The Decay of Rome in Shakespeare´s "Titus Andronicus". The Conflict between the Roman and the Barbarian Influences

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017
14 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Titus Andronicus and the Importance of Rome

2. The Character Rome

3. The Barbarians

4. “That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?”

5. Conclusion: Rome´s near future

6. Works Cited

The Roman tragedy ‘Titus Andronicus’ focuses on the fate of different characters inside and outside of Rome. The characters are influenced by the place and state of Rome, which seems to follow a clear order. However, this order is interrupted when people from outside Rome are able to gain power inside Rome. The following pages will focus on the presentation and relevance of Rome in Titus Andronicus and how the morals and ideas of the empire are struggling in the play.

1. Titus Andronicus and the Importance of Rome

In Shakespeare´s Roman tragedies the importance of the place and state of Rome is always underlined. The Roman characters are willing to fight, kill and die for the cause of Rome. Moreover, they would even sacrifice their children and loved ones for it. This can be seen for example in Coriolanus where Volumnia would sacrifice her son Coriolanus for Rome or in Julius Caesar where Brutus decides to join the conspirators against his friend Caesar. Rome is the greatest good which is known to the Roman characters, this also becomes clear in the play Titus Andronicus.

One indication for Rome´s greatness is the content in which the name Rome is used: If the characters in the play want to express how important or great another character is to them, they use the word “Rome” as a reference. Titus Andronicus is for example called “Rome´s best champion (I.1.68; 147) or “Rome´s best citizen” (I.1.167; 150). Hence, “Rome” is used as the highest climax when it comes to describing a character.

Titus Andronicus, the main character of this play, seems to represent the ideal traditional, patriotic Roman character. In the first act Titus comes back from war which he was fighting for Rome. Titus states that of his “[…] five-and-twenty valiant sons” (I.1.82; 148) he brings home some alive but also some dead. It is not clear, whether he really had twenty-five sons, because if that would have been the case, then only four of them are still alive in the beginning of the play (Lucius, Quintus, Martius and Mutius). But even if the soldiers who died during the war were only as close to Titus, as if they were his sons, this strong choice of words points out his loss. Some men very close and probably related to Titus died for the cause of Rome, which in this case was the conquest of the Goths. He brings home the captured Queen of the Goths and her sons, and following a Roman tradition he sacrifices her eldest son. Titus in this first scene embodies the typical victorious Roman hero.

Due to this and also because of his former successes for Rome, the people and his brother Marcus Andronicus are asking Titus to be a candidate for their emperor, but he declines (cf. I.1.180-190; 150). Titus gives up the chance to become emperor because his perpetual intention is to make Rome the best state possible. In his opinion he would not be the best potential emperor for Rome. He declares that “A better head her glorious body fits/ than his that shakes for age and feebleness” (I.1.190-191; 150). Due to Titus´s decline Saturnine becomes the new emperor. Shakespeare has chosen to set this play in a fictional Roman reign, because there was actually never an emperor with the name Saturninus. Katharine Eisaman Maus writes in her introduction to Titus Andronicus that even though the plot is fictional “at the same time, [Shakespeare] puts a great deal of emphasis on the play’s ‘Roman-ness,’ making constant reference to classical myths, to legendary and historical figures, to imperial institutions, to the places and customs of ancient Rome” (Maus, 136). Hence, Shakespeare consciously makes Rome and its fate one of the central aspects of the play.

