History may be more than bunk, and more than one damn thing after another, but unfortunately it does not consist of a series of neat, comprehensible lessons; even those who do know history appear doomed to repeat it. Still, the temptation to draw occasionally sententious parallels between present and past seems hard to resist, and the historical period which by common consent seems most nearly parallel to twenty-first century America is that of the end of the Roman republic and beginning of the empire, with George W. Bush usually compared either to Julius Caesar or to the Emperor Augustus.

This theme has been the inspiration for Richard Nelson’s Conversations in Tusculum, now playing at the Public Theater with a dream cast that includes Brian Dennehy as Cicero, David Strathairn as Cassius, and Aidan Quinn as Brutus. It is 45 B.C.: Pompey is dead, Cato has killed himself rather than...


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