The dissolution of the Andronicus family and the dismemberment of various bodies (Lavinia’s, Titus’, Demetrius’, and Chiron’s) takes place against the background of a Rome that is itself falling apart. When encouraging Titus to become emperor, Marcus tells him to “set a head on headless Rome” and, near the end of the play, compares Rome to “broken limbs” that must be reformed “into one body.” The disfigurement of individual bodies and the strife between the individual characters of the play can thus be seen as mirroring, and even standing in for, the more general turmoil of a crumbling Rome. Once the great capital of an enormous empire, Rome is in a precarious position in Titus Andronicus. After the death of the emperor that directly precedes the play, it is unclear who should take the throne. Titus allows Saturninus to become emperor, but in Act 4 Saturninus admits that “the citizens favor Lucius” as a leader. Rome is at war with the Goths, but Saturninus takes Tamora as his wife instead of the virtuous Roman maiden Lavinia. At the end of the play, Rome seems to return to stability, as Marcus and Lucius address the Roman public itself and assure them that the horrible deeds of Saturninus and Tamora are behind them. However, it is unclear whether Rome can emerge unscathed from all its recent bloodshed (and if Lucius’ ordered execution of Aaron at the end of the play is any indication, more bloodshed is in its future).
Not only is the city of Rome important in the play, but also a more general sense of Roman identity. Ancient Romans defined themselves as civilized in contrast to the savage barbarians against whom they waged wars. But, over the course of Shakespeare’s play, this distinction between Roman and barbarian blurs. Marcus denounces Tamora and her children as “barbarous Goths” in the first scene of the play, but as Romans alike begin to act cruelly, the Romans seem just as barbarous as the barbarians. Furthermore, Lucius himself ends up leading an army of Goths to march against the Roman emperor. (As another complication, the Englishmen acting in Shakespeare’s play would have been seen as barbarians by the ancient Romans they were portraying.) The play thus calls into question a simple distinction between cruel, savage barbarians and civilized, honorable Romans. However, as this distinction between Romans and Goths blurs, one character is even further singled out as fundamentally different because of his ethnic identity: Aaron. As a Moor (someone of African descent), he is insulted by numerous characters and is barred from joining Roman society as easily as Tamora does.
Rome, Romans, and Barbarians ThemeTracker
Rome, Romans, and Barbarians Quotes in Titus Andronicus
Be candidatus, then, and put [the white robe] on /
And help to set a head on headless Rome.
Suffer thy brother Marcus to inter
His noble nephew here in virtue’s nest,
That died in honor and Lavinia’s cause.
Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous.
Titus, I am incorporate in Rome,
A Roman now adopted happily.
Ay, come, Semiramis, nay, barbarous Tamora,
For no name fits thy nature but thy own.
Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Kinsmen, his sorrows are past remedy.
Join with the Goths, and with revengeful war
Take wreak on Rome for this ingratitude,
And vengeance on the traitor Saturnine.
But I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body.