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Beware the Ides of March


Wall Street Journal

Delving into the history of the Roman Republic is like exploring a vast ruined house. The lights are out in most of the rooms. In the dingiest of cellars—the eighth and seventh and sixth centuries B.C., when Rome was ruled by kings—we can barely make out the shape of the rooms. Were there really seven kings? How many of the names we have are real? Can we trust any of the dates? Climb the rickety stairs a few centuries and we pass through other empty rooms, a few lit dimly by sunlight filtering through the floorboards from above. Hannibal and his elephants stand out in a pool of light cast mostly by the historian Livy, but he was writing two centuries later. There are decades after Hannibal when we do not have much more than lists of names. But cross these last dingy corridors and suddenly, in the last decades B.C., also the last generation of the free Republic, we emerge into brilliant daylight.

Now at last we hear the Romans in their own words. Caesar tells (carefully edited) stories of his campaigns in Gaul. Sallust describes Catiline’s great conspiracy when Cicero was consul in 63 B.C. Caesar himself was nearly implicated in that botched coup d’état. And most of all we hear Cicero: Cicero making passionate speeches in the courts, Cicero the self-made man struggling to get the aristocratic senators to put aside their differences and band together for Rome, Cicero uncomfortably trying to rally the Roman mob, and Cicero corresponding with all the great figures of the day. Last we have philosophical Cicero in forced retirement, composing works of cool reason tinted by despair. For Caesar was now dictator and Cicero, whose life Caesar had spared, could do nothing about it. Some modern historians have despaired, too, that we see the Republic clearly only on its death bed—that after we stumble through its 700-year history, the light, when it does come, reveals such a bloody end.

By Barry Strauss

The historian Barry Strauss works in the light, but he does not do despair. In “The Death of Caesar” he tells the kind of vivid story that is almost always out of reach of historians of ancient times. At the center of this page-turner are the months that lead up to Caesar’s assassination on the Ides of March, 44 B.C., and the story of what happened next to those who killed him. So far so Shakespearean, although Mr. Strauss gives us a little more background than the Bard and follows the story a little further. The Shakespeare play begins just before Caesar was offered a crown by Mark Antony, almost exactly a month before the assassination—one of a series of scandals that hardened the hearts of the conspirators. Mr. Strauss starts six months earlier, as Caesar returns to Rome in triumph from his last campaign. And where Shakespeare ends with the suicides of Brutus and Cassius on the battlefield of Philippi and with Antony’s epitaph for Brutus (“this was the noblest Roman of them all”), Mr. Strauss follows the story until Antony too is dead by his own hand, defeated in battle by Caesar’s grand-nephew, the future emperor Augustus.

This is no trivial variation. By showing how the apparent resolution at Philippi unraveled again into fresh betrayals and a new round of civil war, Mr. Strauss presents a cast of Romans who are a good deal less heroic than Shakespeare’s. Mr. Strauss’s Caesar is opportunistic, arrogant, greedy: “All his life Caesar loved risk and embraced violence.” His Brutus is certainly no saint and perhaps not even as central a figure in the conspiracy as most believe. Mr. Strauss makes a good case for the importance of another Brutus—Decimus Brutus—whose more essential but less high-profile part was forgotten when later generations idolized more philosophical tyrannicides. Decimus was a former protégé of Caesar’s passed over in favor of Octavian, and it was he who persuaded Caesar to attend the Senate on the Ides of March.

Mr. Strauss prowls around the key players—conveniently presented in the opening pages as a cast of characters—looking for the jealousies and resentments that motivated each of them, digging into their back stories of betrayals and adulteries, ambitions thwarted and insults not forgotten. He has good reason to do this. There are two strange features of the plot to murder Caesar. First, the conspirators seemed to be drawn from every possible group—old friends of Caesar’s, bitter enemies, disdainful patricians, violent soldiers, poets and orators. How was it possible to create such a broad alliance against one man, who had spared many and bestowed his generosity on quite a few? Second, how did they manage to get 60, maybe 80, people involved and yet keep it secret? What on earth had Caesar done to alienate so many? And was there anything the conspirators agreed on other than that Caesar must die?
A different kind of history can explain the crisis of the Roman state. Rapid imperial expansion enriched too few. Hugely extended frontiers demanded the creation of armies greater than ever before, legions of impoverished soldiers who hoped their generals would look after their interests when the fighting was done. A political culture based on competition overheated when so much wealth and so much violence were at hand. Global problems necessitated the empowerment of brilliant but self-serving generals like Pompey and Caesar who could not be contained in civil society. But none of this explains the psychology of a political elite turned into murderers. The Ides of March brought together members of every faction, and once Caesar was dead they immediately sprang apart and became enemies once again. What had Caesar done?

Strictly, of course, we can never know, any more than we can understand the mind of any dead assassin today. How feeble are our explanations of terrorist murders in Boston and London and Paris and Copenhagen. Social factors and political contexts explain a little but not what it was like to be among the killers. Mr. Strauss’s reconstructions are imaginative ones, solidly founded on the source material he knows so well, informed by the most recent scholarly discussions. For each of the key players he offers a sketch of their motivations: Brutus who mistook his self-interest for idealism; Cassius driven by a potent cocktail of ambition and principle; Decimus by hatred well concealed. Jealously and resentment at Caesar’s many alleged affairs—Brutus’ mother, possibly Cassius’ wife—simmered beneath the surface. But our most ancient sources cannot agree on whether Caesar went to the Senate House that morning arrogantly disregarding every warning or whether he fatalistically felt he had “lived long enough.” How can we do better at guessing his mental state? Or that of Cassius and Brutus, Decimus and Trebonius, Antony and Octavian? Perhaps some readers will still put “The Death of Caesar” down with a sigh for noble Brutus (although I won’t be one of them!).

What Mr. Strauss is really brilliant at is the evocation of place. As Caesar prepares to walk his last paces to his chair in the Senate, Mr. Strauss conjures up the last things he saw: “beyond the double row of plane trees—their branches still bare on the cusp of spring—Pompey’s Temple of Venus the Victorious.” When we approach the fatal stabbing Mr. Strauss tells us what Roman daggers looked like, how heavy they were, how long the blades were, how easy they were to conceal and how hard to push through a human rib cage. Detail after detail clothes the familiar facts of Caesar’s seemingly inevitable murder with fresh images. There wouldn’t be much blood on the conspirators’ daggers, Mr. Strauss surmises, given how much the thick folds of a toga would soak up. The last bloody day of the Republic has never been painted so brilliantly.

—Mr. Woolf, the director of the Institute of Classical Studies at the University of London, is the author of “Rome: An Empire’s Story.”


Courtesty of: http://www.wsj.com/articles/book-review-the-death-of-caesar-by-barry-strauss-1426279394



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