Gaius Julius Caesar, immortal man of history, is best remembered for three things: his seizure of power in the Roman republic, his military prowess leading up to that seizure, and his bloody assassination at the hands of the collected senators led by the apostate Brutus.
So much emphasis is placed on his military exploits and his meteoric rise to power, in fact, that it is often forgotten that while he was in office he was a popular ruler. Wildly so, in fact. Not only was he popular, but his popularity was greatest among soldiers, people of the lower classes, and provincials living outside the capital – all of which were groups that had historically been looked down upon by Rome’s ruling classes. In other words, Caesar – self-serving quester after power, demolitionist of the old republic, commander of Rome’s finest legions – was most beloved not by his fellow nobles but by the working and marginalized masses.
During his rule Caesar opened up opportunities for landless peasants to gain their own property by granting them plots on the empire’s frontiers. He also instituted – and, importantly, honored – more generous salaries and pensions for legionnaires in addition to extending fairer treatment and more rights to non-Roman peoples that had come under the rule of the empire. He brought abusive provincial governors under tighter central control and regulated and standardized the oft-exploited old system of tax collection.
When Brutus shouted, “Death to tyrants!” as he added his to the dozens of dagger thrusts that that finally slew the mighty Caesar, then, it is wise to remember that it was a senator and member of the old elite who issued the cry.
For it was not a popular movement that toppled Caesar from power. It was not the daggers of the suffering masses that plunged through his robes on that fateful day in March nor the cry of a half-starved peasant that labeled him tyrant and spilled out his life. The daggers were held by nobles, the damning title of “tyrant” granted not by an oppressed enemy but by a once-favored friend.
Though the slayer’s mouth cried out a defense of freedom and the man slain was indeed a dictator, the case of Julius Caesar is not so easily reduced to one of “freedom” on the one side and “oppression” on the other. The story of Rome’s prime emperor’s rise to power is one that presents fascinating difficulties to our definitions of justice and makes us question many of our basic assumptions. It forces us to make choices between one kind of good and another – between the good of due process and that of policy while in office; between the divided rule of a broken republic and absolute rule by an able dictator; between a justice of ends or a justice of means; between risks and rewards; between expediency and ideals.
The enigmatic emperor passed two millennia hence, but the questions raised by his rise and subsequent fall remain as vital and relevant to us today as they were then, especially in nations – and there are many of them – whose institutions of justice are as fraught with decay and corruption as was the old republic. These nations, just as Rome famously did two thousand years ago, must make difficult decisions in a time of great crisis, and oftentimes those decisions require a moral calculus balancing exactly the same issues as faced the ancient empire. If we are to form an enlightened opinion of what course to pursue in current events, then, there are worse places to start than by assessing the rule of Rome’s most famous emperor.
And even if there aren’t, it’s what I feel like writing about today. As with Caesar’s decision to cross the Rubicon, that particular die has already been cast. It is left to us to follow its bounces and see where they lead us. If the gods are good, it will be somewhere at least marginally entertaining. Let us proceed with this ancient inquiry and see whether we can come to some conclusion on whether Caesar’s rise to power was in the end an act of justice or injustice.
Gaius Julius Caesar, like most of the moguls of world history, was an enigma with layers of complex motives and indecipherable views that continue to mystify historians to this day. Yet the one attribute that Caesar can be said with certainty to have possessed all through his climb from a family of minor nobles to lifetime dictator of Rome was unlimited ambition. From demanding his ransom price be doubled when captured by pirates only to return afterward with a warship and crucify them all, to waging a war on the frontiers of Gaul in which he was often badly outnumbered – and all for the sake of glory alone – Caesar’s ambition was unquenchable and knew no zenith.
The tendency for some of the more unsavory figures in history to have been some of its most ambitious has a way of making us suspicious, but ambition in and of itself is nothing wrong. In fact, I would argue it’s one of the most critical and intrinsic parts of being a human being, and has accounted for much of our progress.
