Caesar and Pompey

Anon. (1580)

Historical Records

Stephen Gosson, Plays Confuted in Five Actions (1582, STC 12095), D4r-[D5r] (EEBO-TCP, open access):

if a true Historie be taken in hand, it is made like our shadows, longest at the rising and falling of the Sunne, shortest of all at hie noone. For the Poets driue it most commonly vnto such pointes, as may best showe the maiestie of their pen, in Tragicall speaches; or set the hearers a gogge, with discourses of love; or painte a fewe antickes, to fitt their owne humors, with scoffes & tauntes; or wring in a shewe, to furnish the Stage, when it is to bare; when the matter of it selfe comes shorte of this, they followe the practise of the cobler, and set their teeth to the leather to pull it out.
So was the history of Caesar and Pompey, and the Playe of the Fabii at the Theater, both amplified there, where the Drummes might walke, or the pen ruffle, when the history swelled, and ran to hye for the number of ye persons, that shoulde playe it, the Poet with Proteus cut the same fit to his owne measure; when it afoorded no pompe at al, he brought it to the racke, to make it serue. Which inuinciblie proueth on my side, that Plays are no Images of trueth, because sometime they hādle such thinges as neuer were, sometime they runne vpon truethes, but make them séeme longer, or shorter, or greater, or lesse then they were, according as the Poet blowes them vp with his quill, for aspiring heades; or minceth them smaller, for weaker stomakes.

Theatrical Provenance

Performed c. 1581 at the Theatre, possibly by Warwick's Men, as suggested by Wiggins (entry 685).

Probable Genre(s)

Classical history (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The play was written immediately after both Appian Civil Wars and Plutarch's Lives had been translated, by William Barker in 1578 and by Thomas North in 1579 respectively. It is therefore tempting to imagine that the playwright may have chosen one of those two freshly translated texts to develop the play, although he could have also relied on other texts such as Lucan's Civil War, Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars or Cassius Dio's Roman History. However, none of these had been fully translated into English by 1580. Caesar's own "Civil War" could also have been used as a source.

Although it is impossible exactly to ascertain the plot of the play, it may be useful quickly to sum up the main events of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey.

Dissatisfied with the Senate’s hesitations to meet some of his requests despite a long series of resounding military successes, Pompey decided to form an unofficial political alliance with the two other most powerful men in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus and Julius Caesar, an alliance later known as the First Triumvirate (60 BCE). Caesar secured the consulship for 59 BCE and the proconsulship in Gaul for the ensuing five years, while Pompey obtained the ratification of the measures he had taken in Asia and the distribution of public lands to his veterans. He also married Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Caesar’s appointment in Gaul was renewed for five more years in 55 BCE, when Pompey and Crassus became consuls; one year later, Crassus secured the governorship of Syria and Pompey that of Spain, which he ruled through legates while remaining in Rome. Crassus’s untimely death in Parthia in 53 BCE upset the political balance, leaving Pompey alone against Caesar, who was now very popular and powerful in the wake of his conquest of Gaul. Meanwhile, Julia had died in childbirth along with her baby in 54 BCE, which had broken Pompey and Caesar's family bond. Caesar later offered Pompey his grandniece Octavia as a new wife in order to strike another matrimonial alliance with his rival, but Pompey refused and in 52 BCE he married Cornelia Metella, the widow of Crassus's son and daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, one of Caesar’s sworn enemies.

Pompey then disputed Caesar’s right to hold Gaul until the end of 49 and to stand for the consulship in absentia for 48 BCE. More importantly, he would not allow Caesar to run for consul unless he relinquished his armies. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome with his troops in 49 BCE, Pompey fled to Macedonia, followed by the Senate. There, he levied a considerable army and obtained some successes against Caesar’s troops after their landing in Dyrrachium. Yet, by failing to pursue at such a critical moment for Caesar’s much smaller army, Pompey threw away the opportunity to crush them. Eventually, he let himself be led into a pitched battle at Pharsalus, where he was defeated (48 BCE). He then sought refuge in Egypt, whose independence he had always championed, but was killed by Achillas, Septimius and Salvius by order of King Ptolemy XIII, who hoped to gain favour with Caesar by murdering his rival.

