Joan of Arc monument in Philadelphia

Book Review: Caesar in the USA

Wyke, Maria. Caesar in the USA. Berkely: University of California Press, 2012. xii + 306 pp.

Caesar in the USA (2012) by Maria Wyke
Caesar in the USA (2012) by Maria Wyke

Julius Caesar has ebbed and flowed in American memory, but he remains entrenched in pop culture, which is the main thesis of Maria Wyke, author of Caesar in the USA (2012). Wyke is a professor of Latin at University College London who has spent plenty of time researching Caesar, editing one book and writing another on the historical memory of the fallen dictator in the western world. With Caesar in the USA, Wyke aims to fill a glaring gap where no such work examines the prominence of Caesar in American culture in the twentieth- and twenty-first-centuries. What is clear is that although Wyke demonstrates that Caesar has been and will always be with Americans, in just the past 100 years the mediums and avenues have shifted dramatically. With the arrival of motion pictures, home televisions, and even comic books, Caesar has found new mediums to reach audiences. With two world wars, contentious presidential terms, and disputed wars, Caesar has also found different topics for analogizing.

Wyke’s approach is to discuss Caesar’s appearance in American culture in a chronological order. The first three chapters of the book focus heavily on education and the dissemination of Caesar through American high schools. This the most clear and tangible aspect of the book, as Wyke provides useful statistics. Quite simply, Latin was rising in popularity as a subject in American high schools at the beginning of the twentieth-century. This is important because the primary text for all second-year Latin students was Caesar’s own Gallic War. Thus, when Wyke points out that the percentage of American high school students enrolling in Latin rose to 50% in 1910 (21), she can also claim that the same amount were reading Caesar’s work. Couple that with the prominence of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in most English courses, and the Roman dictator had no problem finding an audience among American youth.

The use of Caesar in schools remains a tumultuous topic in the first three chapters. Wyke gleans from book introductions and letters to editors of prominent classical journals, featuring teachers presenting ideas on how to freshen up Caesar. Here, Wyke incorporates motion pictures, as teachers and reviewers jump at the opportunity to utilize films recreating Julius Caesar as teaching aids, which film studios were more than willing to help promote. Still, the coming of World War I marks the inevitable decline of Latin in American high schools. By 1915, only 39% of students enrolled and by 1922, only 27.5% students enrolled (71). With the prominence of the Gallic War tied to the study of Latin, Caesar’s work took another hit in 1924 when the American Classical League recommended postponing the use of Caesar’s book for teaching Latin to later semesters (95). Caesar’s work was a falling feature of a dying language, as the percentage of American students enrolling in Latin dropped to 16% in 1934 and 7.8% in 1949 (104). Still, Caesar the man would always have a place in American schools through the prominence of Shakespeare.

By chapter four, Wyke moves away from the concrete statistics of education and ventures into the evocation of Caesar in foreign wars and politics, which varies wildly. For example, many took the opportunity to compare the German Kaiser negatively with Caesar during World War I, both as conquerors of Gaul. Here, two mediums cross paths, as American teachers struggle to emphasize the relevancy of Caesar in the world war without branding him as a villain and thus, unappealing to students. Conversely, with the rise of Benito Mussolini in Fascist Italy, the American press took the opportunity once again to couple Caesar with a foreign ruler albeit in a positive light. In fact, Wyke demonstrates that “no other Western nation gave greater support to Italian Fascism nor sponsored a personality cult for Mussolini so forcefully in its press” (107). Through serialization of his biography and favorable interviews, the Italian dictator had support in America. However, this all diminished with the Italian invasion of Libya. Here, the comparisons to Caesar all took a turn against Mussolini. By the late 1930s, the American press reversed their support, even posing as though they were against his rise from the beginning. Wyke never sticks to a single medium. During her analysis of Mussolini, she introduces one of many analyzed books, Sawdust Caesar: The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism (1935) by George Seldes. This, she follows with one of several plays, Julius Caesar: Death of a Dictator (1937), a re-imagination of Shakespeare’s play by Orson Welles. Both of these served to attack Mussolini’s rule directly to great effect in America. By the fall of Mussolini, American newsreels and newspapers all borrowed from Seldes’s title, proclaiming the fall of the “Sawdust Caesar” (127).