To show his gratitude to Titus Saturninus wants to choose Lavinia, Titus´s daughter, as his bride (cf. I.1.244; 151). However, Bassianus, Saturninus´s brother, insists that Lavinia was already chosen to be his bride (cf. I.1.278-279; 152). Lavinia´s forced refusal of the empress´s position leads following to the death of her brother Mutius: Mutius chooses to support his sister in acting against the will of the new Roman emperor (cf. I.1.292; 152). As a result, Titus kills his own son. As a reader or as part of an audience one can especially here very obviously realize the importance of Rome to Titus in this first act of the play: After killing Mutius, Titus states that Mutius was not longer his son because “[his] sons would never so dishonor [him]” (I.1.298; 152). His son turning against the will of the new Roman emperor seems to be the worst disgrace and scandal to Titus. Here again Titus is characterized as the most righteous, honorable and traditional Roman. He rather kills his own child than to support dishonoring Rome in any way. Titus is so ashamed of Mutius that he does not even want him to be buried in the family tomb, because this place was only made for “soldiers and Rome´s servitors” (I.1.355; 154). Marcus, Titus´s brother, can eventually convince Titus to bury Mutius in the family tomb, but even when Titus finally allows it, he points out again that this day is the worst day of his life, because he was “[…] dishonored by [his] sons in Rome” (I.1.387; 154). Therefore, the cause of Rome is defiantly more important to Titus than his own family. Titus, like all the other characters in this play, is aware “of the glorious Roman past as it is enshrined in narrative” (Maus, 138), but the depiction of his character even seems to surpass perceptions of past Roman heroes.

Saturninus then decides to propose to Tamora, the captured Queen of the Goths, and takes her as his bride. Titus has to kneel down in front of his former captive, who is striving for revenge. Nevertheless, Titus does not doubt the new Roman emperor. In the end of the first act he still is the same loyal believer and follower of Rome whom we met in the beginning.

2. The Character Rome

The real meaning of Rome in this play and specially the meaning of Rome to the Roman characters is hard to understand for an outside observer. Furthermore, the totality of Rome seems to be incomprehensible. Rome in this play seems not only to be a mystical “thing” but it can probably be viewed as an own character. Regarding the whole play Rome appears to be the most important and powerful leading character. Rome is personified by different adjectives throughout the whole play: glorious, forlorn, desperate, royal, kind, proud, ungrateful/ ingrateful and ambitious are some of the adjectives which depict Rome more as a “human” being than as a place or state. Viewing these adjectives it becomes clear, that Rome seems to be able to change its mood. Rome also takes action in the play, when it rewards love or gets miserable. But compared to the other characters Rome is still not as driven by feelings and as vulnerable as them. In addition to the personification of Rome also the sex of the character is given: Rome is a woman, this can be derived from several quotes in the play, e.g.: “her glorious body” (I.1.190; 150), “Let Rome herself […] and she […]” (V.3.72-72; 196), “To heal Rome´s harms and wipe away her woe” (V.3.147; 197) or “her enemies” (V.3.102; 196). Considering Shakespeare´s time one reason why Rome was chosen to be a female character might be because she could be connected to the Queen of England. The Shakespearean audience was used to a female leader, who was standing above them all.

The Roman characters in the play do everything to please Rome; as a consequence, Rome exemplifies the image of a strong and powerful leader. But still she could not survive without her people: The old emperor is dead in the beginning of the play and his sons are fighting over the position, hence, Rome is “headless” (I.1.189; 150). She needs a new, strong Roman head in order to not fall apart. Rome needs a clear and strict system to function. The image of the human body is used to make this clear: The human body needs every part, every cell to work in the exact right, organized way to survive. If one cell is not functioning as part of a team the human body starts to get weak and begins to crumble. It gets even worse when the body is invaded by a cell which does not belong there. One parasite from outside can destroy the whole organism. The parasite in this play is Tamora, the other strong female character, a counterpart to royal Rome. Tamora herself states that she is “incorporate[d] in Rome” (I.1.464; 156), this sounds like she forced herself, or maybe even was forced, into the body. Saturnine gives Tamora the opportunity to attack Rome´s central body part: the head. He takes her to the Pantheon (cf. I.1.336; 153) to marry her, leads her into the Capitol and gives her power over Rome´s body. The parasite Tamora is not alone she brought her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, and her lover, Aaron, into the head of Rome. None of them are familiar with the Roman traditions. They do not belong there, which is also made clear by their outlandish outward appearance (cf. Maus, 140). While the play is going on the dangerous consequences to Rome´s health/ traditions can be seen. The chosen leading head, infiltrated by the parasite, is not strong enough. These circumstances lead Rome to scatter and break her limbs (cf. V.3.70-72; 196). This decay of Rome´s body is strongly connected to the brutality in the play: The characters are all violently hurt and suffer massive pain. Not even Rome, this powerful character who rules them all, can avoid physical pain. Her suffering makes her, however, even more human. In contrast to the other main characters of the play Rome can survive the attack on her body in the end, which again underlines that she can be seen as mightier as the other characters.

