Classics and pop culture / Discussion / History / Random thoughts / Travel

The Lion King – from Rome to Stratford-upon-Avon

Thatched roofs, cream teas, sonnets and soliloquies: Stratford-upon-Avon really is a wonderful pocket of Englishness nestled in the West Midlands. One could do much worse than to break away from the helta-skelta-of-wherever and pay a quick visit, as do 2.5 million people every year – and as I did for a weekend as my ‘summer holiday’. But the ancient world did still feature in this little jolly. The RSC’s current ‘Rome Season’ is a particular treat for scholars of ancient Greece and Rome as myself, and it offers a bridge between antiquity and the modern world via Shakespeare’s Medieval England. I had snagged a ticket to a rather enjoyable performance of Angus Jackson’s ‘Julius Caesar’ – but one image in particular from Robert Innes Hopkins’ set stuck with me.

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We’re not in Stratford any more, Toto. No clues for guessing where, though.

As we filed into the theatre, the stage was already dressed: a facade of columns elevated a lintel emblazoned with the Republican slogan ‘SPQR’; the monumental steps of the Capitoline Hill accompanied a protruding platform for declamation and oration; and a plaster cast of the ‘lion attacking a horse’ sat proudly atop those same stairs, a marble statue group which can be visited today in Rome’s Capitoline Museum. We were unapologetically in Ancient Rome, and this vignette remained the backdrop for the whole of the first three acts (albeit delicately masked by some rather impressive lighting effects, especially in some more intimate domestic scenes from Brutus and Caesar’s houses). The image of the lion and horse hung over the entire production, and it made constant visual reference, comment, and challenge to the action. This statue group was as much a part of the performance as it was an invitation by the director for commentary: a mirror, and an antithesis. This is an idea I would like to unpack a little bit more.


‘As a doe, though she is nearby, fails to defend her fawns when a lion forces her lair, seizes them in his mighty jaws, and robs them of tender life, trembling instead with fear and running sweat-drenched through dense undergrowth, fleeing from her powerful enemy’s attack, so the Trojans failed to save these two from death, driven themselves to flight by the Greeks.’ Iliad 11.

The image of the ferocious lion attacking its prey was common vocabulary in the visual language of antiquity.  One may look, for example, at the sixth century BC frieze of the Siphnian Treasury at Delphi, or even as far back as the sixteenth century BC and the lion hunt dagger from Mycenae. The lion is a universal symbol for strength and ferocity, a clear visual way of demonstrating power. These motifs were particularly popular in the art of the near East. Indeed, there is some suggestion that our particular statue group in question may have been sculpted as a fragment to a much larger hunt scene in Asia Minor around the late fourth century BC, after which it was carried to Rome as war booty. The image spread throughout the Roman world, and we find similar scenes on coins, mosaics, and other media from the late first century onwards.


Lion and ‘horse’ fragment, before reconstruction.

We don’t know for sure who sculpted the statue group, nor where it was displayed originally in Rome. Today, the statue stands proudly in the Capitoline museum next to the bronze Marcus Aurelius – and perhaps Innes Hopkins had this in mind when he designed his set, that the statue group was meant to point the audience by association towards a setting on the Capitoline. Texts and sketches from the fourteenth century AD tell us that at that time the sculpture was in the Palazzo Senatorio, but that the horse was little more than a fragment and unrecognisable as such. When the Palazzo was restored in the mid sixteenth century the sculpture was moved to the Capitoline, and then in 1594 a head, tail, and some legs were added to the horse by Ruggero Bascapè. The statue group in this form survives to us in the present day, and thus resembles its current form.


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Lions and horses – who is the monster, and who is the man?

Why then should this unattributed and rather obscure symbol of Rome be the key set piece to Angus Jackson’s otherwise very barren first act scene? This single piece actually does an awful lot of work. Perhaps the obvious connection is between the lion and Caesar. At the time of Shakespeare’s play set in 44BC, Caesar had just been named dictator for life, and was preparing for war against the Parthians. Such is one of the worries of the conspirator Cassius, that Caesar has become a wolf or a lion who subjugates the feeble Romans (‘I knew he would not be a wolf / But that he sees the Romans are but sheep. / He were no lion were not Romans hinds.’ Act 1, Scene 3). By contrast perhaps Caesar is the horse, under attack from his own image – throughout the first two acts, Shakesepare makes reference to Caesar’s ill health but a reluctance to show this weakness to the people (‘Caesar should be a beast without a heart…’ Act 2, Scene 2). This would make, in turn, Brutus and his conspirators the lion, those who wait in the undergrowth to ambush their prey unawares, despite the warning to the horse of a rustling in the bushes, or a portent from a soothsayer (‘Beware the ides of March!’ Act 1, Scene 2). Then again, the director led us particularly towards seeing Mark Antony as a lion. In a rather curious opening vignette, Antony and his band butchered a bull and triumphantly extolled its entrails for us all to see: was this meant to foreshadow his eventual triumph along with ally Octavian, or was it just a comment on the themes of violence and brutality? For me, Julius Caesar has always been a play about serial confrontation, and any number of antagonistic pairings could play off against the image of the lion and the horse: as Portia tries to bend Brutus towards revealing his plans; as Caesar casts off the woes of Calpurnia; as the words of Brutus and then Mark Anthony savage the wills of the Roman hoi polloi. Our key set piece weaves all of these moments together, and invites us to decide for ourselves who is our own lion, and who is the horse.

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Martin Hutson as Cassius. A man for all seasons?

The Republican Roman world of autocrats and dictators about which Shakespeare wrote is as real today as it has been throughout history. Who manipulates and savages whom is a real and tangible question – and perhaps an image like that of the lion and the horse can help us reflect on these issues. Beauty, pathos, poetry, and critical engagement are the tools for commentary on these issues – and ‘the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’


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