The Ides of March

March 15 is remembered as the Ides of March because of the assassination of Roman ruler Julius Caesar.

In B.C. 49 a power struggle divided the Roman Senate. Two influential leaders controlled military forces: Julius Caesar and a man by the name of Pompey. A civil war seemed inevitable. Curio, one of Caesar’s few friends in the Senate, proposed both Caesar and Pompey should simultaneously resign their commands to prevent war. The Senate would then vote on a third neutral party to take a unified command. Curio proposed it knowing Pompey would defy it. The measure was passed. Curio’s foresight was on the mark. Pompey refused to obey the order, which alienated neutral senatorials from Pompey.

While the strategy swayed some members Caesar’s way, Pompey’s allies retained the most power. They defied Curio’s measure, and pronounced Pompey the new leader. Pompey mobilized his military forces. War must break out any day now. But Caesar waited.

The Senate that had once passed the neutrality measure, now initiated legislation to declare Julius Caesar the enemy of the public, because they thought Pompey would win the war. Two of Caesar’s allies vetoed the legislation, but the Senate passed it anyway. By ignoring vetoes in the decree against Caesar, the Senate violated their own constitution. This is what Caesar wanted. By holding back his troops and waiting, Caesar pressured the Senate to illegal measures. Now clearly Julius Caesar could attack Rome as the champion of the constitution.

Julius Caesar had Rome, the Treasury, and the veteran armies. But Pompey had much larger armies and large portions of the Roman Empire outside of Rome under his control. The Civil War began.

Caesar won most of the battles with superior strategy, quick action, and foresight. His seasoned units made short work of units twice their size in many battles. The war took two phases. The first ended after B.C. 48 with Pompey’s defeat and death. The second one, B.C. 47–45, saw the bitterest fighting with Pompey’s remaining legions, partly led by his son Sextus.

By mid B.C. 45, Sextus, the only surviving leader of the Pompeian regime, was beaten. Caesar was now the master of the known world. The Roman Empire covered Europe and penetrated the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

With the war concluded, Caesar pursued literature, wrote a grammatical treatise, philosophical criticism, and poetry. He implemented political and social reforms throughout the Empire. The “sumptuary laws” limited extravagant celebrations, ostentatious attire, and various luxuries. He cleaned up corruption in the food market and distributed food when there was widespread starvation. Wealth from the war helped him to create occupations to reduce unemployment. He revived and improved farming and agricultural methods. He built new harbors and canals. Large colonies were sent to the far corners of the Empire to “Romanize” thinking and culture in distant lands.

Caesar also began an architectural renaissance: a new Basilica, temples, theaters. For the Tribunal Assembly there was to be an enormous structure surrounded by marble colonnades a mile long.

There is an old saying, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Caesar fell prey to this trap. It would be his undoing.

Caesar began to consider himself a god. He had statues of himself made and paraded with statues of the gods. He made himself dictator, leaving the Senate to function as a formality.

A society that had created and lived under a constitution, with a strong Senate to carry it out, could not easily accept sudden total monarchy, no matter how benevolent or effective. Caesar’s excessive self aggrandizement fueled the flames of discontent. Among the Senate, a fatal conspiracy was forming.

The word “ides” simply means the 15th day of certain months, such as March. After the famous events of March 15, B.C. 44, the ides of March would become uppercase to denote the death of Julius Caesar.

The Roman Senate met that day in a hall, ironically adjoining the Pompeian Theater. Caesar arrived at noon. Someone handed Julius Caesar a scroll exposing the murder plot as he entered. But he put it away to read later because of the crowds and confusion.

While Caesar was seated, a Senator Cimber approached and seized his hands. Another Senator, Casca, stabbed Caesar in the back. At that instant, several more Senators attacked with daggers, including Brutus.

The Ides of March B.C. 44 ended the reign of 56-year-old Julius Caesar. But the assassination failed in its desired effect. The contents of Caesar’s will was not known before his death. In it, he bequeathed his name and immense wealth to his great-nephew Octavian. He intended Octavian to inherit the throne, establishing the “hereditary monarch.” But in B.C. 44, Octavian was an inexperienced 18 year old, with a powerful Senate against him. After the Senate rid themselves of Julius Caesar, they seemed to have consolidated power, and the odds were great against Octavian. Nevertheless, against those odds, Octavian under his more famous title, Augustus Caesar, survived and re-established the monarchy and reigned sixty years until 14 A.D.

Have a happy Ides Sunday 3/15/15.

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