Caesar's army pursued Pompey to Alexandria, where Caesar learned about Pompey’s murder and took part in the Egyptian dynastic war between Ptolemy and his sister, wife and co-regent Cleopatra VII, more commonly known simply as Cleopatra. Caesar sides with Cleopatra. After defeating Ptolemy, he reinstated Cleopatra on the throne. Caesar and Cleopatra also had an affair and a son, Ptolemy XV Caesar, better known as Caesarion. After spending the first months of 47 BCE in Egypt, Caesar headed for Syria to deal with Pharnaces II of Pontus, an old ally of Pompey’s, who had taken advantage of the fact that the Romans were engaged in the civil war and conquered a few Roman territories. Caesar attacked and defeated him with remarkable swiftness at Zela.

Then, Caesar had to return to Rome to quell the mutiny of some legions, who were waiting for the leave and overtime pay that Caesar had promised before the battle of Pharsalus. Caesar needed them in order to face Pompey’s son Sextus’s supporters still active in North Africa, but he also knew that he did not have enough money to pay them. With an incredible exhibition of charisma and shrewdness, eh managed to convince them that their payment would come after they defeated Pompey’s son in Africa. The soldiers accepted. Caesar then reached Africa and defeated an army led by Cato the Younger in Thapsus (46 BCE). Cato committed suicide. But the war was not over yet. The sons of Pompey, Pompey and Sextus, together with Labienus Tito, previously Caesar’s propraetor and second in command during the war in Gaul, had fled to Spain. Caesar pursued them and finally crushed them in Munda in 45 BC. Upon his return to Rome, Caesar was appointed as dictator for life and later assassinated on the Ides of March.

References to the Play

Anthony Munday (?), A Second and Third Blast of Retreat from Plays and Theatres (1580, STC 21677), 104-106 (EEBO-TCP, open access):

The writers of our time are so led awaie with vaineglorie,* that their onlie endeuor is to pleasure the humor of men; & rather with vanitie to content their mindes, than to profit them with good ensample. The notablest lier is become the best Poet; he that can make the most notorious lie, and disguise falshood in such sort, that he maie passe vnperceaued, is held the best writer. For the strangest Comedie brings greatest delectation, and pleasure. Our nature is led awaie with vanitie, which the auctor perceauing frames himself with nouelties and strange trifles to content the vaine humors of his rude auditors, faining countries neuer heard of; monsters and prodigious creatures that are not: as of the Arimaspie, of the Grips, the Pigmeies, the Cranes, & other such notorious lies. And if they write of histories that are knowen, as the life of Pompeie; the martial affaires of Caesar, and other worthies, they giue them a newe face, and turne them out like counterfeites to showe themselues on the stage. It was therefore aptlie applied of him,* who likened the writers of our daies vnto Tailors, who hauing their sheers in their hand, can alter the facion of anie thing into another forme, & with a new face make that seeme new which is old. The shreds of whose curiositie our Historians haue now stolen from them, being by practise become as cunning as the Tailor to set a new vpper bodie to an old coate; and a patch of their owne to a peece of anothers.

* Against Auctors of plaies.

* The best thing at plaies is starke naught.

Although there cannot be any certainty, it seems feasible to posit that the author is here referring to the Caesar and Pompey performed at the Theatre that Gosson would attack two years later, especially because the accusations are quite similar. In both cases, the distortion of history for the sake of spectale is disapproved of. It is true that the reference to "the life of Pompeie" might also be an allusion to the lost "Pompey" by the Children of Paul's. However, Wiggins (antry 685) seems to be right when he argues that since the author's "point his that plays often distort history, it is perhaps marginally more likely that he was thinking of a less elite repertory. We cannot, of course, rule out that there may have been a third play on the subject to which Munday refers, but it does not seem especially likely".

Critical Commentary

None known.

For What It's Worth

(Under construction.)

Works Cited

Gosson, Stephen. Plays Confuted in Five Actions. London: Imprinted for Thomas Gosson dwelling in Pater noster row at the signe of the Sunne, 1582.
Munday, Anthony (?). A Second and Third Blast of Retreat from Plays and Theatres. Imprinted at London: By Henrie Denham, dwelling in Pater noster Row, at the signe of the Starre, being the assigne of William Seres, 1580.

Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 22 July 2015.