Once upon a time, a (horribly) long time ago, I studied history at university. And actually, when I went to university, I wanted to study Twentieth Century European history because international politics and wars and stuff. Which explains why I didn’t take Ancient History 101 – Archaic and Classical Greece. And which explains why I heard about the one-day-would-be-one-of-my-PhD-supervisors before I encountered him in person. This matters, because it’s largely his fault I did a PhD. Because yes, I was talked into three years of insanity and a future of unemployability because someone complimented my brain (we all have issues, ok), and yes, I was set on this course, because it took him all of ten minutes to become a living legend to the first year Ancient History class, and therefore to me, via my friends in said class, before I walked into Ancient History 102 – The Roman Republic.
(Dramatic pause for hearts in our eyes at the mention of the Roman Republic)
What he said (or was reputed to have said) was this:
I don’t get to teach you this next semester, so let’s get this straight now. The assassins were morons. They didn’t know what they were doing. Caesar was great…
And then he went on to talk about Cleisthenes and the Athenian Revolution…
He taught me for five years. And then part-supervised my PhD. And yet – when it comes to Caesar, I’m with Gretchen Wieners:
Now, Gretchen is focusing on Brutus. She may be slightly over stating his charms – I’m not sure that I’m convinced he was cute (even if he did miraculously look like Tobias Menzies), nor that he was as ‘smart’ as Caesar. I suspect he was more intellectually intelligent than Caesar (certainly he was more concerned with intellectual activity), but I think it was Cassius who had the street smarts to match Caesar politically. Cassius just didn’t have the charm to match him in political life. Brutus probably didn’t either – the populus Romanus, generally, swooned over brash confidence not political thought nerdery. Brutus and Cassius, I think, had between them the makings of a force that could have re-established the res publica in some Republican form, especially if they had worked with Cicero, who could paint dream pictures with words (yes, he could, even if he was occasionally a self-important muppet). They could have put Antony back in his box and made Octavian sit down and shut up – if only temporarily by building a negotiation that would have given the youngster a head start in his political career – if only they hadn’t left Rome. Bottom line: if you’re having a political fight for Rome – don’t leave Rome. Doesn’t work.
I tend to come at it from the other side a bit. Regardless of the faults of Brutus and Cassius, and Cicero, and the rest of the gang, they are all – to me – preferable to Caesar: a man I have been known to describe as an, “Egomaniacal, power-hungry asshat.”
The erstwhile supervisors argument was, mildly hilariously, in favour of Caesar because of Caesar’s mad bureaucratic skills, and all the the legislation he passed in his last year or so in Rome – for example, sorting out the calendar. This, I have to say, just does not do it for me. The man invaded his own country and laying down the final trashing of a (admittedly battered) 500 year old political system, and he opted to fix things by, tidying up the calendar? Just no. That is not fixing things. If you’re going to kick start a civil war to ‘reclaim your rights’, then you need to sort out the political mess you have made afterwards, and step one is not making sure everyone knows what date it is.
This is why I’ve always preferred Sulla to Caesar. For all the mass slaughter, Sulla knew that what he had done in taking Rome by force was incredibly destabilising, and had the wit to try and understand the history that had led up to that moment and try to resolve some of the problems in the political system that had factored into it. It was absolutely not perfect, it didn’t solve the problem (as I spent my undergraduate dissertation explaining, it would only really have worked if Sulla could have wiped everybody’s memories of his own example), but at least he tried, and then he got some new consuls elected (friendly consuls, he was not a dummy) and retired.
Suetonius said that Caesar said Sulla didn’t know the ABC of dictatorship. Probably not, by modern standards of dictatorship (the Roman political office of dictator was slightly different – it was Caesar who really gave us the meaning we have now), but I still think I’d find living under a dictatorship easier if I thought there was not that likely to be a civil war as part of the transition to the next ruler (perhaps this is because I’ve grown up in a monarchy…).
The bottom line for me is this – Gretchen is asking the right question:
When did it become okay for one person to be the boss of everybody? Huh!? Because that’s not what Rome is about.
That was not what Rome is about. During the principate the emperors spent a whole lot of time making very very clear that they were only the boss of everyone because everyone had chosen to make them the boss. As time went on, Rome mostly went along with this – they learned that playing along with the illusion was preferable to lots of civil wars and lots of death, and the Romans were nothing if not pragmatic. Interestingly, when I used to try and get people in my tutorials to think about this a bit, the tiny first year undergraduates tended to be in favour of liberty and fighting back – but the mature students were generally fine with living safely in a society that was slightly less free. Maybe we all learn.
Caesar was the first taste of this new reality – and it didn’t go down so well. Let’s just go with Shakespeare.
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was famed with more than with one man?
When could they say till now, that talk’d of Rome,
That her wide walls encompass’d but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man.
There is a lot in the Roman political discourse about honour and glory to make a body roll their eyes and say, “Guys, seriously, just get over it – is your personal dignity really worth this much death and destruction?” but it is hard to get over and out of the culture you’ve been steeped in. And it’s hard to argue against the idea that rulers like Caesar, regardless of their mass popularity / radical democratic power-base (choose your perspective), ride roughshod over the opportunities and ambitions of other people to reach what they believe is their full potential – and that this, supressed long enough, will explode violently.
Brutus and Cassius believed that they could be great Romans without the blessing of (and subsequent subservience to) Caesar.
Gretchen Wieners believes that she could be popular without the blessing of (and subsequent subservience to) Regina George.
And then, boooom.
Beware the ides of March.