lunes, 13 de julio de 2015

Caesar's death was more than the end of an extraordinary life; it was the end of an era.

The moral of Caesar

by Roger Kimball

“No country was ever saved by good men,” Horace Walpole once observed, “because good men will not go to the length that may be necessary.”

I thought often of Walpole’s remark while reading Barry Strauss’s thrilling account of the assassination of Julius Caesar, which is full of robust men going to incarnadine lengths.1

“Thrilling” might seem hyperbolic for a serious work of history, which The Death of Caesar certainly is. But Barry Strauss is one of those rare academic historians—Victor Davis Hanson is another—who can make stories about the classical world seem as vivid as a fast-paced mystery novel. He did it a decade ago in his book about the naval battle of Salamis (480 BC), which, as his subtitle put it, saved not only Greece but also Western civilization. How different the world would have been if the Persians had won that engagement! He did it in his account of the Trojan War. And he did it most recently in Masters of Command, which compares the leadership qualities of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar.

Strauss continues the winning streak in his new book. Was the murder of Julius Caesar really “history’s most famous assassination”? Probably. You, Dear Reader, know all about the Ides of March. You know about “et tu, Brute,” the bad dreams of Caesar’s wife Calpurnia the night of March 14, and the soothsayer warning Caesar to beware. Amazing, isn’t it? You know quite a lot about what happened that fateful day around noon in 44 BC, more than two millennia past.

Doubtless a lot of what you know comes from Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Like Barry Strauss, Shakespeare knew how to tell a good story. Unlike Strauss, however, Shakespeare was not writing history, and his deployment of poetic license abounds. Caesar did not say “et tu, Brute.” Mark Antony, when he addressed the Roman people a day or two after Caesar’s death, did not begin: “Friends, Romans, countrymen.” And the other Brutus, Caesar’s close friend and protégé Decimus (whom Shakespeare calls Decius), played a much greater role in the conspiracy than in Shakespeare’s play.

Shakespeare got most of his details about the assassination from Plutarch (an English translation, based on a sixteenth-century French version of Plutarch’s Greek original, was published in 1579). Plutarch himself (45–120 AD) wrote more than a century after the event. Following Plutarch, Shakespeare makes Marcus Brutus his hero. “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” the Bard has Mark Antony say on hearing of Brutus’s suicide after the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

Maybe. Most of the American Founders thought so, too. Brutus was no doubt a man of parts. He read philosophy. He hailed from an ancient family (he liked to boast that he descended from the Brutus who, in 509 BC, sent packing Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s hated last king, after his son raped Lucretia). And yet, as Barry Strauss shows, Brutus, like many Romans in the late Republic, was prepared to go to whatever length necessary not only to save his country but also to preserve his self-interest. Because of Shakespeare, Strauss observes, Brutus is “one of history’s most misunderstood characters.” Shakespeare presents him as a model of Republican virtue. Ancient sources paint a darker, more complicated picture. Brutus was courageous, yes, public-spirited, no doubt, but also “calculating, ungrateful, and ruthless.” Tidbit: About a decade before Philippi, when he was lieutenant governor in Cyprus, Brutus lent money to some people in one city at 48 percent per annum, four times the legal limit. When they refused to pay, he had the town councilmen locked in their council house until five of them starved. You see what Horace Walpole meant about going to the length necessary.

One of the great ironies surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar is that, for all of the upheaval it occasioned, it failed utterly in its stated purpose. The conspirators sought to overthrow a dictator and restore the Republic. “The Republic,” “the Republic,” “the Republic”: that was the phrase they uttered ad nauseam. But the Roman Republic, devised to govern a city state, was overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan responsibilities of empire. By Caesar’s day, the Republic was a tottering and deeply corrupt edifice. As Caesar himself put it, cynically but not inaccurately, “The Republic is nothing, merely a name without body or shape.” By killing Caesar, the conspirators merely hastened the Republic’s collapse. Strauss quotes Emerson (who wasn’t wrong about everything): “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” The assassins thought that by killing Caesar they had killed tyranny. They hadn’t. Removing Caesar did nothing to remove Caesarism, i.e., absolute rule by one man, which, as Strauss points out, emerged from the bloodbath of the Ides of March unscathed. “The world without Caesar,” he notes, “was still a world about Caesar.”


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