Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4


The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Michael Parenti
The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome
New Press, New York, 2003, pp276, £12.95

THIS is a gem of a book. Michael Parenti presents the main outlines of the last years of the Roman Republic, covering the period from Tiberius Gracchus’ election as tribune in 133 BCE (Before the Christian Era) to the assumption of power by Augustus (Julius Caesar’s nephew) in 27. In the process, he gives an account of the major social struggles that took place, and he provides a balanced assessment of Julius Caesar’s role as defender of the lower orders in the Roman state. I cannot remember reading a better introduction to this decisive phase of ancient Roman history: the book deserves an honoured place alongside Daniel de Leon’s Two Pages from Roman History, F.A. Ridley’s Spartacus, and the chapter on Rome in GEM de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (Duckworth, 1983, chapter 6, pp. 327–408).

As one surveys the events leading up to Augustus’ elevation to the office of Princeps, that is, of the Roman imperial power, one is bound to ask what caused the overthrow of the Republic. Our ‘gentleman historians’ – the phrase is Parenti’s – tend to confine themselves to identifying the members of the First Triumvirate (or Gang of Three) – Caesar, Pompey and Crassus – and emphasise Caesar’s personal ambition. There is no doubt that Julius Caesar had a high opinion of his own capacities (not without reason), but who was it who allowed the Triumvirs to seize power in the first place, and who forced Caesar to cross the Rubicon in 49 BCE? To answer these questions, we need to look at the role of the Roman governing classes in the period under review.

The counter-revolutionary dictator Sulla, after he had rearranged the constitution in order to increase the powers of the slave-owning aristocracy, is said to have declared: ‘I have put the Senate in the saddle: let us see if it can ride.’ Unfortunately, that august assembly of ‘conscript fathers’ (patres conscripti) proved wholly unequal to the task. One of the chief merits of Parenti’s book is the way in which it brings out the sheer greed and short-sighted political intolerance of these Roman conservatives, the so-called ‘Optimates’ or ‘best men’. (A modern parallel appears in the inflated earnings of US corporate executives and entrepreneurs, and the ruthless methods used by their political representatives to defend these.) Despite the miseries caused by their policies, Messrs Senators absolutely refused to make any concessions to demands for reform backed by those less fortunately placed. They were particularly opposed to any plans for land reform – a necessary measure in order to protect the Roman peasants forced off the land in this period: on some eight separate occasions between 133 and 49 the Senate set its face against any land reform whatever – even for veterans who had contributed to Rome’s military victories and who were looking for means of support at the end of their period of service. The Romans had no police force to speak of, and, as far as I am aware, no regular policy of imprisonment for offences against the state: the traditional Roman aristocratic method of dealing with dangerous political opponents was one of assassination. As Parenti explains, ‘just about every leader of the Middle and Late Republics who took up the popular cause met a violent end’ (p. 81).

Maybe that was why Caesar decided, in the face of senatorial opposition to his compromise proposals, that he had no choice but to march on Rome in defiance of the constitution in 49.

Parenti is especially illuminating in what he has to say about the notorious ‘Conspiracy of Catiline’, which was supposedly extinguished by Cicero in 63. The Senators backed Cicero as a candidate for the consulship in the elections of 64 because Catiline (L. Sergius Catilina) had gone over to the popular party (such people were known as Populares) around 65 and his election had to be prevented. The Roman historian Q. Sallustius Crispus (otherwise known as Sallust) has left us an account of what followed, but Parenti shows that this account, which is based uncritically on Cicero’s contemporary accusations, is of questionable veracity and trustworthiness. A plausible alternative view is that Cicero invented the whole story of a succession of plots organised by Catiline and eventually forced him into rebellion. If so, the great orator and moralist was not above using what Plato would have called an ‘agathon pseudon’ or ‘noble lie’ in the defence of the Roman governing élite, into whose ranks he had been admitted.

