Julius Caesar

Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar; The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar (written 1937-40, first published 1957)

Between 1937 and 1940 Brecht, living in exile from the Nazis in Denmark and then Sweden, wrote a novel, Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar; The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar. Brecht had learned Latin in school, where he was introduced to Cicero’s Catilinarian orations, Sallust’s De coniuratione Catilinae, and Caesar’s De bello civile. Brecht said that Latin was his best subject at school. In 1928-29 Brecht and Erwin Piscator planned to stage Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, but nothing came of it. Brecht only returned to the theme in the autumn of 1937, commenting in a letter of November 1937 that Caesar was ‘the great model’ for all future dictators. Caesar’s dictatorship might, therefore offer a point of comparison with Adolf Hitler, even if the historical situation was completely different. Brecht was interested in the way that Caesar moved between social classes, while ultimately pursuing the interests of one social class, and in the way that imperialist wars were used as a solution to domestic politics. Such comparisons promised to shed light on Hitler’s own rise to power. Brecht began to read Plutarch, Suetonius’s life of Caesar, and Theodor Mommsen’s standard work on Roman history (Römische Geschichte, 1854-85). In the spring of 1938, Brecht decided to turn the Caesar project into a novel rather than a play, perhaps because he lacked opportunities to put on plays in exile. By January 1940 Brecht had completed four of the planned six books. The novel was never completed; it was published posthumously in 1957.

The novel can be read – at least on one level – as an allegory for the downfall of the Weimar Republic. Brecht was determined to keep in mind the distinctions between his own time and Roman antiquity, e.g. he noted that Caesar had a progressive quality which Hitler lacked. However, as work on the novel progressed, Brecht allowed certain parallels with his own time to creep into the work. Instead of the Jewish question, the characters in his novel discuss ‘the Slave question’; the figure of Cicero has certain similarities with Friedrich Ebert, the first chancellor of the Weimar Republic. Brecht deliberately used a number of anachronisms in his text in order to suggest possible connections between his own time and Caesar’s. For example, the Roman patricians are referred to as ‘Junkers’, thus comparing them to the Prussian landed gentry; the Roman bankers and financiers are referred to as ‘the City’, inviting parallels with Wall Street and the City of London. In this way, Brecht suggests potential structural similarities between ancient Roman and recent German history. In Brecht’s interpretation, Roman politics at this time was marked by a class struggle between the two hundred patrician families who dominated the Senate, and the new urban, mercantile class known as ‘equites’ or Equestrians, wealthy Romans who were required to contribute to the cavalry. Brecht re-imagined these merchants, bankers and financiers as ‘the City’. He saw a parallel between the struggle for supremacy between patricians and equites in Rome, and the struggle for power in the Weimar Republic between the Prussian aristocracy and new financial and industrial elites. The civil unrest which preceded Caesar’s rise to power invited also parallels with the Weimar Republic: Brecht describes the armed gangs of the Catilinarian uprising as ‘stormtroopers’, thus comparing them to the paramilitary groups and political gangs of the Weimar Republic. And, at one point, Caesar even acquires some modern art, namely a painting of a blue horse, which invites parallels with the German Expressionist painting of Franz Marc.

English Translation

The Business Affairs of Mr Julius Caesar; trans. by Charles Osborne; ed. by Anthony Phelan and Tom Kuhn with assistance from Charlotte Ryland (London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2016)

Further Reading in English

Keith A. Dickson, Towards Utopia. A Study of Brecht (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. 64-79

Anthony Phelan, ‘“Im Augenblick der Gefahr”: Brecht, Benjamin, and Die Geschäfte des Herrn Julius Caesar’, Modern Language Review 108:3 (2013), 881-97

Further Reading in German

Wolfgang Jeske, Bertolt Brechts Poetik des Romans (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1984)