Notes on the poet Cinna from the play Julius Caesar

In the late Roman Republic, Gaius Helvius Cinna was a poet made famous by his epic poem Zmyrna, which focussed on the incestuous love of Smyrna for her father Cinyras. It is according to several sources, including Valerium Maximus and Dio Cassius, that the poet Cinna was executed at the funeral of Julius Caesar in 44 BC as he was mistaken for the assassin Lucius Cornelius Cinna.

William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, a tragedy which explores the conspiracy against and assassination of the Roman emperor. It is, like several of Shakespeare's plays, based on historical events. Despite its name, Julius Caesar himself is seen in only three scenes of the play, with the major psychological struggle and themes of honour and friendship being fought out in the mind of Marcus Brutus, a politician of the time and a major player in the assassination of the dictator.

There are two characters named Cinna in Julius Caesar: Cinna the conspirator and Cinna the poet. The mix-up of their identities leads to the wrongful death of the poet Cinna: this, too, is thought to be historically accurate. The Greek biographer Plutarch states that the Cinna killed by the mob of angry Roman's following Julius Caesar's death was a poet.

Cinna the conspirator strongly disapproved of how Julius Caesar ran the Roman Empire. He was the leader of a popular political party whose views were essentially anti-aristocratic. In the play Julius Caesar, he is one of the key conspirators to plan Caesar's death. He is the one who first plants the idea of inviting Marcus Brutus to join their cause: he suggests this to Cassius. Cassius manipulates Brutus to help their conspiracy with Cinna's help - Cinna plants letters where Brutus is sure to see them, read them, and be manipulated by them.

Unfortunately for the poet Cinna, he shares the same name as this key conspirator. He arrives late to the funeral of his friend Caesar, wishing to honour his passing. After the assassination has been carried out, Brutus delivers a speech explaining that the conspiracy was done for the betterment of the city and all those who dwell within it. However, Mark Antony raises the citizens of Rome against the assassins of their emperor Julius Caesar, naming one of them as Cinna. Cinna the poet attempts to explain that it is not he who was part of the conspiracy, that he is but a poet, but the populace ignore him - 'It is no matter, his name's Cinna.' (Act III, Scene 3) - killing him and laughing with dark tragedy typical of Shakespeare that his poetry was no good anyway: 'Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses' (Act III, Scene 3). The crowd do not care that this Cinna is not the one they have been searching for: the name is enough, he will do as a symbol to take out their rage and vengeance upon.

A strong theme to Julius Caesar is that of how disregarded both poets and teachers were during the days of the Roman emperor. This can be clearly seen in the case of Cinna the poet, wrongfully killed. Similarly, the only man to give Caesar warning of the plot against his life is a teacher of rhetoric: and he is completely ignored.

Some copies of Julius Caesar have removed the scene of Cinna's death, the editors feeling it is unnecessary and only detrimental to the flow of narrative. However, it is symbolic not only of the previously discussed theme of disregarded teachers and poets, but also of the chaos that took the city following the assassination.