(Due to the historical anniversary, SF Casualties in SEA This Week has been postponed for a day or two — Ed.).
2050 years ago today, a broad-based Senatorial conspiracy that reached even to Julius Caesar’s friends and allies slew him, fearful of his consolidation of power in a strong executive, which threatened Senatorial and patrician prerogatives.
As is often the case with political revolutions, the consequences of the overthrow and murder of the popular general were broad and long, and did not produce the change the revolutionaries sought (in this case, return to the status quo ante Caesar’s elevation to Pontifex Maximus). Dominic Selwood at The Telegraph has an excellent recounting of the assassination itself, but we’re also interested in the outcomes, which he describes at some length.
Caesar may have brought Rome glory in his conquest of Gaul. He may have started and won a civil war that eventually vested absolute power in him. He may have begun highly popular social and political reforms, and even had time to abolish the chaotic ever-changing calendar and bring in his “Julian calendar,” which lasted a millennium and a half until tweaked by Pope Gregory in 1582. But in his muscular assumption of power, and his popularity among the citizenry, he threatened the deep vested interests of the patricians, who had run the Republic and the Senate for so long. It was enough to seal his fate.
The murder of Caesar did turn out to be a key moment in history.
With Caesar gone, Rome spiralled into another cycle of civil wars, which resulted in one of the most significant constitutional transformations in history. The Eternal City abandoned its trademark republican system of government and became an empire. In place of the Senate electing two consuls each year as joint heads of state, they transferred power to a largely omnipotent emperor. Ever since, people have argued which system was better.
Supporters of the Republic point to how it threw off the tyrannical king Tarquin the Proud and introduced elements of democracy, with power held by the patricians and the plebeians: SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus. They note how it found fame and glory in conquering almost all the Mediterranean basin: Italy, Spain, France, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, spreading its influence far beyond ancient Latium.
Advocates of the Empire, on the other hand, highlight that the Republic was in reality a hereditary oligarchy in the hands of the wealthy patrician families who ran the all-powerful Senate with no genuine voice for the plebeians, women, or slaves. They also point out that the Republic was too weak to govern effectively at home or abroad, instead relying on “bread and circuses” to keep its citizens happy amid endless civil wars. They note that Rome only truly became a great power under the might of the Empire, which lasted even longer than the Republic, and in the East until A.D. 1453.
If there is a moral to this story, it may be as simple as, “Be careful what you ask of the gods, they might give it to you.” The unintended consequences of the slaying of Caesar produced an even greater tyranny in relatively short terms (historically speaking), including such ruinous reigns as Nero’s (within 100 years of Caesar’s murder) and Caligula’s.
In our undergraduate studies in history, we discovered that almost every revolution in the history of the world left the vast majority of people worse off than they had been before, despite the historiography of the revolution always asserting the exact opposite. That’s “worse off” in material terms, but also in terms of freedom. Many of the revolutionaries don’t live to see it, as the revolution often eats its own.
That happened to Brutus (illustrated above on an “Ides of March” coin) and Cassius, who were defeated and died in the two-action Battle of Philippi against Mark Antony’s forces within two years. (Cassius was reported to have died in combat in the first battle; Brutus, by suicide after the defeat in the second, about 2 1/2 weeks later).