Friday, 7 July 2017

Accession : "Tyranny is Dead! Liberty, Freedom, and Enfranchisement!"

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Michael Parenti
The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome
New Press, New York, 2003, pp276, £12.95

THIS is a gem of a book. Michael Parenti presents the main outlines of the last years of the Roman Republic, covering the period from Tiberius Gracchus’ election as tribune in 133 BCE (Before the Christian Era) to the assumption of power by Augustus (Julius Caesar’s nephew) in 27. In the process, he gives an account of the major social struggles that took place, and he provides a balanced assessment of Julius Caesar’s role as defender of the lower orders in the Roman state. I cannot remember reading a better introduction to this decisive phase of ancient Roman history: the book deserves an honoured place alongside Daniel de Leon’s Two Pages from Roman History, F.A. Ridley’s Spartacus, and the chapter on Rome in GEM de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Duckworth, 1983, chapter 6, pp. 327–408).

As one surveys the events leading up to Augustus’ elevation to the office of Princeps, that is, of the Roman imperial power, one is bound to ask what caused the overthrow of the Republic. Our ‘gentleman historians’ – the phrase is Parenti’s – tend to confine themselves to identifying the members of the First Triumvirate (or Gang of Three) – Caesar, Pompey and Crassus – and emphasise Caesar’s personal ambition. There is no doubt that Julius Caesar had a high opinion of his own capacities (not without reason), but who was it who allowed the Triumvirs to seize power in the first place, and who forced Caesar to cross the Rubicon in 49 BCE? To answer these questions, we need to look at the role of the Roman governing classes in the period under review.

The counter-revolutionary dictator Sulla, after he had rearranged the constitution in order to increase the powers of the slave-owning aristocracy, is said to have declared: ‘I have put the Senate in the saddle: let us see if it can ride.’ Unfortunately, that august assembly of ‘conscript fathers’ (patres conscripti) proved wholly unequal to the task. One of the chief merits of Parenti’s book is the way in which it brings out the sheer greed and short-sighted political intolerance of these Roman conservatives, the so-called ‘Optimates’ or ‘best men’. (A modern parallel appears in the inflated earnings of US corporate executives and entrepreneurs, and the ruthless methods used by their political representatives to defend these.) Despite the miseries caused by their policies, Messrs Senators absolutely refused to make any concessions to demands for reform backed by those less fortunately placed. They were particularly opposed to any plans for land reform – a necessary measure in order to protect the Roman peasants forced off the land in this period: on some eight separate occasions between 133 and 49 the Senate set its face against any land reform whatever – even for veterans who had contributed to Rome’s military victories and who were looking for means of support at the end of their period of service. The Romans had no police force to speak of, and, as far as I am aware, no regular policy of imprisonment for offences against the state: the traditional Roman aristocratic method of dealing with dangerous political opponents was one of assassination. As Parenti explains, ‘just about every leader of the Middle and Late Republics who took up the popular cause met a violent end’ (p. 81).

Maybe that was why Caesar decided, in the face of senatorial opposition to his compromise proposals, that he had no choice but to march on Rome in defiance of the constitution in 49.

Parenti is especially illuminating in what he has to say about the notorious ‘Conspiracy of Catiline’, which was supposedly extinguished by Cicero in 63. The Senators backed Cicero as a candidate for the consulship in the elections of 64 because Catiline (L. Sergius Catilina) had gone over to the popular party (such people were known as Populares) around 65 and his election had to be prevented. The Roman historian Q. Sallustius Crispus (otherwise known as Sallust) has left us an account of what followed, but Parenti shows that this account, which is based uncritically on Cicero’s contemporary accusations, is of questionable veracity and trustworthiness. 

A plausible alternative view is that Cicero invented the whole story of a succession of plots organised by Catiline and eventually forced him into rebellion. 

If so, the great orator and moralist was not above using what Plato would have called an ‘agathon pseudon’ or ‘noble lie’ in the defence of the Roman governing élite, into whose ranks he had been admitted.

