The Department of English
Student Essay of the Month
A Roman by any Other Name...
Isn't a Roman
By shaming Titus, and by extension, Rome, with “Was never Scythia half so barbarous” (1.1.131), Chiron, a Goth, offers up an ironic yet surprisingly truthful understanding of the Roman Empire described in Titus Andronicus. In this instance, the Goths are portrayed as the victims rather than the enemy aggressors; and by referring to Titus’ decision to kill Tamora’s oldest son in retaliation for the Goths warring with Rome with the choice of “barbarous,” Shakespeare sets up the problematic nature of Titus himself, as well as the foundations Rome attempts to support itself on.
Chiron’s most likely intention in calling Titus “barbarous” is that of claiming that his actions are “cruelly harsh” (“Barbarous” 4). Along with Tamora, Chiron is pleading with Titus to spare his brother, asserting that since the Romans have already defeated the Goths, there’s no justifiable reason to continue killing Goths. Titus’ rejection of Tamora’s empathetic begging to spare her son significantly reverses what the reader is to think of both Romans and the Goths. Here, it would seem, the lowly, defeated Goths – the group that would normally be considered “barbarous” compared to Romans – are the ones trying to reason and make peace, and not the supposedly civilized Romans. This definition works to not only condemn Titus and Rome, but to try and vindicate the unfair portrayal of the Goths by shifting the assumption of “barbarous” to the other group.
Titus’ rejection of Tamora’s empathetic begging to spare her son significantly reverses what the reader is to think of both Romans and the Goths. Here, it would seem, the lowly, defeated Goths – the group that would normally be considered “barbarous” compared to Romans – are the ones trying to reason and make peace, and not the supposedly civilized Romans. _________________
This reversal of image is further damaging to Titus and Rome if “barbarous” is considered to mean “uncultured, uncivilized, [and] unpolished [in regards to] their manners, customs, products” (“Barbarous” 3). Rome is supposed to be the great empire of the world, and for a Goth to argue that their manners and customs are “uncivilized” makes a later line by Lucius much more disturbingly “barbaric” (“Barbarous” 5). Tamora’s son is indeed killed, and upon reporting back to Titus, Lucius refers to the murder as “our Roman rites” (1.1.143), and then goes on to mention “limbs” (1.1.143) and “entrails” (1.1.144). Not only is the murder considered a traditional task in Rome, but Lucius’ mention of dismembered body parts seems far removed from what a civilized custom should be.
A final definition to be considered is perhaps the most damning for both Titus and Rome: “not Roman” (“Barbarous” 2). In regards to Titus, being called out as “not Roman” brings his character into question in light of the Empire he has fought to protect. It suggests a divide between the actions Titus takes, and the actions a “Roman” in his position would take, where Titus’ eventual decent into madness appears to support the claim that Titus isn’t really “Roman” in customs and ideology.
The political strife that takes place in Rome in the play’s opening also suggests that whatever Prince becomes Emperor will not be the best choice for Rome’s future. Rome’s already been described as “headless” (1.1.186), and the childish verbal sparring between the Princes is not something an Empire should be associated with. Furthermore, Saturninus’ marriage to Tamora later on can bring new meaning to the “barbarous” comment, for the marriage marks a melding of Roman and Goth, and the Empire is technically no longer completely Roman.
“Barbarous” is perhaps one of the more charged words that could have been used to describe Titus and Rome, because it manages to critique Roman civilization as not being as pure as it thinks it is, and in its attempt to make Titus out as a man worse than even the Queen of the Goths. It’s a word of reversal and upheaval, and depending on how it is to be defined, it can cast significant doubt and shame onto the so-called “ambitious” (1.1.132) Rome.
(This essay was originally submitted for a class on Shakespeare)