threats of hostile nations—but that so many plot points satisfy the audience desire for dynamic action. The Mittani are presented as a significant enemy of Egypt, although, in fact, the Hittites were of more concern; and the film gives Tut a Mittani girlfriend Suhad (Kylie Bunbury) whom he cannot marry, as she is of an enemy tribe (though some Egyptians did marry Mittani—the fact that she is a commoner rather than a princess would be more significant). The Hollywood Reporter’s mocking reviewer Keith Uhlich did not like Tut—one wonders if the director, in paring down the Michael Vickerman script, may have left something on the floor that Uhlich might have liked.
Alexander III of Macedon, the son of Philip II and Olympias and a student of Aristotle, and the conqueror of Persia, Egypt, other lands, and the founder of many cities, known as Alexander the Great, has been featured in a great deal of scholarship, such as the 2020 book Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors (focusing on the armies and resources gathered by Philip and used by his son) written by Adrian Goldsworthy, and in several films, including Robert Rossen’s Alexander the Great (1956), starring Richard Burton, and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), starring Colin Farrell. Robert Rossen’s film, which follows first the career of Philip II (Fredrich March), and then that of his son Alexander III (Burton), is intelligent and has been respected for its attention to history (and the togas are great). “Mr. Rossen has drawn action and emotion from ancient history,” wrote reviewer A.H. Weiler in the March 29, 1956 New York Times, finding the film a colorful and thunderous show, with Richard Burton giving “a serious and impassioned portrayal of a man inspired by but still repelled by his father. He is swayed but not ruled by his mother’s will. He emerges, above all, as a dedicated chieftain who lends dimension to history.”
Scholar Jon Solomon, in his 1978 book The Ancient World in the Cinema, published by A.S. Barnes and Company, wrote that the ancient world’s appeal was that of aesthetics, intellect, and history, noting there had been more than four-hundred films of diverse genres set in the old world; and Solomon complimented Richard Burton’s complex portrait of Alexander: Burton “portrays a constantly changing young man in the moods of anger, reverence, courage, collapse, energy, fever, idealism, practicality, shrewdness, hot-temper, and intelligence” (page 30). I admired the Rossen film very much but thought Burton sometimes seemed a bit depressed, as if recovering from drinking—and I, like others, appreciated a sensuous Claire Bloom as Barsine, the supposed mistress of Alexander: “Alexander’s romance with Barsine (Claire Bloom) is more implied than realized, but she does have some fine, expressive moments,” wrote Variety in its December 31, 1955 review. Oliver Stone consulted historians too, and his film Alexander, ambitious and admirable for its attempts to consider Alexander’s character, bisexuality, political goals, and military battles, did not fare as well: originally the film, with Colin Farrell as Alexander and Jared Leto as Alexander’s lifelong friend (and lover) and military comrade Hephaestion, and Rosario Dawson as Alexander’s wife Roxane, received many very critical comments, and Stone has gone back to edit it several times, providing an “ultimate cut” in 2014. “Most of all, Alexander wasn’t a big enough film to do justice to its subject,” wrote Peter Sobczynski of the first version, on the web pages of RogerEbert.com (June 24, 2014); but now, it (the “ultimate cut”) is “an undeniably fascinating example of epic cinema.”
Of course, once seen, it is impossible to forget Elizabeth Taylor as the beautiful and shrewd Cleopatra VII Philopator, the daughter of Ptolemy XII, a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, in the notorious 1963 film production Cleopatra by director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, based on historical sources (Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian), costing a fortune ($44 million then, equaling more than three hundred million in today’s dollars), and co-starring Richard Burton as Mark Antony and Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar. Dorothy Spencer is listed as the monumental film’s editor. I recall seeing the film when very young and finding Elizabeth Taylor oddly earthbound, and much later read about her illness (pneumonia) during the production. Yet, Elizabeth Taylor is one of the few women who could embody Cleopatra. One relishes Cleopatra’s entrance into Rome, and regrets her later retreat in a sea battle with Roman forces—but there is much of her history that does not make it into this long and expensive film.