It is only when ambition causes us to start sacrificing things that ought not be sacrificed that it becomes a vice. If we are to decide whether to bestow upon Caesar praise or scorn we need not ask so much how loftily his sights were set, but whether the lengths to which he was willing to go to reach them extended beyond the threshold of moral permissibility.
The short and clear answer is, according to any conventional morality, yes. Even given a generous reading, the tale of Caesar’s ascension makes it immediately obvious that his climb to power entailed actions that cannot be justified by any but the most Machiavellian standard of ethics (which is to say, none at all).
Caesar’s remarkable escalation up the social rungs in ancient Rome is attributable to many things. It is immediately obviously that he was a man of both exceptional brilliance and courage on multiple fronts. To name a bare few: the subtleties of Roman politics; military command; written prose (by all accounts flawless and gripping, as evidenced in his written accounts of the Gallic campaigns). He combined these and myriad other talents with a daring and audacity that allowed him to take risks few would venture and consistently come out triumphant.
If Caesar came one day to wear a crown, it was at least in part because he carved its stones of gems cut from the rock of his own person. Yet glaring out also from that crown were jewels not wrought by carving but cunning. These were gems gotten not by the combination of fortune and toil that characterized the admirable part of his campaigns but by their darker side, characterized by manipulation and force. Caesar’s crown may have been set with charisma, courage and diligence, but those prized stones sat alongside deep opals of bribery and violence.
Now, resorting to bribery in the decadent republic of Rome in the first century BCE made Caesar in no wise remarkable. Whatever virtue the famous citizens of Rome may have cultivated in their time of ascension, they had long since traded the pursuit of it for that of something harder, more tangible and yellower in tint. In the days of Caesar, corruption was the currency of republic. Still, even in the midst of this remorseless depravity he might at least have hemmed and hawed a little in a show of reluctance before proceeding to blatantly bribe every elite he could get his hands on in each election between b.c.e. 63, when he was chosen Pontifex Maximus, and his institution as dictator in b.c.e. 48.
But evidently he did not. There is not in all the pages entailing Caesar’s rise even the slightest indication that he sauntered into the back alleys and shady lanes of politics with anything less than unfettered enthusiasm. In fact, the dismissal nonchalance with which historical accounts relate the string of bribes that, together with his ample talents, brought and solidified Caesar’s power throughout his career is the most eloquent testimony on offer as to how often and with how little remorse he used them. If resorting to bribery gave the man any pause, he bore up under it with a stoicism that would have made even Cicero proud.
Still, as well acquainted as Caesar was with the back entrances and private doors of politics, he was also no stranger to the front, which, should it be barred against him, he made no hesitation in battering down with his legions.
The historical figure of Caesar is one of those exceptional characters one is forced simultaneously and uncontrollably to love and to hate, and for the same reason: he was, if not the best, then one of the best at literally everything he put his hands to. His political savvy at maneuver and manipulation was matched by public charisma and charm. His celestial ambition was equaled by indefatigable courage. His desire to make his name known throughout Rome was married to a flawless sense of literary style. When one reads the pages recounting his feats one is filled with awe that such an endowment may be vested in a single man and jealousy that that man must be someone else.
None of these abilities were greater than Caesar’s capacity to command. It was in Gaul – modern-day France – that Caesar illustrated this most conclusively. As he had earlier in his career as a quaestor in Spain, Caesar took up a military posture in Gaul that ventured well to the precarious side of daring. His style was bold to the point of recklessness, an approach that would surely have proven fatal both to him and his armies were his mastery in command not a match for it.
But they were. Caesar carved his way through Gaul with inexorable fervor, defeating army after army of its native inhabitants despite being often outnumbered, and culminated his conquest against the great warlord Vercingetorix at Alesia despite being outnumbered and surrounded by two armies.
Pacifists may claim that merely being a military commander is enough to condemn a man on moral grounds, but I will stick to convention and make no such case. We live in a world in which armed conflict sometimes arises and many believe it their solemn duty to rise to their nation’s defense (or offense, as the case often is in reality). Accordingly, Caesar’s being a general and a successful one need not of necessity be demerits against him.
