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Julius Caesar and the Tyrannicide Debate

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Robert S. Miola*
Loyola College, Maryland


The rich and important debate over tyrannicide, in which Julius Caesar figures centrally, engaged the best political minds of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance and raged with particular intensity during Shakespeare's time. The tremendous upheaval of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation ignited fiery polemics on the rights of subjects and on the nature and foundations of civil order. At various times Protestants and Catholics arose to challenge the authority of the earthly crown and to claim the right of deposition and tyrannicide. Monarchomachs like Christopher Goodman, John Ponet, George Buchanan, François Hoffman, Théodore de Bèze, the author of Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, the Ligue, and the Jesuits Robert Persons, Francisco Suarez, and Juan de Mariana drew upon the classics (especially Aristotle), the Bible, and other works (especially those of Aquinas, Salutati, and Bartolus) to reexamine fundamental assumptions about political order.

Research Article
Copyright © Renaissance Society of America 1985

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1 For a historical overview of the debate see Jászi, Oscar and Lewis, John D., Against the Tyrant: The Tradition and Theory of Tyrannicide (Glencoc, 111., 1957), pp. 396 Google Scholar. See also Figgis, John Neville, Studies of Political Thought from Gerson to Crotius, 1414-1625, 2nd ed. (1916; rpt. Cambridge, 1956)Google Scholar; Allen, J. W., A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1928)Google Scholar; Skinner, Quentin, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1978)Google Scholar. In quotation of early texts, I have expanded abbreviations and contractions and followed modern typographical conventions in respect to the use of i/j, u/v, and vv.

2 See McGrath, Patrick, Papists and Puritans under Elizabeth I (London, 1967), passim, esp. pp. 205-52, 300-38Google Scholar.

3 I quote from Pius V's papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis, as reprinted by Elton, G. R., ed. The Tudor Constitution: Documents and Commentary (Cambridge, 1960), p. 414 Google Scholar; and from William Allen's translation of Sixtus V reprinted in Thomas A Kempis, “Of the Following of Christ, 1636;” Pope Sixtus V, “A Declaration of the Sentence and Deposition of Elizabeth [1588]”, ed. D. M. Rogers, English Recusant Literature, No. 370 (London, 1977), n.p. For an account of the Catholic threat see McGrath, Papists, passim, esp. pp. 100-24, 161-204.

4 Salutati, Coluccio, “De Tyranno,” ed. and trans. Ephraim Emerton, Humanism and Tyranny: Studies in the Italian Trecento (Cambridge, Mass., 1925), 70116 Google Scholar [93-116], quotation on 110. All further references to Salutati are to this text.

5 Suarez, Francisco, Defensio Fidei Catholicae (1613) trans, in Selections from Three Works of Francisco Suarez, S.J., The Classics of International Law, No. 20 (Oxford, 1944), p. 711.Google Scholar

6 The Statesman's Book of John of Salisbury, trans. John Dickinson (1927; rpt. New York, 1963), pp. 358-59; Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio in The Works of John Milton, gen. ed. Frank Allen Patterson, 18 vols. (New York, 1931-38), VII, 336-37.

7 Reynoldes, , A Chronicle of all the Noble Emperours of the Romaines (London, 1571)Google Scholar. Fulbecke, , An Historicall Collection of the Continuall Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans and Italians (London, 1601)Google Scholar. For overviews of Caesar's reputation see Gundolph, Friedrich, The Mantle of Caesar, trans. Jacob Wittmer Hartmann (New York, 1928)Google Scholar; Bullough, Geoffrey, ed. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, V (1964; rpt. London, 1977), 436 Google Scholar. For a survey focusing on the tyrannicide tradition see Clarke, M. L., The Noblest Roman: Marcus Brutus and His Reputation (Ithaca, 1981), pp. 79111 Google Scholar.

8 Shakespeare's debt to this debate has been considered variously by Armstrong, W. A., “The Elizabethan Conception of the Tyrant,” Review of English Studies, 22 (1946), 161-81CrossRefGoogle Scholar and “The Influence of Seneca and Machiavelli on the Elizabethan Tyrant,” Review of English Studies, 24 (1948), 19-35; Ribner, Irving, “Political Issues in Julius Caesar ,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 56 (1957), 1022 Google Scholar; Bernard R. Breyer, “A New Look at Julius Caesar,” in Essays in Honor of Walter Clyde Curry, Vanderbilt Studies in the Humanities, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1954), 161-80; Velz, John W., “Clemency, Will, and Just Cause in ‘Julius Caesar,’Shakespeare Survey, 22 (1969), 109-18Google Scholar.

9 On the ambivalence of the play see Schanzer, Ernest, “The Problem of Julius Caesar ,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 6 (1955), 297308 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Bonjour, Adrien, The Structure of “Julius Caesar” (Liverpool, 1958)Google Scholar; Hartsock, Mildred E., “The Complexity of Julius Caesar ,” PMLA, 81 (1966), 5662 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rene E. Fortin, “Julius Caesar: An Experiment in Point of View,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 19 (1968), 341-47. According to this group, Shakespeare does not play partisan politics in Julius Caesar but seeks instead to examine the inner workings of history and the cruel ironies of political process.

10 The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974). All further references are to this edition.

11 For Il Cesare I rely on Bullough's translated excerpts V, 174-94. The crucial term appears as well in Bullough's reprint of the surviving epilogue to Richard Eedes's Caesar Interfectus (1582), V, 194-95.

12 Jászi and Lewis, Against the Tyrant, p. 4. Originally, however, the term “tyrant” was used to overlap with “king.” See Aristotle, Politics 1285a, 1295a; Isidore of Seville, Etymologia (Augsburg, 1472), fol. 46.

13 See Plato, Republic VIII.565-69; Aristotle, Politics 1285a, 1295a, 13100-13150, Ethics 1160a-b; Colonna, De Regimine Principum (Venice, 1502), Book III, Part II, Ch. vi ff. See also A Defence of Liberty Against Tyrants: A Translation of the “ Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos” by Junius Brutus, intro. by HaroldJ. Laski (London, 1924), pp. 184-89 (hereafter cited as Vindiciae); Desiderius Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, trans. Lester K. Born (New York, 1936), pp. 157ff.

14 Aquinas distinguishes between ad modum acquirendi praelationem and ad usum praelationis: Commentum in Quattuor Libros Sentenliarum Magistri Petri Lombardi in Opera Omnia, VI (New York, 1948), p. 788 (Dist. XLIV. Quaest. II. Art. II). Cf. Bartolus of Sassoferrato, “Tractatus de Tyrannia” in Emerton, Humanism and Tyranny, 126-54 (all further references to Bartolus are to this text); Vindiciae, p. 182.

15 “Ironic Epithet in Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 24 (1973), 329-33 (332); Éstienne de La Bóetie, Anti-Dictator, trans. Harry Kurz (New York, 1942), pp. 12-13.

16 Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Englished by Sir Thomas North, Anno 1579, 6 vols. The Tudor Translations (London, 1895-96), V, 57.

17 Of Wisdome, Samson Lennard (London, 1612?), p. 414; cf. Vindkiae, pp. 192-93; Suarez, p. 712.

18 See Plutarch, v, 62; Appian, An Ancient Historie and Exquisite Chronicle of the Romanes Wanes, both Civile and Foren, trans. W. B. (London, 1578), pp. 135-36. All further references to Appian are to this text.

19 This conflict looms large in the accounts of Plutarch, Appian, Livy, and Suetonius. See also Eutropius, A Brief Chronicle, trans. Nicholas Haward (London, 1564), fols. 67-68; Lloid, Lodowick, The Consent of Time (London, 1590), p. 536 Google Scholar; Francis Bacon, “Julius Caesar,” in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, et. al., 14 vols. (London, 1868-90), VI, 342-43.

20 “Clemency, Will, and Just Cause,” p. 110.

21 See the fully documented account of Leeds Barroll, J., “Shakespeare and Roman History,” Modem Language Review, 53 (1958), 327-43CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 Bartolus, pp. 146-47; Vindiciae, pp. 182-83, 193; Bellarmine, , De Laicis or The Treatise on Civil Government, trans. Kathleen E. Murphy (New York, 1928), p. 30 Google Scholar; Beze, , Du Droit des Magistrats, ed. Robert M. Kingdon (Geneva, 1970), pp. 1314 Google Scholar; Suarez, pp. 717-18.

23 On the fear of plots as characteristic of the tyrant, see St. Aquinas, Thomas, De Regimine Principum ad Regem Cypri et De Regimine Judaeorum, ed. Joseph Mathis (Taurini, 1948), p. 5 Google Scholar. (Although the title and textual history of the first work are extremely problematic, a check against G. B. Phelan's translation, rev. Eschman, I. T., On Kingship to the King of Cyprus [Toronto, 1949]Google Scholar confirms the authenticity of the passages cited in this essay.) Cf. Bartolus, p. 141; Erasmus, p. 163; Primaudaye, Pierre de La, The French Academie, trans. T. B. (London, 1618), p. 262 Google Scholar; Buchanan, George, The Art and Science of Government among the Scots, trans. Duncan H. MacNeill (Glasgow, 1964), p. 62 Google Scholar.

