Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on July 10, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 689

Julius Caesar features numerous allusions to famous men in Roman and Greek history and to specific geographical sites in the ancient world. Their inclusion helps establish the historical and the cultural background of the play’s setting. 

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Ancient History: 

  • Pompey was the Roman statesman and general whom Caesar defeated in a civil war prior to assuming control of Rome (act 1, scene 1). “Pompey’s blood” refers to Pompey and his two sons. Caesar’s army defeated Pompey’s sons, as well; the elder son was killed, and Pompey himself was driven into Egypt and later murdered (act 1, scene 1). 
  • The hero Aeneas is alluded to: “. . . as Aeneas, our great ancestor / Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder / The old Anchises bear ….” This passage is drawn from the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid, in which he describes Aeneas carrying his aged father from Troy as the city burned, having been destroyed by the Greeks in the Trojan War (act 1, scene 2). 
  • “There was a Brutus once . . .” refers to Junius Brutus, who led the Romans in overthrowing Tarquin, a tyrannical king of Rome, over 450 years before the events of the play (act 1, scene 2). 
  • Cato was Marcus Portius Cato, a member of a prominent, respected Roman family. After Pompey’s defeat, Cato committed suicide rather than live under Caesar’s rule (act 2, scene 1). 
  • Epicurus was a Greek philosopher (341–271 BCE) who believed that the gods exerted no influence or control on human lives, and thus were not to be feared (act 5, scene 1). 

Geography: 

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  • The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was a giant statue of Helios, Greek god of the sun. It was later believed that the statue straddled the entrance to Mandraki Harbour and that ships passed between the legs of the Colossus when entering or leaving the city (act 1, scene 2). 
  • “[Your words] rob the Hybla bees, / And leave them honeyless” refers to Hybla, an ancient city in Sicily famous for its production of honey (act 5, scene 1). 
  • Parthia was an ancient empire in modern-day Iran and Iraq (act 5, scene 3). The Roman state and Parthian Empire were engaged in conflict from 53 BCE until the fall of Parthia in 226 CE. 
  • Thasos is a Greek island in the Aegean Sea (act 5, scene 3). 

Julius Caesar also features allusions to Greek mythology and to beliefs and practices from the Elizabethan society of Shakespeare’s day. In the context of the passages in which the allusions appear, they are often imbued with metaphorical meaning. 

Greek Mythology: 

  • Olympus is a mountain in Greece. The ancient Greeks believed that their gods lived on its summit (act 3, scene 1). 
  • Ate is the Greek goddess of crime and retribution (act 3, scene 1). 
  • Pluto is the Greek god of wealth and the underworld, frequently conflated with or interpreted as Hades (act 4, scene 3). 

Shakespeare’s Contemporary Society: 

  • “These growing feathers pluck’d from Caesar’s wing / Will make him fly an ordinary pitch” is a metaphorical reference to falconry, a popular sport in Shakespeare’s time. “Pitch” is the point in a falcon’s flight when it dives to attack its prey (act 1, scene 1). 
  • “ . . . for we are at the stake, / And bay’d about with many enemies” is a metaphorical reference to bear-baiting, a cruel but popular blood sport practiced in Shakespeare’s time. In a bear-baiting match, a bear was chained to a pole and then set upon by dogs; the bear would fight off their attacks until either the dogs were dead or the bear was bitten into submission (act 4, scene 2). 
  • “Masker” refers to someone attending a masquerade, a party at which guests covered their faces with masks of various designs. Masquerades were a popular form of entertainment among the aristocracy in Shakespeare’s time (act 5, scene 1). 
  • “ . . . the elements / So mix’d in him . . .” is a reference to the four humors, or physical elements, thought to exist in the human body. According to this ancient medical system, it was believed that the humors in an individual’s body determined his or her character and behavior (act 5, scene 5). 

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