The End of the Roman Republic Through American Eyes
A Review of Thornton Wilder’s “Ides of March”
Thornton Wilder, The Ides of March. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2003. Pp. xvi, 281. ISBN 0060088907. $14.99.
For at least the past eight years — well before the 2016 election — my newsfeed has been full of items comparing the United States to the Roman Republic, all of them with headlines equivalent to “Danger! Danger!” or “Watch Out!” That sentiment has only become more frequent in the wake of the often divisive politics of these past two years, but I doubt that any of us feel much enlightened by these cautionary op-eds. Yet, that is not to say that a look back at the Roman Republic has nothing to teach us — indeed, we might not need to look as far back as we might think.
Case in point: nearly a year ago I picked up Thornton Wilder’s The Ides of March, which I hadn’t read since the 1990s, when a professor urged my entire Late Republican Literature class to read it but not to “take it seriously.” He was a prolific recommender of works that were not on the syllabus, but this was the only one he exhorted us to read but then dismiss, a contradiction that struck me even then. Rereading it some twenty-plus years later, it was as fresh to me as it was to my younger self, and I suspect, as fresh as it was in 1948, when it was first published. And I think, especially now, we all ought to take it seriously.
Thornton Wilder is probably best known these days as a playwright, and many of us read or performed scenes from Our Town while in middle school, so that we associate him with small-town American life and nostalgia for simpler times. Yet, all of Wilder’s work was deeply informed by his love of the Classics. This may be tricky to see in Our Town (though scholars have argued that the Stage Manager is in essence a way to incorporate a Greek Chorus into a modern drama). It is easier to note in his Alcestiad (a Greek-styled trilogy plus satyr play), The Woman of Andros (a novel based in part on Terence’s Andria), and The Cabala (a novel set in 20th century Rome, but where the classical past is omnipresent). Yet, classical history is nowhere more explicitly evoked in Wilder’s works than in The Ides of March, a novel set in the waning days of the Republic (all Wilder’s works are available in affordable paperback editions through Harper Collins or pricier but sturdy hardbacks from the Library of America).
Still, there are excellent reasons for my professor’s admonition. Foremost, The Ides of March is wholly anachronistic: set in August 45 BCE through March 44 BCE, Wilder puts people in conversation who assuredly were not in Rome at that time, most notably Catullus and Clodius Pulcher, who were both dead by then. Likewise, Caesar’s aunt, Julia Marcia, was long gone, Clodia had disappeared from public life after the trial of Caelius in 56, and Caesar’s dearest confidante is a fictional lieutenant who has suffered a terrible war wound and passes his life in solitude on Capri. If you are looking for a historical novel that is heavy on the what, where and when of the last year of Caesar’s life, this is not your book.
Yet, Wilder, an excellent student of ancient languages and classical culture, puts these historical figures into a fictional milieu for a reason. He wants us to experience what Rome would have felt like — not the brick and mortar, but the human dynamics, the way that these people showed themselves to each other and to their diaries, the roiling emotions and conflicting interests. These people whose lives are lived entirely in the public are no more scrutable than any modern politician or socialite. If your mental image of ancient Rome comes from Stephen Saylor or Colleen McCullough, who work hard to get details like cardinal directions or the feel of the marketplace right, you will quickly notice of what little concern that is to Wilder. He observed, in fact, that he couldn’t hope to represent that part of the ancient world accurately, so he was looking for a narrative style that would free him of the necessity of describing the smell of a Roman street or the view from a window. And he found it.
The Ides of March is an epistolary novel, and we see the array of characters — most of them historical individuals — through their own writings, and the gossip that others write about them. All our favorites are there: Clodia corresponds with Catullus, and we witness through their correspondence the dissolution of the affair (“It is too boring to have to deal with an hysterical child. Never try to see me again.”); Pompeia and Clodia are best friends, though Clodia is wily and Pompeia easily manipulated; Cleopatra emphasizes her power at every turn (“I know ways to enforce her attendance and I must use them.”); Cicero gossips with Atticus; Caesar’s spies send him regular reports; Cornelius Nepos and Asinius Pollio offer the occasional insights about our principals; the actress Cytheris appears as a favorite party guest; Catullus versifies and forms the center of his own Lost Generation (“Although he is only slightly older than the majority of the members of our Club, he has long held the position there of being councilor and peace maker.”) ; and Caesar writes to everyone. In this way Wilder presses some of the most delicious bits of the late Republic into an eight-month period — including, of course, events that have no place in the last days of 45 BCE: the Bona Dea scandal and the death of Catullus. Yet, Wilder’s choice to give us insiders’ perspectives on these juicy events does more than weave a whopping good yarn (though he certainly accomplishes that). The compression of these events told from multiple perspectives conveys what a powder keg the last decade of the Republic must have been, feeding us intrigue and mystery. Rome in the 40s was by any standard a large city, with a population approaching one million, but those in the upper stratum must have been very small community indeed, and you feel the way that they are all living in each other’s pockets, deciding whether they will attend a party (or not) depending upon whether so-and–so will be there, meeting with the same groups of women or men to discuss a religious ritual or a political crisis or a rumor. If Wilder refuses to paint a physical city, it is because he urges us instead to look at the dynamics of this small group of men and women, whose choices and proclivities had such an outsized influence on the lives of a multitude.