The fifteenth Egyptian ruler of the house of Ptolemy, Cleopatra, apparently, was a charming and educated multilingual young woman, someone with an attractive speaking voice, who was co-regent with several siblings (and finally her son) in Egypt, beginning at eighteen. Conflict with her ten-year co-regent brother (and his advisers and armed forces) led to exile in Syria until she returned and won Julius Caesar’s support. Cleopatra, who identified herself with Isis, and was said to like the conversation of scholars, established successful trade relations with many Arab nations. She gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar, or Caesarion, believed to be Caesar’s son; and, after Caesar’s death she supported Rome’s reigning triumvirate Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus against Caesar’s assassins, the senators Brutus and Cassius—just as Mark Antony would support her against her rivals. Mark Antony, the son of a soldier and grandson of a consul, had been a military general under Caesar, and would depend on Cleopatra for military support in a losing war with Parthia; and Antony had three children with Cleopatra. When Antony declared Caesarion the true heir of Julius Caesar, not Octavius, the Roman senate stripped Antony of his official titles, and Octavius declared war on Cleopatra, who would die at age 39. The New Yorker’s critic Richard Brody called Cleopatra “Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s spectacular yet intimate 1963 feast of literary insight and melodramatic extravagance” (June 11, 2013)—and here Julius Caesar is a dedicated administrator but there are other portraits of Caesar worth remembering. Why is Caesar important? Julius Caesar made, as he wished, a greater Rome, a Rome that conquered or influenced much of the world; and he demonstrated the reach and limits of personal power.
Gaius Julius Caesar’s life was more complicated than legend. His family had been long established, respected, though they had no great power or wealth, although a couple of family members had official public offices (several were consuls). Yet, Julius Caesar was known for the strength of his mind, spirit, and body and his achievements were his own. His marriage to a woman, Cornelia, whose father (Lucius Cornelius Cinna) was associated with political rebellion put him in danger—and Caesar chose the exile of foreign military service (Asia, Armenia), but returned to Rome as a prosecuting advocate, a lawyer (apparently Rome, unlike Greece, respected the expertise of those who knew the law). Caesar studied oratory, raised a private army to defeat a Roman enemy (Mithridates Vi of Pontus), and was accepted in various religious and military orders before being elected quaestor (a financial administrator), sometimes charged with public investigations of crimes. In memorial orations for his wife Cornelia and aunt Julia, Caesar affirmed the legacies of the rebels Cinna and Marius, once consuls and men who had opposed Sulla; and Caesar married (and would divorce) Pompeia, a woman in the family of respected Roman leader Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius). Julius Caesar, subsequently, was elected to positions of curule aedile (magistrate) in 65 B.C., and pontifex maximus (leader of a college of priests) in 63 B.C., and then the high office of praetor in 62 B.C. and in the next year or so the governorship of part of Spain. Those offices were his steps before becoming consul of Rome and then dictator. His personal life aided his ambitions, as his daughter married Pompey and Caesar married Calpurnia, daughter of a high official. Caesar, like many Romans, was known to be bisexual; and he was rumored to have had, when young, a sexual relationship with King Nicomedes of Bithynia (Anatolia), and, later, with his own heir Octavian. Caesar conquered Gaul (France, Belgium, and parts of Germany) and other lands, amassing armies and wealth. He diversified and enlarged the senate, created a standard for city constitutions, restored the decimated cities of Carthage and Corinth, limited gifts to magistrates, issued daily reports on government activities, and reformed the Roman calendar. His name became a synonym for great power: czar, kaiser, qaysar.
