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The moral of Caesar


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The New Criterion

Caesar's death was more than the end of an extraordinary life; it was the end of an era.

Roger Kimball

May 2015


No country was ever saved by good men,” Horace Walpole once observed, “because good men will not go to the length that may be necessary.”


I thought often of Walpole’s remark while reading Barry Strauss’s thrilling account of the assassination of Julius Caesar, which is full of robust men going to incarnadine lengths.1


“Thrilling” might seem hyperbolic for a serious work of history, which The Death of Caesar certainly is. But Barry Strauss is one of those rare academic historians—Victor Davis Hanson is another—who can make stories about the classical world seem as vivid as a fast-paced mystery novel. He did it a decade ago in his book about the naval battle of Salamis (480 BC), which, as his subtitle put it, saved not only Greece but also Western civilization. How different the world would have been if the Persians had won that engagement! He did it in his account of the Trojan War. And he did it most recently in Masters of Command, which compares the leadership qualities of Alexander the Great, Hannibal, and Julius Caesar.




One of the great ironies surrounding the assassination of Julius Caesar is that, for all of the upheaval it occasioned, it failed utterly in its stated purpose. The conspirators sought to overthrow a dictator and restore the Republic. “The Republic,” “the Republic,” “the Republic”: that was the phrase they uttered ad nauseam. But the Roman Republic, devised to govern a city state, was overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan responsibilities of empire. By Caesar’s day, the Republic was a tottering and deeply corrupt edifice. As Caesar himself put it, cynically but not inaccurately, “The Republic is nothing, merely a name without body or shape.” By killing Caesar, the conspirators merely hastened the Republic’s collapse. Strauss quotes Emerson (who wasn’t wrong about everything): “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” The assassins thought that by killing Caesar they had killed tyranny. They hadn’t. Removing Caesar did nothing to remove Caesarism, i.e., absolute rule by one man, which, as Strauss points out, emerged from the bloodbath of the Ides of March unscathed. “The world without Caesar,” he notes, “was still a world about Caesar.”




The events that Barry Strauss chronicles took place more than two thousand years ago. But their significance continues to resonate, if only we have ears to listen. Toward the end of The Death of Caesar, Strauss quotes my favorite line from Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard: “If we want things to stay the same, a lot of things are going to have to change.” The Roman Republic had to change if it was going to endure. That insight escaped the wit of the conspirators and their allies. A look at the world today suggests that this is a paradox we neglect at our peril.


The Death of Caesar: The Story of History’s Most Famous Assassination

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