JUNE 2019 

The Ides of March: A Case For Loyalty

     If the Ides of March, 44 BC must be remembered for anything at all, it should simply commemorate the integral importance of national loyalty to any healthy well adjusted society, and the critical factors that could compromise any leader's high standing with citizens and perpetuate decline. Most of all, with the means of communication available in modern technology, violence is a least effective way to express a dire need for change. So, how far should one take the expression of national loyalty? The past contains numerous examples on how not to rule, even though it is not the objective to focus on the human flaws of past leaders. That is certainly not to say that national loyalty justifies violence. It should not. One case that best illuminates this truth goes all the way back to March 15th, 44 BC, four years after Pompey the Great’s death, during a Roman Senate meeting.

     That day, anonymous persons stabbed Julius Caesar twenty-three times on the Curia Pompeiana garden steps behind the stage of the Theater of Pompey. The location of that murder may be a clue as to how this gruesome event occurred. However, even though the assassins may have thought they were ridding Rome of a power-greedy leader, the event perpetuated an intense revolt, followed by the Battle of Philippi, 42 BC, the end of the optimates party, and Octavian’s defeat of Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium, 31 BC.

     Despite a general assumption that Caesar’s enemies -- Brutus and Cassius of the political liberatores party – plotted the deed, the precise identities of Caesar’s numerous assassins have never been absolutely disclosed, and so remain mysterious to this day. Shakespeare recreates the scene with Caesar speaking to Brutus, his adopted son from an involvement with Servilla Caepiones, the mother-in-law of Cassius. Records lack any such speech. The events that led up to Caesar’s assassination are complex and troubling; they involved public relationships, personal relationships, and reflected the West’s deteriorated relationship with Asia Minor. Whatever the case, this remarkable leader’s assassination rocked the Roman Senate and led to a controversial, challenging search for the next dictator.

     One complex factor that led to Caesar’s violent fall was the emotionally charged political context of Rome around 44 BC. This was a time during which Rome experienced changing values throughout the Mediterranean and the East surrounding friendships: other nations were not content to exist as subservient alongside the Western Empire. For instance, Egypt had long been a controlling force in global trade -- until Pompey’s conquests around 63 BC.

     Ancient sources illuminate a maritime theme of trade versus piracy as Rome’s context for invasions to the East. Josephus tells us that in 63 BC, Pompey went to Damascus and met with ambassadors from Syria, Egypt, and Judea due to difficulties the weakened Seleucid Empire experienced in accessing major sea ports. Ultimately, Pompey conquered Ptolemy Mennaeus’ regions in Apameia, northern Syria, and north of Galilee, thereby extending his domain to the Phoenician coast at Damascus, where tribes had seized Galilee from Judea in 103 BC. Though these moves freed the Western Empire from strife and glorified Pompey in Roman eyes, the Syrians, Phoenicians and Judeans despised him. From our own modern perspective, such dehumanizing conquests are politically incorrect, as extreme violence goes against ethical codes. Nevertheless, after having liberated cities from the Hasmoneans back to Gaza -- Rafa, Ashod, Dura, Yavne, Jaffa, and Tel Dor -- Pompey laid a new foundation for Asia Minor, and in 57 BC, gave the governorship of Syria to Aulus Gabinius. Pompey therefore restored the distinct status of citizens of the polis and its true natives; laws deemed Jews not citizens because of religion. Religion need not have played any role in that transition. However, those events revealed that Pompey was a hero to many, as he fought courageously to keep Rome safe.

     Nevertheless,  despite the allied friendship Rome had with the Eastern states, the conquest of Asia Minor created many vengeful and spiteful repercussions. Some Jews suffered from Pompey’s realigned powers and had property confiscated, whereas others became tenants of Hellenized landowners. In fact, humanist that he was, Caesar himself persecuted Pompey to prevent him from instigating other wars. But Pompey did depose Queen Cleopatra, who warred with her brother, Ptolemy; this led to his mixed reception in Egypt, 48 BC. Indeed, such transitions increased the hostilities between Jews and Hellenized peoples and ignited the complex tensions that led up to Caesar’s murder.