Julius Caesar (1953) by Joseph Leo Mankiewicz, based on Shakespeare
In Rome, 44 B.C., the city is bustling, and some people are talking about politics, and some are buying and selling grown and made things, and some are gambling. The gambling men have ignored their work to see the statesman and soldier Gaius Julius Caesar’s arrival and are passing the time with the hope of making a little money. Caesar has inspired respect for his eloquence and energies, for his military strategies and political maneuvering—and his return to the city is an event. One man makes a speech about the once admired (and murdered) leader Pompey, and the quick-changing attitude of people; and that skeptical citizen and another man criticize the conquering Caesar—and are arrested by soldiers. When Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) arrives, the triumphant ruler surveys the scene and recognizes the virile Marcus Antonius, known to Shakespeare and to us as Mark Antony, and whom is preparing to participate in an event with civil and spiritual import, the Lupercal, a festival of purification and fertility featuring a public race commemorating Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome; and Caesar suggests Calpurnia (Greer Garson) come close to Mark Antony (Marlon Brando), so that Antony’s good health might heal her barren state. (I am not sure how to describe the look on the face of Greer Garson as Calpurnia, but it made me want to see more Greer Garson films. How does one respond to a man who recognizes the potency of his half-naked younger male friend and recommends that man to the attention of his wife? I recall Saul Bellow writing, in “On Shakespeare’s Sonnets” in There is Simply Too Much to Think About, that Bellow was surprised by literary scholar Leslie Fiedler’s insistence of a homosexual impulse in Shakespeare’s Caesar but that moment with Antony and Calpurnia might be indirect evidence of the impulse.) The Romans have their holiday, and cheer Caesar, but “Beware the Ides of March,” a soothsayer calls. Meanwhile, Brutus (James Mason) and Cassius (John Gielgud), two senators, two friends, talk: Brutus is withdrawn, says Cassius; and Brutus admits he has been troubled. Cassius flatters Brutus, and says that he, Cassius, fears Caesar will be made a king, a defeat for democracy. Brutus and Cassius talk near the statues of great men, a setting both abstract and symbolic. Cassius recalls saving Caesar from drowning, and Cassius cannot accept Caesar as so much superior to other men. How could Rome be thought to have only one great man?
What is the necessary response to a man who wants to be the whole congregation of power? The conqueror and dictator Julius Caesar is one of many characters of power, exploring personality, philosophy, perversity, and politics, in the work of Shakespeare. William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), a playwright, poet, and actor, often cited as the world’s greatest writer, was the son of merchant John Shakespeare and of Mary Arden, a Roman Catholic gentlewoman from propertied people. William Shakespeare’s plays featured the communion and confrontation of great varieties of characters and consciousness; and his comedies and tragedies were presented to the English court, and enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth, and before the public at the Globe and Blackfriars theaters. His characters—Coriolanus and Falstaff and Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth and Richard III—are seen as emblems of human nature. Often modern politicians, for their ambition or corruption, have been compared to Shakespeare’s rampaging rulers. Shakespeare’s plays frequently are revived for the stage and for film and television. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park presented Julius Caesar in the summer of 2017, months after the election of the forty-fifth president of the United States of America, a malicious man recognized for both marketing genius and authoritarian tendencies (both Caesar and he “exploit pomp and rhetoric and are violently deplored by their enemies,” wrote reviewer David Cote in the Village Voice, the June 14 – 20, 2017 issue). Directed by Oskar Eustis and starring Gregg Henry, this Caesar was recognizable to anyone following contemporary politics, and gave the play a satirical aspect, but its most haunting question remained: how does a democracy challenge overreaching power? (The Delacorte production and Cote article followed a January 18 – 24, 2017 Village Voice article, “American Emperor” by Joy Connolly, comparing the demagoguery in ancient Rome and contemporary America.) The Royal Shakespeare Company, in England, produced Julius Caesar in 2017 for general audiences, and a special presentation in 2018 at schools for young audiences; and the play was again put on by the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, New York, in 2019.
In Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1953 film production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, starring Louis Calhern as Julius Caesar and Marlon Brando as Mark Antony, Julius Caesar, a man of great power, is watchful, and Caesar says to Mark Antony that he prefers fat men, not slim hungry men like Cassius—who thinks too much. (Louis Calhern as Caesar looks old and plump; and it is surprising that Caesar is not a more significant figure in the play—yet Caesar may be, as some scholars suggest, too large in character and accomplishment for full treatment in the play. George Bernard Shaw thought Shakespeare’s Caesar a failure—and Shaw wrote his own play Caesar and Cleopatra, the basis of a 1945 film of the same name starring Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh, directed by Gabriel Pascal.) Antony (Brando) tries to reassure Caesar (Calhern) but Caesar is not assured. Casca (Edmond O’Brien) tells Brutus (Mason) and Cassius (Gielgud) that Caesar, after a public ritual (a race around the city), was offered a crown three times by Mark Antony before a crowd, but Caesar refused it—Caesar is applauded with each refusal and seems less reluctant to let the crown go with each refusal; and Caesar has an epileptic fit. Cassius want to convince Brutus, considered a moral and thoughtful man by most, to join Cassius and other conspirators against Caesar. Who is so firm that he cannot be seduced? asks Cassius, thinking of Brutus; and Cassius plans a campaign to bring Brutus to his way of thinking. Such calculations imply the priority of politics and the willingness to betray or manipulate the integrity of a colleague and friend.
