Beware the Ides of March

Beware the Ides of March

Vincenzo_Camuccini_-_La_morte_di_Cesare.jpg

Julius Caesar is a rather timely figure in history to reflect on present-tense. Especially today which marks the Ides of March--when Caesar was murdered by a pack of fellow Roman elites.

Let's begin with the infamous family name first. Julius Caesar is actually Caesar Julius, as all Roman names are in reverse properly, placing the surname first. That name is now synonymous with 'ruler' as we have had Emperors, Czars, and Kaisers because of this resounding name--Caesar.

The boy Caesar Julius came from a noble family - the Julii, and in his youth found itself living as head of the family in what was then a slum area called Suburra. Despite this, the boy had a youth and young manhood which set him up very well. He demonstrated himself to be charismatic, brave, a leader and a few other skills that might not be appropriate to detail here. However, Caesar Julius did not do a whole lot until middle-age when he was given the job of administering the province of what became Southern France. 

Now, a person of average intelligence and mild curiosity who took note of the date might ask: Why is Caesar so important in the history of Rome? 

Well, Rome herself is of vital importance in the history of the world because Europe is important in the history of the world. When Rome fell its legions vanished, Europe inherited many of the good and not so good ideals of Rome without having to endure mass slavery and genocidal warfare--that came later on. Rome influenced Europe with its hierarchical government of provinces and cities which then morphed into bishops and priests of the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church.

As the sitting American President might say himself, (of himself) Caesar in his day was indeed a very famous guy, very famous. Caesar tells us as much (and consistently) in De Bello Gallico, his recollections on the wars against the Gauls, the Celtic-speaking population of what is now France and Britain where some of my ancestors hail from. De Bello Gallico is used as an introductory textbook for those learning Latin for the last two thousand years, mind you--so we will agree, Caesar's influence is extensive and long-lasting if only for this. 

Perhaps more important than providing the basis for good latin elocution, Caesar was the fulcrum upon which Roman government and civilization shifted. He was not the first dictator, but he was the sine qua non dictator. After him, the Roman government changed from a Republic to a Monarchy. Caesar's importance in the History of Rome was to sit on the swinging door between the Republican era and the end of the Empire. He was the weakest link between the world's richest man, Crassus, and the world's most successful general, Pompey. 

Caesar had control of a very large army: four legions and Southern France. What Caesar did after his conquest of Gaul and his defeats in what later became Britannia was to take over Rome and turn it into a dictatorship. Rome was not a foreign place to dictators. He did his best to disguise this under a cloak of democracy while keeping up the pretenses and then promptly got himself killed by a rival group of Roman elites. One might be reminded of the Chinese saying, "Mind the dragon's tail, but beware more taking the coin from his teeth." 

Out of the civil war that followed, the winner was one Octavius, the old man's nephew and adopted a son. He took the name Augustus and commenced a string of dynasties for the next five hundred years before Rome's luck ran out. The Rome of the legions lasted this long until Augustus institutionalized what his great uncle decreed would happen. Caesar was not the first military leader to bind his legions to himself rather than to the SPQR (Senate and People of Rome), but he did it the best, and after his precedent, everyone recognized that he who had the army behind them, possessed the heart of Rome. 

Naturally, you are wondering what, in all of this should we, modern democratic citizens make a note of? 

First, the armies that Caesar conquered were not full-time professional soldiers such as those he commanded, but farmer-militias of the Iron Age World similar to say the hacks we ousted and then empowered in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan whom we did not conquer, only pissed off mightily. When the successors of Caesar tried their luck against the only other full-timers in the world - the Persian armies, the Persians beat the pants off the Roman legions. 

{Hint, hint}

We have are taught in school that the Roman Empire had lots of noble things going for it and as a consequence, the blessings of civilization have been used to justify every European Empire ever since. We know that this narrative is not entirely accurate. Rome set the stage for the excess of Empire in more ways than one. Again, I will not go into detail in this post. 

{Cough-cough}

Second, Caesar's Rome had immense debt. Huge.

He persuaded men like Crassus to pay the massive debt again and again, similar to the "kick the can down the road" spiraling US debt budget which now sits at 20tr. Buying an electorate is expensive after all. The Eastern Mediterranean had invented money as coinage in the previous thousand years and trade had spread across Eurasia. The warring noble families of the Roman Empire's capital city by and large shared the takings and tried to buy themselves power from the streets. Civil wars characterized the history of Rome - and indeed Italy for the next two thousand years. 

Given the influence of Caesar, the weakness of opposing armies and inevitability of prolonged social unrest, perhaps we ought to give Roman history another look for clues as to what our Republic might do. 

What do you think--does Caesar Julius matter today?

 

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