     Caesar’s very public, high profile, and dramatically charged relationships elevated tensions, especially with Cleopatra. Additionally, Cleopatra’s own royal monopoly on political power and wealth led biased writers to cast her as a selfish, frivolous, strong willed, conniving, shallow, deceptive, and vain female. Romans did not readily accept Queen Cleopatra Philopater VII of Egypt, the apple of Caesar’s eye, as a political Roman leader. This was only one of the other factors that played heavily into Caesar’s decline.

     Moreover, Roman perspectives on traditional roles differed vastly from those of Egypt, and so Romans rejected Caesar partly for a potential royal alliance with Cleopatra. In antiquity, Roman women were not nearly as capable or influential as Egyptian females. In the West, the only abode a woman ruled was the home; naturally, many perceived familial ties with this queen as hateful. Cleopatra’s own dealings with Rome caused tensions with the military and reinforced this attitude. According to ancient sources, Cleopatra’s allegedly flawed politics became most apparent around 50 BC, when a conflict with the Gabiniani ultimately undermined the reputation of Aulus Gabinius and drew a grave disapproval from the Roman Senate.

     Thirdly, the West’s honored family ties were culturally divergent from the family unit of the East. Even though Romans were big on family, Caesarion, Caesar’s own son, seemed doomed from birth; in fact, Roman historians hardly mention him. Why is that? For starters, Caesar’s choice of love-mate had drawn a hearty, collective disapproval from the Roman Senate, for Eastern marital customs appeared scandalous to the Romans and Greeks.

     Furthermore, Caesarion notoriously displayed this cultural difference when he moved against Gaza’s hero, Pompey, in 48 BC. With respect this thirteen-year-old and Caesar's dead daughter’s widower, the ruthless execution of Pompey underscored this immense sociopolitical diversity and expressed a blatant disregard for traditional Roman family honor. This suppressed event lifts some of the foggy haze surrounding Caesar’s assassination. It is no wonder that writers like Suetonius and Plutarch thus downplay Caesarion’s role in Pompey’s murder. Instead, scholars increase the dramatic intensity of the gruesome event by painting a very ruthless image of Caesar with respect to his military rival, Pompey. However, Caesarion had Pompey murdered after the Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BC, and publicly dishonored him in presence of his family. Reeling under the scrutiny of his mother’s errors, Caesarion likely did this to align himself favorably with Caesar. However, when Caesar sailed to Egypt days later, he accepted full blame for the execution of Pompey, and sharply reprimanded Caesarion. Is there still any confusion as to why Octavian Augustus, and not Brutus or Caesarion, inherited Julius Caesar’s empire?

     If truth be told, although sources reveal that many feared Pompey and Caesar’s power, Rome’s allied ties with Asia Minor exposed a distaste for political subservience to the West. An impending joint leadership with Cleopatra and Caesar was Egypt’s only hope for a continued imperial power. The logic behind the Ptolemies’ sense of entitlement was that royal couples ruled jointly in the East to consolidate power over other ethnic groups in Egypt. That would never have been the case with Imperial Rome.

     However, fear of power aside, Egypt’s desire to control the West at that time was unprecedented, for under Roman law, Pompey’s execution was criminal. But Egypt's archaic system of organization risked international safety and the safety of Rome. And yet, the execution of Pompey had been beyond Caesar’s control, as he likely had nothing to do with it. It is not clear if the senate immediately understood what happened abroad, but it linked Caesar’s rise to power with an alliance to Cleopatra, and end to Pompey. Is the nature of international alliances today very unlike its implication in Classical times? As information technology and humanitarian laws greatly diminish a tendency for international conflict and violence compared to Classical Antiquity, a push for political independence may greatly outweigh an urgent need for political alliance. It seems that international relationships do not always reflect a good balance of both, but should.

     The changes Caesar made surrounding social ties ultimately affected all daily Roman transactions: changes within the senate reflected loyalty to the middle class over old nobility. Among other worldly military and cultural accomplishments, however, Caesar’s replacement of the Senate’s traditional aristocracy with middle-classed plebs and impeachment of resistors with enforced consulship powers did not amuse the aristocrats; many Romans harbored deep resentments over this sociopolitical reassignment. Therefore, the new Senate, consisting mainly of Caesar’s own people, should have become unquestioningly loyal to him. Was that the actual case, or was Caesar in fact feared?