Catiline’s alleged co-conspirators were condemned to death by the Senate, and were executed without trial. Among a minority opposing this unconstitutional motion was one C. Julius Caesar. In 60 BCE, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed a three-man alliance against the conservative Senators. As Parenti explains:

Pompey had the prestige of a war hero and presumably the backing of his veterans, Crassus had the money, and Caesar had the support of the plebs [lower citizenry]. Together they challenged the optimates and emerged for a time as the dominant political force. (p. 120)

The Triumvirs ruled the roost until 53 when Crassus was killed waging war against Parthia. At this point it was not Caesar’s ambitions which caused problems, but someone else’s. In Shakespeare’s words: ‘The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious … Knew you not Pompey?’ (Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2, lines 78–9, and Act I, Scene 1, line 37)

Pompey (who conferred on himself the epithet ‘Magnus’) let himself be won over by the conservatives, who persuaded the Senate to designate him sole consul – another violation of the constitution – in 52, and extended his command in Spain for a further five years. Thus each side had armed forces at its disposal should they be needed – Caesar was still proconsul in Gaul.

At this point, Caesar proposed a compromise: both he and Pompey should resign their commands, and the struggle could continue on the electoral front. The Senate initially approved the plan, but the conservative die-hards were not happy: they feared that Caesar would win the contest on these terms, and succeeded in persuading the Senate to pass an emergency decree calling on Caesar to disband his army forthwith. We all know the sequel.

The popular measures put through by Caesar in his last years are somewhat less well known. As Parenti tells us, 

  • he secured land for his veterans and distributed estates around Capua to some 20,000 poor Roman families. 
  • A programme of public works was begun, large landowners were required to reserve a third of their labour force for the employment of free Romans. 
  • Caesar pushed through rent reductions, 
  • Obtained a decrease in payments wrung from the provinces, 
  • Reduced debt burdens, 
  • Granted Jews the right to practice their religion legally, and 
  • Gave Roman citizenship to any foreign doctors or liberal arts professors wishing to reside in Rome. He took care that his measures were approved by the Comitia Tributa (the popular Assembly of Roman Tribes) and 
  • Arranged for the publication of all Senatorial and Assembly decrees. 
  • He also granted to the citizens of Athens the right to restore their democratic constitution if they so desired.

Was Caesar aiming at monarchy? Parenti wisely leaves the question open, noting, however, aspects of the Julian regime which point in this direction, such as Caesar’s assumption of the post of Prefect of Morals (praefectus moribus) and his insistence on personally appointing half of Rome’s magistrates (bypassing the Senate, which had the constitutional right to appoint). 

He took care to institute a cult of his person, wearing regal attire [PURPLE], having coins stamped with his image, and so on (see page 163). 

But this evidence does not settle the issue. Nor does the episode of his being offered a crown and refusing it bear necessarily the interpretation given it by the conspirators in Shakespeare’s play: ‘for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it’ (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, lines 237–8).

The scene, easy to rehearse, could have been designed as a test of public opinion, similar to a similar form of ‘opinion poll’ used in another of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III: ‘How now, my lord, what say the citizens?’

We shall never know for sure whether Caesar would have made himself king, because he was struck down before such a plan could be implemented. (Some interesting speculation as to the ease with which the assassination was carried out was voiced in a recent television programme this year, which carried the suggestion that Caesar was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy at the end, and consequently, suffering as he was, deliberately failed to take measures to thwart the conspiracy.) The conspirators were not won over by Caesar’s conciliatory treatment of them as his former enemies: they could not forgive him for his popular measures, so they resorted to the time-honoured method used against the Gracchi and other dangerous opponents. 

But, having disposed of Caesar, they could not win over the populace: the result was another triumvirate (Octavian, Antonius and Lepidus), another civil war and the final extinction of republican liberty. 

As Parenti concludes, the slave-owners were ultimately prepared to accept one-man rule provided that the ruler was willing to protect their precious privileges, which was exactly what Augustus in practice did. In that respect he was thoroughly ‘sound’.

