As Romulus the Great opens, Spurius Titus Mamma arrives totally exhausted and wounded at the emperor’s villa, which seems deserted except for a flock of chickens. He brings news that the Roman Empire is collapsing, but the chamberlains refuse to let him see the emperor without an appointment, which is impossible to arrange with any speed. As the cavalry officer runs out in frustration, Emperor Romulus appears onstage to discover that the minister of finance has fled with the empty imperial cashbox; the empire is bankrupt, but the imperturbable Romulus directs his full attention to his breakfast, whose centerpiece is an egg freshly laid by one of his chickens, each of which is named for a historical leader.
The minister of state enters, extremely agitated about the cavalry officer’s news, but Romulus suggests that the officer rest from his long ride before reporting any news to him. At the breakfast table, Romulus’s wife, Julia, and daughter Rea become more and more upset as it becomes clear that the Germans (Teutons) have conquered Pavia. Emperor Zeno enters, pleading for sanctuary. As bad news continues to arrive, Romulus makes wry jokes, indicating his detached attitude.
Caesar Rupf, a wealthy manufacturer of trousers, enters and offers to pay the invading Teutonic chief to evacuate Italy, on condition that trousers become obligatory dress and that the emperor’s daughter become his wife. Julia is in favor of the marriage, but Romulus refuses. At the end of the act, the cavalry officer tries to deliver his message but is turned away by Romulus, who tells him that he is sacrificing himself needlessly since the country is already doomed. “Emperor, you’re a disgrace to Rome!” cries the officer.
Act 2, which takes place that afternoon, finds everything in disarray. The minister of state is having the archives burned so they...
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