It is a delightful irony that Jay-Z is the medium through which millions of teens hear about Julius Caesar, certainly many more millions than those who read Caesar’s own writings, e.g. the Gallic Wars (Bella Gallicorum), and undoubtedly more than the brave few who pay attention in history class. But it should not be that surprising. After all, Jay-Z is speaking a language they understand (flowing English rap lyrics), not Caesar’s own language (Latin), and not the language of most history teachers (boring, cringe-inducing English). Of course, the interpretations of Jay-Z are not written about much in the scholarly world, because Jay does not speak their language – stilted, academic English, replete with footnotes – but perhaps rightfully so. Many of Jay’s references to Caesar/Rome are brief, and the general point of the references might be paraphrased: “Both Caesar and Jay-Z are bad-ass conquerers, Caesar with swords and Jay-Z with words.” Here’s a look at how Jay-Z paints himself as a new Caesar and an enthusiast of Rome.
1. Song – Run This Town – “You can call me Caesar, in a dark caesar.”
Straightforward enough. A “dark caesar” is a sort of haircut. To see what it looks like, google image “Jay-Z”. 🙂
2. Song – Encore – “And I need you to remember one thing
I came, I saw, I conquered,
From record sales to sold out concerts
So muh’ fu**er if you want this encore
I need you to scream til’ your lungs get sore.”
“I came, I saw, I conquered” (veni, vedi vici in Latin) is a famous line attributed to Julius Caesar, who supposedly wrote it as a summary of what happened in his short war against Pharnaces II. Jay-Z appropriates it nicely to describe his rapid conquest of the global music scene. A new Caesar indeed.
3. Song – Lost (remix) – ”See Biggie, see Pac, see success and its outcome
See Jesus, see Judas, See Caesar, see Brutus,
see success is like suicide.
Suicide, it’s a suicide
If you succeed, prepare to be crucified.”
This is absolutely brilliant. Jesus and Julius Caesar are compared to two infamous rappers, Tupac and Notorious BIG, both of whom were murdered and have accumulated cult-like followings. Jay here is lamenting the frequent outcome of success – premature death – as was certainly the case with Caesar (Caesar died at. Comparing Caesar’s assassin Brutus to Jesus’s betrayer Judas is a potent image. Rather than see Brutus as a champion of anti-tyrannical values, Jay paints him as the jealous betrayer of a father figure. Caesar is the casualty of his meteoric success, and Jay is perhaps wondering if there is a Brutus waiting in his own ranks….
3. Song – I Made it – “I told you one day I’d get you a home
I didn’t know it could possibly be in Rome…”
4. Song – Streets is Talking – “I’m comfortable dog, Brooklyn to Rome.”
Jay-Z is a frequent visitor to the eternal city that his conquering predecessor Julius Caesar came to dominate, and he often makes a splash in the tabloids by going there with the beautiful, bodacious, and brilliant Beyonce Knowles.
4. Song – Why I Love You – “Picture if you will, that the throne was burning,
Rome was burning, and I’m sitting in the corner all alone
burning. Why does it always end up like this?”
Jay uses “Rome” to describe his own hand-crafted rap/fashion empire. This is just a picture, though. Jay’s Rome hasn’t burned yet; it’s not even close to burning. If success is like suicide, Jay-Z is still breaking the rules.
Jay’s interest in Julius Caesar was also on display when he attended the opening night of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar on Broadway in 2005: