This paper considers recent on-screen representations of Julius Caesar in light of comparable cinematic representations of the dictator produced in 1950’s and early 1960’s. I argue that, over the past fifty years, a subtle transformation in Caesar’s motives for attaining the dictatorship, along with shifts in emphases regarding his strengths and vulnerabilities, offers a useful index of Anglo-American attitudes toward the political concept of “Caesarism,” frequently a term of abuse in post-Revolutionary American politics (Malamud 2006). In a post-millennial political climate defined by the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and subsequent formation of a coalition (conspicuously spearheaded by the United States) to invade Iraq, televisual portraits of the West’s most famous autocrat reflect upon and shape viewers’ responses to unchecked imperial ambition.
Drawing on recent scholarship chronicling the life of Caesar as an icon of Western culture (esp. Wyke 2008; Yavetz 1983), along with film studies evaluating Roman imperialism of the Hollywood epic (Cyrino 2005; Solomon 2001; cf. Burgoyne 2008), I situate recent portrayals of iconic moments in the life of Caesar relative to their post-World War II counterparts (Rex Harrison, Cleopatra ; John Gavin, Spartacus ). Clips of Rex Harrison’s regretful musings on the field of Pharsalus at the opening scene of Cleopatra are profitably contrasted with the victories enjoyed by Ciaran Hinds (Rome: Season One, HBO/BBC 2005) and Jeremy Sisto (Julius Caesar, TNT 2002). The serial dramas of the “small-screen” allow a more extensive treatment of Caesar’s manipulations of political amicitia, motivation by personal vendetta, and (in the case of Sisto) sense of divinely ordained purpose. Representations of Caesar’s interest in Egypt (“the East”), moreover, have diverged from Harrison’s dictator, moved equally by love and political ambitions, to recent portrayals that foreground his calculating desire to control the grain supply (cf. Empire, ABC 2005; Futrell 2008).
Hollywood’s treatment of Greco-Roman history has proven a useful index of shifts in American politics, as “Rome” is cast as an avatar of the pretensions and vulnerabilities of the American Empire. In light of this role that Rome plays in national cinema, and given the increasing importance that historical films have played in shaping national identity (Hughes-Warrington 2007), changes in the representation of Rome’s most iconic figure can help articulate anxieties about America’s changing role as a super-power since World War II. The political climate of the 1960’s, marked by civil rights reforms and increased scrutiny of a fledgling United Nations, famously infused the “dream” shared by Cleopatra and Caesar for a world united under Rome and Egypt (Cyrino 2005). More recently, however, the Caesars generated in popular culture function as a negative reflex against the imperial aggressions of George W. Bush, a president often described as Caesarian (Wyke 2006). The final section of this paper speculates, amidst a current climate of increasing hesitation over U.S. foreign military presence, on the future of Caesar, whose televisual roles have been all but scripted (e.g., Spartacus: Blood and Sand).