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Ides of March: Julius Caesar

Fate has a way of picking unlikely material,
Greasy-haired second lieutenants of French artillery,
And bald-headed, dubious, Roman rake-politicians.

Stephen Vincent Benet

 

I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.

The shade of Caesar probably would have objected to his portrayal by Shakespeare.  Caesar comes off as a stuffy dodo, almost reduced to a plot device, his assassination setting the play in motion.  To his contemporaries Caesar was a prodigy of nature.  Coming from a largely impoverished aristocratic family of no special note, Caesar rose to the front rank of the Roman political scene largely due to his political daring and his mastery of the intricate Roman political machinations of his time.  His military genius, which so fascinates us, he was able to exercise because of his political ability and intrigues, his political career in no way resting upon his military career.  His military genius did allow him to seize power and to begin the funeral ceremonies for the Republic which had been manifestly dying since the time of the Gracchi brothers decades before the birth of Caesar.  Caesar was a great destroyer in historical terms, but it would be up to his nephew Octavian, who lacked all of Caesar’s military skill but who was a greater political genius, to erect on the ruins of the Republic the Principate, that would morph in time into the Roman Empire, all while Octavian/Augustus protested that he was a Republican and that he was merely restoring the Republic.

The Ides of March deserve to be carefully marked in our contemporary time, because it demonstrates how swiftly a political system of great antiquity could be swept away, and one-man rule installed.  Republics tend to be fragile things, and tend to die unless carefully tended and guarded.

 

BRUTUS

Be patient till the last.
Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

All

None, Brutus, none.

BRUTUS

Then none have I offended. I have done no more to
Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of
his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not
extenuated, wherein he was worthy, nor his offences
enforced, for which he suffered death.

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2

 

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

7 Comments

  1. Truth regarding “swiftly . . .swept away.” Obama’s “fundamental transformation;” unconstitutional executive orders; kowtowing to tyrants, serial appeasements, interferences on civil wars (Lybia, Syria), giving $ billions and nukes to Iran, etc. which were only resisted by a small “fringe” that immediately was marginalized as “racist” comes to mind. Possibly it would have been swept if Hillary had prevailed.

    The totalitarians are feverishly registering to vote illegals to improve their odds at “sweeping away” our way of life.

    Anyhow,
    “Some are born to greatest;
    Some achieve greatness;
    Some have greatness thrust upon them.”

  2. “[I]t demonstrates how swiftly a political system of great antiquity could be swept away, and one-man rule installed.”
    For the mass of mankind, as Walter Bagehot observed, “The nature of a constitution, the action of an assembly, the play of parties, the unseen formation of a guiding opinion, are complex facts, difficult to know and easy to mistake. But the action of a single will, the fiat of a single mind, are easy ideas: anybody can make them out, and no one can ever forget them.”
    No wonder one-man rule is popular. People can understand it in a way they can understand nothing else.

  3. @T. Shaw — The republic has been dying for a long time. Andrew Jackson started the process of concentrating power in the presidency; Lincoln crushed the power of the states to oppose the central government; FDR expanded the role of government in ways never before imagined; Truman and his successors helped create the idea of the president being the true “decider” of wars, with the role of congress being reduced to a quaint and obsolete ideal. George W. Bush jumped at the chance to drop the pretense that congress still has a real role to play, even in situations where Americans choose to start the war after slow months of preparation, rather than inbound Soviet ICBMs or bombers. Oh, he also gave us open domestic spying and torture. In other words, we got exactly the kind of government that we claimed, during the Cold War, to be willing to risk nuclear holocaust to avoid. Obama inherited this, and yes, he did nothing to fix these problems (which the GOP did not want fixed, by the way) and he added new problems of his own, but by 2008 the bulk of the damage had already been done.

  4. @T. Shaw — The republic has been dying for a long time. Andrew Jackson started the process of concentrating power in the presidency; Lincoln crushed the power of the states to oppose the central government; FD

    You’re missing the homilies about Daniel Boone and Wm Voegli’s recitation of political controversies of the 1790s.

    Back in meatworld, Woodrow Wilson presided over a federal government which consumed less than 2% of domestic product.

  5. ” Oh, he also gave us open domestic spying and torture. In other words, we got exactly the kind of government that we claimed, during the Cold War, to be willing to risk nuclear holocaust to avoid.”
    No, Howard, The United States of American is not anywhere close to the Soviet Union or “modern” Russia. Are you forgetting 9/11?

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