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Murder on Display: Performance and Persuasion at Caesar's funeral

Ida Östenberg

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral is generally considered to be a rhetorical masterpiece, not least so due to the influence of Shakespeare (Julius Caesar Act III, Scene II). Ancient sources confirm that the speech made a profound impact on the audience and contributed to turning Rome against the assassins (Cic. Phil. 2.90–1, Att. 14.10.1; Nic. Dam. 17; App. BCiv. 2.143–7, 3.2). In this paper, I will emphasize that far from using mere words, Antony delivered a full-blown spectacle that included visual devices, acting and hymns. Antony, I will argue, turned the funeral into a jointly performed ritual, which triggered emotions of such political force as to determine the course of events after the Ides. I will further show that the funeral staged the murder itself, as it had happened, before the eyes of the people. Through the rhetorical effect of enargeia, I argue, the funeral produced a comprehensible story of the events on the Ides of March, which came to influence how Rome imagined and wrote about the murder.

Many traditional historical studies are more concerned with the causes and effects of the murder than the funeral display. Gelzer’s account (1968) ends with Caesar’s death. Syme (2002, 98) notes Antony’s oration almost in passing, calls the speech ‘brief and moderate’ and adds that ‘the audience was inflammable’. Lintott (2009) makes no mention of the funeral, and Woolf (2007, 39–40) writes briefly that Antony took the opportunity to read out Caesar’s will. In the wake of the ‘performative turn’, scholars are more willing to acknowledge the funeral as a significant event (Wiseman 2009, 227–34; Strauss 2015, 171–7). Most importantly, Sumi (2005, 97–122) presents a detailed survey of the funeral’s components, as part of his study on spectacle and power. Still, to this date, most accounts of the funeral are rather descriptive and present the evidence from the sources with little in-depth analysis of the contents and effects of the performance.

My paper has two aims. One is to emphasize the persuasive effects of Antony’s performance by placing it in a context of Roman spectacles, the other to argue that the funeral set the murder itself on stage and contributed to shaping views of what had occurred at the Senate’s meeting.

I intend to analyze the funeral as a Roman performance set in a long tradition of visual spectacles (funerals, triumphs, fabulae pretextae). I aim to show that the funeral intentionally played on people’s emotions by incorporating them as active partakers in the ritual itself (Bell, Ahmed). Through speeches, hymns, voices, gestures, tears and props (Appian BCiv 2.101), Antony’s performance created a strong communal sense of empathy for Caesar that turned Rome against the assassins. In particular, I will stress the importance of the inclusion of Caesar’s dead body in the spectacle, and argue that by way of his physical corpse, the large image of his stabbed body and through his re-enacted voice, Caesar himself had a central role in the play.

I aim further to show that the funeral staged not only the dead dictator, but also the very way in which he had been killed. Various rumours of what had really happened at the Senate’s meeting were circulating after Caesar’s death, and the funeral provided a first fully constructed version, which highly influenced how people were to imagine the event. Again, Caesar’s body played a central role. By pointing out the blood and the scars, Antony was able to transmit a version of the murder that exposed it as an cowardly ambush aimed at an innocent victim who was likewise the saviour and father of the assassins. At the funeral, the people of Rome saw the murder as it had happened before their own eyes (enargeia). Antony’s performance established a story in which the conspirators were morally guilty rather than liberators of the res publica.

Session/Panel Title:

The Ides of March: New Perspectives

Session/Paper Number

5.4

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