The Ides of March
In the first scene of William Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar,” a military official named Flavius reveals his disgust with a dashing military and political official named Julius Caesar, by asking, “Who else would soar above the view of men, And keep us all in servile fearfulness?”
In the second scene, on a crowded street filled with people cheering for Julius Caesar as he passes by, he hears a single voice above the din, and asks, “Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue shriller than all the music cry, ‘Caesar!’”
It is a soothsayer, who speaks up and warns Caesar, “Beware the ides of March.” Caesar ignores the fortune teller, saying, “He is a dreamer, let us leave him. Pass.”
It is not until Act 3, near the middle of the play, that the conspirators—Marcus Brutus, Cassius, and Casca—fall upon Caesar and assassinate him, on March 15, the ides of March.
Historians list details of Julius Caesar’s murder. Some 60 Senators participated in the plot. He tried to escape, but tripped and fell. He died from loss of blood, and it occurred on March 15, 44 BCE.
The Senators acted out of fear that Julius Caesar planned to claim the title of ruler for life, push aside the Senate, and rule as a tyrant forever. They wanted to retain some measure of power.
The Republic’s officials could point to a constitution, to a Senate, to a body of laws, to courts, to interpretations of justice, and to all the remaining mechanics of a functioning republican government.
And yet, the Romans believe that on certain occasions, during an emergency, the Republic would not react quick enough. For those cases, officials would elect a “director,” or a dictator, for six months, suspend the constitution, and give the director total autocratic control.
On Jan. 26, 44 BCE, Julius Caesar had won a new title, “director in perpetuity,” not for six months, but for life. The Senators had reason to fear Caesar’s grab for power, hence their conspiracy.
The public though hated the Senators for killing Julius Caesar. For a dozen years, a host of men, filled with ambition, grabbed for power, stirring up a series of civil wars that shook Rome’s Republic.
Finally, in 31 BCE, Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son, Octavian, emerged as Rome’s leader. He assumed a new name, Caesar Augustus, and in 31 BCE, he declared himself Rome’s first emperor. An imperial government, the Roman Empire, superseded the Roman Republic that year.
Luke, a New Testament writer, wrote the most telling words, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” The Senate did not issue the decree, because power now resided in a man, an emperor, who could tax who he wanted.
In the eighteenth century, a British historian named Edward Gibbon, wrote a chronicle of Rome’s Empire, and entitled it “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” It includes six volumes, and covers 2,442 pages.
Gibbon begins on page one. “In the second century of the Christian era, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.
“The Roman senate appeared to possess the sovereign authority, and devolved on the emperors all the executive powers of government.” In other words, the Senate still existed, but in name only, and had granted all authority to an emperor, to tax, to spend the receipts, to wage war, to negotiate treaties.
Gibbon believes his duty is “to describe the prosperous condition of the empire.” It may have been, and yet its citizens lacked an opportunity to vote and kick out of office a corrupt emperor, like a Nero.
On page 2,441, Gibbon writes, “Of these pilgrims, and of every reader, the attention will be excited by an History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind.” It may have been.
Two millennium have passed, and people living in the 21st century are still trying to reconcile the same issues, as did the ancient Romans.
How can a republic move quickly? Is there ever a need for a temporary director? What is the proper relationship between executive and legislative branches? How does a republic deal with a director who will not leave office, but wants to claim “director in perpetuity,” because of a supposed crisis?”
In a republic, like the United States of America, the answer to most of these important questions boils down to one thing, the will of the people, the voters, the ultimate sovereign authority. In their hands lies the power to direct the wheels of government.
One final point. Shakespeare understood very well the raw emotion that power can unleash when consolidated in one person, in a demagogue. Flavius said, “And keep us all in servile fearfulness.”
Here is my column for this week, some thoughts on Ides of March and Roman history.