Maria Wyke. Caesar in the USA. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012. xii + 306 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-27391-7.
Reviewed by John Poirot (Louisiana State University)
Published on H-War (December, 2014)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The Many Roles of the American Caesar
Maria Wyke's Caesar in the USA (2012) is one of the latest books on the reception of ancient Rome in American society. Wyke admits that her book's topic has already received considerable attention from other scholars and political commentators. Recent works in this field of study include: L. T. Pearcy's The Grammar of Our Civility: Classical Education in America (2005), C. Murphy's Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America (2007), M. Malamud's Ancient Rome and Modern America (2009), and C. J. Richard's The Golden Age of Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (2009). However, Wyke has carved out her own niche in this crowded field by focusing exclusively on Julius Caesar's cultural impact on the United States in the twentieth century. Wyke's monograph traces the development of Caesar's image from World War I (when the Roman general's war commentaries were primarily the bane of American schoolchildren everywhere) to the Iraq War (when political pundits more often invoked Caesar's image as shorthand for the executive overreach of American presidents). Caesar in the USA argues that classical Rome's most famous general and dictator has played a key part—either as the hero or as the villain—in shaping modern America's political discourse.
Despite its snappy title, Wyke's book is, first and foremost, a detailed academic examination of Caesar's role in U.S. culture. The work's early chapters, which explore the use of Caesar in the American classroom, rely heavily on pedagogical articles and Latin textbooks from the early twentieth century for their source material. In later chapters, however, Caesar moves out of the classroom and into the political sphere. This shift allows Wyke to draw on a variety of “nontraditional” sources, such as theatrical productions, films, television series, comic books, and advertisements. Wyke's treatment of these sources is both informative and engaging. For each of these sources, she includes a compelling summary and analysis—and, whenever possible, pictures or other types of visual evidence. Caesar in the USA is filled with photographs of stage productions, film stills, political cartoons, and comic strips. Wyke's wide array of sources makes her narrow, academic topic seem vivid and approachable. Thanks to her choice and masterful treatment of source material, Wyke has managed to produce one of academic publishing's eusive missing links: a book which is scholarly but also accessible to lay readers. Caesar in the USA strikes a fine balance between academic and popular history.
Part 1 of Caesar in the USA, which Wyke simply titles “Education,” includes the first three chapters. In chapters 1 and 2 Wyke examines how the shift from an agrarian to urban economy, as well as widespread immigration, sparked an explosion of Latin study in U.S. schools at the beginning of the twentieth century. At that time one in two high school students studied Latin, and the language was considered “a gateway to full participation in American life and a path to social advancement” (p. 21). In their second year (known as the “Caesar Year”), high school students primarily studied Caesar's Gallic Wars because of the regularity of its syntax and the simplicity of its grammar. Latin instructors focused on the dictator's war commentary, too, because it paired well with Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which students also read in their second-year English classes. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Americans often cast Caesar as a villain, a tyrant who destroyed the democratic institutions of the Roman Republic. But Wyke points out that, at the start of twentieth century, educators frequently minimized Caesar's tyrant persona, as well as the general's war atrocities in Gaul. Caesar was instead employed as a model for young American men. In their second year students more often confronted a Caesar whom teachers and textbooks portrayed as a military genius and political hero. Popular histories and historical fiction novels, like T. Rice Holmes' Caesar's Conquest of Gaul (1899) and A. C. Whitehead's The Standard-Bearer (1914), supplemented this in-class portrait of the Roman dictator by contributing to Caesar's aura as a virile, John Wayne-type figure.
In her third chapter Wyke explores Caesar's reception in the United States during the First World War. She contends that “historical events (like assassinations and war, whether civil or foreign) [stimulated] a sudden escalation of interest in and topical use for the Roman statesman, both in and outside of the high-school classroom” (p. 68). During WWI, the Gallic War seemed especially topical to American commentators: the Allies were fighting in France (Gaul) against the Germans, whose emperor had taken the title “Kaiser.” Some U.S. reporters therefore adopted the French view and interpreted the Great War as a French/Gallic struggle for freedom against German/Roman imperialism. At the same time American movie producers, such as Enrico Guazzoni, began importing popular European films based on the Roman dictator's life. Guazzoni's Caius Julius Caesar (1914) contained undertones of Italy's burgeoning nationalist movement, which made it appeal to many Italian Americans. For distribution across the United States, the film's more “morally questionable” elements (e.g., Caesar's affair with Servilia) were heavily edited to appeal to Anglo-American audiences' stricter sense of social propriety. Wyke notes that the film won widespread acclaim in the United States for its potential as a pedagogical tool.
Despite the image boost Caesar received from WWI and the new medium of cinema, the Roman statesman's popularity in the United States began to wane in the 1920s. By that decade, only one quarter of high school students studied Latin. Because of the Great War, some critics questioned whether high schools and universities should put more effort into teaching scientific and technological disciplines. Wyke attributes Caesar's decline, in part, to less stringent college entrance requirements; however, she also states: “[For] many practitioners of a classical education in American high schools in the 1920s, teaching Caesar's Gallic Wars … was too big of a risk. Lauding Caesar would only provide progressive educators with further evidence that the study of Latin was more likely to destroy than build faith in democratic freedoms, and more likely to break than to make the best type of man.… Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has remained a staple of the American high-school curriculum throughout the course of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first. But Caesar's De bello Gallico has never regained the extraordinary degree of attention and sheer admiration that it commanded in the United States in the early years of the twentieth century” (p. 97). Yet starting in the 1930s, as the popularity of Caesar and Latin faded from schools, the Roman dictator found a new home in the contentious world of American political discourse.
