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Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great: Tracing the Literary Zeitgeist from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

Bales, Bret
This study examines literary examples of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, specifically their appearances in medieval epic poetry and Renaissance drama, and compares the two time periods considering the attitudes towards the characters, the dominant narrative forms of the periods, the changing conception of tragedy, and the increasingly complex methods of characterization. During the Middle Ages, writers tended to treat their characters as exemplars. The Nine Worthies tradition, which included Alexander and Caesar, epitomized this trend. In most cases, Alexander and Caesar were written as one-dimensional, basically flawless characters, considered great largely for their accomplishments, not their virtue. Medieval writers were much more interested in Alexander, probably because his biography was perfectly suited for the most popular narrative form, the epic romance. Also, Alexander's early death appealed to writers of tragedy, because the medieval conception of tragedy was simply the fall of a great man. Caesar, on the other hand, had smaller appearances, usually as an example in some larger work. In the Renaissance, interest in the two men reversed. Drama, especially tragedy, was the dominant narrative form. The Renaissance return to the classics brought about an emphasis on the Aristotelian definition of tragedy and a great interest in Alexander and Caesar's most notable biographer, Plutarch. Caesar's life, as described by Plutarch, was perfectly suited for an Aristotelian tragedy, as his death by assassination was directly tied to flaws in his character. Plutarch insisted, however, that Alexander's death was merely by sickness, not a result of a tragic flaw. Therefore, Caesar rose in prominence on the Renaissance stage, with Alexander falling into the background. Additionally, the simple, one-dimensional exemplar, which was popular during the Middle Ages and loved by certain Renaissance poets such as Edmund Spenser and Phillip Sidney, gave way to more complex, three-dimensional characters. Alexander and Caesar were both looked at more critically, some writers seeing them as basically good but flawed men, some seeing them as villains, and many finding them somewhere in between.