“‘The Die is Cast’—Caesar and Pompey”

April 17, 1880

Thomas Nast

“‘The Die is Cast’—Caesar and Pompey”

Analogies, Ancient Mythology; Analogies, Ancient Rome; Civil Service Reform/Patronage; Presidential Election 1880;

Blaine, James G.; Sherman, John;


Sherman. "If the Republicans of Ohio do not fairly and fully in their Convention express a preference for me, and support me with substantial unanimity in the National Convention, my name will not be presented to that Convention with my consent."

Blaine. "Well, what of it?"

In 1880, Treasury Secretary (and former senator) John Sherman of Ohio and Senator James Blaine of Maine were major contenders for the Republican presidential nomination. This Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast reflects Sherman’s anger at Blaine’s successful attempt to gain backing within the Ohio delegation, at the expense of Sherman, the state’s favorite-son candidate. 

Nast portrays the men as "spoilsmen"—i.e., unprincipled politicians who use patronage ("the spoils of victory") to gain and keep power for their own sake, rather than for the public good. The cartoonist was an advocate of civil service reform, which aimed to replace the patronage system of government bureaucracy with appointments, promotion, and tenure based on merit, instead of party loyalty.  Nast therefore incorporates several symbols to communicate the message of the spoilsmen's quest for ruthless power and personal gain.

In the center of the cartoon, Sherman (left) and Blaine (right) wear the garb of Roman senators Julius Caesar and Pompey, respectively. Along with Crassus, they ruled the ancient Roman empire as the First Triumvirate. Pompey then turned against Caesar in the Roman Senate, having Caesar designated as an enemy of the state (here, Ohio by analogy). The phrase "the die is cast" means a step taken which cannot be reversed. It refers to Julius Caesar ordering his troops in Gaul to cross the Rubicon River into Italy, thus provoking a civil war. Caesar was the victor, while Pompey was assassinated by the Egyptians with whom he sought refuge. The Roman Senate soon made Julius Caesar dictator for life. In 1880, however, both Sherman and Blaine would lose the Republican presidential nomination to Congressman James Garfield of Ohio.

The statue to the right of Blaine’s sword depicts the orphaned twins Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome who, according to myth, suckled at the teats of a she-wolf; they are placed upon a pedestal reading "Spoils." The image reinforces the notion of Sherman and Blaine as twin spoilsmen, nourishing themselves on government largesse. To the left of Sherman’s cloak is the tail-end of an equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson, who was regarded as establishing the modern patronage system. Nast frequently used the statue to indicate the spoils system. In the background, the chief architectural icons of American government, the Capitol Building (right) and the White House (center), are aligned in this setting with the imperial Roman Coliseum (left). The birds (vultures or buzzards) hovering overhead are a common signifier of doom, death, or opportunistic pillage.

The word "Resumption" and the money emblem on Sherman’s breastplate stand for his sponsorship, as senator and treasury secretary, of the Resumption Act, which returned the U.S. to the gold standard.  They could also allude here to Sherman's desire to resume the lucrative pursuit of political spoils.

Robert C. Kennedy

“‘The Die is Cast’—Caesar and Pompey”
June 17, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to