Julius Caesar seems less protagonist than problem. Does Caesar want to be king, and why is that so repugnant to his fellow citizens? Will citizens have government by consent, or government by compulsion? Rome had known kings, claimed by the general populace (power) and elected representatives (authority), in its early history, competent and good leaders, followed by more despotic men, self-selected, self-promoting, some who were murderous; and the Romans had become suspicious of men who wanted to be king, as Bruce Lincoln discusses in his recently republished 1994 book Authority: Construction and Corrosion (University of Chicago, 2019; pages 37 – 40). Caesar’s ambition became a subject of concerned attention after certain discomforting public events: laurel diadems, threaded with white (a royal color), appeared on statues of Caesar; and Caesar wrote red boots, in the fashion of Alba Longa kings, for a ritual celebration at Mount Alba, and Caesar was greeted as king by a man observing Caesar’s parade returning to the city (Caesar had the tribunes who arrested the man removed from office); and, finally, following a celebration (Lupercalia), commemorating Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome, with men in loincloths racing around the city, Mark Antony offered Caesar a crown several times. The people refused to accept and make their own these affirmations of kingship. Some believed that Caesar, who was to leave the city again for an expedition against a state enemy (the Parthians) on March 18, would want to confirm his authority before then, bringing up the matter with the senators a few days before, on the Ides of March (pages 40 – 45).
In Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar, on a stormy night, one that may be full of portents, the senators Casca (Edmond O’Brien) and Cicero (Alan Napier) talk, one superstitious, the other rational. Casca is agitated, by the storm, by the political tensions. When Casca and Cassius (Gielgud) meet, Cassius says that he, Cassius, will deliver himself from bondage. (One wonders: if a senator is in bondage, what is one to think of Romans of lesser status, the ordinary people and laborers and servants, the slaves?) Brutus (James Mason), alone, contemplates power, and whether Caesar will be given an authority that will make him destructive: “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins / Remorse from power,” states Brutus Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 2.1, in The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Sixth Edition, Pearson, 2009; page 1063). Should Caesar be broken as a serpent’s egg, or challenged when enthroned, full of poison? Many of Shakespeare’s characters have temperamental freedom—and assume practical freedom—and that can come at great cost to themselves or others; and Brutus contemplates that freedom. Brutus’s servant finds a complimentary parchment meant for his master, one of Cassius’s ploys. Conspirators arrive—Cassius (Gielgud) affirms again how well the Romans think of Brutus. Cassius wants both Caesar and his friend Antony killed, but Brutus resists that, calling Antony merely a limb of Caesar—and thinking they will seem like butchers if they do more than is necessary.
“It is no slight at all to anybody to say that Britain’s Mr. Gielgud gives by far the most rounded and subtle performance in the film. His Cassius is desperate, sarcastic, perceptive and intense, the quintessence of the feverish rebelliousness that Shakespeare put into words. But then, of course, this Cassius is the most clever realist in the play. If Brutus had followed his urgings, the show would have been over in Act 3,” wrote longtime reviewer Bosley Crowther in a June 5, 1953 New York Times review when the Mankiewicz film of Shakespeare’s play opened in Manhattan’s Booth Theatre.
Portia (Deborah Kerr), Brutus’s elegant wife, talks about Brutus’s recent distemper, his impatience, grief, anger. Portia says that Brutus may be sick in mind rather than body. She wants to know if he is keeping secrets from her, wants to know what is going on. (Is she a trusted wife, or a mere bedmate?) Calpurnia (Greer Garson), Julius Caesar’s wife, has a nightmare—premonitions—of Caesar’s death. Calpurnia warns Caesar, and Caesar asks for the divination of priests, and they too find bad omens in a sacrifice. Weight given to both reason and religion is fascinating to observe, and not very different from what still occurs. Caesar does consider not going to work, to the senate, but a senator arrives to bring Caesar to the senate—and the colleague flatters the reluctant Caesar and even lies to get him to go. Other senators come to accompany Caesar to the senate—they seem committed to their fatal plot, leaving little to chance. When Mark Antony arrives, we see his cloak is darker than that of the others, a detail that reminds us that he is different. Outside the senate building, awaiting Caesar, one man wants to warn Caesar of the conspiracy. Caesar remarks to the soothsayer that the Ides of March has come—“but not yet gone,” says the soothsayer. In the senate, Caesar refuses the personal petitions of senators, and soon Caesar is stabbed by the senators. Brutus stabs him last (you, too, Brutus). The senators wash their hands in Caesar’s blood.
