Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 84 – The death of Julius Caesar

Karl von Piloty (1826–1886), The Murder of Caesar (1865), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, Hanover, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Once the god Aesculapius is ensconced in Rome, Ovid is ready to round off his Metamorphoses with salient points from the life of Julius Caesar, and links to the contemporary emperor, Augustus. These are politically charged topics, though, and require very careful coverage and language.

The Story

Ovid provides a whirlwind summary of some of Julius Caesar’s achievements, but writes that it was Augustus who was the greatest of them:
Of all the achievements of great Julius Caesar
not one is more ennobling to his fame
than being father of his glorious son.

In fact, Augustus was not Julius Caesar’s biological son, but his designated heir. Moreover, it was the undoubted divinity of Augustus which makes Julius Caesar similarly divine, hence elevated to the gods on his death.

Having flattered his emperor, Ovid tackles the thorny issue of the assassination of Julius Caesar:
But portents of the gods could not avert
the plots of men and stay approaching fate.
Into a temple naked swords were brought —
into the Senate House. No other place
in all our city was considered fit
for perpetrating such a dreadful crime!

Venus pleads Caesar’s case, and elicits Jupiter’s response:
“Venus, the man on whose behalf you are
so anxious, already has completed his
alloted time. The years are ended which
he owed to life on earth. You with his son,
who now as heir to his estate must bear
the burden of that government, will cause
him, as a deity, to reach the heavens,
and to be worshipped in the temples here.”

Jupiter hardly had pronounced these words,
when kindly Venus, although seen by none,
stood in the middle of the Senate-house,
and caught from the dying limbs and trunk
of her own Caesar his departing soul.
She did not give it time so that it could
dissolve in air, but bore it quickly up,
toward all the stars of heaven; and on the way,
she saw it gleam and blaze and set it free.
Above the moon it mounted into heaven,
leaving behind a long and fiery trail,
and as a star it glittered in the sky.

Julius Caesar therefore underwent transformation into a star (catasterisation) as his apotheosis, on his assassination. This is perhaps the best compromise, likely to offend least, and leaves Ovid the task of saying a few words about Augustus before concluding in his epilogue.

The Paintings

Visual artists have been surprisingly reticent over the depiction of any of the well-known events in the life of Julius Caesar, given their familiarity. A high proportion of visual art about him is also derived not from classical accounts, but through William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (c 1599).

The most popular single event in the dictator’s life was inevitably the end of it, with his assassination on the Ides (15th) of March, 44 BCE. Apart from a few rather clumsy depictions of the assassination itself, the better paintings don’t agree on the most appropriate moment which should be shown. I will here show them in sequence to cover much of the story.

Caesar’s assassins were senators of Rome, a group of more than thirty led by three conspirators including Caesar’s former friend and ally, Marcus Junius Brutus. Several of Caesar’s closest aides had warned him not to attend the Senate on the Ides of March, and he had to be fetched by one of the conspirators. As he arrived at the Senate, Caesar was presented with a petition, and the conspirators crowded around him.

Karl von Piloty (1826–1886), The Murder of Caesar (1865), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum Hannover, Hanover, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Karl von Piloty’s The Murder of Caesar from 1865 shows this moment, with Julius Caesar sat on a throne in the portico of the Senate. Immediately behind him, one of the conspirators has raised his dagger above his head, ready to strike the first blow.

Casca, one of the conspirators, produced his dagger and struck the dictator a glancing wound in his neck. The whole group closed in and stabbed Caesar repeatedly.

Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844), The Assassination of Julius Caesar (1804-05), oil on canvas, 112 × 195 cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome. Image by Rlbberlin, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is the stage shown by Vincenzo Camuccini in The Assassination of Julius Caesar from 1804-05, although this is not taking place on the steps in the portico, and Caesar has already moved forward from his seat.

Blinded by his blood, Caesar then tripped over and fell, and was stabbed further on the lower steps of the portico of the Senate. The conspirators made off, leaving Caesar dead where he lay, with around 23 stab wounds.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824–1904), The Death of Caesar (1859-67), oil on canvas, 85.5 x 145.5 cm, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. By courtesy of Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Jean-Léon Gérôme’s The Death of Caesar from 1859-67, Caesar’s corpse lies abandoned on the floor, as his assassins make their way out of the Senate, brandishing their daggers above their heads.

None of those paintings shows Venus or Caesar’s apotheosis, though.

Virgil Solis (1514–1562) The Deification of Julius Caesar (before 1562), engraving for Ovid, Metamorphoses Book XV, Frankfurt 1581, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

It is Virgil Solis’s engraving of The Deification of Julius Caesar (before 1562) which shows simultaneously the assassination of the dictator at the left, and Venus taking him up to the gods, above, where Jupiter is addressing the other gods (upper right).

Shakespeare’s play develops subsequent events in more detail, and contains the two most memorable lines: Et tu Brutus? (“you too, Brutus?”), said when Brutus stabs Caesar, and Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears as the opening words of Brutus’ oration over Caesar’s corpse.

Later, as Brutus and Cassius prepare to wage war against a triumvirate of Mark Antony, Octavius and Lepidus, Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus to warn of his imminent defeat. This scene from the play has also inspired visual artists, including the great William Blake.

Richard Westall (1765-1836) engraved by Edward Scriven (1775–1841), Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar (c 1802), copperplate engraving for ‘Julius Caesar’ IV, iii, 21.6 x 29.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

This engraving of Richard Westall’s painting Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar, from about 1802, shows Brutus in his role of general, sat at a writing desk, as Caesar’s ghost fills the upper left of the painting, warning Brutus of his imminent death with the words Thou shalt see me at Philippi.

William Blake (1757–1827), Brutus and Caesar’s Ghost (1806), pen and grey ink, and grey wash, with watercolour, illustration to ‘Julius Caesar’ IV, iii, 30.6 x 19 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

William Blake painted a very similar scene in his Brutus and Caesar’s Ghost from 1806, for an extra-illustrated folio edition of Shakespeare from 1632. This series of illustrations for this play are not well-known among Blake’s work, and were made quite early in his career.

In the next and final installment, I will look at paintings covering the reign of Augustus, in the context of the closing lines of the Metamorphoses.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this.