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Vesuvian

Did Julius Caesar deserve to die?

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Me and a friend were debating this. I don't think so becasue he did so much for Rome. Expanded the empire, settled disputes. But my friend thinks he hurt Rome. He was becoming a dictator and the coins, statues and dictating style show it.

 

What do you think?

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This debate has raged quite strongly around here. You'll find that there is no consensus opinion, but there are very strong convictions on either side of the issue.

 

Personally, I believe Caesar deserved to be tried for his crime of crossing the Rubicon. Until that point everything else could've been negotiated. Fault is another issue entirely, so whether we blame the so-called Optimates, Caesar, the people, Caesar's army, or whomever you choose, it was Caesar who broke the law and marched on Rome. He may have been acquitted or convicted depending on circumstances, but he did deserve to be tried. His death was a result of consolidated power and the limited choices available to the opposition.

 

Caesar did both great and horrible things, but even if you consider most everything he did to be great, he was still a man who helped crush one of the world's greatest historical institutions. For all the Republican system's flaws (of which there was an acknowledged many) after Caesar the opportunity for freedom of choice in election and lawmaking processes had been severely handicapped.

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Of course he deserved to die. On top of being a pathological narcissist, Caesar was a traitor who plunged the greatest free republic of the ancient world into a monarchical system that plagued Europe for over a 1000 years, until the deaths of the last Kaisars and Tsars in the early Twentieth Century. By depriving Rome of popular sovereignty, Caesar eliminated the only legal mechanisms of succession, and he paved the way for the crises of the Third Century and the collapse of the whole empire. After so many imitators of Caesar had plunged Rome into anarchy and civil war, all of Caesar's military conquests were reversed, and the whole Roman system gave way to the Dark Ages of the barbarian hordes. For all this, Caesar couldn't be stabbed enough.

 

In spite of this moral judgment, however, it's clear that the actual assassination of Caesar was poorly done, and he should have faced a legal trial. As a purely practical matter, assassinations almost never achieve the assassin's political aims--not in the case of the original Tyrannicides (Harmodius and Aristogeiton), nor in the case of the Liberators (Brutus and Cassius), nor in the murder of Abraham Lincoln (John Wilkes Booth), nor in the case of Archduke Ferdinand's killer, nor in the case of Rabin's killer.

 

So, while I think Caesar deserved to die, the republic deserved that Caesar face trial.

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I second MPC in this. Caesar, for all his reforms and accomplishments, was pretty much what the republic founders feared the greatest: a single person who had the ability to achieve complete power, a king. When he did just that, I guess it was pretty much a worst nightmare come true. Brutus and the rest were surely justified in this killing--they really believed that they were saving the republic. A trial and/or exile probably would have been smarter, but it's hard to see someone as narcissistic (i know i spelled that wrong) and as proud and stuff as Caesar submitting to either.

 

Regardless of what he did for Rome (he did do a lot), Caesar could have at least tried to do it legally. Wrecking the constitution and dealing the death blow to a 500-ish year-old republic can't be that legal.

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Like many dictators past and present, Caesar met a violent end. I'm not sure if he deserved to die, as we're judging things from hindsight. He was after all a very popular man with the plebs. It was men among the senate who saw him as a threat or an obstacle to their own success who decided to bump him off. When you look at it like that, the assassination wasn't so well-intended. Besides, he was no worse than many caesars who followed him. He simply paid the price for getting in certain peoples way. Notice that after the deed was done the assassins failed to arouse any sympathy or support.

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Notice that after the deed was done the assassins failed to arouse any sympathy or support.

 

This is a very good point caldrail. Not to digress, but it would have been very interesting to see the outcome if the conspirators had killed Anthony as well or Anthony had not made the "bloody toga" eulogy at Caeasar's funeral since that is what really turned the popular opinon against Brutus & Co.

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Nobody knew for sure what Caesar's intentions for the Republic were, the assassins were stout Republicans and didn't like the idea of change, who knows maybe Caesar's intentions for the future of Rome would have been a revelation, but that's besides the point and we'll never know, but in my opinion Caesar didn't deserve to die, he was a great man who'd achieved great things in the name of Rome and to be stabbed to death by lesser cowardly men was not the fitting end to his life that he deserved.

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Notice that after the deed was done the assassins failed to arouse any sympathy or support.