Marcus Brutus 
(legendary, died 42 B.C.E.) 

By Plutarch 

Written 75 A.C.E. 

Translated by John Dryden

Marcus Brutus was descended from that Junius Brutus to whom the ancient Romans erected a statue of brass in the capitol among the images of their kings with a drawn sword in his hand, in remembrance of his courage and resolution in expelling the Tarquins and destroying the monarchy. But that ancient Brutus was of a severe and inflexible nature, like steel of too hard a temper, and having never had his character softened by study and thought, he let himself be so far transported with his rage and hatred against tyrants that, for conspiring with them, he proceeded to the execution even of his own sons. But this Brutus, whose life we now write, having to the goodness of his disposition added the improvements of learning and the study of philosophy, and having stirred up his natural parts, of themselves grave and gentle, by applying himself to business and public affairs, seems to have been of a temper exactly framed for virtue; insomuch that they who were most his enemies upon account of his conspiracy against Caesar, if in that whole affair there was any honourable or generous part, referred it wholly to Brutus, and laid whatever was barbarous and cruel to the charge of Cassius, Brutus's connection and familiar friend, but not his equal in honesty and pureness of purpose. His mother, Servilia, was of the family of Servilius Ahala, who when Spurius Maelius worked the people into a rebellion and designed to make himself king, taking a dagger under his arm, went forth into the market-place, and upon pretence of having some private business with him, came up close to him, and, as he bent his head to hear what he had to say, struck him with his dagger and slew him. And thus much, as concerns his descent by the mother's side, is confessed by all; but as for his father's family, they who for Caesar's murder bore any hatred or ill-will to Brutus say that he came not from that Brutus who expelled the Tarquins, there being none of his race left after the execution of his two sons; but that his ancestor was a plebeian, son of one Brutus, a steward, and only rose in the latest times to office or dignity in the commonwealth. But Posidonius the philosopher writes that it is true indeed what the history relates, that two of the sons of Brutus who were of men's estate were put to death, but that a third, yet an infant, was left alive, from whom the family was propagated down to Marcus Brutus; and further, that there were several famous persons of this house in his time whose looks very much resembled the statue of Junius Brutus. But of this subject enough. 

Cato the philosopher was brother to Servilia, the mother of Brutus, and he it was whom of all the Romans his nephew most admired and studied to imitate, and he afterwards married his daughter Porcia. Of all the sects of the Greek philosophers, though there was none of which he had not been a hearer, and in which he had not made some proficiency, yet he chiefly esteemed the Platonists; and not much approving of the modern and middle Academy, as it is called, he applied himself to the study of the ancient. He was all his lifetime a great admirer of Antiochus of the city of Ascalon, and took his brother Aristus into his own house for his friend and companion, a man for his learning inferior indeed to many of the philosophers, but for the evenness of his temper and steadiness of his conduct equal to the best. As for Empylus, of whom he himself and his friends often make mention in their epistles, as one that lived with Brutus, he was a rhetorician, and has left behind him a short but well-written history of the death of Caesar, entitled Brutus. 

In Latin, he had by exercise attained a sufficient skill to be able to make public addresses and to plead a cause; but in Greek, he must be noted for affecting the sententious and short Laconic way of speaking in sundry passages of his epistles; as when, in the beginning of the war, he wrote thus to the Pergamenians: "I hear you have given Dolabella money; if willingly, you must own you have injured me; if unwillingly, show it by giving willingly to me." And another time to the Samians: "Your counsels are remiss and your performances slow; what think ye will be the end?" And of the Patareans thus: "The Xanthians, suspecting my kindness, have made their country the grave of their despair; the Patareans, trusting themselves to me, enjoy in all points their former liberty; it is in your power to choose the judgment of the Patareans on the pretence of the Xanthians." And this is the style for which some of his letters are to be noted. 

