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.

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