Catiline’s alleged co-conspirators were condemned to death by the Senate, and were executed without trial. Among a minority opposing this unconstitutional motion was one C. Julius Caesar. In 60 BCE, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus formed a three-man alliance against the conservative Senators. As Parenti explains:

Pompey had the prestige of a war hero and presumably the backing of his veterans, Crassus had the money, and Caesar had the support of the plebs [lower citizenry]. Together they challenged the optimates and emerged for a time as the dominant political force. (p. 120)

The Triumvirs ruled the roost until 53 when Crassus was killed waging war against Parthia. At this point it was not Caesar’s ambitions which caused problems, but someone else’s. In Shakespeare’s words: ‘The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious … Knew you not Pompey?’ (Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene 2, lines 78–9, and Act I, Scene 1, line 37)

Pompey (who conferred on himself the epithet ‘Magnus’) let himself be won over by the conservatives, who persuaded the Senate to designate him sole consul – another violation of the constitution – in 52, and extended his command in Spain for a further five years. Thus each side had armed forces at its disposal should they be needed – Caesar was still proconsul in Gaul.

At this point, Caesar proposed a compromise: both he and Pompey should resign their commands, and the struggle could continue on the electoral front. The Senate initially approved the plan, but the conservative die-hards were not happy: they feared that Caesar would win the contest on these terms, and succeeded in persuading the Senate to pass an emergency decree calling on Caesar to disband his army forthwith. We all know the sequel.

The popular measures put through by Caesar in his last years are somewhat less well known. As Parenti tells us, he secured land for his veterans and distributed estates around Capua to some 20,000 poor Roman families. A programme of public works was begun, large landowners were required to reserve a third of their labour force for the employment of free Romans. Caesar pushed through rent reductions, obtained a decrease in payments wrung from the provinces, reduced debt burdens, granted Jews the right to practice their religion legally, and gave Roman citizenship to any foreign doctors or liberal arts professors wishing to reside in Rome. He took care that his measures were approved by the Comitia Tributa (the popular Assembly of Roman Tribes) and arranged for the publication of all Senatorial and Assembly decrees. He also granted to the citizens of Athens the right to restore their democratic constitution if they so desired.

Was Caesar aiming at monarchy? Parenti wisely leaves the question open, noting, however, aspects of the Julian regime which point in this direction, such as Caesar’s assumption of the post of Prefect of Morals (praefectus moribus) and his insistence on personally appointing half of Rome’s magistrates (bypassing the Senate, which had the constitutional right to appoint). He took care to institute a cult of his person, wearing regal attire, having coins stamped with his image, and so on (see page 163). But this evidence does not settle the issue. Nor does the episode of his being offered a crown and refusing it bear necessarily the interpretation given it by the conspirators in Shakespeare’s play: ‘for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it’ (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2, lines 237–8).

The scene, easy to rehearse, could have been designed as a test of public opinion, similar to a similar form of ‘opinion poll’ used in another of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III: ‘How now, my lord, what say the citizens?’

We shall never know for sure whether Caesar would have made himself king, because he was struck down before such a plan could be implemented. (Some interesting speculation as to the ease with which the assassination was carried out was voiced in a recent television programme this year, which carried the suggestion that Caesar was suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy at the end, and consequently, suffering as he was, deliberately failed to take measures to thwart the conspiracy.) The conspirators were not won over by Caesar’s conciliatory treatment of them as his former enemies: they could not forgive him for his popular measures, so they resorted to the time-honoured method used against the Gracchi and other dangerous opponents. But, having disposed of Caesar, they could not win over the populace: the result was another triumvirate (Octavian, Antonius and Lepidus), another civil war and the final extinction of republican liberty. As Parenti concludes, the slave-owners were ultimately prepared to accept one-man rule provided that the ruler was willing to protect their precious privileges, which was exactly what Augustus in practice did. In that respect he was thoroughly ‘sound’.

Chris Gray

Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011