Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019
Amelia, the daughter of Augustus’s tutor, seeks revenge against Augustus for her father’s death. She asks for vengeance as a provision of her marriage to Cinna, the grandson of Pompey, who was more deeply wronged by Augustus than Amelia. Her friend Fulvia believes that the plot against Augustus’s life can be successful only if anger and hatred are not apparent, especially since Augustus holds Amelia in such high esteem that courtiers often ask her to act as an intermediary in affairs at court. The two women debate the worth of Augustus as compared to the cruelties exercised to establish him in his high position. Amelia thinks the winning of love through the destruction of a tyrant is worth all the risk involved, but self-glorification seems to Fulvia to be more of the impetus behind the plot than either love or desire for vengeance—a thought that almost causes Amelia to waver in deference to her endangered and beloved Cinna.
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Cinna, however, believes the plot has an excellent chance of success. All the conspirators seem to him as desirous of vengeance and as eager for the rewards of love as he is, though their inspiration is the result of his oratorical eloquence in reciting his own as well as the historical grievances against the emperor. Cinna will, while bearing the sacrificial cup at the next day’s ceremony of thanksgiving to the gods, stab Augustus to death. His friend Maximus will hold back the mob, while others will surround Cinna. Even though he proclaims that he cares not whether he lives or dies as long as honor is upheld—an honor not unlike that of Brutus and Cassius, the murderers of Julius Caesar, Amelia hastens to add—he believes that the people will then accept him as emperor. Evander, a freed servant of Cinna, brings news that Augustus wants to see both Cinna and Maximus, an event that upsets their plans and strikes fear into Amelia’s heart. After the lovers swear to die for each other, Amelia retires to Livia’s side, while Cinna goes to confront Augustus.
Augustus prefaces his remarks with a long history of human desire for the empty bauble of power and then asks the two young men to decide his fate, whether he should be the emperor or a private citizen. Both conspirators swear that Augustus, so much nobler than Julius Caesar, should remain supreme in power as the rightful ruler of a grateful empire. Although the sentiment redounds to Augustus’s credit, neither feels it to be more than weakness to want a republic when a monarchy can be maintained. Augustus, however, is not convinced that five generations of struggle to eminence prove anything more than that the people want democracy. Cinna, disclaiming this idea, even citing his grandfather’s claim on the throne as evidence, urges Augustus to name a successor who can carry on this Augustan age to posterity. Cinna is surprised to hear himself so named. Although Maximus wavers after such a noble act by their ruler, Cinna remains resolute in his bloody plan. He will kill Augustus, put his bloody hand in that of Amelia, and marry her on Augustus’s tomb.
A short time later, Maximus reveals to his companion and confidant Euphorbus that he, too, loves Amelia; the freedman in turn urges his former master to kill Cinna and gain not only the girl but the emperor’s gratitude. Maximus, after much argument, is repelled and yet intrigued by such a prospect. Just such a conflict exists in Cinna’s breast as well; he loves the revenge but cannot feel true hatred for the object, so dear is his own person to Augustus. Maximus suggests that these sentiments are enfeebling, though he feels the justice of their cause. Cinna, alone with his conscience, reasons from cause to effect and decides to ask Amelia to release him from his promise of revenge.
Amelia greets her lover with rejoicing, for she, too, hears the news of Augustus’s high regard for Cinna; she is, however, relentless in her desire for vengeance. When Cinna pleads with her to return not only his love but also that of Augustus, she replies that treason is the only answer to Augustus’s tyranny. Finally, he agrees to her demands, though not without a commentary on female ruthlessness.
In the meantime, perhaps thinking to better his own low position, Euphorbus goes to Augustus with news of the plot against him. Augustus is more shocked at Cinna’s treachery than at that of Maximus, who at least gave warning of his feelings, and he would have pardoned the latter had not Euphorbus lied and said that Maximus committed suicide. In a soliloquy, Augustus summarizes the pity of it all. Maximus proposes flight to Amelia as the best solution to a bad situation. When she spurns his love as traitorous to his friend, he in turn laments the counsel of Euphorbus.
Augustus summons Cinna and speaks of the leniency with which he allowed his traditional enemy to live as recompense for ancient wrongs. For this, he declares, Cinna plans to kill him at a religious ceremony in the capitol. The emperor then offers all to Cinna, even though, without the help of Augustus, the young man cannot succeed in his design. Cinna, unrepentant, refuses to give Augustus satisfaction over his death.
Amelia and Livia then resolve the conflict, the former taking the blame on herself, even begging to die with Cinna; the lovers quarrel over the seeming break in love and in honor. Maximus then hastens to reveal his betrayal, through Euphorbus, of the plot. These circumstances move Augustus to ask the friendship of those whom he most admires and loves. Amelia, the first to respond, is followed by the others, all moved by royal clemency. Livia commends her husband’s generosity as a bright example to future rulers. Augustus humbly wishes it would be so and appoints the morrow as a day of joyous sacrifice, doubly so because of the plotters’ remorse and the forgiveness of the man against whom they conspired.