Heed the Ides of March

Today is the Ides of March. In the old Roman calendar, days were defined by their relationship to the phases of the moon. The ides were the days in each month when the moon was exactly halfway between full and new. This particular ides is remembered for being the day Julius Caesar was stabbed to death in the Curia.

Julius Caesar was the great man of his day. The Republic of the 1st century BC was crumbling. Under the leadership of Sulla, Marius, and the Gracchi Brothers, the power of the Senate was faltering while ambitious men learned to use the mobs to get what they wanted. Mob violence and assassination became commonplace. It was this chaotic society that gave birth to Caesar. He was elected consul in 59 BC at the young age of 41 and together with his contemporaries Pompey and Crassus he established an authoritarian rule that the Republic had never before seen.

After his consulship ended, Caesar was given the office of proconsul, a job that was designed to keep powerful ex-consuls away from Rome. In his Caesar’s case, he was sent to the wild lands of Gaul, or modern day France and Belgium. Caesar’s enemies and allies alike must have breathed easier, now that the ambitious and clever man was out of the picture. Pompey used this time to pursue his own ends, but even while absent Caesar was not forgotten. Like a modern media star, Caesar published harrowing tales of his exploits in Gaul, making sure that his fame grew even while away.

Caesar served two terms as proconsul, and his fame grew ever higher. Despite his popularity, the establishment powers in Rome – the Senate, Pompey, Cato, Cicero, and others – plotted his downfall. Today they might try a viral campaign, or perhaps use a hashtag such as #CeaseCaesar. They ordered Caesar to surrender his command and return to Rome to face prosecution. This forced Caesar’s hand. Rather than giving himself to his enemies, he took his army to Rome and a civil war began.

In the end, Caesar was victorious while his former allies Crassus and Pompey were dead. Julius Caesar stood alone as the undisputed master of Rome. Romans, of course, despised the idea of monarchy. Their hatred for the old Tarquin kings ran deep in their cultural memory, even though they had been gone for five centuries. When Brutus and Cassius conspired to assassinate Caesar, they thought they would be greeted as heroes for destroying the tyrant. If Hitler had lived before then, they would have said that Caesar was the new Hitler and needed to be taken out. They were wrong, however.

Caesar’s death on March 15, 44 BC did not end tyranny. It did not restore Rome to the grand old days of the Republic. No new Cincinattus arose to guide Romans back to their cherished traditions and then give up his power. Caesar’s death brought about yet another bloody civil war, one that ended with his nephew Octavian Augustus on the throne of the new Roman Empire.

Heed the Ides of March. The enemy you focus all your energies on defeating today might simply be a harbinger for something even more terrifying.

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