Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds The Roman qualities of military leadership, practicality, and, perhaps, a certain coldness of heart are seen in the character of Octavius Caesar. Once Lepidus is disposed of halfway through the play, the Roman Empire is ruled by Octavius and Mark Antony between them. Once they fall out, Antony’s defeated, Octavius will be the sole ruler. And that, of course, is what happens at the end of the play. He marches in in triumph. Antony is dead, Cleopatra is dead. Octavius is Caesar. Now, Shakespeare’s audience would have known very well the name that Octavius took when he assumed imperial power for himself alone. That name was Augustus. The august one, the great one.
Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds And, of course, his assumption of the imperial position brought to an end a long period of civil war within Rome. If we think back to Julius Caesar, the play to which Antony and Cleopatra is a sequel, that had begun with Caesar, Julius Caesar, being offered a crown. The Republicans, Brutus and Cassius, not liking the idea of having a king in Rome because many centuries before the old kings had been thrown out of Rome and it had become a republic, that led to the assassination of Julius Caesar and then the Civil War with Julius Caesar’s follower, Mark Antony, on one side, Brutus and Cassius on the other.
Skip to 1 minute and 47 seconds After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, their suicides, the Battle of Philippi, which end the play, Julius Caesar, Rome is ruled by the triumvirate. Now, with Lepidus gone, with Mark Antony gone, there is just one ruler and the empire is at peace. Augustus proclaims himself Emperor, imperator. That word, imperator, meaning emperor, previously had been a short-term title bestowed upon successful generals. If a Roman general had a fantastically successful campaign, he would be proclaimed imperator, and he would be given a triumph. He would return to Rome, there would be a procession in his honour, but at the end of that, the title imperator would’ve been taken away from him.
Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds When Octavius Caesar became Augustus , he proclaimed himself imperator and said only the emperor, only the top man, could have that title. From that point onwards, we are in the world of the Roman Empire as opposed to the Roman Republic. Now, it so happens that the time of Augustus becoming emperor coincided with the birth of Christ so for Shakespeare’s people, Christians, it was an especially auspicious time. There had been a famous poem by Augustus’ imperial poet, Virgil, proclaiming the arrival of peace on Earth. And in the Christian Renaissance, this was interpreted as a prophecy of the birth of Christ.
Skip to 3 minutes and 33 seconds And so it is that at the climax of the play as Octavius becomes Augustus, he says, “The time of universal peace is near. Prove this a prosperous day, the three-nooked world shall bear the olive freely.” The olive, the sign of peace. So it’s a universal peace in one sense of the Roman Civil War is coming to an end, but in another sense, it’s alluding to the idea of the universal peace bought by Christ. Augustus was an extraordinarily important figure in Roman history and in the understanding of Roman history in Shakespeare’s time. Subsequent emperors all looked back to the example of Augustus. Sometimes, indeed, they took his name.
Skip to 4 minutes and 25 seconds Here in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, there are many Roman coins. And I’ve got one here, which was cast in the time of the emperor, Domitian. That’s in the late first century so a couple of generations after Augustus. He took the name, Caesar Domitian Augustus. He took Augustus’ name. It’s inscribed with his head on the coin, and on the back of the coin– it’s very worn now– but you can just make out the word, Augusti. The original inscription would have been to the virtues of Augustus. So Augustus was regarded as a kind of exemplary ruler. Augustus was also a great patron of poets.
Skip to 5 minutes and 18 seconds It was in his time that the great Roman poets, Virgil and Horace and Ovid, flourished. They benefited from his patronage. Shakespeare and his contemporaries had high hopes that there might be a modern Augustus, who would support their work, and in this they were very fortunate for reasons that we’ll discover in the next section.
Featured SBT item: Roman coin from the time of the Emperor Domitian
- Reference no: SBT 1868-3/3.2
Find more online: Links between Roman Britain and Queen Cleopatra of Egypt
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