Regarding this depiction of the character Rome her decay seems to be based on the conflict between the barbarians who invade Rome and the noble Romans. But when the play is going on it becomes more and more difficult to differentiate between inside and outside Rome. Related to this, the reader or the audience might later wonder who the real barbarians are.

3. The Barbarians

In the beginning of the play the difference between the cruel barbarians and the Romans is still clearly depicted: While the Romans are presented as heroes, the barbarians are the wild ones chained, not knowing anything about the Roman culture. During the whole play the barbarians are acting without any signs of regret or conscience against the Roman values. They are aware of their actions and as Aaron points out later in the play they enjoy it:

“But I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill a fly,

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed

But that I cannot do then thousand more” (V.1.141-144; 189).

To the audience the barbarian actions really begin to show once the play is leaving Rome and moving into a forest. This place outside of Rome is described by Aaron as “fitted by kind for rape and villainy” (II.1.117; 159). Furthermore, also Titus pictures the forest later as “by nature made for murders and for rape” (IV.1.58; 176). In contrast to this depiction Tamora seems to like the place outside Rome, she describes it as a “gleeful boast” and goes on picturing it nicely as followed:

“The birds chant melody on every bush,

The snake lies rolled in the cheerful sun,

The green leaves quiver with the cooling wind

And make a checkered shadow on the ground” (II.3.11-15; 161).

Her description seems to fit to a fairytale, but for the Roman characters it will turn into a nightmare. The forest becomes a place without any Roman virtue, a total contrast to the safe living environment inside the city walls. It turns into a place without rules: there is no Senate to keep an order or to protect the people. Due to this, the known hierarchy is replaced by a system of “survival of the fittest”. The Romans might image a similar place to be the home of the barbaric Goths, likewise it is a place outside the civilization and only used for violent actions, like hunting.

The forest firstly becomes the setting for the homicide of Bassianus, who was the old emperor´s second son. Bassianus is stabbed by Chiron and Demetrius, the crime was earlier planned by Aaron. The barbarian actions proceed when Tamora, the former Queen of the barbarian Goths and now empress of Rome, gives order to rape Lavinia (II.3.131-132; 163). Tamora justifies her command with the reason, that Titus has sacrificed her son. She is not only striving for a “just punishment” by just killing his daughter, but she states that “The worse to her, the better loved of me” (II.3.167; 164). To the reader Tamora appears as the most barbaric and cruel character so far. This depiction is underlined by Lavinia´s language in this scene. Tamora is pictured as an inhumane predator when Lavinia compares her to a tiger and a lion. Moreover, she calls Tamora a “beastly creature”, which emphasizes the image of an animalistic and wild inhumane or anti-Roman being (cf. II.3. 142-182; 164). When Titus´s sons, Martius and Quintus, arrive in the forest they also already sense that this is a dangerous place, even before they know what has happened to their sister (“A very fatal place it seems to me” (II.3.202; 165)). Getting in line with the chain of disaster, Martius and Quintus are then decoyed into a trap which was again planned by Tamora and Aaron. To Saturninus it now appears as if the two killed his brother Bassianus.

Considering the events in this scene, no more indications of the Roman society and traditions can be found. While the first act in the capitol concentrated on Rome and the values of the Roman society, now the play moved to a total different state regarding location and moral values. Tamora stated in the first act that she is “A Roman now adopted happily” (I.1.465; 156) and that “all quarrels die” (I.1.467; 156). The audience might have sensed already at this point that Tamora was lying and now it becomes totally clear: Tamora did not become a Roman. She does not at all care about the Roman values, traditions or about honor. The cause of Rome does not even affect her life. In contrast to Titus the current “Roman” empress Tamora only thinks about her cause and she gives priority to her family and not to Rome. While Titus was just following a tradition when he killed Tamora´s first son, Tamora now is lead by animalistic desire. It becomes perceivable that in contrast to the Romans, the barbarians do not need the Roman system to function or act. This fact could already demonstrate the beginning of the end of this Roman system and, hence, the end of Rome.

