Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Ides: Caesar's Murder and the War for Rome

As they say in Monty Python, "And now for some thing completely different." I do teach a course on Western Civilization I every spring and do devote a considerable amount of reading time to that subject. I recently completed Stephen Dando-Collins, The Ides: Caesar's Murder and the War for Rome. Earlier I read and posted on his book concerning the great fire of Rome during Nero's reign. Dando-Collins is an engaging writer who draws the reader into the Ancient Rome.

There are two points Dando-Collins makes in The Ides I wish to call attention to in this posting. First, Julius Caesar was not a benevolent dictator out improve the lives of the poor. He was, instead, and accurately, a power hungry dictator who played the politics of class with the best of them. One of the many mistakes his assassins made was their failure to win over the populace, something Caesar excelled at. In fact, it was his ability to win over the populace at the expense of the senatorial class that motivated his assassins. Personally, I think this message needs to be amplified. If there is one thing I fear about our current political situation is that I really do hear people (including friends) say we need a benevolent dictator. It is my belief that there is no such thing as a benevolent dictator.

Second, Caesar's assassins had no real post-assassination plan. It appears they put absolutely no thought into it. Their largest concern was in not being charged with murder. For this reason they focused on tyranicide, which was not a crime under Roman law. Cicero, who was not part of the plot, felt they should have knocked off Mark Anthony as well. Undoubtedly he was correct, but to kill Anthony would have been murder. The assassins made no provisions for amassing troops and had no real plans to restore the Republic. Anthony walked into this void and showed them to be, in the vernacular of my students, total noobs. When Octavian entered the scene it further complicated the lives of the assassins. Now there were two men vying for Caesar's dictatorial legacy. And both parties wanted to punish the assassins. There is a real message here: Think out your actions! History is full of such examples. Please feel free to share your favorite example of an action driven by the best motives that totally backfired.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Colonel Roosevelt

Ever since my father took me to the TR birthplace when I was 10 or 11 the Rough Rider has been my favorite American historical figure. Frequent trips to Sagamore Hill, about a 20 minute drive from our house on Long Island, fostered my growing interest with TR. Naturally, I turned to biographies which in turn led me to the study of the Progressive Era.

Theodore Roosevelt has had his fair share of biographers, ranging from flat out hagiograpies to the far less flattering variety. I just finished Colonel Roosevelt, the third and final installment in Edmund Morris's expansive biography of Theodore Roosevelt. I really wish I could turn a sentence like Morris. He has a great style and wit. Yes, wit, not snark. I know some historians have criticized him for not providing enough historiographical context, a fair comment, but he more than compensates in my opinion by drawing such a vivid human portrait. The Roosevelt I came away with from the book is a man very much lost in the world, uncertain of his place, and struggling to remain relevant.

I think Roosevelt redefined the post-presidency. Prior to him past presidents led fairly quiet lives out of the public eye. Roosevelt, on the other hand, continued to publish books, essays, op-ed pieces, and reviews. He made his opinions known on a wide variety of topics. He traveled the world, going on safari in Africa, hobknobing with European royalty, and exploring the Amazonian jungles. Heck, he even ran for president on a third party. Grover Cleveland, of course, ran for president, but he did that on a major party ticket, and had intended on running from the moment he left the White House in 1889. Ulysses Grant unsuccessfully sought the Republican nomination in 1880. TR may have lost the 1912 election, but he did change the political landscape. Woodrow Wilson abandoned many of his own New Freedom ideas in favor of TR's New Nationalism.

In one other important way, TR served as a harbinger for future post-presidents. He spent a significant amount of time managing his legacy. In some ways his battle with his hand picked successor, William Howard Taft, was as much about legacy as any thing else. In reversing part of his predecessor's conservation policy, Taft was also attacking that cherished legacy. Roosevelt defended his legacy with a his Autobiography, another trend he established for post-presidents. Beyond that TR used his other writings to support and re-interpret his positions and attack his detractors. He even sued a newspaper writer who alleged he drank too much.