In chapter five, Communism and the decade following World War II comes to the fore, a period where the association of Julius Caesar and Fascism had become cliché (124). The dissemination of Caesar gained access to new mediums such as television and comic books. With the release of MGM’s Julius Caesar (1953), starring Marlon Brando, this period had plenty of Caesar to go around for the American public. Throughout the book, Wyke emphasizes the tendency toward Americanizing Caesar and MGM’s film is a prime example. Wyke quotes several reviewers, one describing a battle scene “staged like a skirmish between Apaches and United States Cavalry in a Western” and another describing the film as “a sort of gangster picture with an ancient Roman setting” (155). With Shakespeare still a staple in American high schools, educators relied on all of these new mediums to expand students’ interest in the play, giving more prominence to Caesar. Thus, when Edward R. Murrow aired his groundbreaking episode of See It Now on March 9, 1954 focusing on the questionable tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, the audience would be familiar with the Shakespearean quotes utilized by both Murrow and McCarthy. Wyke excels in escorting the reader through the history of Caesar in American memory toward such revelations.

Chapters six and seven focus heavily on the use of Caesar in American politics from the mid-twentieth-century through the first presidential term of Barack Obama. Remarkably, the evocation of the Roman dictator diminished greatly with a few exceptions. For example, the New York Times and Washington Post made a few mentions of Caesar and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, but that quickly faded with the election of Richard Nixon. With the latter, Wyke clears up one of the largest misconceptions in American memory, as Nixon’s time in office has often been referred to as the “Imperial Presidency.” This concept came from Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1973 book by the same name, which heavily criticized Nixon, but scarcely mentioned Rome or Caesar (190). Nixon was no Caesar, but Americans remembering this period tend to wrap the two together, mistakenly citing his “Imperial Presidency.” Instead, the evocation of Caesar in American politics faded during the 1970s and remained dormant for the most part.

That all changed during the George W. Bush presidency though. In the seventh and final chapter, Wyke focuses on the first 12 years of the new millennium. She demonstrates that after 9/11, the use of Caesar and Roman Empire spiked dramatically. Pundits described the invasion of Iraq as Bush’s “Rubicon.” His method for gaining and keeping authorization for war was compared to Caesar’s expansion of power. Here, Wyke astutely points out the contradictions and nuances in these uses. Caesar was not responsible for the establishment of the Roman Empire, Octavian was. Yet, Americans were familiar with Caesar, not Roman emperors. Thus, when the United States “empire” needed an emperor, Caesar was jerry-rigged into the role (213). The comparisons continued until 2008 when Bush failed to live up to the Caesarian characteristic of keeping power. After which, pundits drew from the well of all Roman history to evoke whatever figure or emperor fit the bill for their current rant.

Measuring the prominence of an ancient figure in today’s world is difficult, but the lack of, or at least random sampling of statistics can be frustrating throughout this book. For example, Wyke does a superb job of covering the percentage of high school students enrolled in Latin throughout the first half of the twentieth-century. Similarly, she points out that Orson Welles’s recreation of Julius Caesar (1937) had 157 performances with one third of those seats going to schools (124). Yet, with so much ink dedicated to MGM’s Julius Caesar (1953), Wyke never provides a single box office statistic. Instead, she focuses purely on the reviews and the movie itself. Did anyone attend this film or was it a flop? Similarly, Wyke describes the HBO Rome series in some detail along with reviews, but never examines its impact. The question is simple—how successful were these productions in contributing to the American understanding and use of Caesar?

Given that the book is covering 100 years of history, it at times feels incomplete. This is hardly the last word on the subject and there is room for more academic study of these periods and topics. For example, there is strong coverage of the proliferation of Caesar through high schools in the first quarter of the century, but it wanes by the 1960s, and afterward, there is hardly a mention of schools. Wyke emphasizes that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was and remains prominent in high schools, but she never provides any data. Similarly, several brief topics could benefit from more examination, such as the use of Caesar among the Italian mafia (119-120) and the establishment of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas (184). Wyke conspicuously neglects the palace in Atlantic City.

In the end, Caesar in the USA provides a superb albeit lopsided survey of the Roman dictator in American memory from the beginning of the twentieth-century to the beginning of the twenty-first-century. Through the numerous mediums and varying uses of Caesar to uplift, tarnish, warn, or teach Americans, Wyke demonstrates that “Caesar will always be a part of American culture.”