However, as tenuous an ethical defense as nationalism is – and it is indeed tenuous – self-promotion is even more so. When one uses one’s military prowess to conduct an unnecessarily aggressive campaign, endangering the lives of one’s own soldiers in addition to those of tribes who had hitherto shown no compelling threat to one’s borders, the question of military leadership takes on a moral dimension.
For Caesar this was patently the case. During his campaign in Spain he adopted an aggressive posture and ransacked towns in order to accrue enough wealth to pay off his personal debts and fund his own political efforts. Years later in Gaul he once again took up a posture of aggression, only this time his ambitions extended beyond his own personal debts. This time his ambitions were global, so he coordinated his Gallic wars not only with his usual lavish “persuasive political spending” but with sweeping campaign of words.
All through the years Caesar spent in Gaul he kept extensive notes on the war’s events and composed a full history of the Gallic Wars (another infuriating example of his brilliance, as the account is still used as one of the shining examples of polished prose in Latin reading courses) and had them published back in Rome. While there seems to be little doubt about the factual accuracy of many of these reports – Caesar did not, apparently, add to his loaded quiver of vices that of propagandized fabrication – his motivations are in equally little doubt.
Caesar wrote his history of the Gallic War for the same reason he relentlessly bribed influential Romans, adopted dangerously aggressive stances in his military campaigns, and later marched across the Rubicon with his legions behind him.
He did it for power.
To what aim? This we do not and cannot know. To intuit the heart of even the most studied and documented figure of the past is a feat beyond any mortal. We cannot know whether Gaius Julius Caesar wanted power in order to combat injustice, restore the name of a once-venerated family, mollify his own insatiable ego or any of the other plethora of possibilites.
But to some extent these questions are extraneous. Whatever his indecipherable ultimate motives, it is clear that the means he used to attain them were untroubled by moral inhibitions. Caesar, much like Napoleon nineteen centuries later, was a man filled with an endless desire to climb and a combination of will and talent that made that climb possible. Both men eventually used their power – gained mainly by force – to institute a comparatively noble and egalitarian code on an expansive empire.
But it cannot be ignored that the conquests of those respective empires were characterized by no such high ideals. They were in fact the antithesis of them, for the use of unsolicited violence to conquer an opponent’s will – or, alternatively, to further our own at their expense – is the most brazen renunciation of egalitarianism possible. The act of subjugation one by another is the absolute repudiation of equality. Yet this was, along with bribery, the chief means used by Caesar.
This is the first half of the argument against the justness of Caesar’s rise to power. It says that the means by which Caesar rose, being corrupt themselves, leaked their iniquity onto the rest of his reign. It is an argument, called “deontological” in philosophy, that says we cannot use ends to justify means. An act is either good or evil in itself and cannot be redeemed by some future outcome. The method, independent of its consequences, is just or unjust.
This argument may at first seem naive because an action’s outcome clearly ought to have some bearing on its morality. But in my view sophisticated deontology does not ignore this point; it simply broadens the perspective. According to the nuanced deontologist, Caesar’s actions are not wrong merely because an arbitrary and mystic code makes them so. They are wrong because even though they may seem expedient, in the long term they are ultimately poisonous to a people.
Bribery not only undermines political due process – which exists to insure fairness and stability in rule – but saps at the very morals of the people, replacing a respect for legitimacy with a tolerance of opportunism. It teaches us to settle for an ethical standard that is easily attained but impoverished rather than one that is difficult but elevated.
As for war – especially war waged for the acquisition of personal power and prestige – it is not excusable even when it results in a man as capable and just as Caesar on the throne because no activation of public policy, be it however just and humane, is worth trading thousands or tens of thousands of lives – thousands or tens of thousands of abandoned children and bereft mothers – for it. Beyond this, if war were to be considered an acceptable means to power, the license granted to every ambitious man of talent to spill his compatriots’ blood in obeisance to his own ego would surely result in more pointless suffering than it was worth.
