On the Ides of March

Many things happened in history on this middle day of March, its “Ides” in the Roman calendar. On this day in 221 B.C., for instance, Liu Bang became ruler of the Han Dynasty in China. In 1493, Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the New World. In 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first professional baseball team.

But the most memorable event of the historical March 15 is certainly the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C., by some fifty conspirators, many said to be friends. They were anxious either to save the Republic, as they saw it, or to gain power for themselves. In either alternative, they failed. Rome came to be ruled not by Julius Caesar or Republican opponents, but by a distant relative, Octavian, whom we know as Caesar Augustus.

With considerable help from William Shakespeare, Caesar became a name of political perplexity, a name that recurs in many languages. Christians themselves are admonished, often to their surprise, to “render” things not to God but precisely to this “Caesar.” Caesar has “things”, not everything, but some things.

In the history of political thought, many have chastised Christianity for its failure to combat the perceived “Caesars” of their time. Nietzsche thought Christians to be a hapless bunch of wimps who turned one cheek after another to stand for nothing but weakness. In the country that uses the word “Tsar” for Caesar, the Church has often been seen as merely the state at prayer, at best useful in carrying out the state’s will

But both the actual and the literary Julius Caesar is a figure worth much contemplation. In a dream, his wife, Calpurnia, had begged him not to go to the Senate that March day, when it was meeting in the Theater of Pompey. He decided not to go. He too was suspicious.

Brutus and friends embarrassed him, however. He was listening to women. What did they know? So he went. The plot worked pretty much as planned. His “friends” surrounded him, pinned him down, and stabbed him some twenty-three times. It is said that only the second dagger was fatal. Evidently, the first recorded autopsy was performed on his body to determine the cause of death. But coroners’ tools perceive neither treachery nor the nobility of killing a tyrant.

Julius Caesar by Andrea Ferrucci, c. 1512 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]
Julius Caesar by Andrea Ferrucci, c. 1512 [Metropolitan Museum, New York]

Caesar had been given the honorary title of “permanent dictator.” That title sounds terrible to us today, as it evidently did to Brutus at the time. But the office of “dictator” in Roman law was an essential aspect of rule. It was limited to six months, invoked in a military or political crisis when unity of leadership was necessary for the good of the Republic. Though some thought he was faking, Caesar did not accept this “honor.”

In retrospect, many assumed that the military expansion of Rome throughout the Mediterranean world made it impossible to govern by the old Republican institution of Senate and Tribunes. The argument for a king or emperor on the model of Alexander was persuasive.

Founding and modern Americans reading this situation are tempted to say that our form of rule was designed to prevent what the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire attempted. Americans combined local and national rule over an immense territory, while keeping elements of popular, aristocratic and monarchical rule to meet the varying military, economic, and political demands on the society.

Does it make any sense to worry about Caesar today? We have a president who rules mainly by decrees, a congress that offers little resistance, and a court system busily embodying the latest ideologies. We can argue that Brutus was right to betray his friend. But the opposite argument makes some sense also.

The Republic, like Rome, chooses no longer to be governed by its founding principles especially as very few seem to hold them to be self-evident. The cry – “We have no king but Caesar” – seems prophetic.

We have neo-barbarians at the gate. We have little will to deal with them. We are mocked because we have the finest equipment, but no will to fight. The heart of our civilization has disappeared in a relativism that cannot distinguish friend and foe, truth and falsity. Not only do our people not know who they are, but even what they are. We no longer choose to understand families, truth, or polity.

We think now of Caesar as a single popular leader who rules for his own good. John Paul II spoke of “democratic tyranny” in a people who have no internal principle of rule except for what they want as enforced by their own laws. On the Ides of March, 2016, it is well to take a second look at this most famous Caesar, killed on this day in 44 B.C. What things, we should ask ourselves, ought we never to “render” unto him?

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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