“Experience is the teacher of all things.” -Julius Caesar, Bellum Civile
Far be it for me to to disagree with ancient Rome’s most famous figure, but it seems that these days experience teaches very little. Wednesday’s attack on the Republicans’ Congressional baseball practice left Congressman Steve Scalise badly wounded and Congress, like the rest of us, shaken. Of course, all violence shakes us, but not since the assault on Congresswoman Gabby Giffords have our leaders themselves been the targets of such violence. When our government is in the cross-hairs, these disgusting attacks convert from random violence to something scarier — anarchic aggression.
What followed was a rare sign of maturity from our elected officials. Speaker Paul Ryan actually did speak for all of Congress when he banded it together in resistance. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi had commendable comments as well. So did President Trump.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t ask for the same level-headed reaction from our media. Few moments in modern news coverage have left me feeling so disgusted than this latest ratings-driven opportunism. Conservative media outlets raced to use the attack as evidence of a rabidly anti-Trump liberal media inciting a bloody revolt against the Republican majority. The far right, Trump-supporting, Trump-supported, and ever classy Infowars, which apparently believes violent attacks are government-led “false flags” when they kill dozens of children or thousands of New Yorkers but not when they wound Republican lawmakers, was the tip of this misguided spear. Other outlets lamented “this is exactly what happens” when a media is so antagonistic toward its president, all but blaming CNN and The New York Times for a man shooting at Republican Congressmen.
Liberal media outlets responded in kind. The best defense was offense, they determined. The New York Times, for example, countered with many examples of aggressive conservative rhetoric, and it even deigned to go as far as perpetuating a debunked connection between Sarah Palin and the Giffords shooting. (A retraction was badly needed and delivered.) It’s a shame that when we need our media to be at its most responsible, it devolves into the petty bickering we expect only from our politicians and school yards. These media games naturally led to our elected officials into resuming their partisan pettiness. Outstanding.
Near the center of the back-and-forth is New York City’s “Shakespeare in the Park” production of “Julius Caesar.” Its controversy stems from the Caesar character dressing up as and imitating President Trump. Since the Roman Senate brutally assassinates Caesar/Trump in the play’s most famous (but not climactic) scene, many think they have insight into the director’s message: down with Trump, by any means necessary.
As a result, the art of Shakespeare and this production’s director, Oskar Eustis, has become the subject of conservative ridicule. Protesters have descended on the production. The play “encourages violence,” someone said. “The blood of Scalise is on your hands,” said another. The right rose in anger at this thinly veiled endorsement of violence against the president. Some of the play’s sponsors consequently pulled ads rather than fear the perception of being in league with this unpatriotic inspiration of Wednesday’s shooting.
Okay, let’s take a step back and give some context — something our branches of partisan media are not particularly good at giving. Was this really the lesson the director wanted to give? Was it Shakespeare’s? Was it history’s?
Anyone not well versed in late Roman Republican history or the play might assume that the murder of Caesar is seen as a heroic act that preserved the republic and guarded liberty against tyrannical encroachment. Therefore, this director, Oskar Eustis, surely an anti-Trump liberal artist, wished to make an analogy to stopping Trump for the same reason and in the same way, right?
Wrong. Not even close. To be sure, it was indeed the plan of the Roman senators to commit tyrannicide and, by doing so, sustain the Republic. That’s what they thought would happen.
But that’s not what happened. And that’s not what the play was about.
So, for the moment, let’s leave aside the fact that five years ago there was a Julius Caesar production where the main character was fashioned to be Barack Obama and no conservatives or sponsors decried the symbolic violence against the President then. Let’s instead consider the actual history of Caesar’s assassination, its lessons, and Shakespeare’s memorializing of it. Only then can we deduce the director’s motivations behind this modern adaptation and determine if the outcry is deserved.
Julius Caesar (100 BCE – 44 BCE) never actually reigned as Roman emperor, but he was instrumental in Rome’s shift from republic to empire. By the time of his assassination, the republic had been around for nearly five centuries. Back in 509 BCE, when wealthy Romans rose up against and removed the reigning Etruscan monarchy, they vowed to never again be led by a king. Their word for king — rex — became a term of abject hatred. Among the rebels was Lucius Junius Brutus, and his promise was taken seriously by his family for generations, culminating in a more infamous Brutus’s deadly decision.