The argument that the long-term, holistic effects of Caesar’s rule render it immoral goes one step farther, though. It does not revolve only around the actions he took in pursuit of office, but also the very nature of the office to which he aspired. In a word, Caesar’s rule was unjust because it replaced a republic with a dictatorship, the rule of the many with the rule of one.
Though we citizens of modern Western societies grow up with objections to one-person rule ingrained in us, dictatorship is not as self-evidently evil as we well-trained progressives believe it to be. Many of our chronic political dilemmas – inextricable deadlock and an exaggerated and polarized public discourse, among others – are significantly less likely in a dictatorship than in a democracy. Dictatorship is a form of government with tremendous advantages and an executive potential perhaps unmatched by any other form. But it has a single fatal flaw. When a nation brings itself under the rule of a dictator it places itself in a Damoclean dilemma.
Damocles was a courtier in the court of Dionysius of Syracuse with a penchant for fawning. When one day Damocles remarked on the fortune of King Dionysius that he be surrounded by all the wealth and glory of his position, Dionysius most graciously offered Damocles the opportunity to trade him places. The awed courtier delightedly accepted.
No sooner had he assumed the throne, however, than he noticed for the first time that directly above his head, hanging from the ceiling by a single hair, was an enormous and razor-sharp sword that might fall at any moment upon the throne, suddenly and viciously ending his life. After enduring a while in constant distress, Damocles begged Dionysius to let him leave the throne and the constant peril that came with it. He then returned to his humble station as courtier.
Like the throne of Dionysius, dictatorship comes with its own set of unique possible benefits both to the dictator and the people. Under the rulership of a benevolent and wise dictator a nation may thrive with a clarity of purpose and efficiency of rule unmatched by any other form of government.
History is not without such examples. Exceptional dictators such as the Caesars Julius and Augustus as well as Napoleon and Alexander, among numerous others, have not only carved out empires but instituted codes of laws that brought their people widespread prosperity and a justice hitherto never afforded them by previous leaders. These great figures were able to do in a single reign what seems unthinkable to us moderns because the decisiveness and unity that may be wielded by a strong dictatorship is something the inherently divisive and plodding modes of republicanism and democracy simply cannot match.
But there is always, always the sword – a sword whose sharpness and lethality are unparalleled in human experience. And the thread that bears its weight is precarious indeed. For a people to welcome a dictator is for them to all place themselves on Dionysius’s throne, where one foul breeze of fate, one mayhap of chance, one whim of a temporarily crazed mind, may bring them all to destruction.
Need we even cite examples? The plethora that come readily to mind stretch from the oldest annals of history right up to the present day. Kim Jong-Un, who so recently executed his uncle for the terrifyingly banal crime of “spreading dissent,” is but the most recent manifestation of a dynasty that has seen the poor people of North Korea suffer in poverty and destitution for half a century. Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are but a drop in the bucket even for the past century, let alone all time. Add to their list the likes of Vlad of Wallachia, Caligula, Nero and Genghis Khan – two of whom are the direct legacy of Caesar himself – and you will have barely scratched the epidermis of history.
This is the second half of the argument against Caesar, riding along with a condemnation of his methods in obtaining power: that in assuming dictatorship for life he placed not just himself but all of Rome upon the Dionysian throne. Together they comprise the strongest condemnation of the political figure of Julius Caesar. His liberal use of bribery accentuated already-chronic problems with the republic; his self-promoting wars cost tens of thousands of Roman and Gallic lives (though it could be argued that those lives would have likely been spent by another commander in the absence of the able Gaius); and his replacement of the ancient institution of republican rule placed Rome beneath the sword of Damocles.
It is a powerful case. Despite being a political geek and a history buff and having given the issue far more thought than is likely to be necessary, my own opinions on the matter remain tentative at best. Though the term is often abused by agenda-driven politicians and religious leaders these days, I do believe society has a “moral fabric” – especially when it comes to institutionalized corruption – that can be torn by repeated abuse. I also believe the use of violence to be dubious in any situation but reprehensible when done for transparently selfish aims. The Damoclean objection to dictatorship seems to me compellingly persuasive; I believe the precedent of one-man absolute rule is dangerous enough to potentially outweigh any good that might be done during the reign of even the most benevolent dictator.