When he was but a very young man, he accompanied his uncle Cato to Cyprus, when he was sent there against Ptolemy. But when Ptolemy killed himself, Cato, being by some necessary business detained in the isle of Rhodes, had already sent one of his friends, named Canidius, to take into his care and keeping the treasure of the king; but presently, not feeling sure of his honesty, he wrote to Brutus to sail immediately for Cyprus out of Pamphylia, where he then was staying to refresh himself, being but just recovered of a fit of sickness. He obeyed his orders, but with a great deal of unwillingness, as well out of respect to Canidius, who was thrown out of this employment by Cato with so much disgrace, as also because he esteemed such a commission mean and unsuitable to him, who was in the prime of his youth, and given to books and study. Nevertheless, applying himself to the business, he behaved himself so well in it that he was highly commended by Cato, and having turned all the goods of Ptolemy into ready money, he sailed with the greatest part of it in his own ship to Rome. 

But upon the general separation into two factions, when, Pompey and Caesar taking up arms against one another, the whole empire was turned into confusion, it was commonly believed that he would take Caesar's side; for his father in past time had been put to death by Pompey. But he, thinking it his duty to prefer the interest of the public to his own private feelings, and judging Pompey's to be the better cause, took part with him; though formerly he used not so much as to salute or take any notice of Pompey, if he happened to meet him, esteeming it a pollution to have the least conversation with the murderer of his father. But now, looking upon him as the general of his country, he placed himself under his command, and set sail for Cilicia in quality of lieutenant to Sestius, who had the government of that province. But finding no opportunity there of doing any great service, and hearing that Pompey and Caesar were now near one another and preparing for the battle upon which all depended, he came of his own accord to Macedonia to partake in the danger. At his coming it is said that Pompey was so surprised and so pleased that, rising from his chair in the sight of all who were about him, he saluted and embraced him, as one of the chiefest of his party. All the time that he was in the camp, excepting that which he spent in Pompey's company, he employed in reading and in study, which he did not neglect even the day before the great battle. It was the middle of summer, and the heat was very great, the camp having been pitched near some marshy ground, and the people that carried Brutus's tent were a long while before they came. Yet though upon these accounts he was extremely harassed and out of order, having scarcely by the middle of the day anointed himself and eaten a sparing meal, whilst most others were either laid to sleep or taken up with the thoughts and apprehensions of what would be the issue of the fight, he spent his time until the evening in writing an epitome of Polybius. 

It is said that Caesar had so great a regard for him that he ordered his commanders by no means to kill Brutus in the battle, but to spare him, if possible, and bring him safe to him, if he would willingly surrender himself; but if he made any resistance, to suffer him to escape rather than do him any violence. And this he is believed to have done out of a tenderness to Servilia, the mother of Brutus; for Caesar had, it seems, in his youth been very intimate with her, and she passionately in love with him; and, considering that Brutus was born about that time in which their loves were at the highest, Caesar had a belief that he was his own child. The story is told that, when the great question of the conspiracy of Catiline, which had like to have been the destruction of the commonwealth, was debated in the senate, Cato and Caesar were both standing up, contending together on the decision to be come to; at which time a little note was delivered to Caesar from without, which he took and read silently to himself. Upon this, Cato cried out aloud, and accused Caesar of holding correspondence with and receiving letters from the enemies of the commonwealth; and when many other senators exclaimed against it, Caesar delivered the note as he had received it to Cato, who reading it found it to be a love-letter from his own sister Servilia, and threw it back again to Caesar with the words, "Keep it, you drunkard," and returned to the subject of the debate. So public and notorious was Servilia's love to Caesar. 

After the great overthrow at Pharsalia, Pompey himself having made his escape to the sea, and Caesar's army storming the camp, Brutus stole privately out by one of the gates leading to marshy ground full of water and covered with reeds, and, travelling through the night, got safe to Larissa. From Larissa he wrote to Caesar who expressed a great deal of joy to hear that he was safe, and, bidding him come, not only forgave him freely, but honoured and esteemed him among his chiefest friends. Now when nobody could give any certain account which way Pompey had fled, Caesar took a little journey along with Brutus, and tried what was his opinion herein, and after some discussion which passed between them, believing that Brutus's conjecture was the right one, laying aside all other thoughts, he set out directly to pursue him towards Egypt. But Pompey, having reached Egypt, as Brutus guessed his design was to do, there met his fate. 

