A Defense of Brutus?

Over at Signature Reads, a review of Barry Strauss’ The Death of Caesar. Strauss’ take is that the assassination, whatever the particular motivations of the various actors, was at root a defense of liberty and an attack on tyranny, and so ought be commended.

Now, I’ve written on this topic myself. Back in 2016, I argued the opposite, that the assassins, in striking Caesar down, made him more powerful than they dared imagine:

 Julius Caeser was assassinated at the beginning of a public meeting of the Senate by 12 Senators who had decided that Julius Caeser was a threat to the Republic, that his becoming Dictator  Perpetuus was the latest in a string of unconstitutional excesses that would end in Rome becoming an authoritarian state.

In this, they were almost certainly correct.

But in assassinating them, they made that state certain. In assassinating Caesar, they made him a martyr, and themselves – and the cause they espoused – the enemies of good order. Within a few years, the Roman imperium is divided among Caeser’s heirs. Within 20, Octavian has legally obtained from a tame Senate all the authority that matters. And the Roman people stood mum as long peace obtained.

If Caesar had served out his time, even as Dictator Perpetuus, elections might have followed. Octavian, at the time of Caesar’s death, was a nobody, who became important precisely because he was Caesar’s heir. Now, it may be that Caesar would have pushed him up the cursus honorum during that long dictatorship. But the opportunity to seize power and exercise it ruthlessly happened because Caesar became a god in death. Shakespeare has Caesar’s ghost haunting Brutus and Cassius for a reason.

Strauss apparently acknowledges this:

And yet Strauss concludes that the conspirators were heroes after all. “If they didn’t save the Republic, they saved republicanism.” If they hadn’t acted, Strauss argues, Caesar and his successors would have felt no threat to their power. But they did act, and because they did, “as long as men and women remember the names of those who killed Julius Caesar, dictators will not sleep safely.”

And to be fair, only about a third of Caesar’s successors died in their beds. But this did not prevent the Empire from perpetuating. However many Caesars were stabbed, there was always another eager to take his place, and a Praetorian Guard happy to crown him. The assassins missed their mark; the problem was not Caesar. The problem was that the wealth of the Mediterranean world drove a wedge between the Senators and the People. Neither could trust the other, both handed power over to a strong man rather than let the other win. And so liberty died.

As it happens, Caius Caligulia will have some thoughts on this topic in his Meditations. Watch this space.

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