The Ides of March is a epistolary novel set in Julius Caesar’s Rome. Thornton Wilder called it “a fantasia on certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic.” Through vividly imagined letters and documents, Wilder brings to life a dramatic period of world history and one of history’s most magnetic, elusive personalities.
by Thomas Buck and Stephen Rojcewicz
Wilder’s introduction to The Ides of March terms it “a fantasia upon certain events and persons of the last days of the Roman republic.” Unlike any of his other works, the novel is constructed as a series of imaginary documents, though a few genuine passages—usually poems of Catullus—are interspersed at applicable points. The documents are arranged into four books, each beginning earlier and ending later than the one that precedes it. The first treats September of 45 BCE; the second begins in August and ends in October, and so forth.
The first book introduces the reader to Wilder’s main characters, both as authors and through the correspondence of others. Most well represented is Wilder’s Caesar, especially through his journal-letters to the fictional Lucius Mamilius Turrinus, a boyhood friend of Caesar’s who lives in solitude on Capri after being captured and maimed during one of Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul. Throughout the novel, Turrinus operates as Caesar’s philosophical sounding board and gives the reader relatively direct access to his thoughts. Wilder also introduces Clodia Metelli, her tumultuous love affair with the poet Catullus, and the resulting scandals; and Caesar’s relatively simple-minded wife, Pompeia. Clodia invites Caesar, Catullus, the orator Cicero, and various other dignitaries to a dinner. To Pompeia’s distress, Caesar declines, but is later forced to reconsider; on the way to dinner, he narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. After being treated by his doctor, he returns to the dinner and, despite his wounds, arranges a Greek-style symposium with a discussion of whether poetry is the work of men’s minds or divine inspiration.
The second book, Wilder declares, “contains material relevant to Caesar’s inquiry concerning the nature of love.” The book primarily treats the visit to Rome of Cleopatra, whose prior love affair with Caesar has produced a son. Caesar remarks at length on her character in letters to Turrinus, and Pompeia consults Clodia about the best way to receive her rival. Clodia turns suddenly bitter towards Catullus, and some of his more despairing poetry is included, translated into English by Wilder, using the original, complex Latin meter. Caesar analyzes and criticizes Clodia’s behavior. Matters come to a head at a party thrown by Cleopatra, where Caesar and his retinue discover Mark Antony and Cleopatra in flagrante delicto.
In the third book, Wilder examines religion. Caesar affirms his staunch atheism in his letters to Turrinus, and explores the role of religion in Rome. He outlines his disagreement with Cleopatra on the nature of royal cult, and confronts his worship among the plebs. In a scene reminiscent of The Cabala, Caesar attends the dying Catullus and comforts him with poetry and praise of the world he is leaving. The book ends with the profanation of the mysteries of the Good Goddess by Clodius Pulcher, an event that actually occurred seventeen years earlier.
At the start of Book Four, Servilia—one of Caesar’s former lovers—enjoins her son, Brutus, to return to Rome and depose Caesar. Various chain letters—inspired by the Italian resistance to Mussolini—are circulated denouncing Caesar. Both Caesar and Brutus muse on the nature of the republic, and, though they begin in something like agreement, they slowly drift apart until their positions become untenable. Caesar outlines his plans for a campaign against the Parthians, but before he can leave, the novel ends in the Roman historian Suetonius’ account of Caesar’s assassination, written sometime in the early second century CE.
