London Becomes Rome: London's Triumphal Arches

Julius Caesar, as we all know, was a Roman General and a murdered ruler. Not many of us I suspect think of him as one of London's greatest architects. But for Shakespeare's audience that is what he was and that's what this programme is about, how London around 1600 saw itself physically and intellectually as the living heir of ancient Rome.

The tourists thronging around me are all being instructed to admire the Tower of London, as one of the great monuments of medieval England, perhaps the defining symbol of the Norman Conquest. But in Shakespeare's day, people believed the Tower was built not by William, but by a far more celebrated conqueror:

Prince Edward: I do not like the Tower, of any place.

Did Julius Caesar build that place, my lord?

Buckingham: He did, my gracious lord, begin that place,

Which, since, succeeding ages have re-edified.

(Richard III 3.1.68-71)

And it's not just the young princes in the Tower who were convinced that this was a Roman building. Shakespeare's Richard II also shudders at the 'flint bosom' of what he calls 'Julius Caesar's ill-erected tower'.

Prison or palace, Roman or not Roman, the Tower has always been a dominant presence in this city. This was where kings, the day before their coronation, set out on a triumphal procession through London to show themselves to the citizens, who would flock to welcome them. This ritual of the royal entry (the nearest spectacle today would be the Lord Mayor's show) was modelled on an ancient Roman triumphal procession. So where better for an English king to begin his triumph than from here, from what everybody knew was Julius Caesar's tower.

On 15 March 1604 it was the turn of James I to make his triumphal entry into his new capital. He had been crowned almost a year earlier, but the entry had been cancelled because of the great plague of 1603. Now, the disease had abated and the city was safe for crowds to gather. So some 250 joiners and carpenters, painters and carvers, dressmakers, actors and musicians set to work. What they made was seven triumphal arches, cobbled together out of wood and plaster, coloured and gilded, decorated with statues and paintings. These temporary arches, up to 90 feet high and 70 feet across, spanned the City streets at various points along James's processional route from the Tower to the Strand. At each stage, the king would stop to admire the arch itself, and there would be a performance, combining music, theatrical tableaux and dancing. It was just the sort of city-wide street party imagined in Henry V:

Chorus: But now behold,

In the quick forge and working-house of thought,

How London doth pour out her citizens:

The Mayor and all his brethren in best sort,

Like to the senators of th'antique Rome,

With the plebeians swarming at their heels,

Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in

(Henry V 5.prologue.22-8)

For the whole of that day, 15 March 1604, real-life modern London fantasised that it was ancient Rome and James its 'conquering Caesar' guaranteeing peace and prosperity. Although the seven arches were demolished and recycled immediately after the procession, we know what they looked like, because the designs were published as a set of splendid engravings.

The first arch stood here at Fenchurch Street, it opened the proceedings and it set the tone. The print shows a roughly classical, more or less, Roman arch but on top of it is a huge model of the city of London, Old St Paul's is surrounded by gothic spires and it is all proudly labelled 'LONDINIVM'. Modern London is once again a Roman city, entered through Roman gates, and the city on the Thames is the equal of her sister on the Tiber. Pretentious? Of Course. Ambitious? Certainly. But a key part of how London in 1604 wanted to see itself.

Like all the arches, this first one is full of classical symbols and Latin mottoes. As James approached various actors appeared, some on the arch itself, and addressed the king. Renaissance scholar Elizabeth McGrath:

'There are various figures on it, allegorical figures, personifications of virtues, in fact they were people dressed up to be these figures.'

Here was Thamesis, the Thames, spoken by one of the Children of the Queen's Revels:

'The River God, Thames, raises himself up, he is lying prone like an ancient river god, they lie down and they are naked. But in actual fact we know that it was a boy who was dressed in a skin tight leather suit to simulate nudity, painted blue because it is the Thames and he should be blue for water - although of course the Thames, even more than now, was never blue.'

Next up was the Genius of the City played by the greatest actor of the age, Edward Alleyn. The whole spectacle must have been like a Royal Variety Performance reconfigured as Jacobean street theatre and as always, the most important person of all didn't stay long enough. The playwright Thomas Dekker tells us the crowd was disappointed that King James moved on so quickly, as they had been 'glewed there together so many houres to behold him'. But the king had to move on quickly, because a few hundred yards further on, at Gracechurch Street (or as it was then called, 'Gracious Street') a second arch was waiting for him, the arch of the Italians.

Now I am on Gracechurch Street, just beside Lombard Street, and here was what Dekker called 'the great Italian Theater', needless to say the Roman theme continues. At the base of the arch of the Italians, the sea gods Neptune and Amphitrite frolick in the waves just off the coast of Kent. There are Latin inscriptions, allegorical figures, and in the centre, a painting of James arriving on horseback just like a Roman emperor. The Italian merchants who had paid for the arch were seated in galleries and greeted the king with more speeches, this time in Latin.