Part 2 of Wyke's monograph, which is titled “Political Culture,” covers the final four chapters. It traces the use of Caesar in the American press and U.S. politics from the interwar years to the early twenty-first century (1920s-2008). Chapter 4 examines how Mussolini's Roman revival in Italy prompted heated debate among pro- and antifascist groups in the United States. The American journalist George Seldes's popular antifascist book Sawdust Caesar: the Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism (1935) argued the Mussolini was rewriting history to his benefit, and Orson Welles's New York stage play Julius Caesar: Death of a Dictator (1937) used modern, fascist-style costumes and lighting reminiscent of Nazi rallies to warn its audience about the insidious dangers of dictatorship. Following Seldes and Welles's lead, the American press started to invoke Caesar whenever it wished to identify “home-grown” threats to American democracy. Reporters frequently called the New York mafia boss Salvatore Maranzano “Little Caesar” because he tried to set up a criminal organization based on a military hierarchy. In addition, the Louisiana senator Huey P. Long, who became the de facto political boss of his state in the 1930s, was commonly referred to in the press as the “despot of the delta” and “Caesar of the bayous.”
In her fifth chapter Wyke describes how, in the years immediately following World War II (1945-55), Caesar found his way into the popular culture and new media of the age: television (CBS's Julius Caesar, 1949) and comic books (Classics Illustrated's Julius Caesar, 1950). Yet some writers were still tempted to redefine Caesar's political persona during this period. Will Durant's historical study Caesar and Christ (1944) recast Caesar as a progressive hero (à la FDR) who “dreamt of the capture of Parthia and its riches as a means to end economic depression and ensure world peace” (p. 132), and Thorton Wilder's historical novel The Ides of March (1948) portrayed Caesar as a postwar champion of existentialist philosophy. In spite of these attempts, Caesar was still most frequently employed as a prop to warn against the dangers of totalitarianism. For example, Wyke dedicates considerable space to analyzing MGM's Julius Caesar(1953), which starred Marlon Brando as Antony. Wyke argues that the film's producers intended the movie as a warning against the demagoguery of not only the National Socialists and Stalinism abroad, but also the Red Scare and McCarthyism at home.
Chapter 6 examines Caesar's role during the Cold War (1956-89), when critics on both the left and right of the political spectrum believed American presidents were accruing too much power. During this period, presidents who consolidated executive power were accused of “Caesarism.” Critics depicted Lyndon B. Johnson, for instance, as Caesar in political cartoons to suggest that he was waging a private war in Vietnam. Arthur M. Schlesinger's The Imperial Presidency (1973) claimed that “The Cold War ... had provided American presidents with the opportunity routinely to exercise almost royal prerogatives in the field of foreign affairs.... The 'Imperial Presidency' had reached its apogee in the twentieth century during Richard M. Nixon's administration. In [Schlesinger's] view, Congress had surrendered the power to make war to President Truman in 1950, while Nixon's mode of governance involved additionally the systematic restriction of the two other major powers held by Congress—the power of the purse, and of oversight and investigation” (p. 191). However, Wyke also notes that Caesar's image remained a prominent part of American life because of the political assassinations and the culture wars of the 1960s. Advertisements for Stuart Burge's film adaptation of Shakespeare's Caesar (1970) included pictures of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. and Bobby Kennedy to make the play seem more relevant for its modern American audience. And Joseph Papp's revival of Julius Caesar in 1979, with its all-black-and-Hispanic Shakespeare repertory troupe, sparked considerable debate among traditional and nontraditional theater critics.
In her book's final chapter Wyke argues that, although the specter of Caesar and Rome faded in the last quarter of the twentieth century (between the Ford and Clinton presidencies), George W. Bush's presidency—and especially the start of the Iraq War—vigorously revived references to the dictator and Roman Empire in American political discourse. Wykes explains that, after 9/11, many neoconservatives argued that an interventionist foreign policy and an “American Empire” (Pax Americana) were good for the world. In response, liberals began likening Bush to Caesar in articles and political cartoons, and the Iraq War became Bush's “Rubicon” in the press. Wyke believes that American commentators were so comfortable using these classical references because over “the course of the twentieth century, the Roman dictator [had already] achieved wide diffusion in American education, political and social discourse, and mass cultural production and had become thoroughly Americanized” (p. 197).
Wyke's narrow chronological focus may disappoint readers who wish to learn about Caesar's reception in the United States prior to the twentieth century. Although Caesar's legacy had a powerful influence on Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Wyke's book provides only a cursory survey of those periods. This is only a minor criticism, however. Navigating the complex world of the classical tradition's reception in the United States can be a difficult task, and Caesar in the USA does an excellent job within its chosen chronological scope. Wyke can make Caesar seem at once elusive and ubiquitous. She jumps—sometimes rapidly—back and forth between discussions of theater/film productions and pedagogical/political articles. At one moment, she casts Caesar as the hero; at another, as the villain. Doing so occasionally leaves the reader feeling a bit disoriented. Wyke's Caesar appears rather schizophrenic at times. But, then again, this pattern is Wyke's point. Over the course of the twentieth century in the United States, Caesar has played many roles. Sometimes these roles are confusing; sometimes they are even contradictory. But they are all part of what has turned one of Rome's greatest statesman into an “American” Caesar.
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