Instead of one man who centralized all the government’s authority, the Roman Republic steadily pieced together a multi-branch government of assemblies, magistrates, and, above them all, a Senate. The senators — naturally the descendants of the landowning revolutionaries, though other wealthy landowners were allowed to join them over time — kept much of the power, including foreign policy and power of the purse, for themselves. Though the Senate technically worked alongside the other branches, the several hundred senators were the richest and most prestigious group — and least responsive to the people. Rather than through elections, like most of the Roman government, senators usually inherited their seats. They considered themselves a safeguard against not only a tyrant, but against the turbulent whims of the people as well. It was as if the Roman Senate had the power of our Congress, prestige of our president, and longevity of our Supreme Court. They were the first branch among equals.
A quirk of the Roman Republican system was that in times of crisis, the Senate could consolidate much of the Republic’s authority into the hands of one man who could act quickly and decisively rather than waiting for the gears of government to slowly turn through deliberation. This man was called a dictator — not a rex — and he could only constitutionally hold his power for a maximum of six months before returning to normal citizenship. Thus, he was encouraged to use his broad power judiciously, for he would soon not be protected by the office. This appointment occurred quite regularly in the Republic’s nearly 500 years, and power was transferred to and from the dictator quite smoothly.
Until it wasn’t. Enter Julius Caesar. By his 30s (60s BCE), he had achieved remarkable political success. He was a gifted orator and general, earned the loyalty of his soldiers through military successes and generous spoils, won the election for Pontifex Maximus (the top religious position in Rome), became the governor of Rome’s Spanish province, and skyrocketed in popularity. In 60 BCE, he ran for and won one of the two Roman consul positions — Rome’s chief executives. He had become one of the three most powerful people in Rome. The others — Crassus, a former consul and the wealthiest man in Rome, and Pompey the Great, also a consul and Rome’s most accomplished general — were wary of his rise, but saw him as a valuable ally in their own schemes. Eventually, the three men commanded more loyalty from soldiers than the rest of the Roman government did, and they formed an extralegal alliance that history later called the First Triumvirate. The three had been rebuffed by the Senate on numerous occasions, and their alliance was more than enough to circumvent the ancient body.
The alliance controlled Rome for most of the 50s BCE until Crassus was killed on campaign in the Middle East. That left two men — Caesar and Pompey — as de facto rulers of the Republic. Rather than be satisfied that they now each controlled half of the greatest civilization in the West, Crassus’s death set the triumvirate’s two remaining members on a collision course.
Shortly before Crassus’s doomed campaign, Caesar had wildly successful conquests in Gaul, expanding the Republic to unprecedented size. He had probably surpassed the aging Pompey in popularity. Pompey and the Senate worked together in a last-ditch effort to curb Caesar’s meteoric rise. In 49 BCE, they demanded he return home from Gaul and release his army back to the Republic. Caesar responded by bringing his army to the border of Italy, the Rubicon River — a border that forbade any general from crossing with his military, for that would be perceived as a coup d’etat against the Republic. Caesar’s forces crossed it anyway, and the die was cast; a Roman civil war began. Caesar routed Pompey’s forces in 18 months, sending Pompey’s supporters to all corners of the Republic. With Caesar in hot pursuit, Pompey himself fled to Egypt, where Egyptian leadership, terrified of the now legendary Caesar, decapitated the old man and gifted the head to the First Triumvirate’s last member.
Caesar peerlessly assumed the mantle of the most popular and powerful man in Rome. He returned to Rome to govern. To so do efficiently, he asked the Senate to confer onto him the power of dictator. “Asked,” of course, is the polite term here.
The Senate was terrified of his power. Caesar had actually pardoned every last senator despite their alliance with Pompey and belligerence during the civil war, but this clemency was an insulting act for a proud group who did not feel as if they were being taken seriously. Some may have also felt that a lack of immediate punishment simply meant the ax still hovered over their necks. In the meantime, they felt compelled to confirm Caesar’s “request.”