In The Ides of March, Wilder uses history creatively, in the service of a broader truth. Events which occurred in 62 BCE are transposed to 45 BCE. The Roman poet Catullus, who lived circa 84 to 54 BCE, now expires with Caesar present at his deathbed, some months before the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Famous historical figures, including Cicero, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, Brutus, the notorious Clodia and her brother, the demagogue Publius Clodius, interact with purely fictional characters. Wilder’s distorted temporal sequences and deliberate anachronisms have led Malcolm Cowley to call him “the man who abolished time.”1
Early reviews of The Ides of March were often harsh, indifferent, lukewarm or confused, and many serious critics flatly ignored its publication.2 Orville Prescott wrote in the New York Times Book Review, for example, that the novel “is an intellectually interesting stunt, not a work of fiction that can stir the emotions.”3
Wilder is now recognized as superb in his delineation of character in this novel. Edmund Fuller has noted that Wilder “evokes the most complex Caesar that I know in any work of art.”4 Malcolm Goldstein has commented on this skill: “With the exception of George Brush [from Heaven’s My Destination], Caesar is Wilder’s best-drawn character in fiction, viewed like Hamlet from all sides, constantly the topic of conversation, and fully revealed through his own words.”5 Classicists and psychoanalysts recognized this masterful portrayal earlier than did most literary reviewers. Writing in The Classical Journal only a few months after publication of the novel, Paul MacKendrick praised the “characters so alive that they put to shame us professional scholars who have not learned how to breathe the breath of life into the age.”6 The psychoanalysts Wilfred Abse and Lucie Jessner found Wilder’s Julius Caesar to be a prime illustration of the dynamics of a charismatic leader, showing how the worst excess of such leadership can be tempered by Caesar’s personal insight, sense of reality, and devotion to social justice.7
The Ides of March is a novel of ideas, written while Wilder felt himself “absorbed by Existential philosophy and its literary diffusion,”8 especially the philosophy of Kierkegaard and of Sartre, whom Wilder met while writing the novel.9 Wilder examines historical, political, religious and aesthetic themes throughout the novel. As a critical example, Caesar raises the question, “whether great poetry is the work of men’s minds only, or whether it is, as many have claimed, the prompting of the Gods.”10 Wilder uses Julius Caesar to address issues related to the search for a meaningful life, to attempt personal reconciliation, to find the proper balance between affairs of state and privately held values, and to answer, for Wilder himself, the above question. Great literature, as Wilder wrote about the tragedies of the Athenian dramatist Sophocles in 1939, can provide “reconciliation and hope”;11 poetry and literature, for Caesar and for Wilder, partake in the divine.
It is appropriate to conclude with the judgment of Edmund Fuller: “The Ides of March is a text so rich that it requires exploration rather than reading.”12
1Malcolm Cowley. “The Man Who Abolished Time.” Saturday Review, 6 October 1956: 13-14, 50-52.
2Richard H. Goldstone. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1975, 221.
3Orville Prescott. New York Times Book Review, 18 February 1948, 25.
4Edmund Fuller. “Thornton Wilder: The Notation of the Heart.” in Books with Men behind Them. New York: Random House, 1962, 41.
5Malcolm Goldstein. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1965, 144.
6MacKendrick, Paul. “Review of The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder. The Classical Journal 44, 1948, 66.
7D. Wilfred Abse and Lucie Jessner. “The Psychodynamic Aspects of Leadership.” Daedalus 90, 1961, 697.
8Thornton Wilder. Letter to Eileen and Roland Le Grand, March 9, 1946, in Wilder and Bryer, eds. The Selected Letters of Thornton Wilder. New York: HarperCollins, 2008, 440.
9Robert W. Corrigan. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” Educational Theatre Journal 13, 1961: 167-173.
10Thornton Wilder. The Ides of March (1948), 77.
11Thornton Wilder: “Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex,” written in 1939, first published in American Characteristics (1979). Reprinted in J. D. McClatchy, ed., Thornton Wilder: Collected Plays and Writings on Theater. New York: Library of America, 2007, 710-719.
12Fuller, op. cit., 42.
Abse, D. Wilfred and Jessner, Lucie. “The Psychodynamic Aspects of Leadership.” Daedalus 90, 1961: 693-710.
Corrigan, Robert W. “Thornton Wilder and the Tragic Sense of Life.” Educational Theatre Journal 13, 1961: 167-173.
Cowley, Malcolm. “The Man Who Abolished Time.” Saturday Review, 6 October 1956: 13-14, 50-52.
Fuller, Edmund. “Thornton Wilder: The Notation of the Heart.” in Books with Men behind Them. New York: Random House, 1962, 36-62.
Goldstein, Malcolm. The Art of Thornton Wilder. Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1965.
Goldstone, Richard H.. Thornton Wilder: An Intimate Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1975.
MacKendrick, Paul. “Review of The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder. The Classical Journal 44, 1948: 65-67.
For further discussions of The Ides of March, please visit the Bibliography.
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