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Julius Caesar: Tyrant, Populist, or Neither?
As John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in 1865, he supposedly shouted the Latin phrase ‘sic semper tyrannis’ (thus always to tyrants). The phrase is often thought to have originated with the Roman senator Brutus, who is (perhaps inaccurately) said to have used it during the most infamous assassination in history: that of Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s name has always tended to evoke strong reactions from politically engaged members of society. When Booth invoked the memory of Brutus to justify murdering the president, he was appealing to the Western association of the name Caesar with tyranny. But Lincoln was loved by his supporters as much as he was loathed by his detractors; and, in his time, Caesar was an equally polarising figure. To some, he represented tyranny and the usurpation of constitutional law; to others, he represented populism and the dissolution of a morally bankrupt state.
Caesar the Tyrant
The reason that Caesar is often presented as a tyrant is not hard to discern. History books and documentaries are full of stories of how he forcibly seized power during the Civil War of 49-45 BC and subsequently demonstrated a total disregard for the rule of law, essentially transforming the Roman Republic into an autocratic empire.
After defeating the Roman Senate in the civil war, Caesar wielded immense and unprecedented power in Rome. He used this power to implement a number of controversial policies, including land reforms and the forgiving of one quarter of debts in Rome. To the Senate, he was a brazen demagogue passing populist legislation in order to consolidate his own power and inhibit the democratic process. When he eventually declared himself ‘dictator for life’, the undertones of monarchy became too great for the Senators to ignore and he was assassinated by a senatorial conspiracy.
Caesar the Populist
As already mentioned, many of Caesar’s policies were designed to ameliorate the condition of ordinary Roman people – and it was this fact that enabled him to maintain his popularity amongst the lower classes and tighten his grip on power. But it is too easy to focus entirely on Caesar’s disregard for the Roman Constitution and forget that his enemy – the Senate – also abided by the law only when it suited the interests of its members.
Many of Caesar’s reforms were plainly necessary and important, not just to improve the stagnating living standards of ordinary Romans, but also to maintain social cohesion and with it the rule of law. Many previous attempts had been made to pass similar measures, but the Senate had consistently – and sometimes illegally – blocked essential reforms. Caesar’s supporters saw him not as the destroyer of a corrupt republic, but rather the reformer of a corrupt republic. For them, the long-term goal was not supposed to be to replace republicanism with autocracy; it was to use power in order to save the republic from itself, and preserve it for posterity.
Caesar in Context
Whilst Caesar was no doubt motivated more by personal ambition and power-lust than by a genuine affinity for the poor, it should be remembered that in this he was not so different from any other Roman. Roman society placed great value on the idea of glory and success, particularly in terms of war and politics. In striving to attain power and achieve immortal fame, Caesar was simply being a Roman. He wasn’t particularly more any power-hungry than anyone else – he was just more successful.
But the crucial point here is that the wider issue is a nuanced one, and the usual labels of ‘tyrant’ and ‘populist’ do not do justice to the complexity of the situation. Meaningful historical analysis should always be more than simply discussing the successes and failures of ‘great men’. In other words, Caesar was only able to realise his personal ambitions because he was able to exploit social conditions which he himself had no control over.
When Caesar’s army marched on Rome, they did so because they were loyal to him – their general – and not to the Roman state. It was their general who could provide them with the land and riches which the state – dominated by wealthy aristocrats – refused to. It had been almost two centuries since the tribune Tiberius Gracchus had unleashed political turmoil with plans to redistribute land and wealth, before being assassinated by conservative politicians. Had the Roman Senate learnt a lesson from this and allowed for peaceful and moderate reforms in the years that followed, the social conditions which made Caesar’s Civil War possible may not have existed.
John F Kennedy famously said that ‘those who make peaceful reform impossible, make violent revolution inevitable’. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, he wanted to ensure that his troops knew that war and political turmoil was now inevitable. He made history with the phrase ‘the die is cast’. In truth, it had been cast many years before he was even born.