That's an oversimplification. There seemed to be three categories here:

 

Some people did hail them as Liberators (e.g., Cicero), and many of their peers joined them at Philippi, including the many children of those who fell in Caesar's civil wars.

 

Others failed to hail them as Liberators but were also opposed to punishing them (see the debates in the Forum while the Liberators were hanging out in the Capitoline temple). Indeed, many respectable partisans of Caesar--though they mourned him and could not celebrate the death of a friend--still acknowledged that he was (legally) a tyrant (see Cicero's letters for some examples), and the fact of the matter was that the lex Valeria obligated citizens to tyrannicide. Presumably the consuls Hirtius and Pansa would fall in this category, and even Antony veered in and out of this category.

 

Finally, some were out for their blood (or pretended to be out of political opportunism). Octavian and some of Caesar's veterans fell in this category.

 

Had there been no sympathy or support for the Liberators, they would have been thrown from the Tarpeian rock. Instead, compromise was reached, and for a time it appeared that a resolution might be possible. Unfortunately, that 'gladiator' Antony cleaned the vomit from his lap and marched on Mutina, while all Rome cowered before the army of a blonde boy with a sphinx on his finger.

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If Caesar deserved to die, then the pompous swine who refused to compromise with him prior to the war should have swung beside him at the gallows. As things turned out they all did die in one way or another. Pompey was beheaded, Cato gutted himself, Scipio died at sea, Cicero lost his head (metaphorically, then literally), and the 'liberators' died on their own daggers. Had the 'better men' been able to look beyond their own self-serving noses and compromised with Caesar, maybe the Republic would have survived, in its already corrupted state.

 

Do you think that if Brutus and Cassius had taken over, some magic spell would have been lifted and the Republic would have gone back to the way it was at the Founding? Some other demogogue with pretty words would have taken over, probably Cicero himself. The Republic was dying as it was, violence was the name of the game. Every time the Senate got to disliking someone they ended up dying or being deposed. All Caesar did was play the game to its logical conclusion.

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Finally, some were out for their blood (or pretended to be out of political opportunism). Octavian and some of Caesar's veterans fell in this category.

 

Some of Caesar's veterans were also probably legitimately outraged, just as a significant portion of the population was. The 'mob' included those who were fine with the events at hand once they realized that the bloodshed stopped with Caesar, and those who were angry regardless. This entire category of common people would seem to have little motivation other than pure reactionary emotion and their role in shaping the events is important. Plutarch describes just such a scenario of mixed feelings among the populace in Life of Brutus...

 

And now Brutus and his associates went up to the Capitol, their hands smeared with blood, and displaying their naked daggers they exhorted the citizens to assert their liberty. 8 At first, then, there were cries of terror, and the tumult was increased by wild hurryings to and fro which succeeded the disaster; but since there were no further murders and no plundering of property, the senators and many of the common people took heart and went up to the men on the Capitol. When the multitude was assembled there, Brutus made a speech calculated to win the people and befitting the occasion. The audience applauding his words and crying down to him to come down from the Capitol, the conspirators took heart and went down into the forum. The rest of them followed along in one another's company, but Brutus was surrounded by many eminent citizens, escorted with great honour down from the citadel, and placed on the rostra. At sight of him the multitude, although it was a mixed rabble and prepared to raise a disturbance, was struck with awe, and awaited the issue in decorous silence. Also when he came forward to speak, all paid quiet attention to his words; but that all were not pleased with what had been done was made manifest when Cinna began to speak and to denounce Caesar. The multitude broke into a rage and reviled Cinna so bitterly that the conspirators withdrew again to the Capitol. There Brutus, who feared that they would be besieged, sent away the most eminent of those who had come up with them, not deeming it right that they should incur the danger too, since they had no share in the guilt.

 

Clearly though, Plutarch (as do other sources) makes it known that not all were angry with the liberators.

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Finally, some were out for their blood (or pretended to be out of political opportunism). Octavian and some of Caesar's veterans fell in this category.

 

Some of Caesar's veterans were also probably legitimately outraged, just as a significant portion of the population was. The 'mob' included those who were fine with the events at hand once they realized that the bloodshed stopped with Caesar, and those who were angry regardless. This entire category of common people would seem to have little motivation other than pure reactionary emotion and their role in shaping the events is important. Plutarch describes just such a scenario of mixed feelings among the populace in Life of Brutus...