The disarmed Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) is disarming, and Antony offers himself—his body to kill—to the senators. Antony says that he wants to know the reasons for killing Caesar, and what Antony might say to the public. The senators believe they have killed Caesar so that their democracy might live. Brutus (James Mason) speaks first to the crowd, declaring that he loved Julius Caesar but loved Rome more; and Brutus says he has regard for Caesar’s valor but rebelled against his oppressive ambition. Mark Antony speaks of Caesar to the assembled, and his words prick conscience; and Antony teases the people with the reading of Caesar’s will, and draws attention again and again to Caesar’s wounds. “You all did love him once, not without cause. / What cause withholds you then to mourn for him?” asks Antony in Julius Caesar, Act 3.2 (Complete Works of Shakespeare, Pearson, 2009; page 1075). The meaning of Caesar’s death changes. The crowd riots. Power is not only the struggle for power, over forms of government, or for property, goods and services; it is, also, the struggle between and among languages and cultures, over what things are allowed to mean—and Antony shifts the meaning of Caesar’s death. Caesar was charged with acting against democracy—and so are his assassins. The riot, too, is against the social order.
“The delight and surprise of the film is Mr. Brando’s Mark Antony, which is something memorable to see. Athletic and bullet-headed, he looks the realest Roman of them all and possesses the fire of hot convictions and the firm elasticity of steel. Happily, Mr. Brando’s diction, which has been guttural and slurred in previous films, is clear and precise in this instance. In him a major talent has emerged,” wrote Bosley Crowther in the film’s June 1953 New York Times review. Roland Barthes (Mythologies), noting Brando’s roman haircut, pointed to that detail and others as a sign of the filmmakers’ dedication to authenticity and of their anxiety—the attempt to make the film an embodiment of history rather than Hollywood.
The citizens riot. There is civil war. Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus share power in Rome and fight Brutus and Cassius. Antony mocks Lepidus as unworthy—though he’s been a good military leader. Meanwhile Brutus (Mason) and Cassius (Gielgud) argue about greed and corruption: Brutus says Cassius gratifies greed. Cassius recognizes and accepts imperfect human nature, he is a man of real politics; and Brutus is conscientious but there are limits to his skepticism—Brutus may be morally right but politically wrong. Brutus tries to keep his ideals alive against the corruption and harshness of the world; and his ideals lead him to death (the tragedy is his). Portia, Brutus’s wife is dead, having killed herself; and Brutus has a nightmare, seeing Caesar’s ghost. Brutus, who refused to kill Antony, insists that Cassius fight an ill-omened battle at Philippi. Cassius leaves for battle, loses, orders his own death—a soldier helps him to kill himself. Brutus will have a similar death—and Antony will speak of him as a noble man.
Julius Caesar (2002) by Uli Edel
The story of the rise and fall of soldier and statesman Gaius Julius Caesar (born July 12, 100 B.C., died March 15, 44 B.C.), in a film presented as a television mini-series, written by Peter Pruce and Craig Warner and directed by Ulrich Edel, known as Uli, the director of Christiane F. (1981) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), begins with a bit of street theater involving Alexander the Great, followed by the proclamations of Sulla (Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, born 138 B.C., died 78 B.C.), who fought a civil war and brought his army to Rome, declaring order and identifying his enemies. The patrician Julius Caesar, whose family had lived in an old city (Alba Longa) in Italy and claimed divine descent from Julus (the son of the Trojan prince Aeneas and the goddess Venus), learns that his father-in-law is on the enemies list, and Caesar goes to find his wife Cornelia, and help her father Cinna to evade his captors; and Caesar is arrested by Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius), a commander in Sulla’s army.