Caesar had once before taken the title of dictator, but resigned it after 11 days. This time, he asked for a one-year stint — twice the length of the maximum dictator term. The Senate acquiesced and hunkered down for one tolerable year. Caesar governed admirably, enacted progressive reforms, and soon tacked on more resounding military victories. He arrived, saw, and easily conquered anywhere he went. To Caesar, the branches of government — with its checks and balances, debates and votes — were an inefficient way to govern and modernize an enormous republic. One man with a lot of authority could more quickly improve the lives of Romans. Though he still stood for election to the consulship as his more official position, his powers had become truly dictatorial.
With such political and militaristic successes, he again broke precedent and asked for another term at dictator. Not merely for one year, though — for ten. The Senate again complied. Its acquiescence bolstered Caesar’s ambitions and reaffirmed what he already knew — he could get away with anything. Within months of starting his ten-year term, he asked to be dictator perpetuo — in perpetuity. This was in February, 44 BCE.
On March 15, Roman Senators invited him to the forum to conduct business with their dictator. If only he were as rock-ribbed as his attackers’ anti-monarchical ideology. After his arrival, a group of senators mobbed him, stabbing him 23 times. So wild was their bloodlust that some even stabbed each other in their desire to get a piece of the rex in consul’s clothing. Chief among the conspirators was Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, former friend of Caesar and proud descendant of the Brutus that had taken down the last Roman king 415 years earlier.
The conspirators had hoped that with the elimination of the dictator and last surviving member of the triumvirate, the Roman Republic would naturally reconstitute into its old form. Indeed, these senators called themselves the Liberators. The tyrant was dead and liberty was saved. The Senate, they thought, would regain its authority and the branches would again govern.
Or so they thought. Though Caesar’s assassination feels like the climax of this story, for both Shakespeare and ancient history it merely served as a plot-point to move the larger story forward. We learn from both — as we do from this month’s Shakespeare in the Park — that these Senators were not hailed as heroes; their plan, in fact, backfired. Any hopes they had that violence was the solution to tyranny were quickly dashed. The Roman people were furious with the murder. Caesar’s mot powerful allies — chief among them fellow general Lepidus, Caesar’s right-hand man Mark Antony, and Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian — formed an anti-Senate alliance. They tracked down and killed those responsible for the murder, though Brutus took his own life before capture.
This Second Triumvirate eventually warred with each other as history repeated itself. After Lepidus was pushed aside, Antony and Octavian fought the final war of the Roman Republic, which Octavian won against the more senior Antony, just as his adopted father vanquished Pompey. Then it was Octavian’s turn to seize total control, though he adopted a more delicate approach with remaining senators, one that preserved their dignity. In 27 BCE, the Senate granted him total power and gave him the title of Augustus. He governed unrestricted until he died in AD 14. His authority then smoothly passed to his heir Tiberius. The Roman Empire was underway.
Shakespeare, of course, tells the downfall of Brutus and the other conspirators in a lot more detail. It’s an agonizing descent and ignominious end. They were racked with guilt and despised by the Roman citizenry. Moreover, their plot had thrown Rome into chaos. Blood was shed across the Republic as it spiraled into exactly what the Liberators were trying to avoid — an autocrat at its center.
Quite obviously, Caesar’s assassination was not meant to be seen as a heroic act, neither in history nor in Shakespeare’s play. Likewise, the conspirators are no heroes. The lesson is quite the opposite: trying to achieve liberty and democracy through violent and undemocratic means defeats the purpose of liberty and democracy, and such acts are ultimately more destructive than the disease they were trying to remedy. The director said as much before last week’s attack, and his production is in line with that premise: the conspirators are the bad guys, not the good guys. Dressing up the Caesar character as the president is a useful gimmick to bring attention and sell tickets, but the message is the same.
I guess, in the typical rush to blame the other side, that message was lost. If experience has taught us anything, we shouldn’t be surprised.
Crassus was always on the prowl for more wealth, and the west Asian Parthians were known for their ample supply of gold. Against the wishes of the Senate, Crassus led about 50,000 soldiers east for some good old fashioned Roman conquest. However, not only did he lose half his men, but he was captured. As the story goes, the Parthians knew of the perfect execution for the greediest man in Rome. They quenched his thirst for wealth by pouring molten gold down his throat. This is why I teach history.
Also like Pompey, Antony died in Egypt before his opponent’s forces could capture him, though instead of a decapitation, he and his Egyptian pharaoh lover, Cleopatra, induced an asp bite. Apparently some people think this is romantic.