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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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Ides of March: Cato the Younger

And, in general, Cato thought he ought to take a course directly opposed to the life and practices of the time, feeling that these were bad and in need of great change.

Plutarch, Life of Cato the Younger

 

 

 

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.

Caesar was assassinated because he had established himself as absolute ruler of Rome as Marius and Sulla had done before him.  Once again the Senate was to be reduced to a rubber stamp.  However, unlike the brief periods of one man rule engaged in by Marius and Sulla, Caesar, a much abler man, was clearly aiming to turn Rome into a monarchy to be ruled by him alone, and his successors after him.  The Republic, dying for the last half century, was now dead and Caesar was the undertaker.  However, some Romans refused to accept this fact.  Foremost among them was Cato the Younger.  A living anachronism, Cato longed for the Republic that his ancestor Cato the Elder had lived in a century and a half before, and stood against those who sought to hurry on the death of the Republic.  Fate has allowed only one speech of Cato to survive, his powerful brief oration that convinced the Senators to impose the death penalty on the Cataline conspirators.  In this speech we see Cato’s love of the Republic and his clear eyed awareness that it was unlikely to survive the corrupt generation among whom he lived.  Cato understood that the Republic was a lost cause, but he viewed this lost cause as worth fighting for and dying for.  Here is the text of his speech:

Continue Reading

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Ides of March: Two Antonies

 

 

 

 

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 late Charlton Heston played Antony twice in films: in 1950 at age 27, the videos at the beginning of this post are from the 1950 film, and in 1970 at age 47:

Mark Antony was 39 at the time of the events depicted.  Plutarch tells us what happened:

And therefore, when Caesar’s body was brought to the place where it should be buried, he made a funeral oration in commendation of Caesar, according to the ancient custom of praising noblemen at their funerals. When he saw that the people were very glad and desirous also to hear Caesar spoken of, and his praises uttered, he mingled his oration with lamentable words, and by amplifying of matters did greatly move their hearts and affections unto pity and compassion. In fine, to conclude his oration, he unfolded before the whole assembly the bloody garments of the dead, thrust through in many places with their swords, and called the malefactors cruel and cursed murderers. With these words he put the people into such a fury, that they presently took Caesar’s body, and burnt it in the market-place with such tables and forms as they could get together. Then, when the fire was kindled, they took firebrands, and ran to the murderers’ houses to set them afire, and to make them come out to fight.

At this time Antony had a well deserved reputation as a wastrel and a well deserved reputation as a military man from his service under Caesar, but he had no reputation as an orator.  However, Antony’s paternal grandfather had been the foremost orator in Rome in his time, so there was a family tradition which Brutus and other conspirators would have done better to take into consideration before granting Antony a forum at Caesar’s funeral. Continue Reading

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Ides of March: Continuing Fascination

CASSIUS

Stoop, then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!

BRUTUS

How many times shall Caesar bleed in sport,
That now on Pompey’s basis lies along
No worthier than the dust!

CASSIUS

So oft as that shall be,
So often shall the knot of us be call’d
The men that gave their country liberty.

 

 

 

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.

In the above video William Shatner gives a pretty poor rendition of the Mark Antony speech.  Charlton Heston, below, shows him how it should be done:

 

 

It is strange the fascination that the assassination of Caesar, more than twenty centuries ago, continues to exert.  Popular historian Barry Strauss has just released a book on the assassination of Caesar, to join the ranks of the many volumes on the subject that came before.  (Strauss is a first rate historian, and I have purchased this book although I have not yet read it.)  Why should this assassination remain of interest?  I think the clue is Dante placing Brutus and Cassius, the chief assassins, in the maws of Satan in his Inferno.  Dante was a partisan of the Empire, and thus the murders of Caesar, the man who gave the dying Republic its final, fatal blow and set the stage for the Empire, were worthy to be placed in the mouths of Satan, along with Judas who betrayed Christ. Continue Reading

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Ides of March: Brutus

This was the noblest Roman of them all:

All the conspirators, save only he,

 Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;

He, only in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

Mark Antony referring to Brutus in Julius Caesar

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. Continue Reading