Brutus in the meantime gained Caesar's forgiveness for his friend Cassius; and pleading also in defence of the king of the Lybians, though he was overwhelmed with the greatness of the crimes alleged against him, yet by his entreaties and deprecations to Caesar in his behalf, he preserved to him a great part of his kingdom. It is reported that Caesar, when he first heard Brutus speak in public, said to his friends, "I know not what this young man intends, but, whatever he intends, he intends vehemently." For his natural firmness of mind, not easily yielding, or complying in favour of every one that entreated his kindness, once set into action upon motives of right reason and deliberate moral choice, whatever direction it thus took, it was pretty sure to take effectively, and to work in such a way as not to fail in its object. No flattery could ever prevail with him to listen to unjust petitions: and he held that to be overcome by the importunities of shameless and fawning entreaties, though some compliment it with the name of modesty and bashfulness, was the worst disgrace a great man could suffer. And he used to say that he always felt as if they who could deny nothing could not have behaved well in the flower of their youth. 

Caesar, being about to make his expedition into Africa against Cato and Scipio, committed to Brutus the government of Cisalpine Gaul, to the great happiness and advantage of that province. For while people in other provinces were in distress with the violence and avarice of their governors, and suffered as much oppression as if they had been slaves and captives of war, Brutus, by his easy government, actually made them amends for their calamities under former rulers, directing moreover all their gratitude for his good deeds to Caesar himself; insomuch that it was a most welcome and pleasant spectacle to Caesar, when in his return he passed through Italy, to see the cities that were under Brutus's command, and Brutus himself increasing his honour and joining agreeably in his progress. 

Now several praetorships being vacant, it was all men's opinion that that of the chiefest dignity, which is called the praetorship of the city, would be conferred either upon Brutus or Cassius; and some say that, there having been some little difference upon former accounts between them, this competition set them much more at variance, though they were connected in their families, Cassius having married Junia, the sister of Brutus. Others say that the contention was raised between them by Caesar's doing, who had privately given each of them such hopes of his favour as led them on, and provoked them at last into this open competition and trial of their interest. Brutus had only the reputation of his honour and virtue to oppose to the many and gallant actions performed by Cassius against the Parthians. But Caesar, having heard each side, and deliberating about the matter among his friends, said, "Cassius has the stronger plea, but we must let Brutus be first praetor." So another praetorship was given to Cassius; the gaining of which could not so much oblige him, as he was incensed for the loss of the other. And in all other things Brutus was partaker of Caesar's power as much as he desired: for he might, if he had pleased, have been the chief of all his friends, and had authority and command beyond them all, but Cassius and the company he met with him drew him off from Caesar. Indeed, he was not yet wholly reconciled to Cassius, since that competition which was between them: but yet he gave ear to Cassius's friends, who were perpetually advising him not to be so blind as to suffer himself to be softened and won over by Caesar, but to shun the kindness and favours of a tyrant, which they intimated that Caesar showed him, not to express any honour to his merit or virtue, but to unbend his strength, and undermine his vigour of purpose. 

Neither was Caesar wholly without suspicion of him, nor wanted informers that accused Brutus to him; but he feared, indeed, the high spirit and the great character and the friends that he had, but thought himself secure in his moral disposition. When it was told him that Antony and Dolabella designed some disturbance, "It is not," said he, "the fat and the long-haired men that I fear, but the pale and the lean," meaning Brutus and Cassius. And when some maligned Brutus to him, and advised him to beware of him, taking hold of his flesh with his hand, "What," he said, "do you think that Brutus will not wait out the time of this little body?" as if he thought none so fit to succeed him in his power as Brutus. And indeed it seems to be without doubt that Brutus might have been the first man in the commonwealth, if he had had patience but a little time to be second to Caesar, and would have suffered his power to decline after it was come to its highest pitch, and the fame of his great actions to die away by degrees. 