Yet, it would be a lie to say that the Ides of March is not a political work. Wilder began this novel in the fall of 1945 after his discharge from the army, and the figure of Caesar in particular seems to be one he struggles with, as he looks at the world around him. The defeat of fascists in Europe — including one who fashioned himself a modern-day Caesar — gave way to a world order that was no less baffling, with a strongman in the USSR, an expansion of global empires, and colonies rising up against their rulers. Wilder’s novel is an exercise in looking at the tensions inherent in all political systems, between the need for an authority to appeal to and the liberty of the individual. If Wilder is obsessed with this question, no less is Wilder’s Caesar who writes in one missive:
The adherence of a people is not acquired merely by governing them to their best interests. We rulers must spend a large part of our time capturing their imaginations. In the minds of the people, Fate is an ever-watching force, operating by magic and always malevolent. To counter its action we rulers must be not only wise but supernatural, for in their eyes human wisdom is helpless before magic. We must be at once the father they knew in their infancy who guarded them against evil men and the priest who guarded them against evil spirits. (95–96)
Caesar’s view that rulers have to not only acknowledge the distance between themselves and the governed, but exploit it — through paternalism, through the fantasy of their superiority, or through some other kind of exceptional quality — may strike us as even more true today, in which a twenty-four hour news cycle and multiple media platforms turn every politician into a “star,” whether they wish it or not, fueling our desire for an ever polished physical exterior and “message.” Yet, it was Caesar’s blindness to the dangers of the cultivation of image that Wilder hoped to expose. In an interview after the publication of The Ides of March, Wilder reflected on Caesar’s nature:
Julius Caesar is the archetype of the genius ruler. He made so many good laws that he bored the Romans. The world was in his hand. But he was so free himself that he forgot to allow the exercise in freedom to others. Liberty is an accumulating discipline. People must be given practice in choice. (255)
Ah! To be bored with good laws! We may believe that the exhaustion of worldwide political chaos is a new, postmodern, digital phenomenon, yet Wilder reminds us that not only did his generation endure two global wars in the space of three decades, but also that ancient Romans witnessed a feeding frenzy of intrigue and political chaos that appealed (to some, at least) more than the steady boredom of good government. Moreover, if Wilder is right, that leaders often fail to recognize that the populace must practice liberty, then the activism on both sides of the American political spectrum may spell for us a brighter future than we often envision.
That, at least, is one view of Caesar — and Wilder’s view of him is more benign than that of other scholars or biographers. Or perhaps, Wilder’s characterization of all these major social players of the late Republic appears generous because it is above all nuanced. If Wilder offers a more prescient, more cerebral Caesar than we find elsewhere, his representations of the others characters are no less complex. And this — I think — is where we could all profitably take Wilder seriously, since his characters present multiple faces to multiple individuals. Wilder does not intend by this to suggest duplicity (or at least, not always), but rather to tender a study of how humans represent themselves to themselves and to others. Clodia, for example, although hard and dismissive toward Catullus, simpers in her dinner invitations to Caesar (“Caius, Caius, tell me what to do.”), schemes with her brother (“Marc Antony failed to complete ‘the most daring feat ever seen in Rome.’ Well, I know another.”) and manipulates Pompeia. Wilder stated that he chose an epistolary framework for this novel because it was more like drama and allowed him to escape the trap of an omniscient narrator. Yet, even more than on the stage, we see characters struggle with their own identities as they attempt to make the best choice in an imperfect situation. Brutus offers perhaps the best example. He appears by turns friendly, concerned, outraged, resolute in opposition to Caesar or loyal beyond measure. Which is the real Brutus? Wilder’s answer — rightly — is all of them.
More than anything the epistles reveal the empty space between letters, the vast amount that is hidden from view. There may be no more perfect way to represent the ancient past. If we struggle to understand the motivations and intentions of today’s politicians, perhaps it is because we have been lured by the ubiquity of digital news outlets, Twitter and Youtube into thinking that we can discern the complete story, that we have immediate access to their every thought. The Ides of March reveals how much space there is in between each utterance and the inherent ignorance that we have to accept. Wilder divides the novel into four sections, each covering an ever expanding space of time — and so we experience some events multiple times. In the final section the reader might be seduced into believing Cleopatra’s reception was a splendid yet decorous affair, given her invitation to the Vestals and Caesar’s warm praise of the event afterward. Yet, casting a glance back to the second section we witness Cleopatra and Antony caught in flagrante in a dark corner, and a subsequent letter from Cleopatra to Caesar assuring him that Antony caught her off guard, that her fidelity remains intact. Wilder, then, deliberately crafts two separate ways of reading these events, but even if we read backward and try to piece them together we don’t get very far. For in between those moments of upright religious feeling, one couple’s passion, a queen’s regret and a dictator’s political savvy is so much that is unwritten, unspoken, unknowable.
Wilder did not, I think, write The Ides of March to cause us to despair about the unknowable. Quite the opposite. All his works demonstrate faith in human tenacity even in the face of horror. Yet, we should not act naively — we should know what we can’t see, and press forward despite it. One of the last letters Wilder offers us is an unfinished draft of an RSVP from Brutus to Caesar. He starts it no less than six times, adopting various stances — exceeding formality, outright anger, flattery, nostalgia, and two separate excuses for why he cannot attend a dinner party. In the end Brutus writes simply:
I have taken note of the arrangements you have reported to me.
Porcia and I shall come to you with pleasure on the fifteenth.
Rest assured, great Caesar, that for her own sake and for yours, we love Calpurnia no less than ourselves and that we shall not be happy until she looks upon our home as her own. (242)
Has Brutus made the right choice? Have we? Only time will tell, but we might all be wise in these — in any — moments when the world of politics feels turbulent to reread this novel. And, yes, to take it seriously.