Beware the Kalends of May

In Caesar's Ghost, Masters of Command by Barry StraussLeave a Comment

The news of Osama bin Laden’s death seems to have jolted my connection with Caesar back to life.

Tell me, dictator, what do you think of the news?

I suppose Bin Laden should have known to beware the Kalends of May [as Romans called May 1]. But we men of action never could abide soothsayers and their warnings.

I’m told the Americans were relieved not to take him alive and have to put him on trial.

It’s too bad the Americans don’t celebrate triumphs the way we Romans did. Then they could have marched Osama through the streets of Washington in chains and had him strangled on Capitol Hill.

But they didn’t capture him alive. So what do you think of the decision to bury the corpse at sea?

It’s the smart move. Caesar’s assassins originally planned to dump his corpse in the Tiber River but they lost their nerve. Instead, they allowed a funeral in the Roman Forum, which Antony used to rouse the people against them. Bin Laden shall not have his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech.

At the time of his assassination, Bin Laden was living in an armed villa in an affluent suburb 40 miles from Pakistan’s capital city, in a town with a Pakistani military academy. Meanwhile, Pakistani intelligence and Pakistani soldiers helped the Americans in their assault on Bin Laden. What does that say about American relations with its ally?

It says that Pakistan is a complicated place. It reminds me of Italy after Caesar crossed the Rubicon, when the towns were split in their support between Pompey and Caesar.

Allies aren’t what they used to be. Or maybe they never were. After Pompey lost the Battle of Pharsalus, for example, he fled to Egypt, a kingdom that was his longtime friend. The government there welcomed him by having him stabbed to death, in sight of his wife and son, the moment he stepped ashore.

What is your advice for American relations with Pakistan now?

“Divide and conquer”: that’s the Roman motto. The Americans should do everything they can to help their friends in Pakistan and hurt their enemies.

You wanted to take Pompey alive, didn’t you?

Oh yes, he was Caesar’s former son-in-law, after all, and I loved him. After a fashion. And later, I wanted to take Cato alive too. But that bitter fanatic preferred to commit suicide rather than to accept the mercy of Caesar.

The Americans did well to shoot Osama in the head in the dead of night. It leaves less room for a heroic martyr legend to grow.

So, Osama had a bad death?

No, apparently there was a firefight, so at least he died resisting. But he would have done better to go in the light of day, declaiming philosophical speeches like Cato. As we say in Latin, vae victis – woe to the conquered.

In terms of American politics, will this help President Obama?

That is a vulgar question, but of course it will help him, as it should.

What would you say if you were a Republican?

Caesar would thank President Obama for his service to the Republic and for reaping the harvest that President Bush sowed. And Caesar would thank the Nobel Prize Committee for its prescience in tapping a man who would preserve peace by waging war. Maybe they listened to their soothsayer.

By the way, Caesar, why do you keep referring to yourself in the third person, as “Caesar.”

As you Americans say, “There is no ‘I’ in team.”

Barry StraussBeware the Kalends of May

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