Why do you cross me in this exigent?
I do not cross you; but I will do so.
Julius Caesar: Act V, Scene 1
I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.
Octavian is almost a bit player in Julius Caesar with very few lines. Eighteen at the time of his uncle’s assassination, the future Augustus masterfully played a rather weak hand in the chaos that reigned after Caesar was dead. Almost completely devoid of the military skill of Julius Caesar, his political genius far outshone that of his uncle. Fortunately for him Antony, not a bad general, was, contrary to his image in the play, not extremely skilled in political intrigue and it was not that hard for Octavian to outmaneuver him in the political game of chess. Octavian quickly became stronger than Antony both in political support and number of troops, but Octavian shrewdly used Antony’s military acumen, by forming with him the Second Triumvirate and smashing the forces of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi. Octavian then embarked on the twelve years of political intrigue and military conflicts that would leave him the sole ruler of Rome. As Dictator for Life, in effect, he forged the creation of a new state, the Empire, all the while protesting that he was merely a humble servant of the Republic. Shakespeare in Antony and Cleopatra would give Octavian his due:
Let our best heads
Know, that to-morrow the last of many battles
We mean to fight: within our files there are,
Of those that served Mark Antony but late,
Enough to fetch him in. See it done:
And feast the army; we have store to do’t,
And they have earn’d the waste. Poor Antony!
The play Julius Caesar is filled with great characters, exuding charisma and given great lines to recite. Yet the audience and Shakespeare know that it is the colorless Octavian, given only a few brief lines in the play, who will take all.