Sulla (Richard Harris) interrupts a senate meeting, and questions whether the senate ever represented the people, declaring he thinks the senators have been too privileged: aristocrats. Richard Harris as Sulla is agile, wizened, blunt (but the actual Sulla’s horrifying—wormy—skin disease is not suggested). Sulla’s acknowledgment, or accusation, of the inequity—the possible injustice—of the political classes is important but Harris’s casual, contemptuous tone is distracting and diminishes rather than deepens the statement (one notes more the speaker rather than the spoken). The senator Cato (Christopher Walken) says the assembled members represent the people’s tradition, and help to preserve those rituals and rules. Sulla brings armed men to the senate to monitor the members’ debates (he condemns to death one questioning senator). Sulla is ensuring his own power; and he interrogates the arrested Julius Caesar, whose mother intervened with Sulla, asking him to spare Caesar. (Cinna, Caesar’s father-in-law, escaped Sulla’s soldiers but was killed by one of Cinna’s own soldiers.) Sulla suggests Caesar can go free if he divorces his wife Cornelia (Daniela Piazza)—Caesar defends his wife as his better, as the person from whom he learns. Sulla allows Caesar to leave his presence yet condemns him; but Pompey (Chris Noth) helps Caesar to exile. Chris Noth as Pompey is handsome, strong, a good listener, and shrewd, more open than most (but Pompey will reach his limitations when Caesar’s rise threatens his own prominence).
As Julius Caesar, Jeremy Sisto strikes me as neither handsome nor charismatic yet terrific in his recognizable humanity and intelligence: he is a man not destined for greatness, someone whose self-belief, energy, and clarity of vision carries him forward. Jeremy Sisto resembles, as well, many of the iconic images of the austere and lean Caesar (although Sisto does not have the large aristocratic nose that Caesar was known to have, as Alexandra Stanley noted in her June 27, 2003 New York Times comic lament of the film). “Sisto gives a well-calculated performance as Caesar,” wrote Belinda Acosta in the Austin Chronicle (June 20, 2003), complimenting Chris Noth and the other actors as well. What did others think of Sisto, or of Richard Harris as Sulla, or Christopher Walken as Cato, a senator? “Sisto, known primarily for his mental breakdown prowess in Six Feet Under, is everything textbooks have taught us about Caesar: stately, faithful, macho and unafraid. Serviceable but unspectacular, he is shown up by two of the hammiest thesps to ever don a toga: Walken comes on strong but then pulls back, and Harris—this was his last project before dying in October—is full of nuance, sarcasm and brilliant little touches,” wrote reviewer Michael Speier in Variety (June 24, 2003), considering the project entertainment rather than history, although the film contains more facts about Caesar than most depictions.
After leaving Rome, Julius Caesar’s boat, on the coast of Crete, anchors on shore; and Caesar and his crew, while sleeping, are surrounded by pirates, and captured. Caesar (Sisto) suggests that he is worth a good ransom, and Caesar sends his men to get it. (Meanwhile, as the pirates wait for his crew, Caesar proposes a bargain, a fight to win one more day of life, and Caesar wins the fight but has an epileptic fit, which makes his captors thinks he is not worth what he claimed—but his men return with the money, 50 talents of silver.) In Rome, Sulla (Harris) is disturbed by Pompey’s disagreement over the punishment of a man that Sulla, without evidence, supposes to be a thief; and Sulla has a fatal attack in his bath and dies. Caesar returns to his family in Rome, where he finds his wife Cornelia (Daniela Piazza) ill, although she denies it. Caesar has come with a learned slave, Apollonius (Christopher Ettridge), a man found in Bithynia, an Asian province, as a teacher for his young daughter Julia. Caesar meets Julia’s friend Brutus, the nephew of the senator Cato (whom Cato adopts after Brutus’s father was killed). When Julius Caesar’s wife dies, Caesar uses his funeral oration to praise Cornelia and speak of her generosity and love of Rome, her neighborliness and concern for justice; and he gives a full-throated speech on a greater Rome that impresses the listening crowd.
Caesar’s public declaration is in line with that of Pompey (Noth), who proposed a more just government, including court reform, and a recovery of some of the better traditions, with a powerful senate. Pirates are a still a threat to Rome, stopping a shipment of grain from Egypt, causing food shortages; but it is feared by the senator Cato (Walken) and others that marshalling troops to fight them will give one man too much power. Caesar nominates Pompey as a proven character, as the needed, able leader to fight the pirates in a long, challenging campaign. Caesar, arguing for Rome’s unity and greatness, is persuasive.
