Ides of March: Antony Explains it All

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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.

Here we see from the classic 1953 film of the play Mark Antony, dazzlingly portrayed by Marlon Brando, explaining to Caesar’s corpse, fallen at the foot of the statue of his great rival Pompey, how he would excite a war of revenge against the assassins of Caesar.  Antony is an interesting figure in the tragic ending of the Roman Republic.  He had a well deserved reputation as a wastrel, who loved wine, women and song, and who always allowed money to run quickly through his fingers.  Yet he was often a shrewd general, and had a talent for gaining firm loyalty from men better than himself.  His father had been corrupt and incompetent, while Antony, on his good days, was corrupt and competent.  His liaison with Cleopatra was fatal for him.  She had a stronger, driven character than him, but was much less shrewd either as a strategist or a tactician.  Following her consistently bad advice, he lost out to Octavian the sad distinction of putting the Republic out of its misery and becoming the first de facto Roman emperor.  Ironically, through his younger daughters, he did end up being the ancestor of the Emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

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  1. I always rather liked the story of the British lady, who had just witnessed Sarah Bernhardt’s impassioned, almost hysterical rendering of Cleopatra’s reaction to the defeat of Anthony at Actium – “How different, how very different is the home life of our own dear Queen.”

  2. We were watching Mark Antony’s big speech from the Charleton Heston version with the kids last night. I hadn’t seen that one before, but I was quite impressed with what he did with that scene.

    Several years back, and my wife and I were watching the BBC/HBO series Rome, I was getting more and more curious as to how they’d deal with the Mark Antony speech which Shakespear has made so famous. I thought the handling was hilarious and deft: They skip it entirely and then have Mark Antony saying (to Brutus?) after the riot that obviously resulted from his speech: “Well, perhaps I overdid it a bit.”
    To which the reply is, “I should bloody well say you did!”

  3. Roman politicians had two types of oratory: one for the Senate and one for crowds, or pre-battle speeches. Antony had probably made a number of pre-battle speeches to his legions over the years, so he probably had a fair amount of experience in playing the emotions of lower class Romans.

    This was wonderfully examined by Graves in Chapter 9 of I Claudius where Livy and Polio, one of Caesar’s legates, are having a conversation about history and Polio says that the pre-battle speeches that Livy puts into the mouth of historical figures are false. He recalls a speech by Caesar prior to the battle of Pharsalus which was relaxed in tone, Caesar using a turnip he was eating as a comic prop during his speech to his men. He mimics Pompey’s suicide speech after he loses the battle and stabs himself with the turnip to the cheers and laughter of his men. He ends the speech by telling them that no one can beat Caesar and his legions to the raucous applause of his men. The best Roman speeches never made it into the histories.

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