Beware the Ides of March

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Last weekend I attended a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. A friend of mine, a libertarian who is part of the same congregation as I am, was acting in it. But I was glad to go for other reasons as well. I thought the play would have something relevant to say given the naked imperialism of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. (My dictionary defines imperialism as “The policy of extending a nation’s authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations.” Sounds like a fair cop to me.)

There is a lot to learn from Shakespeare’s play, and from the actual events it dramatically retells, but one thing stood out for me above all. Before getting to that let me briefly recount the story. Though by the time of Caesar the territory under the control of Rome was vast and stretched far beyond Italy, the Romans did not think of themselves as an Empire. In fact, the period up to and including Julius Caesar is referred to as The Late Roman Republic. Julius Caesar was never titled Emperor. Note, by the way, that Julius Caesar is properly pronounced Yulius Kyzar. Knowing this it becomes much more obvious how we ended up with the titles Kaiser and Czar. Also his first name was actually spelled Iulius as there was no letter “J” in classical Latin.

The Roman Empire at 44 BC at the death of Caesar []

Caesar had become renowned as a populist politician and military figure. It should be carefully noted that the man many consider the forerunner of modern dictators appealed to the masses against the elites. Shakespeare’s play begins with Mark Antony offering Caesar the crown as king of Rome. He refuses as the Romans are not quite ready for that but many senators suspect that it is only a matter of time before Caesar centers all authority in himself. The Brutus of the famous line “Et tu, Brute?” seems particularly motivated by concern that Caesar will bring an end to the Republic forever and replace it with a dictatorship. In fact, Brutus is really the central figure of the play despite its title and is the most compellingly presented character.

Brutus bears no personal animosity towards Caesar but feels it is his duty to the general good to prevent the rise of a tyrant:

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,
But for the general.

We all stand up against the spirit of Caesar,
And in the spirit of men there is no blood.
O that we then could come by Caesar’s spirit
And not dismember Caesar!

It is this “spirit of Caesar” that is the real problem. This spirit is both the lust for power of rulers as well as the temper of a people that desire to be ruled by a tyrant.

In the play, Caesar is warned by a soothsayer to “Beware the Ides of March [March 15th]”. For it is on this day in 44 BC that Brutus, Cassius and a number of other leading Romans assassinate Caesar by stabbing him 23 times in the Senate. After Caesar is killed, the rest of the play follows Caesar’s friend Mark Antony and Brutus and Cassius as they fight each other. The conspirators ultimately lose out to Mark Antony and Octavian and pay with their lives.

The Spirit of Caesar

Here is the thing that struck me. The assassination of Julius Caesar did not stop the move towards Empire. Twenty-one years later Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, with the title of Augustus Caesar was named Emperor for life and given complete control of the State. The Roman Empire continued to grow.

The Roman Empire at AD 54 at the death of Claudius

The relevance to our own time is that a focus on the personal evil of a Clinton or George W. Bush misses the point. Conservatives became maniacally focused on Clinton during his years as President and now liberals have become focused on Bush. But the real problem we have is far bigger than either of these men.

Let us imagine that Clinton had been impeached. Would it really have changed all that much? The sanctions on Iraq and the military presence in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia would have continued anyway, provoking 9/11 or something like it. Let us imagine that George W. Bush was somehow impeached. It is difficult to figure out what further malfeasance would be required for such a thing to happen beyond what he has already done. But even if Bush were somehow impeached, would the Empire be shut down the next day? I don’t know if troops would be withdrawn from Iraq even if the “opposition” were suddenly in power.

My last article was an attempt to raise questions in the minds of evangelicals who have uncritically supported President Bush. But this was more for their sake than because I think the withdrawal of evangelical support would bring the Empire down, (though it wouldn’t hurt). There is a tremendous danger in becoming overly partisan, deciding that all the evil resides in Republicans or in Democrats. It takes two to tango and this murderous United States Empire has been a bi-partisan affair.

If we are to have any real change it will not be because half the country sees the light and switches party affiliations. It will be because individuals come to question deeply the nature of the State and the proper role of civil government. (As always, I make a distinction between civil government, which will always exist in human societies in one form or another, and the monopolistic State, which is merely one form of civil government and is deeply flawed). The scholarly introduction to the Pelican edition of Julius Caesar has this sobering thought:

“After Brutus, Caesar, Cassius, and Antony, the plebeians are the most important ‘character’ in the play. It is their corruption that defeats the Republican cause from the start. Brutus’ major disillusionment… should have occurred at the very moment of his greatest apparent success — the moment when, after his plain and honest speech in the Forum, the plebeians shout ‘Let him be Caesar.’ ‘Caesar’s better parts / Shall be crowned in Brutus.’ At this point Shakespeare’s audience knew that the Roman mob was no longer capable of Republicanism, that the Romans, like themselves, might best be governed by a king.”

Beware the Ides of March, because it’ll do no good.

Stephen W.
Carson [send him mail]
as a software engineer, occasionally writes about political economy
and is the proud father of a new baby girl. See his reviews of Films
on Liberty and the State
. More articles are available at his Web

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