Rue The Ides
On March 15,
33 44 BCE, Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated. The empire of the Roman Republic had decapitated itself and a lengthy historical metamorphosis now called the Roman Revolution moved into its endgame. The question on the table is: did Caesar’s assassins, men who called themselves “liberators,” do the world a favor or deal it a setback?
I’m going to assume that the reader is more than passing familiar with the pre-Caesarian Roman Republican form of government, and the broad strokes of the history of the Roman Revolution. This stuff is pretty well-known and I don’t want to dig in to all the background material that you can easily find elsewhere anyway.
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.
Indeed, the most serious opposition visible to the public was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was basically a toothless curmudgeon who had years before absented himself from the business of acquiring clients, cultivating political tools, and rigging elections; he basically stood aloof rather than offered himself as a focal point for opposition to the dominant faction. Caesar had vanquished all of his other enemies, and Cicero was never much of an enemy to begin with.
So for young, educated, and ambitious elites, the corridors of power were effectively closed unless they were willing to make themselves Caesar’s clients. Some of those young elites did exactly that. Others decided to make clients of their daggers and they did Caesar in. That they would pick a man named “Brutus” as their figurehead is no surprise, but the real leaders of the liberator conspiracy were ambitious young elites of middling nobility and middling wealth, clever manipulators of the icons of Roman popular culture who likely cared little about the principles with which they seduced Brutus, who after all had a personal friendship with the Great Man himself.
What the Great Man had grasped, perhaps only through the lens of self-interest but had grasped nevertheless, was that the checks and balances built in to the formal republican government had grown too cumbersome for actual government to occur. The nearly pathologically-conservative culture out of which that government had grown could not tolerate the notion of consolidation of power.
As a screenwriter two thousand years later would somewhat oversimplify: “It takes an emperor to rule an empire.” It’s doubtful a contemporary of Caesar would have come up with that phrase. But Caesar wasn’t the first or the only Roman of his generation to understand the concept. In an era when communication is slow, military force was needed to keep peace everywhere, and institutions of government were both weak and self-paralyzed, there would have been some truth to that statement.
The precedents leading up to Caesar’s rise to power also lend weight to the momentum propelling Rome towards autocracy. Had Caesar not consolidated power within his own persona, that power could easily have been consolidated in Pompey. Or in the next generation of politicians, someone like Antony or Octavian or even a few of the liberators had they played their cards differently. And in fact, eventually Octavian did exactly that.
Indeed, the Revolution could have been accomplished a generation previously with Sulla as its pivotal figure; it was only Sulla’s personal decision to resign his dictatorship that prevented Sulla from becoming what Caesar actually did. Had that happened, perhaps Caesar would have been the dagger man instead of Cassius, with Sulla dying at the feet of a statute of Gaius Marius.
The concept of a principled government with principled parties grappling over competing visions of the best course of action for society as a whole had gone by the wayside long before Caesar’s time. A system where that sort of self-government was a practical reality turned out not to be possible once Rome grew much beyond a territory of roughly the size of the present-day state of Connecticut. The institutional momentum was, slowly perhaps but inevitably, going to the more efficient model of one-man rule and military dictatorship, both out of necessity and as an outgrowth of the intensely competitive political arena in which Roman elites wrestled with one another – eventually, there is a winner to all political battles. If it hadn’t been Caesar who won, it would have been somebody.
As we know, of course, that’s what eventually happened.
Rather than restoring the best that the Republic had to offer in the wake of their assassination, the liberators created a power vacuum into which all the worst facets of the Republic flooded in: the unprincipled factionalism, street violence as a form of campaign strategy, purges and pogroms and attainders, cults of personality and soon enough, a bloody and expensive and prolonged civil war fought in two acts. It was all awful enough that by its end, Romans were glad of a single man coming out on top and reining in the cumbersome Republic, because that seemed the only way security and peace and government could be realized.
Was it? No; Venice provides an example of an effective pre-industrial republican government. It could have been done. It would have taken someone, or a group of someones, with a substantial vision of what was going to happen after the dictator was taken out of the picture. The liberators were not those someones. Their whole plan was to put some steel in one guy as if he were the disease, and not just the symptom; once Caesar was gone, somehow things would just magically revert back to “normal,” a normal that hadn’t existed for a hundred years.
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.
I suppose we can absolve them of not seeing all of this; it was a process six generations long and thus it may have been too subtle for them to perceive. And it’s much easier for us, so much later in history, to look back and see things with our own eyes and our own perspective. Nevertheless, the liberators didn’t functionally change what was happening to Rome or her culture or her government. They prolonged the struggle for a generation, which might have been forgiven if there had been something good to offer as an interim alternative to more civil war. There was a reason the Romans came to embrace Octavian — they were tired of losing their sons and husbands to elites jockeying for political position at swordpoint.
So, the Mediterranean world bled for a generation longer than it needed to because the liberators failed to see that it was their institutions which were broken — a problem that was bigger than Caesar and for which Caesar had found a workable, if distasteful, solution.