The next scene, II.4, seems to be moved even further away from Rome. The stage directions describe the beginning of this scene as followed: “Enter the Empress´ sons [Chiron and Demetrius] with Lavinia, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished (II.4 stage directions, 167). Imaging this scene while reading, it appears to be grotesque and ludicrous. But for an audience which sees an actress presented following this description it is a horrifying and shocking moment. It might be difficult for them to even look at the bloody portrayal of a violated, suffering Lavinia. This scene reveals and highlights the terrible truth of the barbarians. Chiron and Demetrius even take a moment to make fun of Lavinia before they leave. After Lavinia is found by her uncle Marcus in the forest, the location changes back to Rome and to the trial against Titus´s sons Quintus and Martius.

4. “That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?”

But this time the depiction of Rome seems to have changed and Titus actually starts doubting. One could say that in this third act the beginning of the decay is pictured because the distinctions between in- and outside Rome, between Roman values and barbaric actions start to blur. One can find the turning point for Titus´s character when his sons are falsely accused of killing Bassianus. Titus starts to question the idyllic Roman world of the first act. The audience, who was able to see all the actions of the second act, already started questioning before Titus. If one now takes a closer look into the representation of Roman values and traditions in the first act one can recognize an illusion. This illusion was safely hidden behind the glamour of the triumph.

It eventually turns out that the trigger for Tamora´s revenge was a Roman tradition. Lucius insists in the first act on the tradition of “Ad manes fratrum” (I.1.101; 148). The sacrifice of Tamora´s eldest son is an important part of Roman tradition. It has to be done and no Roman would question it even though Tamora tries to point out its barbaric and pointless function. In addition to that, Tamora also explains in the second act that Lavinia´s following rape happens based on the fact that “fierce Andronicus would not relent” (II.3.165; 164). It becomes clear, that Titus´s suffering, therefore, finds its roots in a Roman act and is not only based on barbaric influences. Grace Starry West writes in her essay “Going by the Book: Classical Allusions in Shakespeare´s Titus Andronicus” about these specific limits and dangers of the present Roman traditions. Shakespeare uses different hints to Roman literature during the play and many of them are connected to the prevailing brutality. West points out that “it is surely significant that none of the non-Romans ever seems to draw upon his own tradition for a brutal act; it is always a Roman source or in some way connected with Rome.” (West, 75). Accordingly, also Lavinia´s rape is constructed around the Roman narrative of Lucrece. The “Roman-ness” of the play is again underlined and Roman ideas are presented as the real origin of the barbaric actions in the play. The most notable example of a Roman source in this play is Ovid´s Metamorphoses, a work to which the characters reference at many occasions in the play.

Titus starts to realize the “Roman illusion” when his sons have to go to trial. One might think that Titus at first appears very inconsistent: First he slain his own son for Rome without any hesitation but now he pleads for mercy for his other sons who are about to be judged because they killed the Roman emperor´s brother. This inconsistency shows the change in his character: Titus realized that Rome is not what he thought it was but a phantasmagoria. His Roman identity is challenged because he can suddenly realize a confusion of the given rules. His doubts become clear in his question “That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?” (III.1.54; 169). This image of the tiger can be related again to Tamora: She was able to find a place in Rome without following the rules of Rome´s system. Rome is instable and those who can survive without rules are powerful now. Traditions lead to decay of Rome and Titus´s family. The location Rome is not anymore a state to Titus, but a “wilderness”. It is more relatable to the wild forest then to the empire Rome. Titus even starts to question the virtue and necessity of the Roman wars. After seeing his ravished daughter he says:


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The Decay of Rome in Shakespeare´s "Titus Andronicus". The Conflict between the Roman and the Barbarian Influences
TU Dortmund
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Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, Rome, Roman Plays
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Anja Ellmann (Author), 2017, The Decay of Rome in Shakespeare´s "Titus Andronicus". The Conflict between the Roman and the Barbarian Influences, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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