Tyrannicide and the Lost Republic

“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.

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