24 See Salutati, pp. 75-78; Bartolus, pp. 127-28. In Ravisius Textor's Officina (Venice, 1606), Julius Caesar is listed under “Anogantes, Superbi, Cloriosi & Amhitiosi” as well as “Clementes et Humani” (fols. 251, 260). Cf. Cesare Ripa, Iconologia (Padua, 1611) rpt. in The Renaissance and the Gods, No. 21 (New York, 1976), p. 516.

25 Breyer, pp. 175-76; cf. Vindiciac, pp. 184, 198.

26 See Velz, “Clemency, Will, and Just Cause,” 109-18. Cf. Erasmus, p. 209; Sir Elyot, Thomas, The Book Named The Governor, ed. S. E. Lehmbcrg, (London, 1962), pp. 115-20Google Scholar. Alciati, Andrea, “Principis dementia,” Emblemata (Padua, 1621)Google Scholar, rpt. in The Renaissance and the Gods, No. 25 (New York, 1976), pp. 632-37. But some Romans protested that Caesar's dementia was actually arrogance as it assumed the right of a citizen to grant pardon, Ronald Syme, Sallust, Sather Classical Lectures, Vol. 33 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1964), p. 119; Bacon thought it a ploy to gain popularity, Works, VI, 345.

27 Appian calls the Tribunes’ office “holy, inviolate by lawe, and aunticnt oth” and declares that Caesar's treatment of the Tribunes “dyd most of all confirme, that he … was utterly become a Tyrante,” p. 135.

28 For a sampling of these metaphors see Plato, Republic VIII, 566 (wolf); John of Salisbury, pp. 335, 343 (serpent, lion); Vindidae, pp. 183-84, 188, 190 (viper, wolf, lion); Erasmus, pp. 163, 166, 168 (dragon, wolf, lion, bear, eagle, viper). The lion and eagle are also symbols of kingship and, therefore, ambivalent in the play.

29 See Plato, Republic VIII, 566; Aristotle, Politics 1285a, 1311a; Bartolus, p. 142; Vindiciae, p. 186; La Primaudaye, p. 262; Francois Hotman, Francogallia, ed. Ralph E. Giesey, trans. J. H. M. Salmon (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 286-88.

30 I quote from the Geneva Bible (1560). Cf. Erasmus, p. 166; Christopher Goodman, How Superior Powers oght to be Obeyed, The English Experience, No. 460 (1558; facs. rpt. Amsterdam, 1972), p. 150; John Ponet, A Shorte Treatise ofPolitike Power, The English Experience, No. 484 (1556; facs. rpt. Amsterdam, 1972), sig. Fiiir-v. In some recollections of the passage the word “orchard” appears (see Goodman, e.g.).

31 “For discussion of the similarities see Norman Rabkin, “Structure, Convention, and Meaning injulius Caesar,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 63 (1964), 240- 54; Velz, John W., “Undular Structure in ‘Julius Caesar,’Modern Language Review, 66 (1971), 2130 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For an extreme reading of Brutus as more willful than Caesar, see Gordon Ross Smith, “Brutus, Virtue, and Will,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 10 (1959), 367-79.

32 See, e.g., Erasmus, 170-72.

33 For a summary of opinion with reference to ancient, medieval, and Renaissance views, see the erudite discussion of Suarez, pp. 705-19. Cf. the succinct formulation of Robert Persons: “Kingdomes are not immediatly instituted from God, but mediatly only by meanes of the people; which people therfore may change their formes of gov ernment.” The Judgment of a Catholicke English-Man (1608), intro. William T. Costcllo (Gainesville, Florida, 1957), p. 121.

34 On the ironic ambivalence of ritual in the play see Brents Stirling, “Or Else This Werea Savage Spectacle,” PMLA, 66 (1951), 765-74.

35 Aquinas, De Regimine Principum, p. 7; Suarez, pp. 712-13.

36 Shakespeare thus dramatizes the venerable Aristotelian dictum that there is little difference between extreme democracy and tyranny, Politics 1292a.

37 Contrast the confidence of the King in Henry V, also 1599: “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king” (I.ii. 241).