Yet as strong as my aversion to all these things is – and it is very strong – I also believe that, as good as they may be as persuasive guidelines for our behavior, no stone-chiseled set of behavioral codes is nuanced enough to apply to the infinite variability of life. It is not defeatism or nihilism but simple modesty that causes me to insist that exceptional contexts sometimes call for us to adapt our conceptions of justice. Though the dedication to honor that causes people to pronounce that they “will never compromise on their principles” is admirable, such proclamations are ultimately founded in an overestimation of one’s own understanding of the universe and an under-appreciation of the variability of life. Desperate times do sometimes, in extraordinary circumstances, call for desperate measures.
Now, in saying this I do not mean that urgent times permit an abandonment of our core moral beliefs. Rulers and persons in crisis are just as available to moral censure as those in times of tranquility. The demands for just and sufficient cause remain the same.
But I insist that context always, in every event in our lives, matters. Anyone who says it doesn’t is selling something. When we assess the justness of an individual’s acquisition and use of power, simple fairness and diligence require that we make every effort to understand the circumstances in which these events occurred. To decline to take this most fundamental step is to embrace a simplistic and dogmatic view of the world, and the closed-eyed embrace of dogma has only ever served to limit, not expand, our capacity for justice.
With that in mind, let’s look at the case for Julius Caesar’s reign. If, as I argue, context matters, the inquiry must start where Caesar’s life started. Let us go back, then, to Rome as it was a century before the birth of Christ.
The Rome of Caesar’s formative years was an empire built on the uniquely Roman system of republican rule, which is, by way of gross simplification, to say that a number of senators from a very limited subset of influential families governed the people. By the time of Caesar this senate was composed not only of the patricians – landed nobility – who had administered Rome in the early days of the republic, but also of plebians, who were Roman citizens not of noble birth. Hard-fought as the plebians’ right to stand on the senate was, centuries of stratification within their own numbers had resulted in a select few families that dominated political and commercial success while majority languished in suffering obscurity. The old patrician-plebian hierarchy had been eradicated, but only to be replaced by another hierarchy with identical – likely worse, because it offered no hope of rectification – effect. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And no new bosses are coming.
Long military campaigns had taken farmers from their fields for years on end with little recompense, leaving them impoverished, and the rampant debts they incurred as a result saw the situation of the poor becoming more dire by the day. Destitute farmers, unable to turn a profit from their land, defaulted on their debts and, in that uniquely human cruelty that seems the special province of creditors, bankers, and Jesus on a bad day – see Matthew 13 & 25, Mark 4 and Luke 8 – even what little they had left was taken from them.
The plebian and patrician representatives, however, being affluent and influential, were immune to such dangers. Accordingly, they were immune to the cries they generated. Senators were not the ones having their lands taken from them and their debts foreclosed on; very often they were the ones taking the land and calling in debts they knew could not be paid. They were, in other words, the beneficiaries of the suffering of the people, or at the very least were completely invulnerable to it.
If you are an American and this sounds familiar, it is no coincidence. The channels may be more convoluted but the situation is the same. And we ought to be warned, because when the people’s representatives are either immune to or, worse, benefitted by the suffering of the people, a republic cannot long stand.
As well it should not.
Nor would Rome. This was, in retrospect, obvious in every way. Even beyond the incumbent injustice of the system, the republic was crumbling. Nobles started and broke alliances, formed and dissolved conspiracies, even started civil wars. Assassinations were commonplace. Less than a century before Caesar, both Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were murdered for publicly pursuing populist agendas.
The senate was incompetent to solve even the most basic domestic problems, with the exploits of exceptional individuals like Gaius Marius and Lucius Sinna – largely against senatorial injunctions, as the body had opposed Marius’s election as consul and Sinna did much of his work over the course of a six-month dictatorship – bringing its ineptitude unavoidably into the light.
