“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
“All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
March 15, 44 BC Julius Caesar was killed in the Capitol by members of the Roman Senate.
He had been warned this day would come. A soothsayer had hailed him one day on the streets and said, “Beware the Ides of March!” (Ides meaning the day dividing the month in half – March 15). Then his wife started having dreams about him being murdered. He received notes and hints from several men of plots to kill him. But Caesar had ignored these portents and walked merrily into work one fine March morning and wound up in a pool of his own blood on the marble floor.
It’s a pretty big bummer to be stabbed 23 times by colleagues and rumored family members. But I don’t think the real loser here was Julius Caesar. He’s got a Shakespeare play bearing his name, not to mention a pizza joint and a pretty delicious salad.
Nah, I think the assassins got the bigger disappointment.
They thought they solved the problem! Julius Caesar had been declared a “dictator for life”, making him in every way but name a King.
Romans hated kings. The last time they had had a king they had run him out of the country. Since then, they had enjoyed the freedom of a republic for over 400 years. The republic meant freedom. A king meant slavery. “A slave has no true life,” said Cicero, the great champion of the republic. “All other nations are capable of enduring servitude, but our city is not.”
And here came Julius Caesar with a plan to royally screw over the republic.
What do you do with a man who insists on defying roman tradition and seizes absolute power?
Brutus and Cassius, members of the senate pondering this very question, decided that the Caesar Situation required direct, drastic, and violent action. They formed a conspiracy, set a date, and made Julius a toga-clad pincushion. The republic was saved!
Except it wasn’t. And this is what makes it all so tragic.
“When Caesar was dispatched,” says the roman historian Plutarch, “Brutus stood forth to give a reason for what they had done, but the senate would not hear him, but flew out of doors in all haste, and filled the people with so much alarm and distraction, that some shut up their houses, others left their counters and shops.”
Rome was thrown into upheaval. Shops were looted and chaos reigned in the streets.
But the conspirators continued to parade through the city with their bloody daggers in the air, perfectly deluded into thinking that everyone would rally to them, clap them on the back, and say “thanks for the freedom!” They couldn’t be more wrong. When Caesar’s body was burned in the roman forum (the city’s center), the citizens were again stirred up to a frenzy and literally tore a man to pieces because they mistook him for one of the assassins.
Queue exit for all the real assassins. They fled the coop, but each was cut down in turn. And as they died, they realized the sad truth: the republic was more dead than Caesar’s ashes. It never recovered the Ides – in less than 20 years rife with civil war, Caesar’s nephew and heir ascended his throne and deemed himself Rome’s first emperor. The republic was now an empire- an empire which lasted 500 years (longer by 100 years than the republic’s lifespan).
The Ides of March had changed everything, and nothing.
Where did the senators go wrong? Well, besides the fact that in most polite societies you don’t stick a knife in your friend and associate’s neck, I think the senators acted too rashly. We all do it at times – someone ticks us off, and we want to get in their face and give them a piece of our mind. Something or someone threatens our well being or comfort or lifestyle, and we refuse to stand it.
But maybe stabbing at the problem 23 times isn’t the best approach. I personally think violence is rarely – if ever – the answer. And not all violence is done with knives. Most of the time, our violent actions and reactions lead to greater harm than the original situation implied. We get an empire in place of our republic – and we end up regretting our words, our choices, and our actions. Brutus and Cassius killed Caesar, and they destroyed the Rome they loved in the process.
So tomorrow, 2059 years after the fact, consider the lesson of the Ides. Before taking action in a given situation, ask yourself these simple questions: will my course of action preserve what I most hold dear? Or will it trade my republic for an empire? Don’t fly off the handle. Keep your knee-jerk reaction in check.
There’s better ways to deal with a Caesar than wasting him.
Sculpture by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci (1465-1526)
They are starting to put ads on our blog. We do not approve these and are not getting any residuals whatsoever, so I apologize for the content. I’ll see what I can do about it.