The Ides of March
|Caesar getting the "point"|
on March 15, 44 B.C.E.
The reason is breathtakingly simple; it is because on March 15, 44 B.C.E. Julius Caesar was assassinated and this assassination is not only important from the point of view of straight political history but important from the point of view of cultural history.
The political side of the equation is rather simple at least compared to the cultural side. In this case Caesar was assassinated by political rivals and others fearful of his ambitions.
Caesar had just won a vicious civil war that had taken a little over 4 years to finally be fought to the end. It had ended with Caesar’s main rival Pompey dead and Caesar supposedly at the top has dictator for life.
In a previous posting I had talked about the bout of stupidity that had signaled the death rattle of the Roman Republic.1 The series of stupidities that had led the Senate to piss off Caesar, Pompey and Crassus the three most powerful men in Rome, The three had each been rivals but in response to this series of provocations they had banded together to form what is called the First Triumvirate. And such was their combined power that they dominated the state and turned the government into their tool.
Of course it was highly unlikely that this alliance would last given that each one of the three was to put it mildly extremely ambitious. Caesar and Pompey had the closest relationship and one that was cemented by Pompey marrying Caesar’s daughter Julia. The Triumvirate arranged for Caesar to be given a command in Gaul for the purpose of completing the conquest, (Only the Mediterranean and some inland areas were then under Roman control.). Crassus was given a command in the east in Syria with plans of conquest. Pompey was to stay in Rome and make sure that the political situation remained under their control.
Caesar completed the conquest of Gaul and became has a result very rich, however Crassus ran into the Parthians who utterly defeated and killed him in the battle of Carrhae, ( 53 B.C.E.), in one of the worst defeats ever suffered by a Roman army.2
This reduced the field of potential rivals down to two. They were still linked by marriage. In 52 B.C.E., that changed when Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife died. Pompey had misgivings about Caesar even before hand, and in the aftermath of Julia’s death he began to consort with politicians in Rome who disliked and distrusted Caesar. When Pompey remarried it was not to a relative of Caesar, has Caesar had proposed, but a women from a rival family antagonistic to Caesar.3
Caesar viewed Pompey’s remarriage has a personal insult; further Pompey made an alliance with the so-called Optimates, who wished to restore the Senate to state supremacy and disliked Caesar has a populist rabble-rouser. Many were offended by the behavior of Caesar and his subordinates in Rome. Caesar had engaged in some frankly illegal behavior when he was Consul, including but not limited to, beating up his fellow Consul. Some influential politicians wanted Caesar tried for these offences.4
By 49 B.C.E., things were so bad that faced with the prospect of arrest and trial Caesar defied Pompey and the Senate and invaded Italy. Hence the phrase crossing the Rubicon.
Catching his enemies off guard Caesar conquered Italy swiftly. He then invaded the Balkans and defeated Pompey utterly at Pharsalus in Greece. Pompey tried to flee to Egypt, but once he landed there the Egyptians realizing that Caesar was not far behind killed him and sent the head to Caesar.5
Caesar then spent time in the east dallying with Cleopatra and then after crushing his remaining Roman enemies in Africa and then in Spain. Returned triumphantly to Rome where he instituted several salutary reforms, like introducing the Julian calendar. Sadly he also pissed off a lot of Romans not just his ex-enemies but some of his friends.
How did he do this? Well Caesar had himself named Dictator for life, which looked very much like the first step in making himself king. Now one thing the Roman aristocracy could not abide was the idea of a king over them. It is unlikely that Caesar intended to make himself king but he certainly aimed at continuing indefinitely with autocratic power. That in effect was what Dictatorship was to the Romans. In their case a “Dictator” was someone with absolute power for a limited time period in an emergency. Caesar was making it permanent which seemed both ambitious and unnecessary.6
Of course by this time the Roman Republic was an ungovernable mess and the only viable solution to the conundrum was autocratic one man rule. However the ethos, ethics and entire political training of the Roman aristocracy bridled and rejected being made subordinate to such a rule. In fact it praised the assassination of tyrants and autocrats! Caesar was in effect trying to square a circle and his solution - perpetual dictatorship upset many people. Further he infuriated others by such stunts has holding Triumphs in Rome, not just those celebrating his victories over Rome’s enemies but Triumphs over his Roman enemies! That was considered both bad form and in really poor taste.7
Caesar had no real solution to this dilemma and in fact exasperated it. Soon rumours began to circulate that Caesar was planning to make himself king. A few staged events designed to reassure people that was not the case reassured no one. The icing on the cake was when Caesar decided that when he left Rome for the east (He was planning a campaign to avenge Crassus’ defeat.), his subordinates would govern Rome. This infuriated a great many people. To be governed by a Caesar with autocratic power was one thing to be governed by his secretaries in his absence was un-supportable.8
A few days before Caesar was due to go east he was assassinated, on the 15th of March 44 B.C.E.
Because Caesar’s career was brilliant and, well, dazzling, Caesar is taken to be one of the truly “Great” men of history. Frankly it is in many ways the worship of military genius. Caesar was not a truly great political genius. As mentioned above it was his military victories that gave him the edge over his political foes and served has his trump card. Caesar did not have a viable political solution to the problems that were destroying the Roman Republic nor did he seem to have any real understanding of the actual problem; this is why he blundered, made mistakes and ended up being assassinated.
In other words Caesar did not even begin the foundation of the Roman Empire has a political institution. That was left to the man he designated has his heir and son in his will, his great nephew Octavian who became Augustus the first Roman Emperor. Augustus, a man with no military ability was without a doubt a political genius of a very high order it was he who set up the political institutions, policies and procedures that created the institutional basis for the Roman Empire. He was the one who was able to square the circle to put a round peg in a square hole.
The political implications of Caesar’s assassination and hence the Ides of March, are that it propelled Octavian into political power and thus set up the Roman Empire that lasted in the west for c. 500 years and continues to be enormously influential to this day.
The cultural influence of Caesar’s assassination can be seen in such things as Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, and the theatrical and movie productions of same. In fact just how important Caesar’s assassination came to be seen early on in the western tradition can be seen in Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the deepest pit of hell, even beyond the 9th circle Lucifer / Satan stands immobilised in a lake of ice. Satan’s head is divided into three faces. In the central face he is chewing for all eternity the greatest traitor to his Lord - Judas Iscariot. The two other faces are chewing the two other greatest Traitors to their Lord - Cassius and Brutus; the chief assassins of Caesar.9
The recent HBO series Rome had Caesar portrayed like a Mafia Don fighting for power in Rome and his assassination shown like a Mafia hit. Rather interestingly the series started with the death of Caesar’s daughter Julia. Which was a perfectly appropriate place to start.10
In the infamous overblown bomb Cleopatra we also get to see Caesar’s assassination. Although this time Caesar is portrayed as a rather bemused English Aristocrat.11
There can be little doubt that Caesar’s assassination will continue to entertain us well into the future.
|Bust of Caesar|
1. See Here.
2. Plutarch, Crassus, in, Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin Books, London, 1958, pp. 135-155.
3. Grant, Michael, History of Rome, Faber and Faber, London, 1978, pp. 185-186, Crawford, Michael, The Roman Republic, Second Edition, Fontana, London, 1992, pp. 181-186.
5. Grant, p. 191.
6. IBID, pp. 191-198, Crawford, pp. 184-186. Plutarch, Caesar, in Fall of …, pp. 296-302.
8. Grant, pp. 197.
9. Dante, Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Hell, Penguin Books, London, 1949, pp. 286-287, (Canto 34).
10. See Rome, Wikipedia Here.
11. See Cleopatra, Wikipedia Here