“Beware the Ides of March”
T. Greer gave me a rousing recommendation that I read the following post on the death of Julius Caesar by Burt Likko of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog. Greer was correct, it was outstanding. You should read the post in it’s entirety:
Rue the Ides
….One of my big observations about Julius Caesar is that he took great care in his career to do nothing that he could not credibly claim that a political or military leader had not done before him. Scipio Africanus used his huge prestige from winning a massive war for Rome to monopolize all political power within his own family. The Gracchi disregarded informal controls in the cursus honorum in favor of pursuing needed reform. Pompey used extraordinary and open-ended military powers to wage a war of conquest for Rome and got personally rich doing it. Catalina had been a blue-blooded populist who thumbed his nose at the consuls in power. Both Marius and Sulla had marched on Rome; Marius was consul six times in a row and Sulla was a dictator for longer than the traditional six months and used attainders to purge the ranks of the elites of his enemies.
So all along, when people protested to Caesar that he was making himself into a king, he could point to precedent and say he was doing nothing new, and nothing that the republic hadn’t been through before without losing its republican character. This seemed a transparent fiction to his critics. But for a legal culture steeped in and heavily reliant on precedent, it mattered a lot. Not for nothing did Caesar spend the first chapter of both his books chronicling his own military conquests on offering political justifications for what he had done.
After all nearly two centuries of history that preceded Caesar’s rise to power demonstrated that in order for the government of Rome to be effective, it took a blue-blooded strongman brushing aside the niceties of the anti-autocratic but ossified constitution to actually do something. And that same history demonstrated to him that the public admired success much more than it did formal adherence to the law – which had grown too complex, too much a creation of the elite, and too distant from the realities of daily life and popular culture, to matter all that much to the average Roman on the street. The formalities of government were for the elites to worry about, not the common man functionally unaffected by them; justice was obtained through informal means and not through the courts.
By the end of the civil war against Pompey and the remnants of the Scipio Africanus family’s control group, every tribune, every judge, every junior official, and every decision-maker of consequence was a client of Gaius Julius Caesar. Caesar himself held a consulship, a censorship, and a dictatorship and was quite clear that he would never let those things go – he clearly intended to hold on to all of that prestige and power and immunity from criticism until his death, and he would brook no serious opposition. [….]
Read the rest here.
There is much to agree with here.
First, I think Likko understood the limitations, frustrated ambitions and political immaturity of the anti-Caesarian and Optimate conspirators very well. Tyrannicide in classical antiquity was not mere political assassination, but a noble act, usually accompanied by martyrdom, which further sanctified it. This was true of the Athenians who had put up statutes of Harmodius and Aristogeiton who slew the tryrant Hipparchus and Lucius Junius Brutus, the ancestor of the assassin Brutus, was revered for his leadership in the overthrow of the Roman monarchy of the Tarquins.
That the conspirators expected that the participation of Brutus in the murder of his patron Caesar would resonate symbolically as an intended gesture of patriotism with the Roman people was reasonable; the romantic hope the assassination itself would prove politically transformative was not. Likko was correct, Rome had changed since the second century BC – and not just from the abusive political intrigues of the Patrician elite but by the Social Wars that brought the bulk of Rome’s Italian allies into their political community as Roman citizens. The “People of Rome” had changed and the mob of landless poor – whom Populares like Caesar wished to aid with reforms over optimate objections – had grown much larger and dangerous.
This goes to Likko’s larger point that, as revered as the Republican traditional virtues and outward forms may have been in terms of lip service, in substantive practice as the first century AD progressed, they were increasingly ignored when convenient to powerbrokers, the wealthier classes or the mob. Sulla’s attempt to “re-set” the Roman political system along traditionalist lines by blood purge and Cincinnatus-like personal example failed within a generation. Other than the terrifying example of the proscriptions to inculcate political restraint, which lasted only so long as Sulla lived, nothing else was introduced to tamp down the subversive dynamic of unrestrained and aggressive aristocratic political competition for imperium and glory by the ambitious among Rome’s elite.
Where Likko errs, somewhat, in my opinion, is here:
The liberators did not think about institutions. They did not think about culture. They did not think about logistics. They did not think about government. They did not think about the contradiction inherent in a lawless act done in the name of preserving the law. They did not think about the immediate political aftermath.
Some of this is right – the conspirators did not think clearly about politics, given the large numbers of patricians and rich “new men” alike who had fallen under Caesar’s spell or grudgingly accomodated themselves to his personal rule after the failure of Pompey and Cato. That they expected the sort of popular sympathy Cato received -really more public respect for his incorruptibility and intrangisent virtue than any widespread desire to emulate Cato’s antiquated Roman mores or reactionary politics – is itself evidence f how out of touch they were. That said, thinking in terms of institutions would have been nigh impossible for them. As an aristocratic Republic, Rome’s institutions that composed what we might call “the state” were very few in number and skeletal in form. This was because the expectation was that patrician leadership, informally exercised through their extensive clientelas, their public benefactions and donations, expressions of charismatic auctoritas even when not in power, would always provide the muscle to make things happen. These in turn would be regulated by age-old custom, tribunican vetoes, the signs of the augurs, the weight of Senatorial opinion and what formal laws existed.
When custom began to be lightly disregarded in pursuit of political vendettas and even the legions did not possess an “institutional” existence yet, there was little to stop aristocracy from transmogrifying into oligarchy and autocracy. Conceiving of institutions in the modern sense of an independent, self-regulating, corporate body in the late 1st century BC would have been a radical innovation to say the least. Even Octavian’s assumption of imperial power was done under the mantle of amalgamating republican offices in his own person that took many lifetimes to crystallize “princeps” into an institutionalized, tyrannical, office of “emperor” as understood later in the time of the Dominate. Brutus, the wayward follower of Cato, could no more have conceived of institutionally-based constitutional reform to renovate Roman government than he could have invented an airplane
This however, is a mere quibble about a minor point in an excellent post.