     It would be inaccurate to insinuate that Pompey was more loyal and defensive of Rome than his rival, for Caesar was fiercely protective of all Roman citizens, regardless of birth origin, and insisted that invading tribes who harmed a Roman on Roman land were offensive and unpatriotic. Despite an insatiable proneness to conquer, perhaps Caesar’s most positive and outstanding trait was his inclination to see the world in a “feminist” perspective, long before such a term existed in Roman culture.

     Contrarily, such social transitions brought Caesar’s intent propensity for greed, vanity, and egocentricity to the surface. Prior to 49 BC, Caesar had held other high political offices -- tribunal and consul roles -- the latter, the highest level of power in the Roman Senate. Despite his alleged flaws, Caesar’s best interests lay with the democracy, whereas the opposing optimates party catered primarily to the military noble. Nevertheless, the senate feared Caesar, as they had feared Pompey.

     A careful study of the architectural ruins of the Theater of Pompey, in the Porticus Pompei, visible near Campo dei Fiori, via del Biscione and via dei Gubbonari, should teach that the building reflected Classical Roman society; the rigidly restructured classes of the earlier Roman Republic would certainly have increased panic and disorder after Caesar's murder. Pompey himself commissioned the theater in the densely populated Campus Martius, just outside the sacred area of the Roman Forum, around 52 BC. Its design differed from that of the rotund, athletic amphitheater, the Colosseum. Rather, it had extensive acoustics, and included a temple for Venus to dampen the disdain of the senate for the building's lavishness. Its main function was not athletic or dramatic, but political; its expansive seating held the capacity for massive audiences.

     Inside the Campus Martius, the multicolored, completely enclosed seating area of the horse-shoe shaped Theater of Pompey showed how divisive the classes were, even within an audience; the seating arrangement reveals just who might have been exactly where on the afternoon of March 15th, 44 BC. The immense stage was about one hundred meters wide, and the scaenae frons was around one hundred and fifteen meters tall. In front of the stage was the orchestra, where, unlike actors in a Greek theater, the area was strictly for Roman Senators, magistrates, and priests. Knights -- equites -- sat in the first fourteen rows of the cavea, above the orchestra, and the last few rows of the cavea were for noble classes. At the back, from the upper gallery, sat foreigners, slaves, women; the corresponding terms for these numerous classes included “equites, patricians, plebeians, proletariat, freedmen, and slaves”. Thus, it would have been the senators and equites who had easiest access to the honored dictator, Julius Caesar.

     Unlike the gladiator ludi of the amphitheater previously discussed, this theater combined political with religious functions, such as funeral rites for important citizens. Immediately behind the scaenae frons was an enclosed garden with fountains and sculptures, surrounded by columned porticoes. Behind the garden was another secluded and sacred courtyard containing four temples in addition to that of the patron goddess, Venus Victrix. The entire Forum complex was a weapon free zone, or at least had been up to that day. This stairwell was likely the spot in which the criminal deed occurred. Did that space in fact contain an architectural defect that prevented Caesar from escaping his fate on the Ides of March, 44 BC?  We will probably never know.

     Despite it remaining a prototype model for later Roman theaters, scholars and architects -- Baltard, Pellegrini, and Coarelli -- have never pinpointed in their own plans of the theatre exactly what lay on the floor directly below the cavea seats in 44 BC, or where that fatal stairway was in conjunction to the seats. Were other theaters reproduced exactly as the Theater of Pompey? Did they include a concealed space below the cavea? How did later theaters differ in structure from Pompey’s at Campus Martius?  These unanswered questions create opportunities for further study at every level.

     Most important, the life and death of Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar reveal that no community should ever compromise safety or happiness for the sake of national, or even personal loyalties. A relationship that only benefits one party is not a relationship, but slavery. Personal safety and self-sufficiency are not negotiable. They are essential needs. If the exchange of a violent act validates the extent of one’s loyalty, then fear becomes part of that definition in a vocabulary that must change for the better.