March 15, 2008

March 15 | Julius Caesar

July 13, 100 BCE - March 15, 44 BCE: Age 55

Which death is preferable to every other? "The unexpected".

On his way to study rhetoric in Rhodes, at the age of 24, Gaius Julius Caesar was captured by pirates. When the pirates asked his family for a ransom of 20 talents of gold, Caesar was insulted and insisted that they demand 50. He had good reason for this.

His patrician family had been humiliated in the recent civil war between his uncle Marius and Sulla, who won. Caesar himself had escaped death during the purges of Sulla's enemies only through the intervention of his mother's family, who included a number of Sulla's supporters. Instead Caesar was stripped of all offices, relieved of all his money and possessions, and forced to go into hiding. On his return to Rome after Sulla's death, he had to borrow money to buy a cheap house in a poor part of Rome and practice as a lawyer for his living. His oratory was famous, and it was in an effort to build his talent and thus rebuild his family's political fortunes that he was on his way to Rhodes. In the matter of his ransom, he knew that a bigger ransom would be better for the family's reputation.

During his captivity, he maintained a superior attitude toward the pirates, informing them that once he was released he would crucify them all. They treated it as a joke but, as we all know, Caesar was no ordinary man. Upon payment of the ransom and his release, he raised a fleet, captured the pirates, and turned them over to the government of Asia for execution. When the governor refused to kill them, preferring to sell them as slaves, he recaptured them and crucified them himself.

Few readers will be ignorant of the subsequent trajectory of his career. Oratory was not the only skill needed to succeed in politics: one needed a great deal of cunning, flexible morals, spotless personal reputation, good family connections, charisma, military prowess, and luck. Caesar had all those qualities in abundance. He rose to become the most powerful man in Rome. He appealed to the ordinary electorate and the armies for his support: this made him the enemy of those who favoured aristocratic rule.

Eventually his enemies mustered enough organization and secrecy to hatch a successful assassination plot. A group of them called him him to the Senate to hear a petition. As he began to read it, one man pulled down Caesar's tunic. Then a man named Casca produced a knife from his toga and stabbed at Caesar's neck. Caesar caught his arm before the blow could fall, saying "Casca, you villain, what are you doing?" Casca shouted "Help, brother", and the entire group, including Brutus, started stabbing at Caesar. Caesar tried to get away but tripped and fell. According to one source around 60 men participated in the assassination; when his body was examined it was revealed he had been stabbed 23 times. Only one of the blows, one near his heart, was fatal.

Did he say "Et tu, Brute?", Shakespeare's famous line? Undoubtedly not, however Suetonius reports he said "Kai su, teknon?" which means "You too, my child". Plutarch, however, states that he said nothing, simply pulling his toga over his head when he saw Brutus among the conspirators.

After the assassination, Brutus stepped forward as if to say something to his fellow senators, but they all ran from the building. The conspirators then marched through the streets, crying out "People of Rome, we are once again free!" People of Rome, for their part, locked themselves in their houses and waited to see what would happen.

Ironically the assassination itself, an attempt to save the Republic from the tyranny of dictatorship, actually ended the Republic. The lower and middle classes were enraged at the murder, as Caesar was extremely popular, and the conspirators were forced into exile. Octavian, Caesar's grand-nephew, emerged after 13 years of political confusion as the sole master of Rome, eventually becoming the Emperor Augustus and ending the Republic forever.

Source: Wikipedia


Anonymous said...

Do you believe that Caesar overreacted by having the pirates executed? After all, they did not treat him badly while he was held in their camp.

franca said...

I think it's very revealing of a whole culture/class mindset that is pretty alien to me at least. Overreacted? Not for me to say. I certainly wouldn't have done that. There are many periods in human history where his actions would seem admirable to many. To me it's most interesting in that it points to extreme pride, confidence, and ruthlessness. These are the qualities that made him master of Rome...for a while.