ides of march

As I begin to write this, it's still the Ides of March -- the fifteenth day of the third month of the year.

Non-native English speakers likely haven't heard the word "ides" before, even in their native language -- at least it doesn't seem to be common in Spanish or French. But anyone who went through an American high school can see the crooning finger of the seer, as he tugged at Julius' Caesar's sleeve, and hear his crow, Beware the Ides of March.

Then it's all stab stab stab, and the tyrant is dead! Well not quite that soon, but thence goeth the play. We are told that Caesar was a man of hubris, with imperial ambitions, and it was a noble group of righteous republicans that took the dirty deed into their hands, ridding Rome of an oppressor.

Told, that is, by Cicero, a brown-noser with a gilded tongue; and from whose writings most of the history of the period derives. So says Michael Parenti in his The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome.

class war

Parenti places the murder of Gaius Julius Caesar within a context of a popular struggle, playing itself out as a split between different segments of the ruling class. On the one side there were the slumlords, latifundistas, and slaveowners, and on the other side there was popular struggle, in the form of slave revolts, insubmission, graffiti (!), in addition to the formal political channels (the people's tribune and consul, etc.).

Within the ruling class (slaveholders all), there was a split. On one side were the optimates, the self-described best and brightest, those that would hold on to their privileges at all cost. The optimates spoke in terms of "rule of law", but they were happily oblivious to such things when it suited them.

On the other side were the populares, a reformist tradition stretching back a couple hundred years. It was dangerous to be a populare. A number of populare leaders had been killed, by gangs of men, or poisoned, often on direct senatorial order. All of this, to protect the privileges of the elite from any retrocession, however small, even coming as it was from other members of the elite.

Caesar was a populare, and a charismatic one at that. But he wasn't killed for being charismatic; on the contrary, if he had been an optimate, he would be described to history as a man of the highest republican principle.

Caesar was more a kind of former-day Roosevelt -- though not a revolutionary, certainly a reformer, who would change government to serve the people better. Also like Roosevelt, he was viewed as a traitor to his class. Caesar was one of the last of the populare leaders to have power. He was killed, argues Parenti, mainly because of his place in this tradition of social struggle.

Then, as now, the optimates would not allow the republic to fall into the hands of the so-called "mob". (What a word for the citizenry, eh?)

Flowers for Julius Caesar, by Gauis Caecilius. CC-NC-ND.

Every year, I am told, at the Ides of March, one may find bunches of fresh flowers, laid on the spot where Caesar was killed. If I had learned this before reading the book, I wouldn't have understood, but now I choose a meaning that makes sense to me: these flowers are for the people's struggle, that the slave rebellions of the past might not be in vain.

11 responses

  1. José Vitor says:

    "Non-native English speakers likely haven't heard the word "ides" before"

    Any Westerner who had at least a smattering of classical studies will know the word...which is to say, almost everybody that went to school and likes history just a little.

  2. Ian says:

    "Then, as now, the optimates would not allow the republic to fall into the hands of the so-called "mob". (What a word for the citizenry, eh?)"

    Isn't this derived from 'mobility'?

  3. Simon says:

    Ian is correct - in original usage, 'mob' didn't have particularly negative connotations, being simply a term for the lower-class majority. Although in the version I'd heard, the origin was in the sense of mobilisation - just as today, the influence of the common citizen was limited, until they start massing in the streets.

  4. wingo says:

    Ah durnit, it seems that while deleting a stray "and" I mucked with the timestamp, making this post appear double on planet GNOME. Sorry about that; I reverted the changes, but am not sure what the planet will pick up.

    @José, I will revise my thesis, then: I must have ignorant friends :)

    Interesting notes regarding the term "mob". My use of "citizenry" was probably a little off, as it doesn't necessarily connote "all people"; then again, we do have a history of defining people as not-people, so probably no term is free from that.

  5. Pachi says:

    Definetly, for spanish speaking people you should try saying *idus* instead of 'ides', as it comes from 'idus martius' in the original latin and is commonly used like that, 'idus de marzo'.

  6. Roberto Alsina says:

    No wonder "ides" is not common in spanish! In spanish they are called "los idus de marzo".

  7. wingo says:

    I obviously wasn't clear enough, but by "ides in their native language", I meant its translation.

  8. Andrzej Mendel says:

    Well, the thing about populares and optimates is that they were mostly ways of attaining political power (optimates through the Senate and populares by popular votes and tribunes), with only some of them having "progressive" or "conservative" socio-economic views going in line with their position as populares or optimates.
    Gracchi were reformists but Ceasar was not.

    It is an interesting sidenote, that Pompeius Magnus was originally a popularis, but when he came into conflict with Ceasar, he quickly switched his allegiance and sided with the Senate and optimates. I guess Ceasar could have done the same in his situation.

    BTW, slave rebellions had hardly anything to do with plebeians struggle. Neither part of Roman citizens wanted to free slaves, at least until 2nd century A.D. when stoicism and Christianity set in.

  9. Jorge says:

    «Non-native English speakers likely haven't heard the word "ides" before».
    Quite amusing because I would think exactly the opposit, that almost every latin-based language has some derivation.
    In Portugal we have a expression that uses the word "idas", somewhat ancient and not often used, but almost every portuguese more than 50 years old should know it. And the more common "ido/idos", used as an adjective, is just a form of the verb "ir" (to go):
    "No Inverno ido" means "last winter".

  10. Jeff Walden says:

    My impression -- take it for what it's worth -- is that neither Caesar nor the conspiracy against him is ever presented in a particularly good light. You have a dictator on one hand and conspiracy to commit assassination on the other -- led by a person named Brutus, no less, also the Latin from which we derive the word "brute". I doubt it's paid too much detailed attention in classes, either. Most history classes try to go for broad sweeps (although it wouldn't be a surprise to find specialized college classes), and zeroing in on the two parties here just doesn't happen.

  11. Bo Gyalo says:

    Parenti also idolizes Mao (the murderer of tens of millions and apparently a respected reformer?) and is devoted to defending the 'socialist righteousness' his colonial invasion and Final Solution sinicization of Tibet.

    Parenti is like the British revisionist historian and holocaust denialist David Irving on steroids.

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