Principle or Pragmatism? The View from the Ides of March

Posted by Barry Strauss under on March 15, 2023

Happy Ides of March! On this day, March 15, 44 BC, 2066 years ago, Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome.

Forgive the shameless plug for my book on the subject, The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination. Called “brilliant” by the Wall Street Journal and “an absolutely marvelous read” by The Times of London, the book made several best books of the year lists and has been translated into eight languages. But I digress.

Caesar’s assassination was immortalized in Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, but there is more to the event than great drama. The Ides raises fundamental questions, starting with whether assassination is ever morally justified, and continuing with whether Caesar was good or bad for Rome. He had just been made dictator for life, which outraged believers in the Roman Republic, but he was a reformer who was committed to moving Rome past an era of civil war.

When is it good to stand up for your principles and when is it good to compromise?

Which brings me to the basic question raised by Caesar’s assassination. When is it good to stand up for your principles and when is it good to compromise? The Ides of March was a bad day for Caesar but a great day for the champions of what the Romans called LIBERTAS, our “liberty.” Well, not exactly what we mean by liberty. For Caesar’s killers, men like Brutus and Cassius, LIBERTAS referred to the freedom and equality of the governing class, the people Cicero called “the best men.” They saw themselves as the rightful leaders of Rome. Each one jealously guarded his power. They couldn’t tolerate anyone who tried to dominate them, whether through personal power – what they called being a king – or through a potent faction.

The assassins looked at Caesar as the man who would be king. Unfortunately, he gave them reason to think that. Having won unprecedented power in a civil war, he dominated the political stage. He even dressed like a king. His mistress was a queen: Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, who claimed to be mother of Caesar’s illegitimate son. On the Ides of March, she was living in the suburbs of Rome, in Caesar’s villa across the Tiber. No wonder Caesar gave Rome’s old elite agita.

What about the liberty of the Roman people? It meant equality before the law, protection from misrule by public officials, and the freedom to vote in elections. Throughout his career, Caesar had championed the people’s freedom, although he had recently all but abolished elections so that he could put his men into office. He was more of a populist than the men who killed him, but Caesar was no populist. He had sympathy for Rome’s common people, but he had no intention of giving them political power. Honestly, none of Rome’s popular champions (POPULARES) felt any differently. Then again, none of them had themselves declared dictator for life or had a royal mistress stashed in the suburbs.

The assassins, Roman nobles all, stabbed Caesar to death in a meeting of the Roman Senate. They then proclaimed themselves Liberators. No such luck. They thought that they had freed Rome from a tyrant and saved the republic. Instead, they opened a new era of civil war. Caesar’s supporters regrouped. After a period of infighting, Octavian (Gaius Octavius) and Mark Antony (Marcus Antonius) emerged as their leaders. They fought the liberators. The war enveloped a large part of the Roman world and led to tens of thousands of casualties, not to mention dispossession, destruction of property, and enslavement. Two-and-a-half years after assassinating Caesar, Brutus and Cassius were defeated in battle by an army led by Caesar’s supporters. Then Octavian and Antony turned on each other. It was a long, slow, episodic conflict, but in 30 BC, Octavian emerged as the last man standing, the sole leader of Rome. Three years later, he would take the name Augustus, making him, in effect, Rome’s first emperor.

War is sometimes necessary, but it is never the first choice, and it is never to be prolonged.

The men of the Ides of March tried to save the republic, but they succeeded only in hastening its end. To be sure, they might have won the war against Antony and Octavian, but I doubt that they had the wisdom to know how to use their victory. Dinosaurs like Brutus and Cassius were not the men to transform the swashbuckling conqueror of the Mediterranean world into the mistress of the Pax Romana. Perhaps Caesar wasn’t either, but he was a better bet to put men into power who could do the job. Indeed, Octavian was his grandnephew, and it was Octavian, as Augustus, who finally established the Roman peace.

Which brings us back to principle versus pragmatism. If Brutus and Cassius had worked with Caesar rather than murdering him, they would have had to give up on some of their ideals. But they might have preserved the best of what they cherished about the republic, and they would have spared their country another fourteen years of civil war. War itself is a force for change, and rarely for the better. A peaceful, compromise solution, is almost always preferable. To be sure, if your opponent is a homicidal maniac, like Hitler, no compromise is possible. Appeasement of a man like him was doomed to fail, as it did. Fortunately, Hitlers are few on the ground. Compromise is usually possible and preferable to war.

I write these words in Jerusalem, a city that currently I have the privilege of visiting to do research on a new book. As of this writing, Israelis are furiously divided over judicial reform legislation that the Netanyahu government has put forth. Whatever one may think of Bibi or his opposition, they are all democratic politicians. Compromise is possible; indeed, in my opinion, it is essential. I hope it happens soon.

But what of another, more violent conflict – Ukraine? Is compromise with a man like Putin possible? Or what about the shadow of war with China that hangs over Taiwan? Is compromise with Xi Jinping possible? Neither Putin nor Xi is a democrat, which makes compromise a risky business, if it is even feasible. It depends on our assessments of the men and their regimes. It also depends on the alternatives. War is sometimes necessary, but it is never the first choice, and it is never to be prolonged.

No easy answers. Contemplating Caesar’s assassination long ago and the war that it brought on may at least help us know what questions to ask about our current conflicts.

Barry Strauss © 2024