Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Beware the Ides of March!

Even more than 2,000 years after the fact the infamous “Ides of March” are still burned into the collective memory of the western world. People still mention it and, even more shocking, a fair number of people know what it was all about. That was when Julius Caesar was assassinated. Especially in the English-speaking world much of this is due to the pervasiveness of Shakespeare. I know people who have never read a word of it, who know absolutely nothing about Roman history and yet they still know, “It was Greek to me”, “Et tu Brute” and “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. That is the extent to which a political murder 2,000 years ago has permeated our culture. What is more, the divisions that existed in the twilight of republican Rome around the death of Caesar are still with us today. Some still view Brutus, Cassius and company, but Brutus in particular, as heroic champions of liberty. Others still view Brutus as the arch-betrayer, his name synonymous with treason against a friend, a benefactor and a father figure. Some still view Caesar as a tyrant and the symbol of tyranny while others view him as a heroic leader, a visionary determined to save and restore his country and one of the greatest men in history. As we have discussed here recently, so much of that period, from so long ago, is still with us today.

It is no secret where my own sympathies lie on that occasion and I would find it rather hard to grasp why any monarchist would take the side of the conspirators though I suppose there are some who do. For myself, there can be no justification, politics aside, of men like Cassius and Brutus in particular for murdering their duly elected dictator. It helps that I see no terror in the idea of his becoming a monarch as they did. However, I can see them as nothing other than the most despicable of villains, again, regardless of politics, for a very simple reason. In the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Brutus took the side of Pompey against Caesar, who had been like a father to him (indeed some have speculated Caesar may have been his actual father) and yet Caesar gave strict orders that Brutus was not to be harmed and once Caesar was victorious he quickly forgave Brutus when he could easily have killed him, embraced him again and even appointed him to high office in his efforts to bring about reconciliation. In the same way Cassius had fought fiercely against Caesar in the civil war yet, when Caesar captured him, he spared his life and also appointed him to high office.

In short, they quite literally owed their lives to Caesar. He had every opportunity and reason to kill them. They were at his mercy and yet he spared their lives only to have them conspire against him and finally assassinate him. They could have opposed him for political reasons, agree with them or not, and fought him with all of their strength. However, to give up, seek his pardon, accept his mercy and benefit from Caesar only to then turn against him and murder him is, to me, far beyond the pale and blackens them no matter what sort of ideals they claimed to be advancing in doing so. If they truly felt that strongly about it they should have fought on to the death or refused to cooperate with Caesar, refuse his hand of friendship and accept execution if necessary. The fact that republican revolutionaries ever since have lionized these men, of course, does little to recommend them in my sight either. Rather, on the Ides of March, I think of how the murderers ultimately paid for their crime, eventually, with their own lives, how Caesar was honored and became even greater after his death and the new era that came after him. As the famous New Zealand historian of ancient Rome Sir Ronald Syme said, “Pietas prevailed, and out of the blood of Caesar the monarchy was born.”

Again this year I also cannot help but mention that it was the Ides of March that marked the downfall, though not the death, of another great man called Caesar and that was Czar (Caesar) Nicholas II, Emperor of Russia who was forced to abdicate on this day, marking the end of the Romanov reign in Holy Russia. Beware the Ides of March indeed and may the martyred Czar pray for us and the restoration of his beloved country.


(A note on this one: I liked this series though there were of course many inaccuracies, such as here -Caesar was not killed in the "Senate House" but the Theatre of Pompey and he did not die immediately but lingered for several hours.)

6 comments:

  1. The Republic was Born by betrayal of its Kings, and died by the Betrayal of Caesar. While a Tragic Day, one can argue also one of necessity to bring an end to this corruption.

    For the Tzar, it is simply a Tragedy.

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  2. If the fears of the plotters were right it would not have been necessary. Caesar would have become Emperor, Octavian would still have been his heir and things would have gone forward the same only without the last civil war and with Augustus being the second rather than first Roman Emperor.

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  3. The assassins were criminals, who accomplished nothing more than the collective suicide of the republican aristocratic ruling class; the final collapse of the Roman Republic; and, after years more of civil wars -- the Republic's replacement with far more of a monarchy than Gaius Julius Caesar ever had in mind.

    Gaius Julius's mistake was his attempt to graft the traditional ruling class onto the more autocratic system that he realized was necessary now that Rome had an overseas empire.

    The traditional aristocracy -- particularly the Caecilii Metelli/Porcius Cato faction for whom Pompeius was the stalking horse (and of which Brutus and Cassius were the residuary legatees)-- refused to play the role assigned. They got Caesar in the end -- but they failed to realize that Caesar's way was the last, and only, hope the Republic had. They all went down together. A great tragedy -- mostly caused by the same oligarchial faction that fought and murdered Caesar.

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  4. Interesting that you mention the Nicholas II connection! Quite a coincidence.

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  5. Very true jefe -and not something most realize. Caesar was not out to totally destroy the patricians but to make them a true aristocracy under a monarch. Brutus was from the most elite patrician house and few remember that Caesar had named Brutus as his heir should Octavian die before him. However, their paranoid fear of monarchy ensured that they would not have such a status. They did continue to have status of course and Emperors annoyed them at their own risk but relatively few ever rose to the purple. Had Caesar not been murdered things might have been slightly different -at least for them. As it was the emperors tended to view the senatorial class with a great deal of suspicion ever since.

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  6. It is indeed a horrible day the Ceaser was murdered. I didn't know much about the story until my father told me about shakespear's story. Your video of Mark Antony's speech was the first video of it I saw. Indeed even my father, a hard core republican, considers Brutus a murderer.

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