Perhaps the only reason the senate even retained its power until Caesar grasped it was that the Cataline conspiracy to overthrow the republic was thwarted fortuitously by Marcus Tullius Cicero, the rhetorical and philosophical master who was one of the few examples the senate had left of administrative competence.
This was the Rome into which Caesar was born – a republic in name but an oligarchy in practice and an inept one at that. It was an empire in which the impoverished were relentlessly preyed upon without recourse and in which the trustees of office were isolated from, ignorant of, apathetic toward or actively abusive of the common people. Infighting was rampant, governance was incompetent and corrupt, and honor was nowhere to be found.
In such a context, reason bids us ask, was it not better for a Caesar – a man of unquestionable courage and administrative ability, be it couched however much in a cloak of egotism – to take control of the government than to allow its endemic and unconscionable perpetrations of injustice persist?
Let us not forget that Caesar was not just a capable leader. To relegate him to the field of historical leaders who executed their rule capably is to call Peyton Manning a capable quarterback or Martin Luther King, Jr. a capable public speaker. Caesar was well beyond capable. He was both brilliant and just. When Rome ceded power to Caesar it did not only gain efficacy; it gained excellence. It did not only gain expedience; it gained justice, especially for the lower classes.
Objections to Caesar’s grasp of power seem all to revolve around the republican institutions he abolished and his willingness to use bribery and the generated popularity of his military campaigns to do so. But if they institutions were rotting and evil, how roundly can we condemn Caesar for abolishing them? And if the methods he used were commonplace at the time of his employment of them, does it not seem a bit pious of us to object to his failure to exceed his peers in every moral sense?
Those who condemn Caesar’s ascension rest their case, as it seems, on its being a less than perfect sequence of actions. We who are fortunate enough to have been brought up with high standards of virtue and the expectation that such standards are attainable in public figures (pray God that hope still lives in at least some of us, despite the woeful lack of current evidence) find it unacceptable when a figure fails, as did Caesar, to live up to the vast majority of them. And given this failure to fulfill our expectations of virtue, we say that his path to power could not, by definition, have been just.
But apologists for Caesar do not rest their claims – nor, I think should any of us – on an absolute definition of justice. They do not insist that Caesar rode on his self-centered crusade to the dictatorship as some paladin clad in an unsullied cuirass of alabaster virtue. He did not have to. Apologists of Caesar realize, I think, with more clarity than his detractors that the true measure of a leader’s rule is not whether he executed his duties perfectly but whether he left the nation a better place than he inherited.
Caesar’s rise to power is not to be judged by whether his rise or administration were morally impeccable, but whether it resulted in a better Rome – especially for the less fortunate, whose plight is, in my view, always the best metric of a society’s progress – than existed before him. In this case the answer seems obvious. It truly is difficult, given the context of the times, to see how a Rome of continued incompetent and sinister rule by a corrupt senate – even a Rome ruled by any figure other than Julius Caesar – would have been better off without him at its helm than with.
Yet we must realize that in speaking this way we are always referring to the short term. The very short term. The immediate term might be a better expression. During the rule of Julius, the first Caesar, Rome was made a better place. Even the second Caesar (not a direct successor, but we’ll smudge over the little fact of the civil war with Marcus Antonius for the sake of convenience) Augustus was as excellent as Julius – a stroke of luck fate does not often bestow upon an empire.
But no matter how bad the republic was that Caesar abolished – no matter how corrupt its senators, no matter how inept its administration, no matter how desperate its people – still it cannot be denied that Caesar in taking up the mantle of dictator for life placed the whole of Rome on the throne of Dionysius. Put it there to wait, in helpless perpetuity, for the sword held by the barest camel’s hair to fall.
And fall it did. It fell when, a mere three generations removed from Caesar, Caligula inflicted on the empire four years of rule by a sadistic madman whose legacies were starvation and murder. It fell two generations later when Nero assumed the throne and used the light of human torches to illuminate his gardens. Even after rulership had been wrested from this twisted remnant of the Caesar line it continued to fall when Caracalla assassinated his brother and his brother’s wife and later slaughtered 20,000 innocent citizens in the city of Alexandria.
