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.
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.
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