But Cassius, a man of a fierce disposition, and one that out of private malice, rather than love of the public, hated Caesar, not the tyrant, continually fired and stirred him up. Brutus felt the rule an oppression, but Cassius hated the ruler; and, among other reasons on which he grounded his quarrel against Caesar, the loss of his lions which he had procured when he was aedile-elect was one; for Caesar, finding these in Megara, when that city was taken by Calenus, seized them to himself. These beasts, they say, were a great calamity to the Megarians; for, when their city was just taken, they broke open the lions' dens, and pulled off their chains and let them loose that they might run upon the enemy that was entering the city; but the lions turned upon them themselves, and tore to pieces a great many unarmed persons running about, so that it was a miserable spectacle even to their enemies to behold. 

And this, some say, was the chief provocation that stirred up Cassius to conspire against Caesar; but they are much in the wrong. For Cassius had from his youth a natural hatred and rancour against the whole race of tyrants, which he showed when he was but a boy, and went to the same school with Faustus, the son of Sylla; for, on his boasting himself amongst the boys, and extolling the sovereign power of his father, Cassius rose up and struck him two or three boxes on the ear; which when the guardians and relations of Faustus designed to inquire into and to prosecute, Pompey forbade them, and, sending for both the boys together, examined the matter himself. And Cassius is then reported to have said thus, "Come, then, Faustus, dare to speak here those words that provoked me, that I may strike you again as I did before." Such was the disposition of Cassius. 

But Brutus was roused up and pushed on to the undertaking by many persuasions of his familiar friends, and letters and invitations from unknown citizens. For under the statue of his ancestor Brutus, that overthrew the kingly government, they wrote the words, "O that we had a Brutus now!" and, "O that Brutus were alive!" And Brutus's own tribunal, on which he sat as praetor, was filled each morning with writings such as these: "You are asleep, Brutus," and, "You are not a true Brutus." Now the flatterers of Caesar were the occasion of all this, who, among other invidious honours which they strove to fasten upon Caesar, crowned his statues by night with diadems, wishing to incite the people to salute him king instead of dictator. But quite the contrary came to pass, as I have more particularly related in the life of Caesar. 

When Cassius went about soliciting friends to engage in this design against Caesar, all whom he tried readily consented, if Brutus would be head of it; for their opinion was that the enterprise wanted not hands or resolution, but the reputation and authority of a man such as he was, to give as it were the first religious sanction, and by his presence, if by nothing else, to justify the undertaking; that without him they should go about this action with less heart, and should lie under greater suspicions when they had done it; for if their cause had been just and honourable, people would be sure that Brutus would not have refused it. Cassius, having considered these things with himself, went to Brutus and made him the first visit after their falling out; and after the compliments of reconciliation had passed, and former kindnesses were renewed between them, he asked him if he designed to be present on the calends of March, for it was discoursed, he said, that Caesar's friends intended then to move that he might be made king. 

When Brutus answered, that he would not be there, "But what," says Cassius, "if they should send for us?" 

"It will be my business, then," replied Brutus, "not to hold my peace, but to stand up boldly, and die for the liberty of my country." 
To which Cassius with some emotion answered, 

"But what Roman will suffer you to die? What, do you not know yourself, Brutus? Or do you think that those writings that you find upon your praetor's seat were put there by weavers and shopkeepers, and not by the first and most powerful men of Rome? From other praetors, indeed, they expect largesses and shows and gladiators, but from you they claim, as an hereditary debt, the exurpation of tyranny; they are all ready to suffer anything on your account, if you will but show yourself such as they think you are and expect you should be." 

Which said, he fell upon Brutus, and embraced him; and after this, they parted each to try their several friends. 

Sic Semper Tyrannis

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