Time and time again did that sword fall. There is not space enough in this essay to even begin to count them.
These pages are, to be sure, written with the benefit of a hindsight unavailable to Caesar at the time. But it requires none of these benefits to know that dynasties built on a premise of absolute power have a way of becoming tyrannical and abusive. This was a fact engraved on the heart every citizen of the republic, which had its birth in the wresting of power from just such a tyrant. The unequalled Caesar of all people, with his political savvy and keen insight, ought to have been capable of calculating the damage wrought by that inevitability.
If we are to assess the justness of Caesar’s rise to power, then, we cannot spare him the guilt of complicity in the crimes of his successors. He is the one who either in full knowledge or in deliberate ignorance (neither of which are excusable) created the conditions under which the suffering caused by future despots – indeed, as history teaches of all traditions of absolute rule, was bound to – became possible.
This is the dilemma of Caesar, a case in which a constellation of moral paradigms, perspectives, time frames and relative evils collapses in on itself with an impenetrability that can seem as dense as its astronomical equivalent. We are left with so many questions.
Would it have been worse, in the long run, if Caesar had not come to power? Would the crumbling republic, as seems reasonably likely, have only fallen into the hands of a similar but less able and less just leader to set off exactly the same series problems of dynastic succession? Would the republic instead have unraveled, as also seems likely, into a series of chronic civil wars fought out by local lords, bringing forth an era akin to the Dark Ages of Europe or China’s Warring States? Or would the republic, on the contrary, in defiance of all odds, have undergone revolution and risen from its own ashes with virtue restored and its old ideals refined in the forge of suffering? Did Caesar stave off a darker fate? Did he merely further Rome along on a predetermined course. Or trigger a set of events that in the end made Rome a worse place than it ever would have been without him?
We cannot know with certainty. It is beyond our capacity to know what would have happened. We are not that lucky.
Yet we must, nonetheless, do something to judge the merits of men like Caesar despite these limitations. Because while Caesar may have died over two thousand years ago, the problem of Caesar still faces us. Men in similarly complex circumstances rise in our own time and we are not, as with our studies of ancient Rome, granted the distancing reprieve of the millennia to free us from responsibility. When the Caesars of today arise we must decide whether we ought to support them or oppose them. And we must further know why we do so, because not all Caesars are the same. We must know what made Caesar just or unjust so that we can decide which kind faces us today.
If we condemn Caesar’s rule, we must understand what made it unjust. Was it his egocentric drive so void of idealistic virtues like humility and altruism? Was it rather his willingness to use means we find unjust, such as the use of bribery and violence? Or were all these things permissible given the context of the time in which he lived until the day he assumed the role of dictator “for life” and set Rome on the Dionysian throne?
What if one or two of these things had been different? Would the ultimate morality of his actions have then changed? If he had defied the corroded culture of the dying republic and risen through the political ranks without resorting to bribery, would his assumption of the dictatorship been any more defensible? If he had not been so transparently self-centered and ambitious – if the paper trail of history showed a path not tread by egotism but by a deep-seated sense of justice but his steps remained the same – would his relentless quest for the power have been justified by the purity of his purpose?
These questions about a ruler dead these two thousand years remain as relevant today as they were on the Ides of March, 45 BCE, when he was cut down on the senate floor. They remain so because Caesars of different forms, in different places, and with a few distinguishing variables still rise in our world with great regularity.
One did, in fact, not more than a decade ago, not Apennine Peninsula in the Mediterranean but on another peninsula stretching into another sea. Although he has been gone from power nearly eight years, for the last month people have been rising in the streets to both praise and condemn him. What will be the outcome of these protests, and are they wise? What about their former leader’s rule was so commendable or so abhorrent? Are the people demonstrating against his influence justified in their complaints, or should they be careful what they wish for?
The leader’s name is Thaksin Shinawatra, the peninsula is Thailand, and the issues surrounding his rule are quite similar to those surrounding Julius Caesar two millennia ago. We will try to untangle some of them in the next post.