Years later, Brutus (Ian Duncan) discusses slavery with Caesar’s now grown and beautiful daughter Julia (Nicole Grimaudo), saying that slaves are a significant part of Rome’s population, that Rome is dependent on them too. (Apollonius, her educated but enslaved tutor, and an invented character, had spoken of the free mind and the imprisoned mind with Julia when she was a child. Apollonius is missing. Has he joined rebel slaves? Julia does not think so.) When Pompey (Noth) returns, Pompey addresses the crowd, receiving a great welcome, but Caesar, looking at the assembled, and hearing Pompey, has a fit, helped by a woman in the crowd, Calpurnia (Valeria Golino). Julia finds Pompey attractive; and when she realizes that Apollonius (Christopher Ettridge) is one of the captured slaves in Pompey’s train, she asks for his release. Pompey grants it, but Apollonius wants to be with his comrades, the rebels—he refuses slavery and insists on his own choices and dignity.
Julius Caesar (Sisto) recalls his vision while observing Pompey (Noth)—Caesar wants to enlarge human possibility, to pursue greatness (and he wants to borrow Pompey’s army to do it). Caesar’s friendship with Pompey, and Pompey’s attraction to Caesar’s daughter Julia (Nicole Grimaudo) supports Caesar’s ambition. Pompey and Julia become engaged—Caesar asks for legions as a bride price. Meanwhile, Caesar begins a relationship with Calpurnia (Valeria Golino), and he asks Calpurnia to marry him before he goes to fight at the border of Gaul (France, Belgium, and parts of Germany). Caesar wins but expands the battle area, wanting more territory for Rome. and recognition for himself. Pompey begins to worry about Caesar, who is taking more land and paying Pompey’s soldiers more than Pompey had, gaining their personal allegiance.
Cato (Walken) tells Pompey (Noth) of a coming battle in which the opponent of Rome has gathered together a bunch of tribes—Caesar (Sisto) faces a larger army and may be defeated; but Caesar is a strategist, and builds a wall to surround the main part of the enemy army and another wall to keep the enemy’s allies away from the battle. The enemy Vercingetorix (Heino Ferch), the Gaul leader, is willing to sacrifice women and children to Caesar but Caesar refuses to accept enemy hostages, refuses having to feed them needed food. Meanwhile, Cato (Walken) and the senators discuss Julius Caesar (Sisto), his ambitions, his violence, his expansion of war, but debate what to do—Cassius (Tobias Moretti) suggests doing nothing, allowing his defeat. While Caesar is at war (Mark Antony, played by Jay Rodan, is one of his colleagues), Caesar’s daughter Julia dies in childbirth—her son is born and dies, then she dies; and Pompey (Noth) is stricken by grief. The warring enemy surrenders to Caesar.
Mark Antony (Jay Rodan) defends Caesar to the senate; and he talks to the public about Caesar’s eight-year sacrifice, of the monies that Caesar’s war has brought to Rome, the land, the comforts. The public cheers Antony and Caesar. Pompey decides to battle Caesar—but Pompey’s troops do not arrive before Caesar in Rome. Caesar is granted the powerful title of dictator from the senate. “Beware of the Ides of March,” says a soothsayer, amid the crowd upon Caesar’s triumphal return and acceptance of the title of dictator.
Caesar (Sisto) brings armed men into the senate (as Sulla had), and designates Mark Antony (Rodan) as his regent while Caesar goes to fight Pompey (Noth) in Greece. Cassius (Tobias Moretti) and Brutus (Ian Duncan) had been with Pompey, but Caesar speaks of mercy, and invites Brutus to dinner. (Pompey goes to Egypt alone—and the troops to Utica, North Africa, with Cato.) When Pompey arrives in Egypt, he is killed there (it is assumed his death would please Caesar): Pompey’s own men were paid to kill him, apparently bribed by an Egyptian, one affiliated with Cleopatra’s brother, seeking Caesar’s favor. Cleopatra (Samuela Sardo) asks for, and gets, Caesar’s protection.
What does reason ask of the governed? Or the governor? What does morality ask? Cassius and Brutus worry that Caesar wants to be king, wants not merely personal power but dynastic power he can bestow on a son or designated heir. Caesar attacks Cato’s fortress in Utica. Cato commits suicide; and Brutus grieves (Brutus is married to Portia’s Cato’s daughter). Calpurnia has a premonition of Caesar’s death, and warns him, but he goes to the senate and is killed.
Julius Caesar remains a symbol of personal ambition and great power—and a warning. What is the necessary response to a man who wants to be the whole congregation of power? (DG, July 2021)
Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.