 

And now Brutus and his associates went up to the Capitol, their hands smeared with blood, and displaying their naked daggers they exhorted the citizens to assert their liberty. 8 At first, then, there were cries of terror, and the tumult was increased by wild hurryings to and fro which succeeded the disaster; but since there were no further murders and no plundering of property, the senators and many of the common people took heart and went up to the men on the Capitol. When the multitude was assembled there, Brutus made a speech calculated to win the people and befitting the occasion. The audience applauding his words and crying down to him to come down from the Capitol, the conspirators took heart and went down into the forum. The rest of them followed along in one another's company, but Brutus was surrounded by many eminent citizens, escorted with great honour down from the citadel, and placed on the rostra. At sight of him the multitude, although it was a mixed rabble and prepared to raise a disturbance, was struck with awe, and awaited the issue in decorous silence. Also when he came forward to speak, all paid quiet attention to his words; but that all were not pleased with what had been done was made manifest when Cinna began to speak and to denounce Caesar. The multitude broke into a rage and reviled Cinna so bitterly that the conspirators withdrew again to the Capitol. There Brutus, who feared that they would be besieged, sent away the most eminent of those who had come up with them, not deeming it right that they should incur the danger too, since they had no share in the guilt.

 

Clearly though, Plutarch (as do other sources) makes it known that not all were angry with the liberators.

 

And what Plutarch is also making clear in the above passage is how easily the mob would still be swayed by a charismatic speaker. (Note, they harangued Cinna) Not five days went by when Antony swayed them again in the opposite direction and riots followed the funeral in which the assassins had to be hidden in friends' houses.

Both sides must have been tearing out their hair regarding the reactions of the 'mob'.

 

As to the original question of this thread: No, Caesar did not deserve to die, and no amount of political analysis and posturing will make me change my mind on that. Or - let me immediately clarify - he did not deserve to be gutted by a bunch of men who had not given a thought to the future beyond the second thrust of a dagger. I would agree with the more Republican-minded on the Forum that he probably should have been brought to trial for marching on Rome. Had this happened and a legal process had declared him a traitor, that would have been different. But what is unforgivable, to my mind, about Brutus' and Cassius' actions is that they had no plan to put in place beyond ridding Rome of Caesar. As Caldrail mentions above, did they naively expect the Republic to just fall back into place? Others may disagree, but if they truly believed that then they had been pretty poor judges of the political climate over the last twenty years! This is one of the reasons why I lean towards personal resentment as their guiding motive. However, I suppose it is only fair to say that the assassins did not know the contents of Caesar's will when they struck - nor were they totally sure which way Antony and Dolabella would jump (as some of Cicero's letters of the period prove). However, at the risk of using that old vice, hindsight, Brutus and Cassius killed more than Caesar on the Ides. Those of us who admire the Principate should at least thank them for that.

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It seems to me that defense for Caesar basically boils down to on of these followings if simply put:

 

1. The Republic was doomed, so it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself.

2. The Republic was corrupt, so it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself.

4. Caesar was benevolent tyrant and things would have been better if he lived, so it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself.

5. The civil war was nothing more than power struggle between Pompey and Caesar, and the latter won.

6. Brutus and Co. were idiots. They didn't recognize that Caesar killed the Republic beyond the recovery.

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It seems to me that defense for Caesar basically boils down to on of these followings if simply put:

 

1. The Republic was doomed, so it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself.

2. The Republic was corrupt, so it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself.

4. Caesar was benevolent tyrant and things would have been better if he lived, so it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself.

5. The civil war was nothing more than power struggle between Pompey and Caesar, and the latter won.

6. Brutus and Co. were idiots. They didn't recognize that Caesar killed the Republic beyond the recovery.

 

Hehe - you left out No. 3, Ilian ;) I'll leave everyone's mouths gaping by filling it in for you: I have no particular problem with autocrats in the ancient world. I was actually brave (or foolhardly, if you prefer) enough to say this at our recent meeting in York. But as you have given us five simple choices, I'll personally choose No. 6. (5).

Edited by The Augusta

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Hehe - you left out No. 3, Ilian :unsure:

 

Oops. #3 would be: Everyone died horribly, so it must have been retribution by Venus, meaning it was all right for Caesar to seize the absolute power for himself. :)

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