A Latin oration was probably not as daunting then as it sounds to us now, and the spectators might well have understood quite a lot as Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate explains:

'The study of the classics, and in particular of ancient Rome, was the absolute centre of education at this time. They didn't study English history, they studied classical history. They didn't study Chaucer, the texts in the English language. They studied Latin literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace. We can see from Shakespeare's works that he knew those poets very well.'

It's not just boys who study the writers of ancient Rome, many girls were also taught classical languages. In The Taming of the Shrew, Bianca is booked in for her regular Latin lesson. Who could be duller and less threatening than a Latin tutor? So her father can safely leave her alone with him. But translating Ovid (when your Latin teacher turns out to be your suitor in disguise) can be a lot of fun:

Bianca: Where left we last?

Lucentio: Here, madam.

(He reads)

'Hic ibat Simois, hic est Sigeia tellus,

Hic steterat Priami regia celsa senis.'

Bianca: Construe them.

Lucentio: 'Hic ibat', as I told you before - 'Simois', I am

Lucentio - 'hic est', son unto Vincentio of Pisa - 'Sigeia tellus', disguised thus to get your love - 'Hic steterat',

and that Lucentio that comes a-wooing - 'Priami', is my man Tranio - 'regia', bearing my port - 'celsa senis',

that we might beguile the old pantaloon.'

(The Taming of the Shrew 3.1.26-36)

An audience that could laugh at teenagers flirting in Latin would have been quite capable of reading a few short phrases on a triumphal arch and understanding at least the gist of a Latin speech.

The rest of James's progress was in fact a kind of world tour. The arch of the Italians was followed by the arch of the Dutch and Belgian merchants. Then a lively Danish march played in honour of James's wife Anne of Denmark led the royal couple to where I am now, at Cheapside for arch number 4. This arch was entitled the New Arabia. Here rather surprisingly Britannia was the theme, but this is a very exotic kind of Britain. Topped by a minaret and flanked by oriental towers, this arch represents Arabia Britannica, a happy land made fertile by the presence of its new king, inhabited by figures representing Fame, Brightness, Youthfulness, Cheerfulness - they sound a bit like a Jacobean version of the Mitford sisters. And they are all telling the king how thrilled his subjects are to be his subjects.

It was pure theatre: classical arches as a seamless backdrop to classical pageantry. It's no surprise that here a figure stepped forward to announce James's own descent not just from a mere Tudor king of England, Henry VII, but from a prince of ancient Troy, Brutus, who after sailing round the Mediterranean had landed a couple of thousand years earlier in England at Totnes: 'Great monarch of the West, whose glorious stem/ Doth now support a triple Diadem/ Weighing more than that of thy grand Grandsire Brute'.

James would have loved this. Even today, if you visit Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, a line of portraits depicts the ancestors of our present queen, tracing them all the way back to Brutus of Troy.

Back in London, the royal party processed on to the Garden of Plenty (arch number 5) in Cheapside, then to the New World (arch number 6) in Fleet Street, and they finished back in a total fusion of London and ancient Rome. Temple Bar was transformed into the Temple of Janus, inhabited by yet another impressive troupe of nymphs, Peace and Liberty, Safety and Felicity, and the most important of all Jacobean virtues, Wealth.

This transformation of modern life into ancient Rome worked both ways. If Fleet Street could become the Roman Forum for a day, then the Roman Forum could any day be Whitehall. In all Shakespeare's Roman plays - Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra - ancient Roman history stands in for English domestic politics, as everyone in the audience could have seen. Jonathan Bate again:

'Towards the end of Queen Elizabeth's life, people began to look at the example of ancient Rome and to get very worried that if there is uncertainty over your succession or your system of government, there might be civil war. Julius Caesar, which Shakespeare wrote in 1599, is a play that addresses exactly this sort of question.

When King James came to the throne in 1603 he began to project an image of himself as being like the ancient Roman Emperor Augustus who after a long period of civil war brought Rome to unity and that's why in establishing this new image of the king in London, he makes sure that when he arrives in London and when his coronation is celebrated, the Roman imperial idea is invoked, for instance through the triumphal arches.'

Like James's procession, Shakespeare's Roman plays are an intoxicating mixture of ancient and modern, Roman and British. And so in its way was Shakespeare's Globe. The very idea of a theatre is a classical one, and the shape of Elizabethan theatres derived from Roman models. Shakespeare's Roman plays were performed in front of pretend Roman architecture, in effect a permanent version of a temporary triumphal arch on which people appeared and made speeches - the Globe's own stage. In the reconstructed modern Globe where I am standing now among visiting school groups and tourists, you can still admire the painted columns and the classical detail very much as you would have found them on James's triumphal arches. And just as the arches on the procession embraced the whole world- Britain, Arabia, the Americas, so this theatre would hold the entire globe in one, ultimately classical, embrace.

In the next programme we'll be looking at another more brutal form of public entertainment: the execution of traitors.

Shakespeare quotations are taken from:

Richard III (London: Penguin, 2005). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01303-9

Henry V (London: Penguin, 2010). ISBN: 978-0-141-01379-4

The Taming of the Shrew (London: Penguin, 2006). ISBN-13: 978-0-141-01551-4